A Different Perspective

Long Path, an earth pony living in Canterlot, and his best friend, a griffon named Free Agent, set out in the company of Twilight Sparkle to visit various places and species to look into what makes them different, and hopefully learn how to get along with them better. Things rarely go to plan though, and along the way, they discover things about themselves, and find love, drama, and laughter. Then Chrysalis changes everything, and the fate of the whole world might be at stake. Their lives will never be the same!
This story is set mostly after the events of Conversations in a Canterlot Cafe and builds on the fanon of the series, especially changelings, so you might want to read those stories first for background material.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/246414/a-different-perspective

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21. Chapter 16: ... So Are The Days Of Our Lives Part 2

It was expected that it would take nearly four days for the reconnaissance team to reach the affected villages at typical cart speed. Free called each evening to report that there wasn’t anything to report. Everything was proceeding smoothly.

On the second night’s stop, Free told Twilight, “My insomnia is gone. I burned a lot of energy doing a stint of cart-pulling on the first day, and I didn’t have you around to recharge me.

“I wish I could send you some love over these Talkie Trotties, Free, but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet.”

It’s okay, Twi – it’s the thought that counts.

“Don’t overdo the physical work – you can’t get your energy from food after all.”

know, Twi. Besides, Rose let me snuggle up to her last night to feed on her ambient love. She misses Path a lot.

“I’ll tell Path that later. Sleep well, darling.”

I’ll dream of you tonight, Sparkles.

# # #

On the evening of the third day as they started setting up camp, Free was rummaging around in a locker with growing concern.

“Hey, Rose! Have you got the communicator?”

The griffon hen frowned and shook her head. “No. I haven’t touched it since you reported in last night.”

“I swear that I put it away in this locker, but I can’t find it.”

“You didn’t put it down somewhere intending to put it away, and then forgot?”

“I can’t have! Surely not! Sweet Celestia – Twilight’s gonna kill me if I’ve lost it!”

Roseclaw sighed. “I’ll help you look for it.”

Despite a most thorough search though, they were unable to find the missing communicator.

Free slumped onto his bedroll and stared morosely at nothing. “What in Tartarus could have happened to it?” he asked for the umpteenth time.

Roseclaw was beginning to get irritated with Free’s constant unanswerable questions. “Look – it’s obviously not here, so we had to have lost it at the last campsite. We’ll check it out on the way back.”

“Shouldn’t we go back for it then?”

“We’ll lose two whole days if we do, and we should be getting to the first village tomorrow before noon, so why don’t we send back a couple of our team to search for it while we proceed? They can travel a lot faster without waiting for the carts, and can probably join up with us again by tomorrow evening. That way we can get our work done and hopefully only miss out on checking for one night.”

“Maybe we should go look for it while the others head for the village?”

Roseclaw shook her head emphatically. “No. We’re the team leaders and don’t have the luxury of doing that. We’re the ones doing the investigating, not the student-warriors. Besides, as a leader, you need to delegate responsibility, so choose the best griffs for the job and send them.”

Free nodded in resignation. “You’re right, Rose. I’ll go pick a couple of our fastest flyers to let them know that they will need to make an early start tomorrow. Hopefully they’ll be able to find it quickly and pass on a message for us.” He got up and headed off to do that.

Roseclaw smiled in satisfaction. She liked her House mate, but he needed more seasoning as a leader, and she was determined that she would build those skills in him. Path might be the Lord of the House, but she, Twilight, and Free were his lieutenants, and they all had to be prepared to be able to act appropriately in his stead. Who knew what the future would bring?

# # #

“Why haven’t they called in?” Twilight asked worriedly.

Path had no answer for that, just as he had not for the last eight times that she had asked that question. They had bandied about the possibilities – equipment failure, destruction, or loss were the popular answers. The possibility that something had happened to the team was considered of course, but they fervently hoped that that was not the case. “If we don’t get a response soon, I’m going to get in contact with Queen Aquila and ask if they can use their network to find out what’s happening.”

“Good idea. In fact, I’ll do that myself.” Twilight hastened out of Path’s office.

Path watched her go, amazed as always at the depth of love that the alicorn had for his soul brother. He realized long ago that she was more emotionally fragile than the rest of them, and he prayed that nothing had happened to Free. As much as Path loved Roseclaw, it was the changeling griffon who was the emotional heart of the House, and his loss would be a devastating blow.

# # #

“Thank you for the audience, Queen Aquila.”

“How can I be of service, Princess Twilight?”

“We have lost contact with our scouting team, headed by Free Agent and Lady Roseclaw. I was hoping that you could use your network to locate them and ascertain what has gone wrong.”

“That is possible. Where are they headed, and where do you expect that they should be?”

Twilight had brought along a map for that purpose, and she unfurled it with her magic and held it up in front of the changeling queen. “These are the villages that the team is heading for, and this is the route that they have been taking to get there,” she said as she indicated the places with a pointer. “This is the location of the campsite from which they reported last night, and here’s the point where we estimate that they would make camp tonight.”

“I see. I believe I can get drones to investigate that area for you. Why were they going to those villages?”

“The team is supposed to gather intelligence on the centaur raids there, with a view to working out a way of dealing with them in future.”

Aquila looked at Twilight curiously. “What centaur raids?”

Twilight frowned. “The raids that were reported to King Glimfeather several days ago. He charged our House to investigate them.”

“Twilight Sparkle, there have been no raids recently on those villages.”

Twilight’s blood ran cold. “Are you sure?”

“I have Harvesters in place in both those villages. If a raid had happened, I would have been informed.”

Now Twilight started panicking a little. “Your Majesty, I must get back to my House immediately. Please send out your drones and let me know as soon as possible if you discover anything.”

“It shall be done.”

Without further ado, Twilight focused her magic and teleported out of the hive, considering it worth expending that much energy to make the long trip back home.

# # #

“I smell a trap,” Warfist concluded.

“But by whom and why?” Path asked.

“Irrelevant at this point until we get more information to act upon. The important thing is to get support to the team, or at least a warning if it isn’t too late.”

“I’ve already sent out our fastest flyer in addition to Queen Aquila’s drones. How soon can you put together another team to go after them.”

“Mere minutes. This is supposed to be our House’s forté, and I have made preparations with that in mind. Supplies are pre-packed, and our members trained for fast response. I have already formed a squad of our older warrior-scholars who are ready for action at a moment’s notice.”

“Excellent. Get them under way immediately. Send a communicator with them. Let me know if you require anything else.”

Warfist nodded curtly, bounded to the window, and then flew quickly into the night on his task.

“Let’s hope that we aren’t too late already,” Path said worriedly. “If only we had another way of warning them.”

A thought suddenly occurred to Twilight. “Perhaps we do. After all, we do have another member of the House with special talents….”

# # #

Twilight continued to scold Free for his carelessness at losing the communicator, but he did not mind. He was happy to be back in touch with her, and even happier that she was with him. He did not know how she had gotten here, nor why she seemed to be light on ambient love, but after three days without her, he was happy just to have her here with him.

“Free Agent, I would have words with thee,” came a regal voice from his side.

Free looked around to spot Princess Luna trotting out of the mist that filled his vision. “Hi, Luna. Looking good there!”

The alicorn paused to look back at herself, snorting in amusement at seeing her leathermare outfit. She turned back to Free and said, “This is thy dreamscape, and thy thoughts influence what thou dost see.” She looked askance for a moment before adding softly, “Although I do quite like this raiment. Such apparel doth suit me.”

“Dreamscape, hey? Then why is Twilight here?” he started asking, only to realize that she had disappeared.

“That Twilight was merely a dream creation. No matter, I am here to warn thee.”

“A dream warning me about something – yeah, sure!”

Luna drew herself up sternly. “Free Agent, I am Princess of the Night, and Guardian of the Dream World. I defend the helpless against nightmares and provide guidance to my little ponies. Tonight though, I have walked into your dreamscape to bring you a message from Princess Twilight, and I am glad that I seem to be in time to warn thee. The raids upon the villages appear to be a ruse, and we believe that you walk into a trap.”

Free propped his head up on his fist and said drolly, “Yeah, like I can believe what a dream pony tells me. Tell me something that I don’t know.”

Luna scowled. “Twilight visited Queen Aquila to ask her aid in finding out what happened to your team. Aquila informed her that there have been no raids. You have been lured under false pretenses.”

That made Free sit up and take notice. He had never taken that into consideration. “So, you really are Luna talking to me in my dream?”

“Aye. At last thou dost see the truth. Aid has been sent, but might not arrive in time to help. Wake now and prepare yourselves!” Luna’s horn flared, and the dreamscape disappeared.

Free sat up with a gasp. Roseclaw was softly snoring by his side still, so he roughly shook her awake.

“What the hell, Free?” Roseclaw grumbled sleepily.

“We’re in danger, Rose. Luna sent me a warning – no, don’t question it. The disappearance of the communicator was not an accident, and we have walked into a trap. We could be set upon at any moment. Get up, and help me warn the rest of the team. Oh, and watch out for those two village guides – they’re in on it, and probably are responsible for our missing communicator.”

Free did not wait for a response. He made his way out of their tent to wake the rest of the team who were not on watch. Roseclaw was a little skeptical of the news, but she did not hesitate to follow suit. She had heard the firm conviction and command in Free’s voice; that was exactly what she wanted of him in the first place, and she was not going to question those orders.

Free alerted the night watch first and then started waking the rest, worrying that at any moment they would be attacked. If he was the enemy, he would be waiting for the night watch to grow weary before changing shifts, and they were at their most vulnerable, but that did not mean that the attack would not happen sooner. Were they watching even now, moving up their plans because of him? Whatever the case, he and Roseclaw managed to wake everyone, and unsurprisingly their two guides were nowhere to be found. The warriors almost had time to prepare themselves before the enemy struck.

It was immediately obvious that the attacking forces were not professional soldiers, but what they lacked in skill, they made up for in numbers. Free and Roseclaw’s besieged team managed to form a solid defense in time though, and their superior skills were enabling them to hold up against the attackers coming from all directions, including from above. However, slowly the enemy started taking its toll as first one, then another of the warriors fell.

Free screamed in fury, and used his shape-changing power to make himself far bigger and more dangerous. Unlike an ordinary changeling drone, he had the mass of a queen to back up his new form, just as he had in the attack on the Crystal Empire, and he put it to good use as he dived into the thick of battle. Enemy griffins started falling at a great pace, but they kept coming.

Roseclaw realized that their foe was not merely intending to defeat them, but to obliterate them with overwhelming force. There could only be one clear winner in this conflict, and only if the House Path warriors’ superior training and Free’s surprise secret abilities were enough would they be the ones walking away the victors. Knowing the source of Free’s power, she stayed close by his side. She might not love him like her mate or Twilight did, but she cared for him deeply as one of her family, and she would gladly give him what strength that he could derive from that positive emotion.

It was not going to be enough. They were being beaten back, and if the fight went on like this for much longer, they would soon lose. Free’s anger grew as yet another warrior fell, but he was already fighting to his utmost. Suddenly, several dark figures joined the fray, diving into the midst of the enemy. Then more joined them in a second wave, and then a third wave took up places alongside the defenders. Free quickly recognized the black-feathered and furred griffons as changeling soldiers from Aquila’s hive, and they fought with the ferocity of those obeying the orders of their queen without fear or hesitation.

The tide of battle quickly turned, and the enemy griffins abruptly retreated into the darkness. While the House warriors stood their ground, ready to resume their defense, the changelings took off in pursuit.

Bring back prisoners to question!” Free screamed after them before turning to assess the situation.

Five warriors had fallen. Three were dead, one was critically injured, but the other only incapacitated. Fortunately the medic on their team was one of the uninjured, and he was already working feverishly to try to save the life of his comrade.

Free’s magic flared as he resumed his normal form, witnessed by the rest of the warriors. Free did not try to hide the fact at all. “Yes, I’m a shape-changer. If that’s a problem for any of you, talk to Lord Path later. Meanwhile, I’m still in charge along with Lady Roseclaw. Put our fallen warriors into the carts. We will take them home for an honorable funeral. Everygriff else – half of you stand watch while the others clear up the campsite. I’m expecting more reinforcements later, but until they arrive, we won’t be resting. We’ll sleep then.”

The warriors set to their task, and Free sighed wearily. Roseclaw joined him, looking a bit worse for wear. Some feathers were broken or missing, and there were nasty claw-marks marking her leonine flank that were weeping blood still. “Hey, Rose – want me to attend to that for you?”

“It can wait,” she replied. “The medic needs all the supplies that he can get hold of right now. The cuts look worse than they really are.”

“Bullshit!” Free said with a snort. “Stay still for a moment.” He shape-shifted into unicorn form, and lowered his horn to her cuts. A gentle glow of magic bathed her wound, and the blood stopped flowing. He then shifted back to his normal griffon form again. “A little trick Twilight taught me after my last battle. It stops the loss of blood in all but the worst of wounds. You’ll still need to have it cleaned up and bandaged by the medic, but you shouldn’t suffer from blood loss at least.”

“Thank you. I’m very impressed with the way you handled things tonight. I think you have earned a place in the warrior caste.”

“Great! I’ll add that to my caste cape and show it to the families of our dead warriors. I’m sure they’ll be impressed,” he said with voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Nogriff not born into the caste ever joins it without paying a price. You have paid that price, Free, and now you must live up to it. We are warrior-scholars, and that’s what we do.”

Free considered her words and gave her a crooked smile. “I suppose I chose this route, so I can’t complain too much.” He was interrupted by some of the changelings returning with captives. “Now though, let’s get some answers,” he said grimly.

# # #

King Glimfeather slumped in his chair, deeply unhappy. He had just come into his office after making his pronouncements at his court.

“It is done,” he told those waiting for him.

“Are you sure that a death sentence was necessary?” Twilight asked.

“I regret, Princess, that the law allows only one recourse. My nephew, Ravenwing, and Razorbeak clearly conspired with the disaffected nobles to bring great harm to your House, and in doing so, acted directly against a royal command as well acting in an enormously dishonorable and treasonous manner. Either would bring harsh punishments, but together they command the ultimate penalty.”

“Did you ever find out which nobles conspired with them?” Path asked.

“To their credit, they did not betray their conspirators. It would not have been enough to save them, but they at least regained a small measure of honor. However, now the dissenting nobles know that they are being watched, and they have lost a lot of support because of this incident. Conversely, your House has gained much more status because of it. I suspect that some other noble Houses will seek to ally themselves with yours.”

“Three lives were too much to pay for that status, Your Majesty.”

One life is too much to pay in circumstances such as these,” Glimfeather agreed. “So, the badly wounded one will survive then?”

“She has lost a leg, and she’s still in bad condition, but the Healer has declared that she should recover.”

“Some good news, at least. I hope that the next time that I call upon your services, we do not have a repeat of these circumstances.”

“Amen to that,” Free murmured.

“Your role in this incident is greatly appreciated, Lord Free,” the king said seriously.

“Don’t call me that. I’m Free – just… Free.” He got up and left the chamber.

Twilight excused herself and hastened after him.

“Please excuse, Free, Your Majesty,” Path said. “It hit him rather hard.”

“I understand. It’s difficult to be both an artist and a warrior. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a nephew’s funeral to arrange.”

Path and Roseclaw got up and bowed. “Good day to you, sire,” Path said.

# # #

For a while after the incident, Free tended to bury himself in work, tiring himself out so much that by the end of the day, he fell asleep in Twilight’s arms. However, a being who subsisted on the energy of love and other positive emotions could hardly stay down forever. The Friday night social came around and Free was swept up in the boisterous spirit of the evening. That night, he and Twilight made love with renewed passion.

One concern of Free’s had been the revelation of his shape-changing nature to the squad, but they all chose to keep his secret. To his surprise, several specifically requested to be considered for inclusion in any future squads led by him. Free felt ridiculously proud of that, and it certainly helped balance out the negatives of the experience.

Long Path, on the other hoof, became a bit more worried about his mate. “No more assignments for you until you give birth!” he ordered.

Roseclaw merely gave him a defiant stare. “I’m not a delicate flower – I’m a griffon warrior. The chick wasn’t harmed despite me fighting.”

This time.” Path’s tone softened. “I worry for both of you.”

“I know, love, but I’ll also know when to start taking it easy.”

Path sighed. “Wish I did.”

Roseclaw did compromise a little by not undertaking the more stressful activities, and gradually Path stopped worrying so much.

# # #

It was family time, and everyone was in the large room that had been converted to a common living room for them all. Path was lying on a rug next to the fireplace, with Streak next to him. The colt was reading out loud from a book on the floor between them. It was a school reader written in Equish, and Streak was practicing his ever-increasing skills with the language with the occasional gentle corrections from Path. The colt was not that keen to learn, but he loved to do just about anything with his foster father, and the stallion was always indulgent of his adopted son.

Free was sitting on the sofa, propped up in one corner, strumming on his lute as he worked on composing a new song. Occasionally he would make a note on the sheaf of papers on the coffee table next to the sofa, and then try something else.

Twilight was also on the sofa, leaning up against Free’s shoulder while she read a weighty tome held up by her magic. It was a little awkward for Free, but he had no intention of asking her to move, and Twilight was perfectly content where she was.

Roseclaw was sprawled in an oversized easy chair, trying to make herself comfortable despite her greatly swollen belly. Snow Wing entered the room, pushing a small trolley laden with food which she brought to Roseclaw who promptly pounced on it in delight.

“Thanks, Snow – you’re the best!”

Twilight’s nostrils flared as she sniffed the odor of the food. “More bacon-wrapped pickles?” she queried.

“Yush,” Roseclaw replied with her beak half full. She swallowed and continued. “Can’t get enough of them since Snow introduced me to them.”

Twilight cocked a questioning eyebrow at Roseclaw’s assistant who shrugged. “They satisfied my cravings when I was pregnant. I figured that Lady Roseclaw might enjoy them also.”

“Pardon me if I find them rather revolting.”

“Just wait until you’re pregnant, ma’am. You might feel differently then.”

“I’m not in a hurry to find out, thank you!”

The others laughed at Twilight’s vehemence. Free added, “Don’t worry, Twi – when that time comes, I’ll feed you nothing but smoked salmon and ice cream.”

Twilight punched him in the shoulder, but he just laughed again.

Suddenly Roseclaw squawked, and everyone looked her way. Her eyes were wide open, beak agape, and she had dropped her bacon-wrapped pickle.

“Is something wrong, Rose?” Path asked with concern.

Roseclaw turned to her mate. “Wrong? That depends – I think I’m going into labor.”

“Shall I call the midwife?” Snow Wing asked.

Roseclaw nodded. “Please do. Even if it’s just a false alarm, I’d rather be sure.”

The griffoness nodded and hastened out.

“Perhaps we should take you to the infirmary?” Path suggested.

“I’m not sick – I’m giving birth!” she snapped.

“Oh, right. How about our bedroom?”

“Better. Let’s go.”

“Do you need help?” Path asked as she started to waddle out of the room.

“I got here under my own power – I think I can make it there by myself,” she replied irritably.

She did so, only stopping to squawk once again as another contraction hit. She made it to the room without an incident though. Snow Wing soon arrived with the midwife in tow, guided to the room by Twilight who had followed along. Free came with her, and Streak also.

Path looked at his foster son with a little concern. “Perhaps you should head to your room now, Streak.”

“Aw! But I want to watch Mama Rose give birth.”

“I don’t know if you’re ready for that,” Path replied, wondering if he was ready for it. “Besides, Mama Rose might not want you watching.”

“But I watched Miss Willow deliver her foal!” Streak objected.

“Oh, let him watch!” Roseclaw said with some exasperation. “He’ll probably *squawk*… he’ll probably fall asleep before I deliver anyway.”

So the whole family stood around while Roseclaw labored. Streak did not go to sleep, but that was mainly due to Roseclaw delivering fairly quickly.

Path observed the softly steaming form in front of him. “Is this normal?” he asked.

The object was a soft egg sac, and he could see signs of movement within.

“Completely normal,” the midwife assured him. “The egg sac protects the mother from the chick’s beak and claws during the delivery. Now watch as your child breaks free.”

As they waited, there was a sudden bulge in the egg sac as something pushed it from within. A claw tip appeared, and slowly it ripped the sac open until suddenly the chick within spilled out and started cheeping. The midwife picked it up and cleaned it off before wrapping it in a baby blanket to hand to her mother. However, they all got a good look at the chick before then.

“Congratulations, darling,” Path said, leaning over his mate to kiss her. “You’re the mother of a beautiful girl hippogriff.”

“And you’re her proud father,” she responded with a contented smile.

“Have you thought of a name for her yet?”

“Lucida. Lucida Path.”

“Lucida? That’s Old Equish for ‘bright’.” Path considered it and then smiled. “I like it!”

“What would have happened if Lucy hadn’t been able to break through the egg sac?” Free asked the midwife.

“A chick must prove itself strong enough to survive by breaking open its egg sac. If it doesn’t, then it will die,” she replied matter-of-factly.

“That’s rough.”

“That’s the griffon way.”

“No, that’s the Griffonian way. I think that there should be a chance at life for all, even the weak.”

“Well said, Free,” Path said. Then he cocked a querying eyebrow at him. “By the way – Lucy? Minutes old, and you’re already nicknaming her?”

Free merely gave him his most mischievous grin, and the earth pony sighed in resignation.

 

 

With Snow Wing there to help as nanny for Lucida, Roseclaw was able to go back to work almost full-time. She had definitely been needed as the House was a victim of its own success, and it took everyone’s full efforts to cope even while they were still trying to put new facilities into place. Therefore it was an extra strain when Twilight had to make one of her trips back to Equestria to fulfill her royal duties and maintain her friendships back there. Free invariably accompanied her, neither wishing to be apart from the other for more than a space of a few hours. The trip between the continents never grew shorter, so many days were lost to that each time.

That was about to change. Path and Roseclaw got the word from Twilight one Thursday afternoon that she and Free were about to depart Canterlot as usual. She finished the call with the instruction: “Start the timer!” The next day about ten in the morning, the House experienced a new sound as a brand new airship sped in from the west and headed down towards the mooring pad that had been built in anticipation for it.

Virtually everyone from the House, the king’s retinue, and several neighboring griffs, all came out to watch the sleek state-of-the-art airship’s arrival. It was truly a magnificent sight – streamlined and graceful, gleaming with lightweight aluminum alloys manufactured in Equestria, super-strong changeling-made composite materials, driven by advanced vectored thaumic turbofans of griffon design, and powered by high-capacitance crystal mana generators from the Crystal Empire. It had an almost biological look to it, as if it swam through the air like a fish through water. The huge airship settled to the pad and pegasi flew out from a launch platform on top of the canopy to secure mooring ropes to anchor points buried in the concrete. Then the peculiar whine of the engines died as the ship powered down from its trans-oceanic flight.

 

A hatch opened and Twilight flew out, with Free close behind. Spotting Path and Roseclaw, she arrowed over to them and alighted with excitement fairly thrumming through her.

“Time?” she asked eagerly.

Path looked at the timepiece that he had hanging around his neck. “Sixteen hours and twelve minutes.”

“Wahoo! Score one for inter-species cooperation! The Skyshark could never have been built without it. She’s the fastest ship in the skies by a huge factor.”

“It sure beats the days of travel on the Skylark, that’s for sure. So you’ve already named the new ship?”

“Of course!” Twilight replied.

Free added, “I had to remind her that the ship needed a dedication ceremony though. I provided the bubbly, but Twi came up with the name.”

“She’s so sleek and fast…” Twilight began.

“Not to mention dangerous,” Free interjected.

“… that naming her was obvious.”

“I’ll have to second that,” Path agreed.

Roseclaw said, “Exactly what do you mean by ‘dangerous’?”

“You can’t see it because everything is kept behind panels to keep it streamlined, but the ship is also heavily armed with weapons both magical and normal.”

“I hadn’t realized that you planned to arm it so heavily.”

“It was Luna’s suggestion actually. She pointed out that if our House intends to act as a defensive force, we need to be prepared to defend ourselves against just about anything, and ordinary defenses would not suffice. I admit that as Princess of Friendship, that grated on me, but I can’t deny the logic. At least because the armaments are concealed, she looks a lot less intimidating.”

Path grinned. “I think she looks exciting, not intimidating. When can I have a ride?”

“Immediately if you want, but let me introduce you to the captain first. Here he comes now.”

Path and Roseclaw weren’t the only ones to be surprised by the Skyshark’s captain as he flew out of the airship to join them. In fact it would be fair to say that everyone in view was stunned by the sight of a Red Changeling in full ceremonial uniform leading a mixture of ponies, griffons, and more undisguised changelings out to meet them.

Twilight gave him a welcoming smile and said, “Captain, let me introduce Lord Long Path and Lady Roseclaw of the House of Path. Rose, Path, this is Captain Kerbarok of the Equestrian Air Force on assignment to House Path.”

Kerbarok shook hooves with Path and Roseclaw. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“Same here, Captain, but also very surprising. I would never have expected a changeling captaining our new airship. How did you get that honor?”

“Actually it’s not that surprising, sir. I was already serving as second-in-command on another airship, but I was doing so in disguise as a pegasus. However, when forming the crew for the Skyshark, Princess Twilight was adamant that it should consist of mixed species, including changelings. The princesses are aware of which members of the Royal Forces are changelings, and I was offered a promotion and command of the Skyshark on the condition that I do so in my natural form. Frankly I jumped at the opportunity, although I did request that my pony name be disassociated with my changeling name. It would have caused some awkward situations otherwise.”

“Quite understandable, Captain. I know that there’s still a long way to go before changelings are accepted universally. Sadly, Queen Chrysalis keeps causing setbacks to that goal. So, I presume that there are a lot more changelings among the crew?”

“Correct, sir. We have a fair balance between changelings, ponies, and griffons who were all selected not merely for their skills, but also for their ability to form friendships outside of their species. It is the intention of Princess Twilight, and indeed of all the Princesses, that the crew of the Skyshark be a shining example of interracial harmony.”

By now, what must have been virtually the entire crew had disembarked and formed up behind their captain. Kerbarok turned around to indicate them. “My Lord and My Lady, I present to you the crew of the Skyshark.”

As one, the entire crew saluted Path and Roseclaw.

Path was rather overwhelmed by the respectful display, but he managed to return the salute and say, “Welcome to all of you! We hope that you will join us for dinner tonight to celebrate the first journey of the Skyshark, and your service to our House.” He paused for a moment, then grinned. “Now who’s up for giving us a ride?”

A cheer went up and the crew hastened back to the airship.

“After you, my Lord,” Kerbarok said with a broad smile.

# # #

It might have been a normal Friday night social except for the addition of the Skyshark’s crew. Path had assigned some of the House staff to stand watch over the airship so that the entire crew could enjoy the event, and they were certainly taking advantage of it. After Twilight had specifically arranged for them to arrive on a Friday for them to be able to enjoy the event, it would have been a shame for any to miss it. Despite the education campaign about changelings, there had been some initial hesitation among a lot of the House members to start conversations with the weird-looking species, but the changelings were adept at breaking the ice, and soon it was as if they had always been part of the group for the most part. Typical of the emotion feeders, they very quickly started getting high on the amount of positive emotion in the air, and a lot more boisterous. As long as things did not get out of control though, Path had no intention of spoiling their enjoyment. Kerbarok seemed to be a lot more self-disciplined, and kept his crew under control.

Later that evening, Path noticed Proper Place looking despondent. He decided to investigate, and drew Proper aside for a quiet chat.

“Okay, Proper, with all the fun everyone is having, I’d expect you to be pretty chock full of energy right now, but you look as if somepony has stolen your favorite quill. Spit it out – what’s bugging you?”

Proper Place sighed. “I wish that’s all it was. With all these changelings here making such a good impression, I thought that it would be as good a time as ever to reveal to Raza that I’m one also.”

“You still hadn’t after all these months?” Path asked in some surprise.

Proper shrugged. “Things have been working so fine between us that I didn’t feel the need to push it. Maybe I should never have. Raza didn’t take it well.”

“Oh? I really didn’t think she’d react that way. Has she broken off the relationship with you then?”

“Actually she just ran off without saying anything, but I could taste her shock and dismay.”

Path considered that for a moment. “Don’t give up yet, Proper. There’s a big difference between having a changeling as a friend, and having one as a coltfriend. Perhaps the reason that it came as a big shock is precisely because she has strong feelings for you? Take it from a stallion that got blindsided by love – give her time to work it out. It should be worth the wait.”

Proper looked a little less disheartened. “Thank you, sir. I’ll try to be patient and hope for the best.”

“Good. Now I suggest that we rejoin the party, and you suck up those positive emotions a bit. No sense in letting them go to waste!”

Proper gave Path a crooked smile. “It doesn’t quite work like that, sir.”

Path chuckled. “I know, and stop calling me ‘sir’. Informal social night, remember?”

“Yes, Path, I remember. Going now. Eat happy feelings. Get blotto.”

Path arched an eyebrow at him questioningly.

“Just seeing if you were paying attention,” Proper replied with a genuine smile.

Path laughed and guided the changeling pony out to join the others.

# # #

Path was surprised to learn that the heads of Griffonian Houses were empowered to perform marriages. Of course Raza would know that, which is why she requested Path to do so for her and Proper Place. He then had to learn the procedure for performing a Griffonian style marriage because he and Roseclaw had never undergone one. It was not a requirement for a formal mating between nobility, and usually reserved for political unions and traditionalists. Raza was very much a by-the-book traditionalist and demanded a marriage. In fact the actual cause of her shock and dismay had been the realization that her carefully laid plans to get Proper to marry her by pony traditions were null and void because he was not actually a pony! Path had to laugh – she didn’t care that he was a changeling, but you could not upset her precious ultra-organized life!

# # #

Path lay on his back, balancing Lucida on his hooves. The young hippogriff was growing fast, and she had started testing her wings lately. As part of her play, he was giving her a feel of what flying would be like. Her flight magic had not kicked in yet though, for which Path was grateful; she was enough of a hoof-full as she was! Still, he hoped that he would be there when she made her first flight.

 

 

Twilight entered the living room and smiled at the sight of father and daughter bonding together. She then joined Free on their favorite sofa, snuggling up to him as he put a wing around her.

“What news from the Crystal Empire, Twi?” Free asked.

“Cadance says that there’s been a very big upsurge on the number of Blue Changeling gatherers that they’ve caught lately.”

“What? Just gatherers?” Roseclaw asked. “What about soldiers or even tunnelers? I know they wouldn’t need emotion harvesters that close to the border, but it seems strange that they’re only finding their food gatherers. What do you make of it, Free?”

Free shrugged. “We only need a small amount of food to replace mass in our bodies. Maybe a few vitamins too – I’m not a medic. Maybe the hive is running low after all this time in hiding, and they have to take the risk of getting caught?”

Without getting too distracted from his daughter, Path said, “I find it very strange that it has taken them well over a year since their first attempted invasion to start running low on food. Haven’t they been able to get anyinformation out of the captives at all?”

Twilight shook her head. “No, they’re still suiciding as soon as they’re caught. They haven’t even been able to get a hint on the location of the hive because the changelings have been caught on every side of the barrier.”

“So we’re still stuck wondering what Chrysalis is up to,” Roseclaw concluded.

“I’m afraid so,” Twilight replied. “It’s just one long waiting game, it seems.”

Free said, “It’s not as if she can’t afford to try to wait us out. If the hive is close enough to the border, they have an unending energy supply courtesy of the Crystal Heart. It might be diffuse out there, but I remember from experience that I still had energy to spare each evening despite exerting myself.”

“So what’s she waiting for?” Path asked with exasperation.

“Something that takes a lot of time to complete?” Roseclaw suggested.

“Once again though, we have nothing to give us a clue,” Twilight began before she noticed Free stiffening up. “What’s wrong, Free?”

“Oh crap! I’m an idiot!” Free said with a look of horror.

Path put Lucida down and demanded, “What is it, Free? Spit it out!”

“She’s been buying time. She’s probably been doing so since she was expelled from Canterlot and had to regather her remaining changelings and eventually set up a new hive near the Crystal Empire.”

“But why? She already tried and failed to invade the empire,” Roseclaw pointed out.

“Plan B maybe? She saw an opportunity to invade sooner, and she almost pulled it off. However she’s probably always been thinking in the long term.”

Path was beginning to get annoyed because Free was dancing around the subject. “And what’s that long term goal?”

Free looked at him as if it should be obvious. “Think about it – unending energy supply means absolutely minimum exposure. We probably have caught only a fraction of the gatherers out there, so they’ve had plenty food so far. But now, several years after the invasion of Canterlot, there’s a big upsurge in the need for food. Why?”

“Free – Get. To. The. Point!” Path commanded.

“Chrysalis has been breeding an army! She’s had her breeders laying eggs at an insane rate for any hive, if it wasn’t for the endless supply of love energy. Stick them into hibernation as soon as they change out of nymph stage, and then work on the next batch. Repeat over and over. If you think that Canterlot’s shield didn’t last terribly long under the onslaught of several hundred changelings, the Empire’s barrier won’t stand a chance against thousands, or even tens of thousands of changelings hammering it all at once. And they will soon because they’re waking out of hibernation and they’re hungry!”

Path knew for the first time they had a theory that made sense, and he also realized that Free had gotten it right from the very beginning. “Oh, crap!”

A flicker of motion in the corner of his eye caught his attention, but all he saw when he turned his head was a vaguely pony-shaped shadow. Who was casting it though? He looked around, but all he saw was Lucida waving at something. Turning back, he saw the shadow seem to respond, then blend back into the flickering light of the fire. Despite the warmth of the room, Path’s blood ran cold.

# # # # # # # # # #

Author's Note:

Well, I hope I didn't keep you all waiting too long. My trip to the States was great, but although I did find a bit of time to write while travelling, most of it was still done when I got home again.

The climax is starting next chapter. Give me time to get it right. 

For the first time, we have a couple of new artists besides Foxenawolf who drew Lucida. Path in his artificial wings was drawn by Cybercat and colored by Ralloonx. Path playing with Lucida was a convention sketch drawn by Kacey Miyagami.

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