Invader Jrek: You could, you know, get one. They are free.
When they saw the princesses, Shining Armor, Cadance, Twilight, Rainbow Dash, and Applejack immediately gave the customary bow. They waited for a response to come. And waited. And waited.
Twilight eventually peeked her eye open to see what was going on. Princess Celestia was looking at them out of the corner of her eye, and appeared to be unsuccessfully trying to suppress a grin. Luna had her back to them.
Grumbling, Twilight got to her feet.
"Uh, Twilight? What're ya doin'?" came Applejack's whisper.
"She sees us," said Twilight in an irritated tone. "She's just waiting to see how long it takes us to figure that out."
Celestia gave Twilight a wink and a mischievous grin, before suddenly turning formal again. "You may rise, my loyal subjects," she announced in a rather exaggeratedly imperial tone of voice.
Twilight rolled her eyes as the others got to their feet.
Celestia walked over to the group. Luna remained with her back to the ponies, deeply engaged in conversation with another pair of ponies. The repeatedly gestured at what looked like a large scale model of Equestria on an equally large table.
"It is good to see you all alive. When we heard the news about Ponyville…" she shook her head, "We feared the worst. But now that you're here, we can use the Elements of…" her voice trailed off as Shining Armor and Cadace filed into the room, and she noticed that there was nopony behind them. She suddenly looked much more serious. She looked Twilight in the eye. "Twilight, where are the rest of your friends?"
Twilight shook her head, feeling a bit ashamed of herself, though rationally she knew there was nothing she could have done. "I'm sorry, princess. I don't know. Fluttershy and Rarity disappeared. And Pinkie Pie… Pinkie Pie…" Twilight resisted the urge to break down in tears over having failed to stop that pony. Who knew what horrors Pinkie could be experiencing right now, if she was even still alive?
Celestia pressed in, now looking more serious than any time Twilight had seen her since her brief fight with Chrysalis. Her eyes bored into Twilight's own, and Twilight shrank back. "Twilight Sparkle, tell me: what happened to Pinkamina Dianne Pie?"
"She… she… she was kidnapped!"
"I don't know! Really! He had his fur died blue, but it was really creepy! I thought I saw stuff and heard things when I looked at it!"
"And was this pony an earth pony? Pegasus? Unicorn? Or something else?"
"He was… he was…" Twilight pondered for a moment, recalling the experience she'd had with Pinkie's kidnapper. One detail that she hadn't given much thought to at the time suddenly stood out: he had no horn! "He was an earth pony, princess."
"And his cutie mark?"
"I didn't see it."
"How did he get away from you?"
"He… he used magic! I don't know how that's possible, but I swear he did! He had Pinkie wrapped up in some magic bonds, and they vanished in a crack of blue energy! I know that sounds ridiculous, but please believe me!"
Celestia sighed. "A few days ago, I might have said that was absurd. That he had to have had a horn, or at least a unicorn accomplice to do that. Now? Now I'm not so sure." She sighed again. "Tell me: did you see anything else of note? Did he say anything about his plans for Pinkie? Anything at all?"
Twilight reluctantly nodded. "He said… he said he was going to…" she gulped, "Sacrifice Pinkie! To someone he called "Lord Tzeentch"!"
"Damnit!" Celestia stomped her hoof down in rage, shattering the stone underneath her. Twilight and the others backed away, unsure of what to do. Celestia seemed more enraged that Twilight had ever seen her. She looked like she wanted to kill something. Twilight swallowed and prayed silently to whoever might listen that Celestia didn't decide it had been her fault.
"Sister! Celestia!" came Luna's voice. "Calm yourself! You do no good like this! Calm down and tell me: what is the matter." As she spoke, Luna walked away from her conversation at the table to Celestia's side, where she placed a gentle hoof on her shoulder. Celestia closed her eyes and breathed deeply for nearly a minute. Eventually, she opened them again, looking considerably less murderous.
"That's better," said Luna smoothly, patting her sister on the back. "Now, what is it that has you so enraged?"
"The Elements of Harmony! We were so close!" Celestia slammed her hoof down again, cracking another stone. "We need those! And now Twilight tells me that not only are two of the bearers missing, but one has actually been kidnapped by Chaos! Kidnapped! And as if that wasn't bad enough, they plan to sacrifice the one they took to one of their foul gods!" Celestia slammed her eyes shut and breathed deeply again, clearly struggling to contain her urge to lash out at something over this. "So, we not only are missing half the bearers, but at least one may already be dead! And who knows what kind of power such a sacrifice might give the forces of Chaos!" She shook her head. "I am not in a good mood right now."
Luna sighed. "That is bad news. But then, what isn't today? Hundreds of towns and villages are destroyed. Fillydelphia and Manehatten are in enemy hands. We have hundreds of thousands of starving, angry refugees and little with which to feed and house them. We could have a massive riot on our hooves at the slightest incident. We have no idea of enemy numbers or leadership, and little idea of their positions. Not to mention we have no idea if Chaos has taken root in Canterlot itself, or in our refugees. The truth is, the situation is very bad. This does not make it much worse than it already was, when you look at the big picture."
"Not much worse? Not much worse? NOT MUCH WORSE?" Celestia was screaming her lungs out. "Do you have any idea about how much worse this makes it? This is a catastrophe! A defeat of the first order! Not only are our most powerful weapons denied to us, but even now the enemy may have already usurped some of their power! Who knows what they can do with the bearer of an element, even if they do not have it at the time! Not us!"
Luna frowned, and her voice turned firm. "Celestia! You are overreacting! We do not know what has become of Pinkie Pie, but we do know that they do not have the elements! They cannot use their power against us! And be honest with yourself: how is this much different from when we were forced to presume them dead or captured?"
"Because now we know at least one is captured!"
"And we also know three were not." Countered Luna. "The situation is grim, yes, but overall this is a positive development for us. You need to calm yourself and see that. We have just found out that three of the six bearers are not dead, and remain loyal. We know that, therefore, Chaos cannot use the Elements of Harmony against us. Please, calm yourself. Your rage does nothing for our cause."
Celestia shut her eyes and breathed heavily again. When she opened her eyes, her rage was gone, replaced by a look of sadness and weariness. She breathed out. "You're right, sister. Of course you're right." She turned to Twilight and co. "I apologize for my outburst. It seems the stresses of the last few days have been getting to me. Will you forgive me?"
"How could we not?"
Princess Celestia nodded, looking relieved. "Now the, my little ponies, we have a war to plan. Come."
They stood around the table with a beautiful scale replica of the whole of Equestria and her immediate neighbors. To the north lay the arid, uninhabited Desert of Bone. To the south lay, the Sea of Hooves. Gryphania, Equestria's only neighbor with whom she shared a land border, had a narrow connection through the Desert of Bone in the far northeast. Canterlot and its mountain range sat roughly in the middle of the country, dividing it into east and west. Canterlot was painted a reassuring shade of blue. To the west lay the greater landmass, it's population scattered far and wide into hundreds of small villages. Twilight saw many of them had been painted black, presumably representing confirmed destruction. She found Ponyville slightly to the southwest of Canterlot, painted black. She choked back tears as she remembered the slaughter at her former hometown. At the far western shore lay the great city of Manehatten. It, and several villages surrounding it, were painted in red.
Twilight looked to the eastern side of the country. Smaller and more densely populated than the western side, it featured fewer villages and more large metropolises. The closest to Canterlot was Stalliongrad, thankfully still painted blue, as were most of the villages between it and Canterlot. Further out lay Neighjing, painted blue, Los Caballos, painted black, and Fillydelphia, painted red. In between Neighjing and Los Caballos, there were numerous villages painted black or blue. In between Los Caballos and Fillydelphia, they were black or red. The enemy strategy became apparent: seize the extreme ends of the country to block mass food imports, raze what food-producing villages they couldn't hold, and then effectively lay siege to the entire middle of the country, starving out Canterlot and its surroundings until they were either forced to surrender or attacked and destroyed. Suddenly the way that the crazed ponies had burnt Ponyville after chasing off most of the inhabitants made sense: they didn't mean to hold it, just prevent it from supplying Canterlot with food and at the same time dump hundreds more starving, homeless, angry ponies on the princesses' doorstep. When the princesses were unable to help all of them, they'd get resentful and angry. Maybe they'd even blame the princesses. Then, they'd be ripe for conversion to Chaos or simply for food riots. This would further stretch the already overstretched Royal Guard.
"Ruthless," thought Twilight, "Ruthless, but effective. Somepony's been planning this for a while."
Twilight's attention was drawn away from her musing by Luna's voice.
"I have been speaking to our strategists, including the honorable Shining Armor, Dawn Spear, and Star Shield. We all agree that our current position is untenable. Simply put, we have hundreds of thousands more ponies than we can possible feed with what farms remain to us, and we cannot import food on a sufficiently massive scale with both Manehatten and Fillydelphia in the hands of Chaos. If we do not act soon, we will see mass starvation, riots, and mass chaos in Canterlot. If that happens, we will almost certainly be attacked. And we will fall. With Canterlot in enemy hands, they will control passage through the middle of the country. We will stand little chance of winning at that point. Therefore, we are unanimously agreed that one or both of these ports must be retaken as rapidly as possible, and much of the refugee population must be moved there."
"Uh, Princess Luna?"
"Yes, Twilight Sparkle?"
"How will we fit that many ponies into those cities? They're pretty packed already."
Luna shook her head sadly. "Not anymore."
"Oh." Twilight looked down sadly. She imagined how many ponies must have died. Tens of thousands. Maybe hundreds. Maybe even millions. "What kind of pony could do such a thing?" she wondered.
Celestia spoke up. "What we disagreed on was how to do it. The Royal Guard, excellent as it is, simply lacks the numbers to launch the kind of massive attacks that will be required while at the same time moving considerable numbers of refugees and keeping order in Canterlot."
"We had hoped to offset this with the Elements of Harmony," continued Luna, "But that hope has fallen through. We considered attempting to take only one port, but this is too risky a strategy. The enemy, whoever commands them, will not sit idle. If we attack only one port, they will take advantage of our distraction to launch an assault either on Canterlot itself, should we attack Fillydelphia, or Neighjing and Stalliongrad, should we attack Manehatten. To prevent further devastation, massive loss of pony life, and the worsening of the refugee crisis, we must make a credible strike on both ports at once, to keep the enemy on the defensive."
"Since our plan to use the Elements of Harmony to assault one port didn't pan out, Luna and I have decided there is only one way to go about this. The Royal Guard, under Dawn Spear, will launch a mass attack on Manehatten. Shining Armor will remain here to keep order."
"But-" Shining Armor began.
Celestia cut him off. "We know you would like to join in this attack, but that isn't an option. We can only spare a few of the Royal Guard to stay in Canterlot. If order is to be kept in our absence, we need our best and most competent commander here to defend it. And that's you."
Shining Armor, to Twilight's surprise, actually blushed a bit. "Best commander? You flatter me. I'm not that good."
"But you are," replied Luna. "You have served for many years now, and the Guard love you. The average pony on the street loves you. You've made the streets safer than they've been in many years, and you've done an admirable job at your duties. That is why we need you here."
Shining Armor seemed to think about it. "Oh, alright. I'll do it."
Celestia and Luna nodded.
"Excellent," said Celestia. "This will be so much smoother than if we'd had to order you into it."
"Hey, princesses?" injected Rainbow Dash, who until now had been rather unusually quiet. "You said something about your absence, right? So where are you going?"
Luna nodded. "An excellent question, Rainbow Dash. We were just getting around to explaining that. While the bulk of the Royal Guard departs for Manehatten, and a small portion stays in Canterlot, Celestia and I plan to take a small group with us. We are going to go and retake Fillydelphia personally."
"We'll show them what happens to those who harm our subjects," said Celestia, with an air of menace that chilled Twilight's spine.
Luna nodded in agreement, with a malevolent look on her face that rather uncannily resembled Nightmare Moon. "We failed to protect them once. We will not repeat our mistake."
"So, uh, why're ya'll telling us this? What do ya what us ta do?" said Applejack.
"Ah yes," said Luna, "That. Dear Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Twilight Sparkle. Even without the Elements of Harmony, it is indisputable that you are heroes, and powerful fighters to boot. We request that you join the attack on Manehatten."
AN: How was it?