Chapter 29:

An Unholy Alliance

Meanwhile-

You doing alright, Fluttershy?

Fluttershy hid her fatigue behind a small smile before she turned her head to address the speaker. Spike was riding on Spesci's back a few dozen feet away, and was doing his best to keep his balance despite the strong wind that insisted on hindering their progress. They'd been flying north for almost two days now, and while they were close to their destination, the journey had not been an easy one.

I'm fine, Spike. Just a little tired from flapping so much. They were currently in the Halendi Highlands, a vast stretch of rocky hills and crags that covered the southernmost portion of the country of Tarandus. Fluttershy was using her Telepathy power due to the howling gusts that occasionally kicked up from the crags, and while it wasn't a terrible strain on her, the sooner she could stop, the better.

We can take another break if you need. Megnii was flying on her other side, opposite from Spesci. Or we could just forsake flying altogether and walk the rest of the way. We'd still get to the Crystal Empire before nightfall.

Fluttershy gritted her teeth. She'd very much have liked to take another break, but they'd had enough delays as it was. According to Spesci, the mountain blizzard they'd almost gotten caught in could last for up to a week, and so the caravan they'd met up with had decided to head back to the city they'd started out from. They'd invited Fluttershy and the others to come with, but it was much faster to fly.

I want to get there before nightfall so we can talk to Princess Cadenza right away.Fluttershy pumped her wings a little harder. She probably has set times where she accepts petitioners, and we may have to wait until tomorrow if we get there too late.

We'll have to wait a lot longer than a day if you collapse. Spesci looked up at the sun. It's still early afternoon. We'll make it to the Crystal Empire in about an hour at this rate. We could easily—

No. Fluttershy's wings felt like lead, her chest and lungs were on fire, and fatigue had crept into her entire body, but her thought-voice was strong and definitive.You said yourself that they may be too busy re-establishing their government to help us. If Princess Cadenza really does refer us to Frusetra, then we can't waste any time.

The Crystal Empire was a neighboring province of Tarandus, released one year ago from a curse which had caused it to vanish for an entire millennium. The cause of the curse wasn't known, but the leader of the Crystal Empire, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, had been freed from the curse fifteen years sooner and had sought asylum in Equestria until her kingdom reappeared. Princess Celestia had appointed herself legal guardian of the young princess until she came of age, and she'd lived relatively quietly in Canterlot Castle for over a decade. The Crystal Empire's inhabitants were called crystal ponies, and while they were practically identical to their southern cousins in every way, they possessed a strange magic the likes of which nopony had ever seen.

I hope you aren't pushing yourself just because you feel like—whoa, there. Megnii wobbled as a stray gust hit him from below. He straightened himself out and continued. Cetus caught us all completely off guard! There's no way you could've known what was going to happen, and even if you did, what could you have done?

What could she have done, indeed. Fluttershy knew she wasn't brave, strong, smart, outgoing, or creative like her friends were. She was the weak link in the chain, the meek, timid one that hid when danger came and hoped things would work out in the end. It was only now that she realized just how much she'd always relied on others, and the guilt was eating away at her like a parasite.

Nothing,Fluttershy said bitterly. I couldn't have done a single thing to help my friends. All I could do was cower in a corner and cry like a newborn foal. All this time I've leaned on my friends and family for support, and I've never done anything for them in return!

Don't say that, Fluttershy... Spike trailed off. He wanted to say more, but he didn't know what might make her feel better.

Fluttershy shook her head and willed her tears to stay put. Princess Luna said she wanted us all to grow, but I'll still be too weak to make any kind of difference even if I did. I know I'm helpless. All I can do is find others to fight in my stead. Maybe then, the others will find it in their hearts to forgive me for letting them down.

You're not helpless at all! You—

Megnii's voice died out as Fluttershy quelled her Element. She didn't have the spare energy to argue, and her mind was made up even if she did. She wasn't a hero, she never would be, and it was better to realize that and live another day than die with delusions of grandeur. She didn't want to have others fight for her anymore, but she didn't know what else to do.

The four of them flew on in awkward silence, the howl of the harsh, icy winds buffeting them back and filling their ears.

( *** )

Few Equestrians had ventured to the Crystal Empire in the year since it'd reappeared, but those that had described it as a magical, sparkling vale that was always in a perpetual state of spring. A place that never changed seasons sounded ludicrous to Fluttershy, but then again, she'd once thought the same thing about solid ground that extended all the way to the horizon. Moving to the mainland had since taught her to keep an open mind about the 'impossibilities' of new places.

The first thing that came into view was the castle. It was raised up off the ground by four mighty archways with a central square underneath etched in a fine, circular pattern of stone. The structure ended in tall, elegant spires of purest white that reached up high into the heavens, and colorful banners could be seen hanging from wide balconies on the walls. The tallest spire housed some kind of beacon that shone as bright as the sun.

The browns and yellows of the uneven Halendi Highlands gave way to gentle verdant hills as they entered the Crystal Empire proper. The frigid wind became quiet and warm, and the four of them sighed in relief as their aching wings were relieved by a gentle thermal that kept them aloft. The buildings were all neat, orderly, and made out of different kinds of colored crystal that gleamed like polished mirrors. The roads were a faint periwinkle that also reflected the sun's light, and from the sky, they could see that the entire city had been constructed in the shape of a six-pointed star.

"Where is everypony?" Spike wondered aloud as they made their approach.

Fluttershy scanned back and forth for some sign of movement or activity from within the city. Occasionally she thought she saw a flicker of something from a window or a doorway, but it vanished just as quickly as it appeared.

"I see guards." Spesci pointed down at one of the streets below. "And over there, too. Looks like they're patrolling the streets in pairs."

Fluttershy squinted, and found that Spesci was right. Crystal ponies in silver armor were walking dutifully down the streets, looking all around for any sign of disturbance or trouble. She continued to look around for anypony that wasn't a guard, but couldn't find anyone else.

"What the hay?!" Megnii said. "There shouldn't be any reason for Princess Cadenza to have invoked martial law! Did they somehow already find out about Cetus?"

Fluttershy doubted that. It was more likely something else had happened, but she wasn't sure what that 'something else' might be. She knew that windigoes needed to migrate to the ocean annually to mate, and there were several herds in the Yakkhari Mountains and the Glasbyrn glacier wastes to the north. Maybe they'd accidentally taken over the Crystal Empire as their breeding ground?

"It doesn't look like they've spotted us yet." Spesci looked over at Fluttershy. "Do you want to go down?"

Fluttershy nodded and panted out her reply. "To rest... at the very... least."

The four of them began their descent down into the city. They circled around for a moment to find some kind of landing site, but after ten minutes they finally decided to just use one of the empty streets as a runway. Several guards noticed their descent, and there was a great deal of shouting as they landed with the light clip-clopping of hooves on the smooth street.

"Not even gonna let us catch our breath," Spesci muttered as six teams of guards advanced on them from various directions. He adjusted the bow and quiver of arrows at his side, a gift from one of the members of the caravan.

"Eh, we can take em." Megnii grinned wickedly as he saw that several of the guards were carrying halberds with bearded axe heads. "It'll be just like the Battle of Hidden Arrows."

"You mean the one where Pisces lost his eye?"

Megnii winced. "Okay, so maybe not just like the Battle of Hidden Arrows."

"Don't... fight..." It was all Fluttershy could do to keep standing, and her voice was just above a whisper.

"Don't worry, we won't if we can help it," Spesci promised. "We didn't come this way to start a brawl."

"Let's hope they feel the same way," Spike said.

The crystal pony guards closed the distance and quickly surrounded the group in a tight circle. None of them brandished their weapons, but it was clear from the twitching of their hooves and mouths that they'd be quick on the draw.

One of the crystal pony guards stepped forward and addressed them in a gruff tone.

"You're a long way from home, Equestrians. What are you doing here in the Crystal Empire?"

Megnii and Spesci exchanged a quick glance before Spesci cleared his throat to speak.

"We—"

Princess Celestia has been defeated and replaced by an imposter. We were sent here by Princess Luna to get help.

The crystal pony guards jumped. Megnii and Spesci turned to Fluttershy, who was staring at the ground. Her eyes were downcast, but her Element's light could still be seen reflecting of the street.

"Uh, Fluttershy..." Megnii's gaze flicked to the crystal pony guards, who'd just drawn their weapons.

"What magic is this?!" The first guard pointed his sword at them. "What was that voice in my head?!"

That was me.Fluttershy wearily looked up at the guard with her shining eyes, too tired to register that she was currently at sword point. I'm sorry, I can't speak right now. We just flew here from the Yakkhari Mountains.

The guard's eyes widened slightly, but he didn't lower his sword. His attention was then drawn to Megnii and Spesci, who were both giving him dark, dangerous looks.

"We came here for aid, cousin," Megnii said quietly.

"Is this how the Crystal Empire treats its allies?" Spesci asked.

"Yeah!" Spike chimed in. "Our country helped yours, so you gotta help us!"

There was a silence, broken only by Fluttershy's heavy breathing. The guard sized up Megnii and Spesci, but didn't hold their gazes for long. Finally, he lowered his weapon, and the remaining guards followed suit.

"Equestria's deeds have certainly not been forgotten." The guard bowed. "Welcome to the Crystal Empire, friends. My apologies for such a rude greeting, but I fear you've caught us at a bad time."

"I can see that." Spesci looked around. "What's going on? Where are all the civilians?"

"Confined to their homes," the guard replied. "A riot broke out in the streets yesterday that injured several citizens. We've instated martial law until we find the instigators."

Megnii raised an eyebrow. "Seems like overkill to make everypony stay inside just because of one riot."

A different guard snorted. "Not overkill at all. The rioters were—"

The new guard was silenced by the first clearing his throat. "The specifics are unimportant. You may trust me when I say that our actions are appropriate for the situation. Now, I imagine you all will be wanting to speak with Her Majesty regarding your mission?"

Fluttershy nodded. As soon as possible, please.

The guard hesitated. "Um, forgive me, but how are you doing that?"

"Uh, hello?" Spike jumped down from Spesci's back. "It's magic, duh."

The guard blinked several times. He looked to Megnii and Spesci, but when no additional explanation was given, he shrugged and signalled to his comrades.

"Of... course. This way."

The crystal pony guards broke their circle and separated back into groups of two. They then trotted down separate streets while the first guard led Fluttershy and the others down a straight path that led to the castle. Fluttershy inwardly groaned at the prospect of more physical exertion, but held her tongue and dutifully soldiered on.

That was very brave of you. Megnii pretended to examine their surroundings as he spoke. Not many ponies would reveal something like that to a stranger, let alone a group of armed and possibly hostile ones.

Fluttershy took deep breaths and narrowed her Telepathy power so that only the four of them could hear. Bravery had nothing to do with it. I just didn't want to waste time trying to get them to believe us. I figured this was the fastest way to get our point across.

Megniii shrugged. Still, though, that took guts. I'd have never expected you to do something like that.

Fluttershy watched a small flock of butterflies fly into a nearby bush. I can't explain why, but for some reason, communicating telepathically is easier for me than talking normally. I usually have problems with speaking up or stumbling over my words, but like this, I don't have a problem with literally saying what's on my mind. I only used telepathy back there because I was too tired to talk, but if it helps me to be more assertive, maybe I should use it more often.

Just don't use it all the time. Spike grinned. Your voice is really pretty! Do you ever sing at all?

Fluttershy giggled. Not really. Rainbow always said I should work on it, but I couldn't ever work up the courage to perform in front of other ponies.

Spike fiddled with the Necklace of Loyalty around his neck. Do you think the others are okay?

I don't know about 'okay,' but they're alive at the very least. They approached the castle, and Spesci craned his head up to get a better look.Ophiuchus wouldn't have told us all to meet up if something had happened to any of them.

I'm sure they're fine. Megnii shot his partner a withering glare before winking at Spike. It'll take more than a little scrap like that to bring them down. Don't worry, we'll be back with all of them before you know it.

Fluttershy bit her lip. She was grateful that Megnii was putting on a brave face for Spike, but she could tell the loss of his comrades had hit him hard. He'd taken to staring off into the distance for long periods of time whenever he thought he was alone, and while he put on a cheerful attitude most of the time, his smile never reached his eyes.

The crystal pony guard led them into the castle through a tall, narrow door in one of the archways. The interior was a mixture of deep blues and faint violets, with rectangular artistic patterns that crept along the floors and walls. Crystalline sculptures ranging from traditional to abstract were everywhere, and bright shafts of light streamed in from various windows and enchanted fixtures on the ceiling. They saw an occasional castle employee moving quickly on one errand or another, but otherwise the halls were empty, spotless, and had a sterile feeling to them.

It took ten minutes to get to the throne room. Fluttershy couldn't help but shiver as the large, heavy doors reminded her of what had happened in Canterlot, but she knew nothing like that would happen here. For one thing, these doors were swung wide open, and she was immediately able to see the interior.

The floor was a reflective blue, like most other places she'd seen so far, save for a single violet carpet that ran all the way to the throne. Open windows set with large sapphires above them lined the walls, and ornate crystal pillars of various sizes were placed in between. The throne itself was a natural formation of amethyst that'd been roughly carved into the shape of a seat, and sitting upon it was an alicorn, tall and slender, with a vibrant pink coat and a three-colored mane and tail. Her cutie mark was a sapphire heart with stylized ornaments on its sides, and her crown and regalia were a soft, shining gold. She was alone, save for a pair of stone-faced guards standing at the base of the throne, and was currently absorbed in writing something down on a very long scroll.

The crystal pony guard led them inside the throne room. Their hoofsteps were muffled by the carpet, which only added to the sense of stillness and silence that pervaded the air. Were it not for the soft scratching of a quill on parchment, Fluttershy could easily imagine that they'd walked into a painting.

The alicorn didn't look up from her work as they approached. The crystal pony guard who'd escorted them signalled to stop, and then bowed low.

"Princess Cadenza—"

"This had better be important," Cadenza snapped without stopping.

The guard gulped. "I-I assure you it is. These four were spotted landing in the Market District, and bring grave tidings regarding Princess Celestia of Equestria."

Cadenza stopped writing. Her quill floated in place for a few seconds, then she placed it in an inkwell, rolled up the scroll, and looked directly at Fluttershy with cold, shrewd eyes.

"Is that so? Let's hear it, then."

Fluttershy quailed under the gaze. She tried to find her voice, but all she managed was a faint squeak. Spesci noticed and made to step in, but she stopped him with a hoof and tried again with her Element.

I'm sorry for the interruption, Your Highness. My name's Fluttershy, and I'm one of the mares that saved Princess Luna three months ago. It's on her behalf that I come to you now.

Cadenza straightened her posture. "So you're one of the six that redeemed my estranged aunt? Interesting. You bear the Element of Kindness, I take it?"

Fluttershy gasped. Yes! How'd you know?!

Cadenza smiled. "The eyes are windows to the soul. Auntie Celestia told me much about the Elements during my stay in Equestria. I find it ironic that Luna would send the bearer of one of her sister's Elements to me, but that's neither here nor there. Tell me, what news do you bring?"

Fluttershy was a little taken aback by Cadenza's straightforwardness, but then again, she hadn't wanted to beat around the bush in the first place. She went straight into what had happened in the past week, then went on to tell her about Horizon, the Echoes, Nightmare Moon's army, the necklaces, and everything else she could think of to give the princess as clear of an understanding of events as possible. Megnii, Spesci and Spike cut in on occasion for a correction here and there, but otherwise let Fluttershy do the 'talking.' Cadenza sat silent throughout it all, her expression hidden behind a poker face taught to her by a master.

"It seems Auntie had more secrets than I thought." Cadenza unravelled her scroll, tore a piece off the bottom, then scribbled something on it and gave it to the guard that'd escorted them to the throne room. "I'll need time to consider all of this, but the first actions are obvious. Cetus will have the entire Equestrian military searching for you, and I guarantee she'll have started checks at the borders. It's also imperative that we keep you all safe, as the Elements are the key to solving at least a piece of this mess."

Megnii watched the guard glance at the piece of paper, then turn and trot off towards a door behind the throne. "Do you think we'll be safer here, or in Frusetra?"

Cadenza clicked her teeth. "Probably here. Each place has pros and cons, but if I were Cetus, I'd expect you to try and get to the capital to raise the alarm. Staying here will give you a better chance of slipping back through to get to Dragon Turtle Lake."

"Can you send word to Frusetra in our stead, then?" Spesci asked.

Cadenza motioned to the departing guard. "I'd like to hear the counsel of my vizier first. It'll take a few days to hear back from anyone regardless, though. You'll all stay here until then."

Fluttershy let out a relieved sigh. Thank you, Princess.

An odd smile crept up on Cadenza's face. "Oh no, thank you."

Just then, Spike stepped forward and waved at Cadenza. "Hey, Cadance! It's me, Spike! Do you remember me?"

Cadenza narrowed her eyes. "You will address me as either Princess, Mi Amore Cadenza, or Your Highness, wyrmling. And why would I remember you?"

Spike cocked his head. "You, uh... used to babysit for Twilight. I barely remember because I was really young, but she talks about it all the time."

Cadenza's mouth twitched, but she quickly hid it by raising a hoof to her chin. "Oh, er... yes. Twilight, was it? Of course I remember her! She was a good little filly most of the time. I'm sorry, I've been rather stressed lately working with the Tarandians on all this border business. We've been trying to figure out whether or not the Crystal Empire should stay as a province of Tarandus, become its own sovereign nation, or be annexed into Equestria."

Spike's ears drooped from the dismissal, but he stepped back and stood beside Fluttershy. Megnii watched him for a second, but then turned back to Cadenza. "What do you think is the best choice?"

"I can't decide that yet." Cadenza's voice was harsh as she massaged her temples. "Breaking free would mean we'd be free to make our own laws, but Tarandus is offering us some very nice incentives to stay because we have the only harbor in the country. Equestria is farther away, but it has the railways, much greater military strength, more resources, and better taxes. It's been a chore deciding on what to do, but my vizier's advice has been invaluable in helping me see all sides of the argument. That's why I'd like his input now."

The door the behind the throne opened, and out stepped a large grey unicorn stallion with a black mane and tail. His legs, chest and neck were covered in plated ruby greaves that ended in sharp points, and a thin circlet set with a dull black jewel rested upon his brow. The upper half of his horn was blood-red, and his eyes were an unnatural green and red with thin, cat-like slits. His cutie mark was an eye, colored and shaped the same as his own, set atop two violet splotches and surrounded by black, spiky crystals.

The stallion met the eyes of each member of the group as he approached. His expression was indifferent at first, but when he got to Fluttershy, he stopped dead in his tracks. A flicker of... something, spasmed across his face, but he looked away before she could register what it was. He then turned and mockingly bowed before Cadenza.

"You sent for me, Princess?"

Cadenza gave the stallion a dirty look. "Grand Vizier Sombra, allow me to introduce Fluttershy, Bearer of the Element of Kindness, Megnii and Spesci, a pair of Echoes created by Celestia, and Spike the dragon. They've come here from Equestria with news that calls for a change of plans."

A disturbing smile crept up on Sombra's face. He slowly turned back to the group, and as he did, they could see that he sported a very intimidating set of fangs.

"Echoes and an Element Bearer? Well isn't this our lucky day. Which plans do you refer to, exactly?"

"The ones I 'appointed' you for in the first place," Cadenza said tersely. "Celestia has been usurped, and the new ruler is going to be zealously searching for these four. I can't move forward with anything while Equestria is out of the picture—well, not from here, anyway. What do you propose I do?"

Sombra was silent for a moment. He pursed his lips and examined one of his plated hooves and flicked a bit of dust off before speaking.

"I'd say you need to make a little trip."

Cadenza nodded. "I was thinking that, as well."

"How long do you think you'll be gone?"

Cadenza raised her eyes to the ceiling. "A little over a month. Longer if the weather acts up."

Go where? Fluttershy asked.

Sombra flinched like he'd been slapped. He whirled on Fluttershy, but then hissed and took a step back as soon as he met her eyes.

Cadenza furrowed her eyebrows. "Is there a problem, Sombra?"

"Am I to watch over these four while you're gone?!" Sombra spat out through clenched teeth.

"That was the idea." Cadenza curiously looked back and forth between Sombra and Fluttershy. "Though now, I'm not so sure. Do you think you can handle it?"

Sombra laughed, a cruel, malicious noise that made Fluttershy's hair stand on end. Megnii and Spesci both felt a chill, and their muscles tensed of their own accord.

"Oh, I can," Sombra said, "but I'll be handling it my way."

A dark, violet mist seeped out of Sombra's eyes. His horn turned pure black, and there was a faint crackling sound like paper being burned. Shadows began to rise out of the room, with a set of limbs, a dark jagged horn, and a pair of foul eyes similar to Sombra's. Three seconds later, a dozen shades surrounded Fluttershy and the others.

Sombra spoke two words with vindictive glee.

"Take them."

Megnii acted first. He spread his wings and shot forward towards one of the guards at the base of the throne, who was carrying a halberd much like one the guards had on the street. Megnii uppercutted the guard, wrenched the weapon out of his grasp, and spun it about to point directly at Sombra's throat.

"End thy spell or I will end thy life," Megnii said.

The other guard made to tackle Megnii, but he was stopped by an arrow that lodged itself in one of the crystal formations a few inches from his face. Spesci had already fitted another arrow in the string by the time the guard looked over at him.

"Move and the next one goes between the eyes of your Princess." Spesci looked up at Cadenza. "I knew something was up the moment we got here, but I don't know, or quite frankly even care what it is. If Cetus gets ahold of Nightmare Moon's army, not a single force on this planet will be able to stop her. She'll kill you and your subjects, raze your kingdom, then probably find a way to bring about Eternal Night again! Which, by the way, will also kill you even if she decided to spare your kingdom for whatever reason! Keep us out of your stupid little plots and schemes, Cadenza! Holding us here against our will is an incredibly stupid idea, and if you can't see that, you're dumber than that pile of rocks you're sitting on!"

Fluttershy looked on in horror. The shades surrounding them hadn't moved, but they were only a yard away from them on all sides. They exuded a foul, dark aura, one that pulled and tugged at her mind with an intense loathing. She felt Spike shivering next to her, and she pulled him underneath herself to try and shield him.

Now it was Cadenza's turn to laugh. Hers was different from Sombra's, however. It was calm, confident, and full of genuine amusement.

"See this?!" She gestured at Megnii and Spesci to Sombra. "This why your oh-so-coveted method of overwhelming others with brute force caused you to be defeated by Celestia and Luna in the first place! I didn't get the chance to tell you that these two are some of Celestia's most elite soldiers, and you assumed you could just overwhelm them with numbers and a few fancy tricks! By the Shaper, you should see your face!"

Sombra glowered at her. "And yet, your method conveniently requires my help. What exactly does that say about you?"

"Shut it!" Megnii pressed the halberd harder against Sombra's throat. "Call off the shades, now!"

"No, I don't think I will." Sombra's outline shifted, and his whole body turned to shadow. He pushed himself against Megnii's blade, and it harmlessly passed straight through his neck without any resistance. "I think you'll find I'm difficult to threaten, let alone kill."

Megnii groaned. "I really do hate magic."

Sombra tried to engulf Megnii, but he ripped the halberd out and leapt back to hover above Spesci and the others. Spesci, meanwhile, operating under a terrible suspicion, adjusted his aim and shot an arrow at Cadenza's leg. The arrow bounced off and clattered on the ground, but as it did, he caught a glimpse of black where the arrow had struck.

Spesci cursed. "Changeling!"

Cadenza made no effort to deny the claim. Instead, she held up her hoof and examined the spot Spesci had shot her with disinterest.

"What it says about me is that I'm able to recognize and compensate for my weaknesses. Power has its uses, Sombra, but what you've yet to learn is that solely relying on it is only going to get you so far. I freed you because your knowledge of rakan is a valuable asset towards maintaining a hoofhold here in the north, but if you reveal yourself to the Tarandians too soon, as you have here, it's going to cost you time and resources. This 'Cetus' seems to understand that, and while it certainly makes her a formidable adversary, she's lost her advantage now that I'm aware of her and her little army. Information is priceless in war, and so for tipping me off, my little Equestrians—"

Cadenza burst into green flame, and in her place stood a Royal changeling. She had a stringy blue mane and tail with unnatural holes, and her translucent, gossamer wings buzzed softly at her back. Her eyes were a sickly green, and her long, crooked horn flashed with the remnants of her magic. A small black crown set with four tiny blue orbs rested atop her head.

The changeling flashed them a victorious grin. "—you have my most sincere thanks."

Fluttershy paled. "No..."

Sombra rolled his eyes. "Spare us the monologue, Chrysalis."

Chrysalis ignored him and kept her eyes on Fluttershy. "Don't make this hard on yourself. Surrender now, and I promise you and your guards won't be harmed."

Spesci barked out a harsh laugh. "Oh noooooooo, you won't harm us, you'll just throw us into phora pods and feed off us like the giant leech you are!"

Fluttershy was paralyzed. She had tried to get help. It was the only thing she thought she was capable of doing. She'd pushed herself as hard as she could to get here, and it was all to walk into another trap.

Megnii tightened his grip on his halberd as the two guards at the base of the throne revealed themselves to be changelings as well. "Don't listen to her, Fluttershy! Her entire race are nothing but a bunch of ugly liars!"

Fluttershy shut her eyes and clutched her head in her hooves. All she ever did was disappoint others. First her family, then her peers, and now worst off all, her friends! She'd always believed that a little kindness went a long way, and that if she was considerate to others they'd be so in turn, but what good was any of that now?!

"Resorting to petty insults now, are we?" Chrysalis yawned. "Please. You may be strong, but you're helpless compared to us. I'd rather not kill you, but I will if you try my patience."

Powerless. Helpless. Useless! All words that ponies had used to describe her! All Fluttershy had wanted was for everypony get along, but she got shot down every time she tried because she was too weak! It wasn't FAIR! She wanted to be strong! She wanted to prove she wasn't just dead weight! She wanted to show that being kind to others wasn't wrong, and most of all, NEITHER WAS SHE!

"I just wanted to help," Fluttershy whispered as the Element of Kindness flared brightly within her.

Megnii and Spesci froze. They both slowly turned to Fluttershy, and saw that the light in her eyes was slowly spreading out. Megnii realized what was about to happen and glanced back at Chrysalis with an impish grin.

"Helpless, eh?"

"I JUST WANTED TO HELP!" Fluttershy slammed her hooves on the ground.

The Element of Kindness fully awoke in an explosion of warm, pink light that burst forth from Fluttershy's entire body. The shades dissolved, but not before letting out screams that were cut disturbingly short. Megnii and Spesci both shut their eyes and looked away from Fluttershy.

"ARGH!"

Sombra screamed like he'd been set on fire. His body became solid again, but he raised up a black shield to defend himself.

Fluttershy felt a shattering sensation within her mind like a wall had been broken down. Beyond was a glittering golden pond, and her new horn formed with a swirl of yellow magic. She spread her wings wide to reveal her full majestic span.

"Stop her!" Chrysalis screamed at Sombra and the changeling guards. The guards obeyed and ran at Fluttershy, but Sombra couldn't move, as he was pouring all his energy into maintaining his shield.

No.

The changelings hesitated. Fluttershy's thought voice was like a chorus of chiming bells that resonated through every crevice of their minds. They tried to run at her again, but they made the mistake of looking into her eyes.

Eyes fully filled with magical light.

I see your fear. Fluttershy's stare pierced their minds like a lance. And it is MINE.

The changeling's expressions shifted rapidly, first confusion, then surprise, and finally, utmost terror. Both them let out terrible, hissing shrieks before falling back and flailing wildly on the ground.

"Useless cowards!" Chrysalis got to her hooves and readied a spell of her own. "How pathetic are you that you allow yourselves to be beaten by weakest Element of the bunch?! Must I do everything myself!?"

You've never done anything by yourself, Chrysalis.

Chrysalis' spell fizzled out as Fluttershy locked eyes with her. She tried to break free, but found she was already caught in Fluttershy's thrall.

All your life you've had your entire race waiting on your beck and call, and everything you've needed to succeed has been given to you on a silver platter. Not even within your own mind are you alone anymore, as you now control the entirety of the hive mind.

Chrysalis shrunk back into the throne as the nightmares she'd had for months surged through her mind. Her changelings, her children, dead and lifeless like a macabre carpet before her stretched out as far as she could see. The hate of the rest of the world bearing down mercilessly upon her as she wandered the wastes aimlessly until a slow fate of starvation claimed her.

They say the more things a pony has, the greater their fear is of losing of them. You've risked everything on this invasion, and while you may bury your misgivings down deep, you can't hide them from me.

Alone. Unloved. Weak. Doomed to fail, and beyond all hope of redemption. Her sisters had been right all along. She should've listened to them. She should've done more to save them. The tunnel collapsed in slow motion in front of her, stealing them away from her forever.

Fluttershy shook her head. It doesn't have to be this way. You can still

"Release her, or the wyrmling dies."

Fluttershy turned. Sombra had used the distraction to grab Spike in his magic, and now held him in front of himself like a shield. A black tendril was tightly wrapped around Spike's throat that had already drawn a thin trickle of blood.

Fluttershy screamed. "SPIKE!"

Several things happened at once. Megnii and Spesci, realizing they'd let Sombra slip past them, opened their eyes and lept to free Spike. Fluttershy tried to run to Spike as well, but none of them got the chance as Chrysalis, now free of the Fearsense, cast her spell from before hitting all four of them in the chest. They all collapsed to the ground without so much as a sound, and Spike went limp in Sombra's grasp.

Silence reigned for several seconds. Both Chrysalis and Sombra stared at the unconscious bodies while trying to regain their composure. It was Sombra who spoke first, and he began with a derisive noise and an amused tone.

"What was that you were saying, Chrysalis? Something about not solely relying on power?"

Chrysalis flattened her ears. "Oh, shut up."

Sombra laughed and carelessly tossed Spike's unconscious body on top of Fluttershy. "What interesting specimens we've stumbled upon! The spellwork on these Echoes is superb, and I've never even heard of a pegasus—well, I suppose she isn't a pegasus anymore, is she? I'll need to analyze—"

"No tests." Chrysalis reassumed the form of Cadenza. "I'll not risk you damaging such valuable bargaining chips. Keep them all alive."

Sombra opened his mouth to protest, but decided to let the matter drop for now. "And where, pray tell, do you propose I keep them?"

Chrysalis waved a dismissive hoof. "Put them next to our other prisoner for all I care, just make sure they don't escape. Return here once you've secured them. We've more to discuss."

( *** )

Spike awoke to the sound of dripping water on stone. He opened his eyes, and was very confused to find that the ceiling was comprised of yellow feathers. He was leaning against something fuzzy and warm, which was moving up and down in a strangely hypnotic way.

Spike blinked. "Fluttershy?"

A male voice chuckled. "Not quite."

Megnii lifted his wing, and Spike now saw that he was lying on a bed of hay in a large, damp cell with spikey iron bars. Spesci was with them as well, and was sitting in the far corner staring off into the cell to their left.

Spike looked up quizzically at Megnii. "Uh..."

"You were shivering in your sleep," Megnii explained. "I didn't think dragons could get cold, but I figured I'd be better safe than sorry."

"What happened?" Spike asked.

"We got sucker punched." Megnii rubbed his chest. "Not really sure beyond that."

Spike took a look at their surroundings. The cell was bare save for the bed of hay, a chamber pot, and a set of torches that cast long shadows about. They were obviously underground, but he couldn't tell much more than that.

"Where's Fluttershy?"

Megnii pointed to the cell to their right. Fluttershy lay sprawled out on the floor on her back, her wings fully splayed out and touching the opposite sides of the cell. The gentle rising and falling of her chest was evidence she was alive, but she otherwise appeared dead to the world.

"She won't wake for a while," Megnii said. "She was exhausted to begin with, and awakening her Element and growing a horn probably didn't do any favors for her stamina. Let her rest while she can."

Spike sat up straight. "Fluttershy grew a what?!"

"Yeah," Megnii said. "Pretty nice one, too, from what I can tell. Shame it's got those black crystals on it. Dunno what those are, but I'm betting they're not good."

Spike got up and moved closer. Fluttershy's new horn was encrusted with several clusters of dull, black crystals that covered it from base to point. He looked back at Megnii with suspicious eyes. "Did you know this was going to happen?"

Megnii fiddled with a piece of straw. "We told her about it a few days after we came clean about everything else. She'd planned to ask Celestia about it when we went up to Canterlot, but, well... you know."

Spike sighed and shuffled his feet. "What's going to happen to us now?"

"Talk to Spesci about that," Megnii said. "I think he'll be able to tell you more."

Spesci turned at the mention of his name. He motioned for Spike to come over. "You're up sooner than I thought you'd be. Gave us quite a scare back there. How you feeling?"

Spike walked over and gingerly rubbed the bruise on his neck. "Sore, but okay otherwise. Are you okay?"

"Never mind me." Spesci motioned to the cell he'd been looking into. "There's someone here you should meet."

"Someone else?" Spike repeated. "Who else would be down here?"

"You've grown, Spike."

A shadow separated itself from the corner of the other cell. She was haggard and malnourished, her pink coat was matted, her horn was covered in black crystals and her tri-colored mane and tail were unkempt, but her violet eyes were still soft and warm.

Spike did a double take. "...Cadance?!"

Cadance smiled. "Hey, sweetie."

Spike ran to the cell bars and reached out his arm. "Is it really you?!"

Cadance took his claw in her hooves and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Sure is. Sounds like you had a pretty close call. I'm glad you're okay."

"Bah, it's fine!" Spike quickly scraped the dried blood off his scales. "They just caught me off guard, that's all! I'll roast 'em next time!"

Cadance's smile wavered, but her voice remained steady. "I'm sure you will."

Spesci looked in between the two before consulting Cadance. "Do you think dragonfire would be able to melt these bars?"

"These bars aren't metal." Cadance tapped one of them, and a loud ping resonated from it. "They're made of negative rakan. Their strength is reflective of the caster, and these were made by a master."

"Rakan?" Spike asked.

"The magic of the crystal ponies," Cadance explained. "It's the manipulation of energy generated from emotions, both positive and negative. There are only a few races that are able to sense and use it."

"The other notable one being changelings," Spesci remarked dryly.

"Yes, but the difference is that changelings take the emotions of others and use them for sustenance," Cadance said. "Crystal ponies can only use our own emotions, and we use them to better ourselves and ease our way of life. Or at least, most of us do."

Megnii was off listening quietly in the corner when suddenly, a soft skittering noise caught his attention. He looked down, and saw a small rat nosing about in the hay by his hoof. He smirked as a thought came to him.

Spike experimentally poked at the bars. They were unnaturally cold. "What's going on? Why are there changelings here?"

Cadance sighed. "Chrysalis is trying to take over Tarandus. She can't stage a normal attack because her changelings can't survive for long in cold temperatures, so she freed the Mad King from his prison to force the crystal ponies to conquer it for her."

"I'm assuming the Mad King is Sombra," Spesci said.

Cadance shuddered. "He's a monster. One thousand years ago, he used negative rakan to overthrow the government, then oppressed our race for over two decades while he plotted to expand the Crystal Empire to every corner of the country. He's also the one who placed the vanishing curse on the kingdom."

Spesci whistled. "What about you? How long have you been down here?"

Cadance hung her head. "A little over three months. I'm able to keep track because Chrysalis needs to refresh her imprint of me. I've been trying to think of a way to escape, but there isn't much I can do with my magic suppressed. If I could somehow get this stuff off my horn..."

A thought came to Spike. He looked down at the bars, then opened his mouth, bared his fangs, and chomped down as hard as he could. The crystal jolted his tongue, and he quickly jumped back with a yelp of pain.

"Spike!" Spesci rushed to him. "What the hay are you doing?!"

"Blegh!" Spike rubbed his mouth. "Tastes like rotten licorice!"

Cadance's eyes were wide. She examined the bar Spike had bitten, which was now sporting a set of teeth marks.

"Do you make a habit of trying to eat every strange magical object you find?!" Spesci examined Spike's teeth for any damage. "Sheesh, be a little more careful!"

"Hey, I'm a dragon!" Spike stuck out his long, forked tongue. "Tastar said I'm like, resistant to everything!"

"I never knew this," Cadance murmured. "I mean, I knew dragons could eat gems and crystals, but I never thought..."

"I'm surprised you were even able to understand him," Spesci said. "Last time I asked him about something dragon related, he switched over to Draconic thirty seconds in and didn't even realize it."

"Spike?" Cadance called. "Could you come back over here?"

"Huh?" Spike closed his mouth and looked over at her. "Oh, yeah. Sure."

Cadance pointed at the bar he'd sunk his teeth into. "Do you think you'd be able to chew through this entire bar?"

Spike flexed his jaw. "My mouth would probably go numb, but yeah. Want me to try?"

"Not yet," Cadance said. "Getting out of here is just the first step. We need to have a plan beyond that before we make a move."

"Way ahead of you."

All three of them turned to Megnii. He was holding a small, furry rat in his hoof that was currently waving at them with it's tiny paws. Megnii set the rat down, and it squeaked twice before disappearing into a hole in the wall.

Spike frowned. "Uh, Megnii? What was that?"

Megnii waggled his eyebrows. "The cavalry."

( *** )

"An immortal army, eh?" Sombra scratched his chin. "Interesting. I've always wanted one of those."

Sombra and Chrysalis were out on the main balcony of the Crystal Tower that overlooked the city. He'd returned from putting Fluttershy and the others in the dungeon a short while ago, and Chrysalis had just finished getting him up to speed.

"This isn't anything to joke about." Chrysalis looked down at herself. "My plan to use Cadenza's wedding as a means to infiltrate Canterlot is completely ruined! This imprint is virtually useless now!"

Sombra perked up. "Does that mean you no longer require her alive? Because I've been thinking of some very creative ways to—"

"I'd have thought my continued advice on not throwing resources away would've sunk into that thick skull of yours by now." Chrysalis brushed her mane out of her face. "The Crystal Princess still has her uses. Don't be so hasty to take drastic action."

"She knows too much to be kept alive," Sombra insisted. "She can counter my rakan, and she knows where the Crystal Heart is kept. Killing her would secure my place here in the north and allow me to focus more resources on attacking the Tarandians."

"That argument has more holes than my legs," Chrysalis said smoothly. "You just want her dead because she's the one who sicced Celestia and Luna on you."

A violet mist seeped out of Sombra's eyes. "Yes... that, too."

"Patience," Chrysalis said. "You'll get your revenge soon, but you mustn't act rashly. You told me that your ancestors failed to keep ahold of Tarandus in the Era of Discord due to constant rebel attacks, yes? If you start attacking cities now, the military will splinter off into resistance groups that'll take decades to sniff out, if not longer. Perhaps you should learn from the mistakes of the past rather than repeating them, hmm?"

Sombra scoffed and looked out over the city. "I've waited a millennium to claim what's rightfully mine, Chrysalis. I won't wait much longer."

Chrysalis met his eyes with a cold stare. "You'll wait as long as I tell you to, or I'll stuff you back in the glacier I found you in to rot for another thousand years. I don't tolerate disobedience from any of my other subordinates, andI certainly won't tolerate it from you."

Sombra felt a familiar pounding in his ears. Fantasies of plucking Chrysalis' wings off and tossing her off the balcony played before him, but he held back on acting them out. It'd been a pity he'd had to step in and save her back in the throne room, but he knew he would've been next on the chopping block if he hadn't. Chrysalis was a useful ally, loath as he was to admit it, and he needed her right now to re-establish his hold on the Crystal Empire.

Huh. Maybe some of what she'd been saying had been sinking in, after all.

Sombra lowered his head. "Alive it is, then."

Chrysalis made her way to the edge of the balcony. "I'll be returning to Pandemonium to make changes to the invasion plans. It won't be difficult to recall the swarm and formulate a new strategy, so I don't expect to spend more than a day there. I'll leave a small squad of changelings here to assist you and your loyalists in keeping the civilians in line."

"To keep an eye on us, you mean."

Chrysalis chuckled, but didn't deny it. "Do try not to reveal yourself to crystal ponies like you did two days ago. I'd rather not have my future soldiers rioting in the streets again."

Sombra turned and walked back inside. "I'll await your return."

The soft fluttering of wings told Sombra that Chrysalis had left. He waited a few minutes until he was sure she was gone, then let out an enraged roar and slammed his hoof on the ground. There was a loud crack, and a series of black crystal pillars sprang up all around him.

Sombra was beginning to second guess this deal. Of course, he knew Chrysalis had no intention of actually giving him Tarandus, but the damnable bug kept him on such a short leash that it was becoming exceedingly difficult to double cross her! He wasn't even sure how many of the palace guards were changelings now, though a quick rakan drill would easily tell him that. Chrysalis wasn't even considering Celestia's usurper a threat, as she was confident she could keep enough creatures alive in phora pods to sustain her race without the sun!

Sombra continued walking to his laboratory. Chrysalis might not be worried about Cetus, but he certainly was. He'd seen Celestia's power firsthoof, and if something had defeated her, he certainly didn't want to cross it. Perhaps he should try striking an alliance with Cetus, instead? No, that didn't seem likely. He admittedly didn't know much about Nightmare Moon, but he did know a fair bit about Luna, and the less he consorted with either of them, the better. At least, until he was in a position where he knew he could crush both of them. Then there wouldn't be anywhere they could hide.

A plan began to hatch in Sombra's mind as he reached his lab. Inside were bookshelves stacked full with tomes, tables filled with various reagents and alchemical equipment, and a long-neglected desk covered in parchment. He had a window of opportunity here, and he'd every intent to use it. The first thing he needed to do was get the remaining changelings out of the way. After that he could start preparing for the oh-so-mighty Queen's return. Then he could turn his attentions south, and see what he could do with his element of surprise.

Speaking of Elements, Sombra's mind cast back to the excruciating pink light that had ripped away at his very being. It seemed to have adversely reacted with his Hate rakan, which meant he needed to be exceedingly careful in his dealings with her. She could be useful, but only if he built up some kind of defense to her power, as just being around her was extremely unpleasant. He'd also need a way to keep her in line. She'd responded well enough to threatening the wyrmling, but he couldn't continue to rely on that. He needed something more concrete.

Sombra closed the door to his lab with a soft click. He had work to do.