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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26. Chapter 19: We've Only Just Begun

It was a gorgeous day in the Crystal City, although that was hardly surprising. Princess Celestia had assigned a crack weather team to keep the conditions at optimum for the workers who were repairing and rebuilding everything that had been damaged or destroyed in the battle. The House Path leaders had shifted their meeting with Cadance out onto one of the castle’s balconies in order to enjoy the conditions while they talked, and it had the benefit of also giving them an overview of the ongoing works. Therefore Twilight was in a position to notice a white streak plummet towards the ground, and almost embed itself in the castle’s lawn. She winced before turning to the others.

“Pardon me for a moment,” she said before spreading her wings and flying down to the crash site. As she alighted, a groan came from the pony half-buried in clods of dirt and grass at the end of a long furrow in the grass.

“You know Shining, while it’s true that alicorns represent all three pony tribes, I’m pretty certain that my earth pony friend, Applejack, would say you're doing it wrong.”

The world’s newest alicorn was most indecorously sprawled with his butt in the air, brand new wings still trying to correct his attitude. His torso thumped to the ground and he raised his head, spitting out a mouthful of dirt. “Heal, please,” he asked with a groan.

 

 

Twilight took pity on him and cast a general healing spell to deal with bruises and contusions from his latest attempt to learn how to fly. “Y’know, BBBFF, you could ask for lessons instead of trying to learn all by yourself.”

“Just what I need – my little sister sniggering over every mistake.”

“Hey, it’s your turn to swallow your pride. Besides, I was thinking of asking someone else. I’m hardly an expert flyer despite a few years head-start on you.”

“Who then?” he asked as he used his magic to try to dust himself off.

“Free.”

“Are you serious?!”

“Of course I’m serious. Changelings have to learn how to fly in whatever form they take. Griffons fly differently from changelings, and even thestrals fly differently from pegasi. He’ll be able to show you how to master your wings. He’s even helped me increase my speed and endurance by honing my techniques.” She smiled slyly. “Unless you’re afraid of being shown up by a changeling queen?”

Shining just gave Twilight a glare, and she giggled. He sighed in resignation. “Okay, can you ask him for me?”

“Nope! You’re going to do it yourself. You can fly up with me and do so right now.”

Shining eyed the high balcony dubiously.

Twilight relented and said, “Here’s a freebie for you. This is what I learned in flight school.” She showed Shining the proper technique for taking off for a high perch, and encouraged him to imitate her.

Shining managed a reasonable take-off, and fluttered unsteadily upwards. He lost control again though as he tried to adjust for a landing. This time though, he caught himself with telekinesis before face-planting into the considerably harder marble floor. Rotating his hooves beneath him, he achieved a graceless but safe four-point landing.

Twilight alighted beside him and said, “Free, Shining has something to ask you.”

The griffon-changeling looked at the white alicorn curiously. “What’s up?”

Shining looked as if he would rather chew dirt again, but he nevertheless managed to ask, “Twilight tells me that you might be prepared to give me flying lessons?”

Free grinned so widely that Shining Armor almost retracted his request right then.

“Sure! We at House Path pride ourselves on our teaching methods. All I require is strict adherence to my lessons and diligent practice.”

“You’re going to make my life hell, aren’t you?”

“I’m going to treat you exactly as well and respectfully as you treated me, my dear Prince.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” Shining said with resignation. He still might have backed out of it, if it wasn’t for his wife sitting there, watching and listening, and trying to stifle her laughter at her husband’s plight. Pride kept him there though. “When do we do this?”

Twilight answered, “You can have your first lesson after we wind up this meeting. We’ve been discussing how best to deal with Free’s hive. You can add your opinions too, if you like?”

“Might as well, I suppose. So what have you decided so far?”

“Well, Free has committed his hive to the House, and the House has committed to using all its resources to providing aid where it’s needed, so really it’s a matter of how to best utilize this resource.”

“You don’t want it here in the Crystal Empire then,” Shining replied.

“Not that I disagree, but what’s your reasoning?”

“We already have those dormant soldier drones stationed around the Empire, ready to be activated at a moment’s notice, so we already have enough of an emergency force standing by. You need to station the rest of your resources elsewhere to be of greatest benefit.”

“We agree, and we’ve been debating where. While it’s going to be a component of House Path, we don’t think it would be appropriate to set up the new hive in Griffonia, especially as it’s already the territory of the Western Hive.”

“So, assuming that you would have to avoid the territories of the other five Equestrian hives, you would either have to find the old hive before Chrysalis moved to the Crystal Empire, or find another new place to hide it.”

“I’m not going to hide it,” Free stated bluntly.

Shining was taken by surprise. “You’re going to have them right there in the open? Some ponies aren’t going to like that.”

“It’s been years since changelings were revealed to the public, and there’s been a big change in management. It’ll be a bit bumpy, but I intend that my hive be as open to the community as it’s possible for a hive to be.”

“You’re still disguising yourself as a griffon though; isn’t that a bit hypocritical?”

“You might not have noticed, but I’ve stopped worrying about changing in front of a lot of people. I won’t be going out of my way to tell everypony yet, but I won’t be ashamed of what I am anymore. So get this straight, pie-face – I’m in griffon form because I’m half griffon by birth, and that’s the way I prefer to be, not because I have anything to hide.”

Before Shining could retort, Twilight interjected, “I believe that you two are supposed to have a truce. So how about putting a lid on it and get back to the subject?”

“Sorry, Twily,” Shining Armor said.

“Me too, Sparkles.”

“Good. Now it’s been suggested that Free’s hive could set up in the caverns under Canterlot….”

Shining frantically waved his hooves and shook his head. “No, Twily. Not only is it still too soon for the citizens of Canterlot, but you’d probably be stomping on other changelings’ hooves. I have a much better idea. You have a castle in Ponyville, so why not use that as a starting point?”

“I’m glad you mentioned that, because we’d thought of that too. Considering the numerous weird things that have happened there, a hive is unlikely to cause too big of a stir. I just wanted someone else to suggest it besides myself. Of course we’ll have to make an effort to introduce the Blue Changelings carefully to the citizens of Ponyville; we don’t want a repeat of the hysteria that Zecora induced before they got to know the zebra.”

“So you’re happy to have your castle turned into a hive?”

“Well, not the whole castle. That’s only going to be the queen’s residence, while the main hive will be built into the nearby hillside. We’ll probably have a connecting tunnel between there and the castle.”

“Sounds like you already have this sorted out.”

“Not really. Setting up the hive there means that Free and I would have to be in Ponyville for weeks, and while that makes things easier for me to keep my commitments there, it would drag us away from the House for considerable periods.”

“Not to mention that I don’t really wanna run a hive anyway,” Free added.

“You’re kind of stuck with it though,” Shining said with a smirk.

“Yeah. I wish I could give Chryssy a few more kicks for inflicting that on me.”

“Have they found her corpse yet?” Twilight asked.

Shining shook his head. “Not a sign of it. Are you sure that your drones didn’t cart away her body with the other dead drones?” he asked Free.

“Almost certainly. Those drones are so simple-minded that they follow orders extremely literally. They were told to retrieve dead drones, and that’s all they took. I tried looking into the hive mind, but I’m still not good at that, and I haven’t seen any hints about it.”

“Perhaps her body was accidentally cleared away with the debris by unicorns?” Cadance suggested.

They thought about it and came to the conclusion that they couldn’t discount that, or some other method that had not occurred to them yet.

“It’s a pity – I really wanted to study her body,” Twilight lamented. “How often do you get a chance to examine a changeling queen?”

“You can examine mine as much as you like anytime, Sparkles,” Free said with a waggle of his eyebrows.

Twilight blushed and said in a fierce whisper, “Not now, Free!”

There was good-natured laughter from all those present, including Shining Armor. Payback worked both ways!

When the laughter died down, Cadance said, “Change of subject! Shining, we’ve been discussing the Crystal Empire’s role in our new alliance with House Path. It’s Path’s intention to establish satellite campuses for the House, and the formal treaty that we’re formulating will include our support of that.”

“I know that much already and you know I agree with it,” Shining replied.

“Of course. However, we’ve been working on the details, and we need someone to head up that branch. It has been suggested that in light of your recent ascension and role of Protector, you would be the ideal candidate.”

Shining blinked in surprise. “Me?”

Twilight nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! You would join the House in a dual role like me. You’d still be there to help Cadance when necessary, but you’d also be working towards something greater than just the Empire.”

“Well, I’ve trained my share of Royal Guards, but I don’t know if I’m cut out to be one of your warrior-scholars.”

“Were you cut out to be a prince?” Twilight pointed out. “You’ve taken to that role quite well, and I have faith in your ability to do this too.”

Shining looked around at all the expectant faces, and was surprised that even Free seemed to be supporting the idea. He swallowed nervously and made his decision. “I accept.”

There was a general cheer, and Twilight gave him an enthusiastic hug.

“Welcome to the House of Path, BBBFF!”

# # #

That evening, instead of heading to their rooms in the castle, Twilight, Free, Roseclaw, Cadance, Shining Armor, Warfist, and several others boarded the Skyshark for an overnight flight to Canterlot. They started the journey late, and Kerbarok kept the speed down to cruising level, but even so the swift craft arrived well before dawn. Therefore everyone was able to make their way to the castle for breakfast with the princesses.

It was a quieter than normal meal. The day’s scheduled events cast a somber veil over the mood, and conversation was focused on the roles each would play that day. It was time for the formal funeral for those who had fallen in the defense of the Crystal Empire. The Skyshark had also brought back the last of the bodies of the Royal Guards and the Equestrian allies, and their families had time to gather from distant places to attend the remembrance ceremony.

The next stop was at the hospital to see Path. They were surprised to find him already out of his sustenance pod and in the process of having the healing gel washed out of his fur.

“Beloved, surely you’re not healed enough as yet?” Roseclaw asked with great concern.

“It’s only temporary, Rose,” Path replied, glad that he was actually able to talk now that he was out of the pod, and could deal with his mate’s objections. “I’m going to be in a wheelchair most of the time, and I promise that I won’t exert myself most of the time.”

Most of the time?” she repeated suspiciously.

“I have to show that I am strong enough to have made that speech in the Crystal City. I’ll be making a eulogy at the funeral, and I should be able to do that with Twilight’s magical support.”

“Alright,” Roseclaw said, sufficiently mollified for now. “Then straight back to the hospital!”

“Well, back into the pod, anyway. Azon reckons that he will be able to monitor my progress, and there’s no need to stay at the hospital anymore. That means that we’ll all be able to head home whenever we’re ready.”

“That makes sense.”

The unicorn hospital orderly dried off the now clean earth pony, and then levitated him onto the waiting wheelchair. With Roseclaw in charge of pushing the wheelchair, the group headed out of the hospital in considerably greater cheer than when they had entered. They caught Path up on all the news, including Shining Armor’s appointment to the new branch of the House, and the duly signed treaty that would support it.

Unlike the funeral service that was held after Chrysalis’ previous attempt at invading the Crystal Empire, this one was held more publicly. A parade of hearses drawing the bodies of the fallen left the castle grounds and wound through the main streets of Canterlot to the military cemetery. Temporary stands had been erected to deal with the civilians who wished to attend the ceremonies, but the bereaved families were directed to another stand where Princesses Luna, Celestia, Twilight, and Cadance were stationed, along with the House Path leaders and other important dignitaries directly involved in the conflict. Free took his place just behind Twilight who turned to face him with a look of concern on her face.

“Are you going to be able to cope with all the negative emotions here? You couldn’t last time.”

Free nodded. “It’ll be okay, Twilight. Just like I can turn off my ability to absorb love, I can do the same for the sadness and grief here. If you see me look depressed, it’s because I’m sad that this ever had to happen.”

Reassured, Twilight turned her attention back to the procession of the dead.

When the last of the coffins was unloaded from the hearses and made ready to be interred, Celestia stepped up to the podium. The murmur of conversation died down as the Royal Trumpeters blasted a fanfare, and then Celestia began her speech which was magically amplified so that everyone could hear it clearly.

“Mares, Stallions, Hens, Cocks, Changelings… we are all gathered here today to honor those who gave their lives so that all might live in peace and Harmony. It is a time of great sadness, but also one of hope, because through their actions, the world is rid of a threat that would have consumed all. The mad queen, Chrysalis, would have destroyed our way of life, but instead she has catalyzed the greatest force for peace this world has ever known. Many species and several nations joined together in mutual defense, and because of this, we won the day. However, it was at a great price, and today we honor those who paid that price. They gave their lives so that others might have a chance to live. Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, please begin the honor roll.”

Cadance stepped up to the podium as Celestia stepped down. She levitated a scroll and began to read. “From the Imperial Guard: Corporal Agate Gleam. Sergeant Burnished Shield. Private Dazzling Sword. Lieutenant Driving Force. …” The list continued alphabetically, rank irrelevant because they were all equally heroes. As each name was read out, a unicorn Guard standing by the coffin would lower it into the grave, and then the next name would be then be read until Cadance’s list was completed.

Luna stepped up next to list the Equestrian forces in a similar manner. She made sure that it was made clear that the changeling troops were respected as much as their pony comrades. Then it was Twilight’s turn to list their fallen comrades, and she struggled to do so as tears welled in her eyes. Their coffins weren’t interred however, as they were all going to be returned to Griffonia. Lord Harkness also stepped up to list the casualties among the griffons, two of whom were interred as their families had indicated that they wished to have their fallen buried alongside of so many other heroes of the battle.

Finally, Path approached the podium with the invisible support of Twilight, and he began his speech. “Many of you might not know me, but I am Lord Long Path, head of the noble House of Path, and it’s to my call to arms that all these heroes responded. It is my House’s avowed aim to protect those who cannot protect themselves, but we cannot do so alone. Equestria, the Crystal Empire, and Griffonia all answered our call when we realized the threat that Queen Chrysalis posed, and we were greatly honored to have those forces doing their utmost to protect the Crystal City from Chrysalis’ hordes while we focused on taking down the queen herself. We literally could not have done it without them, and so I say that they deserve all the honor and respect that you can give them. The House of Path salutes them all, and offers the families of the fallen our greatest condolences.”

Path stepped down and sank wearily into his wheelchair, drained by the effort of making the short speech. A lone trumpeter started playing Tribute to the Fallen while the gathering listened in respectful silence until it finished. Then Celestia stepped up to the podium once more.

“Thank you for coming. Go in peace and harmony.”

# # #

The remainder of the day was spent with family. First stop was Path’s parents’ home for a visit that was made very brief due to his need to get back into the sustenance pod. Winding Road and Ivory Tower had been deeply concerned about their son’s health, but by the time they left, Roseclaw, Twilight, and Free had managed to convince them that Path was not exaggerating his recovery.

Velvet was still disapproving of her daughter’s choice of mates, although it was now mollified a little by his status as a hero of the recent battle. Nevertheless they had a reasonable family get-together before the threesome left for Free’s parents’ place for dinner.

Zephyr and Thundercloud truly made them feel at home. Zephyr was especially proud of her foster son’s accomplishments, and they spent a lot of time filling in the old warrior with the details of the battle. Then they talked late into the evening about how House Path was progressing, and what their immediate plans were. Eventually they had to call it a night though.

“I’ve got a meeting with the other changeling queens set for tomorrow morning that I was pressured into doing,” Free explained. “If I didn’t have this hive lumbered onto me, I’d tell them to take a hike, but Twilight convinced me that they would be a help to me.”

Zephyr said sternly, “You’re going to be meeting with pon… persons who are used to wielding power, so don’t let them push you around!”

“Don’t worry, Mom, I won’t.” He gave her a quick hug and nuzzle, and then they departed for the castle.

# # #

“It’s showtime!” Free declared as he and Twilight stood outside the council chamber where the five changeling queens waited for the sixth to join them. Free’s magic flared and soon a chrome changeling queen stood in his place.

“Still feels weird,” she grumbled.

“Cheer up, Free; it’s not as if you’re going to a lynching.”

Free chuckled. “Nah – that I could handle.”

Twilight realized something was different about Free. “Have you grown? And I swear you only had one pair of wings before.” The more she looked, the more differences she could see. “Your mane has grown out too.”

Free looked back at her body and grunted in surprise. “I feel stronger in this form than I did last time. Maybe it’s because I took on the power of the hive queen?”

Twilight nodded thoughtfully. “You’ve grown into your power.” She gave her a reassuring smile. “It looks good on you, dear. Now put on your most regal smile, and let’s get this under way.”

Free braced herself and nodded to the startled Royal Guards at the doors. They stepped aside, pulling open a door each so that Twilight and Free could walk inside.

The chamber was dominated by a large circular table, around which were seated the five Equestrian hive queens, as well as Princesses Celestia and Luna. They all looked expectantly at the newcomers as they entered and walked over to the empty spots at the table.

Twilight announced, “Your Majesties, may I present Queen Gossamer of the Blue Hive. Your Majesty, these are Queen Lamina of the Violet Hive, Queen Orlare of the Yellow Hive, Queen Polistae of the Orange Hive, Queen Carpacia of the Red Hive, and of course you already know High Queen Dianthia of the Green Hive.”

Gossamer nodded. “A pleasure to meet you all, Your Majesties,” she replied formally.

“A pleasure and a privilege to meet you again,” Dianthia replied. “You have made quite an impression since we last met.”

“It was not of my planning, but it has brought me here today to this illustrious gathering. It’s also why I’m going to continue to cause a stir, so now that the formalities are over, let me get more comfortable.”

Gossamer was engulfed in magic fire, and Free Agent the griffon returned. He threw himself into his chair, put his hind feet up onto the table, his talons behind his head, and made himself comfortable. “Gossamer is what I am, but Free Agent is who I am. Better get used to it, girls, because for better or for worse, you’re stuck with me.”

 

 

The reactions among the queens varied considerably, ranging from mild outrage from Carpacia, great amusement from Polistae, and an eye-roll from Dianthia.

“Gossamer…” Dianthia began.

“Free!” he interjected.

“Alright, Free. You do realize that this council exists to set harmonious policy for all Equestrian hives in coordination with the Equestrian diarchy?”

“Yep. Do you realize that I have absolutely no intention of running my hive like yours?”

Dianthia frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that I’m not going to hide away like you lot. I plan on establishing a new hive in Ponyville, and while it will be built into the nearby hillside like a normal hive, that’s about as typical as it will get. It will be conspicuous and open to all, within practicality. The members of the hive will interact with the citizens of Ponyville, and of Equestria as a whole in an open and normal manner. There will be no hiding what we are and what we do. It’s my intention that some day in the future, the presence of changelings will be so normal, it will seem weird notto have some in the community.”

“This goes against changeling tradition from since the First Memories!” Lamina objected.

“Times change, so get used to it. You’re already having to get ponies used to the presence of undisguised changelings in their midst; this is just one step further.”

“There’s a huge difference between having a few of my harvesters show themselves to reassure nervous ponies, and to have the entire hive open to them!”

“I don’t care what you do with your hive; I’m just telling you my intentions with mine.”

“Then why have you come here at all?” Polistae asked.

“Firstly because I was pressured to do so. Secondly… I need your help.” Free took his feet down from the table and sat up properly. He opened up his forelimbs and indicated himself. “Look at me – I’m a griffon. I was brought up as a griffon and know how to live as one. I was also brought up in a pony society, and know how to live as a pony too. But I know next to nothing about living as a changeling, let alone running a whole hive. Oh sure, I have the hive-mind up here,” he tapped his head with a claw, “but trying to find the answers that I need in it results in a huge flood of data that leaves me floundering because I’ve not had years to make sense of it, and until I get it sorted, it’s not much use to me. So I’m looking for guidance on the essentials.”

“I thought that you wanted to do things differently from us?” Lamina said snidely.

“Don’t treat me like a fool!” Free replied sharply. “I know when I am out of my depth and need to ask for help. However, I only need to know those things that absolutely can’t be done any other way. Everything else will be up for review and decided by me and my House mates. In fact, the Blue Hive will become a subsidiary of House Path, and I have plans for their future. Before Queen Chrysalis distorted the hive, its specialty was discovering the unknown, and I intend to bring that back for the benefit of not only the House, but Equus as a whole.”

Celestia asked, “Will you share your plans with us?”

Twilight answered for Free. “We are still determining how best to do that, but I’m sure you can see how valuable they would be for gathering intelligence. For example, the Blues were able to discover who the gate-keepers were for the Crystal Empire’s barrier despite the high security there. For a non-military example, I am acquainted with a Blue Harvester who is a top-notch researcher for a Vanhoover company.”

Dianthia said, “It’s true that the Blue Hive used to be well-known for its ability to solve complex problems. It would still be a respected hive if Chrysalis had not embarked on her mad quest for power. It is still inexplicable to us why she did so.”

“Insane is right, but I believe I know what pushed her,” Free remarked.

“Please explain,” Dianthia replied.

“She couldn’t breed an heir.”

Dianthia frowned. “But what of you?”

“Because we met just before I killed her, that information was foremost in her thoughts, and so it was easy to access from the hive-mind record. Chryssy has been trying to breed an heir for decades. All either died or were malformed. She didn’t just lose two or three either – she lost hundreds! Can you imagine it? A queen who couldn’t bear a viable child? Her hive’s population was sustained by the breeders, but every attempt to bear an heir with a pony resulted in another failure. She even believed that I was going to die, which prompted her to do something extraordinary out of desperation, and she left me with my sire. When she lost contact with me, it was the final straw, and it broke her. Yes, she tried breeding again after me, but still failed, and each failure pushed her deeper into madness. She started seeking another form of continuity, a way of preserving herself in the memory of all those to come. She sought power for the first time in changeling history, and therefore sealed her fate.”

There was a long period of silence as everyone took that in. Eventually Orlare said, “That was a tragedy of monumental proportions. I wonder if we could have helped her if we had known?”

Free thumped the table with fisted claws. “That’s why I won’t be doing things the traditional way! You never knew because you were always isolated and independent. After Chrysalis invaded Canterlot, she forced you all to act to deal with the new situation, but you still do the absolute least while preserving your precious traditions. Well, good on you! Keep it up – I’m sure you’ll do fine. However, if I have to be stuck with a bloody hive, then I’m going to do better! If I have to do it with just my House to back me up, I’ll do it. However, if any one of you truly thinks that more can be done, I want your help. So what’s it to be?”

There were more than a few glares, but Dianthia looked thoughtful. After a moment that stretched out into an eternity, she finally spoke.

“What you accuse us of might have an element of truth, but we must also think of our hives first before undertaking some new risk. However, I do have a proposal for you. My daughter, Iridia, could use some experience in the operation of a hive. If you choose to accept, she could be connected to your hive-mind and given authority to act in your stead. You would still have the ultimate authority, and she would be required to work with you on your specific goals, but outside of that, she would run the hive in the normal manner. Would you find that a satisfactory arrangement?”

Free looked skeptical. “Just connect her to the hive-mind so she can take it over for the Green Hive?”

“You were connected to my hive-mind for a short while; do you think you could wrest it from my control?”

Free pondered that for a moment and then shook his head. “No.”

“And neither could Iridia take yours away from you. It has to be willingly passed on, and only to a blood relative… unless that’s yet another brand new wrinkle in changeling history,” she added with a touch of sarcasm.

Free turned to twilight and quietly asked, “What do think, Twi?”

“Whatever else you might think of them, Free, the queens have always been forthright with us. If Dianthia thinks it’s a good idea, I’m inclined to agree.”

“Thanks. I think you’re right.” Free turned back to the others. “Okay, I accept your offer. How long will she be able to work for my hive?”

“Indefinitely,” Dianthia replied. “She will only need to return to the Green Hive to take over once I die, and I should have a few decades left before that happens. That should give you plenty of time to get used to your role as a hive queen.”

“I don’t particularly want to become comfortable. I’ve said for some time now that my future is with House Path, not the hive.”

Carpacia scoffed. “You have no choice – you will either take up the mantle and be a queen, or breed an heir and pass it on to her, or die and have your hive follow you into oblivion.”

“I’ve learned how you breed heirs, and that’s not going to happen,” Free said with finality.

To his surprise, all the queens started laughing.

“Okay, what am I missing here?” Free demanded, quite unamused.

“What part of ‘no choice’ don’t you understand?” Carpacia asked. “You are a queen, and breeding is what you will do. Even that extraordinary cutie mark of yours says so. A remarkable thing that. Never in the history of all the changeling hives has there been a changeling who got a real cutie mark. You truly must be a mutant to have done so, but it speaks the truth – you won’t be able to defy the biological imperative. Sooner or later, you will get the urge to breed, and you will not be able to resist it for long. The only difference that you can make is to willingly choose a mate and breed an heir of your own accord.”

Free was stunned. He was hardly in a position to deny it. From what he had learned about himself back in the Green Hive, it was hardly much of a step up from what he had been doing all his adult life. However, to learn that he was not completely in control of that life was still a devastating blow. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself, and then said, “Looks like I have a lot of serious thinking to do later. Okay, let’s iron out the details. I have a hive to build!”

# # #

The conference with the hive queens had taken all day, but it had left Free with a good plan of action. One of the more urgent requirements necessitated a bit of recruiting, but fortunately Twilight had an answer for that also.

“I have two people in mind to help you train your new harvesters, and while I think that the first is least likely, we can kill two twittermites with one stone. I’m overdue to visit my goddaughters anyway!”

Roseclaw preferred to stay and keep Path company, and so it was just Twilight and Free who teleported into the skies above Whitetail Meadows Village that morning. By now, the villagers were used to seeing the princess making regular visits to their town. Not so for Free though, and the griffon endured the curious stares for the short time that it took for them to get to the Wild Dreams flower shop. They entered and found the proprietor busily putting some fresh flower arrangements onto the shelves.

“With you in a moment!” she cheerily called over her shoulder.

“No hurry, Lavender,” Twilight replied.

Lavender’s head whipped around to look at the visitors. “Twilight! I didn’t expect to see you today.”

Twilight stepped up to exchange hugs with Lavender. “You know how it is lately – always busy, and having to squeeze in visits whenever I can.”

“I know! And that nasty business in the Crystal Empire couldn’t have been fun either.” She looked over to Free and said, “Welcome back, Free Agent. It’s nice to see you again too. I think I heard something about you too.”

Free grinned. “Could be. We’ll give you a more detailed account later if you like, but first I need to talk with your husband. Can you tell us where Cogs is at the moment?”

“If you’re prepared to wait for about an hour, he’s coming home for lunch today. You could talk to him then.”

Twilight said, “Well, I wanted to see how the girls are doing and do a little socializing, so we can wait until he comes home.”

“Mom’s here to keep an eye on them. I know she wanted to run some errands this afternoon, so if you’d like to take over from her, that would be very helpful.”

Free chuckled. “That’s right – put the princess to work as a foal-sitter.”

Lavender blushed in embarrassment.

Twilight glared at Free and said, “Don’t mind him, Lavender. He’s just trying to be funny. I’d be delighted to look after my goddaughters for a while.”

“This might be the last time you’ll be able to do that for Dandelion for a while.”

“What? Why?” Twilight asked in puzzlement.

“Because she starts school very soon.”

Twilight’s eyes lit up. “Oh! Of course! I hope she loves it as much as I did.”

Free laughed. “Nopony loves school as much as you did, Sparkles.”

Twilight chuckled and shrugged. “I suppose not.”

Just then a customer entered the store, and Lavender excused herself. Twilight led Free through the door from the store into the house where they found Mauve Prose working on the dining room table. Nearby were two young fillies – one playing with building blocks and the other with pony dolls. Both foals spotted Twilight immediately and dropped their toys to race up for a hug. They also gave Free a greeting too before they got a chance to say hello to Mauve. They spent most of the time waiting for Cogs playing with Dandelion and Fern while Mauve was able to chat only briefly before getting back to her work and running her errand.

Cogs was surprised but pleased to see his visitors, and they chatted while they had lunch. With the foals there, they had to gloss over some of the more unpleasant details of the Battle of Crystal City. However, Mauve took over watching the youngsters again while Cogs had a private talk with Twilight and Free.

“Come out to my work-shed and we can talk more freely,” Cogs said. Mauve of course assumed that they would be talking about the more gruesome aspects of the battle, and never suspected that there was an ulterior motive for the secrecy.

Free and Twilight did talk about the battle though, but this time adding all the details that included the injuries and deaths, and ultimately Chrysalis’ demise. That led up to Free’s big announcement.

“There’s one factor that we’ve left out until now, and that’s my relationship to Chrysalis. You’ve always known that I was a changeling, of course, but I’ve never shown you my natural form. Well, prepare yourself for a shock.” Free then changed to his natural form. “Whirring Cogs – I am Gossamer, daughter of Chrysalis, and your new Queen.”

Cogs stared at the chrome changeling in surprise before snorting in derision. “You’re not my Queen. I’ve severed all ties to the hive, and my life is here now. You have no hold over me.”

Free chuckled. “Pardon my melodrama, but I didn’t really think you’d go for that. I have no intention of demanding your loyalty. However, I am here to offer you a job.”

“Oh? What did you have in mind?”

“Chrysalis got rid of all her harvesters because she didn’t trust their independence of thought. Because of the location in the Crystal Empire, she didn’t need them anymore anyway. However, I will, but I have no one to train the new harvesters that my breeders are raising. I want to offer you the….”

“No,” Cogs said bluntly.

“But you would….”

“No.”

“Just let me explain….”

Cogs held up a hoof to stop her and firmly shook his head. “No. Not interested. I sympathize with your need, but I am not returning to the hive for any reason whatsoever. My life as a changeling is over. I am a pegasus living a happy life here with a gorgeous unicorn mare as my beloved wife and mother of my two darling fillies.That’s what’s important to me now.”

 

 

Twilight said, “It’s okay, Cogs. I suspected that would be your reaction, but we had to ask.”

“You do realize that there’s another candidate for the job?”

“Yes, and we’ll check out Elusive Clue next. We’ll be taking the train to Vanhoover next to interview him.”

Cogs nodded and then asked Free, “So, you’re really Chrysalis’ daughter?”

“Yep. Not that I like it, but I didn’t get a choice.”

“How did that come about? I might not be interested in your job offer, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not curious about all this.”

Free smirked. “Long story. Let me get more comfortable and I’ll tell you all about it.” He shifted back to griffon form and told Cogs the full tale.

# # #

Because there wasn’t a direct line to Vanhoover from Whitetail Meadows, Twilight teleported them both back to Canterlot first. After updating Roseclaw and Path, they headed to the station for the overnight train to Vanhoover. While technically she could have ordered the use of the Skyshark to get there sooner, it was still involved in more important support services for the Crystal City at this time, and she did not wish to interfere with that important work. She and Free enjoyed the quiet travel in their private compartment, and the intimate and stress-free trip was helpful in dealing with her ongoing post-battle trauma.

A telegram to the Vanhoover research facility where Elusive Clue worked, forewarned him of their visit, and they had no trouble meeting up with the changeling unicorn. Because he had not met Free before, there were a lot more explanations to make before Free offered him the job. Once Clue got over the shock of being confronted by a new Queen, he started giving the offer some serious thought.

“Y’know, I think that would be quite a challenge,” Clue mused. “Training a whole new generation of harvesters, and then heading up a whole new research center for your House sounds quite exciting. And you say that I won’t be forced to re-join the hive-mind if I don’t want to?”

“Yep,” Free confirmed. “In fact I think I’d prefer it if you didn’t. With Princess Iridia connected, I’d like to have someone at the hive that wasn’t feeding every little thing that I’m asking of them into the collective memory.”

“Smart move! Okay, I’m in. I’m going to need a few weeks to wrap up my work here though.”

“The new harvester nymphs won’t mature for a while yet, so there’s no rush. However, I’d love to have your input for building the new hive in Ponyville, so the sooner the better.”

“I’ll put in my notice immediately. I haven’t made any family ties like Cogs, so I won’t have to worry about moving as soon as I’m free.”

Twilight said, “I’ll make arrangements to have a room available at my castle for your accommodation until something more permanent can be arranged.”

“Sounds great! I’ve always wondered what one of those palaces was like.” Clue turned to Free. “I look forward to working with you, Your Majesty.”

Free shuddered. “Please – never call me that again. I’m Free – just Free.”

# # #

After their return to Canterlot, they reported their success to the others, and Path asked them to make a formal appointment with Princess Celestia and Luna. Because it required both rulers of Equestria, that meant a late afternoon session after Day Court closed, and before the Night Court began.

“Are you sure that you’ll be up to it?” Free asked.

These pods are amazing, Free. I’ve been healing at a much faster rate than normal, and I will be strong enough for the appointment. I’ll go back in later, but I’m really getting bored with the inaction.

Roseclaw said, “I’ve been trying to keep Path occupied and entertained, but there’s only so much he can do in there.”

And it’s important that I present our proposals in person, so I will make whatever effort is needed.

“We couldn’t do this without you,” Free agreed.

Path was removed from the pod in due time, and he showered to remove the healing gel and dressed in formal wear. For once, Free also dressed for the occasion, as did their mates. This was not going to be one of their normal informal meetings with the princesses.

The foursome turned up outside of the throne room shortly before the scheduled time. Unusually, the doors to the room were flanked by both Solar and Lunar Royal Guards for the occasion. Path had been pushed there on a wheelchair in order to conserve his strength, but he got up when the Guards opened the doors to admit them. The earth pony led the way, his mate by his side, and Twilight with Free close behind. Celestia and Luna waited patiently for them on the throne dais, the only occupants of the room other than a unicorn Guard on Celestia’s side, and a thestral Guard on Luna’s. They stopped in front of the dais and bowed formally.

“Welcome, all of you,” Celestia said.

Luna added, “My sister and I are curious as to the nature of this special audience.”

Path replied, “We have several matters that we would like to address, but first we would like to formally acknowledge the role you both played in the Battle of Crystal City. Your faith in our ability to take on Chrysalis and give us the lead in the defense of the city was crucial to our success. We literally could not have achieved what we did if you had not bestowed your confidence in us. For that, we formally offer our sincere gratitude to Your Highnesses.”

Path paused a moment as Roseclaw passed two brooches to him. “As acknowledgement of our debt to you, and in honor of those who gave their lives in the battle, I would like to present Your Highnesses with these brooches. These acknowledge you both as Friends of the House of Path, and entitle you full privileges from our House wherever we may be.”

The alicorns gravely accepted the brooches, taking them in their telekinetic grasps. Sensing that there was more to come, they waited for Path to continue.

Path said, “Speaking of wherever the House might be, now that you have formally declared an alliance with House Path, we seek your support in growing it. As such, it is our intention to open a branch in Equestria, to be located at Ponyville, and to be operated in conjunction with Free’s hive. However it is outside our present resources to establish this branch as yet, but it is to the benefit of all that it be established as soon as possible to take advantage of the good will and respect that the House has recently earned. Therefore we formally request royal funding to help set up the Equestrian branch of House Path to start taking in new students from the various Equestrian races.”

“Do you have a proposal drawn up for this as yet?” Celestia asked.

“Yes, Your Highness.” Twilight passed a thick document to Path who presented it to the diarchs. “Please consider it carefully and let us know what you think. We have one other request in regards to this. Princess Luna is already an honorary member of the House, and it is our hope that she takes a lead role in its establishment.”

Celestia looked at Luna and asked, “What do you say, sister? You have been looking for more responsibilities as co-ruler of Equestria.”

Luna smiled. “I am honored, and I find thy proposal most attractive, Lord Path. I will give thy request most serious consideration.”

“Thank you. Now for something a little more personal. Roseclaw and I have been declared mates for some time now, and Twilight and Free have also declared themselves to be mated. However, all of us have felt the need for something more on both personal and social levels. Therefore we formally request that you do us the honor of marrying us.”

Before Celestia could reply, Luna broke formality and squeeed. “Yes! Oh yes! Tia and I would love to marry you, won’t we, sister?”

Celestia smiled fondly at Luna. “How could I say no? However, there’s a lot that such a formal union entails. When do you wish to do this?”

Path replied, “We need to return to Griffonia first and get a lot of things under way first, but we will return in roughly two weeks. Will that be enough time?”

“How about Saturday fortnight?” Luna suggested. “That would give our citizens the opportunity to share in your special occasion also.”

“That sounds good to me.” Path looked at the others who nodded in agreement. “Looks like it’s unanimous. Thank you, Your Highnesses.”

“Thou art most welcome, Lord Path.” Luna then frowned a little. “Thou dost look weary; shouldst thou not still be recovering in hospital?”

“The healing pod has been transferred to my quarters now, and I’ll be returning to it immediately. I’ve been getting a lot stronger, but I thank you for your concern though.”

“Then I will call this audience at an end. Go now with our blessings.”

The foursome bowed and left the throne room in buoyant spirits.

# # #

Path had not been optimistic of a positive response when he had sent off a message to the Red Hive with a request for an audience with Carpacia. He had missed his opportunity when Free met with the five queens, and he hoped that she would grant his request despite the queens rarely doing so. He was a little shocked that not only did she agree to the audience, but allowed him to come to her hive for it. Twilight had been one of the very few ponies who had been granted that privilege before now. The queen had even granted permission to bring along the other House members, but Twilight and Free were busy with other tasks before their scheduled trip home the next day. Thus it was only Path and Roseclaw who were escorted to the hidden hive.

As they made their way deeper into the hive, Path became aware that all the changelings that they passed would stop and stare at them. Their expressions were unreadable though, and he wondered what was happening. They finally reached the central chamber where they found the queen on her throne, waiting for their arrival.

Although Path had now seen two types of queen in person, he was still struck by the difference in build of this one. Carpacia was smaller but stockier than the others, with powerful muscles clad in strong chitin. It was no wonder that the Red Changelings were frequently considered the strongest of their species. She gazed at them with a palpable aura of power, and it was difficult for them not to turn their eyes away from that intense regard. They stopped and bowed to Carpacia.

“Welcome to the Red Hive, Lord and Lady Path,” Carpacia intoned.

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“I am told that you wish to pay homage to those of our hive who were killed in battle. Did you not already do so at the ceremony at Canterlot?”

“Yes, Your Majesty, but that was to honor all who had fallen in battle. We wish to honor the commitment of you and your hive to the defense of Equestria and its allies, even with the potential of death being the reward.”

“To fall in the line of duty is the most honorable and glorious way to pass. It is my hope that one day that I might fall in just combat.”

Path was surprised by the intensity of her attitude, and started to comprehend why the Red Changelings so dominated the changeling component of the Royal Guard and the Equestrian military as a whole. “It took all our resources to stand against Chrysalis’ hordes until we finally took her down. If not for the contribution of your soldiers, that victory might never have happened. In honor of that contribution and your alliance with our House, we wish to present you with this House Path Brooch made of fire agate, to seal the bonds of friendship and cooperation between us.”

Path offered up the brooch to Carpacia whose horn lit up and levitated it over to herself. She looked it over and smiled. “It matches my eyes, don’t you think?” She set it down on the arm of her throne. “However, if you truly wish to thank us, there is a better way. We would witness the defeat of Chrysalis from the viewpoint of those who brought her down.”

Path was startled when he realized what she wanted. “You want me to link to your hive-mind?”

“That is correct.”

“Your Majesty, I cannot allow this,” Roseclaw objected. “My mate is still too weak from his battle injuries, and his mind is still too full of memories brought back from linking with Dianthia’s hive-mind. Let me be the one to show you what happened instead. I not only witnessed everything, but I also took part in Chrysalis’ final downfall.”

“Your offer is acceptable, Lady Roseclaw.” Carpacia stepped down from her throne and approached Roseclaw. “You know what happens next, I believe?”

“I do,” Roseclaw replied, turning her head aside for the queen.

“Clear your mind and focus on the memories of the battle,” Carpacia said before she sank her fangs into Roseclaw’s neck and connected with her chi. The griffon’s eyes opened wide and began to glow redly.

Roseclaw suddenly experienced the past events like a movie re-running through her head – the attempt to trap Chrysalis and its failure, the attack on Path, Blue Streak’s heroic defense, Path’s determination to feed power to Free, the linking with Path and his agony as he channeled Twilight’s power, and his death in the moment of victory.

Every changeling in sight, and in fact throughout the hive, received the images that the queen was sending through the hive-mind, and when the scenes were played out, they raised their voices as one:

“The path of the warrior is difficult! We live to protect those who cannot protect themselves! Honor in serving! Honor in defending! Honor in dying for a just cause!”

There was a massive stomping of hooves, and the hive shook with their fervor.

Carpacia withdrew her fangs and Roseclaw’s eyes returned to normal.

“Thank you, Lady Roseclaw. You have earned our respect.” She turned to Path. “And you, Lord Path, have earned far more. You fought through terrible injury and pain unto death itself to bring about victory. It is to our great joy that you came back from death’s door to enjoy the fruits of your victory. As long as your course remains true, you may consider the Red Hive to be your close ally.” She picked up her brooch and held it to her chest. “I will wear this with great pride.”

Path bowed to Carpacia once more. “I am honored, Your Majesty.” He gave Roseclaw an affectionate nuzzle. “I am strong because I have others to fortify me. Thank you for your time.”

The march back out of the hive was similar to that of the one going in, but this time Path knew what the changelings were feeling – it was awed respect.

# # #

Although they intended to make their way home to Griffonia today, the Skyshark did not head there directly. Instead it landed in a field just outside of Ponyville near to Twilight’s castle. They had a little business to be completed first, consisting mainly with consulting with Mayor Mare to inform her of their plans, and to smooth things out with the bureaucracy. More importantly, the mayor was adept at publicity campaigns, and with her help, they would be able to break the news gently that the new branch of House Path would be built in conjunction with the new changeling hive. While the residents of Equestria’s most incident-prone town had become somewhat inured to the unusual, a whole hive was pushing things. It was hoped that the added prosperity due to the House branch would ameliorate the negative feelings. Twilight also requisitioned survey maps and utilities for planning purposes.

Of course once business had been taken care of, that left them time to visit friends. A special luncheon was held at the castle specifically so that they could maximize socializing in the limited time that they had available. However, once again, Twilight had another motive for meeting with Rarity.

“A royal wedding!” Rarity exclaimed. “Darling, I must design your wedding gowns!”

Twilight grinned. That was as close to a royal command as a non-royal could make, and she knew Rarity would have been devastated if she had not been asked. Twilight noticed though that she had said gowns plural. “I’m only asking for myself. Roseclaw will undoubtedly choose a suitable dressmaker….” Rarity’s unnerving frown made her trail off.

“Twilight Sparkle, are you or are you not having a dual wedding?”

“Yes, of course we are.”

“And do you honestly think that I will allow you to be wed in non-matching gowns?”

“Well, if you put it that way….”

“Then we are agreed. Have Roseclaw come over to my boutique, and I will measure her up before you leave. Your gowns will be ready for a fitting session by the time you return. You will make a magnificent pair of brides!”

“Thank you as always for your generosity, Rarity.”

“Pfftt!” Rarity said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “Do you know how long I have been waiting for you to finally tie the knot so that I could design your wedding dress? This will be a fulfillment of a long-held dream of mine. Now go tell, Roseclaw. She and I have to make with the magic!”

Griffonian wedding customs were somewhat different from Equestrian ones, so Roseclaw was a little nonplussed by Rarity’s demand. She went as requested, however, and returned feeling a little bewildered by the dressmaker’s enthusiasm and artistic vision.

Twilight gave her a sympathetic smile. “Just relax and enjoy the experience, Rose. You are going to be astounded by the result.”

They would have been ready to leave upon Roseclaw’s return, except for the absence of Blue Streak. Rainbow Dash had been disappointed that she and Streak would not be able to race, but as a reward for his heroics, Rainbow had taken him for a flight. Twilight and Free watched their aerobatic antics from the flight deck of the Skyshark, confident in Rainbow’s ability to keep Streak safe. Free had one wing around Twilight and they enjoyed the moments of quiet togetherness.

Eventually Twilight said, “Do you think they’re ever coming down?”

Free chuckled. “Probably not as long as either wants to continue. They’re two of a kind.”

“Perhaps I should give them a nudge.” Twilight tapped her comm. “Captain – you may commence take-off. Please cruise slow and low until we can pick up our last passenger.”

Understood, Your Highness.

A moment later, the great engines of the airship roared to life, and it lifted off the ground and altered its heading to a course that would take them to Griffonia. For several minutes, they cruised in that direction before Rainbow Dash noticed and brought her passenger over to a landing on the flight deck. Twilight lifted Streak off Rainbow’s back with her telekinesis, and placed him in the wheelchair that they had waiting for him.

“Thanks, Dash! That was awesome!” Streak said with a huge smile.

“Awesome is my middle name! Glad you liked it, Streak,” Rainbow replied with a suitably dashing grin. With the wind of their cruising whipping her rainbow mane, and clad in her Wonderbolts uniform, she presented dashing good looks to match the grin.

“How hasn’t some stallion managed to snare her yet?” Free murmured to Twilight.

“She’s supposedly too dedicated to her profession to spend much time dating, but I hear that she and Soarin seem to spend more time together than is professionally required,” Twilight replied conspiratorially.

“At least he stands a chance of keeping up with her,” Free said with a chuckle.

Twilight gave Rainbow a farewell hug before she took off and they made their way inside the airship.

Twilight tapped her comm again. “Captain, we’re all aboard now. Best normal speed for home!”

# # #

 
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