Turn up the Night
Lord Snow Drift looked like he had seen better days.
The once stately and genteel noblestallion was covered in grit, his formerly immaculate coat stained by a layer of streaked soot and ash. A bloody cut on his temple just beneath the horn looked like it had been caused by the barbed hoof of a changeling, but a rough gauze field-patch kept it from impairing his vision. Even with a large number of other ponies nearby, relaying orders and coordinating the battle around them, Snow Drift was never far from the lines where Equestria was making a serious push to reclaim part of their capitol city. In part, this was due to his own skill with barriers, contributing his own power to help shield his fellow ponies from the constant threat of airborne bombardment.
They were set up along a hastily reinforced cliff villa. In Canterlot, the Grand Mountain City, wealthy ponies paid a premium to have a spectacular view and to moor their private airships on their front porch. Built literally into the mountainside in small enclaves or along the edge of Canterlot itself, they were small but expensive affairs. Each one had a small mooring pier that dropped off into a long fall for small flying boats, creating a distinctive addition to the skyline.
The current villa around them had been all but leveled, the pieces used to provide cover for unicorn spellcasters and prevent a change in under the shield wall. Trees, once carted all the way up from the lowlands below and replanted at great expense, lay ripped up and thrown onto hasty barricades. They were joined by piles of expensive furniture and a number of luxury chariots and carriages. Literally anything that would help break up a changeling charge had been torn free and staked down.
It was outside this ruined manse at the edge of the mountain city that Snow Drift met four mares.
"Lady Rarity," he greeted her first, as was customary, his tone utterly genteel despite the chaos. Thunder cracked against a theater shield sending crackling ripples across the multi-colored barrier. Snow Drift ignored the bombardment and held out his hoof. It was positively filthy, but Rarity took it nonetheless. Not that her hooves were all that clean either.
Still, for all the muck she had waded through, he kissed her hoof like a true gentlestallion.
"Ser Applejack. Ser Rainbow Dash," he greeted the other two mares cordially. It was probably just as well he dispensed with kissing either of their hooves. "We have heard success on all fronts from the ponies sent to retrieve the colts and fillies held hostage. Forgive me for asking, but… who is your companion? Or should I say: who are your companions?"
He hadn't missed the new fourth member of their group, minus the three little fillies they had rescued before and the irate changeling Queen bound over Applejack's back. The cloaked pony approached first and pulled back her hood, just enough to flash her face in the light. Snow Drift sucked in a breath.
"Princess Luna?" he gasped, but kept his voice down. "Is that you, truly?"
"Tis I," Luna replied, keeping hidden beneath her ragged brown cloak. "We are a target of the enemy and do not wish to draw overwhelming forces this way."
"I can understand that, and I appreciate it," Snow Drift argued, a bit of the old noblepony slipping into his obsequious speech, "but with due respect, your Highness… ponies need to know you live. They need to know at least one Princess still breathes and fights with them. Seeing you… it will help morale. We should make an announcement."
"Soon," Luna promised, and hesitated a second before asking, "You truly believe ponies will be heartened to hear we live? Would they not… resent us… for living when our sister has fallen?"
"You are Our Princess Sovereign and we are sworn to you!" Snow Drift answered with a tone that brooked no argument. "I serve you, and so I will let you decide when you are ready to reveal yourself, Highness. Please do not delay it for overlong."
"Thank you, Lord… Snow… Drift, yes?" Luna grinned beneath her hood, a little embarrassed for not being sure of his name. Especially after all he had just said.
He merely nodded, and Rarity chose that moment to step in.
"As you can see, sir, we've captured one of the changeling Queens," she began.
"We also need ta drop these three fillies off somewhere," Applejack added, motioning back to where a prismatic pegasus struggled to keep the trio under control. One was pulling her mane, the other barely held back from galloping away by a blue hoof, and the other sullenly sticking close by. All three were gagged but clearly irate.
"Please," Dash moaned. "Please take them away." The filly that had been pulling on her mane switched to poking the older mare's cheek. "Help. Please help."
"Changeling mind tampering?" Snow Drift asked, seemingly unmoved by Dash's struggles.
"You've encountered it before?" Rarity inquired.
"Unfortunately," the noble stallion replied with a grunt. "We have teleporters to evacuate civilians-" He motioned to one of his subordinates. A few seconds later and a unicorn ran up, a white frock with a red cross over his front. "Hosptalier! Take care of those children."
"Yes, sir," the unicorn stated, and then went to work prying the three fillies away from Rainbow Dash. The fake-cutie-mark-crusaders seemed to think they could take out the 'rainbow colored one' and thus avenge Queen Sarai's defeat. Unlike the Queen, they had at least gotten Dash to cry.
"Come along, you three," the hospitalier struggled to extradite the fake-Scootaloo from her death-grip on Dash's tail. "I'm sure this nice mare doesn't enjoy you doing that to her."
"No she does not," Dash grumbled, head craning as a filly with two hoof-fulls of her hair refused to be dislodged. "This nice mare is ten seconds away from going crazy and kicking somepony into orbit."
"And this changeling Queen you defeated?" Snow Drift inquired. "I assume it is not 'the' changeling Queen?"
"There appear to be several. One for each of the colors of changeling," Rarity explained. "The one we have commands the reds. Furthermore, the different groups of these creatures seem to have slightly different abilities. The red ones were able to turn invisible, so long as they kept perfectly still."
"Like ah chameleon," Applejack helpfully pointed out.
Snow Drift leveled a glare at the unconscious Queen the four mares tossed onto the ground. He slowly nodded. "Yes. We've encountered other colors. Green is the most common, but we're run into purples – who have some sort of foreign magic – and yellows. Many resemble zebras more than equestrians… then there are the yellows, who can also take the form of wild beasts."
"We learned quite a bit before and after we beat some sense into this idiot," Rainbow Dash told him, patting the rump of the wrapped-up Queen Sarai.
"I'd love to hear more. Knowledge of the enemy is a keen weapon, and we are almost totally in the dark," Snow Drift snorted, unhappy with that fact, but not crying over it. "We will need to interrogate this Red Queen. What she hasn't told you already, we need to squeeze out of her."
Rarity balked, just for a second, at what Lord Snow Drift described. Or what he seemed to be describing.
"We have already plumbed much knowledge from her with our oneiromancy," Luna spoke up then, before a final decision had to be made. "You may as well hoof her over. We doubt she will awake anytime soon with what we have done to her mind."
"I'm sure we can learn something… from a study of her magic if not her words," Snow Drift noted.
Rarity nodded, consenting, but adding the warning, "I do not approve of torture, Lord Snow Drift. Let us try and remain decent equestrians – all of us – even as we do all we must to repel these vile creatures. I cannot compel you to agree with me on this, but I would be remiss if I did not share my views."
"You are a good mare, my Lady," Snow Drift replied, but clearly made no promises. "I will bear that in mind, as updates come my way."
"You appear to have stalled in taking the harbor," Luna bluntly observed, craning her neck towards the battlefield beyond.
The noble Lord grunted, unhappily. Stalled was a kind way of describing it.
"On this approach, yes," he replied. "Another push is being made across the railway, but progress is slow. Open areas often lead to ambushes from those great worms, and as you can see, we cannot secure control of the air for very long. It is like the griffin wars of old, but worse."
He pointed to the Royal Sky Harbor, which was just a short flight for a pegasus to reach from where they currently stood. Not that many flyers would survive the trip this afternoon.
There were what looked like hundreds of changelings holding the many piers and houses along the harbor. Several large airships were aflame and hanging from the docks like deflated balloons. Others had been crashed to make makeshift fortifications. From these secure positions changeling cannons relentlessly bombarded the equestrian positions with overlapping fields of fire. It was a killing field.
Nonetheless, the harbor had to be taken for reinforcements – Princesses willing – to reach the bloody city.
The changelings buzzed and swarmed as they moved quickly from the harbor over to other areas. With uncontested control of the air and a population that was entirely flight-capable they were able to concentrate force where it was most needed at the drop of a hat. One or two would rise, circle around, and then dozens of others would congregate around them and head off. A few unicorns with long range spells had taken to making potshots at the 'officers' though nopony knew what, if any, command structure the changelings had.
"Lady Wallflower is commanding the attack on their north with sixty unicorns and over a hundred earth ponies. The old war horse is a menace on the dance floor, but to hear reports from my scouts, her massed fire is thinning out the swarm with every attack they make. Lord Woolsey took over the center after Lady Moody fell. Lord Black Bale also fell commanding the center left. Wool's setting up his guns to hit the harbor fortifications as we speak. I have a small guard unit I've hastily assembled under myself, but most of the ponies from here to that hill over there are led by Lady Rosetalon."
"Rosetalon?" Luna asked, frowning. "The name is unfamiliar…"
"The Rosetalons are an old Prench family," Snow Drift explained. "Griffins-"
"A griffin commands equestrians?" Luna asked, but on seeing the confusion on Snow Drift's face, she quickly coughed in embarrassment. "Ah, oh, we forget ourselves. We oft forget Equestria is more… diverse than in our time."
"Rosetalon is a stalwart lady, your Highness," Snow Drift assured the lunar Princess, feeling he had to defend his fellow noble regardless. Perhaps he simply wanted to make sure her mind was at ease with the current setup. "She left her house and family behind, gathered a retinue, and marched right up to the thickest of the battle, insisting she not be left out."
Luna took in the battlefield before her, inhaling softly. The gravity of it washed over her.
"Very well. We shall leave the battle in your hooves, Lord Snow Drift." The dark Princess reached up to point with her hoof towards an airship flying high over the battlefield. It was but one of a formation of three, but the other two were mere sloops. "Can you tell me about that?"
"A repurposed airship yacht," Snow Drift explained, knowing what she was referring to even before he turned to be sure. "Not armed, but somepony… or some changeling… has a shield around it. I believe they're using it for airborne reconnaissance and as a safe place for their flyers to rest between sorties. The bird is too high for us to puncture the shield with the cannons we have with us. The royal arsenals have all been sabotaged or looted by the enemy, so our resources are severely limited."
Rarity summoned her opera glasses to get a better look at the ship.
"What about pegasi?" Dash asked, jumping in on the conversation now that it had to do with something in the air. She mock-punched the air in front of her. "Get a couple thunder clouds going and zap down the shield!"
"Too many changelings, too few pegasi," Snow Drift replied, narrowing his gaze and directing it at the airship. "Until Cloudsdale reinforces us, I can't risk my flyers in twenty-to-one dogfights outside the range of our unicorns."
Even Rainbow Dash seemed at least momentarily unsure about those odds. She let loose with a long whistle of appreciation, not for the odds so much, but for those few brave pegasus ponies who had to fly into it, anyway. It was like being asked to corral a wild thunderstorm solo.
"Not that I'd have a problem," Dash added, crossing her forelegs sourly. "But if I lose a wingpony, then it's forty-to-one, then sixty…" She shuddered. "I see your point."
"That is a problem, indeed," Luna said, dryly. "But I need to get on that ship."
"Princess?" Snow Drift seemed momentarily thrown for a loop at her request, or was it her command?
"One of mine bodies is aboard that vessel," she explained, and then backtracked a bit when she remembered how that in and of itself was not much of an explanation.
She started anew.
"When we were treacherously attacked in the palace, our person was poisoned most grievously and most heinously. We did battle through the castle halls and grounds, repaying the shape-shifters many-fold for their perfidy, but soon realized we needed to escape and heal ourself. Thus we used our multiple-body magic to split ourself into three parts."
"Three parts?" Snow Drift asked, struggling to understand. "There are… three Lunas now?"
"Think of them as Luna-A, Luna-B, and Luna-C, though the distinction is largely one of convenience." Princess Luna dipped her horn three times and three crudely drawn Luna illusions appeared. "Luna-A soon expired, as she had been created with all of my wounds."
Luna-A changed so she was comically covered in bruises, with toy swords and spears stuck in her. She quickly keeled over with rough X's in her eyes. A number of small skulls floated around her with ghost-like tails.
"Luna-B received the dose of poison we had been struck with," Luna, clearly Luna-C, explained. "She rallied some Royal Guards for us but also eventually died."
Luna-B's character appeared green and sickly, floating unsteadily in the air before throwing up for several very long and uncomfortable seconds. She then paused… and threw up again, before falling face-first into her own mess. The skulls returned and floated around her, cackling.
"Was that really necessary?" Rarity muttered, lowering her opera glasses. She looked a little sickly herself.
"We strive for utmost accuracy!" Princess Luna answered proudly.
"Then why are your pictures so terrible? Twilight is like fifty times better at-" Dash yelped as a certain somefarmer stepped on her hoof. "HEY!"
"Please continue, yer Highness," Applejack said with a grin.
"To make a long story short, as they say, Luna-B ran into a number of shape-shifters and also ended up dead," Luna-C narrated, as the queasy Luna-B got jumped by crude changeling mockups.
"Bear in mind," she added, while her virtual-self got stomped on by mini-changelings, "that every time we split apart, the sum of our being is less than the whole. Now that both Luna-A and Luna-B are dead, we need to assimilate their bodies back into us. Then I, Luna-C, will become Luna-Whole. Or maybe you should call it 'Perfect Luna.' Yes, we like the sound of that! Perfect Luna! In that state, we will have access to all of our powers in full, and if we can then reach our sister and restore the broken crown, we can manifest our athereal abilities as well."
"Wait, you're weaker when Celestia isn't around?" Dash asked, sticking out her hoof between the two nobleponies so her question wouldn't be overlooked.
"We did not tell you this before?" Luna asked, tilting her head in curiosity.
"No!" Dash all but yelled.
Snow Drift chewed his lip and grunted testily. "You will understand that I am hesitant to risk our next in line for Head of State, especially if she is in a weakened condition…"
"My word, I thought as much, but now I'm certain," Rarity spoke up at that moment. She had the opera goggles up to her face again. "That ship is the Princess Hesperus! Blueblood's new yacht! He just had it towed in and fixed up after the crash. The big foal couldn't stop talking about all the new features he had planned."
"Indeed?" Luna asked, grabbing her illusions out of the air like errant toys. They turned to sparkles in her hooves.
"And I see the hatch to the inner compartments is still there," Rarity went on to say.
"An external hatch, is it?" Luna inquired, grinning now. It was just a little too wide and a little too toothy to be a mistaken for friendly smile.
"There is still the matter of the shield and the hundred or so changelings in the way who will intercept you," Snow Drift warned.
"Yes. Indeed. Which is why you shall fire me!" Luna announced, raising her voice a decibel or so too high.
"Fire you?" Snow Drift quizzically repeated.
"Yes. You will fire me." Luna smirked. "With… that!"
She pointed to a huge artillery piece that looked like it belonged in a candy store or a circus. As everypony turned to look at what the crazy Princess meant, the giant party cannon fired, releasing a cluster-shot of rubble and debris into the air like a titanic shotgun.
"Huzzah," Luna giggled, though it sounded more sinister than playful. "We like this plan."
"Oh! Oh! Lookie Lookie!"
Pinkie Pie sprang onto her back hooves, holding up a piece of paper. Printed on said piece of paper was an advertisement for a rather large gun. Said large gun was bedecked in festive streamers and garish red and blue. Stars ringed the barrel-like circumference and crude treads seemed to have been stuck onto the bottom as a last-minute addition.
"Uhhh," Twilight uttered her standard response to Pinkie Pie's zany outbursts, "what is it?"
"What is it? What IS IT?!" Pinkie asked, incredulous, holding the poster up even closer to the unicorn's face. "This is a Reinmetall Aktiengesellschaft ninety-one centimeter Feierabwehrkanone! F-a-K!"
She gushed, spinning around and holding the picture to her chest.
"A Party Cannon!" Pinkie exclaimed with an ecstatic squee. "A super-duper seventeen thousand kilogram party cannon! Muzzle loading, low recoil, air-powered, 360-degree turret traverse! It can fire a sixty-kilo party package at ninety-meters per second! That's like shooting an entire PONY plus a CAKE!"
"An entire pony, Twilight. Plus a cake," she repeated, poking Twilight in the chest for emphasis. Slowly bringing the picture up to her lips, she started making kissy faces. "So sexy. So, so, so sexy. Only seven were ever made, including the prototype that exploded in Manez maiming all those ponies."
"Wait, what?" Twilight asked, but Pinkie was already onto her next topic.
"It looks like there's a receipt attached to this!" the party pony bubbled. "Congratulations on your purchase and thank you for using E-Bray. In the event of catastrophic failure, and if you survive, please contact Reinmetall AG for a complimentary refund! Thank you again and enjoy your purchase, Mister Cheese Sandwich."
Twilight tried to make a grab for the picture. "Did you say maimed?"
"Wow. Cheese Sandwich is one lucky guy." Pinkie sighed wistfully. "The Cakes got so mad when I suggested we convert their house into a FaK tower. I mean, come on! It wasn't like the concrete blocks had even set yet!"
Twilight Sparkle could only hang her head. There was no getting a straight answer now.
The pegasus stallion's muffled complaints came to a brief halt after being shoved to the ground. He shook his head angrily at the treatment, his face hidden behind a black burlap bag. Forced down onto his stomach, he growled behind the blindfold until a hoof reached over from behind and pulled off the bag. His eyes squinted against the light as he took in his new surroundings.
At least it wasn't a prison cell.
In fact, it wasn't anything of that sort at all. The domed roof overhead was glass and iron, like a greenhouse. Beneath it, a small jungle of potted plants was arranged over a bed of sand and rock. Trickling water somewhere out of sight made a distant warbling noise, followed by a faint 'plok.' It was a serene setting, but that fact only put the captive stallion more on edge. Unable to comprehend why they had brought him here, he tried to turn to face the pair that had forced him along before.
"Eyes front, hot stuff," the mare of the pair – not that one could tell given her brutish size and strength – stopped him before he could turn around. She grabbed a hoof-full of his mane and forced his eyes forward and then his chin up towards one of the large, tangled rose bushes.
Sitting atop the thorny bush was a white earth pony mare.
"Ro ris is rour roing!" he yelled, muffled, through the cloth stuffed in his mouth.
Yumi looked down on him much as one would an unwelcome slug in the garden. While not physically imposing by any means, in fact, looking positively unassuming, Yumi had a cold demeanor. Most Equestrian mares ranged between warm and at least outright bubbly. If Yumi was any indication, Neighponese mares were a far more frigid, reticent breed. Sitting quietly on top of the overgrown rose bush, like a personal thorny throne, her lack of color – all white of coat and black of eyes and mane – suddenly struck him. If anything, her plainness made her more imposing and not less.
"Remove his gag," she ordered.
No sooner was it out than he snapped, finally having a face and a pony to vent his anger at.
"Finally!" he yelled up at Yumi. "I should've known this was your doing, my Lady! That even you would dare to accost a bonded courier of Cloudsdale on official business…? The Congress of Four Winds shall hear of this outrage!"
The Neighponese heiress seemed unflustered by the threat. "You tested him?"
"He's good," the guardmare answered with an amused chuckle. "You want your little toy back?"
"No. Fluttershy entrusted it to me, and I entrust it now to you."
"Fine by me."
"What's the meaning of this?" the stallion asked, and tried to turn around again. The guardmare once again forced him to face forward towards Yumi and nopony else.
"I am a bonded courier of Cloudsdale!" he remained her, again, even though she had to know that. "Interfering-"
"You were sent to pass a message on to Lord Blueblood," Yumi stated.
"I was on my way to him when your thugs intercepted me!"
"One courier was sent to Lord Blueblood, one to my father, Lord Yama. That is correct?" Yumi asked quietly and calmly, as if they were having a polite conversation over tea and not with her looking down on somepony she had her goons capture.
"Yes," the courier confirmed.
Yumi craned her neck to better look down on him. "Good. You were the second pair of couriers sent, is that not also true? What happened to the first two?"
"I… I don't know," the courier hesitated to admit, and then gritted his teeth as a thought occurred to him. "Did you foalnap them, too?!"
Once again, Yumi was a little slow to answer, but answer she did. "No."
"No," she repeated, and her eyes drifted back to her thugs. "Everything is ready, then. You know what to do?"
"Yeah," the guardsmare behind the courier answered. "I know."
"You are certain you wish to do this?" Yumi asked, her manner imperious even if the question was concerned.
"That bitch recommended me for a reason," the guard replied, apparently rather foul-mouthed even in front of her boss. "I know how to put on a good show."
On her briar throne, Lady Yumi closed her eyes and nodded her consent. "Then I shall leave it to you to clear our path to Canterlot."
The crude mare grunted.
"I won't let your scheming-" the courier tried to surge to his hooves and bowl through the guards while they were distracted, only to be immediately sent sprawling. He hit the ground, unconscious.
"Was that really necessary?"
"Nope! But it was fun."
For over an hour, pegasus sorties had tried to lure changelings into the range of the giant party cannon, but it hadn't taken long for the creatures to realize how it fired a huge spray of shrapnel as close range and little else. This latest sortie was also mostly ignored, the changelings refusing to be drawn into the trap. When the wing of pegasus guardponies abruptly turned and streaked up to engage a cluster of changelings, the swarm acted in surprise. The distinct rainbow-colored contrail of one of the pegasus ponies very quickly drew further attention from whichever changelings were in command.
As a result, none paid much mind to the party cannon when it fired.
The barrel shuddered as it recoiled, a thunderous boom heralding the release of a spinning midnight-blue cannonball. Changelings zipped past it as it ascended, not even sparing the high speed sphere a passing glance. It hit the magical shield around the Princess Hesperus with a muffled thud, as previous cannonballs had done, but rather than fall back to the ground, this particular cannonball remained in place. The shield receded away from it, leaving a hole for just a split second. It was all Princess Luna needed.
Turning into her smoke-form, she slipped through the gap and then converged on the concealed emergency hatch that Rarity had helpfully identified. A threaded metal lock hidden behind a wooden panel popped out, turned, and allowed the hatch to open a crack. Luna flowed into that crack, took physical form, and closed the hatch behind her.
Her ears twitched as she listened for sounds of panic or alarm. Nothing.
"Good," she whispered to herself, and trotted into the darkness of a maintenance alcove. Setting her hooves carefully in front of her, she closed her eyes.
"Hello there, my sweet shadows," she murmured, tugging gently at the fabric of the shadow itself. "Your Aunt Luna requires your aid. Reveal to me what my equine eyes cannot see."
Behind her closed eyelids, a picture formed, drawn from the shadows of the inside of the ship. Layer by layer, she processed more of the layout of the ship, adding it to what she had been told already. The still shadows were halls and furniture and obstacles. The moving shadows… those would just need to be dealt with as she made her way to the bridge. She could not risk who or whatever had her body getting spooked and fleeing. That meant thinning the numbers onboard first so she wouldn't get swarmed when she made her move.
So she went to work.
Sneaking out of the alcove and soundlessly ascending a ladder to the level above, Luna melted into the shadows and waited. A changeling slowly walked past her, completely oblivious to her presence. It paused, lit by the glow of a flickering electric light. Then Luna's tail completely engulfed its head. For a long second or three, it paused, lit by the glow of a flickering electric light. Then Luna's tail completely engulfed its head. With a muffled cry the changeling vanished into the shadows, flailing only for a second before going still with a soft 'crunch.'
Her next target walked by an open cabin door, stopped to glance inside, and also barely got off a sound before its head was ensnared and it was dragged bodily into the room and out of sight. A pair of changelings followed, as they chattered amongst themselves, unaware of their rapidly dwindling numbers on the ship. Sneaking up behind them, Luna reared up on her hind legs and grabbed both around the neck. Her mane and tail did the rest, neatly cutting their hearts in two. Just as she expected, the noise brought the changeling in the adjoining airship lounge around the corner to investigate. He – or she, Luna suspected – went down without so much as a yelp of protest.
Two more changelings also quickly vanished before Luna allowed herself a moment to fully inspect the clearly modified area that had once been the luxury yacht's lower lounge. There were bars both fore and aft of the main salon, where a crystal table still waited to host drinks and trays of expensive foodstuffs. Further towards the front was the galley and lobby, between them a storage compartment, and at the prow of the ship, a glass observation room that looked down on the world below. While very much a strange new technology to Luna, she had become familiar enough with modern luxury amenities and airships to make her way around them.
More interesting were the barrels of kerosene; it was doubtful that feature came with the original ship.
Quietly sneaking up to the next floor of the passenger cabins, the Princess of the Night resumed her deadly work. A changeling yipped as it ended up dragged over the top of the crew dinette, knocking a bag of oats and a glass of brandy onto the floor before it died. Luna's tail was quick enough to catch the brandy bottle before it shattered, and after a brief inspection of the vintage, she tucked it into the back of her voluminous mane.
The two crew cabins were next, and there the changelings had weapons in the form of royal guardspony spears. An ancient weapon, the guard's spear could be used as a conduit for magic, especially in the hooves of a trained unicorn. Luna never gave them a chance to show her what they could do with the weapons. She took them both from behind, pouncing and knocking them to the ground, muffling their voices and breaking their necks.
The other crew cabin was empty, except for a rack of captured guard spears and a few pieces of formerly golden barding, now stained green and black. Hiding in the shadows, she heard a changeling with heavy steps – armored – leave the small skipper's cabin. The changeling chittered, calling out to its comrades. Luna could easily note how, just like anypony else, the changeling's tone grew more agitated and annoyed when it didn't get a response. It chittered louder, and stormed past to yell at its subordinates.
It never made it to the other room.
Luna dropped the dead body and headed towards the aft section of the ship. Slipping through the VIP cabin, she almost missed a changeling in the private bathroom. It was transforming into various mares, posing and admiring itself in the mirror. Luna hesitated a moment, struck by the sudden urge to stare at the strange sight.
The changeling lifted a hoof to turn the page on a calendar, each one sporting a model in a bathing suit. It then tried to imitate what it saw. Even the griffin girl who was Miss October. For the first time, Luna serious hesitated to kill this enemy. It was just… it just seemed wrong... like shooting a mare on the toilet, almost. An enemy would have to be truly despicable to deserve such an ignoble end as that.
"ZZhh?" The changeling suddenly spun around, espying the Princess in the mirror. It pointed at the dark alicorn and… promptly panicked, jumping for the window with a crazed scream. "ZZHEE!"
Trying to escape out the porthole wasn't a bad plan…
Except even when transformed into a rather leggy and thin Fleur de Lis, the changeling still couldn't entirely fit through said porthole. The result was one frightened changeling, stuck half-in and half-out of the ship. This changeling clearly wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the kitchen, so to speak.
Luna slowly closed the bathroom door and snapped off the handle.
By the time she made her way through the two guest cabins and then finally the opulent owner's cabin – very tactfully decorated with a grinning portrait of her nephew half submerged in a pile of golden bits and sparkling gems – Luna felt back in her normal groove. Four more changelings had been dispatched, including two of the beast-like yellows. Each one had taken the form of a ferocious lion, and like the animal they mimicked, they seemed to spend as much free time as they could sleeping... in Blueblood's king-sized bed, in this case. Luna simply made sure they would never wake up.
Finally ascending the stairs to the sky-lounge, Luna hunkered down at the sound of intense chattering. Up top were nearly a half dozen changelings, all wearing corrupted guard barding. Stealing a quick look, at least half of them also had guard spears. There was no way into the bridge without going through the sky-lounge, and her body couldn't be anywhere else. She had searched the rest of the ship and all her senses were screaming that the other-her was close by.
The question was: how to get by all those changelings?
Keeping hidden in the stairwell, Luna noticed something. There was also a rather out of place cardboard box somepony had left behind at the top of the stairs, labeled 'party supplies.' On first glance, Luna judged it to be just about large enough to hide inside. But – no – there was no way that old trick would still work in this bold new millennium. Would it?
A few seconds later, and a shuffling box slowly made its way across the sky-lounge. It froze as a group of the armored changelings wandered from the sky-lounge over to the sun deck. The changelings ignored the curious cardboard box and settled over by the railing, pointing towards something in the distance. Luna inched towards them under the cover of her apparently quite stealthy cardboard box-
Only to have the box rudely and abruptly pulled off of her from behind.
The changeling who had unmasked her never got to say any more. Luna speared it with her tail and lunged at the trio by the railing. Pushing them over wouldn't accomplish anything, so she grabbed two with her wings and one with her forelegs. The two in her wings struggled, crying out in alarm. The one in her grip she killed almost instantly. Dancing back to avoid a pair of spear-points, Luna hissed, spinning around and kicking a changeling that had run hissing at her from behind. The pair jabbed at her in unison, timing their thrusts like trained guards would.
If there had been more than just two of them, it might even have worked. Luna quickly ensnared the magical spearheads in her mane and tail and yanked them out of the hooves of the armored changelings. Rather than backing off, however, they lunged for her. It was a mistake. She spun around in a quick circle and jumped back and away. The two changelings staggered forward another few steps before falling to the ground, pools of green blood seeping out of their slit throats.
Luna discarded the blood-stained spears and headed into the bridge of the Princess Hesperus.
"My body… where is it?" Luna's walk stiffened as she saw it.
The other Luna had been propped up in the captain's chair, almost as if she was asleep. A mahogany table extended from the base of the chair, with what appeared to be a small number of animal bones on top. Her body, though… it was just sitting there, waiting to be claimed, a fact that immediately set off warning bells in Luna's head.
As Luna glanced around the spacious bridge of the airship, no ambush became immediately apparent. There was nowhere obvious to hide, and she knew very well about hiding in shadow. However, given that there were groups of changelings that could turn invisible, it wasn't out of the question that they were hiding in plain sight. Yet… none revealed themselves yet. Were they waiting for her to claim her body? Why?
Cautiously approaching the object of her search, Luna paused after hearing a crunch underfoot. Inspecting the underside of her hoof, she saw the mashed remains of what appeared to be an insect, sort of like a cricket or grasshopper. Looking around, she began to see more and more of them appear. Quite a few took flight, filling the air with a droning buzz as they flooded into the cabin.
It only took a moment for Luna to place their species.
"Locusts," Luna guessed, picking up her pace and taking flight to claim her body. Dark wings spread to propel her forward. She was nearly there when a wave of the insects intercepted her, knocking her back. Landing on her hooves and spreading her wings in challenge, the Princess of the Night growled as the swarm of insects coalesced into a larger form on top of her body.
"Thes must be the famous Princess Luna… ah'm honored you come to see me," an eerie voice came from the cloud of locusts, the swarm slowly merging together into a solid shape. A craggy hoof, cracked and split, reached for the bones on the mahogany table, cupping them before letting them fall with a clatter. Holes in the creature's forelegs sported dozens of rings in silver, gold, iron, and copper. Some were even more exotic, with woven feathers and dangling chains of jade and coral.
"Who – what – are you?" Luna asked, glowering at the strange figure before her.
It was a changeling, of that she was certain, but it was different than the ones she had seen before.
Nevermind that it had materialized out of a cloud of flying insects… Luna turned to smoke herself, so she didn't consider that trick to be too strange. Fully revealed, this creature looked like a changeling, but weathered, with cracks and tears in it where normal changelings had clean round holes. It almost looked like it was carved out of old, dry wood. A great river of corded purple membranes, the changeling equivalent of a mane, cascaded over this creature's face, almost entirely obscuring it. A few steaks of purple chitin stood out against the faded black of the rest of the body.
"Dis one's name is Yejide," the changeling spoke in a more clearly feminine voice now that it – now that she – had fully taken form. Despite that, it sounded as weathered and old as it looked.
"Yejide…" she repeated. "Queen."
Luna's eyes narrowed. So it had a name. "You are a Queen."
"Ah am. My brood is the Aida-Weddo… the changelings of death." Yejide extended a gnarled limb to point at her. "Ah've been watchin' you, shadow princess, but you didn't see me. Maybe Ah should be the princess of shadows instead'a you?"
"Art thou aligned with the changelings who have attacked this city?" Luna asked, not interested in the changeling's baiting. "If so, then we have nothing to speak about! We will caution thee only once: do not get between ourselves and our body!"
Yejide merely chuckled, rolling the bones in her hoof onto the mahogany again.
"Come, then," she said. "Show me what you can do. Take it!"
Luna roared at the challenge, her horn glowing to unleash a full-on blast. Yejide made no apparent move to avoid the beam of heliotrope fire. Luna let out a whoop of triumph as she saw the beam connect. Yet, when the energy of the magical attack dissipated, having punched a hole clean through the front of the bridge, she was treated to an unexpected sight. Yejide's upper body seemed to have melted into a rough circle, letting the beam pass by her unharmed. Behind her purple locks, a mouth full of chipped fangs smiled.
"You gotta do better than that," Yejide said, and suddenly leaned forward, spitting something out of her mouth.
Rather than risk getting hit by blocking it, especially in her weakened state, Luna hopped sharply to her left. Whatever it was Yejide had just spit up, it was fast and bright yellow. It was-
"A frog?" Luna could help but ask, seeing what had sped by her and bounced off the wall. It was a small, yellow frog. "Surely you jest?" Luna added, ignoring the creature and turning to her opponent. With a flap of her wings, she brought down her tail as a scythe.
And, sure enough, her tail sliced clean through Queen Yejide's throat.
Except it didn't DO anything. Yejide's head floated over her shoulders for a moment before reattaching. As close as she was, Luna was already spinning to make a follow up attack when a blast of noxious fumes escaped from the changeling witch. A weak shield flickered in front of her as she propelled herself backwards.
"NO! I will not be poisoned again!" Luna covered her mouth with a hoof. Landing, she barely caught the flash of yellow as the frog from before jumped at her. Holding up her hoof, she moved her shield, and the amphibian – rather than bounce off – splattered.
It was not the only one, either.
Luna did a quick one-eighty as she caught sight of more yellow frogs, croaking the hopping towards her. There had to be a dozen of them. "Where did… there was only one a moment ago!"
"Don't tell me ya never heard of a plague of frogs?" Yejide asked with a cracking laugh.
"Vile croakers!" Luna unleashed a trio of quick blasts from her horn to disintegrate the likely poisonous frogs as they jumped at her, heedless of their own lives. "Begone!" Another three jumped down from above, somehow able to stick to the ceiling. "Keep away, I say!"
Yet, for every three or four she burned, a dozen more seemed to appear out of her field of vision. It only became harder as her view of the room faded, overtaken by a thick mist. Light on her hooves, Luna always kept moving, low power blasts from her horn constantly picking off poisonous frogs before they could get close enough to grab onto her. Those she couldn't actively pick off, she swatted aside with sweeping attacks from her starry tail and mane.
"I have had enough of this!" Barely swatting one of the frogs away from in front of her face, and knowing a losing fight when she saw one, Luna made a break for the front of the bridge.
"I will not be done in by vermin!" she roared, and Luna's hoof descended on the still seated Queen Yejide.
But before it could connect, the Queen turned into a cloud of chirping, biting locusts, the insects bodily pushing her away from her body. Gritting her teeth in concentration, Luna flapped her wings to give her forward momentum and turned to smoke. Like water through a sieve, she flowed through the cloud of buzzing pests and grabbed hold of her prize.
The moment she touched the limp corpse, however, she knew something was wrong.
"W-what? What have you done?" Luna recoiled from the body. Her body. It should have assimilated right into her the moment she touched it. This witch had done something to it!
"What if Ah told you," Yejide's voice came from behind, and then, impossibly, from the corpse in front of her. "That this body was already… occupied?"
An undead hoof slammed into Luna's chest, knocking her back as the once still body she had searched for started to get up. The locust swarm returned, buzzing protectively around the corpse, in some places coalescing to form a long corded purple mane.
"As Ah was about to tell you before," Yejide said from inside Luna's second body. "We are the changelings of death. Where others imitate the living, we 'bring back' the dead. Who doesn't wish a loved one could come back to life? If only for a little while?"
The Witch Queen paused a moment, and Luna expected her to attack.
"This body isn't like any other I've taken over, ya know," she said, gesturing to herself and then tapping her temple. "There were memories in here. Not much. Figments. Dreamins. Frightenins. Terrors. It got me thinking…"
"Thinking what?" Luna snapped, eyeing her possessed former body.
"Is this Princess even the real one ta begin with?" Yejide pondered with a smirk. "What did those 'Elements a Harmony' really do to you?"
The ever shifting mass of locusts around Yejide's stolen body rapidly came together, forming black armor over a taller, more menacing frame. Luna instinctively backed up a step, staring face to face at Nightmare Moon. Her heart skipped a beat, and her legs tensed to run. By sheer force of will, she pushed down the fear, tried to dismiss it with reason.
This wasn't really Nightmare Moon, after all. How could it be? She was dead.
"Does it frighten ya? Wondering … all alone at night … if the real you died back then?" Nightmare Moon asked, and when Luna dared to look up, the terrifying visage seemed to fill her field of view, expelling all else out of sheer malevolence. "When the elements burned away the parts a you that didn't 'belong,' what was left behind? Maybe you're just an angry little doll. Your sister's doll. An imitation of the real thing."
Nightmare Moon reached up to her forehead, lifting her helmet, to reveal a crude scar.
A lobotomy scar.
"Maybe that's what you are," Yejide said, and Luna winced, shaking her head. "Maybe that's all you'll ever be!"
"No," Luna tried to yell, tried to scream, but a filly's voice was all that left her lips. She spun around, tried to get her bearings, tried to avoid staring into that face… but the room rotated with her, not permitting any escape. Down became up and then switched again, dumping the Princess flat and hard on her side.
"The one time you thought for yourself, the one time you did your own thing, and you burned for it! Why are you fightin' so hard for that?" her tormentor asked with a laugh. "Why you wanna risk everything when ain't nopony ever gonna give you nothin?"
Luna forced herself to take a steadying breath, and the spinning kaleidoscope of a room began to settle into place around her. It was just a matter of mental and physical discipline. No different than setting to rights a maddening dream. Yet…
"Take it from me, sister," Yejide pointed to her current form. "Ah know the walkin' dead when Ah see them."
Luna shuddered, her hooves just hovering over her ears to try and shut out the verbal and mental assault. They were almost there… when she stopped. She stopped and opened her eyes. The cruel visage of her former self loomed over her, watching and waiting for her to fall apart.
"Two versions of me already died today," Luna whispered, lowering her hooves back down to the floor. There was no hiding from this creature or its words.
There was only confronting them, without fear, without doubt.
"If the version of me that was Nightmare Moon died, too, then… good riddance to her!" With a high pitched howl, the dark alicorn propelled herself forward, body-tackling her warped other-body. "What the Elements did or didn't do to me doesn't matter!"
"I'm still me!" Luna yelled, striking the face of the Nightmare like she had long only dreamed. "A new me! With a new chance!"
Her mane struck, not to stab, but to grab the Nightmare by the throat. "I won't squander it! I won't give in to fear again!" She turned, and their bodies smashed into a wall of the airship bridge, knocking out control rigging with an explosion of gears and steam. "No matter what tricks you use!"
The visage of the Nightmare cracked apart as she slammed it into the ground, dissolving into a thousand buzzing locusts. Luna grabbed her fallen body by the mane and brought them almost nose-to-nose.
"Now kindly remove thyself from MY BODY, PARASITE!"
Amid the swirling, biting insects, Luna waited not one second longer. Her eyes glowed white, and so did those of her double. Once begun unopposed, the process itself was over in a literal instant. The corpse of Luna-B disintegrated into a helix of magical energy that surged back into her. The blinding light and burst of power that came with her transformation finished the work the fight with Yejide had begun. The bridge of the airship vanished, utterly destroyed with all the force and fury of a bomb. Fragments of it flew wildly through the air, some puncturing the flight envelope above the ship proper, others careening dangerously into the air now that the shield was down.
"Now… We are two-thirds complete." Luna stood alone on the smoking wreckage of the bridge, pieces of the nearby sky-lounge ripping out of place and flying past her. "One more… one more…"
Of Queen Yejide, there was no sign, but the witch was either dead or gone. Either one suited Luna fine. Taking a look around to access the situation, she noted the angry swarms of changelings that were circling her. There had to be hundreds of them. Hundreds more were on the ground, still tenaciously fighting to keep the Canterlot city defenders from retaking the sky harbor.
It was time to press the attack.
Horn flashing with a quick beam of energy, Luna severed the forward cables connecting the Princess Hesperus with her lighter-than-air envelope. The fore of the vessel immediately dipped, going into free fall. Emergency flight systems connected to gyroscopes activated, and two sail-like wings extended from the sides of the wooden airship. Galloping to the after of the ship, cutting more wires as she went, Luna stopped at the very rear.
Sighting the entire body of the airship on target, she used her tail to slice the last two riggings, cutting the yacht completely free. Already falling, it accelerated on course, the emergency wings struggling to compensate for the suicidally deep dive the ship had been forced into. Eventually pushed beyond their ability to deal with the stresses involved, the wings ripped out at the roots, one of the spinning wooden projectiles plowing into a small group of circling changelings and turning them into confetti.
Luna remained standing on the aft of the ship almost until impact, when she spread her wings and let the wind pick her up. The Princess Hesperus, all one hundred and fifty tons of her, plowed into the grounded changeling airship-fortification at sixty meters per second, creating what could only be called an inferno of high speed wood and razor sharp splinters. The prow of the yacht punched clean into the roof of the armored ship before crumpling and deforming. In tandem, the inside of the target ship and the inside of the Hesperus came apart like house-sized firecrackers.
Then the two tons of kerosene stored onboard met the burning gunpowder and finally had the party the cardboard box had promised.
Luna floated away, drifting towards the ground, while the flames consumed what was left of the changelings' most potent defensive position. Amid the rain of debris, one object stood out. Drifting alongside her, that ridiculous painting of her nephew bathing in money fluttered carelessly in the wind. Luna could all but imagine the look on his face when he learned that his airship had ended up knocked out of the air… again.
"We know you can afford it, nephew," she remarked, and hitting the ground, broke into a high speed gallop.
There was still intense fighting taking place all around her as formations of equestrians advanced on the reeling changelings. Some seemed to be falling back or taking whole-sale to the sky, the green colored ones, but the yellow-banded changelings were holding their ground with all the single-minded determination of a tick refusing to be removed. Unlike the greens, they did not have basic magic in their arsenal.
They had beasts, instead.
More than a hundred of them hunched over and transformed, turning into lions and cheetahs and leopards. The closest ones dove right into the equestrian ranks, meeting the spears of the earth pony guards. Others were blasted apart at range by unicorn spellcasters, marching in step behind and aside their earth pony kin. With changeling air superiority in momentary disarray, wings of pegasi rocketed up from their positions behind the lines, eager to finally be let loose to support their ground-based comrades.
Never slowing, Luna jumped mid-gallop to intercept a pouncing lion-form changeling, her mane snapping out to her right as they passed. The creature yowled as it fell, already lethally wounded before it landed face first and broke its neck. Luna hit the ground and continued to run, jumping over a wrecked carriage – once some noblepony's prized possession, now simply another overturned obstacle to use as cover – taking out two more changelings along the way.
Three pegasi banked overhead as they dropped grenades point blank into changeling holdouts, blowing the positions into dust. Finally, Luna took to the air as more massed fire from her own side made it too dangerous to continue on the ground. Gliding upwards, unicorn line officers ordered a staggered barrage rather than individual shot, and horns lowered, the three advancing squares of ponies released a blistering fusillade into the charging changing ranks. Such was the intensity of the volume of fire that even those who weren't hit by magical fire were momentarily blinded by the light of all the incoming multicolored shot.
The charge wavered, and when the first line of unicorns retired, replaced a second later by the second rank, the follow-up alpha strike finished the job. The leading yellow-jacketed changelings went down in a flurry of massed equestrian fire. Those who had followed the leaders in the charge wavered, many starting to turn and run back into better cover, mentally weighing their chance of success against their fear of just how quickly so many of their number had been mowed down.
It didn't matter that many more had probably been killed by sporadic fire over the last hour or half hour. Less damage done in a shorter period of time could put fear in the most stouthearted of beings. This was as true of changelings as it was of equestrians. 'Shock,' Luna remembered it being called, in this time period.
The final rank of unicorns stepped forward, letting the second rank retire. Just the sight of their horns charging behind the ranks of earth pony spears extinguished the last few embers of changeling courage in their assault. They fled, dozens cut down before they could get out of range.
"Wormsign!" The cry came from one of the pegasi flyers. "WORM!"
Acting quickly, the formation squares broke apart, scattering. The ground beneath them swelled, bulging, before revealing the gaping maw of a changeling Tatzlwurm. Black tentacles whipped out from the mouth of each worm as it reared up and out of the ground, trying to snatch up fresh victims. Rapidly reforming their groups, a forest of spearpoints dissuaded the lengthy mouthparts while the first rank of unicorns pressed into service to deliver new volleys onto target.
For all the confusion of the initial wormsign, the fighting ponies of Canterlot reacted very effectively to the breach in their lines. Officers painted one of the worms with a magical beacon, and all three squares concentrated their fire on it rather than splitting their magic between the three huge annelids. The first giant worm shuddered and convulsed under the storm of magic before collapsing in a pool of ooze with a high pitched wail. Luna allowed herself to hang back and out of the way, contributing her own fire when the time came to bring down the second and then the third of the burrowing monstrosities.
"Hey, Princess!" A rainbow streak made a pass overhead before slamming hard into a landing close by. "You got your bonus life or what?"
Luna raised an elegant eyebrow at the reference. "Bonus life?"
"Princess Luna is not a cat, Rainbow Dash," Rarity lectured, trotting forward alongside General Snow Drift and a small cadre of other nobleponies. "Nor can I imagine she wastes time with games like…"
"A bonus life! Yes! That is it exactly!" Luna exclaimed, to Rarity's astonishment.
The fashionista was left gaping in response. "What?"
Luna rushed up to the exhausted looking element of loyalty. "Art thou a fellow automated gaming aficionado?" She bodily hoisted Dash into the air, much to the poor pegasus mare's gobsmacked surprise. "Truly, we live in a remarkable time, do we not? These 'arcades' are truly the bee's knees! Tell us, have you played the 'Doom'?"
Rarity and Lord Snow Drift exchanged worried looks, but Applejack shrugged. "Gotta spent yer nights doin' somethin' I guess."
"Thou hast no idea," Luna deadpanned, releasing her hostage to drift back down to the ground. "General!" Luna addressed Lord Snow Drift. "We - I have our – my second body. We need only confirm the location of the third and launch a strike team to retrieve it!"
The defacto commander of Canterlot's emergency defense force nodded in agreement. Getting the Princess to one hundred percent was a definite high priority, though he clearly disliked the fact that doing so also risked her life in the process. "There have been pegasi approaching the barrier from the outside. Cloudsdale will certainly come to our aid, as will the army of the Terre Rare who even now secure the lowlands. Lady Rarity has made arrangements. I would suggest we hold off an assault until then, when we will have much greater force on-hoof…"
"That is most prudent," Luna agreed.
"All I know is that it was great to finally be able to get into the air again!" Dash remarked with a happy grin. "And that crash? Ten-out-of-Ten! Would totally crash again!" The cocky weathermare shared a mock sigh. "The only downside is that the real crazy stuff seems to be already over. It isn't like you can top personally crashing an airship into a fortress…"
"Oh Lordy," Applejack groaned, burying her face in her hooves.
Rarity put a hoof to her forehead, a sudden headache coming on. "And ten, nine, eight…"
"Whatever dost thou count down for?" Luna asked, turning to Lord Snow Drift for some sort of explanation. He only shrugged, as in the dark as his Lunar Princess. It was almost as if the Elements of Honesty and Generosity expected some dire circumstance to result from their friend's comment.
"My Lord!" A bandaged pegasus landed, his eyes bloodshot. "WORMSIGN, Lord. Heading this way. It just hit Lady Wallflower!"
"More worms?" Snow Drift snorted. "How many made it past Wallflower, son?"
The pegasus stared numbly ahead, shaking like a leaf. The sight hit just when the smell did. This pony had pissed himself before flying over. It was dripping from the insides of his legs.
"It was… one worm, my Lord," the poor stallion managed to explain, through the terror in the back of his mind. "Wallflower's unit is dead. They're all dead. Only I escaped."
"Well, I hope yer happy, consarn it!" Applejack yelled, and Dash could only cringe. "Every single time, ya go and tempt fate, and this is what happens!"
"D-d-don't try and pin this on me!" Rainbow objected. "I just call it as it is!"
"Scatter! Everypony scatter! Now!" Snow Drift bellowed, and only a heartbeat later, the ground began to rumble. Tatzlwurms always made a violent disturbance in the ground with their burrowing, especially as they broke through the sub-street and basement levels of the city. This was the so called 'wormsign.' It hadn't taken long for word of mouth to help ponies learn how to survive an encounter.
Most made for high ground. Pegasi took to the air.
The rumbling continued, shaking the walls of buildings a block away. A wall abruptly crumbled. There was no other warning before a sinkhole large enough to swallow a house opened up right in the center of what had been the battlefield before. Changeling and equestrian bodies tumbled into the pit, but everypony was sufficiently prepared. The five caught in the radius called for help, and pegasi swooped in to extract them.
Except, like lightning, three black tentacles erupted, snagging both the pegasi rescuers and three of the ponies they had been trying to save. In the blink of an eye, all six were dragged down into the rapidly expanding depression. Magical blasts, meant to stun or even sever the tentacles in the case of some lucky shots, did nothing. Before another move could be made or another order given, the ground exploded, and a vast form emerged from the ruins of the street, trailing a loop of broken railroad track around it like a necklace.
"Back! Keep back!" Snow Drift tried to coordinate an orderly fallback. "Get my artillery off their flanks and on top of this monster!"
The worm, meanwhile, just kept rising higher and higher.
"Pitiful Creatures!" a feminine voice roared from on high, the head of the titanic Tatzlwurm swiveling to point downward. The triple jaws of the worm spread wide, revealing not only the toothy, cavernous maw and the grasping tentacles, but a tiny protrusion with a mane of brown scales. It was the tiny protrusion that spoke.
"You cower before Mictlantecuhtli the Insatiable! God of Worms! Who among you will join the thousands in the Underworld that is my belly? Pray, now, to ME, Queen Tlanextli, descended of Q'uq'umatz, and your ends will be as swift as your fleeting lives!"
The last few links of the gigantic worm burst out of the hole, forming a coil to support it in place as it fell back to the ground with an earth-shaking roar.
"Behold our majesty!" A building-sized tail swept passed overhead, the wind from it bowling ponies over.
Only Luna remained unmoved, gritting her teeth and facing into the storm.
"Behold our glory! Bask in the shade of our titanic perfection… and tremble! For I am come to bring an End to Your World!"
If prayer and supplication had been her expected reward for making a grand appearance, Queen Tlanextli was sorely disappointed. Every cannon in range that had even the most modest chance of hitting such a huge target took the shot. A tumultuous stream of thunderous barks from artillery peppered the massive worm from every angle.
Almost every one hit; not a single one penetrated.
"FOOLS! My hide cannot be pierced!" Tlanextli roared, and the tail of the huge worm lifted into the air like building-sized fly-swatter. "Die!"
When it came down, it destroyed an entire firing range, flattening it in one go. The tail then swept across the remains, scattering what it had just crushed and using the debris as a wave of projectiles. Dozens and then almost a hundred unicorns from all sides fired at the monster, but like the artillery shells, had no apparent effect on the hide of the elephantine Tatzlwurm.
"We could sure use another airship to hit it with right now!"
More than a few eyes turned on Rainbow Dash at that comment.
"What?" the brash mare wondered, glancing around the half dozen faces. "We're all thinking it, right?"
"Lord Snow Drift! Elements of Harmony!" Luna yelled over her shoulder, picking up speed ad she broke into a run. "We would appreciate as much help as you can render!"
"You are less than buzzing carrion flies to me! Your efforts mean nothing!"
Tlanextli's giant tail came down in a slow arc, having identified at least the first among the 'buzzing flies' that it needed to squash. Running near top speed, Luna was gladdened to see Applejack and Rainbow Dash keeping pace alongside her. Lagging behind them for only a second, Rarity looked absolutely mortified to be tagging along, but with surprising athletic ability the former dressmaker soon stayed abreast of her friends. As one, the four turned sharply left, ducking under the huge tail as it came down.
"Oh, heavens!" Rarity cried, and the four of them ended up jumping over a gaping tear in the street. "Do we really have to do this?"
"Are you kidding?" Dash yelled back as the shadow of Tlanextli's tail passed overhead, punctuated by dozens of magical explosions. "This is awesome!"
"Tentacles!" Luna commanded, royal Canterlot voice in full force, leading the three Elements of Harmony around the circumference of the worm's coiled base. "You must keep them off us as we find purchase!"
The boneless, muscular tendrils came from overhead, plunging down like black spears.
They didn't seem to even be bothering with trying to grab hold, they just lanced downward and withdrew, forcing the four mares to break stride. Jumping, dodging and flying past the stinging tentacles, Rainbow Dash gathered clouds around her forelegs, charging them with electricity. The fastest of the group, she had the least trouble avoiding being squashed and concentrated on shocking the pillars of black flesh every time she flew past.
Not seeing many other options, Applejack tested the waters of just how much she could risk by hitting one of the tentacles only in passing. To her surprise, the boneless limb yielded easy to a solid kick, trembling as it absorbed the power of her blow. Jumping clear of a tumbling cabbage cart, she recalled how White Dew had moved in her fight with him, way back on the road to Ponyville. She had readily grasped that it was not a matter of strength but a certain state of mind that made the jump from bucking apples to bucking ponies, but the concept of 'hitting hard without actually hitting hard' was much more mystifying.
"In the name of all things fabulous, keep it away from meeeee!" The last member of their band wailed, conjured haircloth snapping savagely at any horrific thing that entered her field of view.
"Here!" Luna yelled, "this way!"
The Princess of the Night rushed ahead, jumping up to the top of an escarpment carved out by Tlanextli's emergence. Sinking her tail into the ground, she tore loose a piece of rail and angled it into the air. Already guessing at what she had planned; Rarity detached the end of her tail, converting it into her second ream of special haircloth. Rainbow Dash already had a stormcloud in place over their heads as a shield.
Rooted in place, Luna's horn ignited, her telekinetic grip snagging the twisted railroad track around the girth of Tlanextli's body. Caught in the middle of swinging her tail at a unit of attacking pegasus guards, Tlanextli's roared as she ended up pulled to the side.
"Puny grubs! You dare try to move ME against my will?"
As predicted, Tlanextli's tentacles came to her defense, one crashing into the stormcloud and missing, another plunging into first one layer and then the second of Rarity's defensive fabric before coming to a stop, and the third sweeping in from the side, the ground under Applejack's hindlegs cracking as she blocked it with her forelegs.
Sweat beaded on Luna's brow as she struggled, a desperate cry on her lips as she pulled with every ounce of her mental and magical might. The final straw came in the form of a brave wing of pegasus grenadiers, who, having spent their weapons but picked up on the Princess's strategy, hurled themselves into the side of the beast.
The four mares scattered like the wind, only seconds before the huge worm crashed down on the railroad tracks turned makeshift pikes. For a second, the colossal Tatzlwurm remained still… but then it spun, sending up a wave of debris. Included were the twisted and broken railroad tracks that had been meant to punch through the worm Queen's indestructible hide. Even the bodies of the three smaller Tatzlwurms ended up shredded in the fall, a fact that caught Luna's eye.
"Do you think your tricks clever?" Tlanextli roared. "You have only earned my ire! I shall devour a thousand of you for this insult!"
Taking to the air, Luna grabbed onto Lady Rarity as the worm thrashed, flattening a huge circular space around where it had fallen. Those few intact buildings close by where crushed and scattered like kindling. Also held aloft, Applejack shouted a warning that came a moment too late as Tlanextli's tentacles struck again. This time they were able to find their target, one wrapping around Luna's upper body, crushing her wings painfully against her sides, and another completely encapsulating her head.
The tentacles were not for play. The moment they were in place, they constricted with bone-crushing force. The pain that was her torso being reduced by a size still couldn't compare to the thought of what her head would look like. Luna's legs kicked spasmodically, her magic firing within the fleshy cocoon but unable to affect an escape, even as it burned her in the process. One last panicked attempt to turn to smoke fizzled as the stinging cells in the Tatzlwurm found her horn.
"Again! Cut the other one!"
The black flesh around Luna's eyes fell away, and she caught sight of how she had been rescued. Still in mid-air, Rarity had a narrow strand of her fabric wrapped in a loop around the second tentacle. Thrown forward by Rainbow Dash, Applejack turned and kicked the cloth, stiffening it and forcing it to contract with magical force. The black tendril puckered and split, cut clean through.
Tlanextli bellowed in pain and outrage as she struggled to rise back up. "My tongues! You cut me! You miserable little ticks actually cut me!"
The severed tentacles whipped wildly, spraying bluish black blood. Wildly, but not, it turned out, without purpose. Passing out of range enough to not seem like a threat, a forceful spurt of blood knocked all three of Luna's companions out of the air. Tlanextli's massive head spun, almost grinning. The third and last intact mouth tentacle made to reacquire the Princess's head and horn.
This time, however, Luna was prepared.
"Hhhrraah!" Catching the tentacle between her hooves, Luna was nonetheless knocked out of the air and into the ground with jarring force. Eyes flashing, her tail came into play again, lancing up between her legs to spear through the tip of the tentacle just above where she gripped it.
Tlanextli hissed in pain and tried to retract her mouthpart, but Luna held firm. A Tatzlwurm's tentacles were strong indeed, especially if they could get a grip on a victim, but they were so thin, their power was practically miniscule compared to the muscle and mass of the full worm. Extending her wings, she took flight just long enough to grab one of the wounded tendrils and thread the bloody stump through the hole she had cut into the intact one. Tying the knot, she landed on her hindlegs and heaved… the pain more than the force applied forcing the massive worm Queen to give ground.
In so doing, she steered Tlanextli's 'face' towards the guns of the forward assault headquarters.
Straining too hard to even raise her voice to yell, Luna felt a surge of relief when she realized she didn't have to. Cannons of all varieties unloaded into the gaping maw of Queen Tlanextli, prompting the huge worm to thrash and struggle. Even the party cannon, hastily pushed forward by an overeager crew of earth ponies, got in a shot at relative point-blank range. The solid rounds were joined by spells of a dozen varieties and colors, pounding and blasting away at the exposed flesh of the worm's mouth.
"My face! My beautiful face! You little monsters!"
Sensing the time was right, Luna slackened her grip just as Tlanextli reared frantically upwards, willing to tear off two of her tongues to escape the punishment to her 'face.' Arcing through the air, still holding onto the knotted mouth tentacles, Luna wrapped the bundle of bleeding black flesh around her right foreleg and pounded it with her left hoof. Tlanextli screamed in agony, feeling every blow despite her invincible hide.
Unable to take it anymore, she reeled in her tongues, and this time Luna let her.
Landing firmly on the triple-jawed maw of the massive Tatzlwurm, Tlanextli's mouth snapped shut and the Princess vanished. For a moment, the God of Worms lay still, working down its newest meal. Then the tail kicked up and it started to writhe. More mass than a freight train heaved straight into the air and crashed down, the head of the Tatzlwurm thrashing side to side.
"Get her out! Get her out of me!" Tlanextli opened her mouth to the sky, spitting up streaks of darkly-stained ooze. "You're hurting me! You can't hurt me! I CAN'T BE HURT!"
Her tentacles flailed, trying to curve around to get into her own gullet.
"CHRYSALIS!" the so called God of Worms howled in pain and fear. "Help me! You said they couldn't hurt MEEEEE!"
The monster's voice turned from an inarticulate roar into an ear-splitting scream as a midnight blue shape erupted back out of the mouth. Fluttering slowly back to earth, Princess Luna's hooves touched solid ground just as the towering form of Tlanextli's body, Mictlantecuhtli, self-proclaimed 'devourer of thousands,' tottered and fell. Held in each of her front hooves was a tooth ripped free from the worm's cannon-blasted mouth. Her mane and tail were dripping black ichor that had nothing to do with her natural preference in colors.
Opening her mouth, Princess Luna spat out a grub-like creature with brown stripes.
The head was vaguely changeling-like, but the body was almost entirely shriveled. The legs were atrophied and folded up flat across the torso. The wings were hardened disks, useless for flight. There were no hindquarters. The parasite had been attached directly into the host's circulatory and nervous systems.
"Chrysalis…" a tinny voice squeaked from the shriveled changeling queen. "You promised… you promised… me…"
Luna stepped over the shriveled Brown Queen as it grew still, not even sparing it a second glance.
She made it exactly four steps before stumbling. Fortunately, a small group of ponies were quick to converge on her. Most gave way to let a special three help her to stand. Despite being drenched in black bile, Rarity seemed to have put that fact momentarily aside. She helped to clear a path through the gathering multitude as Applejack and Rainbow Dash supported the Princess to her left and right respectively. A hushed quiet fell over the entire battlefield, perhaps as they waited for some other – even larger – threat to suddenly appear.
"Princess," one pony started with a whisper.
"Princess!" another pony cried out, and then more. "Princess!" "Princess! Princess!"
"Luna!" Rarity added her own voice, and recognizing it, others spoke it as well. "Luna." "Luna." "Luna!"
Through her exhausted haze, it took the Princess of the Night a moment to realize what was happening around her. Craning her neck to look up, she blinked in confusion. A veritable sea of ponies surrounded her, calling out her name. Not a one of them looked forced or compelled to do so.
"Lu-na!" "Lu-na!" "Lu-na!"
She lowered her eyes; silently hoping nopony noticed the tears of joy streaming down her cheeks.
"I'm still me!" her cry from before joined the cheers that drowned out all other thoughts. "A new me! With a new chance!"
'And I will make the best of it, no matter what happened in the past.'