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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22. Chapter 17: Death By The Numbers

Roseclaw was the first to shake off the shock of the revelation. “Twilight – how soon do you think Chrysalis will be ready to advance on the Crystal City?”

Twilight’s eyes unfocused as she mentally considered the variables. She started mumbling to herself, “Maximum time since establishing new hive in the Crystal Empire must be after establishing shield… Assume absolute minimum breeding cycle time... Time to wake all drones in hibernation… Optimum feeding to supply body mass… Distance from hive to the barrier… Possibility of multiple hibernation chambers scattered around the empire… Unknown variables due to Chrysalis’ tactics…” Twilight turned her attention back to the others. “Assuming that Free’s theory is correct, I calculate that at best, Chrysalis will attack within a week at the latest.”

“And at worst?”

“She could be marching on the Crystal City as we speak.”

Path snapped to life. “Right – we assume the worst. Twilight, get back on the communicator immediately and advise Cadance and Shining Armor of what we believe is happening. Rose, find Warfist and bring him here for an emergency conference. Free, alert your squad to start preparations for departure at a moment’s notice.”

Twilight wasted no time and teleported away. Roseclaw leaped up and dived out the window, taking the fast route to Warfist’s quarters, closely followed by Free who headed for the squad’s quarters.

Path passed his daughter to Streak who had been listening intently to everything that had been going on. “Look after your sister, Streak. I’m afraid family time is cancelled for tonight.”

Path rang the butler bell, and as he waited, Streak said, “I want to help too!”

Path smiled proudly. “I know you want to, but you’re still too young to get involved in a battle.”

“But Dad, Master Warfist has been training me!”

“Yes, and one day you are going to be a fine warrior, but you’re not ready yet.”

“I’m already faster and better than the older students!”

“You’re faster than anyone I know except Rainbow Dash, but that doesn’t mean that you’re ready to fight in a battle. However, you’re old enough to take on another important task.”

“What’s that?” Streak asked suspiciously.

“We’re going to need someone to watch over your sister while we’re away. She needs someone in the family to be responsible for her.”

Streak’s face fell. “I suppose so.”

Path had an idea. “Take Lucida to Snow Wing to put her to bed, then come back to me. I’ll need you to run a few errands for me.”

Streak brightened again. “Okay, Dad!” Despite the burden of the young hippogriff, Streak was scarcely slowed as he dashed off to do as he was instructed.

Goldenquill passed the colt as he exited the living room. Aside from a curious glance in Streak’s direction, he proceeded to answer Path’s call without delay. “You rang, sir?”

“Yes, ’Quill. I need you to send a messenger to King Glimfeather as soon as possible. Request an immediate audience on a matter of extreme urgency.”

“Yes, milord. May I know what this matter pertains to?”

“We are going to war, ’Quill, and I believe His Majesty might want a piece of the action.”

“Understood, sir. I will dispatch a messenger immediately.”

Streak returned very soon after Goldenquill departed. “What’s next, Dad?”

“Go find Captain Kerbarok. Tell him Lord Path has ordered that the Skyshark be prepared for departure for the Crystal Kingdom. We will be taking warriors to battle. I anticipate departure soon after midnight. Got it, Streak?”

“Got it!” He raced out once more.

Roseclaw and Warfist flew in through the window.

“I hope we did not disturb you, Warfist?” Path asked.

“I had not yet retired for the night, my lord. Lady Roseclaw informs me that we face our first major challenge?”

Path nodded. “Major is right. As soon as Twilight and Free return, we are going to have a war council with Cadance and Shining Armor. We have a lot to do and very little time to do it.”

# # #

The next several hours were controlled chaos. Princess Luna was contacted, and she woke Celestia to partake in the discussions. They sent messengers to summon the Avatars of Harmony. After learning the nature of the emergency, King Glimfeather chose to join Path and the others at their House, bringing along several warrior nobles. Streak was kept busy running messages until the young colt was visibly tiring, and Path was finally able to convince him to go to bed. Free coordinated the mobilization of his squad plus several other House members whom he deemed ready for their first mission with Captain Kerbarok who reconfigured the Skysharkfor battle mode. He also supervised the loading of special equipment, especially Techbird’s unusual supplies.

Under normal circumstances, the flagship was configured to transport and provide protection for V.I.P.s and their retinue, with comfort and convenience for all, including the hoof-picked crew. In battle mode though, spacious staterooms doubled their occupancy, and all crew quarters had two or three times the normal number of bunks. These were either pulled down from where they were normally stowed within the walls, or brought out from storage and fitted to attachment points. Bedrolls were also supplied for the use of troops who could not be fitted into any of the quarters, but instead taking all available spaces on the catwalks in the canopy area. Enough supplies were taken aboard to provide for the needs of its maximum capacity of personnel. With due efficiency, the airship was ready within hours.

Free’s squad was the first to board. Regrettably, although the House had been intensively training its members for a year, the squad was still small despite the addition of the new warrior-scholars. It was going to take a lot more time to build up the numbers, training, and experience necessary to make the House a truly effective force, but unfortunately time was not a luxury that they could afford. However, they would not have to fight alone. It was not long before a flock of griffons flew from the city in the moonlit gloom to land beside the Skyshark’s torch-lit landing pad. Free recognized the noble who led them – a warrior named Lord Harkness – a moderate on the Council of Nobles. The flock consisted of several other older nobles, but mostly of younger griffs, both male and female. Free was startled when Harkness saluted him.

“The King’s warriors reporting for duty, sir!”

Free was a little surprised to realize that he had apparently been designated the superior officer for this operation. He managed to keep his cool though, so he returned the salute and asked, “How many have you brought, Lord Harkness?”

“Seventy-eight warriors, including myself, sir. For the purposes of this operation, I will be assuming my military rank of Colonel. I assume that my immediate superior will be General Warfist?”

“Correct. How much experience have your warriors had?”

“All have had much training, plus experience in the arena, although some much more than others. Frankly, sir, many have volunteered because they wish to blood themselves as warriors. It is the first opportunity for griffs of their generation to do so.”

“I can’t fault them for that, but they have to bear in mind that this is not being done for their convenience. This is a House Path operation, and our primary purpose is to be the final line of defense against an implacable enemy. There will be no glory-seeking, understand?”

“Understood, sir. I will keep my troops under control.”

“Good. Have you got all your supplies?”

“We are mostly fully equipped right now. A supply cart will follow shortly with the remainder.”

“Good. We’ll load those as soon as it arrives. We will be departing at our soonest opportunity. Have your squad board immediately. I’ll get one of the crew to show you where you will be billeted. Just one more detail.” Free turned his attention to the waiting warriors. “Listen carefully! While aboard the Skyshark, you will all be subject to the authority of Captain Kerbarok and, by extension, any of the crew. I don’t care what rank and status that you have here in Griffonia – on board the airship, you are little more than cargo. However, if you treat the crew with respect, they will return the favour. We will be providing a meal for everyone after we depart, but I suggest that you all get some sleep afterwards. We have a long journey ahead of ourselves, and I want you all in the best shape possible for the battle ahead. One last thing – welcome aboard, and may you bring honour to your Houses.”

There was a cheer from many of the griffons. “Well said, Lord Free,” Harkness murmured.

Free winced a little at the title, but he saw the necessity. He beckoned over a waiting crewpony and had her take Harkness and his squad aboard. He did not have long to wait for the supply cart. It was pulled by two sturdy earth ponies who had apparently been travelling at high speed all the way, judging by the sweat and snorting as they pulled up. Free hoped that they were free servants rather than slaves, but he doubted that the griff in charge would have had the bad taste to send the latter to their House. The Skyshark’s crew made short work of unloading the supplies and taking them aboard, and the ponies started their return journey at a more leisurely pace.

The loading was completed just as the final contingent emerged from the castle and headed for the Skyshark. Free told a waiting changeling who had been assigned as his personal assistant to go tell the Captain to start take-off procedures. Path, Roseclaw, Twilight, Warfist, Techbird, and Proper Place wasted no time in getting on the airship, and the boarding ramp was retracted. Pegasi and changelings cast off the mooring ropes and stowed them as the airship’s engines roared to life, and they came aboard via the launch platform at the top of the canopy.

The House team joined Captain Kerbarok on the bridge to bring him and Free up to speed on the final updates.

 

 

“Here’s where things stand,” Path said. “Princess Cadance and Prince Shining Armor have ordered an evacuation of all citizens to the Crystal City. Bearing in mind the actions of the Blue Changelings when they invaded Canterlot, we believe that any pony left exposed could be in mortal danger. The citizens will be brought to the inner city and Shining Armor will erect one of his shields around them as soon as the changeling army is detected. He will conserve his strength until then.”

“What about the existing changeling barrier?” Free asked.

“That’s maintained artificially, so there’s no harm in leaving it in place. While we expect that will fall when the attack begins, we hope that it will at least slow them down and use up some of their energy in breaking it down. Captain Diamondhard and her troops have been recalled as there’s no point in maintaining the post. If the barrier is still up when we get there, Twilight will open a portal for the entire airship to pass through, so you and the other changeling crewmembers won’t be affected.”

Kerbarok asked, “What troops will we be supporting?”

Path replied, “The Crystal Kingdom’s military is actually quite small. Captain Diamondhard’s contingent actually represents a major portion of the army. The Empire Guards are responsible for providing security to the royal family, and acting as police for the citizens, but they will all join the defenses. The major source of defense forces though will be the Equestrian Royal Guard. Princess Luna is bringing several battalions with her.”

“Luna? Why not Celestia?” Free asked.

Warfist answered, “Canterlot cannot be left undefended, especially if Chrysalis intends to take advantage of the distraction. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna debated which one of them should go, but in the end it was decided that as Luna is a superior tactician, not to mention a member of this House, she would go with the troops. Besides, as it night time, she will be doing the organization and dispatch of the troops, and will depart with them on the train well before dawn, and therefore get her rest on the journey to the Empire. If necessary, she and Celestia can swap out later by teleporting between the Crystal City and Canterlot.”

Path added, “Meanwhile, Celestia will arrange the withdrawal of troops from other places to forward on to the Empire. We are praying that they will get there in time because if Chrysalis attacks too soon, we could be seriously outnumbered.”

“And if she does attack soon?”

“While some will help defend Shining Armor’s shield to reduce the strain upon it, we’ll be focusing our efforts on capturing Chrysalis. Take out the head, and the attack should fail.”

“Capture? She ought to be killed!” Free blurted out.

“No, we’re defenders, not executioners. Twilight has a very strong containment spell that is designed to block the flow of love energy, so once she’s captured, it shouldn’t be difficult to keep her safely incarcerated. I’ve asked Twilight and Techbird to program the spell into my tek-horn as a back-up, but I hope it doesn’t come down to that.”

“Path, you have got to be kidding me. She’s a dangerous tyrant who needs to die!” Free yelled.

Path turned to face him, a deadly serious look upon his face. “What if we believed that Nightmare Moon was beyond redemption? Luna would be dead. What if it was decided that Discord was a hopeless case? Then Tirek would have won since Discord wouldn’t have been able to give the last key to Twilight! Everyone, no matter how bad, deserves a chance at redemption. Everyone.”

Free’s anger faded under Path’s determination, and he nodded. “You’re right. But please, Path, don’t take any unnecessary risks trying to capture her if killing her will ensure the safety of every being on this world.”

“I promise to do my best, Free.” He turned to Kerbarok. “Captain, how quickly do you estimate that we can get to the Crystal City?”

“While we maintained top cruising speed to travel between Canterlot and your House, full emergency speed is considerably faster. We don’t use that normally because it puts too much strain on the engines, but that’s why it’s called emergency speed. However, the distance to the Crystal City is greater than to Canterlot, and we have a far greater load. Bearing these factors in mind, and possible unfavorable headwinds, I am estimating fourteen to fifteen hours. Perhaps sooner, but I have insufficient data to give a more optimistic estimate, sir.”

“Fair enough. I know you’ll do your best. After all, speed is exactly what this ship was designed for.”

The group separated to do their tasks. Twilight and Techbird went to the ship’s cramped little workshop and started to prepare.

“He’s going to need a massive crystal capacitor to hold enough mana for such a spell,” Techbird said.

“Yes, he will. You start etching the crystal, while I start programing the horn,” Twilight instructed.

“Okay.” Techbird hesitated. “Twilight… do you think this can really work?”

“In theory, I think that it can, but there are too many variables to say for certain. This powerful a spell should be tested for a week before even thinking of putting it into Path’s armor.”

Techbird nodded gravely. “I know, but we don’t have a week, do we?”

Twilight’s silence was as good as a reply, and they silently went to work.

# # #

Now that they were under way and their course of action set, Path had nothing left to do until they reached their destination. By rights, he should be trying to get some sleep; tomorrow was very likely to be a busy day. He wished he knew whether they would be spending it preparing for a battle, or actually engaging in one, but either way it was weighing heavily on his mind. While this had been part of the House’s manifesto, it was still too soon. He had hoped to have several years to build up the House to a respectable force, but with just a year to work with, the House Path defense force was far too small as yet. Thank Celestia they had the extra griffon warriors to boost their numbers! Even so, he knew within his heart that fewer would return to Griffonia than departed this night, no matter the outcome.

His somber mood kept Path restless, and he wandered about the great airship aimlessly. His route took him into the canopy catwalks, and he carefully picked his way around the warriors who had already bedded down there. He soon found himself at the doorway that led to the engine room, and he pushed it open. Immediately he was hit by the hum of the mana generators, the roar of the thaumic turbofans, and all the other noises associated with propelling and steering the massive craft. He hastily closed the door to stop the noise from disturbing the sleepers, and then wandered further inside.

“Can I help you, yer lordship?” came a voice over the din.

Path looked to his left to spot a griffon in stained overalls approaching down a narrow service corridor that led to the wing-mounted thrusters. “Not really… umm… Irontalon, isn’t it?”

“Chief Engineer Warra Irontalon at yer service, sir,” he replied with a sloppy salute.

“Right. I’m just checking up on things, keeping myself occupied for the moment.”

“No need to worry, sir. Me and Blue Topaz are keepin’ a close eye on everythin’. Gotta listen and look out for the slightest thing while we’re running the engines at emergency speed. Jump on the least little glitch before it becomes a problem.”

“Good to hear. Where is Blue Topaz now?”

“Starboard engine compartment. We’ll both be watchin’ fer another hour before I send her off to sleep fer a coupla hours. The mare hadn’t gone to bed yet before we got the call to move out. I had an early night, so I’m good fer a few more hours.”

“Good, good.” Path just stood there, not knowing what to do next.

“May I suggest that ya get some rest, sir? If yer lordship is restless, might I also suggest her ladyship help with that?”

Path was startled by the griffon’s rather unsubtle suggestion, but that was not too out of character for his kind. He gave the engineer a half-smile. “Perhaps I’ll take that advice, Chief. Carry on.”

Path turned about and headed out of the engine compartment. However, he did not head straight for his room. He would be sharing it with Free and Twilight tonight, and being intimate with his mate was hardly likely under those conditions. Besides, he still felt restless. His hooves eventually brought him to one of the observation ports, and he leaned his forelegs against the windowsill to watch the moonlit clouds pass by. He had not been watching for long before he spotted something odd – a shadow seemed to be pacing the ship. It was at the wrong angle for airship to be causing it, and no aerial patrol was being kept because they were moving too fast. He tried to resolve the form without success until it suddenly drew closer. While indistinct, it resembled a pegasus, but it was too big and fast to possibly be one. Then its head turned, and for a moment Path knew it was looking at him, and a chill went down his spine. A moment later, a puff of cloud passed between it and him, and after the cloud was gone, so was the shadow.

Path no longer felt like watching, and he made his way to his stateroom. There he found Roseclaw waiting for him.

Roseclaw said, “Free is keeping Twilight company until she completes work on your horn. We have the room to ourselves for the moment.” She lifted the blanket in invitation.

Path climbed into bed with her and embraced his mate. They kissed and nuzzled each other, indulging in little intimacies for a while. Eventually though, Roseclaw stopped with a sigh.

“We had better rest, my warrior. Tomorrow we do battle.”

“We could be wrong, you know?”

“Yes, we could, but you don’t believe that, do you?”

“No. No I don’t.”

Despite his worries, being in the arms of his beloved eased his nerves, and they fell asleep together. Neither woke when Twilight and Free joined them later.

# # #

Path was a little surprised to wake up and find that they had slept for nearly eight hours undisturbed. He hoped that it was a good sign. He found himself sandwiched between Roseclaw and Free, tempting him to lie there a while longer. The foursome had shared a communal bed only a few times over the past year, and it was a shame that this time was under these circumstances. He was not sure how much sleep they had gotten, so he gently tried to extricate himself without disturbing them. He failed.

“Good morning,” Free said quietly.

“I should have known you’d wake up easily.”

“Yeah, I’m still topped up with lots of A-grade love. You two lovebirds were leaking a fair bit too last night.”

“Well, save it up – you might need it today.”

“I figured I might. Want to go grab breakfast while we let the ladies sleep? Twi worked herself to a nubbin getting that spell coded last night. She needs all the rest that she can get.”

Good idea… if I can get out without too much fuss.” Path was still too awkwardly placed to make a graceful exit.

“Here – let me help.” Free shifted to unicorn form and his horn glowed as he lifted Path straight up and then over to the floor. With the earth pony out of the way, Free had room to move, and he got up and shifted to pegasus form. With a flick of his wings, he got off the bed without further disturbing their mates.

“That’s damn handy,” Path said with a touch of envy.

Free gave a soft chuckle. “I’ve been doing this a lot lately. My squad knows what I am, and we train to take advantage of it. I never thought that I would be shape-shifting so much ever because I like being a griffon, but I find myself enjoying doing so with my team-mates. Just shows how changing circumstances can also change my feelings.”

“Beginning to feel the natural instincts kick in after all these years?”

Free shrugged. “Maybe. The minute I stop enjoying it though, I’ll stop doing it. Anyway – breakfast! Let’s go.” He opened the stateroom door.

“You’re going like that?” Path asked, indicating with his eyes that Free was still in pony form.

“Might as well. My squad will recognize me, the changelings know what I am, and the griffon warriors won’t realize who I am.”

Path grinned as he followed Free out and closed the door. “You have changed.”

Free matched Path’s grin and said, “Just remember – I’m Free, and that also means I’m free to change my mind.”

“But not about breakfast. Come on – I smell bacon!”

Breakfast was lavish, but that was to be expected. Every person on the airship would soon be needing every bit of energy that they could get. Even if it was just preparing for battle, no pony, griff, or changeling would be anything but flat-out busy. Path hoped that they would get that chance to prepare. He resisted the temptation to check for any news until after the meal; they would not be arriving for several more hours, and they could do nothing in the meantime anyway.

After the meal, Path and Free went to the bridge. Unsurprisingly, they found Kerbarok there, and Path hoped the captain had gotten a good rest also, but he did not pry. The ship’s commander undoubtedly knew what he was doing.

“Good morning, Captain. Any news?”

“Good morning, Lord Path.” He gave Free a curious look and they exchanged a polite nod. “The Avatars of Harmony are waiting with Princess Cadance and Prince Shining Armor. The prince has worked out the optimum shield diameter to protect the inner city and tested it. Princess Luna has arrived with her troops and they have set up a defensive perimeter around the base of the shield. Civilian evacuation has nearly been completed. Princess Celestia says that another battalion is due there in approximately seven hours.”

“Any update on our E.T.A.?”

“Favorable winds have shortened my original estimate, but we still have about three and a half hours to go before we arrive.”

“Let’s hope we get there in time,” Path said fervently.

“I’m totally with you there, sir.”

With nothing else to do for the moment, they went back to join with the others in the mess room. A little morale-building conversation with the troops was in order, especially with the griffon warriors who had no experience and little special training, and who were beginning to feel a little nervous. As Path chatted though, he caught a movement on the floor out of the corner of his eye. Turning to look, he was shocked to recognize the source.

“That’s Slick!” Path exclaimed, pointing out the scurrying ferret to Free.

They jumped up to follow Slick who was burdened by an apple that he had filched from the breakfast supplies, otherwise they might have lost track of the ferret. Slick disappeared through the slightly open doorway of a storage compartment, and Path trotted up and wrenched the door fully open. A blue-furred colt holding the stolen apple stared back at him in surprise before giving him a guilty smile.

“Hi, Dad.”

“Streak! What in Celestia’s name are you doing on board the Skyshark?!”

“I want to help! You know that I’m already a better warrior than most soldiers.”

“You’re thirteen! You’re not supposed to be going into any fights for years!”

“I’m a warrior-scholar of the House of Path, and I defend the helpless too!” Streak said defiantly.

Path was torn between admiration and fear for his adopted son. “And I’m Lord of House Path, and I’m ordering you to stay out of the battle. You aren’t ready yet.”

Path was met with sullen silence. He sighed and said, “Go to the mess and get yourself a decent breakfast. I’m going to have to break the news to your mother, and she’s going to be even less happy about this than I am.”

“Yes, Dad.” Streak clambered out of the closet and dashed off to the mess.

“And don’t gallop in the airship!” Path yelled after him futilely.

“We can’t spare the time to drop him off somewhere safe, can we?” Free asked.

“We’ll have to. You know Twilight will have a fit once she knows Streak’s aboard.”

“How much time will we lose?”

“Not sure. It’s not just a matter of slowing and going down. We’re likely to spend the most time trying to find somewhere suitable to drop Streak off so that he’ll be safe until we come back to collect him.”

“Twi could probably save a bit of time teleporting him,” Free pointed out.

“Yes, but I’m not going to wake her up yet. She really needs every bit of sleep she can get after that late night. She’s going to be a power player in the upcoming battle, and we don’t want her starting at a disadvantage.”

“True. We’ll wait until she wakes before ruining her day.”

They went to join up with Streak. For the moment, all they could do was keep an eye on the impulsive youth.

They traveled for another couple of hours before Path’s comm started ringing. He put it on his head and activated it. “Long Path here.” He listened for a long moment as his expression grew more serious. “We’re still about an hour and a half away… Yes… I’ll let you know.” He took off the comm and looked at Free. “Cadance told me that the changeling barrier has just collapsed.”

Free sighed and shook his head. “I hate being right.”

“We no longer have the luxury of stopping to let Streak off.”

“Want me to tell Twi?”

“Yeah. Better wake her now. She’ll need time to prepare.” Path got up from the table. “I’ve got to get the warriors ready. In only ninety minutes or so, we’re going to be in the fight of our lives.”

# # #

Twilight was very upset when she learned that Blue Streak was aboard, but like the others, she could see no way of leaving him in safety without sacrificing precious time. “I’ll be leaving you in the care of a crewpony while we’re fighting. You’re to keep yourself safe, you hear?!”

Twilight’s tone was more serious than the young colt had ever heard before. “Yes, Mama,” Streak said reluctantly.

Twilight looked at him skeptically but decided to leave it at that. She softened her tone and said, “Why don’t you help your father get suited up in his tek-armor?”

Streak brightened and said, “Okay, Mama!” He raced off at his normal headlong pace.

Twilight considered the situation. Although the Skyshark was a very valuable resource, in the end it could be sacrificed if necessary to secure a victory. Now though, that option was gone. Their foster son was far more valuable to them, and the airship would be required to protect him. The ship’s tactics would have to be adjusted accordingly. With her mind abuzz with different scenarios, she went to get herself prepared for the battle.

# # #

Path, Free, Twilight, Roseclaw, Warfist, and Proper Place crammed onto the bridge. While they did their best to not crowd the helmspony, they wanted to be in constant communication with the ship’s captain as well as the Crystal Empire for the last stretch. It might not have been so bad except for Path’s tek-armor which added considerable bulk to the earth pony. Kerbarok had his sights firmly fixed on the horizon, although it was still too soon to see anything. The tension in the air was shattered when everyone’s comm started ringing. This was the new multi-talk system that was going to be put to use for the first time, in this case connecting Cadance, Shining Armor, and Princess Luna to the House leaders as well the two top officers of the Skyshark. When everyone had their comms in place, Path activated his microphone.

“Long Path here. What’s the status?”

Shining Armor’s voice replied, “The changeling horde is within sight of the city. Cadance and I are going to try the love-powered shield that repelled Chrysalis from Canterlot first. If nothing else, it should buy us some time.”

Path said, “That sounds like a good idea. No sense in risking the troops sooner than we have to.”

Luna’s voice came next. “In case that does not work, my Royal Guards are ready to slow down their advance until Shining Armor can establish his shield.”

Free spoke up. “Luna, don’t forget that with so much love energy in the air, changelings will be able to heal fast, and the closer they get to the Heart, the faster they will heal. A kill-shot is almost the only certain way to put one out of action. Don’t let your Guards turn their backs on one that is merely injured.”

“Thy words are wise and will be heeded, Free Agent.”

“Oh, Sweet Celestia! The sky is turning black!” Cadance’s shocked voice came over the speakers.

Path frowned. “What’s happening?”

The grim tone in Shining Armor’s voice was clear when he spoke. “My wife does not exaggerate. There are so many changelings approaching that they are blocking the sunlight. My friends, we are in serious trouble.”

“Don’t wait too long to try repelling them!”

“Agreed. Cadance, my love, it’s time.”

There was silence over the comms for a while, and then a strange hum and soft explosion broke the quiet. Then a soft panting preceded Shining Armor’s voice.

“That worked. The changelings have been repelled… for now.”

“What’s the repelling shield’s effective range?” Kerbarok asked.

Shining Armor replied, “I’m not sure. It’s not something that we’ve ever measured. Maybe 2/3 of the way to the border. If you’re worried that it’s going to affect your changeling warriors, we’ve specifically tuned it to the Blue Changelings this time. Unlike back in Canterlot, all the other hive types should be unaffected.”

“How could you know that for sure?”

“A Blue Changeling ally volunteered to help us refine it.”

“We have a Blue ally?” Kerbarok asked in complete surprise.

“More than one actually, Captain,” Twilight replied. “Harvesters from before the Canterlot invasion who rebelled against Chrysalis’ commands have been living peacefully in hiding.”

Free felt an uncomfortable tingle. “Um, Twi… that could still be a problem,” Free pointed out.

“I thought you weren’t expelled back then?”

“It still knocked me for a loop and broke my disguise for the first time. I just felt what I think were the remnants of the love blast, and if that affects me here, what’s going to happen up close?”

“We’re still twenty-five minutes away, and you felt it anyway?” Twilight asked incredulously.

“Maybe I’m more sensitive, but yeah.”

“We’re going to have to drop you off at the border.”

Free’s expression hardened to the grimmest Twilight had ever seen. “Not a chance!”

“Free Agent! We can’t forego a defense because it might affect you,” Warfist pointed out sternly.

“That’s my problem, War. Don’t let it stop you.”

Kerbarok said, “You can join my changeling crew when I lead them out to battle. We won’t be able to get too close to the Heart or else we can suffer burn-out from overload.”

“Nope, I’m going right up to the city with the others.”

“What use will you be if you kill yourself from overload?”

“I’m not like you, Captain. I can take a lot more than you can.”

“How could you possibly do that?” Skepticism fairly dripped from Kerbarok’s tone.

Free smirked. “Because I’m a queen, chum.”

Kerbarok’s eyes widened in shock. “You’re a queen? How can this be?”

“Long story. If we both live through this, I’ll tell you all about it.”

Twilight interjected, “But remember what happened last time you were that close, Free?”

Free turned to face Twilight with a serious expression. “Don’t worry about me, Sparkles. I know a lot more about myself and what happens to me now. I won’t let it make me lose control. Trust me.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” came Shining Armor’s voice, “but it seems the next wave is coming. Either the first lot have recovered already, or else they have a great number more waiting for their turn.”

“I strongly believe that it’s the latter,” Warfist stated.

“Me too,” Shining replied. “We’re going to let them get a bit closer than last time. Maybe it’ll buy us another minute.”

Luna spoke up. “If thou wouldst wait until just before they reach our lines, we can test our offences before thou dost repel them.”

“Can do, Princess,” Shining Armor replied.

“I will give thee a signal.”

There was another anxious wait until Luna suddenly shouted, “NOW!”

They listed to the same soft explosion as before, and after a moment, Twilight commanded, “Report!”

“Repulsion successful, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna replied. “However, I fear for our ability to attack them. 'Tis like trying to kill a swarm of ants with a stick. No matter how big the stick or how many we hit, far more are missed. I overreacted and did blast them with my horn, but while it did fell far more, the collateral damage to the city was great. I fear Glimmer World might not reopen for some time.”

“Aw, crap!” Free cursed. “I wanted to take Twi there later.” When everyone just stared at him, he continued. “What? Think positive! We’re going to win this fight, and then we’re going to celebrate!”

Despite herself, Twilight smiled. “Idiot!” she said, and then kissed him. “I’ll take a rain-check.”

“If we can get back to serious matters,” Warfist interjected, “I would suggest that you continue to inflict whatever casualties on the enemy that you can while you have the opportunity to do so without engaging them. We will need every advantage that we can get. Structures can be readily replaced.”

“A sound idea, General Warfist,” Luna said.

“With one problem,” Cadance added. “Shining Armor and I can only do this a few more times. It is immensely draining, and my husband must also power the shield for the long term.”

“Do it as many times as you feel comfortable, Cadance,” Twilight advised. “The long-term shield is more important.”

The repulsion strategy was used four more times, and after each, Luna reported the deaths of hundreds of Blue Changelings. “T’was but a drop in the ocean though,” she lamented. “They seem as unlimited as the seas themselves.”

“That’s the last for now,” Shining Armor said. “I’m going to rest a bit until the next wave comes, and then throw up the barrier. Luna, make sure all your troops are outside the designated border. Once the shield goes up, nothing or nobody will be able to get through. I can’t afford to waste energy dropping it and re-establishing it.”

“Understood, Prince Armor.”

“Well, I’m kind of glad that’s all for now,” Free said. “That last blast thumped me good.”

“I felt nothing,” Kerbarok said suspiciously. “You’re a queen and apparently a Blue Changeling, so does that make you Chrysalis’ offspring?”

“Like I keep telling everyone, Captain, I’m my own hive. Don’t care who laid my egg, but I owe nothing else to that bitch.”

Twilight frowned and said, “Free is beyond suspicion, Captain. Focus on the real enemy.”

“Yes, Your Highness. It’s nearly time for the changeling troops to disembark. If you will excuse me, I must make my final preparations to lead them.”

“You’re excused, Captain.”

“Thank you. Commander Onyx – the Skyshark is yours until I return. Look after her.”

“Aye aye, Captain!” Commander Onyx replied.

“I suppose I should join the Captain,” Proper Place said.

“No, we need you to use your talents to coordinate troop movements from the Skyshark,” Path replied.

“But I’m just as vulnerable to burn-out as all the other changelings,” Proper Place protested.

“We know,” Twilight said, “but there’s something that I was working on in top secret that will protect you.” She rummaged in her bag and pulled out a medallion. “This is a special shield spell that only the Command team knows about. It’s designed to block out ambient love energy for the wearer. I actually made it for Free so that we could visit Cadance and my brother in the Crystal City, and I was going to suggest that he use it during the battle, but if he’s going to be in the thick of it, he’s going to need a lot of energy. So you wear it and do what you do best.”

 

“I will, Princess. Why is it so top secret though?”

“Just think what Chrysalis could do with it if she knew about it.”

“Oh! Right.”

Path said, “I’m going to address the warriors before Kerbarok takes his team. I’ll keep my comm open.”

“Break a leg!” Free said cheerfully.

Path snorted in amusement and left.

Shining Armor chose that moment to announce that the next wave had been spotted. “Things are about to get real serious, everypony!”

# # #

Path took Kerbarok aside for a private word. “If you go ahead with your plans to fight the swarm, you won’t have anyone backing you up. You would be outnumbered hundreds to one! We could drop off all you changelings behind the lines, and we would not think any less of you.”

Kerbarok looked offended. “Sir! We are members of the Equestrian military, and it is our duty to do our utmost in the defense of Equestria and its allies. On top of this, we of the Red Hive are known for our loyalty and devotion to duty. We cannot even consider not doing our part in this conflict.”

Path gave him a bitter smile, thinking that the changeling would make a great Avatar of Loyalty. “I know, but I had to make the offer. For what it’s worth, General Warfist advises that playing it safe and only trying to make a kill when it doesn’t leave you vulnerable will not only ensure that you live longer, but will be of greater long-term value to the cause.”

“We’ll try to keep that in mind, sir.”

“Good. Let’s get back to the others; I have something to say to everyone before you go.”

The Skyshark was not set up to easily address large numbers simultaneously, but Path tried his best. The changelings were all crowded into the corridor that led to the exit to the launch platform which was closed until they dropped to a sufficiently low speed. The griffon warriors were mostly distributed among the catwalks that branched off from the corridor, while the rest were gathered in and around the stairwell that led up to the canopy area. Path positioned himself as central to them all as he could manage so that he could be heard by all, although he had acquired a public address spell from Twilight that would assist. Path could feel the tension in the air. For most, this would be their first true battle, and even for those few who had seen conflict before, this was a whole new situation. The upcoming fight could determine nothing less than the fate of the world, and they were going to be seriously outnumbered. Only their skills could make a difference, but even so, all knew that some of them would not be going home again. It was time to rally the troops.

Path called for everyone’s attention, and when they all quieted, he began his speech. “Ponies... Griffons... Thestrals... Changelings... These are names that do not matter at this moment. In just a few minutes from now, we will engage an opponent so crazed, so feverous in its lust for power, that it will threaten all life not only in this country, but potentially the entire world. We unite as one against this force of indiscriminate evil in the name of Harmony!” He stomped his hoof on the floor. “Below there are thousands of innocents being protected by a shield, but despite all the power behind that shield, it cannot hold forever!” His eyes gazed about the attentive listeners. “We are all warriors united in this just cause, and we will defeat the swarm. That shield will not fall!” Path was starting to fall into the role of battle leader rather well. “The protection of our way of life and the lives of all on this beautiful world of ours will bring glory and honor to all!” He looked at the griffons and said in Griffish, “For your King!” The griffon warriors battle-screeched as one. Path then switched to the changeling tongue. “For your Queen!” The Red Hive members let out their own battle cry. Path then looked to the group of Royal Guards that Celestia had assigned to the Skyshark, and in Equish he cried, “For your Sun!” The Guard ponies cheered as his voice changed to Old Equish. “For thy Moon!” The thestrals also cheered as he looked finally to his own select group of warrior-scholars. “And for the House!” Not only the warrior-scholars, but everyone listening joined in the battle cry all at once, perfectly synchronized. Path smiled proudly. “We are many kinds, but we fight as one because we fight for the cause of Harmony. Fight with your brothers-in-arms, protect each other’s backs, and live to celebrate our victory!” There was another big cheer.

Kerbarok signaled to get Path’s attention. “Lord Path, the ambient love energy level is reaching optimum for us changelings.”

“Right.” Path touched his comm and said, “Commander Onyx – slow to launch platform speed.”

Slowing to launch speed, aye,” Onyx replied. “Be advised, we have entered the swarm.”

Twilight’s voice interjected. “Don’t worry about them yet. I’ve set up a one-way shield that will keep them out, but allow our changelings through.”

The ever-present muted roar of the turbo-fans abruptly reduced to a murmur. When the speed had dropped sufficiently, a red indicator lamp next to the exit changed to amber, and the sound of hydraulics began as the launch platform lowered. Normally it was raised to be flush with the rest of the canopy for streamlining, but once the speed was below a specific threshold, it could be swiveled down until it was level with the exit door, and then the light changed to green. The changeling squad surged out, led by Captain Kerbarok. Path followed them onto the platform to watch them form into groups of at least three, ready to protect themselves from all sides. Then they passed through the lavender glow of the shield to engage the enemy.

Path was appalled by what he observed. He had known that there would be thousands of the Blue Changelings, but it was another thing to see them blackening the sky with their numbers. He said a silent prayer for the squad’s safety and then went back inside.

“Changeling squad all clear,” he reported as he closed the exit door. “Resume best speed for the city.”

Aye, sir,” came the response, and the motors roared back to life as the launch platform returned to its normal position.

Path addressed the rest of the waiting warriors. “Make your way to your designated exits. The moment that we reach the city, you will be stepping into the heat of battle. Good fortune to you all.”

Path made his way back to the bridge where he saw Twilight concentrating on maintaining the shield.

“Why not save your energy for when we get there, Twilight?”

“I wish I could, but the skies are so full of changelings that we would endanger the ship travelling at this speed through them, so I’m using the shield to push them aside before they can do damage.”

Commander Onyx added, “I’m gaining altitude so that we can get above the swarm and the Princess can drop the shield.”

“I see.” He looked to Free who seemed to be trembling a bit. “How are you holding up, Free?”

“The love energy is building up fast, but I have it under control. Better let me out immediately when we get there though so I can release some of it.”

“Right, so the sooner we get there, the better.”

At their great speed, they got ahead of the swarm and came upon the city in next to no time. As the great airship slowed, they took advantage of their high altitude to get a clear picture of the current situation. The crystal city’s outer suburbs had been surrendered to the changelings, while a great dome of pinkish magical energy covered the inner city and the castle, protecting the helpless citizens within its sanctuary. The Blue Changelings were not coming from any one source, but could be seen in the distance streaming in from several directions. One enormous swarm was already all upon the besieged city, and the murmuration of the cloud of changelings formed into the aspect of some terrible beast clawing away at the shield.

“What in Celestia's name is that?” gasped Twilight.

“Psychological warfare,” Path replied. “Chrysalis is using fear as a weapon as well as overwhelming force.”

While the changelings were attacking on all sides, it became clear that the ‘claws’ were actually dense probes which were forcing their way through Princess Luna’s defensive forces, and they could see flashes of energy on the shield’s surface where changelings impacted upon it.

Path frowned. “That didn’t happen back at Canterlot.” He tapped his comm. “Princess Luna, are you there?”

I see thee, Lord Path.

“What’s happening to the shield?”

The changelings are suicidal in their attack. They strike the shield with utmost fury.

Path, Free and Twilight all recalled the craters that the Canterlot invaders had made when power diving onto the streets without harm to themselves, and it made them wonder how much energy was behind their impacts when they gave no thought to their own well-being.

“Shining Armor – how are you holding up?”

Cadance’s voice came back over the comm instead. “My husband is concentrating on maintaining the shield, Lord Path. Your aid is sorely needed as Luna’s forces are severely stretched.

“We’re almost there, Princess. Hang in there!”

Free tapped his comm and said, “Freedom Squad – I’m coming up now. Form up with me as we exit.” He then dashed off the bridge.

The winged troops started disembarking the moment that the speed had dropped sufficiently.

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