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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20. Chapter 16: ... So Are The Days Of Our Lives

Upon their return to Griffonia, Free, Twilight, and Blue Streak were welcomed enthusiastically.

“You seem to have grown another head, Streak,” Path commented after hugging the colt.

Blue Streak laughed and held up his foreleg. The ferret practically read Streak’s mind and scurried down his shoulder and out onto the leg where he leaned out, sniffing curiously at the earth pony. “This is Slick. Miss Fluttershy gave him to me.”

Path leaned down until he was nose to nose with Slick and they regarded each other. “Welcome to House Path, Slick,” Path said with a smile.

The ferret bobbed his head seemingly in acknowledgement, and then reversed his course and returned to his preferred perch.

Path straightened up and addressed them all. “I hope you didn’t make any plans for this evening.”

“Just dinner. Why?” Twilight asked.

“We’re going ahead with that idea that we discussed before you left.”

Free said, “Oh yeah, it’s Friday, isn’t it? So we’re expecting a big crowd for dinner?”

“Definitely. The servants are already preparing the banquet hall, and the cooks are hard at work. As soon as you let us know that you were departing Equestria, I knew you’d be back in time for the event, so I forewarned everybody. I’m quite excited about this.”

Twilight nodded in agreement. “Well, I’ll use the intervening time to catch up on what has been happening in our absence.”

Roseclaw said, “Your music students have been asking when you’ll be back, Free. I told them that you should be here in time for afternoon lessons.”

“No peace for the wicked,” Free said with a grin. “I think I’ll head over there right now. Dinner’s still at six?”

“Yes,” Path replied, “although I recommend that you turn up at least ten minutes early.”

“Seeya then!”

# # #

With her usual punctuality, Twilight turned up at the banquet hall promptly at 5:50pm. By this time though, there were already a large number of griffons and ponies present, although none had taken seats at the enormous banquet table which had been set with all the plates, silverware, and various other paraphernalia typical of a feast set for visiting dignitaries. It was obvious that many of the students, especially the ponies, were a bit uncertain and uncomfortable, wondering if they really belonged there. She noticed that Free was already mingling, cheerfully reassuring them that all was okay, but still leaving them mystified as to why they were there. Twilight was quickly joined by Roseclaw who had Techbird in tow.

“As we expected, Techbird was lost in her projects,” Roseclaw told the alicorn.

“You didn’t really need me, and dinner can wait,” Techbird protested.

“Wrong on both counts,” Twilight replied. “This is really important to Path, and while I’ve been guilty of skipping meals in the past, this is one time we need to be all here.”

Techbird sighed. “Okay, but I won’t have that prototype done tonight, like I hoped. I wanted to show you it tonight.”

Twilight flinched a little, but shoved her disappointment aside. “It’ll keep until tomorrow, Tech. Take some advice from someone who had to learn the hard way – don’t ignore socializing for your projects.”

Promptly at six o’clock, Goldenquill entered the banquet hall and started ringing a bell. Conversation died away and the major domo announced, “Would all present please maintain respectful silence while Lord Path addresses you.”

Long Path entered the hall then and made his way to a dais that had been set up especially for the occasion. He stepped up and faced his audience with a smile.

“First of all, welcome to you all. I know a lot of you are wondering why I instructed everyone to be present for dinner here, from highest rank to the newest student. Rest assured that this was not a mistake – you are all going to participate in what I intend to be a regular Friday evening event. At the end of the school week, we have all been teaching or learning, or perhaps both. If you are of House Path, you should know that we are warrior-scholars – always learning and always ready to defend those who need defending. Tonight we start putting some of what we have learned into practice, and that starts right here in the House.”

Path waved a forehoof in the direction of the banquet table. “You may have noticed that there are no place cards for the seating arrangements. That is because there are none, not even for me. At this table tonight, we are all equal. There will be no ranking or maneuvering for position because no rank will apply. I know that this is a foreign concept to most, especially our griffon members, but I cannot stress enough that in this House, all are equal. Yes, many are more experienced than others, especially our young griffs and foals, but that doesn’t make them any less than their teachers or more learned students. There is no back of the pack or bottom of the heap. If you are in this House, you deserve to have your voice heard and we will converse as equals.”

Path looked about him and saw how most had gathered into groups. “In a moment, I will invite you take a seat at the table, but I don’t require that you sit any particular place. Sit next to a teacher if you want, or your best friend. If you’d like to chat with me about anything, anyone is welcome to do so. Tonight, at this table, I am not Lord Long Path, nor call me sir. I am just Path. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry, so let’s eat. ’Quill – please send in the food. Everypony, and everygriff, find a place and enjoy!”

Despite the reassurances, there were still some reluctant to be presumptuous about taking a place, but others urged them to take a seat. Path was amused to see Blue Streak grab the seat at the head of the table, but he figured that after tonight, the colt would have competition for that prime spot. He chose a position between two of the younger students, while Twilight, Free, Roseclaw, Warfist, Techbird, and all the other faculty members mingled randomly with others. Servants began wheeling in the food, serving it up in no particular order as they had been instructed.

Feeling a tap on his shoulder, Path turned to look at the young filly seated to his right. “Yes?” he asked with a reassuring smile.

“Umm… Lo… Path, do you think that I could learn to do your thunderhoof too one day?”

“My dear girl, if you put your mind to it, anything is possible.” He looked around to see that other students and teachers, youth and elders, were starting conversations also. “Anything,” he repeated with satisfaction.

# # #

“We’re glad that you returned when you did,” Roseclaw said to Twilight and Free later that evening. “We received a few new applications during your absence, but we wanted to wait until you returned before we interviewed them.”

“Oh, you don’t really need me for that,” Free said.

Path shook his head. “No, I want to get as much input as possible from everyone. Warfist was immensely helpful for the first intake, but I think we were also a bit lucky with some of our choices, and on the flip side, we might have overlooked something that you might find significant. Besides, you’re a founding member, and you should take a more active part in this process.”

“Okay, no need to nag. I’ll be there. When do you want to do these interviews?”

“I’ve scheduled them for tomorrow morning. Because it’s a Saturday, it won’t clash with any classes.”

The next morning, the four of them and Warfist gathered in Path’s office. Free made himself comfortable on a chair in a back corner.

“I’m going to leave the interviewing to you,” Free told the others. “If I think there’s anything worth mentioning, I’ll speak up, I promise, but otherwise don’t expect me to say much else.”

Path figured that this was better than nothing, and acceded to his wishes.

There were four applicants, including one surprise – an old sea mare who wished to retire from voyaging, but figured she had a lot to teach about ships and the sea, and was a doughty fighter to boot, having contended with many pirate attacks during her years. They figured that she would help broaden their knowledge and skills, and accepted her. The next was a griffon hen who, although clever and scrappy, was obviously looking to gain status more than contribute to the new House, and she was rejected. A master woodworker with skills in staff fighting was accepted next. The fourth proved to be the most exciting however.

“My name is Azon Featherleaf,” the male griffon said with a respectful bow and a sweep of his green-feathered wing. His gaudy parrot-like coloration contrasted strongly with his plain white caste cape which was adorned simply with gold braiding along the edges and red crosses at each of the bottom corners. “I am a master Healer, and I believe that you have no medics at your call as yet. I would like to offer my medical services to your House.”

Twilight looked very interested and said, “We very much could use a Healer in our House. I’m sure that there would be some students who be interested in your field, and if we ever have to go into a fight in our role as defenders, it would be best if we have a skilled doctor at hand. However, what would bring a professional such as yourself to our House? It’s not as if you aren’t already successful and in demand.”

“While that is indeed true, your House offers something that has not been seen in this society before, and it intrigues and excites me. I feel that I can accomplish more and get more satisfaction from tying my fortunes with the House of Path.”

Warfist spoke up. “Healers have traditionally been exempted from participating in battles, but all House Path members are expected to be able to competently defend themselves. Do you have any fighting skills?”

“I am not without some fighting skill, but I do not expect you to accept this as being sufficient, so I am quite prepared to take self-defense lessons to any degree of proficiency you desire.”

Warfist nodded in satisfaction. “Lord Path – your thoughts?”

Path shrugged. “I can’t see how we can afford to overlook this opportunity. I say we accept Healer Featherleaf. Do you concur, Rose?”

“I agree, Path. I also vote that we accept him.”

Path nodded and turned back to the Healer. “Welcome to House Pa…”

“Just a moment!” Free interrupted, getting up from his chair and walking up to the Healer, who obviously was greatly startled by Free whom he had not noticed before.

Free moved to face Featherleaf, raised a foreleg and poked a claw into the Healer’s chest. The griffon looked greatly confused and taken aback by the unexpected confrontation.

“Okay, what’s your game, buster? What do you really want?” Free demanded.

“I… don’t know what you mean,” Featherleaf replied.

“Yeah, Free, what’s going on?” Path asked.

Free just waved him down without taking his glare away from the Healer. “Tell them who you really are, or I will.”

“Who are you?” Featherleaf asked.

“Free Agent, House Path founding member, and the guy who will veto your application if you don’t come clean.”

“How much…?”

“Enough.”

Featherleaf regarded Free for a long moment, trying to understand who and what was confronting him, but he finally said, “I need you to keep this confidential.”

“Convince us that we should.”

The Healer considered that for a long moment before nodding. “Alright.” Free stepped aside and Featherleaf addressed the others. “Everything that I told you was the truth, but it wasn’t all of it. I am more than just a griffon Healer.” Suddenly his body was consumed by electric-blue magic flames, and moments later stood before them transformed.

“A changeling!” Roseclaw said with surprise that was echoed by the others, especially Warfist.

“That’s one of those changelings that you’ve told me about?” the Warmaster asked.

“Same race, different variety,” Path replied. “One that I haven’t seen before.”

Indeed this was a changeling totally new to them all. While the Equestrian changelings all had a single primary color by which they were familiarly known, this one had a metallic blue carapace with a red crest and tail, and iridescent wings.

“I am Azon, Harvester of emotional energy for the Western Hive. You are obviously familiar with what we do though.”

“Intimately familiar, Azon,” Path replied. “However, while the Equestrian Hives are known factors, your Hive is not. Tell us more about yourself and your Hive’s priorities, please.”

Reassured that his revelation had not provoked a negative response, Azon continued with renewed confidence. “My Hive specializes in medicine. In fact, many of our Harvesters are either Healers, pharmacists, or in related fields. Griffon civilization, such as it is, has always required our services. The temperament of griffons does not lend itself to our vocation, and you will find that the majority of Healers are actually changelings from my Hive.”

“You mean that the medics at the arena who attended me were changelings too?” Path asked.

“Most likely, although I hasten to add that there are in fact a few very good true griffon Healers. We do not have the field exclusively to ourselves, nor do we intend to make it so. We have maintained a comfortable balance for many centuries.”

Warfist spoke up. “On behalf of the comrades whose lives that your kind has saved, I thank you. However, as Free Agent has brought your presence to my attention, I will need to know more about how your Hive intends to interact with our House.”

“Fair enough,” Azon replied and transformed back to his griffon form. “First of all, your House is as much an unknown factor to us as our Hive is to you. Our queen has noticed the impact that you have already made on griffon society, at least in the capital city so far, and she is concerned about how you will affect the status quo. Because I was quite intrigued by your accomplishments, I volunteered to join your House and report to my queen about what I learn here. I assure you that I would not be working against you in any way.”

Free nodded in understanding. “That is no different from the way the Equestrian Hives have been doing things for centuries, so I believe you. However, there have been a lot of changes between pony-changeling interactions since Queen Chrysalis attacked Canterlot, and more recently her attempted invasion of the Crystal Empire. Deals have been made and formal agreements struck. I would like to do the same with your Hive, hopefully to our mutual benefit.”

“I’ve heard reports of some of that, and still find it inconceivable that a Hive attacked your kind. It goes against our very nature – we are symbionts, not predators.”

“There’s a reason why we call Chrysalis the Mad Queen,” Free said. “Anyway, as long as this Western Hive of yours has the same philosophy as the rest of ours, I have no further objection to you joining our House.”

Path looked at the others questioningly. “Does anyone else wish to say anything?”

Twilight said, “I hope that you can spend some time sharing your knowledge with me, Azon, both griffon medical and your Hive. I confirm my vote for him to join our House.”

Warfist replied, “I will wish to know more about how you changelings will affect our House, but at this time I have no objection to you joining, given the confidence in you that Free Agent and Lady Twilight have expressed.”

“I’m okay with it also,” Roseclaw said.

Path smiled and looked back at the Healer. “As I started to say before, welcome to the House of Path. Lady Roseclaw will show you around and see that you are assigned quarters. We will arrange a teaching schedule for you soon, but in the meantime I expect you to make arrangements for a conference between us and your queen. We will continue to keep your nature a secret.”

“Thank you, Lord Path. I will let you know as soon as possible about the meeting.”

Roseclaw got up and gestured for Featherleaf to follow. As soon as the Healer had left the office and was out of earshot, Warfist spoke up.

“You all seem very blasé about changelings, and how did Free Agent recognize him as being one?”

Path looked at Free questioningly. “Free?”

Free shrugged. “Might as well tell him. War, my friend – a changeling can always recognize another changeling in disguise.”

The general frowned. “That implies that you are a changeling.”

“Give that griff a prize! Yep, I’m a changeling, although I am half griffon too. Long story.”

“And you didn’t think it worthwhile to tell me this? All my defense plans rely on knowing the full capabilities of all our members, even founders.”

“I promise to correct that, but that was privileged and very personal information up until now. I respect you, War, but you’re not my family.”

Warfist glared at Free for a moment longer before nodding in acceptance. “Very well. Please consult with me at your soonest convenience. Lord Path, I hope that you intend that I participate in these proposed talks with the Hive Queen?”

“I wouldn’t dream of leaving you out, General.”

“Very good. I will take my leave of you now. Good day, Lord Path, Lady Twilight, Free Agent.” The old warrior left the office.

Free grinned. “If looks could kill….”

Path smiled in return before asking, “How come you’ve never spotted a changeling in Griffonia before?”

“Who says I didn’t?”

Twilight looked startled. “Why didn’t you tell us then?”

Free shrugged. “I figured you’d guess anyway. They’re there among the griffons, doing their jobs or ordinary everyday things, just like the changelings in Equestria. I had no need to confront one before now, and I had no intention of invading their privacy.”

“In retrospect, I can see that you’re right,” Twilight admitted. “Does that mean that there aren’t any changelings on the House grounds?”

“Aside from the occasional visitor and Proper Place – none. Azon will be our first.”

Path considered that thoughtfully and then said, “I think that’s something that we’re going to have to change.”

# # #

Three days later, they were visited by Queen Aquila and her retinue, all in griffon guise of course. They spent all day in discussions, interrupted only by luncheon. Roseclaw was in her element, exercising her skills of diplomacy learned from her father, and she kept a tight rein on Warfist who was rather more focused on the martial aspects. Path and Twilight were more enthusiastic about the mutual exchange of knowledge, but Roseclaw kept them from getting carried away also.

Free was mostly bored. He had been required to take part, but did not have much to contribute. He amused himself for a while with the inevitable puzzled looks that all the changelings gave him, but that quickly palled. He wondered what Aquila would think if she knew that he was a queen also, but he had no intention of letting her know that.

It took another day for them to hammer out an agreement between Hive and House, and even then it might never have happened if it was not for the authority that Twilight could bring as a Princess of Equestria. The primary agreement was for Path to take in a large number of Harvesters into the House as warrior-scholars, while Aquila would use the Hive’s network as a means of gathering information for the House. Twilight also wrangled a deal to exchange medical information between Hive and House.

Because the changelings were familiar with the pony slave situation, some of the Harvesters would take on pony alter egos to serve as role models for some of the other real ponies. The rest assumed griffon guises of course; Queen Aquila was not yet ready to have her changelings go into griffon society undisguised, even if it was purely within the grounds of the House.

Aquila made one exception to this; she conceded that it was time to start educating Griffonia about changelings since their secret existence had been irreversibly exposed. For this purpose, two of the Harvester teachers were assigned to secretly assume their natural form to pose as ‘visiting lecturers’ to give classes on the nature of their species, what they did for society, and of course their ability to disguise themselves.

# # #

By the fourth Friday social dinner, both students and teachers had gotten fully into the spirit of the occasion, just as Path had hoped. While griffs like Warfist still seemed a tad intimidating, and the youngest foals were sometimes a little overwhelmed, both were helped to participate fully by the others at the table. Tables, actually, as the influx of new members had required the addition of more. The banquet hall was rapidly reaching its capacity.

Tonight, the main course was fish – a lovely smoked salmon in a bed of rice and an assortment of steamed vegetables. Whether by accident or not, this was also served to Twilight. She looked uneasily at the fish, wondering if she should make a fuss, or just eat the rice and vegetables. Blue Streak was seated across the table from her and noticed her reaction.

“What’s wrong, Mama?”

Twilight tried to smile reassuringly when she replied. “It’s nothing, Streak. I… just don’t eat meat.”

“But it’s a fish, not meat,” Streak replied innocently.

“Technically it’s still meat.”

“My old herd used to fish all the time for our meals. It’s good!” He stuck his fork into his fish and lifted a chunk of it to his mouth. “If I have to eat this, you gotta too!” he said slyly and waited for her reaction.

Hesitantly, Twilight cut off a small piece, cautiously lifted it to her nose, and gave it a sniff. It seemed pleasant enough, but she was still hesitant.

By this time though, they had caught the attention of the griffs and ponies around them, and one foal started chanting, “Sparkle! Sparkle! Sparkle!”

Twilight glanced in surprise at the cheeky filly, and was even more startled as another took up the chant, and then several more. Very quickly, all those seated within her vicinity were chanting their encouragement.

SPARKLE! SPARKLE! SPARKLE!

She noticed that even Free had taken up the chant, his face alive with glee. Twilight sighed and looked back to Streak who, once he was sure she was looking, deliberately chomped down on his forkful of fish, chewed for a moment, and then swallowed.

“Your turn, Mama,” Streak said, barely heard over the chanting.

Twilight gave up. Bracing herself, she tentatively put the fork in her mouth and tasted fish for the first time. Her eyes widened in surprise, and she chewed the salmon a bit before swallowing. The chanting had stopped when she had put the food in her mouth, but now she had dozens of eyes quietly waiting to see her reaction. “That… tastes amazing!” she declared.

The watchers burst into a cheer, and one voice called out: “Twilight Sparkle is best princess!”

Twilight might have been more embarrassed by that, but she was too busy enjoying the rest of her fish.

# # #

That evening after dessert was completed, Free and his music students put on a short performance for the entertainment of everyone who chose to linger and socialize a bit more. Path smiled as he watched the ponies, griffons, and even the disguised changelings partying and enjoying each other’s company, and he sighed in great contentment.

By coincidence, Path noticed Raza and Proper Place making their way out onto the balcony together while the rest were distracted by the singing. The House’s masters of organization and administration had proved to be a formidable team, and frequently worked long hours. Path didn’t want them spending what should be their leisure time doing yet more work, so he decided to discreetly check up on them. Peering past the voluminous curtains that covered the balcony’s glass doors, he was just in time to see Proper Place and Raza nuzzling and nipping each other affectionately, and the griffon hen giggled in pleasure. Path hastily backed off and returned to his chair.

Well, that’s an interesting development,’ he thought and chuckled to himself. ‘At least I know that they aren’t working right now!

# # #

“Could you spare a moment, Proper?” Path asked as the pegasus changeling was about to leave his office with a stack of files.

“Of course, sir. What can I do for you?”

“Close the door, please. I would like to have a chat with you in private.”

“Certainly,” Proper replied. He put down the files and closed the door.

“I’ll get straight to the point,” Path said. “I know that you and Raza seem to be in a relationship. I need to know that you aren’t just taking advantage of her for your changeling needs.”

Proper Place was startled. “You know about that? Damn, I must be getting careless. Comes of being distracted by Raza, I suppose. But to answer your question, no, that isn’t the primary motivation. Raza and I liked each other from the day we met, and our skills complement each other. Working with her has been a genuine pleasure. Even so, it came as a bit of surprise to me when she asked if I was taken. After informing her that I was not, she insisted in the peculiar griffon way that we should start dating. As you are quite aware, my Hive has good open relationships with the ponies of Hollow Shades, and I could not see why that could not apply to a relationship with a griffon also.”

“So you genuinely enjoy her company?”

Proper Place grinned. “That is like saying the ocean is wet. My feelings for her are scarcely less than Raza’s feelings for me. I didn’t come here intending to make any relationships, but I would really like this one to succeed.” He hesitated for a moment as a thought occurred to him. “Are we in trouble, sir?”

Path chuckled. “As long as it doesn’t affect my House, and Raza is happy, what you do is none of my concern. I only wanted to be sure that you’re not putting your changeling needs ahead of hers. As for the rest, well, I have a griffon mate who’s pregnant with our first child; I would be a first-class hypocrite if I denied you the opportunity to find love, whatever form it takes. To be honest though, it’s the relationship between changelings and griffons and ponies that has me most concerned, so there’s just one last thing I’d like to know – are you going to tell her what you are?”

“If this relationship works out, and she wants us to be mates, I will tell her before committing to anything further.”

“Very good. Okay, that’s all for now.”

Proper Place retrieved his files and headed for the door.

“For the record, Proper, I hope it works out for you two,” Path added.

“Thank you, sir. I hope so too.”

# # #

Frequent problems had needed to be solved to get Path’s special armor up to speed, and months of work had been put into it, but they were on the cusp of having the prototype ready. Twilight’s mind was preoccupied with thoughts on implementing the latest fixes as she entered Techbird’s laboratory, and therefore she did not notice at first the furiously running generator.

“Hi, Mama!”

Twilight stopped and refocused on the source of that greeting. Blue Streak was running at high speed on a treadmill that was connected to the generator. “Why are you running like that?”

“I'm helping with science!” Streak proudly proclaimed without slowing one bit.

Twilight looked around at all the wires and then to Techbird who was noting the readings on some gauges. “Tech – don’t use my son as a power source, please.”

The griffon blinked in surprise that Twilight would object. “But he’s so potent!”

“No, Tech.”

“But…!”

“No.”

Techbird sighed. “Okay, Streak – experiment is over.”

Streak looked disappointed, but he slowed down and eventually stopped. Hopping off the treadmill, he asked, “Did I do good?”

“You did great. Thanks a lot, but you better go now before your mom kills me.”

“Nah, she wouldn’t do that. Seeya!” He dashed out of the laboratory at his usual headlong pace to the dismay of Twilight.

“I just can’t get him to slow down in the hallway,” she lamented.

“I think that’s literally true,” Techbird commented.

“What do you mean?”

“I wasn’t just using him as a power source. He volunteered to help me test how we can harness Lord Path’s earth pony magic to power the armor, but I learned a few interesting things along the way. Streak seems to have a hyperkinetic nature that makes it virtually impossible for him to do anything slowly.”

Twilight frowned. “I hope that won’t affect him detrimentally,” she said worriedly.

“Too soon to tell, but as long as his own magic keeps him powered up, hopefully it will stop him from tearing himself apart.”

Twilight nodded. “That’s usually the case with high-powered individuals – their bodies adapt to cope with the load. That’s why we alicorns grow so large. We have so much power that our bodies grow to match. I grew a few inches as soon as I ascended, and I’ve grown more since. One of these centuries, I’ll be as big as Celestia is now.”

“With your level of power, I’d say decades is more likely. The question is though – can an earth pony like Streak grow enough to contain his power?”

“I certainly hope so. At least I have somepony to compare him to. Rainbow Dash is a remarkable mare in her own right, and with similar qualities despite being a pegasus rather than an earth pony. She grew into her power, and she’s doing well.”

Techbird smiled. “Magic has its ways. Speaking of which, I believe I’ve solved our control issue….”

# # #

Long Path regarded the prototype armor with a little trepidation. It might have been his idea, but that did not mean that he was keen to test out an experimental device that not only would give him weapons to use in battle, but would also give him the power of flight. He shuddered. The many times that Roseclaw had carried him in the past few months were helping to inure him to the prospect of flying under his own power, but he was still far from happy being so far from the ground.

Techbird enthusiastically pointed out the features of the prototype. “The armor’s artificial wings are based on prosthetics worn by pegasi, and only needed a little tweaking to adapt to our purposes. The hoof guards are the key to powering the armor. While Twilight has fixed spells into the armor, it’s your earth pony magic which will keep it powered. As that magic is concentrated in your legs, the hoof guards are designed to draw on that magic and convert it for use by the rest of the armor. We aren’t ready to test the artificial unicorn horn yet, because the modified spells that you have supplied us need to be coded into the horn and debugged first. However, the flight magic is ready for its first test. So, have you memorized the activation and control spells?”

“I have, but this is where theory leaves off and practice takes over.”

“You bet! So let’s get you kitted up!” Techbird said, cheerfully oblivious to Path’s concerns.

Twilight and Techbird helped Path don the armor. When it was all strapped firmly into place, Path looked somewhat like a large armored pegasus.

“Well, here goes nothing,” Path said, and mentally activated the armor’s magic systems. The artificial wings sprang out from where they had been folded to his side and thrummed in readiness. “Okay, first a very gentle hover…”

Path shot up into the air, ricocheted off the ceiling, crashed through some equipment, bounced off a wall, bounced off the opposite wall, barely missed plowing into Twilight, skipped off the floor and smashed through a window to the outside. Twilight and Techbird raced to the window to spot Path tangled in a nearby tree, mercifully protected from the shattered glass by his armor. Twilight used her telekinesis to pull him back inside.

“Needs work?” Techbird asked.

“Needs work,” Path groaned in agreement.

# # #

Despite the setback, Twilight and Techbird soon ironed out the bugs in the controls, and the flight systems were ready for a serious test. Path stood on the balcony, trying to calm his nerves. Roseclaw was nearby, ready to accompany him on his maiden flight, and be available to catch him in case of emergency, while Free was there simply to witness his soul-brother’s triumph.

“No sense putting this off any longer,” Path said. He concentrated on activating his earth pony magic as he had been training to do for several weeks, letting it flow into the mana collectors built into his boots. The thaumic guides channeled it into the harness for the artificial wings, and they sprang open, ready for use. The band around his head which would eventually be incorporated into helmet armor had been finely tuned to respond to his thoughts and it activated the wings’ controls. Gritting his teeth, he raised the wings for their first beat, and then leaped off the balcony. The flight spell had been intensively written with as many pre-set flight patterns as the team could cram in, needing only a guiding thought to activate the correct wing beats, angles, and expenditure of mana to achieve the desired result. However, despite knowing that it had worked reliably in the laboratory, he was still immensely relieved when the wings flapped at his command and bore him upwards. Resolutely ignoring how the ground was dropping away, he concentrated on gaining height and speed.

“Looking good, darling,” came Roseclaw’s voice from close by.

Path looked to the side to see her matching his pace, smiling in encouragement. He wobbled a bit from the distraction, but continued his flight with growing confidence. He made his way up to the top of the crater rim that separated his estate from the city within and alighted clumsily on a ledge that overlooked both sides. He sighed with relief at the successful first flight, and noticed how warm his hooves were due to the amount of mana that the wings had been drawing upon to power them.

Roseclaw set down beside him. “So, what’s the verdict?” she asked with a smile of pride in her mate.

“Well, the amount of heat that was generated indicates an excessive degree of inefficiency in the conversion of magic, so we’ll have to work on that,” Path answered.

Roseclaw rolled her eyes. “I meant how you felt about flying under your own power.”

Path had to pause a moment to get his mind of the technicalities of the flight, and back to his feelings. He snorted in ironic amusement. “Absolutely terrifying… and possibly the most marvelous thing I’ve ever done – short of making love to you.”

The griffoness grinned. “Good answer. In fact, that’s something we should do right now.”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

Roseclaw nuzzled Path. “Usually when griffons become betrothed, they go on a mating flight. I think we’re overdue.”

Path regarded his mate with a roguish grin. “You sure that it’s not my sexy wings making you horny?”

“That too,” she replied, unabashed. “Are you game?”

“Have I ever refused a challenge?” Path replied, flicking open the wings again. He leaped off the ledge with more confidence than earlier, and beat his way up into sky.

 

 

With a cry of joy, Roseclaw launched herself after him.

From the ground, Twilight, Techbird, and Free all watched the duo fly further away.

“I believe we can call this trial a success,” Twilight commented.

Techbird frowned a little. “Isn’t he supposed to be coming back for an evaluation now?”

Free smiled knowingly. “I wouldn’t bother waiting for him, Tech. I suspect you’re not going to see those two soon.”

Twilight asked, “Do you feel something through your link to him?”

“Oh, yeah, you could say that,” Free said with a smirk. “Wanna get a taste of it too?” He spread his wings invitingly.

“What? Now?”

Free just smiled more widely and waggled an eyebrow.

Twilight giggled and leaped into the air. “First you have to catch me!” she challenged.

Free laughed and launched himself after her.

Techbird just shook her head in resignation, and started walking back to her laboratory. “Silly lovesick twits,” she grumbled.

# # #

Later that night, Free lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, Twilight softly snoring next to him. It had been a good day – one of the best. Path and Roseclaw had spent half the day just enjoying being mates, and Free and Twilight had emulated them. It was a good thing that it was the weekend, or they would all have been seriously guilty of neglecting their students.

Students – that always made Free smile. He had never dreamed of being a teacher, but now he was teaching both art and music. Of course both had been so much more inspired since he had fallen in love with the beautiful alicorn in bed with him. He bent his head over her to kiss her on the cheek.

Twilight stirred and her eyes fluttered open. “Free? Why aren’t you asleep?” she murmured.

“Sorry to disturb you, Sparkles. I’m afraid that I’m way too full of energy to sleep. You’ve given me so much loving that I’m hyper.”

“I’ve noticed your insomnia lately – so I’m to blame, hey?”

Free grinned. “The very best reason actually. It was never a problem before I met you. How did a guy like me ever win a mare like you anyway?”

That question surprised Twilight. “After all these months, you only ask now?”

Free shrugged. “It’s been like a dream come true, and I’ve been afraid that I was going to wake up some day. The incident with the emogel really shook me, and I’ve been a little afraid to rock the boat.”

Twilight propped herself up in bed and reached over to caress Free with a hoof. “Stop worrying so much, darling. I won’t ever leave you, because you mean too much to me. You want to know why I fell in love with you? It’s more simple than you realize, and yet more important because of it.”

“That sounds a bit odd.”

“I’ve always been a bit odd,” Twilight admitted. “It goes right back to when I was Celestia’s special student. I was a notorious bookworm and spent too much time studying. I barely found the time to make the acquaintance of other unicorns in class, let alone make friends. I had only four or five fillies that I could call friends back then, and I pretty much distanced myself from them as I grew older, to the point of completely letting down one of them badly one day. It took Celestia sending me away from Canterlot and my familiar comfort zone to Ponyville with instructions to make some friends before I finally got out of that rut. I did make five new friends then, and they were what enabled me to meet my destiny and ascend to alicornhood.”

“Those friends were the Avatars of Harmony, weren’t they?”

“Yes. Rarity, Rainbow, Applejack, Pinkie, and Fluttershy all became very close to me, and we have remained firm friends ever since. Becoming a princess reduced the amount of free time that I had to spend time with them, but I had learned that lesson well, and I always make time to spend with them whenever possible.”

“That’s why visiting Ponyville is always on your schedule whenever we make a trip to Equestria for your princess duties.”

“Exactly. However, despite learning how friendship is magic, I was still making another big mistake. While I never neglected my friends, I was still neglecting more personal relationships.”

“You mean you never went out with any coltfriends at all?” Free asked disbelievingly.

“No, not on any real dates anyway. Again, I was too wrapped up with my duties and continuing studies, and my spare time was spent with my friends. Who needed a coltfriend?”

“And yet I managed to catch your eye?”

Twilight giggled. “Yes, you certainly did. I’d never met anyone like you before, and despite you being a griffon-changeling, you excited me. When you showed me your artistic side on our first trip to Griffonia, that revealed to me the depths of your personality. You have a passion for life, music, and art that drew me in. That was what was missing from my life until then – passion. Everything that you did, you did so to your utmost. You made me laugh, and you made me delight in flying with you. I enjoyed life ever more when you were around, and that was what made me fall in love with you. You are the yin to my yang. I am the studious intellect and you are the passionate artist. Together we are greater than the sum of us – a magnificent oneness of being that fills me to the bursting point. So that’s how you won me. The question that remains though is how I won you. How could you have been so interested in some mare who was nothing at all like you?”

Free smiled sheepishly. “Well… it wasn’t always like that. I wasn’t too picky about who I went out with back then; my only goals were to have a good time, make sure that my partners enjoyed themselves thoroughly, and then part as friends. Occasionally we would do so again, but there was never a sense of permanence about any of my relationships. There would always be another mare… or stallion sometimes.”

“Yes, I know. I believe that you even intended to make love to all the alicorns someday, I hear?”

“Roseclaw blabbed that, did she?” Free said with a touch of embarrassment. “Yeah, it’s true, although I hasten to add that that was not the sole reason why I went after you. If that had been all that I was interested in, I would have made moves on Celestia and Luna long before I met you.”

“What about Cadance?” Twilight asked slyly.

“Tricky, but not impossible,” Free admitted.

Twilight was slightly shocked and amused by the thought of Free trying to make time with her brother’s wife. “I have to admit that you don’t aim low. So what did I do that attracted you to me?”

“You knocked me back.”

“Huh? I don’t understand. Surely you have had to be rejected on many other occasions?”

“Yeah, but not in the way you did it. You intrigued me that first day we met in the café, and when I made my move, I could tell that you were a little bit intrigued with me too, but you still knocked me back. The kicker was when you teleported me away and when I came back and asked again, you laughed in amusement. Oh, I know you didn’t do that outwardly, but I could taste it, and I loved it. I wanted more of it. So I worked at getting that feeling again. Right away I knew that you were different from any other mare that I had dated or made time with. You say that I am passionate, but that passion is awoken by my experiences. You stoked the flames of that passion, and I felt things that I had never felt before. I wrote that song for you born out of that passion, and the more that your interest in me grew, the stronger it became. Twilight, you made me fall in love with you because you were always interested in me, and never let me be less than one hundred percent of what I could be. You might not have been ready at first to have a relationship, but you at least felt the need for one, and you weren’t ready to settle for anything less than my utmost. You say that I awoke the passion in you, but you brought out the best in me, and I am far better for it. I love you with every fiber of my being.”

“And I love you as deeply,” Twilight replied, and then she drew him into a long and passionate kiss.

When they finally had to stop for air, Twilight moved over to straddle Free’s body.

“I’m about to make your insomnia a lot worse,” she told him with a lascivious grin.

“Totally worth it,” he replied.

# # #

As Free was eating his lunch, he heard the sound of outraged squawking coming from outside. He got up to investigate, and he peered out the window. He quickly spotted the source of the noise. Blue Streak was dragging a group of griffons on leashes through the air while they were desperately trying to restrain the colt.

Free chuckled and asked, “What the heck is Streak doing?”

Path smiled and replied, “It’s part of Warfist’s strength training. I got the idea from you.”

“How’s he not being lifted off the ground?”

“Earth pony magic – increased traction practically makes him stick to the ground. Of course they’re not supposed to be trying to lift him, only restrain him.”

“Not doing a very good job of that either,” Free commented.

Path grinned. “No. Need more griffons next time.”

Free watched their futile efforts for a moment longer before returning to his meal. “So how’s your own training coming along?”

Path grimaced. “Not nearly as good. I tried using my new wings in a training bout with Warfist. He promptly took me down and told me that a four year old chick could fly better than me.”

“You’re an earth pony, Path – surely you didn’t think you could mix it up with a natural flyer?”

“I had some vague idea about augmenting my fighting style with flight. I learned better.”

“Surely you’ve made some progress without trying to fly?”

“Yes, actually. Despite their greater size, I can match a griffon’s strength, or even exceed it. Warfist understands that this is an earth pony trait that can be used against an opponent, and has been training me in methods to take advantage of it. Now that I will have armor to protect me from beaks and talons, I can really use those methods for the best results. Like Streak, I can anchor myself to the ground and physically resist attacks far better than a large griffon can, and hopefully many other types of enemies that I might potentially face. Once the artificial horn is perfected, I should be able to resist magic-users equally well.”

“How much longer do you think that’s going to take?”

“Well, that’s a bit uncertain. There’s a reason why unicorns and alicorns are the primary magic users, despite my proving how spells can be adapted to other types of ponies. Some of those spells are fiendishly complex! However, give us a couple more months, and I think we’ll have it licked.”

“I hear Warfist is organizing some competition bouts for his students at the arena – do you plan to take part?”

“Sweet Celestia, no! I am under no illusion that I’m a great fighter. I just want to be able to hold my own in a real battle, and be the leader that I’m supposed to be as Lord of the House.”

“Wise move,” Free conceded. “How about watching the bouts though?”

“Can’t hurt to observe some serious fighting. Besides, I think that I should be there for moral support – don’t you?”

# # #

A couple of weeks later, after the competition, the House of Path celebrated its dominance in the arena. While their members didn’t win all their bouts, with a result of three in four victories, they managed quite a stir among the crowd.

Starting the next day, they received an upsurge in the applications for joining the House. This did not go down well with some of the more intransigent nobles.

# # #

“Milord, you have received a summons from His Majesty,” Goldenquill announced.

Path looked surprised and asked, “Did he say what it was about, ’Quill?”

“Only that it had to do with House Path’s obligations, sir.”

“I see. Tell the messenger that I will be there forthwith.”

“Very well, sir.”

“Looks like it may be time to pay the piper,” Path said to himself as he tidied up his paperwork and left to make himself presentable for an audience with the king.

Path turned up at the usual audience chamber, neatly groomed and dressed in his caste cape. He was quickly ushered in, and he bowed respectfully to Glimfeather. “You summoned me, Your Majesty?”

“Thank you for coming, Lord Path. I hear that your House has been making great strides lately?”

“Yes, Sire. Would the recent competition have anything to do with this meeting?”

“In a manner of speaking. The nobles have begun reminding me of the pact that we have made, and that it is time that you upheld your end of it.”

Path knew that King Glimfeather had been happy with the status quo because House Path was already working towards achieving his private goals, so it had to be the court troublemakers who had brought this up. “The House of Path stands ready to fulfill its obligations, Your Majesty. How can we serve?”

“You may recall my mention of some troubles that we have been having with centaur raids on townships?” When Path nodded, Glimfeather continued. “I have recently received reports of new raids after a long period of peace. I am charging your House with investigating these reports and, if necessary, acting upon them.”

“What do you know so far?”

“Very little. Two messengers from adjacent villages turned up this morning with reports of typical raiding parties. As our usual methods have failed to stop them, it’s time for something new, and that’s where you come in.”

Path nodded thoughtfully. “The lack of details bothers me. I would like to send an intelligence gathering party first, and have them report back to me so that we can make a plan of action.”

“That seems reasonable. You don’t intend to go yourself?”

“Not with the scouting party. A pony like myself would stand out too much and possibly cause problems. I will send a group of griffons only, perhaps disguised as merchants, to discreetly make inquiries.”

“You make a good point. Very well, I approve. Make your plans and report back to me when you have some results.”

“As you command, Your Majesty. I bid you good day.”

Path hastened back to his castle to summon Warfist and the rest of the House leaders. It was time to prove themselves, and he was determined that their House would not be found lacking.

# # #

It had taken a day to plan their course of action, gather their team, and make the necessary preparations. Roseclaw and Free Agent were the co-leaders of the expedition, with a select group of Warfist's best warrior-scholars coming along as both protection and as cover for their operation. Each student had other skills that could be put to use in their guise as travelling merchants, but they were also instructed to keep their ears and eyes open for any scrap of information. An older hen among the students was the daughter of a very successful merchant, and she was put in charge of any negotiations needed to keep up their guise. She was made third in command after Free and Roseclaw. The only non-House members were the two envoys from the stricken villages.

Twilight supplied Free with one of her communicators with instructions to report in at least once a day when they made camp.

“Notice the improvements that I’ve made,” she said, pointing them out as she talked. This unit is designed to sit firmly on your head, with an earpiece and a mouthpiece. This uses separate crystals for talking and hearing, so you no longer have to shift it back and forth between your mouth and ear.”

“That’s very convenient, and a lot more practical if I’m trying to use it in the middle of a fight,” Free said.

“Only one person can use it at a time though, unlike the old units,” Roseclaw pointed out.

“You’re right, but I’m already working on that. I’m going to start off with much larger crystals that I can split into multiple units, so that many people can communicate simultaneously. I can see whole squads being linked like this in the future.”

“You’re going to revolutionize both communications and battle, Twi,” Free pointed out.

“I could do without the latter,” Twilight replied glumly, “but I am enough of a realist to know that it can’t be avoided. Right now though, I’m most concerned about keeping tabs on you.” She gave Free a heartfelt hug.

Free was touched. “Don’t worry, Twi – it’s only a scouting trip, after all. We’ll be fine. I’ll miss you though.”

“No more than I’ll miss you. Safe journey, Free.”

“Love ya, Sparkles.”

Path made his own farewells to Roseclaw. “Remember that this is just a reconnaissance and try to stay out of trouble. I don’t want anything happening to our unborn child.”

“You worry too much,” she replied as she hugged him. “But I’m glad you do. We’ll both be back before you know it, my warrior.”

The scouting party departed with two carts laden with trading goods, each pulled by a pair of griffons who would be relieved by another pair at regular intervals. They had debated taking along some ponies to help with that task, and they had no shortage of volunteers among the students, but they had decided not to for the same reason that Path remained behind. They could not be certain that the outlying villages were aware of the pony slaves, and did not want to draw any unwanted attention. Therefore it was an all-griffon team that left with a great deal of optimism for their House’s very first official operation.

# # #

 
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