Quantum Gallop

Five of the youth of House Path are abruptly whisked away by the enigmatic Doctor Whooves, and they find themselves in a Ponyville that they can scarcely recognize. A tyrant queen rules Equestria, alliances were never forged with Griffonia and the Changeling Hives, and three of the group had never been born! Someone has changed history, and it's up to them to figure out when, how, and who did it, or Equestria will suffer, and the rest of the world along with it.
This is the direct sequel to "The Growing Years" and "A Different Perspective", and I advise reading those stories first.



9. Chapter 6 - Different Lives

As usual, the time-travelers were dumped unceremoniously out of the vortex and into reality. Most ended up in a pile on the floor, but Blue Streak sprawled on Twilight’s nearby bed instead. He pushed himself up, looked around, and grinned.

“Score!” he proclaimed happily before he sank back onto the sheets, drained as usual from the time journey. “Wake me up when you need me,” he said drowsily.

As the rest picked themselves up from the floor, Destined said, “I’m going to check on something. I’ll be back in a minute or so.”

The young alicorn stallion teleported out of the room before anyone else could comment.

Pif headed for the balcony. “While Des is doing that, I’m going to see what Canterlot looks like now.”

There were murmurs of agreement and they all went along except Blue. Pif cautiously peered through the glass doors before proceeding outside. She moved to the rail and looked out over the city, adjusting her eyes for keener distance viewing. She was chilled to see Blue Changelings walking amidst the ponies still, but then she realized that there was a significant difference this time. Instead of being in charge of the ponies, they seemed to be either just accompanying them or even doing the work.

Just then, Destined teleported back into the room. He noticed that the rest of the group was out on the balcony, and headed that way. “Good news! Mom’s castle is there in Ponyville. That means that she became an alicorn as she was due to. However, there’s no hive there, although I’m sure I saw some changelings among the ponies. I was looking from a great height to try not to be spotted, so I can’t say what was going on precisely.”

“Probably the same thing that’s happening here,” Cinder replied, pointing down to the streets.

Destined took a look and nodded. He turned to Pif and asked, “Have you been able to connect to the hive-mind and figure out what’s going on yet?”

“I didn’t want to rush into that, but I’m doing so now. Just being cautious,” she replied even as she sought out the comforting link to the hive. She then sent tentative queries before her eyes widened in surprise. “Dad’s in control! He’s the Queen of the Blues! How did that happen if Chrysalis was killed before she even knew Gossamer was alive and well?”

Destined replied, “That’s great news, as long as he’s still the good person we know him to be.”

“Take a look again, Des – don’t they look peaceful to you?” Pif pointed out.

“Let’s go down and have a closer look,” Citrine suggested.

Destined looked at Cinder who rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I know: hide the conspicuous dragon. Go on! I’ll stay here with Blue.”

Destined nodded and lit up his horn. His wings disappeared under an illusion, and then moments later, he, Pif, and Citrine reappeared in a quiet alleyway. He looked around, satisfied to see that their arrival had been unobserved. “Okay, let’s go, but don’t make any assumptions just because things look normal except for the Blues.”

They walked nonchalantly out into the main street and went with the flow. They were almost disappointed that everything seemed mostly normal. After about a quarter of an hour, they stopped in a public park and settled down on the grass to discuss what they had observed.

Pif started first. “Between what we’ve seen and what I have gleaned from my cautious queries, the Blue Changelings seem to be in a symbiotic relationship with the ponies. They’re providing help and companionship in return for sustenance in the form of love and other positive emotion energy. It’s actually a pretty good set-up, although though not as ideal as the equality that the Council of Queens, the Princesses, and House Path have worked toward. I’m very curious how that came about.”

“Well, while you were focused on the changelings,” Destined said, “I’ve been looking for other differences. There’s a much stronger military presence here in Canterlot, although nopony seems to be too concerned about it at this time.”

“Did neither of you notice that the Blue Changelings are the only ones that you can see?” Citrine asked.

Pif blushed a little in embarrassment. “A-heh. I was too focused on my hive. But you’re right, there’s… urgh!

“What’s wrong?” Citrine’s brow wrinkled in concern.

“N-nothing! Nothing except Queen Gossamer just detected me and pinged me hard. I blocked her, but I’m shut out from more info gathering for the moment.”

Destined got up to his hooves. “Time to go back to the castle, I reckon.”

“Let’s grab something for Blue to eat first until we can all have a meal somewhere,” Pif recommended.

One quick stop at a food stall later, and they were soon back at the castle. After passing the food to Cinder who tended to her mate, the three settled down on the luxurious rug. Destined and Pif faced Citrine who knew that she was going to be lectured, but she stared defiantly back.

“This is not our time,” Destined started. “It is not our future. The critical point in history occurred after several other significant events, thus why Mom is still an alicorn princess. However, without Chrysalis, the invasion of the Crystal City never occurred, and so many deaths never happened, including those of Citrine’s friends. This is a very good thing.”

Citrine was surprised by this candid admission, but held her tongue as she felt there would be more. She was not disappointed.

Destined continued. “However, without the fight with Chrysalis in Canterlot, and the subsequent repulsion of all the Blues from the city, significant changes have been made. I’m postulating that the lack of visible changelings from other hives means that they were never exposed, and that would also mean that Papa Free was never revealed as being a changeling. Seeing as this was a major factor that eventually led to the formation of House Path, it stands to reason that Mom, Dad, and Papa Free never became part of a herd, and never had any children. In this future, Pif and I would never have been conceived.”

Citrine wilted at that revelation, but still kept sullenly quiet; a far cry from her normal boisterous and opinionated self.

Pif took up the lecture. “Worse yet, House Path had contributed enormously to the furthering of peaceful relationships between other nations, especially Griffonia. The House was also responsible for freeing the pony slaves there, as well as ameliorating the influence of the warlike nobles. King Glimfeather often talked about the narrow line that he flew to balance out the aggressive faction, and the peacemaking efforts that he had been engaged in for a couple of decades before House Path existed. Who knows how that has been affected now?”

Citrine finally spoke up defiantly. “You can’t know that it’s gone bad. You do know that my posse should still be alive. What gives you the right to choose the future?”

Destined frowned. “Citrine, we’re not choosing the future – we’re restoring it as best we can. Your very existence shows that we’re not perfect at that because you should have died too. But in the end, we achieved an optimum result, with the greatest benefits overall, not to mention our very existence.”

“I’m not arguing about that! I’m saying that you don’t know that this future is bad – you’re only speculating.”

Destined looked at Pif who nodded. “She’s right – we are speculating, even if the evidence is strong. We need to confirm our suspicions before we make our conclusions. However…” Pif turned to frown at Citrine, “we will do what is best for the world, no matter the pain it might cause you… or me.”

Once again, Citrine looked uncertain. “Pif… I… I don’t want to see you hurt, and I know you’re only trying to do the right thing, but I had to do this, don’t you see? Even if it made you angry with me. Frankly I don’t know why you’re not shouting at me and telling me how wrong I am.”

Destined snorted. “Trust me – she’s angry, and I’m furious, but it’s because we do understand that we won’t be putting you somewhere that you can’t interfere with us while we go back and try again. But I’m a Prince of Equestria, even if I don’t really want to be, and that means that I have a responsibility to all citizens of Equestria and its allies. That means that we will be investigating this timeline before we act, and if things are better off this way, then we’ll consider changing our plans. That’s the best that I can do for you, Citrine, so don’t get your hopes up too high.”

Citrine nodded. “Thanks anyway.”

Destined turned to Pif. “I suggest we seek out Dad and Papa Free. We might get a good idea of what happened after history diverged.”

“What if Free recognizes me?” Pif asked.

“He, or maybe she now, has already sensed you, so perhaps it won’t matter. If we need to reset history, the point will be moot, and if we don’t – well, I reckon you might need some family.”

“I have you and Blue – I’m not lacking for family.”

Destined smiled. “Thanks, sis. I think I’d want to have Papa Free though also.”

“So how do we go about finding them?”

“We can try looking at the apartment where they were living during Chrysalis’ invasion?”

“That’s a good idea. Then there are the places where they worked.”

“How about I go take a quick look at the apartment first?” Destined suggested. “I can do that in a minute.”

“Makes sense. I wish I could teleport as readily as you can.”

Destined smirked. “Hey, only one of us can be the Alicorn of Time and Space!” he said with a wink.

Pif’s magic flared, and she changed into a duplicate of Destined. “Only one of us can be the Alicorn of Smart Flank,” Pif said in Destined’s smug voice.

Destined poked out his tongue at Pif and disappeared in a flash.

Pif resumed her normal ponyling form and sighed. “Yeah, so envious,” she admitted.

Sooner than expected, Destined reappeared.

“Well, that’s a bust. Somepony else is living there now.”

“So, should we try the gymnasium where Papa Free used to work, or try to track down Dad next?”

Blue suddenly spoke up. “I want to be there when you meet Dad.”

Destined looked at Blue with concern. “You’re still too exhausted from the time trip.”

“Then put it off until tomorrow. I’ll have recovered enough by then. It’s not as if we have to know right now. Time is on our side at the moment.”

“You have a point. Okay, I’ll see if I can find Papa Free at his old gymnasium, but we can try to find Dad tomorrow.” Destined’s horn lit up and once again he teleported away.

“Show-off,” Pif grumbled before she headed over to a sofa and sprawled upon it.

Citrine walked up to the sofa and hesitantly asked, “May I join you?”

Pif’s eyebrow lifted in curious surprise. “You’ve never bother asking before.”

“I’m not certain I’d be welcome this time.”

Pif sighed. “Citrine, I might be mad at you, but I don’t hate you for what you did.”

“So, is that a yes?”

“Oh, for buck’s sake! Get up here! I could do with a cuddle.”

Citrine wasted no time in getting up next to Pif and cuddling up to her. Pif immediately tasted the sweet affection that Citrine was oozing.

Pif eyed the crystal pony uncertainly. “What that changeling guard said when we entered the castle – he could taste your love for me; is that what you truly feel for me?”

“I… I like you, Pif. I liked you from the day we met. But I don’t even know what it is to love somepony.”

“But you don’t like me enough to correct history so that I will be conceived?”

“You don’t know that! Path and Free could have become mates in this timeline too!”

Pif nodded. “That’s a possibility, but would I be the same Pif? Would I be the changeling princess that you found attractive? If this hypothetical Pif was raised by Queen Gossamer differently, would that Pif find you desirable?”

“You find me desirable?” Citrine asked hopefully.

“There must be something that I like about you that I find attractive, or else I wouldn’t let you keep dragging me away from my work so often.”

Citrine’s long-absent grin returned at last. “Making ponies get a life is my specialty.”

Pif chuckled briefly. “Yeah, that’s true. And perhaps it’s something that I really needed in spite of what I used to think.”

“I think you do,” Citrine said, leaning in to nuzzle Pif, only to have the changeling’s hoof push her head away.

“But right now, I’m still mad at you.”

Citrine sighed and settled for cozying up to Pif.

Cinder chuckled darkly. “I can’t say I blame her. However, while there’s a small chance that Path and Free mated in this timeline, there’s virtually none that Blue and I met.” Her expression turned deadly serious. “I won’t let you take him away from me that easily, Citrine!”

The crystal pony hardly knew the meaning of fear, but even she was a little cowed by Cinder’s draconic intensity. She gulped and said, “Understood, Cinder.”

Cinder nodded before cuddling up to her mate once more. Blue had succumbed to fatigue by this time, but even in his sleep, he smiled slightly at the warm contact.

They waited in silence for Destined’s return, and eventually the stallion reappeared in the middle of the room.

“Well, did you have any success?” Pif asked.

“It took me a while to find the place; after all Papa Free might have mentioned it to us, but he never bothered showing it to us. Anyway, I managed to track down the manager and asked him if he knew Free Agent. I was informed that, and I quote, ‘the miserable ingrate quit and started his own gymnasium’. When I asked where, I was told in no uncertain terms that he was not in the business of steering potential customers towards his competitors. That’s when he slammed the door in my face.”

“Ouch. It makes me wonder if there was something that caused them to have a falling out,” Pif speculated.

Destined shrugged. “Maybe. Anyway, while I don’t know exactly where yet, at least we know what to look for.”

Pif said, “We can do that tomorrow while we go looking for Dad. I think we should rest up for now though. We can go out for dinner in a few hours. Blue should have recovered enough to accompany us then.”

“Sounds like a plan. I need to destress for a while anyway. I think I’ll take a shower.”

“Just don’t sing like you usually do. You don’t want to attract the castle staff with your caterwauling.”

“Oh, ha-ha. Silk Touch reckoned that I sung very well at that charity karaoke event last week.”

“So you went out on a date with him?” Pif asked with a smirk.

“I keep telling you – he’s just a friend, not a coltfriend!” Destined exclaimed before stalking off to Twilight’s personal en suite bathroom.

Citrine grinned and said, “You just love getting a rise out of him, don’t you?”

“Pfft! He’s too easy,” Pif replied.

“So, does he really like Silk Touch?”

“More than he will even admit to himself.”

“Want me to give them a nudge?”

“What? And spoil my fun? I’m really enjoying the way he keeps dancing around the idea and thinks he’s keeping something hidden from me. I’m his sister and know him too well. I don’t even need my changeling abilities to tell that.”

“Then how come it took until now before you realized how I feel about you?”

Pif’s grin faded. “Maybe I don’t know myself as well as I should either. I don’t know how to feel about that, Citrine. I’m not a pony, even if we share much in common. Loving a changeling is a very different thing.”

“Is it? You might be right, and I know next to nothing about the subject.”

“Oh for buck’s sake, you two!” Cinder grumbled. “Go get some counselling from Princess Cadance when we get back home. You’re both hopeless!”

Citrine and Pif both chuckled self-consciously before Citrine leaned over to lay her head on Pif’s back. The young changeling sighed but tolerated it, even as she said, “I’m still mad at you though.”

# # #

All five set out the next day, although Cinder was careful to stay in the midst of her four pony companions. While she still drew the eyes of many citizens and not a few soldiers, her calm demeanor and the fact that she was in the presence of four unconcerned ponies seemed to reassure the watchers, and she was not detained at all.

Locating Path had been much easier than the group had estimated. It had seemed probable that they would find him still doing research at Canterlot University, and that was their first target. A careful inquiry or two soon pointed them to the faculty wing and the office of Professor Long Path. A sign saying ‘Hippology Department’ had them confident of a quick meeting, until they met the roadblock that was Path’s office assistant. The nameplate on her desk proclaimed her to be Ancient Text, and the old unicorn mare looked the part with her mane tied back in a bun, and spectacles balanced on her snout. She gave the group a tight smile as she asked them their business, giving Cinder a wary glance.

Destined said, “We are doing research, studying unusual interactions between ponies and other cultures. We were hoping to consult with Professor Path in the hopes of exchanging information.”

“The Professor is always happy to acquire new information. I suspect he would be quite interested in what your companion has to say,” Ancient Text replied while looking pointedly at Cinder.

“Oh, I believe we can tell him a lot about several other species,” Pif added.

“That does sound promising, Miss….”

Ancient Text and Pif’s eyes locked, and both widened in recognition. The secretary’s demeanor immediately changed.

“… but I’m afraid that the Professor is currently unavailable.”

Pif sensed a pulse in the hive-mind, and she knew that the disguised changeling in front of her had probably just sent off a message. “That’s not quite true, is it, ma’am?”

Ancient Text frowned. “Regardless of what you think, you will not be seeing Professor Path today. Please vacate the office.”

“Can we make an appointment to see him soon?” Destined asked, unaware of what had just happened.

“The Professor is a very busy stallion, and has many projects in his hooves already. I doubt that he would have the time to fit you into his schedule.”

“Just five minutes would do!” Destined protested.

“I have asked you to leave. Please do so before I call for Security.”


“Forget it, Des. This drone has no intention of letting us see Path,” Pif announced, glaring at Ancient Text.

“She’s a changeling?” Destined asked with only a little surprise.

“So you know your companion is a changeling too?” The secretary’s body language suddenly looked a lot less clerical and a whole lot more dangerous. “I cannot place your allegiance, but I assure you that you will not be causing Long Path any trouble.”

“That was never our intention!” Destined protested.

“Then why is the blue one looking like he’s about to start a fight?” Ancient Text snarled.

A glance at Blue Streak showed that he had taken a ready stance in reaction to the changeling’s hostility.

“I am a warrior and their protector. I am merely responding to your belligerent attitude,” Blue replied calmly but firmly.

“I am Long Path’s guardian, and I suspect your motives. Last warning – leave this office now.”

“Wait a minute, please! Give us a chance to explain!” Destined protested.

The mare’s horn lit up. “I warned you…”

“Stand down, Text!” came a familiar voice behind the group.

Path’s guardian looked at the newcomer, and she immediately powered down her horn and backed off.

Having recognized the voice, not one of the five was surprised to see Free Agent standing in the doorway. His appearance startled them a bit though. The griffon was larger than he normally preferred, at least according to their memories, and he was a great deal more buff. His powerful muscles rippled beneath his fur and feathers as he strode into the office, and it was obvious that he made good use of the gymnasium that he owned. He did not possess a cutie mark like in their timeline, but that was hardly unexpected. The only thing out of place was the obvious signs of tiredness about his eyes. His voice showed none of that though when he addressed the group.

“What’s this commotion all about, then?”

Pif stepped forward. “We need to talk with you, Free Agent.”

“Then why are you here at Long Path’s office?” he replied before looking harder at Pif. Then he pinged her hardover the hive mind. “YOU! Who are you?!”

Pif winced under the mental onslaught but quickly rallied. “My name is Epiphany, and I am like you. I will only say more in private. As I said, we need to talk.”

Free frowned in thought for a long moment before he suddenly smirked. “Sure! Bring your friends and let’s chat about what you are and what your business here really is.”

Ancient Text spoke up. “Sir, I must protest!”

Free winked at her. “Don’t worry so much, Text. After all, there are several guards outside now, and more on their way,” he reassured her.

That had obviously been said for the benefit of the group as well, but as none of them were actually a threat to Free, it did not concern them unduly.”

“Do you have an empty office that we can use?” Free asked Ancient Text.

“Second on the left. The occupant has left for the day, so you should be able to use it as much as you wish, sir.”

“Good. Okay, everypony follow me.” Free paused as he regarded Cinder. “I suppose dragonesses too.”

They made their way to the indicated office and Free firmly closed the door. “Now, I asked this once already, but I’m not satisfied with your answer, so tell me, Miss Epiphany, who and what are you, and what is your business with Long Path?”

Pif stepped forward. “My full name is Epiphany Path, and Long Path is my father, and you…” Pif’s form flared with green magic flames. “You are my mother.”

Free stared with beak agape at the chrome-carapaced young Queen that so strongly resembled his natural form. It took a long time to find his voice. “That… that’s not possible.”

“No, it’s paradoxical,” Pif replied.

“You can’t be my daughter; I’ve only ever sired drones with the breeders!” Free protested.

“In this timeline, perhaps. Not in mine.”

“What in Equestria are you talking about? What timeline?”

“Someone has been tampering with critical events in the past which is affecting how events proceed from those points. What you know as history is a lot different from what we know it should be. In ours, your life with Path went in a different and more amazing direction, which resulted in me being born. But in this version, we stopped one change from happening, but…” Pif paused and glanced at Citrine before continuing. “But a mistake was made. That affected a different critical event, and here we are.”

Free stared at Pif for a long moment with various emotions crossing his face before finally saying, “You have to be kidding me? Do you know how fantastic your story sounds?”

“And yet you’re still listening because you see the evidence of me before your eyes,” Pif retorted.

“You could still be deceiving me in some way!”

Pif nodded. “Yes, I could. You can’t read me like you can a pony, so I’ll let my brother tell you more.”

“Brother? But none of these others are changelings,” Free said with a frown.

“To be pedantic, she means half-brother,” Destined said as he stepped forward. “I am Destined Path, son of Long Path and Princess Twilight Sparkle.” He let the illusion hiding his wings drop.

Free’s eyes bulged. “A male alicorn? Wait – Path also mated with a princess?!”

“Yes, and you married her.”

Free abruptly sat down hard on his rump. “This… is getting confusing.”

Destined nodded in sympathetic agreement. “It is to us also, and we have the benefit of some experience. Papa Free, I know that you can taste deception from a pony, so please pay close attention to what I have to tell you and you will know that I’m not lying. Long Path, Twilight Sparkle, and you should have embarked upon a quest that would have led you to learn more about yourself, brought you closer to Twilight, and caused Path to meet and mate with a griffoness named Roseclaw. You four created a noble House in Griffonia which became a powerful force for peace and understanding in much of Equus. You became a herd which gave your children two beloved fathers and mothers. But none of this happened now because Queen Chrysalis did not live to trigger a critical event.”

Free looked at Destined sharply. “How do you know about Chrysalis? The Princesses covered up those events in order to not cause panic in the population.”

“How could they not know of Chrysalis? The streets are filled with Blue Changelings!”

“I asked first.”

“In our history, Chrysalis almost succeeded in conquering Canterlot, but was expelled along with all her drones by the combined magics of Shining Armor and Princess Cadance. That same event revealed your true nature to Path, which was the catalyst for further events.”

“Path knows what I am in your history? You mean he never was revolted by the thought of having a changeling so… intimate with him?”

Pif’s was stunned. “Are you telling us that you have never told Dad what you are?”

Free slowly shook his head. “I… I was too afraid that he would reject me. He’s my life, my soulmate. It would kill me if he left me.”

Blue spoke up for the first time. “That would explain the guardian you have placed with him as his assistant.”

Free nodded in agreement. “He is too precious to me to let anything happen to him if I can prevent it.” He then examined Blue Streak more intently. “You’re an earth pony – are you his son too?”

“He is my foster father,” Blue answered proudly.

Free looked at Citrine. “And you?”

Citrine grinned. “I’m the daughter he deserved but never had.”


Pif glared at Citrine. “Ignore her. She’s a crystal pony and my aggravating companion.”

Cinder added drolly, “And in case you couldn’t guess, I’m only related by being mated to Blue.”

Free chuckled. “Now I’ve seen everything – a pony and a dragon mated. I wonder what your babies would be like?”

“Working on it,” Cinder replied with a satisfied pat of her belly.

There was a long moment of silence while Free seemed lost in thought. Then he drew a deep breath and seemed to come to a decision. “Okay, I believe you. What I don’t understand though is why you’re telling me all this?”

Pif replied, “Because we have to understand the consequences and ramifications of the critical change. Can we work with it to bring about a satisfactory conclusion? Or will we have to go back and fix things again? Above all, we need to be convinced that we are doing the right thing because lives depend on it – some of them veryimportant to us.”

“I see, I think. So what do you need to know?”

“Tell us what happened from the royal wedding and Chrysalis’ death.”

Free thought for a moment. “Hmm… Some of this I only learned later from the changeling drones, but when Twilight rescued Cadance from the caves below the city, they checked the Princess’ room and found Chrysalis’ corpse. They had no idea who killed her, but they soon found out what she had planned. All the drones that had amassed to invade were rendered nearly helpless by their sudden traumatic disconnection from the hive-mind. Aside from the Harvesters who promptly fled, most just dropped where they were, dazed and disoriented. Of course that gave the citizens of Canterlot a great deal of concern, which is why Celestia and Luna decided not to tell them about Chrysalis. It would have caused a huge panic if they had known they had nearly been invaded, and the invaders were still there. However, without Chrysalis to guide them, they were nearly helpless. Worse yet, without the Harvesters and their Queen, they started starving.”

“Is that when you got involved?” Pif asked.

“No. It was Princess Cadance who took pity on them and found a way to put them to use in a manner in which they could glean some love energy for themselves.”

“Then how did you end up being their Queen?”

“While that plan worked for some, it didn’t for all. And even for the ones getting fed, they still did not deal well without being connected to a Queen. Some were literally dying because of it. Then one day, one of those wretched drones bumped into me, and I felt sorry for it. I instinctively fed it some of my love energy. That not only livened it up, but also caused it to nearly explode with joy.”

“Why was that?” Cinder asked.

It was Pif who answered. “It was because it recognized what Free is. Only Queen changelings can feed their drones that way. Despite being a mutant, it knew that you could be its new Queen.”

“Got it in one, only back then even I didn’t know I was a Queen. That drone started bugging me persistently, and then it was two, then four, then twelve, then fifty. It got so bad that I was afraid that they would betray my nature to Path, let alone other ponies. I consented out of desperation, and suddenly I found dozens of minds pressing into mine. Knocked me for a loop, I tell you!”

“So what did you do now that you were their Queen?” Destined asked.

Free snorted. “Learned what it was to be a Queen first! Then I started organizing them to integrate them into Equestrian society. That was a huge headache. I was forced to quit my job at the gymnasium because the owner objected to all the drones that kept turning up there. I started my own gym because of that, but also because it gave me the opportunity to establish a new hive for all those drones. It sits on top of an old mine shaft that leads to the caverns underneath the city.” Free chuckled. “I wonder what all those stuffy nobles would think if they knew that a changeling hive was right under their hooves?”

Pif grinned then asked, “How do you feed them all? What happened to all the Harvesters?”

“Many of them came back when they learned about the new Queen and hive. Some never returned, but I believe many established new lives for themselves. Only Harvesters have enough independence of spirit to be able to shake off the need for being part of the hive-mind.”

“We know a couple like that,” Pif confirmed.

Destined said, “So what happened after that?”

“What didn’t?” Free said with a roll of his eyes. “It’s been nearly two decades now, and I’m still learning. Let me tell you, it ain’t easy being a Queen and running a gymnasium too.”

“I thought you looked tired,” Pif said with concern.

Free waved it away. “That’s life. I envy the other me though. He apparently didn’t have to become the Queen of a hive.”

“Actually, he did, but in an entirely different way. However, he had a lot of help to cope.”

“Crap. Looks like I’m stuck either way.”

“Okay, we’ve basically covered what happened to you and the changelings, so now we know why they’re so prevalent in the streets. Can you hit the high points since then?”

“Okay, let’s see…” Free pondered. “Stop me if anything sounds unfamiliar. Shining Armor and Princess Cadance got married, of course. The Crystal Kingdom appeared, and Cadance was sent to govern it. Twilight Sparkle became an alicorn and made a Princess. Tirek attacked everypony and killed many changelings who couldn’t live without their innate magic. Cadance gave birth to an alicorn filly. Ambassador Roseclaw caused an international incident when she refused to return to Griffonia. King Ravenwing declared war on Equestria....”

“Wait! What was that?!” Destined demanded.

“We’re at war with Griffonia. Surely you’ve seen all the soldiers in the streets? They’re the ones on R&R from the battle front.”

“Yeah, we’ve seen them and wondered why, but what’s this about King Ravenwing?”

“Ravenwing was the successor to King Glimfeather when he died unexpectedly. After that, the relationship between Griffonia and Equestria quickly soured. It’s been speculated that the new king was the reason why Roseclaw refused to return home, and why Ravenwing suddenly started up hostilities with us.” Free’s eyes widened as he suddenly realized something. “Hey! Didn’t you say that Path was supposed to have mated with Roseclaw?”

“Yeah, and she definitely wanted nothing to do with Ravenwing. He didn’t live to be king either.”

“Wow. So in your history, this war never started?”

Destined shook his head. “No, and our House worked with King Glimfeather to promote peaceful relationships. Considering that he is a hale and hearty griffon still, I find his death in this timeline to be very suspicious.”

“Believe me, you aren’t the first to think that Glimfeather was assassinated.”

“So what happened after Ravenwing declared war?” Pif asked.

“Actually, it was more a case of what Ravenwing did that was the declaration of war. He sent his navy to invade Equestria, and Baltimare was his first target. Because the city was not expecting a military conflict, the local Guards were quickly overwhelmed. Thousands of ponies died in just the first day.”

“What?!” exclaimed several of the group.

“Why so many? Surely they would have surrendered in the face of overwhelming odds?” Blue queried.

“Of course they did, but Ravenwing wasn’t interested in captives who could cause his troops problems. He ordered them to kill all ponies on sight on the first day. Sheer terror kept most of the remaining ponies out of the conflict. On the second day, they started rounding up the ones who hadn’t been killed yet, and kept them as hostages. We lost the city to the griffons, and it’s been their foothold on Equestria ever since.”

“And you say that the war is still progressing?”

“Yes. They’ve made many incursions against our forces, but fortunately the next nearest city, Fillydelphia, got sufficient warning and enough local military forces to save it from the same fate. Every time we make any progress against them though, they retreat to Baltimare where the hostages prevent us from breaking out the heavy artillery. Basically we’ve been at a stalemate for years.”

“And ponies keep dying in the meantime,” Blue said somberly.

“Yes. Yes, they do,” Free affirmed.

Pif turned to Citrine with a grim look on her face. “Hundreds died in the battle of the Crystal City, including your friends, but in this timeline, thousands have died, and continue to die because of one important change to history. Citrine, we can’t make this timeline work. Too many innocent ponies have suffered and died already. Too many griffons who could have led honorable lives allied with Equestria are now its enemies, and many of those have also died. Too many are paying the price for the sake of your posse. I can’t justify our not going back and fixing this.”

Citrine’s eyes had been downcast, but she raised them to show that they were full of tears. It shocked Pif to see the tough street pony reduced to this.

“I just wanted to see them again! Is that so wrong?”

Pif shook her head sadly. “No, it isn’t, but making a lot of innocents pay the price for it is. I need you to understand that, and come to terms with it.”

Citrine’s eyes welled over and she leaned up against Pif and started bawling. Pif hesitantly put her right foreleg over the mare’s shoulder and pulled her into a hug. There was an awkward silence while Citrine let out all the anguish that she had bottled up since the death of her friends. Consigning them to that fate once again was just too much for her to keep in any longer. For several minutes, she wept until she was reduced to sniffles.

Eventually Pif drew back to gaze at the crystal pony sympathetically. “Citrine?”

With a deep shuddering sigh, Citrine looked up and nodded. “Do it,” she whispered.

“Thank you, Citrine.” Pif gave her a big hug and turned to Free to say something, only to notice that he appeared to be distracted.

“Free?” she queried.

Free looked at her and said, “I’ve just been Texted. Path has just left his office and has informed her that he intends to take an early lunch as soon as he deals with one last matter. She wants to know if she should tell him that I’m here.”

Pif looked at Destined questioningly, and he nodded in understanding. He turned to Free and said, “Tell her yes. It no longer matters if this timeline’s Path knows about us.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Go back in time and fix things properly this time.”

“So what happens to Path and me?”

“You’ll still be you, but with a different history. You’ll still be soulmates, but also a part of something bigger. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”

Free gave him a lopsided grin. “Makes me feel as if I’ve wasted all these years.”

“Wasted? I could point out that there are alternate versions of you that have had it worse, or you two never met, or this war went badly and you were killed in the invasion. However, I’m just going to say that you have had many wonderful years with your soulmate. In your own words – he is your life.”

“I suppose that’s true. I think that I would have liked to have put aside that one lie between us before now.”

“Then do it, Papa,” Blue said fervently. “I need to gather energy for a couple of days to power our time travel, so why not make the most of it?”

Free smiled proudly at Blue. “Now I know why you’re Path’s adopted son. Your words are wise. I think I’ll do just that. Pif, would you mind resuming your unicorn guise? I would prefer not having your natural form distracting Path.”

Pif smiled and complied, and Destined hid his wings as an additional measure.

It was not long before the office door opened and a familiar stallion stepped in. It was quite obvious that it was Path, but rather than the well-toned warrior and proud leader of a noble House that they were familiar with, this version was slightly overweight, had an unkempt mane, and wore spectacles. This version still had his cutie mark though. His eyes sparkled with intelligence as he glanced at the group before walking up to Free. With a complete lack of concern for his audience, Path nuzzled the ruff of feathers on Free’s chest, and the griffon responded by stroking the stallion’s head with his beak. The sheer amount of love that Path was emitting made Pif shudder in delight as she took it in, but the bulk of it was absorbed by its intended target. Free’s weariness dropped away as he was energized by his soulmate’s true love for him.

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