A Different Perspective
by Bernard Doove
with ideas and prompts from AlaskaIsCold.

This story was first presented on FiMFiction.net. It runs concurrently with my "Change of Life" story, and my "Conversation In A Canterlot Café" story.

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Chapter 1: Getting To Know You, Getting To Know All About You


“It’s awfully quiet around here, even for this neighbourhood,” the grey earth pony observed as they walked through the unusually empty streets of Canterlot.

“Yeah, everypony's gone to check out the wedding of Princess Cadenza and whatshisname at the castle,” his griffon companion replied.

“What do they expect to do? They can’t expect three quarters of the population of Canterlot to fit into the castle. Besides, that would have to be an invitation-only event.”

The griffon smirked. “You think that’s gonna stop some of them, Path?”

Long Path grimaced and said, “I suppose not. Speaking of which, how come you’re not doing precisely that, Free? Seems like your kind of thing.”

“Nah!” Free Agent replied. “I’ll be gate-crashing the party afterwards! Work the crowd and find a filly or two, maybe a good-looking stallion to make a foursome….”

Long Path rolled his eyes. “As long as you don’t bring them to our place again.”

“Aw, c’mon! I just want you to have a bit of fun too occasionally. Maybe get a cutie mark in loosening up for once.”

The earth pony scowled. While it wasn’t unheard of for a pony to have not discovered his or her cutie mark until adulthood, at age 21, Long Path was rather sensitive about his blank flank. “I don’t think that’s my special talent.”

“You’ve spent every year we’ve known each other methodically trying out new things – how would you know if it isn’t if you don’t give it a try?”

Long Path gave a long-suffering sigh and fixed Free Agent with a stony glare. “Do you really think I’ll find my cutie mark that way?” he asked dryly.

The griffon gave him an impudent grin in return. “Maybe not, but you certainly would have fun finding out for sure!”

The stallion just rolled his eyes. They had been having this kind of argument since they were foals in first grade together, although of course the more adult ‘fun’ subjects did not begin until they hit puberty. Sometimes he thought that Free Agent had gotten his share of those urges too. The griffon was unashamedly and relentlessly horny.

The subject was mercifully suspended as they reached their home. While they had their major differences, they had been best friends all throughout their school years, and it had seemed a logical and practical idea to be housemates while they attended community college. Free Agent did not seem likely to settle down with a griffoness, and Long Path had no interest in pursuing a special somepony as yet, so the arrangement suited them both.

“I’ll make us some lunch,” Free Agent announced. “Gotta be able to keep my strength up for the party later.”

“Fine by me. I have chores to do anyway.”

While Free Agent headed for the kitchen, Long Path set about washing the bed linen. He was particularly insistent on doing Free’s regularly. He had the magic-powered washing machine humming along with a full load when the griffon announced that lunch was ready.

“What’ve we got?” Path asked as he sat at the kitchen table.

“There’s tuna, BLT, and plum jam sandwiches.”

“Sounds good.” Long Path picked up a BLT and starting munching on it.

Long ago while Long Path had been delving deeper into his friend’s griffon culture, he had shocked Free Agent by trying out some of his meat sandwiches at school one day. After scraping his beak off the floor, Free had him try other carnivore edibles, much to the shock and revulsion of the other ponies in the school lunchroom. Long Path had merely commented thoughtfully, “Y’know, this doesn’t taste half bad. I might have to try some more later.”

The school principal had something to say on that subject though, and Long Path had reserved his later culinary tests for more private occasions. Much to Free’s amusement, the stallion had developed a taste for many meats, as long they were not too fatty.

They had just started on cleaning up after lunch when they heard a great commotion start outside. Curiosity brought them to the window, and both stared in surprise at the sight of the horde of strange creatures that were apparently ramming the magical force shield that had been surrounding their city for the past several days. As they watched, the shield seemed to fluctuate and then shattered, allowing the creatures to pour in. As they grew closer, Long Path dispassionately observed their characteristics. While still roughly pony-shaped, they exhibited more insect-like characteristics, including a chitinous exterior and wings. They also seemed to have voids in their legs. And then there were the long fangs…

Ponies ran screaming as the creatures dived at them. Some crashed down onto the pavement and blocked their path, capturing them and herding them. Royal Guards who had not been tied up at the wedding ceremony poured out into the streets and into the skies, but for every Guard, there were many more of the invaders. Long Path observed that thus far they seemed to be concentrating on the more important parts of the city, but gradually the fighting grew closer to their neighbourhood until it reached their street. He was almost shaken out of his normal calm and analytical demeanour though when he observed one changeling start to feed on a pony.

“What in Celestia’s name is it doing?”

“Why are you even watching that?” Free Agent said almost hysterically from behind the stallion’s back, trying to stay out of sight from the creatures.

“Know your enemy,” Long Path replied. “If we’re in danger, we need to know what they can do and how we can defend ourselves.”

“That won’t help us if they capture us before you figure it out!”

Long Path conceded that he had a point, but nevertheless only repositioned himself so that he was much less visible from the outside. He continued to observe the struggles of both the citizens and the soldiers, the number of the latter visibly declining. Inevitably though, he was spotted, and one of the creatures flew up to the window to attack. That was a mistake on its part though. Unlike the majority of the populace who were unicorns, Long Path was an earth pony, and as soon as it was in range, he put his full earth pony strength behind his hoof punch, killing it instantly.

“Hmm, its carapace is strong but brittle. Might be a weakness,” Long Path mused with a grim look on his face.

How can you be so calm at a time like this?!” Free Agent screamed at him. “Get away from the window before you get us both killed!

Free Agent’s words came too late though as the altercation had been spotted by its companions, and they came diving at the window. Long Path and Free Agent retreated as three of the enemy entered their home. The stallion braced himself to fight, while the griffon flared his wings and unsheathed his claws.

For some unknown reason, the creatures hesitated. They chittered to one another and seemed to come to some decision before they cautiously approached Long Path. Before they attacked though, there was a flash of light outside, and moments later a wall of pink energy passed through the house, sweeping the creatures before it. Two were thrust through the window that they had entered by, although one’s leg was heard to crack loudly against the window sill as it passed. It was the lucky one. The third creature was smashed against an unyielding wall, splattering it with green blood. Naturally it was quite dead. Long Path almost did not notice, because his friend had also been knocked aside by the magic shield, and he had bounced off the same wall and crumpled unconscious to the ground. As Long Path rushed over to his friend, the griffon was briefly engulfed in magic flame, revealing another of those strange creatures.

The earth pony stared in shock, then murmured, “Just when I thought you couldn’t surprise me anymore...”

When Free Agent regained consciousness, he discovered that he was in his bed. He also realised that he was no longer in griffon form. He hurriedly corrected that, even as he realised that it was far too late.

The flare of magic fire caught the attention of Long Path who had been quietly writing his observations in a book. He put down his quill and looked at Free Agent questioningly.

Free grimaced and said, “Well, balls! I guess you know now. What happens next?”

“Since you’re obviously one of those creatures...”

“Changelings,” Free interrupted. “They’re... we’re... called changelings.”

“Right. Since you’re a changeling, logically I should report you to the Royal Guard and let them deal with you. However, your behaviour does not match those invaders, so I’m not inclined to do so. I do have one question though, and I want an honest answer.” He leant in close to Free and asked with a hint of menace, “Are you really my best friend, or did you copy and replace him?”

Free snorted in amusement. “Do you honestly think anyone could replace me without you noticing something was wrong?”

That answer more than satisfied Long Path. With a slight smile he replied, “Then I certainly won’t be turning you in. However, you do know that I’m going to annoy the shit out of you with questions for the rest of your life?”

Free Agent groaned and collapsed back onto his pillow. “Buck! Just kill me now!”

The two shared a laugh that only best friends could.

With the real wedding postponed until Canterlot had a chance to clean up after the invasion, and of course the party too, Free Agent did not have an excuse to get away from Long Path, and he spent the rest of the day answering questions about changelings. After getting some basic information on what they were like, Long Path had one question uppermost on his mind.

“How come you were so afraid of them? You could have changed into your natural form and blended in.”

“Ha! Just because I’m a changeling, doesn’t mean that I’m one of them. For starters, there are different hives. They were all from the Blue Hive, and they would have known that I wasn’t one of them. You saw them hesitate when they attacked us? Well, they had realised that I was a changeling too, but they weren't sure that I wasn’t a Blue while I was in my griffon form. They thought that you were my victim already.”

“Makes sense, I suppose. How many hives are there then?”

“Six in Equestria. Don’t know about the rest of the world.”

“What hive are you from then?”

Free grinned. “I’m my own hive!”

Path cocked an eyebrow in puzzlement. “What do you mean by that?”

Free shrugged. “Not sure. I was found barely older than a nymph by my parents. No one knows how or why I was apparently abandoned. Not even sure why they took me in. They were an older couple who never had chicks though, so I can only guess they had a delayed yearning to be parents, so they didn’t just kill me. So – no idea which I came from. Don’t really care either. After I first transformed into griffon form, Mom and Dad decided that I should be brought up like one. As far as I’m concerned, I am a griffon.”

“I’m guessing that your parents came to Canterlot only after you learned to change.”

“Yeah. A bit hard to explain a changeling chick otherwise. They wanted me to meet other griffons who lived there, and go to school. That’s when I met you of course.”

Path smirked. “I knew you were an odd one; I just didn’t know how odd then.”

“Ha! I was a changeling griffon in a pony city – what was your excuse?”

Long Path did not deign to answer that one. After a thoughtful moment, he asked, “So, why do you think those Blue Changelings attacked Canterlot?”

“I dunno; it doesn’t make sense.”

“Why not? It’s not the first time that an invading army has tried to conquer a city or country.”

“Yeah, but why? Changelings only need one thing from ponies – love.”

“I don’t understand,” Path admitted.

“We get our energy from feeding on love. Other positive emotions are good too, but love is a feast.”

“But you eat food just like we do,” Path pointed out.

“Well, of course we need food and water to grow and sustain our bodies, but we get our energy from love. We can go without food for a long time, but we would die without emotional energy.”

“Is that why you have always hung around with me? You’re saying that I love you?”

“Love of a friend, not romantic love. Aside from my parents, you’ve sustained me ever since we met in first grade.” Free waggled an eyebrow at Path and gave him a lascivious leer. “We can try what it tastes like with the latter type though.”

“Pass,” Path replied calmly. It was hardly the first time that his friend had come onto him, and he sincerely doubted it would be the last. “However, you just said ‘what it tastes like’ – are you saying that it has flavour?”

“Of course! We feed on it, so we can taste it. Every emotion has its own flavour. Positive emotions taste good, negative emotions taste bad.”

“I saw a changeling biting a mare with those long fangs. It didn’t look to me like they were feeding on emotions.”

“They weren’t drinking their blood, if that’s what you’re hinting at. The fangs connect with the pony’s ... um ... aura, I suppose. That way they can forcefully drain a pony of their love in a very short time. It’s very harsh on the victim though, and something that usually isn’t done.”

“You’ve never done it to me anyway. At least, I don’t think so. It doesn’t make you forget, does it?”

“Heh! You’re getting paranoid now. No, it doesn’t make you forget, and no I haven’t bitten you. I don’t need to. Changelings can absorb ambient emotion to sustain them. I get more than enough just hanging around you – and my bed companions too, of course.”

Long Path abruptly realised something. “Is that why you never seem to get tired when you’re banging somepony?”

Free’s grin broadened. “You got it, baby! The better the bang, the more energy I get out of it. It’s the ultimate high!”

“Sweet Celestia – it’s no wonder that you’re a sex addict.”

“Don’t knock it til you try it,” Free replied unabashedly.

Path just shook his head. “We’ve gotten way off subject – why would they attack if they already can get what they want without fighting?”

“Now there’s the 64,000 Bit question. I bet that’s the same question the other changelings living in the city are asking right now.”

“There are more like you?”

“Not like me. They’re here as emotion harvesters for their hives. They live and work among ponies peacefully, as they have done all of history as far as we know. As I said, we feed on love and other emotions, so we have to live among ponies, griffons, minotaurs, or other sapient species to harvest that love. You go to any town, village, or eyrie in Equestria, and I guarantee that some of the citizens will actually be changelings. They're the ones that taught me what a changeling is and what we do.”

“That’s interesting to know. So, if they get what they need already by normal interaction, what other motivation is left? I can only think of one – power.”

Free nodded. “Sounds about right. A changeling queen would have to be crazy for power to put her hive at risk by exposing our greatest secret. Her name will be mud with the other queens.”

“Now that their existence is known, they might want to parlay with the princesses. I think the non-hostile changelings will find themselves at risk if they don’t clear up the situation.”

Free snorted in amused disdain. “Yeah, sure. As far as the princesses know, the Blue Changelings were an isolated invasion force. What reason would they have to suspect that changelings have been here as long as Canterlot has existed? My guess is they won’t even know what they’re looking for.”

Path thought about that, and had to concede the point. “Okay, but I’m betting that eventually the mere fact that their existence is known will bring about a massive change in that situation sooner or later. Then they’ll have to talk. Hmm… Speaking of talking, was that chittering their speech?”


“And you understand it despite being raised with by griffons?”

“Yep. I guess I already had it ingrained into me before I got abandoned.”

“Tell me something in changeling speech.”

“Seriously? Okay.” Free Agent chittered a short sentence. “That meant ‘I'm getting bored with all these questions’.”

Long Path mimicked what Free had just said.

Free’s beak dropped open in surprise. “That… that was near perfect. Let’s try that again.” He chittered another phrase. “That meant ‘I'm beginning to feel hungry’.”

Path repeated the phrase.

“Exactly right again. How are you doing that? I know you’re not a changeling.”

Path shrugged. “Seems easy enough to me.”

“Okay, one more test.” Free chittered another phrase with a different inflection, then looked at Long Path who repeated it effortlessly.

“Okay, I accept,” Free replied cheerfully.

“What did that mean?” Path asked with growing suspicion.

“You asked me to come with you to bed tonight,” the griffon replied with a grin.

Long Path just glared at his unrepentant friend for a long time before saying, “Teach me changeling language.”

Free Agent’s grin slipped as he realised that his little joke had backfired.

Getting his friend to treat the language lessons seriously was an achievement in itself, but Long Path’s analytical mind quickly went into overdrive, detecting patterns, syntax, and phrasing. Soon he was truly understanding the words and putting together simple phrases. By the next day, he was already constructing sentences. As his vocabulary grew over the next few weeks, they started simple conversations for practice.

Within two months, Long Path was fluent in the changeling language, and they would often converse that way. One evening, the griffon chittered, “What’s that on your flank?”

Long Path turned to look, and found “%&@#” emblazoned there. “Sweet Celestia, I’ve got my cutie mark!”

“Looks like cussing to me.”

Long Path shook his head as he realised what it really meant. “Nope, that symbolises my ability to rapidly understand languages. My special talent is linguistics!”

“So, you like it?”

The normally stoic stallion’s face split in a huge grin. “Buck, yeah!”




Chapter 2: A Pony, A Griffon, And A Changeling Walk Into A Café...


“So why the long face this time?” Free Agent asked Long Path as they ambled home.

“My appointment with Princess Celestia has been postponed. Again.”

The earth pony’s withering tones made the griffon flinch a bit. “Hey, don’t dis Princess Sun-Butt. She throws a mean party!”

“And how many of those parties have you ever actually been invited to?”

“That’s beside the point,” Free evaded. “She puts a lot of effort into those soirees. Where would we be without those diplomatic shindigs luring the cream of Canterlot to one place so I can work the crowd? Gives us a chance to make a great impression, and baby, I make the best!”

“I shudder to think,” Path replied. “How have you managed not to get thrown out of the palace?”

Free grinned as broadly as a beak would let him. “I’ve been at those parties so often that they think that I belong there. They just never question it.”

“Good grief! Anyway, partying is not the point. You know I’m trying to do research that requires access to the Royal Archives. Going to a party isn’t going to achieve that.”

“How would you know? You’d be surprised what it could get you if you tried it for once.”

“Are you trying to tell me that chatting up a pretty mare is going to get me access to some of the princesses’ private collection?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. At least you’d have the company of a cute mare for a change.” As Long Path started scowling and opening his mouth to object, Free forestalled him, saying, “Look – I’m not just yanking your chain. It’s not as if you haven’t already done things that no pony has tried before. Whoever heard of an earth pony studying unicorn magic theory and pegasus weather theory? None! Who figured out how to use earth pony magic to counteract certain unicorn spells? You! Ya gotta keep thinking sideways like that!”

Path looked a bit mollified by that, but still frustrated. “That’s why I’m trying to get access to that material. The usual study materials are… lacking.”

“So what exactly has kept you from hitting up the Princess?”

“A never-ending list of excuses: run out of time, emergency council session, one of her students needs help, one of her students causes a disaster, nobles demanding priority, the return of Tirek, running out of tea…”

Free cocked an enquiring eyebrow at his friend. “Tea?”

“Okay, the latter is a slight exaggeration, but there’s always some excuse.”

“So what you’re saying is that Sunny is busy running the kingdom, and one little over-zealous scholar barely rates a blip on the schedule?”

“A crude but accurate summation.”

“What did I say about thinking sideways?”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

Free Agent shook his head pityingly. “So smart and so dumb at the same time. There are two princesses that currently rule Equestria. You’re hitting up the wrong one!”

That startled Path. “Princess Luna?”

“Of course, Luna! Moon-butt not only also has access to the Royal Archives, but her Night Court also has far fewer appointments. Seems most ponies want to either go to bed, or party at that time. Go figure! Twenty bits says you get to see her first time you try.”

“I’ve learned not to bet my money with you.”

“Coward! Okay, if you don’t get the interview with Luna, I’ll treat you to dinner at the Eyrish Steak House. If you do though, you have to come with me to Celestia’s next party. You can be my ‘plus one’.”

“I’m going to enjoy that free meal,” Long Path said confidently.

Free Agent just looked smug.

Free looked up from the game he was playing when Path walked in the door. “So how’d it go?”

“I’ve got just one question,” Path replied.

“Yeah? What?”

“What am I supposed to wear to one of those… shindigs?”

Free pumped a foreleg with clenched claws into the air and crowed, “He shoots; he scores!”

When the pair arrived home after the ambassadorial party that Free had taken Path to, the griffon was doing a fine job of pouting despite not having the lips to do the expression justice.

Path followed Free inside, still wearing the smart jacket that he had gotten just for the occasion. “Look, how was I to know that the ambassador’s daughter would go gaga over me?”

“Showing off your mastery of the griffon tongue was never going to make you inconspicuous, was it?” Free replied.

You taught me it. It was only polite to converse with the ambassador in his native language.”

“Do you have any idea of how those snobby griffons like it when ponies do things like that?”

“I think I do now,” Path admitted. “I couldn’t get Roseclaw to leave my side after that.”

“That’s the problem with you!” Free squawked. “You should have found some excuse and cut out with her! That’s what I intended to do, but you had her undivided attention.”

“An earth pony stallion and a griffoness? You have to be kidding!”

“Haven’t you ever heard of hippogriffs? Man, you had her eating out of your hooves!”

“I didn’t intend to. I was just interested in learning more about griffon culture.”

Free Agent rolled his eyes heavenwards, holding up his claws in supplication. “Sweet Celestia! The guy doesn’t even know when he’s turning on a girl!”

Path shrugged. “Sorry if I trod on your plans, but it isn’t as if there weren’t other she-griffons or mares there.”

“But this was the ambassador’s daughter! You want to know how badly I want to bang her?”

“Your fault for dragging me to the party,” the stallion replied smugly.

“Arrgh! See if I do you a favour again!” Free Agent stalked off to his room and slammed the door in frustration.

Long Path felt a bit guilty, but only a little. He smiled in recollection of the evening. He’d made some good contacts, learned a lot, and got one up on his friend for a change. All in all, it was a very productive evening.

“Hey! There’s the changeling Royal Guard squad that Princess Celestia announced last week,” Path said excitedly, pointing them out to Free.

The griffon looked in the direction of Path’s hoof and shrugged. “I dunno, that just seems weird to me. Changelings out in the open like that just doesn’t seem natural.”

“By definition, nothing about pony civilisation is natural. We design, plan, build, and interact in ways that any non-sapient creature cannot. So if the changelings want to socialise with us out of disguise, then that’s a civilised response.”

“That’s the hippology student talking, so let me respond as an ordinary griffon – it’s still weird.”

Path looked at Free with a smirk on his face. “Look who’s talking! You’re hardly ordinary; you’re a changeling who would rather be a griffon, and a horny one at that.”

“Better to be a horny griffon than one of them. Just look at how the ponies react to them.”

Path had been concentrating on the changelings, but at Free’s prompting, he observed the pony citizens too. Almost every pony swerved to avoid them, or at best refused to look at them, relegating the changelings to less than even the beggars in the streets. The earth pony frowned and said, “That’s not right. The princesses announced long ago that there were several other non-hostile hives, and that their members were considered citizens in good standing of Equestria. Those Guards should be shown respect for their service.”

“Wake up to reality, Path. If you open your eyes and look, you’d see that ponies don’t like anything different. As a griffon, I get snubbed almost every day, and I’m still doing a lot better than that lot. Heck, some ponies don’t even like other types of ponies! The three pony tribes may have been unified centuries ago, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always harmonious.”

Long Path silently considered that as he watched them for several minutes. Free Agent was right – the Guards were being polite and professional, but ponies were giving them the cold shoulder. They seemed quite relieved when the squad leader called a break. Most settled into the shade of a tree for a rest, but he noticed that the leader headed off into a nearby café. A few minutes later he emerged with a cup of coffee and re-joined his team.

“I feel like a coffee,” Path announced, heading towards the café.

Free rolled his eyes and followed. “Sure you do. You just want an excuse to check them out more, don’t ya?”

Free Agent was right, but Long Path was not about to acknowledge it. They entered the café and found a young unicorn mare with a light orange coat and curly pink hair behind the counter.

“Welcome to the True Brew Café,” she said with a bright smile.

“Thanks. Could we get two cappuccinos, and we’d like to have them served at one of the outside tables, please,” Path requested.

“Certainly, sir” the mare replied as she took his money. She then turned to the door to the rear of the shop and called out, “Dad! Two cappuccinos, please!”

A unicorn stallion with light brown fur and coffee & cream striped mane came out. He nodded at his customers as he headed to the coffee machine. “I don’t believe that I have seen you here before,” he said as he busied himself with the brewing process.

“No, first time,” Path admitted.

“Well I’m Frothy Brew, and this is my daughter, Peach Delight. Welcome to our little family-owned business, and I hope that you enjoy and come again.”

“Thank you. My name is Long Path, and my friend here is Free Agent. We live not too far away.”

Peach said, “It’s our tradition to give first-time customers a free slice of pie or cake to go with their coffee. Could I interest you in something from the display?”

“That’s very generous of you,” Path replied. “I wouldn’t mind some apple pie, please.”

“Certainly. Whipped cream or ice cream with it?”

“Ice cream, of course!”

Peach grinned. “Of course. And you, sir?” she asked Free.

“I’d love to have some Peach Delight,” the griffon asked with a sly grin.

Peach’s expression barely changed, although Path noticed a hint of amusement.

“Sorry, sir, but that’s currently off the menu. Perhaps an almond slice? I hear griffons are a little bit nutty. Into them, I mean.”

“Ooh! Zinged! I’ll take what I can get from you, lovely lady,” Free replied unabashed.

Path noticed that Frothy Brew seemed unaffected by his friend’s move on his daughter, and he figured that it was hardly the first time that it had happened, and was pretty much par for the course. However, he had come in here for a reason. “I thought that I saw one of those changeling Guards come out of here earlier. What was that like?” he asked the barista.

Frothy jerked as if he had been struck, spilling some of the coffee that he had just brewed. He scowled and said, “There are some customers that I would rather not see return,” he replied, and then refused to say any more, busying himself with his task.

Path realised that he was not likely to get anything more out of Frothy, so he headed outside, dragging along his friend. They sat at one of the outdoor tables with an umbrella shading them, and Path turned his attention to the changeling squad that was still resting in the park across the street. Soon, Peach came out with the cappuccinos, pie and cake and served them up.

“Would there be anything else, gentlebeings?” she asked.

“Just a date on your next night off. Whenever it is, I’m Free,” the griffon said.

“Sorry, but I’m not. Have a good day!”

Path smirked at Free. “Shot down in flames.”

His friend grinned back. “Don’t count me out yet. She smiled nicely and she gave as good as she got – yeah, that mare likes different experiences.”

Considering Free’s record, Path had to admit that the griffon might be right. He therefore shut up and concentrated on enjoying his drink and food, while observing the changelings. The entire time that he watched, the only ponies that went into the park were a few curious foals, and the occasional parent who hastily herded them back out again. He began paying more attention to the adult ponies and their reactions. Of all the dozens of passers-by, he only counted two that had a blasé attitude towards the Guards. He observed several unicorn mares gather and start gossiping, occasional glancing in the direction of the changelings, which made it quite obvious what their subject of discussion was. Path even noticed a trio of pegasi briefly hover over the park, gesticulating in annoyance in the direction of the Guards. By the time the squad had finished its break and moved on, Path was firmly convinced of one thing – nobody liked the changelings.

“It’s just not right,” Long Path grumped, repeating his earlier sentiments.

“Ponies are bigots,” Free replied simply, unsurprised at his friend’s conclusion.

“All the talk about the magic of Harmony, but that’s all it is – talk.”

“Nah, many actually believe in it, but first you have to get past their preconceptions. You don’t think that everypony likes me at first, do you? Once they get to know me, things get a lot better.”

Considering the number of ponies he’d dated, not to mention banged, Path could hardly argue that point. “Then perhaps something should be done about that. And I’m not just talking about changelings either. We need to better acquainted with all species.”

“Natch. Why do you think you scored so well with Roseclaw? You were at a stuffy ambassadorial reception with politicians being formal with plastered on smiles. Except for Princess Celestia, I doubt that a single pony was truly friendly toward the griffon delegation. Then you came along, chatted to them in their language, enthusiastically listening to what they said, and generally being genuinely friendly. You probably did more for pony-griffon relationships in one night than those stuffed shirts have done in decades.”

“But I thought that was what diplomatic meetings were all about – getting to know and understand each other better for the good of each of their countries?”

“More like battles fought with words. If you hadn’t gone there so naively, you might have noticed that for yourself.”

“I must have stood out like a sore hoof then.”

Free chuckled. “Tartarus, yeah! The nobles noticed for sure, and one of them queried a Guard who looked concerned. He then had a word with the Princess. I didn’t hear what she told the Guard, but she smiled and he left looking satisfied.”

Path blanched. “You’re telling me that they realised that I didn’t belong there despite coming with you?”

Free’s grin just grew. “Yep! But Sun-butt realised what you were achieving and wisely stayed the Guards’ hooves. You may not have been officially have been invited, but from that moment, you had the princess’ blessing. In fact, I bet that if you turn up at the next meeting without me, you’d not only be not turned away, but your name would already be on the list.”

“Nope – not taking that bet. No way.” Path was full of wonder at that revelation, but not totally stupid. “It’d be the first time that Princess Celestia has helped me out though.”

“Now if only she could remove the stick that’s up your arse and get you to have some fun. I’ll really be impressed then.”

Path glared at his friend before saying, “Come on – let’s go home. I’ve got lots to think about.”

“Did you know that there are just two dozen griffons and nine zebras that make Canterlot their home?” Path asked Free one afternoon some weeks later. They had stopped at the True Brew Café again, a place that had become a favourite of theirs lately. Free was still trying to get a date with Peach, while Path just liked the coffee and the atmosphere. The growing number of changelings who frequented the place were also worth observing, along with the ponies who chose to interact with them.

“Yeah, that sounds about right for the griffons. Some of them are relatives of mine. Not blood rellies, of course. Didn’t know about the zebras, although I’ve dated a couple. We weren’t discussing population though. Trying to increase it, maybe,” Free added with a grin.

Path was unfazed but curious. “Are griffons even inter-fertile with zebras without a compatibility spell? And besides, didn’t you tell me that changelings like you are not fertile?”

The smug look on Free’s face annoyed the earth pony. “Yeah, I’m infertile, and I wasn’t a griffon at the time, but the mare didn’t need to know about either of those things.”

Path just shook his head and sighed. His friend was never going to change, which was ironic for a changeling. “Anyway, the point is that almost no species other than ponies live in the capital city of Equestria. Why do you think that is?”

“Are you still going on about that? I answered that ages ago – ponies are mostly bigots.”

“I disagree,” a voice coming from an adjacent table interjected.

Path and Free looked over to see a Green Changeling seated there.

“Pardon me, but you were talking quite loudly, and I couldn’t help overhearing,” the changeling said.

“No, it’s okay. I’m interested in your opinions too.” Path waved the changeling over. “Come over and join us.”

The changeling nodded and took a seat across from the two. “My name is Hycithia, and I’ve been living in Canterlot for three years now, but the past few months I’ve done so undisguised.”

“That must have been quite a shock. Why did you do that?” Path asked.

“Because my queen asked for volunteers to start getting ponies used to the idea of changelings among them, and I thought that I could be good at that.”

“And have you been?”

Hycithia grimaced. “It’s been hard. However, I don’t think that it’s outright bigotry that’s the problem, but a deep-seated xenophobia.”

“Does that make any substantial difference though?”

“From a practical day-to-day point of view, perhaps not, but one is forgivable while the other is not.”

Path was intrigued. “What do you mean by that? How can either attitude be condoned?”

“The basis of xenophobia is fear. In the days before ponies became civilised, fear was a survival mechanism. The unknown was frequently dangerous and unfamiliar races were especially so. Nowadays though, the need for that fear is far less, but it is part of pony nature. It can be forgiven because there is no thought put into it – they fear because something primitive in their brain screams that they should be afraid. Bigotry is the opposite. Ponies believe something is bad or scary about others, and they keep reinforcing that belief even when they are shown that they are wrong.”

“That’s very insightful. So you believe that the average pony is xenophobic rather than bigoted?”

“Well, there are some that are both, but yes I believe so, and that’s why I will continue to try to improve relationships between ponies and changelings.”

“How confident are you that this can be done?”

“It’s already happening. This café is a prime example. Frothy had a traumatic experience during the changeling invasion, and was heavily biased against us, but he’s worked hard to overcome that. That’s why the True Brew Café is a favourite among changelings.”

“Must be why I like hanging out here,” Free commented.

Path shook his head. “But don’t you see that this is a superficial result?”

Hycithia was startled by that comment, and as she tried to wrap her head around it, a new customer entered the store and ordered a coffee. Frothy greeted her cheerfully and went to work.

“I don’t quite comprehend what you mean,” Hycithia admitted.

“You’ve made friends with Frothy and his family, and all you changelings like to come here to socialise, but that doesn’t affect the big picture much.”

“We can’t do everything at once! We’re trying to bring around the local shopkeepers also.”

“You’re treating the symptoms, but not the disease. It’s no good getting a few ponies on your side when the rest of society shuns you. And that’s true of all races. As an earth pony, I’m the odd pony out in Canterlot, but I didn’t let that stop me. I learn what I can about the other kinds of ponies, and the other races too.”

The purple-coated newcomer gathered her coffee and cake, and started looking for a free table. She was just passing by Path and Free’s table when Path pointed at her abruptly.

“Take her for example. She’s supposed to be the Princess of Friendship, and that’s supposed to be an all-encompassing force that transcends all socio-economic, racial, and geographical boundaries, but all but the smallest minority of her friends are from the same town, are all ponies, and are even all the same gender! I’m not mad at the princess – I actually like her and many of the things that she’s done, but I am using her as an example of the strongly asymmetric, non-homogenous idea of friendship that the vast majority of Equestrian society seems to cling to! There can be no friendship without understanding, and if one group is xenophobic of all the others, then that group will never gain understanding, and thus world-wide friendship can never be achieved.”

Free calmly sipped his coffee and then said, “Huh! First time you meet alicorn Princess Twilight Sparkle, and you yell at her in public. Ballsy move.”

Twilight was just standing there stunned, wondering what in Equestria was going on. The café had become deathly quiet as all the customers and staff stared in shock. Slowly it dawned on Long Path just what he had just done in the heat of the moment, and he started wishing that he had the special talent of shrinking out of sight instead of linguistics.

However, slowly a smile spread on Twilight’s face. “Looks like I’m still on duty after all,” she said as she set her tray down on their table. “Make space for me. It sounds like we have a lot to talk about.”

“So let me sum this up,” Twilight said as she finished up the notes that she had been taking. “Your studies into Hippology have led you to research the civilisations of other species and their relationship to ours. Your initial conclusion is that ponies are significantly xenophobic, and this can only be overcome by further studies of the species that interact with ours, in order to demystify them and educate us so as to break down the barriers between us, thus promoting friendship and universal harmony. Correct?”

“Essentially, yes,” Path agreed, somewhat dazed at the pace at which this was proceeding.

“And how have you been approaching this project?”

“Well, lately I have found the reference material for other races at the local library to be inadequate, so I petitioned Princess Luna for access to the Royal Archives.”

Twilight looked startled. “Did you by any chance borrow Airy Words’ book, ‘Griffons: Bird or Mammal?’ from the archive?”

“As a matter of fact, I did,” Path admitted.

“So that’s where it went. I was doing some research into griffons myself, and I was looking for that book. It seems we have had similar goals. Was it useful?”

“Disappointing. The author dwelled far too much on the physical aspects while glossing over social ones.”

Twilight sighed. “With a title like that, I’m not too surprised. It’s proving difficult to find good resources for this. The griffon people tend to be very closed-beak when it comes to their society. The ones who live here tend to want to get away from that, and aren’t interested in talking about it.”

“Then perhaps we should send a research team to them instead. Spend some time among them and find out what makes them tick,” Path suggested.

“You wouldn’t be the first to want to spend time among them, but that’s nowhere near as simple as you may think. Merely getting a hoof in the door is a major achievement.”

Long Path hesitated before saying, “Umm… I might have that hoof there already.”

Twilight blinked in surprise. “You do? How?”

“Well… Free and I were at the griffon ambassador’s function a few weeks back, and I kinda got in good with him and his daughter.”

Twilight gaped for a moment before bursting out into laughter. “Oh! I can’t believe this! Celestia told me all about this earth pony stallion who gate-crashed the function, and practically swept Roseclaw off her paws. You’re that pony! Oh, this is just too rich!”

Once again Long Path found himself furiously wishing for the power to shrink out of sight as several café patrons turned to stare because of Twilight’s outburst.

Free grinned and said, “Yeah, that’s him. I had to practically drag him there, and then he stole my thunder.”

“Celestia didn’t mention you – what was your name again?”

Free sighed melodramatically. “Reduced to a mere background figure, alone and forgotten. What has become of me? Free Agent’s the name, so remember –” He gave Twilight a broad wink. “I’m always Free!”

Twilight rolled her eyes before replying, “Why do you have a pony name? At least it sounds like a pony name – I’ve never heard a griffon name like that.”

“I gave myself this name,” Free said proudly. “I’ve lived most of my life among ponies, and I chose it to suit me better, and to blend in with the crowd. However, if your highness really wants to know, my parents named me Cirrus. Cirrus Ironbeak at your service, O Purple Princess!”

Hycithia had been mostly quiet until now, but at hearing his name, she tried and failed to stifle a laugh. “Snrk!”

Free eyed the offending changeling and said, “Got a problem with my name?”

She shook her head, struggling not to grin. “Nope. Not at all… Cirrus.”

Free glared at the changeling, and Twilight was happy that Free hadn’t noticed her own badly concealed grin. She then tried to get back on subject. “Okay, I can go through diplomatic channels and request that they accept a research team which would include Long Path. That would stand a fair chance of succeeding. However, it will take some time to arrange. Did you have anything else in mind that we can fit in meanwhile?”

Path was thankful that Free had provided a distraction, and they could get back to what was important. “Actually I would like to visit as many cultures as possible. I did say that only universal understanding would bring about harmony, so I don’t intend to leave out any possibilities.”

“You’ve undertaken quite an immense project. Are you sure that you’re up to it?”

“Well, I think I am, but I’m also thinking that I would need a patron to undertake something this big.”

“I see. Hmmm, your goals seem to coincide with my own to a large degree, so how about me being that patron?”

“That… that would be awesome!” Path blurted out before he collected his wits and responded more coolly, “I mean, it would be a tremendous honour to be considered worthy of your patronage, Princess Twilight.”

“Excellent! I will make arrangements to fund your research, and you will report your findings back to me so that I can continue my own research into friendship. You can come around to the castle tomorrow morning, and I’ll have the necessary legal documents ready for you to peruse and sign.”

“That soon?” Path asked with surprise.

Twilight grinned. “I estimate that it should only take me 2.3 hours to fill out and process all the necessary forms. I’m a very organised pony. Organised is my middle name!”

Free chuckled and said, “And you thought ‘Cirrus’ was a silly name.”

Twilight blushed a little at that, and even Path had to smile.

“Back on subject,” Twilight said to sweep that moment aside, “We still haven’t determined where you will start, unless you wish to wait for the griffons to come back with a response?”

Path shook his head. “No, I’d rather not depend on something like that, but I think it’s fairly obvious where to start. This all began with my observations on how the changelings were being snubbed by ponies despite the assurance of the princesses that they were to be considered citizens in good standing. I’d like to delve more deeply into that.”

Twilight nodded thoughtfully before replying, “While that’s a valid part of your research, you do realise that some of that is already going on right here, right now?”

“Yes, but I’m thinking of looking into a more specific instance which may have the additional benefit of furthering my research into other species.”

“Oh? What would that be?”

“I’m talking about the Crystal City. I believe that despite the five hives being given the freedom of Equestria, changelings are still forbidden from visiting there. It’s understandable that considering their personal experiences with Queen Chrysalis, both Princess Cadence and Prince Shining Armor would have strong reservations about allowing any contact with them, but on the other hoof, this is exactly the kind of attitude that needs to be addressed. Changelings are being unfairly barred, and the crystal ponies are being denied learning about changelings first hoof. This directly contradicts understanding, and precludes friendship.”

“Careful, you’re getting preachy again,” Free said pointedly.

However, Twilight was actually stirred by his enthusiasm. “You’re right, but aren’t you overlooking one important thing?”

“Do you mean the Crystal Heart, and its ability to spread love all over the world? No, I haven’t overlooked that, and in fact I would love to put some hypotheses to the test. I haven’t been able to afford to dream of doing this before, but now with royal patronage, I could do it. I propose that a single changeling be given permission to travel to the Crystal City so that we can test the effects of the Crystal Heart upon him. We can test variables such as distance and intensity, and what sort of effects that concentrated love has on the changeling. Will it affect the Heart? Will it affect the citizens? We would do this under exacting scientific conditions, starting at the fringe of the Heart’s influence and gradually working our way closer to the centre. Cadence could stand by the Heart taking note of any undesirable influence upon it, and calling off the experiment if necessary. As I understand it though, the Heart gathers the love of the crystal ponies, concentrates it, and then broadcasts it, so I don’t foresee any real problems. We can work out an exact testing regime before going there.”

“That sounds like a very well-thought out idea, and I’m sure that I can persuade my brother and sister-in-law to grant their permission. Who did you have in mind for the changeling subject?”

Free raised a talon and said, “Yo!”

Twilight stared at the griffon beside her. “You’re a changeling?”

Free wrapped a wing around Twilight’s neck, pulled the startled alicorn into a hug, and said seductively, “I can be anything you want me to be, babe.”

Twilight’s wings pomfed out and she began blushing furiously before Long Path brought a rolled-up menu smartly down on Free’s beak.

“No hitting on our patron!” Path admonished.

“I just wanted to show her our appreciation, and a good time!” Free protested. “Speaking of which, would Friday night be good for you, babe?”

Twilight’s blush deepened before her horn glowed and Free Agent disappeared with a bang. A softer bang was immediately heard just outside the café, followed by the squawk of the griffon changeling as he fell about six feet to the ground. A moment later, he stuck his head in the door and said, “Would Saturday night be better for you then?”

Twilight stared in disbelief, and then giggled. “Very persistent, isn’t he?”

“You have no idea!” Path said with a roll of his eyes.

“Yes… well, before we completely lose track of the subject, you mentioned there being an additional benefit to visiting the Crystal Kingdom?”

“Oh, it’s their library. I hear that it has books published long before the city disappeared. I’m thinking that there might be a lot of useful material to glean from them that isn’t available here in Canterlot.”

“That’s a wonderful idea! I’d love an excuse to visit that library again. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to join you for this part of your research.”

Path looked nonplussed. “You mean you want to travel with him?” he asked, pointing out the griffon.

Free gave Twilight his most dashing grin and waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Twilight sighed and said, “We all must make sacrifices occasionally, Mister Path.”




Chapter 3: This Is Why Free Agent Can't Have Good Things


Long Path opened the window to their private compartment on the train, letting in the icy cold wind. They had just exited the pass through the Crystal Mountains and were on the last stretch down into the Crystal Empire. Here though, the altitude ensured that snow was still in abundance, and the breeze frigid.

The stallion poked his head out and looked about. Spotting his target, he called out, “Free! Aren’t you getting cold yet?”

The griffon was pacing the train, but weaving around the landscape for the heck of it. His reply was hard to hear over the noise of the train and the wind. “Nah! I’m good. Reminds me of the top of Mount Canterhorn – brisk and invigorating!”

“You said you were only going to be out there for a few minutes to stretch your wings.”

“And they’re feeling much better, thanks! I’m in no hurry to come back inside though if you two nerds are still geeking-out in there.”

Path felt a pang of guilt. Princess Twilight and he had found so much to talk about on the journey from Canterlot that it was possible that he had been ignoring his best friend. Nevertheless he needed him back inside. “Remember the instructions that we got from the Crystal Empire – you’re to keep together with us until we reach the destination.”

“I know! Don’t be a nag! I’ll come back inside in a few minutes,” Free replied petulantly.

Path decided that was good enough and withdrew from the window, closing it firmly. The compartment had lost most of its warmth though, and the tiny heater struggled to bring it back up to a comfortable level.

“Is he coming?” Twilight asked.

“He says he’ll be a few minutes more. That should be in time.”

Twilight nodded in agreement and then asked, “How did you and he become such good friends? You are such different personalities.”

“It’s not that surprising really. I was the only earth pony and he was the only griffon in a class full of unicorn foals who promptly gave us the cold shoulder. We basically supported each other throughout those school years. He’s actually been quite a good influence on me over the years, believe it or not.”

“I find that hard to credit,” Twilight said with a voice heavy with scepticism.

Path grinned. “Yeah, I know, but without him I’d probably be a total stick-in-the-mud with nothing but books as my friends.”

That jolted Twilight. “Um… yeah, I see.”

“I’ve probably got a lot more out of my life because of him, and in return I try to stop him from doing anything too over the top, and keep him out of trouble.”

“What about his overactive libido? That’s a bit excessive for his griffon identity, but totally inconsistent with what I have learned about changelings. They typically react to sexual overtures rather than actively pursue sex.”

“When I thought he was just a griffon, for a long time I didn’t really know enough about the species to say that his libido was excessive. Even after I did learn more, he didn’t strike me as being anything more than being at the extreme end of the curve. However, since I learned his secret and discovered more about changelings, it did seem very strange to me. Like you said, none of the other changelings that I’ve met have been anything like him. However, I do have a theory.”

Twilight’s ears perked up. “Go on!”

“With the exception of the invasion swarm, all the changelings we ever meet in the open are Harvesters, correct?”

“Mostly correct. The queens of each hive have met with the princesses and other top officials, but they don’t normally go out in public.” ‘At least, not undisguised,’ she added mentally, thinking primarily of Fleur De Lis and her penchant for mixing with the common ponies.

Path nodded. “Right. Anyway, I found out that the Harvesters are trained for their task for a long time before being sent out to create new lives in Equestrian society. They are always adults by this stage. Free, on the other hoof, grew up from barely out of nymph stage in the home of a griffon couple, and went to school in Canterlot. He developed a lot of personality in those formative stages, but especially during the teenage years of puberty. Just imagine how a class full of ponies with raging hormones would affect an emotion-sensitive creature like a changeling.”

“Sweet Celestia! It all makes sense. He has been permanently shaped by those experiences. How did his classmates react to that though?”

Path chuckled. “Oh, he became very popular with the girls. Just imagine all those fillies in heat who discovered an equally horny male who couldn’t get them pregnant.”

Twilight gulped as she remembered her own period of puberty and wondered if she would have resisted the temptation like she had with the colts.

Path continued, “However, there’s one thing that really set him apart from the other colts – he always left the fillies pleased and satisfied, and now it’s obvious why. Changelings instinctively act to make the people they’re with, happy and content so that they can feed on their positive emotions. As far as I know, despite his outrageous behaviour, not one single pony that he’s ever had sex with has ever had regrets about it. Nor any other species or gender for that matter.”

Just then, the door to their compartment opened and Free Agent came inside. “Phew! That feels much better!” he declared, settling himself on the seat next to Twilight. He unfurled a wing and put it around the alicorn’s barrel. “You don’t mind if I warm up next to you, do ya?” he asked with his boldest grin.

Twilight could feel a hot blush burning her face. Knowing what she did about him now, it was hard not to picture what it would be like being with the griffon. Worse yet, he was probably tasting those stray emotions. She tried desperately to clamp down on those thoughts, but he still waggled a knowing eyebrow at her.

Free was pleased. This time she had not teleported him away again. Things were looking up!

Much to Twilight’s relief, Path intervened.

“We shouldn’t be much more than about a quarter of an hour away from our rendezvous. You have to stay with us from now on.”

“I’m quite happy right here,” Free replied, his wing still firmly about Twilight.

Both Twilight and Path reckoned that if it got Free to behave, they would tolerate the situation.

Right on schedule, the train started slowing down, but there still were no buildings in sight. They pulled up at a small siding that was located in what appeared to be farmlands.

“Colour me unimpressed if this is the Crystal City’s main station,” Free said.

“Hardly,” Twilight replied, “but it’s where you get off. In fact, I see my brother waiting for you out there.”

“I’m the only one getting off?”

“Yes. Long Path and I will continue on into the city, while you and Shining Armor make your way later. I’ll explain more after we go out to meet him.”

All three disembarked onto the platform, discovering that it was much warmer than it had been in the mountains. Shining Armor came over to meet them, and Twilight trotted ahead to greet her brother with a hug, giving Free a big snack out of the ample love they shared for each other. Then Twilight indicated her travelling companions. “Shiny, the earth pony is Long Path, and Free Agent is the griffon changeling whom you’re expecting. Guys, this is my brother, Prince Shining Armor.”

Shining Armor shook hooves with Path, giving him a sincere smile. “Welcome to the Crystal Empire.” The unicorn then turned to Free who held out his claw. Shining reluctantly shook that also. “You too, I suppose.”

“Shiny! That’s no way to treat a guest!” Twilight objected.

“You know I’m not one of Chrysalis’ minions, don’t you?” Free asked, fully aware of exactly how the unicorn felt about him.

“You know that I was physically and mentally traumatised by her?” Shining retorted. “I’m only doing this for Cadance’s sake.”

“And I’m doing this because my best friend has a worthy goal that I’m happy to help him with, so which of us has the better motivation?”

They glared at each other for a bit before Twilight said, “Okay, you two. Break it up! You’re going to have to work together, so put aside your hostilities.”

Free turned to the alicorn with his normal cheerful expression. “I’m cool if he is. You were going to explain why I’m being left here with him though?”

Twilight nodded. “We’re not going to start the testing regime until tomorrow. We have a full day planned, and there won’t be enough time left to do much today, so we might as well relax after our journey. However, because we’re still unaware of what effects a changeling might have on the Crystal Heart, we will be bringing you into the city slowly, and housing you out in the suburbs, well away from the Heart. Shining Armor will be accompanying you to monitor for any worrying effects while we go on ahead. Path and I will rendezvous with Princess Cadance who will be monitoring the Heart from when you begin to come in. If all goes well, we’ll all reunite for dinner in a couple of hours.”

“Okay, but how are either Cadance or Whiny here going to know if something goes wrong at the other end?”

Twilight ignored the slight against her brother, and sincerely hoped he would too. She took two objects out of her saddle-pack and held them up for everypony to see. “These are my latest invention. If you look closely, you will see a crystal mounted on a diaphragm mounted inside these tubes.” She moved them so that they all got a look inside before she continued. “Those crystals used to be one larger crystal upon which I cast a new spell that I call Eternal Oneness. What it does is permanently link every part of that crystal to every other part. After splitting it into two pieces, what I do to one half, also affects the other, no matter how far apart they are. By mounting the crystals on a diaphragm, our voices can vibrate it, and thus the crystal also. As I said though, what happens to one half of the crystal, happens to the other half also, and it vibrates the diaphragm in the other tube, replicating the voice of the distant speaker. That way, anypony can stay in permanent contact no matter how far they travel. I call it the Talkie-Trotty!” she said proudly.

“That’s amazing!” Path said, “but wouldn’t Talkie-Walkie sound better?”

“Talkie-Trottie is alliterative,” Twilight replied defensively.

“But Talkie-Walkie rhymes better,” Path pointed out.

“Are we going to get anywhere before sundown?” Free interrupted.

“Oh, right. Anyway, I’m leaving one with Shining, and I’ll give the other to Cadance when we get to the city. She will then let you know that you can begin.”

“Well done, Twily,” Shining Armor said with a proud smile for his sister. “Now you had better get back aboard the train before the driver gets tired of the delay, and leaves without you.”

“He wouldn’t dare leave behind an Equestrian princess, would he?”

“You obviously don’t know engineers and their obsession with being on time. I’ll see you soon, sis.”

“Will do, BBBFF!” With one last hug, Twilight reboarded the train, closely followed by Long Path. He was barely inside the carriage when the engine whistle blew, and the train commenced the remainder of the journey.

As they made their way back to their compartment, Path said, “Hey, Twilight, that crystal – if you split it into four pieces instead of two, you could make four of those devices, couldn’t you?”

“Yes, and in fact I could make a lot more than that. However, the effect diminishes in direct proportion to amount you divide it. Four pieces only have half the strength of two pieces. Six pieces would have a third of the strength, eight pieces a quarter of the strength, and so forth. There reaches a point where you simply would not be able to hear at the other end.”

“Then start with a much bigger crystal. You could make lots of Talkie-Walkies out of one crystal then.”

“But if you have too many, how do you know who is supposed to get your message? And it’s Talkie-Trotties!”

“It would probably be good for squads of Guards who need to stay in constant communication. Squad leaders can issue commands, while the Guards need only respond to a direct question. Also, if you put more than one kind of crystal into a Talkie-Walkie, superior officers can address several squads simultaneously.”

“Ooh! That’s a great idea! I’ve got to tell Shiny about that. I bet that soon, everypony will have their own Talkie-Trottie.”


“So, we’re just going to sit here and wait until we get the call?” Free asked as the train started pulling away.

Shining Armor merely nodded.

“What’s to stop me from just jumping on the train and leave you sitting on your miserable duff?”

Shining gave the griffon a cold smile. “The train would continue, but you wouldn’t.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Follow me.”

Shining Armor started trotting up the platform in the same direction as the departing train. Just before the end of the platform, he stopped but inclined his head to indicate that Free was to continue.

The griffon did so, and almost immediately bumped beak first into an invisible wall. “Ow!” Free carefully reached out with a foreclaw and encountered an unyielding surface.

Shining Armor explained, “It’s a magic barrier, but unlike the spell that blasted Chrysalis’ horde out of Canterlot, this one blocks all types of changelings. If you had been aboard the train, the barrier would have shoved you through as many walls as there were between your compartment and the rear of the train. You probably would not have survived.”

“Nice. You sure have a hate on for changelings, don’t you?”

“I understand that most changelings are perfectly good citizens of Equestria, but I don’t have to like it. Maybe time will change that, but for now it’s not hate that’s the reason for the barrier. We have a perfectly valid reason for banning changelings from the Crystal Empire, and until your friend’s experiments prove otherwise, that ban will stay in place. However, laws alone can’t prevent a changeling from either deliberately or accidentally passing into the empire, so the barrier is absolutely necessary.”

“I understand your reasons, but I don’t have to like them either. I’m a citizen in good standing of Equestria, and I don’t deserve this treatment.”

“This is the Crystal Empire, and the ban stays in place… but with our apologies,” Shining added reluctantly.

Free glared at Shining for a little longer before his beak opened in a grin. “Good enough. Now what are we going to do while we wait? This platform seems to have little in entertainment value. Why is there a platform out here in the middle of nowhere anyway?”

“Freight trains stop here to deliver goods and pick up produce from the farms. Passenger trains don’t usually stop here at all.”

“So it stopped here just for me? That makes me feel so special!”

Shining Armor rolled his eyes. “You’re not like any griffon I’ve ever met before. As a changeling, why would choose such a conspicuous character? You sure don’t blend in at all.”

“Who wants to blend in? And how many griffons have you ever met?”

“Several while I was Captain of the Guard at Canterlot. Looking after the security of the griffon delegation was my responsibility, so I have met many them over the years.”

“Fah! Stuffy diplomats from a kingdom of arrogant arseholes. You obviously haven’t met the average griffon on the streets. My parents left for Equestria to get away from all that. They preferred pony society, even when many ponies were rude to them.”

“Your parents? You’re a changeling! Your parents are changelings!”

To Shining Armor’s shock, suddenly Free Agent was in his face, glaring furiously at him.

“Don’t dis my parents! I may have been born a changeling, but Thundercloud Ironbeak and Zephyr Silverfeather are my real parents. I was brought up as a griffon, and that’s what I am.” He panted heavily in Shining’s face before turning aside and continuing more calmly. “Besides needing to consume positive emotions like love for energy, I’m not really different from the average griffon. Buck! I didn’t even realise that eating love was not what griffons normally do until I was much older and met my first changeling in pony disguise. That was an eye-opener, let me tell you!”

“You mean to say that you never changed form in all that time?” the unicorn asked incredulously.

“Nope. Dad told me how he found me apparently abandoned, scarcely older than a nymph, although of course he didn’t know anything about nymphs at the time. I was very young, okay? Shortly after they took me into their home, apparently I instinctively changed form into a griffon child. When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to change back, they started teaching me just like any other griffon child, including learning about my griffon heritage. They moved to Canterlot so that I could go to school there and learn to fit in better with pony society. That’s where I met Path and we became best friends. In all those years, I never reverted back to changeling form.”

Shining Armor looked thoughtful for a moment. “So, you didn’t really know much about changelings for years?”

“Just what I learned from the other changelings that I met later and were willing to talk. They found a young, hiveless drone like me to be weird.”

“Do you know why you were abandoned, or what hive you came from?”

“Nope. Don’t even care much either. It doesn’t really seem relevant to me aside from idle curiosity.”

“So why did you agree to do this changeling test?”

“Agree? I volunteered! Stuck my claw up and opened my beak. But why? Because my best friend in the whole world was excited about this project, and I’d do anything for him.”

There was a long moment of silence while Shining Armor considered Free’s words. Eventually he said, “It seems that I may have been guilty of some prejudice against you, Free Agent. I hope you and your friend’s project goes well.”

Free’s mood changed like a switch. He grinned and said, “No harm; no foul! I’m sure we’ll be good friends too.” With a flare of changeling magic, he took the form of a gorgeous unicorn mare and nuzzled the startled stallion, saying, “Or a whole lot more, if you know what I mean?”

“And there’s that moment spoiled,” Shining said, pushing the amorous changeling away with his magic.


The train pulled up on schedule at the Crystal City station, having made up time on the home stretch. Twilight and Path disembarked to find a reception waiting for them. Flanked by a couple of her Royal Guards, Princess Cadance stepped up to Twilight with a happy smile on her face.

To Path’s enormous surprise, the two princesses then did the most unprincesslike song and dance.

“Sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs awake! Clap your hooves and do a little shake!”

They then laughed and hugged, while the Guards studiously ignored their behaviour.

Path shrugged and went with the flow – it wasn’t a royal reception after all.

Twilight then turned and indicated Path. “Cadance, this is Long Path, the earth pony scholar whom I told you about. Path, this is Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, whom you better know as Princess Cadance.”

“An honour to meet you, Princess,” Path said as he bowed low.

“And a pleasure to meet a friend of Twilight’s, Master Path. Welcome to the Crystal Empire.”

“I hope my friend, Free Agent, will feel as welcome when you meet him.”

Cadance’s smile did not falter. “I hold no grudge against his kind. As long as he sticks to the agreed stipulations to his visit, then he will be welcomed also.”

“Thank you, Princess. He’s currently ‘enjoying’ your husband’s hospitality though, so may I suggest that we proceed immediately to the Heart and allow him to continue his journey to the city?”

“That’s a reasonable suggestion, and I’d like my husband to join me for dinner too. Please follow me.”

She led them to a carriage which she boarded, followed by Twilight and then Long Path. Four crystal ponies drew the carriage from the station towards the castle in the centre of the city. While Path enjoyed a little sightseeing along the way, he was mostly interested in their goal for now, and he soon spotted the Crystal Heart at the palace’s base. Far from being heavily fortified like the national treasure it was, only a few Royal Guards stood watch over it. They stepped out of the carriage and made their way over to the Heart as the Guards bowed and moved aside. This close to the talisman, the power it exuded was palpable.

Twilight pulled the second long-distance communicator from her saddle-pack and passed it over to Cadance. “You can call Shining on this as soon as you’re ready.”

“How do I use it?”

“Just talk into the open end. When you’re finished, hold it up to your ear to hear Shining’s reply.”

“Okay, let’s try this.” Cadance lifted the tube to her mouth and said very loudly, “Shiny, are you there?”

Twilight winced and said, “A normal voice should be adequate, Cadance.”

Cadance nodded as she held the tube up to her ear. A moment later she winced as the equally loud reply came back.

“And you can tell Shiny the same thing,” Twilight added with a giggle.

Cadance gave Shining Armor the go-ahead, and then turned her attention back to the others.

“You might as well head over to the library now before it closes for the day. Since I won’t actually be doing anything more today than monitoring the Heart while Shining monitors your friend, there’s no point in hanging around. As much as I want to catch up with what you’ve been doing lately, now is not the time to be distracted from my task.”

“Sounds like a plan to me. Long Path and I should be able to get some valuable research done, and perhaps learn something more that we can test while we’re here.”

“Just be sure not to forget the time. In fact I’ll send one of my Guards along with you to keep an eye on you, and give you a reminder.” She nodded at one of the Guards who saluted and fell in behind Twilight.

“Just wait until you see the library, Path!” Twilight said enthusiastically as she led the way. “I think we’re really going to need this Guard.”


“Okay, let’s go!” Shining Armor told Free Agent after concluding his conversation.

“Sure. How do we do this?” the griffon asked.

“With a door.” Shining’s horn glowed blue, and a spot of the same colour appeared on the barrier. The glow expanded into a circle, growing up until it was pony-sized. “After you!”

Free stretched out a claw first, but encountered no resistance within the circle. He stepped through and waited.

Shining let the door collapse and followed Free, completely unhindered by the changeling barrier.

“So how are we getting there?” Free asked, looking around for some form of transport.

“We walk,” the stallion replied, setting out along the maintenance path paralleling the train track.

“All the way into the city? I’m not a pony, y’know? I’m not built for long distance walking.”

“We want to approach at a controlled slow rate, and a walking pace was deemed the safest. If you need to, I’ll let you fly, as long as you don’t get ahead of me. If you do, I will yank you back with my magic. Got it?”

“Gotcha,” Free replied equably and followed the unicorn down the path. He already could feel the Crystal Heart’s influence now that he was on the other side of the barrier. It was unlike anything that he had felt before – a general ambience of very low-level love. If he could feel it this far from the city though, he wondered what it would be like at the city itself.

They walked on in silence for a while. After about ten minutes, Shining checked in with Cadance. Apparently hearing nothing concerning, he continued onwards. This was repeated in another ten minutes, and yet again ten minutes after that. Free found that far from tiring though, the gradually rising background level of love energy was bolstering him. By the third stop, he was feeling very perky. As they continued on Free started giggling.

“What’s so funny?” Shining Armor asked.

“Nothing. I just feel so good.”

“I suppose that’s to be expected. As long as it doesn’t affect the Crystal Heart adversely, you can feel as good as you want.”

Feeling good was a gross understatement soon though. The strength of the love radiation was growing at an exponential rate, and by the next check-in, Free was abuzz with the love that his body was absorbing constantly.

Shining looked at the griffon who seemed unable to stand still. He had started singing to himself while dancing around. “Are you sure there’s nothing wrong at your end, Cadance?”

Cadance replied, “I can detect nothing wrong with the Heart, but I sense that the flow of love energy has shifted slightly in your direction. This does not constitute a threat, so you’re free to proceed.”

“I suppose I can’t blame a changeling for enjoying a feast. I’ll check in at more frequent intervals from now on though. I’ll keep the communicator close to my ear though, so if anything comes up, give me a yell.”

Shining Armor headed off again, but for the first time, Free took to the air. He started doing barrel rolls and loop the loops. “Wheeeeee!”

“Don’t get ahead!” Shining reminded him sternly.

“Aye aye, Captain Killjoy!”

Free managed to restrain himself until the next check-in. This time Cadance reported that the flow of love had definitely increased in their direction. “I think he’s acting like a magnet for it.”

“I can believe it,” Shining replied. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that he’s been on a bender. He’s still cooperative though.”

“It’s up to you to decide if you will continue, but I can’t veto it on the basis of how it’s affecting the Heart. It’s still behaving normally despite the change of the flow of love after it leaves the Heart.”

“I don’t want to disappoint Twily, so we’ll continue. I can deal with a drunken changeling, I reckon.”

“Can you, handsome?” Free Agent asked, nuzzling him unexpectedly again, although still in his griffon form this time. His voice was a little higher though.

Abruptly Shining Armor realised that Free had changed gender. Differences between male and female griffons were subtler than with ponies, and he had failed to notice the change. Perhaps dealing with a changeling drunk on love was going to be a bit trickier than he originally thought. He pushed the griffon away. “Not interested, and not available, Free Agent. I don’t want to call this off, but I will if you don’t restrain yourself.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing!” Free sing-songed as she pranced away.

A little reluctantly, he continued onwards. The city had come into sight by now, and the house that they had selected for temporary quarters wasn’t too far away. With a bit of luck, they would get there without the griffon getting out of hoof.

Free’s acrobatics had taken on a nearly frantic nature by the next check-in though. Something was bothering Shining Armor – something that he felt he should understand about the situation but was eluding him. Cadance’s next report did nothing to reassure him though.

“The Heart has increased its output slightly to compensate for the extra flow in your direction. Again, it’s too little to constitute a danger, but it might be indicative of worse to come. Is it much further to the house?”

“We should make it there by the next check-in, I think. The changeling’s antics are growing, but still benign. Your call, hon.”

“Continue then. I’ll make the final decision at the house. If you feel that he can’t be restrained there, or I feel that the Heart is affected too much, we’ll send him back to the border. I’ll arrange for a pegasus carriage to meet you at the house to expedite things.”

“Okay. Wish me luck. I think I’m going to need some.”

Hoping to get this situation over and done with, Shining Armor set a fast pace for the final leg. Free Agent followed, laughing and singing, occasionally diving playfully at the unicorn. “I can see the castle! It’s bee-yoo-tee-full! I can feel the love! How can you not feel the love? It’s magnificent! I can feel it calling to me! Oh yes! Yes!”

Abruptly the griffon shot off ahead of Shining Armor.

“Come back!” the unicorn roared, but to no avail. His horn glowed, and a bubble of energy formed about Free Agent, restraining him. Not for long though. Free suddenly reverted to changeling form, and a burst of energy came from his horn, shattering the bubble. He changed form again, this time into a sleek racing pegasus, and streaked away.

“Oh, buck!” Shining Armor swore vehemently. He now recalled what had been bothering him. Queen Chrysalis had been so overcharged with love energy that she had been able to overcome Princess Celestia, and here they had given a virtually unlimited supply to a changeling. Free Agent might not be the malevolent power-hungry person that Chrysalis had been, but who knew what mischief a love-drunk drone could get into? “Cadance!” he yelled into the communicator, “The changeling has gotten away from me and is heading your way fast. Be prepared for anything!”


Long Path was in heaven. He was already loading up a second cart of reference books for later study. Refraining from reading them right now was one of the hardest things that he had ever done. Even so, he was barely keeping up with Princess Twilight. They had started an unofficial and unspoken competition to find the most relevant materials to aid their research, and both were having the time of their lives. Twilight did not have any Equestria-shaking threat to worry about for a change, and he had never had access to such a literary goldmine. Then he struck the mother lode, and thoughts of trying to keep up went out the door. Minutes later, one entry jolted him.

“Hey, Twilight! Come look at this!” he called out, only to be furiously shushed by the librarian.

Twilight trotted over and looked at the book that Path was holding up. “What is it?” she asked in hushed tones.

“The author of this book refers to an insect-like pony creature that visited the Crystal Empire a few decades before Sombra.”

“That sounds like a changeling,” Twilight said with growing interest. “What else does it say?”

“I called you over as soon as I saw the reference so we can both find out together.”

“Okay. Let’s see…” She started speed-reading the text to try to glean relevant information quickly. “Discovered injured specimen … treated injuries … discovered it was intelligent when it regained consciousness … shape-changed into a crystal pony … started bringing it back to the city … it rapidly got stronger as we got closer … hypothesise that it ingests the love energy from the Crystal Heart … behaved as if inebriated … loss of self-control … unable to restrain … specimen died after less than a day in the city … autopsy revealed collapse of nervous system … conclude that specimen burned up from excessive intake of energy.” Twilight looked with a look of horror on her face. “Sweet Celestia! Free Agent could be in mortal danger!”

Path’s expression matched Twilight’s. “And that part about loss of control doesn’t sound good either. We have to go!”

Twilight wasted no time in racing for the entrance, and Path was hot on her heels. “Check out my books for me!” she shouted as she galloped past the librarian and out the door. Their Guard was startled out of his boredom and hastily followed.

The librarian shook her head and clucked her tongue in dismay. These young princesses simply didn’t know how to behave themselves in a library!

They were only halfway back to the Crystal Heart when they were intercepted by another Royal Guard. “Princess Cadance requires your immediate return. There’s a problem with your friend.”

“We’re too late!” Path moaned.

“No, we know more than that author did. We can act and save Free. But first, we have to find out what’s happening.”

They reunited with Cadance within moments, and the pink alicorn looked very worried.

“Shining Armor reported that Free Agent behaved as if he was drunk before finally abandoning Shining, who could not restrain him. Your friend seems to have gotten powered up like Queen Chrysalis did, and is too strong for us to control.”

“The situation is worse than you think,” Twilight replied. “We found a reference that suggests that the love energy that he’s taking in will burn him out, eventually killing him.”

“But that didn’t happen to Chrysalis,” Cadance objected.

“The queens are different from the drones in many ways. They actively control the entire hive, and distribute love energy to all the non-Harvester type drones. I think that they might be able to cope with this, unlike poor Free.”

Path asked, “How long ago did Free leave Shining Armor? He could be here any moment, and we need to make a plan to –”

He was interrupted by what could only be described as the Royal Canterlot Voice coming from above them.

I am the Alicorn of Awesomeness! Come and behold my glory!

They all raced out into the open and looked up, and quickly spotted what had to be Free Agent alighting on one of the tallest towers of the castle. He had assumed another form – a male alicorn with chrome fur, mane and tail. He posed dramatically, and Twilight gaped in surprise and awe. He was magnificent… and sexy. She started blushing furiously at that thought. “Mind on the problem, Twilight!” she scolded herself.

Free took off and started doing laps of the city blocks. Again he started shouting. “The Alicorn of Awesomeness wants to give his gift of love to each and every pony! Come out and share the joy!

Crystal ponies started coming out of the buildings and houses to investigate the strange happenings and who was doing all the shouting. Free responded by putting on a display of stunt flying and a light show from his horn, attracting and holding the attention of the population.

“He may have gone totally nuts, but he’s doing a great job up there,” Path observed.

“Yeah, but what’s he up to?” Twilight asked.

They soon found out. Free dived down to the crowd, and a beam of power came from his horn, striking many of the ponies. “My blessing upon you all! Spread the love; spread the happiness!

“What has he done to them?!” Cadance cried out, leaping into the air and flying as fast as she could towards the changeling alicorn.

Twilight immediately took off to follow.

“Hey! Wait for me! Awk!” Long Path squawked as Twilight’s magic enfolded him and carried him away with her.

Cadance approached Free, calling out to him, “Stop whatever you are doing! You must not harm my subjects!”

“Hey, it’s Princess Lovey-Dovey! How’re you doing? Isn’t this an awesome day? Aren’t I the most awesome pony you’ve ever met?”

“Be quiet! How could you hurt my people?”

“Hurt? Oh no, I’m not hurting them. I’m giving them what they need the most – the best reason for living! Pardon me, but I have more joy to spread.” Free then flapped away towards another group of ponies.

Twilight had been checking out the ponies who had been struck by Free’s beam, and her jaw dropped in shock. Every pony was engaged in passionate kissing, fondling, or even more intimate interactions. Her relief that no pony was harmed was tempered by her realisation of what had actually happened. “They’ve been hit with a lust spell? How’s that even possible?”

“It’s Free amplified to the maximum,” Path said as he hovered next to Twilight. “Somehow he’s transferring his unfettered libido onto those ponies.”

“That might not be an immediate problem for these ponies, but it could bring about unintended consequences for some. Like them, for example.” She pointed out a pony couple banging behind a hedge.

“Twilight, that’s bad, but not as bad as Free killing himself. We have to get him out of the Crystal City!”

“Right! We have to try to capture him. We need a plan. Have you got one?”

Path shook his head. “Not yet. Put me down while I think about it. You and Cadance try to restrain him in the meantime. If you come up with anything that I can help with, let me know.”

Twilight lowered Path to the ground and took off in pursuit of Free. The earth pony felt weird standing amidst such a blatant and widespread demonstration of unrestrained lustful interaction between ponies of all kinds. It seemed irrelevant to any of them just who they were with, and Path wondered if they were going to recall this with humiliation when the spell wore off. It was so much like Free though that he also wondered if they might just recall it with great fondness. Either way, this city was never going to be the same.


Twilight caught up with Cadance just as she was firing a blast at the chrome alicorn. With deft ease, Free dodged it and struck yet another group of ponies with his lust spell. Cadance cried out in alarm, but Twilight called out, “He isn’t hurting them, Cadance. It’s a lust spell. His so-called gift is turning up everypony’s libido to an irresistible degree.”

Cadance really looked for the first time at the victims, and saw for herself that none were really injured. However, what some of them were actually doing…. “He has to be stopped now!”

Suddenly Free was right in front of her face. He had taken advantage of her distraction to fly right up to her, flinging his forelegs around her neck and pulling her to him. “First ya gotta catch me, toots, but I’m always Free!” Then he kissed the pink alicorn passionately.

Cadance finally managed to break free, and then blasted him with a stun spell. Free wavered for a moment before recovering and flying away again.

Twilight was inexplicably resentful that Cadance had gotten the kiss. After all the time the changeling had spent trying to get her interested, he had chosen to kiss Cadance instead? “Argh! Stallions!” she cursed before pursuing them again.


Long Path was surprised to spot Shining Armor galloping up the street. He must have been galloping all the way from where Free had left him to get here so soon. Indeed, the stallion was snorting and panting heavily when he pulled up to Path. “What in the name of Celestia and Luna is going on here?” he demanded.

Path explained what had occurred, and what he and Twilight had discovered.

“We have to get him out of the city and as far away as possible as soon as we can,” Shining concluded.

“Yeah, we already figured that out. Got any idea how?”

“He’s your friend – you should know best how to lure him away,” Shining pointed out.

They stood and watched the aerial manoeuvres that were occurring not too far away – two alicorns frantically trying to stun an elusive third alicorn, sometimes hitting but never doing more than slowing him down briefly. They were moving too swiftly for Shining Armor to try to assist from the ground, and all the while Free was hitting more ponies with his lust beam, telling them to rejoice, and commanding more to join the blessing.

Suddenly Path realised that Shining was right – he did know best how to lure Free Agent. “When does the train leave for Canterlot?” he asked the unicorn.

“Huh? In about half an hour, I think. It’s the overnight service. Why?”

“I want you to go to the train and hold it. Don’t let it go without me because I intend to bring Free with me. Reserve a private compartment for us. Kick out somepony if you must, but get me that compartment.”

“What are you planning?” Shining asked suspiciously. Path explained himself, and Shining nodded in approval. “Yeah, that sounds like our best option at this time. Are you sure that you’re up to it though?”

“I think so. Have you still got that talkie-walkie with you?”

“The what? Oh, you mean the communicator! Sure.” He pulled it out of his saddle pack and passed it over to Path.

“Good. Hopefully Cadance has hung onto hers too. That way we can coordinate our efforts better. You had better go.”

“Right! Good luck!” Shining galloped off in the direction of the station.

Path brought the communication device to his mouth and called loudly, “Princess Cadance, if you can hear me, please answer!” There was no response, so he tried again, this time yelling in case the other device was out of easy earshot. “Princess Cadance! Please answer me at once! It’s imperative that you respond!

Moments later, Cadance’s irritated voice came back to him. “Long Path? This had better be important.”

“Shining Armor and I have a plan, but we need you to help us. I want you and Twilight to stop trying to stun Free, and try to herd him instead. Act like you’re still trying to blast him, but do it in such a way that he dodges in the direction of the train station. I will be waiting on the platform there. Once he’s within earshot of me, I will take over from there. Do you understand?”

“I understand and will cooperate. What do you plan to do then?”

Path filled in the details for her.

“I see. We appreciate what you are doing for our city.”

“Honestly, your Highness, I’m doing it more for my friend than for your city.”

“I understand. Good fortune, Long Path.”

The earth pony put away the communicator and galloped for the station, praying that he did not get disorientated. Thankfully his memory did not betray him, and he soon found himself on the platform. The stationmaster hurried up to him.

“Are you Long Path?” he asked. After Path acknowledged, he continued, “Prince Armor has ordered us to be at your disposal in order to deal with a menace to our city. Has it anything to do with whatever is going on up there right now?” He pointed to the distant alicorns.

“Yes, it certainly does, and they should be headed this way. So I suggest that if you don’t want to get involved in that trouble, you had better stay inside and out of sight.”

The elderly stallion looked offended. “I’ll have you know that I served in the Crystal Empire’s army, and my courage is not lacking.”

“Your courage is not in doubt, sir. You may not enjoy the consequences if you get caught up in this though.”

“I’ll take my chances, Mister Path.”

Path decided that perhaps the old soldier could do with a little frisky fun if he got hit, and let the subject lie.

Path watched the aerial battle slowly making its way closer. He noticed Shining Armor come and go a few times before the alicorns came almost within range. He then said, “Stationmaster, clear the platform of everypony now, then go to the driver of the train and stand by. The moment that I get on board with one of those alicorns, tell the driver to depart immediately, and put on his best speed.”

“Yes, sir.” The stationmaster hastened to comply.

“Now for the tricky bit,” Path murmured. As soon as he judged that Free was within earshot, he gave a loud whistle and shouted, “Hey! Alicorn of Awesome! Why haven’t you used your gift upon me? You know you want to! You’ve been trying to get me into bed with you for years, but you still haven’t. I don’t think you’ll ever manage to do that.”

That caught Free’s attention. “Path! Is that a challenge?” He grinned enormously, and charged up his horn. “You know I can’t resist a challenge of that kind. Behold my gift to you!”

This had better work,’ Path thought as he reared up on his hind legs, forehooves held as a shield between him and Free. He recalled the lessons that he had learned in unicorn magical theory, and his own modifications to it. He had no horn to cast a shield spell, but an earth pony’s magic is focused in his hooves, and he reinforced them with the spell. Free’s beam struck them and was dissipated, and Path breathed a sigh of relief.

Free was unaware of the failure of his lust beam though, and alighted next to Path. With a flare of changeling magic, he changed from a chrome alicorn into a brand new form. Path gaped in stunned amazement, for now he beheld the epitome of earth pony maredom. She was muscled just enough to make her feel strong, but that was balanced out by beautiful full curves, a lustrous mane and tail, and eyes that were limpid pools. She fluttered her eyelashes at him and walked up to him with a sensual sway to her hips. “I’m going to fulfil your every dream – past, present, and to come,” she said in a sultry voice.

Path begun to wonder if he had blocked the lust spell completely after all, because even though he knew what was happening, there was no doubt that he was being aroused. It did not help when she leaned in kissed him full on the lips, her tongue seeking to come in further.

Close your eyes and think of Equestria, Long Path!’ he commanded himself, submitting to the kiss.

To be totally honest with himself, it was great kiss. If he didn’t realise who was kissing him, he might have let himself enjoy it. Instead, he had to break it off as soon as possible… okay, just a few more seconds.

With more effort than he thought it would take, Path broke off the kiss with Free, panting a little.

Free smiled coyly. “You liked that, didn’t you? Now let me, take you all the way!”

“I liked it, but I won’t go further here. You know me, Free – I’m a kind of private stallion. I don’t want to do this in public.”

“Silly pony! It’s just as good here as anywhere else,” Free said as she nuzzled him and licked his neck.

A thrill went down Path’s spine, but he clamped down on the feeling. “But I have a private compartment reserved on the train. A big compartment just for the two of us. You and me, for as long as you like, lover.” He emphasised the last word to get Free to focus on it, and distract him from wondering about wanting to be on the train.

It must have worked because the mare’s grin grew larger. “I love the sound of that. Come on! Let’s not keep ecstasy waiting!”

Path had anticipated trying to half-drag the changeling onto the train. Instead he was the one being tugged along, and he had to try to steer Free in the direction of the correct carriage. It would have made things a lot more difficult for their plan if he chose a compartment at random.

However, they did board the right carriage, and the compartment they needed was the only one with its door invitingly open. The fold-down bed was even already down and waiting for them, and Free threw herself onto it and posed sexily for him. “I’m ready, waiting, and eager for your hot body, lover.”

That was almost too much for Path. Now he was almost certain some of the lust spell had leaked past his shield. That had to be the answer, right? RIGHT?

Thankfully he did not have to answer that question. The doors to the other compartments opened and Shining Armor and some other unicorns poured out. Shining shoved him aside and they squeezed into the compartment even as Cadance and Twilight appeared at the open window. “Now!” shouted Shining, and all of them simultaneously hit Free with a stun spell.

With no time to think, and nowhere to dodge, Free took the full brunt of the blasts. Incredibly, she still remained conscious, and she feebly cried out, “No! Where’s the love?”

“Again!” commanded Shining.

This time Free lost the battle with consciousness, and she slumped onto the bed, unmoving.

“Praise Celestia, the changeling is out cold,” Shining declared after cautiously testing Free. “Twily, I need you in here to help watch over her. She’s still absorbing love energy, so she might recover faster than we anticipate.”

“Right!” Twilight agreed, and teleported inside.

Shining then addressed the unicorns who had accompanied him. “Mares and gentlecolts, thank you for your valuable assistance. We’ll let you off the train at the farm siding where a pegasus carriage should be waiting to take you back home.”

The unicorns nodded in acknowledgement and left the compartment.

“Twily, Cadance and I have a lot to take care of right now, so I can’t stay and catch up like we planned. Hopefully we’ll see each other soon under better circumstances.”

“I understand. Love you, big brother!” She and Shining hugged, and then the unicorn headed out of the carriage.

Path watched as Shining opened the door of the moving train and leaped out, only to be caught in the telekinetic field of his wife who then flew them back to the city. He then turned his attention to Twilight and his sleeping friend. “Well, so much for our grand experiment, hey?”

Twilight laughed. “Even unexpected results are good results. We learned a lot today, even if it wasn’t what we hoped to learn.”

Path thought to himself that he had learned a thing or two about himself that he hadn’t anticipated either.


The sun had been up for a while before Free Agent woke up and joined Twilight and Long Path in another compartment. The two had been a little concerned about that, fearing that perhaps the changeling had burned himself out a little already. He had reverted to his normal griffon form though, and aside from looking a bit dishevelled, seemed to be okay.

“Would somepony tell me what’s going on?” Free asked.

“Doesn’t the Alicorn of Awesomeness remember his feats?” Twilight teased.

“The what?”

“You know – the form you took while drunk out of your mind on love energy.”

The griffon’s blank look told them he hadn’t a clue what they were talking about.

“I remember walking with your uptight brother towards the Crystal City, and enjoying the ambiance. I recall feeling really great – better than I have ever felt. I was doing some aerobatics for the thrill of it and then… it’s all a blur. And now we’re back on the train.”

Twilight looked at Path, and they realised that they were thinking the same thing. Burnout had apparently affected his recent memories.

In spite of that, Path grinned. He was going to enjoy telling this story in the most embarrassing way possible.

Several minutes later, with Twilight adding several details, Path had filled in his friend.

Free could hardly believe his ears, but wisps of memory seemed to confirm everything that they told him. “You mean I kissed Princess Cadance, but I can’t even remember it? That’s not fair!”

“Oh, it’s worse than that, Free. I told you that we lured you onto the train and stunned you, but not how we did it.” Path had been saving that titbit for last. “I called you down and asked you to spread the love with me. You even turned into this awesome earth pony mare and we kissed. Then we went to our own private train compartment, with our own bed waiting just for us….”

When it became apparent that Path wasn’t going to say more, Free begged, “And…?!

“And it’s best that I don’t say any more.”

“What? No! You can’t do this to me! You know how long I’ve been wanting to bang you, and you’re just going to pretend it didn’t happen just because I can’t remember? Tell me!”

Path noticed Twilight trying desperately not to laugh. “Nope. Especially not in the Princess’ company.”

Twilight couldn’t hold it in any more, and burst out laughing at Free’s dejected expression.

“Well, if you two jokers are done rubbing it in, I’m going to find myself some breakfast.”

He turned about to leave the carriage, and Path noticed something that he hadn’t been in a position to see before.

“Hey, Free! What’s that on your rump?”

The griffon turned to look at his hindquarters and then said, “Okay, which of you thought this was funny?”

Both Twilight and Path had a good look at Free’s hindquarters. Upon it were displayed interlinked pink and blue male and female symbols. Twilight’s eyes bulged in realisation.

“Free, look at your other flank.”

The griffon did so. “Same there. You’re thorough at least.”

“No, we didn’t do anything. You’ve got your cutie mark!” Twilight was nearly bouncing in excitement at the concept.

“No way! Griffons don’t have cutie marks! Ponies have them, not me!” He transformed into a copy of Twilight but the sex symbols remained. He then changed into a facsimile of Path that was accurate to a hair, but not the cutie mark. He reverted to griffon, but his leonine flank was permanently emblazoned. “I can’t get rid of it! I’m a changeling, but I can’t change it!”

“That’s the magic of the cutie mark. You must have gotten it while you were in pony form in the Crystal City, and found your special talent. Oh, I’ve got to write a paper on this. The first changeling in recorded history to get a cutie mark. You’ll be famous!”

“Yay me,” Free replied mournfully.



Chapter 4: Reporting In


Two weeks after the Crystal Kingdom experiment, Long Path was called upon to give a report on his findings to Princess Luna. That evening, he and Twilight Sparkle attended the Night Court at a special session.

A stern thestral Royal Guard let them into Luna’s chamber at the appointed time, and Path bowed to the Lunar Princess. Although also a princess, Twilight inclined her head in polite acknowledgement of Luna’s seniority.

The unicorn scribe seated at a small desk at the base of the throne announced, “Presenting Long Path to submit his preliminary report on the project to assess changelings and their interaction with the Crystal Kingdom. Also presenting her Highness, Princess Twilight Sparkle, collaborator on said project.”

Luna smiled and said, “Welcome, Master Path. Welcome, Twilight Sparkle. I have been most eager to hear the details of your recent foray into the Crystal Kingdom. I hear that it was quite… exciting, shall we say?”

“Ah, yes, your Highness.” Path started to put up various easels with graphs, charts and other figures. He was having a hard time until a lavender aura helped place them correctly. Path smiled gratefully at Twilight, and then pulled two bundles of papers the size of a small book out of his satchel, handing a copy to each of the princesses.

Changelings and the Crystal Heart –a Synopsis of Their Interaction,” Luna stated as she read the title of the paper.

“Yes! Uh... I’m always so bad at talks, but here we go.... Okay… As you know, my original intention was to do a series of careful measurements of how a changeling would interact with the Crystal Heart, followed by some simple social studies on how the average crystal pony would interact with a changeling. As my volunteer changeling would be the only one of his kind within the anti-changeling barrier, this would have enabled us to have some clear statistics without interference from another changeling. As you probably heard though, those plans had to be abandoned due to unforeseen circumstances. My report therefore instead focuses on estimations and interpolations, with some data acquired outside of the Crystal Empire.”

“Understood. Please proceed,” Luna encouraged.

Path nodded. “So, as we know, changelings feed on positive emotions, the strongest and thus the most energy-dense being love. With the emergence of the Crystal Kingdom, a question was proposed: what happens when a changeling that feeds on love is put in an environment with a relatively endless supply?”

By this point Luna had put down the paper and was listening keenly to what he had to say. Twilight was also similarly curious since he had done extra work since they had met last.

“So in order for me to arrange the data, I had to quantify ‘love’. Since it was in the Crystal Empire and Princess Cadance is the alicorn of love, that’s exactly what I decided to call it. A cadance is defined as the average amount of love needed to sustain one changeling for one day. The smallest amount of love that a changeling can sense is a millicadance or mC. Please keep in mind at values these small and large, the accuracy goes down.”

Path pulled out a map of Canterlot and showed it to them. It was mainly painted in blues and light green, with a pair of red dots in the centre in the castle. “On this map we can see the background level of ‘love’ is generally between 1 and 3 mC, with bright spikes in the castle centred around Luna and Celestia at a constant rate of between 10 to 12 cadance. Again, these values are approximate because my only volunteer ‘gauge’ is flighty and hard to keep on point. There will be more experiments done in the future to refine these data.”

He put the map away and pulled out an info-graphic. This one was a top view of the entire Crystal Empire as well as a graph. This map was very different from the Canterlot, with a solid gradient from blue to white, while the graph showed an exponential curve.

“Now this is the Crystal Empire. Powered by the Crystal Heart, it actually emanates love in a kind of area-effect spell, although that’s a misnomer since there is no actual spell at work. Hmmm... how to explain it... the sun to Princess Celestia is like the Crystal Heart is to Princess Cadance. Canterlot’s local peak value of 10-12 cadance can be detected more than 20 kilometres out from the Crystal heart, just before you enter the fringe farmlands.”

Luna was intrigued. “We have always figured that the heart was powerful, but we never thought to quantify it in such an analytical fashion. Please go on.”

Path nodded as he resumed his presentation.

“Now this being the case, we can follow the exponential curve to the point of origin. This means that the area right next to the Crystal Heart experiences background levels of over 30 Gigacadance or 30GC. That would be thirty thousand million times more love than what one changeling needs to exist for one day.”

“Does a number that big even exist?” Luna blinked a few times, staggered by it.

“I didn’t quite believe the numbers at first either, but I asked Twilight to double check them for me. So yes, the number does exist, but it’s so big that it practically loses all meaning. Oh I’m going off track! Okay so with a number that big, you might ask, why don’t we just let all of the changeling harvesters go there and they could single-hoofedly feed their entire race?”

Path moved to a white board and wrote ‘LSS.’ in fairly large letters. “The reason why that can’t happen is because of a situation that I have called Love Saturation Syndrome, or LSS for short. The simple answer is that normal changelings can only handle an influx of so much love at a given time. If they exceed a certain threshold they become erratic, flighty, irrational, and experience a huge jump in energy, and then their nervous system burns out and they die. The historical example Twilight and I discovered died roughly 16 to 18 hours after it entered the empire.”

“So the Crystal Empire must be forever closed off to the changeling race?” Luna mused as she looked over to Twilight and back to Path.

“Well, yes and no...”

Path flipped a different board and started to draw a circle around the castle. “This is the dead zone. No normal changeling can live in this zone for more than a few moments. I also theorise that any queen coming this close would mean certain death for the queen also as she could not transfer the love out of herself to her hive fast enough to stop the neurological breakdown from occurring.”

“How dost thou know how much a queen can transfer?” Luna asked.

“It’s an estimation based on some data that I got from Twilight. Since I cannot talk to a changeling queen, I have to base a model on what I know. I think it’s a safe bet that a queen could transfer ten times the love a changeling would need to every member of their hive at once. So a queen with a hive of a thousand could transfer a total of ten thousand cadance units of love to her entire hive at one time... but that’s only a fraction of the flow she would be dealing with inside this zone.”

He drew a second larger circle that covered more of the city.

“At this range a queen could live if she was pushing all the love she could to all her hive constantly, and those changelings could burn off the energy before they started to overload as well.”

Luna hmmed. “It looks like the very thing they need to survive is the one thing that can kill them in the Crystal City.”

Path nodded. “However, there is a sweet spot for queens where they can go without having to divert love.”

He drew a set of rings that barely touched the suburbs of the city.

“If there were to be peace talks, some kind of embassy or the like, the closest it could be would be within this zone.”

Path then motioned to the outermost circle. “And Harvesters can be in this area, but this contains them to the fringe farmlands. Under no circumstances can a normal drone be within the changeling barrier though.”

Path nodded a few times and looked back to the princesses who looked like they were doing their best to comprehend fully what was said.

“It is my opinion that changelings should be allowed into the Crystal Empire proper, but under extremely restricted conditions to prevent harm to them. I recommend that they should be limited to the farm zones only. However, if some form of shield spell can be constructed to block the flow of love energy, they may in the future be permitted into the city itself.”

Path nodded a few times as his presentation was finished. “My full figures and the means by which they were achieved are detailed in the report. I apologise for the ambiguity of many of my figures, but as testing at this stage requires the participation of a citizen changeling, I cannot countenance any procedure that risks their life. I will endeavour to formulate a means for future tests to provide us with more accurate data.”

Path heaved a sigh of relief at finishing the report. “I think that’s it! I thank you for letting me take up your time. I need to head out now so that I can get continue with my preparations for the next investigation. With your permission, Princess?”

Luna smiled. “Thank thee, Master Path. This has been most fascinating. I look forward to future reports from thee.”

Long Path bowed, awkwardly gathered his materials again, and left.

Twilight remained, though, and once Path was gone, she said, “Long Path has been a pleasure to work with, and has produced remarkable results within his limited means. I plan to keep sponsoring his efforts, but I would appreciate any other assistance that you can provide.”

“Master Path strikes me as a dedicated scholar, and it pleases me to support him in his endeavours. I shall look into this further for you, Twilight Sparkle.”

“Thank you, Luna. Have you had any word yet from the Griffon Kingdom?”

“Nay, but I remain optimistic. It is their wont to deny us most hastily if they are disagreeable. This lengthy wait is actually quite encouraging.”

“I see. I’ll wait for some hopefully good news soon then. I had better go now too. I have some more work to complete before bedtime.”

“Fare thee well then.”

Twilight started to head out, and then paused. Looking back, she said, “We’re still on for dinner with my friends next Saturday?”

Luna smiled. “I would not miss it for anything, Twilight.”

Twilight smiled happily in return, and then left, closing the door behind her.


“Yes, Princess?”

“Take a transcript of this report to your queen. Tell her that Princess Luna sends her compliments, and requests any aid that she can provide in pursuing these studies further.”

“At once, your highness!” With a flare of magic fire, the scribe resumed his natural form of a Green Changeling, and flew off to do Luna’s bidding.



Chapter 5: Paint Me Like One Of Your Prench Girls


Twilight spotted Path at one of the reading desks and trotted over to him. “I thought that I might find you here,” she said with a grin.

Path looked up from the book that he was reading and gave her a matching smile. “Since Princess Luna gave me access to the Royal Archives, I’ve been taking advantage of it as much as possible in case she changes her mind.”

“Luna is not going to do that, you know? I believe that she’s genuinely interested in what your research can achieve.” She smirked at him knowingly. “I think that you’re just enjoying this too much. I know that I do.”

Path laughed. “Okay, guilty as charged. So, what brings you here today?”

“I have some news. Where’s Free? I’d like to tell you both.”

“Do you honestly think you’d find him here? Even if he wasn’t at work, he’d be bored out of his mind in the Archives.”

“I guess you’re right. Er… where does he work anyway?”

“At the Canterlot Fitness Club – he’s a physical instructor.”

Twilight blinked in surprise. “I… must admit that I wouldn’t have thought of that.”

“Apparently ponies get a lot of pleasure from looking trim. Besides, I think you can imagine the number of clients he’s brought home to bang.”

Twilight’s face dropped. “Oh… yes.”

Path noted Twilight’s mood with interest. His friend often had unexpected effects on the ponies he met. He decided to steer the subject away. “Free has also kept me from being a fat slob. Any time he thinks I’m getting too involved in my work, he drags me away to get some exercise. He’s really dedicated to his profession. However, I don’t think he’s why you came here today.”

Twilight brightened. “That’s right – I’ve got great news. Word has come from the griffon embassy that your request has been approved. We’re going to the Griffon Kingdom!”

Path leaped up and hugged Twilight. “That’s great! When can I go?” He then realised what he was doing and let her go, backing away sheepishly.

Twilight blushed slightly, but otherwise ignored the casual familiarity. “Once I’ve organised an appropriate team, we can leave immediately. I have to arrange transport, choose support crew, and make a list of everything that we need to take. I expect that we can leave the morning of the day after tomorrow.”

Path grinned at her enthusiasm. “That’s right, you’re Twilight ‘Organised’ Sparkle.” Then he realised something and looked at her curiously. “You said ‘We’ – I thought that this was my expedition? Do you intend to come?”

“Of course, silly! You will be going as the cultural attaché for the diplomatic team. You don’t have the credentials to be an ambassador, but as a Princess of Equestria I do, so I will be taking that role. I’ll be accompanied by an experienced member of the Equestrian Diplomatic Corps to serve as advisor. Therefore we can take care of those details, leaving you a lot more free to pursue your research.”

Path nodded thoughtfully. “That makes a lot of sense.” Then he gave Twilight a keen look. “So why did you particularly want Free to hear the news also?”

Twilight looked flustered as she tried to answer. “Well, he’s your close friend and assistant, didn’t you say? I thought he always helped you out with your projects?”

“Yes, but putting aside that, why in particular do you want him on the team? What purpose would he serve?”

“He’s a griffon who has lived virtually all his life in Canterlot. He would provide interesting contrasts and comparisons with those in Griffonia.”

“He’s a changeling though,” Path pointed out.

“They won’t know that, and it makes no practical difference anyway. He was brought up as a griffon, and as he pointed out, that’s what he wants to be.”

Path smiled to himself. Twilight was rationalising, and they both knew it. He decided to push it a little further. “Surely there’s a natural griffon living here who might be interested….”

“I want Free along, okay?” Twilight interrupted, blushing furiously.

“So do I, but why do you really want him along?”

Twilight sighed. “We’ve been getting quite familiar with each other these past few weeks, but there’s still more that you don’t know about me. Let me tell you a little about my youth.”

Twilight settled down, and Path followed suit next to her.

“Years ago, I was admitted to Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns as her personal student. I was a precocious foal, gifted with both an enormous talent and an insatiable appetite for learning. I spent most of my waking hours either reading a book or taking lessons. During that period, I had no time for practically anything else, especially socialising. My only friends were Celestia and my big brother. So it came as a very big shock to me one day when Celestia sent me to this little town called Ponyville, and instructed me to make some friends.”

Twilight smiled crookedly as she reminisced. “I thought that the ponies whom I met were all very peculiar, and it was the most ridiculous waste of time. Biggest mistake of my life! Those ponies of course were the ones who would become my best friends and bearers of the Elements of Harmony. They all had aspects that enabled me to learn and grow. Without them, I could never have ascended to alicorn level, and become the princess that I am today. Now the Elements are back with the Tree of Harmony, but my friends and I have retained their aspects, and can call upon them in time of need. All this because I made some friends.”

Path asked, “How does this relate to Free though? He’s hardly your typical acquaintance.”

Twilight giggled. “No, he isn’t, and that’s exactly why I like to have him along. He takes me out of my comfort zone and makes me do things that I wouldn’t do otherwise. Sometimes it’s embarrassing, but other times it’s exhilarating. That’s what friends do. You and I are very much alike in that we both love books, like to study and learn, and you even have an interest in magic despite you being an earth pony. You and I might be a very good match for each other, but we both need someone like Free Agent in our lives.”

“Even though you know he wants to bang you?” Path asked with an arch of eyebrow.

“He wants to bang you too, but that doesn’t stop you being friends.”

“I’m used to him.”

“I’m not about to throw myself at him either.”

“You’re not going to change him either, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Can’t change a changeling? That almost sounds like a contradiction. Life is a compromise though, so maybe we can find a happy medium.”

“Welcome to my world, Twilight Sparkle,” Path said with a warm smile.

“I’m enjoying it a lot, Long Path,” Twilight replied as she got up. “I’ll begin preparations and keep you updated.” She then threw her forelegs around Path’s neck and hugged him. “And I’m just as excited as you, y’know?”

This time it was Path’s turn to blush. As he watched Twilight leave, he realised that she was right and everyone compromised now and then. Maybe that’s why a little of Free Agent had rubbed off onto him.

Path and Free turned up early at the Canterlot airfield, with a cartload of luggage. As they turned the bend, they got their first view of the balloons tied up there, and they halted in surprise.

“Whoa! That’s no ordinary balloon craft,” Free said in an awed tone.

“No, that’s a dirigible. I’ve rarely seen one before. They’re normally used by the Equestrian Air Force.”

“Do you think that we’ll be going in that?”

“Of course we will!” Twilight’s voice suddenly came from behind them, making both pony and griffon jump slightly. “Good morning,” she added.

“Good morning to you too,” Path replied. “So why the dirigible?”

“Just think – we’ll have a large team, supplies for an extended absence, and a very long journey overseas. A normal balloon was never going to be adequate for our needs, nor for my station as Princess and ambassador also. Making a good impression is important, especially with the griffons.”

Free commented, “Knowing what those stuck-up prissy Griffonia types are like, I gotta agree with you there, babe.”

“I suggest you refrain from calling me ‘babe’ in front of the crew, Free. Military types don’t take kindly to anyone being so familiar with royalty.”

Free shrugged. “Eh, they’re cool once you know what their hot buttons are.”

Path grinned at Twilight. “If that was an attempt to get Free to stop using cute nicknames for you, I’m afraid you’ve crashed and burned.”

Twilight nodded in resignation. “I should have known better. Anyway, back on subject – there’s one other extremely good reason for using a dirigible. We will be going out of the pegasus weather control area, and there won’t be any tame wind currents to take a regular balloon to another continent. A dirigible is powered and far more manoeuvrable.”

“Makes sense. So is it time for us to board yet?”

“You can board anytime. In fact, the sooner, the better. We can cast off immediately because the dirigible was fully provisioned last night, and the crew are just awaiting us.”

As they stepped up to a boarding plank, a crewpony on watch saluted Twilight. “Welcome aboard, your Highness!” the unicorn mare said smartly.

“Thank you,” Twilight replied. “Could we get some help loading our luggage and equipment, please?”

“At once, Princess!” The mare blew on a whistle that had been hanging on a cord around her neck, and several ponies rapidly responded.

As some of them unloaded the carts, a pegasus in what seemed to be an officer’s uniform stepped up and said, “I’m Commander Flightpath. If your Highness and your colleagues would care to follow me, I will familiarise you with the ship.”

“Thank you, Commander.”

They followed Flightpath up the ramp and inside. The passageways were cramped due to needing to not waste space, and the rooms were equally compact. He showed them the crew’s quarters, the galley, mess room, map room, and they finally ended up on the bridge. There they found a grizzled earth pony mare officer, talking with a middle-aged unicorn stallion.

Flightpath said, “Captain, I have Princess Twilight Sparkle and her entourage.”

The mare gave Twilight a respectful bow. “Welcome aboard the Skylark, your Highness. I’m Captain Fairweather, and it will be my honour to take you to the Griffon Kingdom.”

“Thank you, Captain. I’m looking forward to the journey. I see Ambassador Quiet Words is here already.”

The unicorn bowed. “I woke early today and decided to come over as soon as I had breakfast. The captain and I have been conversing about the journey to come while we waited for you and the others to come.”

“Speaking of which, let me introduce you to our cultural attaché, Long Path, who is also a scholar and researcher, and his assistant and our good friend, Free Agent.”

Path shook hooves with the captain and ambassador. Free grinned and gave them a sketchy salute.

“With your permission, Princess, I would like to cast off and get under way,” Fairweather said.

“Permission granted, Captain. We have to settle in anyway.”

“I’m sure that the commander will be able to help you if you have any problems.” She then turned to a small bank of speaking tubes and opened one. “Engineers, start the engines. All crew, prepare to cast off!”

Flightpath led the threesome back the way they came. Passing the entry, they saw the gangway had been retracted and somepony was securing the hatch. In the aft section were staterooms for the officers and VIPs. He indicated the first one that they came to on the right. Like every other room, it was small, but certainly larger and more lavishly appointed than the crew bunkrooms.

“This will be your room, your Highness.”

Twilight noticed that her luggage had already been deposited there.

“Excellent, thank you.”

“Hey, Twi,” Free said as he inclined his head towards the room, “that bed’s just a nice cosy size for two, don’tcha think?”

Twilight glared at the griffon. “Or maybe just enough for somepony with wings,” she said, spreading them out and ‘accidentally’ clipping Free over the ear.

Flightpath looked at them with some puzzlement, but apparently decided to keep his opinions to himself. “If you gentleponies… and griffon… would care to follow me, I’ll show you your rooms.”

He did so and then led them to the back of the craft. Pausing at the door, he said, “Those without wings, be advised that this deck has only a guard rail to stop ponies from falling out. This is an observation post and a launch platform for our pegasi.” He opened the door to let them have a look. Path elected to stay close to the door, but Free and Twilight stepped right up to the rail. They had an excellent view of Canterlot falling away behind the dirigible as they rose to their cruising height.

“I think I’m going to like this spot,” Twilight said as the breeze ruffled her mane and feathers.

“Me too,” Free said, but his eyes were more on the alicorn than the vista.

They headed east at a fairly fast rate aided by one of the stable wind currents set up by the weather pegasi for the use of balloon craft. Nevertheless it was approaching sunset before they reached Horseshoe Bay and began their journey over the sea. None of the expedition members were required to do tasks in the hours between, so they all filled their time as they saw fit.

Twilight and Path spent some of the time on her language lessons. Although she had no expectations of becoming fluent in griffon speech, she felt it desirable to at least understand the basics, and to be able exchange greetings and formalities in their own tongue. While Free could have taught her also, not only was Path a better teacher, but he was also a lot less distracting than the griffon.

The rest of the time both worked on more research, poring through the books that they had packed to take along with them. The cramped little cabins weren’t as conducive to long-term work as her own library though, and eventually Twilight felt the desire for some fresh air. Carefully bookmarking her place, she then stepped out of the cabin and headed for the observation deck. What she saw when she opened the door to the deck made her pause though. While she had expected the possibility of a pony or two there, the actuality was a bit more of a mind trip.

A unicorn crewmare was posed idly on some cushions at one end of the deck, while sitting behind an easel a couple of metres away, Free Agent was painting her portrait!

Free looked over and gave Twilight a smile. “Hi, babe! Wanna be next?”

Suspecting a trick, Twilight moved over to see what he was actually doing and gasped in surprise. It was good – really good. She looked at him in astonishment. “You never said that you could paint!”

“What chance have I ever had to show you?”

Twilight reflected that that was true enough – she still deflected all his attempts to get a date with her. “You still could have mentioned it, say on the train ride to the Crystal City.”

“Yeah? What does ‘Come back to my place and look at my paintings’ sound like?”

“A bad pick-up line,” Twilight admitted. “How long have you been doing portraiture?”

“I got interested in in about eighth grade. I’ve been working on it ever since. I’ve been thinking of entering something in the next Canterlot Art Faire.”

“You really should. I mean, if this is anything to judge by, you’d do really well. I’m no art judge, but I know what I like, and I like this.”

Just then, the unicorn mare cleared her throat ostentatiously. Having gained their attention, she said, “With all due respect, your Highness, I have to go back on shift soon, and I’d like to have this finished by then.”

“Oh! Right. I’ll leave you two going at it then. I mean, I’ll let you finish up. I… I have to go.”

Twilight beat a hasty retreat before she inserted another hoof in her mouth. She found Path still at work in his cabin. She knocked on the open door to get his attention.

Path looked up and smiled. “Hi Twilight. What’s up?”

“Did you know that Free is a portrait artist?”

“Of course. You found him at work, I gather?”

“Yes, on the observation deck. I admit that it blew my mind.”

Path looked at her with a slightly disappointed look. “Why would it do that? Is it because he’s a bit sex mad? Or maybe because he works at a gymnasium? What do you really know about him?”

Twilight felt embarrassed. “I’m guilty of some prejudice, I suppose. You could have told me about that though.”

“Why should I? That’s the kind of thing that you talk about in a conversation with him. However, if you really want to know more, while I pursued the sciences in school, Free followed the arts. He only works as a gym instructor because it’s a steady job that he enjoys, and it’s much easier to earn a living at that than as an artist.”

“I see. So his offer to take somepony home and show them his paintings isn’t just a pick-up line.”

Path laughed. “Of course it is! However, they would get to see and appreciate his art before being shown the bedroom.”

“It seems I have a lot of re-thinking to do. Thanks, Path.”

“One last thing while we’re on the subject – you know that I am still working towards the goal of being a full teaching professor at Canterlot University and don’t have much of an income. I make some money doing research for others, but it’s hardly enough to live on. Free’s job pays for our place, and keeps food on the table. Whatever his flaws, he is nevertheless a most dedicated friend, and the soul of responsibility. You might want to get to know those aspects of him also.”

“I wouldn’t be much of a Princess of Friendship if I couldn’t learn from my mistakes.”

“Can’t ask for more than that.”

“I’ll see you at dinner, okay?”

“Sure. I’m curious to find out what dinners are like aboard this ship.” Path then made a note about researching the different cuisines of various cultures, and their influence on Equestrians.

Twilight went to her cabin, deep in thought. Whatever else happened, she would never be able to think of Free Agent in the same light again. She tried to get back into her work, but she could not focus. Eventually she sighed and headed back to the observation deck.

Free was packing up his art equipment when she arrived. He looked up from what he was doing, flashed her a smile and asked, “Did you want your portrait done after all?”

Twilight automatically started shaking her head, but then paused and said, “Maybe another time. I’d just like to talk, if you have the time?”

“For you, I have all night!” he replied with a broad wink.

He probably meant that statement in all its interpretations, Twilight mused. She settled down, her gaze towards the sun setting over Equestria’s coast. Celestia’s day was almost done, and soon it was time for Luna’s night. Somehow she felt the Moon Princess probably knew more about the griffon changeling than she did. It was time to change that.

“Free, have you ever painted landscapes like this sunset for example?”

“Sure I have, but I prefer painting people. I like to try to capture their personalities in whatever art medium that I am using at the time.”

“I suppose being able to taste their emotions would help?”

Free laughed. “Yeah, I have a bit of an advantage there, but it takes skill to render those emotions in oils or water colours. I’m still working on that.”

“Practice makes perfect is even more true for art than it is for the hard sciences. You may work for a living, but in many ways, you are still very much a student still.”

“Why, Twilight, that was almost poetic. There’s hope for you yet.”

Twilight’s eyes opened in surprise at that comment, before she burst out laughing. “It’s a long time since I’ve been made to feel like a young student being lectured by a professor. You are full of surprises, Free.”

“I try my best.”

“What else don’t I know about you that I should?”

“Ah! Now that’s something I could spend all night and the rest of this trip showing you,” he said with a leer.

“Perhaps, but one step at a time, cheeky griffon. We’re just talking for now.”

“I’ll do you one better, Twi. Give me a moment. Watch the sunset or something, okay?”

Puzzled, Twilight nevertheless did as he asked. She heard him rummaging among the cases stacked beside him, and then she heard the opening bars of a tune. She turned to see Free propped up on his hind legs and with a lute around his neck. His claws were expertly plucking chords from the instrument, and then he opened his beak and started to sing…

The time has come to be alive
In the Circle of Magi, where we will thrive
With our brethren

Enchanters remind
That time will not unwind
The dragon’s crooked spine
Will never straighten into line

What we plea will be
A faithful end decree
Where a mare will not retreat
From the defeat of her forebears

The time has come for battle lines
We will cut these knotted ties
And some may live and some may die

Enchantress, come to me
Enchantress, come to me
Enchantress, come to see
Can-a you, can-a you come to see
As you once were blind
In the light now you can sing
In our strength we can rely
And history will not repeat

The time has come to be alive
In the Circle of Magi, where we will thrive
With our brethren

Enchanters remind
That time will not unwind
The dragon’s crooked spine
Will never straighten into line

What we plea will be
A faithful end decree
Where a mare will not retreat
From the defeat of her forebears

The time has come for battle lines
We will cut these knotted ties
And some may live and some may die

Enchantress, come to me
Enchantress, come to me
Enchantress, come to see
Can-a you, can-a you come to see
As you once were blind
In the light now you can sing
In our strength we can rely
And history will not repeat

[*Lyrics of Enchanter (Tavern song from ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition’) modified for Free Agent’s song.]

From the first words, Twilight had been spellbound. His music filled her soul with wonder, and she was enraptured. Too soon for her, the song ended, and the lute’s last chords died away. She looked at Free’s face, and it was clear that he had been enjoying the positive emotions that had to have been flooding from her. In that one moment, she felt she knew changelings better than ever, and perhaps Free Agent as a person a whole lot more also.

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“I wrote that for you, Twilight.”

He called her by her proper name for the first time! She was the enchantress! This was becoming too much for her to take in at once. “I… I…” She could not say it.

As fate would have it, the ship’s bell rang just then, signalling dinner for the passengers and officers.

“I’ll see you at dinner!” Twilight blurted out, and then hastily beat a retreat.

Behind her, Free cocked his head thoughtfully. All things considered, this was going well. He carefully packed his lute, its task accomplished for now. There would be more opportunities for it to work its magic.

The next morning, Twilight took breakfast with the crew. Her penchant for getting the day off to an early start meant that she had woken long before the others, and she did not feel like waiting for the formal meal. She also wanted to get better acquainted with the crew in her role of Princess of Friendship, and after several strong reassurances to them that she honestly did not want them being formal with her while at the table, they did open up to her. To be honest, she did have a bit of ulterior motive also – where else could you hear gossip on board this ship?

It was no surprise whatsoever to Twilight that she learned that the mare who had been posing for Free yesterday had not used her bunk that night. Most of the other crewmembers suspected where she had spent the night, and Twilight realised that they had already fairly accurately sized up the griffon. She knew now that there was a lot more depth to him than they suspected, but that did not mean that he was not still a lecherous cock. What amused her to notice though was that it hardly bothered her at all anymore. While her feelings were ambivalent, if you took away that part of him, he just would not be the same person.

But was he going to be more than a friend? Twilight’s thoughts ground to a halt. No, she was not ready to confront that quite yet. She rose from the table and bid the crew a good day, and then headed for her cabin. There was work to be done, and she needed no more distractions.

Twilight did not emerge again until Path came and practically dragged her out for lunch. She was a little relieved to see that Free was not there.

“Free made several of the crew nauseous last lunchtime when he brought out some beef jerky to supplement his diet,” Path explained. “The captain asked him to be a bit more discreet about it next time.”

“He did that deliberately, didn’t he?”

“Need you ask?”

Twilight giggled. “No, I suppose not.”

“How do you think they’d react if I ate some jerky too?”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

Path just grinned at her.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “You’re almost as bad as him sometimes. No wonder you make such good friends. Just promise me something.”

“What’s that?” Path asked, his curiosity piqued.

“Make sure I’m there when you do it. I can’t miss that!”

Path chuckled. “Free has rubbed off on you too. Admit it!”

“Guilty! Although I have to introduce you to Pinkie Pie someday. Now there’s a pony who would literally do anything to make you smile and laugh.”

After lunch, it was time for more language lessons. However, since leaving the pegasus weather-control area, the climate had progressively gotten warmer and more humid, and the cabins had started to get stifling.

“Let’s do the lessons on the observation deck,” Path suggested.

“I don’t know – it may be occupied.”

“So what if it is? Unless it’s too crowded, it should still be better than in here.”

“Maybe they won’t like listening to us? Griffish is rather screechy.”

“You’re stalling, Twilight.”

The alicorn sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s go.”

As she had suspected, they found Free there, along with his art gear again. To her surprise though, this time there was no crewmare posing for him, but instead he was painting a seascape. He turned to see who had come onto the deck, and smiled at the sight of Twilight.

“Ah, have you come to pose for me at last?”

Before Twilight could reply, Path spoke up. “We’re here to do language lessons as it’s too unpleasant in our cabins. I think that she could hold a pose for you while we’re at it.”

Twilight looked at Path suspiciously. “Did you set this up?”

“Since when does Free need help with this sort of thing?”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Does it matter?”

Twilight thought about it, but could not really think of a good reason not to, so they spent a few hours learning Griffish while Free painted her onto his seascape. The griffon occasionally supplied a new word for both Path and Twilight to learn, and she found herself relaxing more. The combination of learning while enjoying a wonderful view was just too pleasant.

All good things must end though, and this one was ended by a pegasus stallion coming in to land on the deck. Twilight recognised him as one of the crew whose job was lookout for hazards, which included bad weather.

“Pardon me, everypony, but I strongly recommend that you pack up and move inside. There’s foul weather ahead, and it won’t be very pleasant out here for much longer.”

“Is it going to be a problem?” Twilight asked.

“This dirigible is built for much tougher conditions than what lies ahead, ma’am. It just won’t be a very enjoyable ride while it lasts.”

“And how long will that be?”

“The storm front looks extensive, so it’s a bit hard to tell. Us pegasi will be doing what we can to ameliorate the conditions and guide the ship along the best route, but you probably will have an hour or so at least to put up with. Now I have to go check in with the captain. She doesn’t like being kept waiting.”

Twilight thanked the pegasus, and then she and Path helped Free pack and carry his art equipment inside. She was especially careful with the portrait, and only then did she get a good look at it.

“Oh! You have flattered me too much, Free.”

The griffon grinned. “Can’t flatter perfection, babe. Glad you like it.”

“Are you finished with it? It looks complete.”

“A portrait is never finished because the subject is always changing every second, every minute, and every hour. However, I think we’ve captured the moment well enough.”

“Can I put it in my room, please?”

“It’s yours, Twi. Do with it what you wish.”

Twilight threw her forelegs around the griffon in a hug. “Thank you!” Then she realised what she had done so spontaneously, and hastily let go. “A-heh. Ummm… gotta go hang this up now.” She trotted off hastily.

Free looked at Path and winked. His friend just shook his head with a small smile.

Path discovered that while he had no problem with normal air travel, the roller-coaster ride through a storm gave him a bad case of motion-sickness. He spent much of the time on his bed feeling miserable. Even after they had gotten past the storm front, relatively trivial swaying still nauseated him.

Twilight visited him at dinner time, a bowl supported in the glow of her magic telekinesis. “Still feeling bad?”

“Only when the ship moves,” he replied as the dirigible lurched in yet another gust.

“You need to eat something to keep your strength up.”

“I don’t know if I can keep anything down right now.”

“Don’t worry, this is a light broth made especially for you. The cook reckons that he’s made it for ponies like you for years.”

“Ponies like me? Sea-sick ones?”

“Landlubbers, actually. I think he used to be a navy cook.”

“Well, I am an earth pony.”

“Then this broth should work, right?”

Path could not counter that logic, so despite his misgivings, he tried the broth. Much to his surprise, it went down easily and stayed down. He spooned up some more before asking, “What about you? Don’t you feel even the slightest bit queasy?”

Twilight shrugged. “I haven’t experienced motion-sickness since I got these.” She spread her wings briefly. “It seems that a stronger constitution is part of being an alicorn. Or maybe it’s because I’m part pegasus now. Pegasi don’t get motion-sickness.”

“That’s convenient.” He ate some more of the broth before continuing. “Speaking of alicorns though, isn’t this a bit topsy-turvy? Princesses aren’t supposed to be serving their subjects, or being their nursemaids.”

“We’re companions and researchers on this trip. Rank doesn’t come into it. We’ve known each other long enough for you to realise that I only pay attention to my station during formal occasions.”

“I know, but it’s still weird.”

“Yes, I did get a few odd looks from the crew when I volunteered to bring you the broth.”

“You didn’t need to do that, y’know?”

“I wanted to – friend helping friend is kind of what I do.”

“Thank you. I’m a little surprised that Free didn’t do it though.”

“Who says he didn’t? He was the one who actually asked the cook if he had anything suitable for seasick ponies. I just asked to take it to you when I found out.”

“And he agreed just like that?” Path asked with an arch of an eyebrow.

“Well, I may have fluttered my eyes at him and said ‘Pretty Princess Please’.”

Path laughed. “He didn’t stand a chance! Well, my stomach is feeling better now.”

“Score one for the cook. Now how about getting out of this stuffy cabin for a while?”

“Whatever Doc Twilight prescribes. What do you suggest?”

“Let’s bring a book or two out onto the observation deck. We’ve a little reading time to make up for.”

“Sounds like excellent medicine to me. Let’s go.” Path got up from the bed and wobbled on his legs a little. “Ooh, but let’s take it easy. I’m not quite right just yet.”

They chose a few books to take with them, and made their way to the deck. The sun had set, but there was still a slight glow on the horizon. The moonlight reflected off the surf below them, but did little to illuminate the deck. Lanterns had been hung there though, providing adequate light for reading, and they settled down together to study it.

Some time later, without either pony particularly noticing it, Free quietly came onto the deck. The griffon smiled when he saw the two huddled over a book, and he settled down on his haunches nearby. Taking the lute he had hanging around his neck into his talons, he started softly strumming the instrument. Choosing something appropriate, he segued into a quiet wordless tune.

Twilight and Path looked over to the griffon and smiled before turning their attention back to the book. The three friends enjoyed just being together for about an hour and a half before a shift change for the pegasi disturbed the tranquil scene, and they decided to call it a night.

Morning found them over land once more. The dirigible had crossed the coast into griffon lands sometime around five in the morning, but apparently not unnoticed. The airship was now accompanied by several griffons in light armour, spaced at a reasonable distance, but close enough to show that they meant business.

“I presume that those are their coast guard?” Twilight asked the captain.

“That’s right, your Highness, but as they were expecting us, we should have no problems. We’ll probably have a visit from an officer when they swap out with their Home Guard closer to our destination.”

“How long before we reach our destination?”

“The wind is favourable, so I estimate another five and a half hours. May I suggest that you take the opportunity to sightsee while you can? This is a very rare opportunity for Equestrians to visit the griffon kingdom.”

“Hopefully not as rare in the future. Learning more about griffon culture is the main purpose of our visit, and hopefully easing relationships between us as a consequence.”

“I wish you good fortune, Princess, but I hope you’ll pardon me for not being too optimistic. I’ve had my skirmishes with them in the past, and frequently I’ve been confused about their motivation. I know all too well their determination though.”

Twilight took another look at the war mare and realised that despite the battles she had fought, this grizzled veteran had probably seen far worse.

After breakfast, Twilight, Path, and Free took the captain’s advice and watched the countryside pass below them. It was a lot more mountainous than Equestria, and harder to spot signs of civilisation. Griffons tended to build their towns, or rather their eyries, in elevated areas, such as cliff sides or high plateaus, and because they were primarily meat-eaters, they had few farms interrupting the forests that were home to their prey.

“Don’t they raise non-sapient beasts for food also?” Path asked.

Free replied, “Yes they do, but I was told that they prefer to hunt their meat when possible, so it’s not as big a business as it could be. Be grateful though – once upon a time, they regarded ponies as a food source also. It took a few wars before they were convinced otherwise.”

Twilight added, “Some still hold out that viewpoint, hence some of the skirmishes in the past. While ostensibly fought over possession of land, they often did not regard food as having the right to possess it.”

“Is that going to be much of a problem for us, Twilight?” Path asked.

Twilight gave him a reassuring smile. “Unlikely. The current ruler of Griffonia has been considerably more enlightened than many of his predecessors. He’s seen the advantages of trade with Equestria over trying to conquer it.”

“And the fact that it has several extremely powerful alicorns protecting it has nothing to do with it, of course,” Free added dryly.

Twilight grinned at his comment but did not deny it.

Twilight had more lessons in griffon tongue while they enjoyed the scenery. As predicted, when they came close to the mountain range that was their destination, a squad of griffon soldiers was seen to approach. They spread out, apparently relieving the coast guard, but one approached the dirigible. The companions moved aside to allow the griffon to land on the deck unhindered.

The griffon had a magnificent golden eagle forequarters, and hindquarters of a white lion. While he wore armour, it looked to be more ceremonial in nature rather than anything more battle-worthy. He eyed the occupants of the deck before focusing his attention on Twilight.

“I am General Javelin. Would I be addressing Princess Twilight Sparkle?”

“You would. Welcome aboard the Skylark.”

The general inclined his head in acknowledgement. “I will inform the king’s ambassador of your impending arrival so that he may greet you. He will take you to the palace to formally introduce you to his Highness, King Argent Glimfeather. Advise your pilot to follow the path indicated by my squad. Do not deviate from that course.”

“Understood, General. I look forward to our meeting with your king.”

Javelin nodded curtly. “By your leave, your Highness,” he said with a minimum of courtesy before taking off again.

A pegasus who had been flying close by the deck as a watch guard took the griffon’s place. “I can pass on the general’s instructions to the captain if you wish, your Highness?”

“Please do so,” Twilight replied. As the pegasus left, she turned to the others and said, “I hope you have packed your essentials. We’ll be following their protocol for now, and that basically means just us and a couple of honour guards accompanying us. The crew will bring the bulk of our luggage to our quarters later.”

“I already have a saddlebag packed,” Path replied.

“Got mine ready too,” Free said.

“Then let’s get them and head for bridge. I’d like to watch the approach.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Path agreed.

It was a bit crowded on the small bridge, especially when Ambassador Quiet Words also joined them. Captain Fairweather scowled a lot, but tolerated them.

As they watched the griffon’s capital approach, Path murmured to Free, “I didn’t see much of Quiet Words on this journey. Did you?”

The griffon grinned and replied equally discreetly, “Let’s just say that it wasn’t a coincidence that we found him already with the captain when we boarded.”

Path looked at the stallion in surprise. “Really? Those two?”

“Would I be mistaken about that kind of thing?”

“Not likely,” Path admitted.

As they approached, they could see that the eyrie had been built into an enormous extinct caldera, with the palace dominating the centre of it. More structures covered virtually all the surrounding rim, but the remainder of the floor of the caldera had parklands. Nowhere to be seen was there any suitable place for the dirigible to land though.

The captain spoke up. “We’ll be mooring at a designated site on the other side of the caldera. I suggest that you get ready to disembark now.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Twilight replied. “Let’s go, everypony.”

Twilight lead them all back to the observation deck. They were almost over the centre now, and Path could see a gathering of griffons in the courtyard.

Twilight said, “That’s our official greeters. I see the ambassador there among them.”

“You can see that from here?” Path asked.

“Pegasus far-sight,” Twilight explained. “Another benefit of being an alicorn.”

“So how do we make our way down there?”

“I have that covered…” Twilight began before Free interrupted.

“Let’s take the quick route.” Before Path realised what he was doing, the griffon placed his clawed hands under the stallion’s rump, and heaved him over the railing, before diving after him.

“What in Tartarus!” yelled Twilight before she followed suit.

Path simply screamed in terror as he plummeted towards the ground. Earth ponies did not belong up in the air!

Abruptly his fall was greatly slowed as talons grasped his flailing forelegs. He looked up to see Free grinning at him as he lowered his friend down at a less than lethal rate. They were quickly joined by a furious alicorn.

“What in Celestia’s name do you think you’re doing? I was going to teleport us down there!”

“Boring! You have to impress these griffons. They’re not like the ones you might meet in Canterlot. They don’t like unicorn magic, but they like bold gestures. What’s bolder than an earth pony diving off an airship?”

Twilight was still annoyed with Free, but she was forced to admit that he could be correct. “Alright, let’s try to make this look as rehearsed as possible.”

She led the way to a landing close to the official welcoming committee, and Path managed to make a fairly decorous touchdown, although with legs slightly shaky from the experience. Two griffons stepped forward to meet them, and Path recognised the ambassador from his meeting with him at Canterlot.

“Welcome to Griffonia, Princess Twilight Sparkle, and to your companions as well.”

“Thank you, Ambassador,” Twilight replied.

She did not get the chance to say more before the other griffon spoke up.

“Hello, Long Path, I’m really happy to see you again,” she said coyly.

Path gave the griffoness his best smile and said, “Hi, Roseclaw. Glad I could drop in!”



Chapter 6: The Caped Crusader


Ambassador Quiet Words abruptly joined the group as he teleported down from the dirigible as Twilight had intended. He gave the griffon ambassador a slight bow, and said, “Well met, Far Scream. It’s a pleasure to see you again also, Roseclaw.”

Roseclaw was a little miffed at having her reunion with Long Path interrupted, but she did not let that affect her duty to present a polite greeting to their guests.

“I look forward to talking with you again, Quiet Words.”

Far Scream added, “Your presence in our grand eyrie has been much anticipated. Now, if your group is complete, it is time to present you to King Glimfeather, may he rules the skies forever.”

Far Scream turned and started heading towards the palace entrance. As she had been advised by Quiet Words, Twilight fell into step beside him. Although the griffon was nominally leading them, she was the higher ranked, and therefore could not allow herself the lesser position.

Roseclaw had no such restriction though, and she fell back to walk alongside the others. “When I heard from my father that you had petitioned us to advance your studies into our culture, I did what I could to persuade the more hidebound of the King’s Council to allow you to come.”

“So you basically nagged your dad until he relented?” Free asked.

Quiet Words shot Free a warning look, which the griffon promptly ignored.

Roseclaw however smiled and giggled. “I guess you could say that. It wasn’t easy, but he had made the mistake of teaching me all about the art of persuasion in the hopes that I follow in his steps.” She looked at Path and gave him another coy look. “I hope that it was worth it.”

Path replied, “I’d be a liar if I said that your efforts were unappreciated, and I’d be a fool if I said that I didn’t eagerly anticipate spending some time with you, Rose.”

“You’re welcome, Path.” Unexpectedly, she rubbed her cheek against his before carrying on as if nothing had happened.

Path looked around to see how the others reacted. Quiet Words was studiously ignoring them, while he heard Free murmur, “Lucky buck.” The honour guard that flanked them seemed oblivious also. Perhaps there wasn’t anything in the gesture? Maybe griffons did this kind of thing all the time? It was what he was here to learn about, after all. He looked at the griffoness who had a contented smile on her face. Maybe he was being dense like Free had said? Although what a griffon hen would see in a pony stallion, he just couldn’t understand. Of course, she was an awfully pretty griffoness… and intelligent… and witty… and curious. Always so curious. He could understand that.

They passed into the castle proper, and the visitors immediately noticed the difference between it and the one at Canterlot. While that was all colour, light, and elegance, this was darker, brooding, and a monument to war. Murals of great battles adorned the walls, portraits of kings and generals had places of honour, legendary weapons were displayed arrogantly, and everywhere there were fully armoured guards eyeing their progress through the halls.

Twilight quoted to Far Scream in Griffish, “Peace through strength, and strength through battle.

The ambassador looked at Twilight, mildly impressed. “You know the kingdom’s motto, and apparently you’ve learned our tongue?

I am still learning and not fluent yet, so please forgive me if I misspeak. Your …umm décor… sorry, I don’t know the Griffish for that word. Anyway, this reminded me of the research that I did in preparation for this visit. Your motto is very memorable.”

As is intended. Remember that when you talk to the king,” he advised. “And speak Griffish when you can to his majesty. He knows very few words of Equish, and would not appreciate being seen to be dependent on translators. He would be far more forgiving of your occasional stumbles. Your accent is odd but understandable. Would I be correct in assuming that Scholar Path is your teacher?

He is, but Free Agent helped.

The cock is amusing, but hardly one that I would expect to make a good teacher.

I might have said the same thing a few days ago, but I have found… hidden depths to him recently.

I shall take your word for that. I assumed that there had to be a very good reason for him to be part of your group otherwise.

Twilight was not sure that the griffon would understand that sometimes it was just a matter of a friend helping their friend. Instead she said, “Sometimes it is just a matter of a different perspective, Ambassador. I know that I have learned things that I would not have except for him.

Far Scream merely nodded in slightly sceptical acceptance.

While they talked, the others had also been looking around, and one thing in particular had struck Free’s eye.

“What’s with all the capes? I’ve never seen griffons in Canterlot wearing them.”

About half the griffons who weren’t guards were wearing ornate capes of various colours.

Roseclaw rolled her eyes. “They’re a fad, or an essential status symbol, depending on who you ask. The colours indicate what caste you’re in, and the embellishments show rank. For example, that griff wears the colours indicating that he’s in the ruling caste, but his lack of adornment shows that he’s not very important yet. The she-griff over there belongs to the warrior caste, and is fairly high-ranked. That’s Captain Skylance, by the way, and I recommend that you avoid her.”

“How do I get one of those capes?” Free asked eagerly.

Path eyed his friend in surprise. “Why would you want one? I’ve never known you to be interested in clothing of any sort.”

“Because they cover the flanks, that’s why! Haven’t you noticed the stares I’ve been getting?”

“I thought that you’d gotten over sulking about your cutie mark?”

“I’ve been able to ignore it for the most part. Strangely enough, most ponies don’t realise that griffons aren’t supposed to have a cutie mark, so they only ever comment if they’re curious as to what it means. But here – I’ve had griffs gawking at my butt from the moment we landed!”

Path had to struggle to not burst out laughing right then and there. Roseclaw was intrigued though.

“How did you get a cutie mark?”

Free gave the griffoness his most confident grin and replied, “In a superlative display of my special talent. Come to my room tonight, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. I suspect that I will learn soon enough anyway.”

Free sighed. “Could you at least tell me how to buy a cape?”

“I suggest that you ask your attendant later how to commission one. You usually can’t just buy them off the shelf because they are custom made to match each individual’s caste and rank.”

The group just then arrived at a set of guarded doors. Apparently they were expected though, and the guards opened the doors and allowed them into what had to be the throne room of the palace.

The militaristic theme that had so far been encountered was also present here, but boosted to the next level. Additionally, while Princess Celestia or Luna would have a nearly token couple of Royal Guards in their throne room, the walls here were lined with griffon warriors. None of the quiet disciplined watching for this lot though – each warrior seemed to be ready and willing to start a fight at the least excuse.

Long Path and Twilight Sparkle were taken aback by the fierce display, and even Free Agent was subdued somewhat. However, Roseclaw was quick to quietly reassure Path.

“Don’t let the warriors intimidate you. This is a show of strength, not an ambush. You come from a nation that has defeated ours several times, but to show weakness now would invite speculation that you have grown soft, and encourage the warriors to try once again.”

Path felt slightly better, but it was hard to feel anything but nervous. Thankfully he was used to masking his feelings. “Don’t they know that Equestria is stronger than ever with four alicorns to defend it?”

“The king knows this, but he must also listen to his warriors. It isn’t for nothing that he has the title of War Leader. Now you must pay attention to the formalities.”

The group had stopped at the base of the dais bearing the throne. King Glimfeather sat upon it, one keen raptor eye watching their every step, the other filmed over from an old injury. His avian half was that of a bald eagle, while his feline half that of a black panther. Both showed hints of age, but that was overshadowed by the sheer strength that the griffon exuded. None doubted that this was a monarch still very much in power and in control.

As they had been instructed by Quiet Words, he, Path, and Free, dropped to one knee and bowed deeply. Twilight, however, was technically of the same rank as the king, but as a visitor to his country, she was still required to give a brief, courteous bow of her head. Anything more would have been construed as weakness also.

“You may rise,” Glimfeather intoned. “Far Scream – present our visitors.”

“Your Majesty, may I introduce Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Equestria, Warrior of Harmony, Guardian of Knowledge, member of the ruling caste, the scholar caste, and the warrior caste.”

Twilight inclined her head and said, “Your Majesty” in acknowledgement. She and Quiet Words had discussed how best her titles should be presented to the griffon court, and although she felt a little embarrassed to be called a warrior, she had to admit that not only was it politically advisable, it was true, even if not in the classic sense.

Far Scream continued, “Presenting Quiet Words, Ambassador to Griffonia, member of the ruling caste and scholar caste.”

Quiet Words bowed again. “An honour, your Majesty.”

“Presenting Long Path, Researcher and Adviser to Princess Sparkle, member of the scholar caste.”

“A privilege to be here, you Majesty,” Path said with a bow.

“Presenting Free Agent, Adviser to Princess Sparkle and Cultural Attaché, member of the artist caste.”

Figuring out how best to present Free had been a matter of debate. Fortunately the skills that he had shown on the journey had given the ambassador a viable choice. Artists were surprisingly well respected in this warrior society. Of course, Free did his best to undermine that. He gave the king a sketchy salute and said, “Nice place you’ve got here, Kingsy.” Apparently one respectful bow was all that he could manage.

The throne room was hushed as Glimfeather gave Free the beady eye. The moment dragged out until the king slowly gave him a crooked smile. “I suppose that’s the best that I can expect from an Equestrian griff from the artist caste, especially one who paints his flank like a pony.” He turned his attention to the group as a whole. “Welcome to my kingdom. Princess Sparkle, I look forward to our talks tomorrow. For now, enjoy our hospitality. Far Scream, you will see to it.”

“Sire, my daughter, Roseclaw, has volunteered to undertake that task.”

“She does you honour. Very well, so be it.”

Roseclaw bowed. “As you command, your Majesty.”

They had obviously been dismissed, and Roseclaw led their way out of the throne room. Path noticed the obvious pride that she took in her responsibility. It was a big step up for a young griffon.

They were led to a wing of the castle that seemed to be devoid of other griffons, and shown to individual rooms for each. While Twilight’s was obviously fit for a princess, the others were not greatly less opulent. They then gathered in a common room adjoining all four suites.

“Griffonia is not exactly used to playing host to visiting dignitaries, so they’ve pretty much decided to treat all of you as high-ranked,” Roseclaw informed them. “Don’t let the accommodations lull you though because it’s the impressions you make with those you meet that will truly give your measure.”

“Thank you. You’ve been exceptionally helpful to us,” Twilight said. “In fact, far more so than I would have expected.”

Roseclaw looked a little embarrassed. “To be truthful, your Highness, I mostly did it for Long Path. He was the one bright spot in a rather dull visit to Canterlot, and I want to repay the favour.”

“I’m so sorry that you found your visit to be so dull. Although that was Princess Celestia’s affair, I would have been happy to do something to make your visit more enjoyable. As Princess of Friendship, it’s practically my duty.”

“Please don’t blame Celestia. My father restricted me from doing many things that I had hoped to experience while in your country. He… did not approve of me fraternising with ponies. I was there to learn, not enjoy myself.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I hope that you will get the opportunity to see what Equestrian hospitality can really be like.”

“I hope so also. Meanwhile though, I have my duty here, and I will be in charge of seeing that your mission goes smoothly. You have the freedom of the eyrie, but outside of this wing, you will be required to be accompanied either by myself or one or more of the King’s Soldiers. A banquet has been arranged, and I will be back in about an hour and a half to escort you to it. Please avail yourselves of the facilities here, and I hope that you have an enjoyable stay.”

“Thank you again, on behalf of us all, Roseclaw.”

As soon as Roseclaw had left and the door closed behind, Path said, “Free!”

“Yeah, Pa-URK!” The griffon was sent sprawling as an uppercut from Long Path’s hoof connected squarely under his beak. Free dazedly said, “What the buck?”

“What the hell did you think you were doing, throwing me out of the dirigible like that?! You know heights make me nervous. I’ve never been so terrified in my life!”

“I told you – you had to make a good impression…”

“And you couldn’t have discussed this with me first?!”

“How the buck was I supposed to know that they didn’t have a landing field there? I didn’t have time to discuss it when I realised that you would have to magic yourself down there. Like I said, griffs don’t like unicorn magic.”

“Not good enough, Free. They were expecting that; I wasn’t. Try another stunt like that, and I won’t stop at one punch!” Path then stormed into his room and slammed the door.

Free got up off the floor, rubbing his sore beak. “Some ponies have no gratitude,” he said to Twilight.

“Don’t look to me for sympathy, Free Agent. I wanted to punch you too.” Twilight then made her way to her room, although a lot more decorously, and quietly closed the door.

Free looked at Quiet Words. “Well, spit it out!”

“Me? No, you did in fact help Long Path give the griffons a good impression, although it’s a good thing you caught him quickly before they realised that it was unintentional on his part. I don’t recommend doing it again though. However, I do get the amusement of seeing you being castigated for your hare-brained idea. It does help brighten my day.” He then left for his room with a smile on his lips.

“Swell! Try to do someone a favour, and this is what I get! And I’m back to full-name status with Twi also. Can this day get any suckier?”

One thing that they had all missed while travelling on the dirigible was long showers. Weight was always an important factor for the airship, and carrying around a lot of heavy water just for that purpose was never going to happen. Bathing had been strictly minimal, so it was absolute heaven to be able to luxuriate in a long, hot shower. Their hosts had even provided some very nice fur shampoo that left their coats lovely and shiny. By the time Long Path had bathed, dried, and groomed himself, he was in a very fine mood again, and ready to forgive his friend for his outrageous stunt. After all, it was hardly the first that he had endured, although it was easily the most heart-stopping.

Path was the second to arrive in the common room, beaten there by Quiet Words.

Free turned up next, and slightly hesitantly walked up to Path. What he tasted in the pony’s emotions was enough to make him tentatively smile and hold up one clenched forefoot. “Are we good?”

Path said, “I was serious when I said what would happen if you do something like that again, but for now–” he hoof-bumped Free, “–we’re good.”

Just then Twilight arrived, and everyone’s attention was diverted to her. While she normally eschewed fancy garments, she knew when the occasion demanded them, and she was dressed in one of Rarity’s latest creations. This one had been cunningly designed to emphasise her winged nature and slightly greater height. ‘You’re an alicorn princess, darling, and those avian ruffians should have no doubts about who and what is giving them the privilege of your presence!’ the unicorn had said with finality. Twilight had long ago learned not to contradict the fashionista.

“Wow, you’re looking great, Twilight!” Path exclaimed.

Twilight smiled gratefully. “Thanks, Path. I know that I liked it when I looked at myself in the mirror, but you’re the first stallion to see it.”

“Babe, you’re so hot, I’m going to be smelling burnt feathers all night!” Free exclaimed.

“A lot of them yours, I suppose?” Twilight shot back with a grin. Apparently bathing had ameliorated her mood also, and she was ready to deal with the griffon again.

“I’m prepared to take the risk for a gorgeous mare like you.”

“I just bet you are.” Twilight then turned to the others and asked, “Has Roseclaw turned up as yet?”

Quiet Words replied, “No, but we are all a bit early. This is always good. One does not antagonise one’s hosts by being tardy, especially with griffons.” He then spent the next few minutes reminding them about the proper protocol for the formal dinner they were about to attend, quite well aware that Free Agent was likely to ignore at least half of what he was saying, but optimistically hoping for the best.

A knock on the main door of the common room announced the arrival of Roseclaw. Like Twilight, she had also dressed for the occasion, although not quite as spectacularly as the alicorn. She smiled when she saw all four of them ready and waiting.

“I see that you have all been enjoying the facilities. I know exactly how that feels after my trip to Equestria. Anyway, the banquet will start soon, so Princess Sparkle, will you and your friends please allow me to escort you there?”

“Please do, Roseclaw,” Twilight replied.

Roseclaw proceeded out of the room with Twilight at her side. A pace behind, Quiet Words came next, and behind him, Path and Free followed side by side.

“There aren’t so many guards lining the halls this time,” Path murmured to Free.

“Probably because they laid on extra before to make a big impression. That’s kind of what they do all the time. Remember – making a strong impression is important to these griffs. They make Equestrian griffons look laid-back in comparison.”

When they reached the banquet hall, it was already filled with the majority of the dinner guests. As none could be seated until the king arrived, they were all standing around in groups, conversing. There was a brief lull in the sound level of the conversations as the ponies were observed, quickly growing again as the new subjects of discussion made their way further in.

A pounding of drums announced the entrance of the king. Twilight speculated that their arrival had been the signal for him, ensuring that all the major players were in place before the event started. The king seated himself at the head of the broad U-shaped table, flanked by a couple of high-ranking griffons. That was Twilight’s cue to act. She trotted up to the one seated at the king’s right.

“I wish to sit at His Majesty’s right. Vacate your seat!” she demanded sternly.

“I am Silverbeak, His Majesty’s right claw – who are you to demand my position?” the griffon replied haughtily.

“I am Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Equestria, and you will take your true rank at this table.”

The griffon bowed. “As your Highness commands.” He then moved to a position at the king’s other side.

Challenge made and rank established, Twilight took her place and then said, “Ambassador Quiet Words, you will sit by me.”

“By your command, Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

It was then Path and Free’s turn. Path addressed Silverbeak. “I wish to seat at His Majesty’s left. Vacate your seat!”

“Who are you to demand my position?” Silverbeak again challenged.

“I am Long Path, scholar and attaché to Her Highness, Twilight Sparkle.”

“You are His Majesty’s guests, but do not outrank me. Take your place beside me.”

As intended from the start, Path took a seat at Silverbeak’s left.

Free Agent stepped up and said, “As also a cultural attaché to Her Highness, Twilight Sparkle, I demand equal rank with my colleague. I will take this place!” Free sat himself beside Path.

With all the Equestrian guests seated by protocol, the rest of the griffons started taking their due places. There were several other formal challenges and appropriate responses before all were seated.

Long Path found the process fascinating. It had ritualised all the aspects of the old-fashioned manoeuvring for positions of influence at the king’s table. All the real challenges happened outside of the banquet hall, leaving the diners to eat and talk without making a scene at the table.

“I hope you enjoy your meal, Princess Sparkle,” the king said with a hint of a smile. “This banquet has been prepared especially with you in mind.”

“I’m sure that it will be wonderful, Your Majesty.”

Just then, servants entered the banquet hall pushing trolleys laden with large covered dishes which they then placed at intervals along the table. When they were all in place, they started taking off the lids, revealing stacks of very thick grilled steaks. They were all only lightly cooked, still dripping their juices onto the plates. The aroma quickly spread among the diners, leaving the griffons drooling, and Twilight looking a little leery.

“Is this all? I’m feeling hungry tonight!” King Glimfeather demanded of the head servant.

“No, Your Majesty.” The servant then uncovered the last couple of dishes, revealing piles of baked vegetables on one, and loaves of bread fresh from the oven on the other.

“Good! Now I don’t have to share these steaks with the ponies!” Glimfeather said with a laugh and a wink in Twilight’s direction.

Twilight had to smile back. They had been pranked, and she had to admit that it was a good one. Now all she had to do was try to ignore the odour of cooked meat and the sight of the griffons tearing into them heartily… … and why was Path taking one?

With his fork firmly held by tactile kinesis to his hoof, Path had speared one of the biggest steaks and put it onto his plate, shoving aside some of the vegetables that the servants had started placing there. Conversation slowly ground to a halt as the griffons started taking notice as the pony began cutting off a slice. He put it into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Twilight started turning very green as he swallowed and then looked around at all the others, seemingly noticing their stares only then.

“What? Needs a bit of salt, is all.”

There was a huge roar of approval from the griffons, delighted at seeing a pony eating meat. Free was laughing himself silly at the expressions on Twilight and Quiet Words’ faces, matched only by the king who was hugely amused at having his joke being turned back on him so effortlessly. Meanwhile, Path was handed a salt shaker, and after sprinkling some on the steak, proceeded to tuck into the rest of his meal.

“Are you going to eat all of that, little pony?” one huge griffon asked.

Swallowing his mouthful, Path replied, “Tartarus, yeah! Do you know how expensive and hard to find these steaks are in Canterlot? I intend to enjoy every bit of this!”

“Five crowns says he doesn’t finish it!” another griffon said.

“Ten says he does!” a third replied.

Roseclaw watched him eating the steak with rapt fascination. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the incredible sight.

Twilight was beginning to wonder if she was ever going to get her appetite back.

“Well, I think we can call that a success,” Free pronounced when they had returned to their common room.

“You certainly were a hit with the griffons, Path,” Twilight agreed. “Since when did you start eating meat though?”

“I’ve been doing it since I was a foal. Free and I would trade some of our lunches occasionally. Turns out that I have quite a taste for it.”

“And you didn’t see fit to tell me about this?”

“The subject never came up. After all, it’s just food, and nothing unusual to me. Besides, I thought that you knew that ponies can eat meat. Pegasi eat fish all the time.”

“Yes, Rainbow Dash has tried to get me to try out fish several times. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around eating something that used to be alive though.”

“Fruits and vegetables used to be alive too, you know?”

“Not quite the same thing, Path. Do you know that you can’t eat too much fat? Our bodies can’t break the excess down.”

“Found that out the hard way long ago. That’s why I choose lean meats, or smaller portions. Those steaks tonight were great though – juicy and lean! I hope we get them again.”

Twilight started to look a bit green again.

Quiet Words said, “I would appreciate it if you would stop trying to make Princess Sparkle ill. It’s not a good look in front of griffon dignitaries. However…” He gave Twilight an apologetic look. “That was a marvellous coup in our relationship with the griffons. So many of them refer to us contemptuously as grass-eaters, so seeing more of us on their level will be greatly to our benefit.”

“Have you tried eating meat?” Twilight asked.

“Ah, no. I’ve inured myself to watching griffons do so, and to the smell of cooked meat, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to trying it out.”

“Well, if you don’t want me to order you to try it out tomorrow, I suggest that you close the subject for tonight,” Twilight said darkly.

“Yes, your Highness!” Quiet agreed hastily.

“I’m going to my room and write down my observations from today’s events. I suggest that you all prepare yourselves for tomorrow. We have a big day ahead of us.”

Twilight went to her room and closed the door behind her, and Quiet Words followed suit.

Path said, “I’ve got a couple of things to get ready. Did you want help with anything, Free?”

“Nah, I’m good. Unless you plan to invite me to test out those magnificent beds with you tonight?” Free added hopefully.

“Unless you want my opinion on how comfortable they are for sleeping, no.”

“Try to dream of me, at least,” Free replied with a leer.

Path just grinned and headed off to his room.

Free’s expression turned a little more serious, and he went to the main door and looked outside. Two griffons were on watch there, as he knew there would be, and he had a word with them before going back inside.

About a quarter hour later, there was a knock on Twilight’s door. She absent-mindedly called, “Come in!” before returning her full attention to her journal. Therefore she did not see Free come in bearing a covered tray. The delicious aroma coming from it did gain her notice though. She looked around just as Free placed the tray on the table next to her and uncovered it, revealing a pot of tea and salad sandwiches.

“Considering how little you ate at the banquet, I thought you might need this,” Free said with a smile.

Twilight was surprised at his thoughtfulness. “Thank you, Free. That’s very kind of you.”

“I hope this makes up for the stunt I pulled today. I know I don’t always think things through.”

“I was more worried for Long Path, but you seem to be back to normal with him.”

“Yeah, he’s used to me being a butthead occasionally. I try to make it up to him later.”

“Then, we’re good.”

“Is there anything else I can do for you, Twi?”

“No, I really need to finish off this….” Twilight’s voice trailed off.

Free tasted a shift in her emotions before she seemed to come to a decision.

“Remember how you played your lute while Path and I were reading out on the deck?”

“Of course.”

“Would you do that for me again? I mean, it would help me gather my thoughts and de-stress from today’s events.”

“You don’t need an excuse to ask me to play for you, babe. Let me get my lute.”

Minutes later, he was softly playing the lute while Twilight enjoyed her food and drink. With those finished, she leaned back in her chair, intent on just enjoying one tune for a moment before returning to her journal. Instead she drifted off into slumber.

Free finished the tune and regarded the sleeping alicorn. He considered trying to move her to the bed, but knew what she might think in the morning, so instead he put a blanket over her. He risked a quick nuzzle and said, “Sweet dreams, Twilight.” He then left the room, quietly closing the door behind him.

Thankfully for Twilight, breakfast was served in the common room, and they all were well fed and ready for a big day.

At the appointed time, Far Scream arrived to escort Twilight and Quiet Words to their meeting with the King’s Council.

Roseclaw arrived just as they were leaving, managing only to greet them before they were hastened on their way. To Path and Free, she said, “Good morning! Are you ready to learn a little about life in this great eyrie?”

“Sure thing, Roseclaw,” Path replied. “Perhaps you have a library here that we can check out?”

“Whoa! Wait just a moment!” Free objected. “We’re here to learn about what makes these griffs tick and how to get along with them better, remember? Not just so that you can stick your muzzle in a book.”

“But research is important too!”

“Not as important as going out and actually seeing for yourself.” Free turned to Roseclaw and asked, “What would the common griff be doing today? What would be the most popular events?”

“Well, there’s the big martial arts tournament today,” she replied doubtfully.

“Great! That’s where we’re going. Right, Path?”

Long Path sighed. “You’re right, even if I suspect you mostly want to check it out for personal reasons. Let’s go, Roseclaw.”

Free Agent did not bother telling them that he had learned of the tournament while chatting with the guards last night after leaving Twilight. He knew that Path could be persuaded about the relevance of the event to their project, and all that was needed was to steer the conversation in that direction. Too easy!

The group exited the main gate into what seemed to be parklands dominated by a lake and the river that flowed from it. The caldera that the city was located in naturally collected rainwater into the lake which provided water for the city’s needs, while the parklands around it kept the water from being contaminated. Long Path was quite impressed with the skill and care that had gone into both the palace and lands.

“I would not have thought that you’d have such a large amount of parkland in the middle of your city,” Path commented.

“It needs to be big,” Roseclaw replied. “It’s kept stocked with small prey so that we can do some hunting instead of getting prepared food. It keeps up our skills instead of relying on others.”


“I watched you eat meat last night, so why does this seem to bother you?”

“Eating meat from animals raised for the purpose and slaughtered humanely, is somewhat different from terrifying little animals desperately trying not to be captured and killed.”

“It’s what we griffons have done all through history; isn’t that the kind of thing that you have come to learn about us?”

“It is, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. When hunting was a necessity, I could have been pragmatic about it and accepted it easily enough. However, it isn’t necessary anymore because your needs can be supplied with farm animals.”

“Hunting is a natural instinct though.”

“Civilisation occurs when a species rises above their base instincts.”

“So you think we’re uncivilised?” Roseclaw asked sharply.

“Are you demanding that I insult you?” Path answered carefully. “Ponies still fight among each other occasionally, but we still strive to be civilised. We make mistakes, but learn and build from there. Civilisation is a work in progress, not an absolute goal. To not recognise something as being uncivilised is to not be able to rise above it. So, to answer your question with a question – do you consider it civilised to kill defenceless animals needlessly?”

“It has been part of our civilisation since before recorded history – why would we change that on the basis of what ponies might think of us?”

“You have much tradition behind you, I admit, and by urging you to stop doing it, I am actually meddling in your affairs rather than reaching an understanding. I have only one thing to add.”

“And that is…?”

“Ponies were once considered fair prey too, and some griffons may still think of us that way.”

Roseclaw was quiet for a long moment before she shook her head. “You’d make a good griffon, Long Path. You attack a problem without fear or favour. I like that.”

“Others have called me rudely blunt.”

“Others are not griffons. Choose your fights and make a stand; vindicate yourself or fail. That’s the griffon way.”

“Then perhaps I’ve learned my first lesson?”

“Perhaps. Just remember–” Her wing swept around to indicate other griffons about them. “All these griffs are also living by that credo. Make sure you’re right and can back yourself up before you make that stand.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Roseclaw.”

Path was beginning to think that the fighting was held outside of the arena. After leaving the grounds of the castle, they had also left behind the quieter and more formal griffons, and now they were seeing more of what the common griffons were like. One of the first things that he had realised was that they seemed to lack the concepts of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Polite requests were met with blank stares. The standard encounter seemed to consist of loud demands, annoyed responses, and either one or the other forced to back down or comply.

They were passing through what had to be a merchant district where they were able to witness this behaviour quite frequently. One shop caught Free’s eye though.

“Hey, Rose – is that what I think it is?” Free pointed at what appeared to be a clothing store.

Roseclaw looked and then smiled. “You’re still wanting a caste cape?”

“Of course! Can I order one there?”

“If you have the money, that’s what they’re there for.”

“One detour coming up!” Free declared, practically dragging Path along with him.

While the shop stocked a variety of adornments designed for griffons, it was obvious that the business primarily traded in the fashionable capes. Free spotted the proprietor and marched up to him.

“Have you got a cape for the entertainer caste?” Free asked in the blunt fashion that he had seen other griffons do.

“Of course, but what rank?”

“Pretty high.”

The proprietor eyed him coldly. “There is no ‘pretty high’ rank.”

Free turned to Roseclaw. “How does your ranking system work?”

“For your caste? I’m not sure. Describe your achievements.”

“I paint, and I play the lute professionally. I am frequently invited to Princess Celestia’s functions.”

Frequently gate-crashing her functions, more like it,’ Path thought.

Apparently the cape seller had much the same suspicions, and he raised a sceptical eyebrow. He had no intention of letting a sale slip by however. “I believe I have a firm idea of your ranking.”

“Great! How much and how quickly can I get it?”

“One hundred and seventy-five crowns, and in four hours.”

“Whoa! That’s pretty steep for just a cape.”

“A customised high-quality fashion accessory,” the proprietor corrected.

“How about a special deal for visiting diplomats?”

“One hundred and ninety crowns.”

“What!? Do you rip off all your customers this way?”

“Penalty rate for non-Griffonian citizens!”

Free fumed but eventually pulled out his money pouch and counted out the coins. “It better be bucking awesome though! And I want a receipt!”

They left the smirking shopkeeper and continued on their way.

Something occurred to Path, and he asked, “What’s to stop griffs from claiming a far higher rank than they are entitled to?”

Roseclaw replied, “That’s easy – if they are caught out, they are subject to much ridicule and loss of honour. That’s far more important to them than false rank. You had better be able to justify your claim, Free Agent, because somegriff is sure to test you.”

Free grinned confidently. “Bring ’em on! I’ll show anygriff that an Equestrian griffon can rock their world.”

Roseclaw smiled at his overwhelming confidence. “I think that I might look forward to seeing that.”

Although he was not the kind of pony who would ever try to cut in line, Path reminded himself to never trying jumping the queue for any reason while in Griffonia. Those foolish enough to try to do so at the tournament arena were lucky if they only lost a few feathers in the ensuing altercation.

When they got to the ticket window, Roseclaw curtly demanded three tickets. The griffon selling the tickets gave Path a suspicious look before reluctantly handing over the tickets in exchange for a large number of coins. Roseclaw led Path and Free into the arena and headed straight for what turned out to be seating reserved for high-ranking griffs.

“I’m guessing that the ticket-seller was wondering whether we deserved to be in this section,” Path commented to the griffoness.

“Good guess, although it doesn’t matter because I have the rank, and I am allowed to bring guests with me. Make yourselves comfortable because they’ll be starting soon. Our detour hasn’t made us late for the honour duels.”

“Honour duels? What are those? I thought that these were formal sports?”

“The tournament is formal, but the honour duels are held first because they serve as a warm-up for the spectators who also serve as witnesses to the duels. As for the duels themselves, there are occasions where a griff’s honour is impugned, or they have been dealt an injustice, and they demand that it be settled by an honour duel.”

“What about the law though?”

“If the circumstances meet the requirements for a duel, it supersedes the law. That is why it is important to have a lot of witnesses.”

“What’s to stop powerful griffs from abusing the honour duel system for their own gain?”

Roseclaw arched an eyebrow at Path. “Have you so quickly forgotten what I said earlier? Griffon status is all about making claims and backing them up. There is no sympathy for anygriffs who let themselves be manoeuvred into fighting a duel which they cannot win.”

“Harsh,” Path said with a shake of his head.

Free said, “Yeah. That’s the kind of thing that led to my parents emigrating from Griffonia to Equestria. You think that griffs in Canterlot are rather aggressive? They’re nothing compared to some of these, if even half of what Dad and Mom told me is true.”

“What kind of things would typically call for an honour duel?” Path asked Roseclaw.

“Nothing trivial. As the name implies, it is mostly called upon when a loss of face might occur, or where status is in question. However, it could be more personal , say if somegriff has breached your trust. There are a multitude of reasons, but they all involve a griff’s honour and status. They can even determine a choice of mate. For example, there’s….”

Just then, a thunderous booming of drums interrupted Roseclaw, and the crowd quieted down in anticipation. A griffon in a bold red jacket alighted in the centre of the stage, and lifted up a megaphone. Path was amused to note that it was an Equestrian-made model that utilised a magic-charged crystal to amplify the user’s voice.

“Welcome, griffs! Are you ready to watch the best martial artists in Griffonia battle it out for supremacy, right here, right now?”

There was a near deafening roar from the crowd, and the screeching made Path wince and fold his ears down to try to cut it down a bit.

When the crowd had calmed down enough, the announcer went on. “First though, we have two honour duels for you today. The first will be fought between Erin Ripbeak and Jarrod Whiptail. Griffs – step forward!”

Two male griffs entered the arena, one a light brown avian with tawny hindquarters, and the other had golden plumage with a jet-black feline rear end.

The announcer addressed the crowd again. Indicating the first griffon, he said, “Erin Ripbeak has accused his business partner, Jarrod Whiptail, of defrauding their company. Jarrod has vehemently denied the accusation. After Erin spread his accusations around to family and business associates, Jarrod has had his honour and status impugned and has demanded satisfaction.” The announcer then addressed the two griffons. “Erin – do you withdraw your claims?”

“I do not.”

“Jarrod – do you still deny the claims?”

“I do.”

“Will you settle for rule of law?”

“No!” both replied vehemently.

“Then the honour duel is formally declared. You will fight to the blood-letting. Take position on opposite sides of the arena, and begin when the duel drum is struck.”

The announcer then flew over to what appeared to be an umpire’s elevated chair and settled onto it. When the combatants had reached their positions, he raised a foreleg with a red flag in his clenched claws. He held it up there for a long moment before he abruptly dropped it, and in that instant, a deep bass drum boomed out.

The two griffs leaped at each other with murderous intent. As far as Path’s inexperienced eye could tell, neither was fighting with any degree of skill. It was mostly a rage-fuelled brawl. He asked Roseclaw, “What are the rules to the duel?”

“There are none. They are free to attack in any way they choose.”

“Then how do they determine the winner?”

“As the announcer said, it’s to the bloodletting.”

“Both look a bit bloody already though.”

Roseclaw gave him a slightly pitying look. “To the bloodletting means that one of the duellists is cut and ripped to the point where the judge determines that they would die of blood-loss without medical treatment. What you have seen so far is trivial. Neither is a warrior.”

Path shuddered at the thought of so much blood. “And the announcer is also the judge, I gather?”


“It sounds like there are other levels at which the fight could be terminated?”

“You’re right. There are two others – to the maiming or to the death.”

Path was startled. “They actually allow griffs to battle to the death over disputes?”

“Not just any disputes – only the most serious ones. Maiming though is not uncommon.”

“Forgive me for saying so, but I find that to be a barbaric practice. There are other ways to vindicate oneself.”

“But not in the griffon way.”

“Then what do you think of the griffs who travel to Equestria to make a new life away from all this? Are you saying that theirs is not the griffon way, when there is an entire eyrie there that does not practice this horrible duelling?”

“They have made their own choices by which they stand. We have made ours. I notice that despite your protests, you are still watching the fight.”

“I am here to learn, and I can put aside my emotions for a while to study the practice. A dispassionate viewpoint is a more accurate one.” Path scowled grimly. “However, like the animal hunting, I don’t have to like it. It’s a good thing that we did not bring Twilight along with us. I can’t see her standing by doing nothing while this sort of thing happens.”

Just then, Jarrod Whiptail collapsed to the arena floor, and the duel drum boomed once more. Erin Ripbeak stood back, panting heavily, but with a look of vindication on his face. Medics rushed onto the arena to attend to both fighters, and after Jarrod’s bleeding was stopped, he was carried away on a stretcher, while Erin proudly walked off under his own power. Arena workers stepped in to clean up the blood, fur and feathers before the next duel.

Path filed everything away in a corner of his mind for later review, and then turned to look at Roseclaw. “You’ve been defending the griffon way of life, and that’s perfectly fair. I cannot judge your society purely from my perspective, no matter my feelings. However, I have one more question. What do you personally think of that duel?”

For the first time, Roseclaw looked uncertain, and Path realised that he had finally gotten past the ambassador’s daughter’s mask. “I come here to watch skilled warriors fight. That duel was not an example of such.”

“In other words, you didn’t like it?”

“Just because I believe in the griffon way of life, does not mean that I approve of all aspects of it. Do you claim that yours is perfect?”

“Hardly. It was my realisation that many ponies are bigots that started me on this journey of discovery. However, recognising that there is a problem is the first step in dealing with it. So, is there a problem?”

Roseclaw shook her head with a sad smile. “For them, no. For me, perhaps. I’ve come to like ponies too much, I think. Since returning from Equestria, I have been more and more dissatisfied with the way of life here.” She paused and grinned at him, poking him in the chest with one talon. “I blame you for this. You took the blindfold from my eyes that day we met. I never knew a pony could be so… interesting before then. You force me to think beyond what I have always accepted.”

“Then I pray that I never make a colossal error and lead you astray. I’m just a pony too, after all.”

“Too modest also. Anyway, it looks like the next duel is about to start.”

This time the dispute was between two she-griffons, but the duel was mercifully swift. One severely outclassed the other and brought the fight to a quick close. It did raise another question though with Long Path.

“She must have known that she was way out of her depth, so why would she accept a duel challenge?”

“Sometimes the loss of face for not accepting the challenge is a worse blow than anything that happens in the arena. This was an honourable loss for her, and griffs respect that.”

Path was beginning to suspect that negotiating the complexities of the caste-status-honour system in Griffonia was going to be a lot more difficult than he had anticipated. Understanding how griffons thought was the key to bringing their cultures closer together, but he was far from that goal right now. There was one other opinion he wanted right now though.

“Free – you’ve been rather subdued; I thought that you’d be right into this?”

“The duels were unexpected, Path. They don’t taste right to me,” Free replied quietly.

Roseclaw was still unaware that Free was a changeling, and had a unique perspective on the situation.

“How so?” Path asked discreetly.

“You know we feed on positive emotions, but this arena is filled with both positive and negative emotions right now. It’s not a pleasant mixture. I hope that the tournament improves that.”

The martial arts tournament started immediately after the arena was cleared up again. Unlike the duels though, the fights were ones of skill rather than raw brawling, and the contestants could actually be penalised for using an unnecessarily savage or dangerous strike. This was something that Path could appreciate, and so did the crowd. Between every bout, he overheard conversations discussing the moves that were well executed and the mistakes that were made. Considering the size of the arena, and well-filled it was, he figured that a large percentage of the griffon population was engaged with the sport, and fairly equally among the sexes too. It was something to bear in mind if griffons and ponies came into conflict again.

The tournament was only interrupted for a lunch break, and there it seemed that both ponies and griffons had something in common – the concessions stands did roaring business! It was late in the afternoon before every elimination bout of every division was completed, the finals run and won, and the victors awarded. Path, Free, and Roseclaw joined the crowds streaming out of the arena.

“My cape should be ready now,” Free said, steering the others towards the shops. He left the others waiting outside while he collected it though. “I want to reveal it to you too!”

He was soon back with a medium blue cape that did in fact drape over his cutie mark. It was trimmed with golden material, and adorned with various symbols that had no meaning to Path.

“Well, what do you think?” Free asked as he did his best to model his new purchase.

Path thought that it looked good on his friend, but turned to Roseclaw to see her reaction. She nodded thoughtfully before delivering her verdict.

“I think that the cape maker has done you justice. It is a reasonable representation of your caste and status.”

“And it suits you,” Path added.

Free grinned and said, “Great! I like it too. Maybe Rose can explain to me what these symbols mean though.”

So as they walked back to the palace, Roseclaw did her best to explain the meaning and significance of each of the markings, stripes and patches.

Between the lengthy tournament and their unhurried travelling between the arena and the castle, it was close to dinner time before they got back to their rooms. There they found Twilight at a desk, writing something. She looked up as they entered and gave them a weary smile.

“I hope your day has been more exciting than mine?”

“You could say that,” Path replied.

“Yeah, the tournament was exciting, especially for the finals,” Free added.

“What tournament is this? I thought you were going to the library, Path?” Twilight asked.

“Change of plans. There was a big martial arts tournament being held today, and Free persuaded me that it was more important to see how griffons enjoy themselves. It was quite an eye-opener, I admit.”

“And I found a shop that sells the status capes.” Free spun around, letting the cape swirl dramatically. “How do you like it?”

Twilight looked at it critically before smiling. “It looks very good on you – makes you look like a handsome griff.”

Free actually started preening at the compliment. “Thanks, babe. Wanna go out for dinner and show off the handsomest couple in Griffonia?”

Twilight blushed slightly. “Um, I think we’re supposed to show up for a formal dinner tonight.”

Roseclaw spoke up. “Actually that is optional. It’s not a King’s Banquet which requires your presence. If you prefer to dine more informally, that is your choice.”

“That sounds like a great idea, Twilight,” Path added. “How about the four of us find a good local restaurant and sample the local cuisine?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t think Quiet Words would be interested.”

“I wasn’t referring to Quiet Words, Twilight,” Path replied, turning towards Roseclaw.

Roseclaw looked at Path in surprise. “You want me to join you for dinner? I’d love to!”

Twilight sighed in resignation. “Okay, but it has to be somewhere that serves something else besides meat.”

Roseclaw said, “Don’t worry – I know just the place. Last night’s steak dinner was the king’s idea of a joke. We do eat a lot more than just meat.”

“Fair warning, Twilight,” Path added, “I intend to have some meat in my meal.”

“I’ll be prepared this time. I’ll also try my best to not watch you!”

Roseclaw said, “If you will give me a few minutes to freshen up, I’ll be back soon to show you to the restaurant that I have in mind.”

“We could all use the time to do the same, Rose.”

About an hour later, all four were washed, brushed, and in the case of two of them, preened. Twilight had her tiara, and Path a sash with the Equestrian Diplomatic Corps symbol on it. Roseclaw had added a pearl necklace and a ribbon was braided along her tail. Free of course wore his cape.

Roseclaw guided them to what appeared to be a middle class restaurant fifteen minutes’ walk from the castle’s gate. Path doubted that most griffons would actually walk – the roads here seemed mainly for the benefit of the heavily-laden carts that transported goods between places, but as the only flightless member of the party, the others made concessions to his limitation and made no complaints.

The presence of two ponies in the restaurant caused quite a stir at first, but things soon settled down, and the staff was very professional. They were seated at a rectangular table, with Twilight besides Free, and Roseclaw beside Path. The menu was as varied as Roseclaw had promised, and everyone was able to order something to their taste. Twilight managed to distract herself sufficiently from the meat dishes to enjoy the meal, and Free was quite pleased that he was a major source of distraction. Anything to build on his relationship with the alicorn was good!

It was a happily replete foursome who left the restaurant a long time later. Considering the size of the tip that they had left, the staff were profuse in their thanks for patronising their establishment, and hoped that they might see them again sometime soon.

Something caught the attention of Free as they started walking back to the castle.

“Hey, is that a club down there?” he asked Roseclaw.

“Actually it’s the local pub, but they have live music most nights.”

“Awesome! Let’s go there!”

“What? You want me to go there?” Twilight asked.

“Sure! We’re here to check out what griffon society is like, right? A pub is the perfect place to learn more, and have some fun at the same time.”

“This is supposed to be serious research!” Twilight objected.

“And does that research preclude you from enjoying yourself?”

“Umm... no, I suppose not.”

“Then we have the perfect opportunity for you to do both.” He put his arm around Twilight’s neck, and then did the same to Path. “Two ponies and two griffons together. Let’s show them the power of friendship!”

Roseclaw followed Free’s example and put her arm around Path also, and they headed off to the pub.

The pub was well attended by boisterous griffons enjoying both the alcohol and the music. Unlike the restaurant, there was little reaction to the group aside from a little curiosity. At first it seemed that they were out of luck in finding a table, until Free flapped up into the air between songs from the band, and yelled out, “A round of drinks on me in exchange for a table!”

“Make it two rounds, and you’ve got a deal!” yelled back one griffoness from a table close to the stage.


The group took over the table, while Free headed off to the bar with the three that had given it up. When they had been taken care of, he came back to the table just in time for one of the servers to turn up.

“Your turn to pay,” Free said cheerfully to Path.

Path nodded in agreement. “What will you all have?” he asked the others.

“Eyrish whiskey all round,” Free interjected.

“Oh no!” Twilight said hurriedly. “Not for me. Do you have any Equestrian beers?”

“As a matter of fact, we do,” the server replied. “We have Baltimare Lager or Canterlot Ale.”

“The ale would be perfect!” Twilight resisted the urge to add ‘please’ as she was catching onto the griffon habit of not using the polite words.

Path hoofed over the money, and soon they were enjoying their drinks and the entertainment. Free in particular was getting into the music. The musicians belted out lively tunes on their magically amplified guitars, and occasionally the crowd would sing along to one of their songs. The friends were starting on their fourth round of drinks when the band took a break.

Free was hyped up on more than alcohol by then. The excitement and enjoyment of the pub’s patrons was loading him up on positive emotional energy, exciting him and wanting to get even more involved. As the lead guitarist rested and took a drink, Free got up and went over to him. “Hey, great music! Almost as good as the Equestrian band I heard last month.”

The griffon eyed him and said, “You’re one of those pony-lovers, aren’t you? Think you’ve earned that cape?”

“Yeah, I think so. I’ve played for princesses even.”

“But have you played for our king?”

“Not yet. Give me a couple more days and I’ll knock his feathers off too.”

“Ha! That I’d like to see. I think you’re fluffing your feathers.”

“Yeah? Give me your guitar and I’ll show you I’m straight up.”

“You’re on, Firetail. Better prove yourself, or you’re going to be short one cape when you leave.”

Free grinned at the reference to his bright red tail tuft. He confidently took the griffon’s guitar and hopped up onto the stage. The other band members eyed him dubiously, but shrugged when the guitarist gave them a reassuring nod.

“Hey all you griffs. Call me Firetail! I’m here to knock you out with some Equestrian style rock. Are you ready for it?”

There were some jeers, but there were also some calls of encouragement from the curious.

Free settled the guitar and started plucking chords. “This is called ‘A Brave New World’, and you’re gonna love it!”

The intro started off sedately enough, and Free began singing after a few chords:

Dying Swans twisted wings
Beauty not needed here
Lost my love, lost my life
In this garden of fear
I have seen many things
In a lifetime alone
Mother love is no more
Bring this savage back home

Abruptly Free amped up the pace and the volume, and the crowd roared in approval.

Wilderness house of pain
Makes no sense of it all
Close this mind dull this brain
Messiah before his fall
What you see is not real
Those who know will not tell
All is lost sold your souls
To this brave new world

The other band members, starting with the drummer, began accompanying Free, adding to the excitement and energy of the tune as Free roared into the chorus.

A brave new world
In a brave new world
A brave new world
In a brave new world

In a brave new world
A brave new world
In a brave new world
A brave new world

By this time, Twilight’s jaw had dropped in amazement, while Path and Roseclaw had joined in singing the chorus, along with most of the audience.

Dragon Kings Dying Queens
Where is salvation now
Lost my life, lost my dreams
Rip the bones from my flesh
Silent screams laughing here
Dying to tell you the truth
You are planned and you are damned
In this brave new world

A brave new world
In a brave new world
A brave new world
In a brave new world

In a brave new world
A brave new world
In a brave new world
A brave new world

Just when it seemed that Free had the crowd as excited as possible, he burst into a frenetic guitar solo that redoubled the energy level. By now the pub’s patrons had started dancing on every available square inch of the floor, and not a few in the air too.

With the crowd now stoked into a frenzy, Free segued back into the chorus.

A brave new world
In a brave new world
A brave new world
In a brave new world

In a brave new world
A brave new world
In a brave new world
A brave new world

Free let the guitar’s chords die down, and almost reverentially, he sang the final two verses.

Dying Swans twisted wings
Bring this savage back home

[*Lyrics of 'Brave New World' by Iron Maiden.]

The pub exploded with cheers and foot stomping. Free waved the guitar triumphantly, drinking up their adulation.

The band’s guitarist came over to collect his instrument.

“So, do I get to keep my cape?” Free asked him.

“You were ripped off by the cape maker. He seriously underrated you, just as I did.”

Free grinned. “I’ll be sure to tell him that if I see him again.”

“Stick around – you and I are going to have a guitar battle. Can’t let this lot think that I can be outdone by an Equestrian griff. That is, if you think you’re up to it?”

“Got another guitar?” Free replied confidently.

Back at the table, the ponies had started garnering attention from the excited crowd who insisted on buying drinks. Twilight insisted on sticking to her ale, but she was already getting more than a little buzzed. Eyrish whiskey was a whole lot stronger though, and Path was starting to lose his normal restraint. He cheered and whistled as his friend and the band guitarist started riffing off each other. He hardly noticed that his drink was being constantly refreshed.

Some time later, Twilight and Roseclaw were dancing to the music in front of the stage, and Path had got into a drinking debate with another griff.

“Yer princess dances like she’s havin’ a fit,” Rockbeak slurred before taking another shot.

“Yesh… yesh she does,” agreed Path with a slightly glazed look on his face. “But she’s enjoying hershelf… self.” He took another shot also.

“Teh...teh problems with you ponies... you hide behind your pretty pretty princesses!” Hardbeak declared and downed another shot.

“Shum… some of us do, but I don’t... you never get anywhere cowering behind somebody else... Take what is yours! Don’t let it be gifted to you!” He knocked back another shot.

“Ya have nothin’. Pretty pretty pony is pretty pretty weak!” Hardbeak slowly lifted the next shot, stared at it with eyes that slowly glazed over, then keeled over unconscious.

“Stronger than you, birdy-cat!” Path declared, downing his shot in proof. Those watching him cheered loudly, and he held up the empty shot glass in triumph. “All will come to know the honourable House of Path, the first Equestrian Nobility in the Griffonian Kingdom!” he drunkenly boasted.

“A toast to the House of Path!” one griffon shouted.

“I’ll drink to that!” Path declared.

The bar staff were delighted. This was turning out to be their best night in ages. A steady supply of alcohol, especially whiskey, kept flowing in the direction of their Equestrian patrons, and the music was more exciting than ever. Who knew that ponies could be such a hit?

Eventually, a giddy but tired Twilight sat back down next to Path, with Roseclaw doing the same on his other side. Another ale was immediately put in front of Twilight, and she downed it thirstily. Roseclaw also accepted a drink , but didn’t slam it down quite as fast. Path put one foreleg around each and pulled them towards himself in a drunken hug. “As winner of this contest and glorious head of the House of Path, I declare that Sparkle is mine!” He gave the extremely startled alicorn a smooch on the cheek. “And I declare that Roseclaw is mine!” He gave an equally big kiss to the griffoness. “Long live the House of Path!”

The crowd roared in approval, while Twilight’s cheeks began to glow a little more than accountable by the alcohol. Roseclaw though just gazed at Path with surprise and not a little wonder. Then she giggled and said, “I’ll drink to that too. Where’s my drink?”

Half a dozen were thrust at her by the drunken griffons who were enjoying the marvellous entertainment being provided by the Equestrians. One griffon though was not amused, and he made his way out of the pub.

Free came down from the stage where he had been riffing with the band still, and said, “Hey! Stop stealing my gal, Lord Path!”

Path grinned at him and said, “Aw, you’re mine too!” Then he grabbed Free and kissed him too.

Free let Path linger as long as he wanted, but when the stallion let him go, he said, “I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but I think you’ve had enough for tonight. I think it’s time to leave.”

“Aw, must we?” Path said disconsolately.

“Yeah, your herd needs you to take them home.”

“Oh. Okay!” Path struggled onto all four legs and swayed on his hooves. He eyed the half-empty glass still on the table, but decided he’d had enough. “C’mon girls. Big day ahead.” He weaved unsteadily through the crowd to the front door before stopping to allow Twilight and Roseclaw to exit first. He then turned back to the crowd and shouted, “I’ll be back! I love you all!” He then stumbled through the door accompanied by the cheers of the patrons.

Free grinned and said, “Cocks and hens, Lord Long of the House of Path has left the building!”

Laughter accompanied his own exit from the pub.

Path stumbled along the road, basically held upright by Twilight on one side and Roseclaw on the other. Free took up Twilight’s other side to help support her. While Roseclaw had imbibed stronger drinks, she was handling it better than the tipsy Twilight whose horn occasionally flared with telekinetic power to correct Path, and occasionally herself.

The palace gate guards laughed at the sight of the quartet, but gave them no trouble in letting them in. Eventually they made it to their rooms, although barely. The alcohol and the exertion had taken their toll on all, although Free was in better shape than the other three. They decided to get Path into bed first, but the stallion was hardly able to get his forelegs onto the bed before he ran out of steam. They tried to roll him onto the bed, but the earth pony had turned into an awkward dead weight. Twilight tried lifting him with her telekinesis, but winced and groaned as her head protested. In the end it took all three of them working together to get Path up onto the bed, with Twilight taking some of the weight with magic and pulling on one foreleg, Roseclaw pulling on the other, and Free pushing from the rear. They sprawled all over the huge bed as Path slid up onto the covers.

Panting, Twilight declared, “I need to take a breather for a moment.” She laid her head on Path’s shoulder, took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“I think I’ll rest a moment too,” Roseclaw said. “It’s a long walk to my room, and after doing this, I’m worn out.” She rested her head on Path’s back.

“Great night though,” Twilight murmured.

“Yeah, really great,” Roseclaw agreed almost inaudibly.

Free looked at the three, grinned and shrugged. “I think I’ll wait to escort you to your room, Twi.”

“Uh-hmm,” was Twilight’s only response.

Free rested his head on her rump, and when she did nothing to object, he sighed happily and murmured to himself, “Now this is the way to end a great day.”

Quiet Words was surprised to find that he was the first one up this morning. Most days, Princess Sparkle had not only arisen, but showered, brushed, and made her day’s itinerary. However, he believed that she had gone out for a social evening, and perhaps needed a bit more sleep. He would call her a little later if necessary.

The other two did not need such consideration though, and he headed off to Long Path’s room to give the stallion a wake-up call. He opened the door to his room and stopped in shock when he beheld Path, Twilight, Free and Roseclaw all snuggled together, still sound asleep. He quietly closed the door again, and then went in search of breakfast.

“They didn’t train me for this in diplomat school,” he grumbled.

Brave New World by Iron Maiden - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Inyg70V-QI



Chapter 7: Never Gonna Give You Up, Never Gonna Let You Down...


It was not for nearly another hour before Twilight Sparkle blearily started opening her eyes and stretching her limbs. She was startled when they encountered resistance and she brought her eyes into focus.

“Eep!” She stared at her bed companions, trying to recall exactly how this came about. A slow blush started as the memories started trickling back, and she began extricating herself from the pile. Sliding off the bed, she hastily made for the door, quietly closing it behind her and dashing off to her own room, praying that nobody saw her.

With one eye half open, Free chuckled to himself, amused at Twilight’s reaction. Then he settled back to snooze until the others woke up.

Roseclaw stirred next. Although a little surprised at realising where she was, she nevertheless took her time extricating herself from under Path’s right foreleg. She gave him a gentle nuzzle before noticing Free watching her. He gave her a wink, and she grinned back before heading out of the bedroom.

Free gave Path another half an hour to sleep off his drinking binge, figuring that it would give Twilight enough time to make herself presentable. As he went to shake the stallion, he had an evil thought, and he giggled in anticipation.

“Path! Wakey-wakey!” Free said as he gently shook the stallion. “Time to get up.”

“Urk… wha…?” Path forced open one eye to see Free lying next to him, face to face. “What are you doing in my bed?”

“You were wonderful last night, lover,” Free replied as he nuzzled him affectionately, “but people are going to talk if we don’t get up soon.”

“WHAT?!” Path sat up in bed and then clutched his head as it throbbed painfully. “Sweet Celestia! What did I do last night?”

“Nothing that I haven’t waited to happen for a long time,” Free reassured him as he slid off the bed. “Better have a shower before coming to breakfast. You smell of last night’s fun.”

Path stared dumbstruck after the griffon as he left the room.

Free could not wipe the grin off his face. ‘That makes up for you teasing me about the Crystal Empire episode!

Quiet Words wisely refrained from making any comment that morning, and left for his duties before the others had finished breakfasting.

Free also held his tongue, but he was enjoying the awkwardness of the other two, both of whom thought they had something to hide.

Twilight and Path had plans to visit the local library this morning. This time Free did not object, knowing that they would have to go there eventually, and with both suffering from hangovers, neither was likely to be up for anything more stressful for a while. They soon left in the company of a griffon who was to be their minder and guide for the day. That left Free free to do a little more subtle exploring, although he too had to be accompanied. Roseclaw, of course, had that duty.

“So what are your plans?” she asked.

“My parents came from this country, and I want to see what the common griff does, and how life here differs from in Canterlot where I grew up. We can also fly without having to stay ground-bound because of Path. Without Path and Twi, we can just be two ordinary griffs not attracting attention while we look around.”

“As long as you have your cape on so that your cutie mark doesn’t hit them in the eye.”

“Exactly! Although they must flap around a lot when flying.”

“Yes, which is why most griffs only wear them for more formal occasions.”

“Can’t win ‘em all, I suppose. Let’s go.”

They took wing immediately after exiting the palace, and Free flapped for altitude to get a good overall look at the scenery. He observed the comings and goings of griffons for a while, trying to get an impression of where the most activity was occurring. He had other things on his mind though.

“So, what do you think of being in the House of Path?” he asked Roseclaw.

The griffoness smiled. “I rather like the idea, even if it’s just a fanciful one. We were really hitting it off together last night, all four of us, weren’t we?”

“Yeah. Once you get past Path’s reserved nature, you get a better idea of his true self, and Twilight’s social awkwardness is just too endearing. She may be the Princess of Friendship, and very good at that, but when it comes down to personal interactions, she’s like a teenage schoolfilly discovering colts for the first time.”

“I did get that impression. She’s a good ambassador, but she will never really fit into griffon society. Unlike Long Path though – he would make a good griffon.”

“And a good mate?” Free asked slyly.

Roseclaw hesitated a while before admitting, “Maybe.”

“You’ve been hooked on him since you met him in Canterlot, haven’t you?”

Roseclaw blushed and nodded. “Don’t tell Dad that. I’m the one who persuaded him to let you visit, and I had to do it without admitting that I liked Path.”

“A griffon and a pony – how shocking!” Free said facetiously.

Roseclaw poked him with a claw. “Hey! That might not be such a big deal in Equestria, but it’s hugely complicated here in Griffonia. If you think our social customs are complicated, just wait until it involves other species!”

“I believe you. My parents were both griffons, but Dad was so far outside of Mom’s status level that they had to elope to Equestria to get married. I can’t imagine what it would take for a non-griffon to do the same.”

“That’s why I like the concept of the House of Path. With enough status, it would not be such a problem.” She sighed. “However, it’s just a pleasant drunken dream. I’ll just enjoy his visit while I can.”

“Don’t give up too easily, Rose. I have an equally difficult goal, but I intend to persist.”

“You’re talking about Twilight Sparkle, aren’t you?”


“You certainly aim high.”

“I didn’t intend to aim at all. I like to spread the joy equally and without bias. I’d love to bang you, and I’ve been trying to bang Path for years. But Twi – there’s something special about her; something that’s worth the extra patience and effort.” Free looked at the griffoness earnestly. “And that’s why I say go for it! Just don’t hurt him in trying.”

Roseclaw looked thoughtful for a moment. “What if he gets hurt because he accidentally gets caught up in one of our customs?”

“Life’s a risk, Rose. Things happen sometimes that we don’t intend. I’m only talking about your own actions, and being careless with his feelings.”

“You love him too, don’t you?”

“He’s my brother in all but blood. He’s my soul-mate, his yin to my yang. I would do anything for him, and I would protect him with my life. But I can’t protect his heart, so I am asking you to be sure of what you want and not injure it.”

“I hear you, Free, and I understand. I wish you luck with your own goal.”

“Thanks. Now that that’s cleared up, let’s start checking out the locals. I wanna shake ’em up Free-style!” He turned into a dive towards the ground.

With a smile at his impulsiveness, Roseclaw followed.

It had taken time and a dose of the local hangover remedy before either Twilight or Path felt up to speed, but before long they were absorbed in their research. Twilight was slowed down because of her lack of familiarity with Griffish script, but Path was quite willing to help. Nevertheless they were making some interesting discoveries that gave clues on how an apex predator species developed a cohesive society which was capable of building cities. They almost had to be dragged away to partake in a late lunch organised by their guide.

They had almost finished and were discussing what they would tackle next when a messenger arrived.

“You have been summoned by King Glimfeather,” the griffon soldier said curtly to Path. “You are to attend him immediately. I will take you to his chamber.”

“What’s going on?” Twilight asked.

“That is for the king to explain.”

“I’m coming with Long Path,” Twilight declared.

The griffon shrugged. “If his Majesty permits, you may join him.”

They walked hastily in the company of the messenger, and were shown into a private chamber where the king was waiting, along with a couple of soldiers standing alert at either side of the room, and another caped griffon standing by the king’s side, a scowl on his face. Also there were Roseclaw and Free, and the griffoness looked upset about something. Glimfeather made no indication that he objected to Twilight’s presence, so she stayed while the messenger bowed and exited the room.

Glimfeather smiled and said, “I hear that the House of Path made quite an impression last night.”

Path’s ears folded back and he gave the king a nervous smile. “Er, yes, your Majesty, although I hasten to add that it was all in good fun. Just a drunken jest at the time. I meant no harm by it.”

“Hmm, I realise that, but it’s a pity that it’s only that, or else we would not be here right now for far more grave matters. Lieutenant Ravenwing here witnessed something that requires addressing.” He looked to the griffon waiting impatiently at his side.

Ravenwing’s feathers were uniformly glossy black, with only his beak and feet showing any colour. His feline half though was snowy white, right down to the tail tuft. The pied griffon stepped forward and said, “I am Ravenwing, Lieutenant in his Majesty’s army, warrior caste and ruling caste, House of Glimfeather. I challenge you, Long Path, to an honour duel.”

“What?!” Why?” Path was flabbergasted by this turn of events.

“You, a mere scholar of low rank, and status only granted as part of your princess’ diplomatic team, have dared to become suitor to Roseclaw, and I will not have a mere pony mocking my own suit. I demand satisfaction in an honour duel!”

“Suitor? What are you talking about? I did no such thing!”

“Ravenwing claims otherwise,” Glimfeather said gravely. “He tells me that you claimed Roseclaw while at the public tavern last night.”

“You mean that drunken talk? You can’t be serious? How does that make me her suitor anyway?”

Glimfeather started to look annoyed, but before he could say anything, Roseclaw stepped forward.

“Your Majesty, Long Path is not fully aware of our customs and their ramifications. I request a ten minute break so that I can explain the situation to him, and he can therefore respond appropriately.”

Ravenwing looked like he was going to object, but the king nodded and said, “I will grant it.”

“Come on, Path,” Roseclaw said, heading for the door.

Path followed, and so did Free and Twilight, closing the door behind them. They then grouped in an alcove across the hall.

“What in Tartarus is going on? How am I suddenly a suitor to you?” Path demanded.

“It was because of last night,” Roseclaw replied glumly. “When you claimed me and kissed me in front of all those witnesses, you were in effect presenting your suit for my claw in marriage, according to our customs. My fault was that I did not reject it in front of those witnesses. By not rejecting your claim, by default I was accepting you as a suitor.”

“Is that all? Why didn’t you just knock me back? It’s not as if I would have minded, under the circumstances.”

“I was a bit drunk too,” she reminded him. “And besides, I liked the idea of you being my suitor.”

Path was a little startled at that admission. “Oh. Um… well I suppose that would be nice, but now I had better withdraw my claim and let your real coltfriend… or whatever you call it here… have you back.”

“He’s not my coltfriend. He presented his suit formally, and I had to accept it.”

“What?!” Twilight exclaimed. “You’re being forced to marry him?”

“No, not that. I only had to accept him as a suitor because he had the rank and status that exceeded mine. I do not have to accept his suit though, and I never will. I don’t like him, and he’s only using me as a means to help increase his own status.”

“Then he sees me just as competition for his goals rather than being a jealous coltfriend?”


“Well anyway, as I said, I will have to withdraw my claim so that this stupid honour duel can be forgotten.”

“You can’t.”

“And why not?”

“Because there would be drastic consequences.”

“Go on,” Path urged.

“By withdrawing your claim, you would be admitting that yours was inferior, and you would lose status.”

“Ha! As if I care!” Path scoffed.

“It would also reflect poorly on your mission here, putting it into jeopardy, along with the talks that Twilight has been having with the King’s Council.”

“Oh. That’s not so good,” Path admitted.

“It also means that I would be regarded as making poor decisions about my choice of suitors, and I would lose status also.”

“That’s seems unfair to me.”

“It gets worse. Because Ravenwing is already my suitor, and his status then so much greater than mine while my ability to choose is considered questionable, he has the option of forcing me to marry him.”

“Oh, crap. Forget it then. What if I just reject his challenge?”

“You can’t. He has custom on his side, and he has obviously drawn on his relationship to the king to get support. He’s House of Glimfeather, remember?”

“The king has always seemed pretty reasonable to me; can’t he just tell Ravenwing to pull his head in? I get the impression that he realises that we were just having a bit of drunken fun last night, and not taking things seriously.”

“He probably would do that for most griffs, but Ravenwing is warrior caste, and as I’ve said, the king has to listen to his warriors. As War Leader, if he doesn’t listen, he may get deposed, and he won’t let Ravenwing stir up trouble among the warriors just over this.”

“Damn! What if I just ask Ravenwing to withdraw his challenge due to a misunderstanding on my part?”

“He won’t. He uses honour duels to frighten off any other prospective suitors. He’s a vicious fighter, and anygriff who has fought with him has come away in bad condition. I have only had two potential suitors duel him since he presented his suit. One was maimed, and the other died.”

“A duel over this is to the death?!” exclaimed Twilight incredulously.

“No, it’s to the bloodletting or maiming, and Ravenwing always chooses the latter. However, he had inflicted so many other grievous injuries before the maiming that the duellist ended up dying anyway. Now no griff dares show interest in me. He has manipulated the circumstances so that I either marry him or no griff at all.”

“So my choices are to either refuse the challenge and basically be a liability to everyone, or accept the challenge and try to beat him?”

“Weren’t you listening? I told you, he’s a vicious fighter. How can you hope to win against him? He can fly and he has talons that will rip you to pieces!”

“Don’t underestimate me, Rose. There’s a reason that ponies have won the wars against the griffons after all.”

“They had unicorns and pegasi on their side though!” Roseclaw objected.

“Pegasi can fly, and unicorns can strike from a distance, but earth ponies were always the strength of the army,” Path said firmly, turning away to head back to the chamber.

“Twilight, tell him to be sensible and not fight,” Roseclaw pleaded.

“I don’t have that right, Roseclaw. I don’t like it, but it’s his choice to make.” She followed him with a grim look on her face.

Free murmured to Roseclaw, “What did I say earlier about putting him into danger?”

Roseclaw looked forlorn. “I didn’t know Ravenwing was there. No other griff would have cared.”

“The damage is done. Let’s hope that Path knows what he’s doing.”

They all gathered back in the king’s chamber and Path stepped up to the black and white griffon and said, “You are full of shit, Ravenwing, but I accept your challenge.”

“Mind the insults, pony!” Ravenwing said with a scowl.

“What are you going to do? Fight another duel over it? You can kill me only once, if you can even manage that!”

The griffon fumed, but Path noticed that the king seemed to be trying not to smile. It seemed he had taken the right tack in his response. “So, when do we do this?”

“Immediately,” Glimfeather replied. The arena will be informed of your duel, and events suspended.”

“There are more fights going on today?” Free asked curiously.

“The arena is used every day. Yesterday’s tournament was just a major event on the calendar,” Roseclaw answered.

Glimfeather said, “The duel will begin in an hour. You have until then to get there and prepare yourself. You are all dismissed.”

The foursome trooped out, and immediately began to exit the palace to head for the arena.

“Do you need anything to prepare yourself, Path?” Twilight asked.

“I’ve just had lunch a short time ago, so I’m neither hungry nor thirsty. I don’t think that there’s anything else that I can do except prepare myself mentally.”

“Do you know any fighting moves at all?” Roseclaw asked.

“I’m not a warrior, Rose, but I might have a surprise for Ravenwing.”

The rest of the journey was made in stony silence. Because she had not been with the others yesterday, only Twilight was interested in the arena, and that only in an impersonal way. The concept of a venue that was purely intended for fighting disgusted her.

They found themselves expected, and were ushered to a section of private seating that was apparently reserved for the House of Glimfeather. As neither the king nor Ravenwing were constrained by the need to walk, both were there already and waiting for them. They were allowed to seat themselves while a fight in progress continued. It was still well before the appointed time, and Twilight had to try to ignore the combat as best as she could.

“This is so barbaric,” she muttered almost inaudibly.

Roseclaw heard her though and said, “This is disciplined fighting. The duel will be worse though. There are no rules to obey then. Whatever happens, you must not interfere in any manner whatsoever. You would only make things worse for everyone.”

Twilight reluctantly nodded.

The fight eventually concluded, and there was a long pause before the duel drum started pounding to announce the upcoming honour duel. The crowd quieted and Ravenwing flew down into the arena, discarding his status cape which fluttered to the floor. When Long Path also made his way down via steps, the crowd started muttering in surprise and speculation. The announcer flew down to join them, and lifted his magically enhanced megaphone to his beak.

“An honour duel has been declared! Ravenwing, House of Glimfeather, has claimed that his suit for Roseclaw, House of Strikewing, has been mocked by a counter-suit by an earth pony named Long Path. Ravenwing disputes Long Path’s right to be a suitor, and challenges him to an honour duel to the maiming. Long Path – do you withdraw your suit?”

“I do not.”

“Ravenwing, do you withdraw your challenge?”

“I do not!”

“The law does not allow an alternative, therefore the honour duel is formally declared. You will fight until one of you has been judged to be maimed. Take position on opposite sides of the arena, and begin when the duel drum is struck.”

Path turned and trotted to one side, while Ravenwing flew over to the other. When the announcer returned to his umpire’s chair, there was a tense moment before he raised his flag, then dropped it again, the duel drum signalling the start of combat.

Ravenwing wasted no time in starting his attack. He leaped into the air and beat his wings in a charge. Path was not about to wait for him though, and galloped off at a tangent. The griffon adjusted his trajectory and closed the gap, but Path dodged to one side at the last moment. Talons scraped one shoulder, but barely drew blood. Ravenwing wheeled around rapidly for another charge, and Path threw on the brakes, making the griffon overshoot. This time though, Ravenwing landed and immediately bounded back into the air, making a much quicker turnaround. Try as he might, Path could not dodge fast enough, and he screamed in pain as long gouges were left in his back.

The griffon flapped high into the air and laughed. “Poor pony! No wings! No claws! Too slow! How did you dare think you were worthy of Roseclaw? You are pathetic!”

Path gritted his teeth and ignored the pain in his back and the blood streaming from his wounds. “You talk a good fight, birdbrain, but I’m not done yet!”

The griffon gave a raptor scream of anger and dived at the earth pony. With too little room or time to dodge, Path resorted to the defensive spell that he had used against Free when he was the Alicorn of Awesomeness. He threw up his forelegs, focused the magic in his hooves, and braced himself. Unfortunately the spell was made to defend against energy attacks and had little effect on Ravenwing’s charge. The griffon slammed into Path’s legs and he felt the snap of bone in one. The pain was blinding, and he collapsed to the floor. Gasping and trying to stave off the agony, Path became aware of Ravenwing gloating again.

“Not mocking me now, are you, pathetic pony? How did you think to fight a griffon warrior? You should have refused the challenge and run away like the useless, weak creature you are.”

Path struggled to his hooves, his left foreleg hanging uselessly. “Are you trying to talk me to death, loudbeak?”

Some griff in the crowd started shouting, “House of Path! House of Path!” Immediately, another voice joined him, then more and more. Soon, half the crowd was chanting in support of the defiant pony.

Ravenwing snarled and swooped down. Path tried to dodge, but talons raked his body once more. Again and again, the griffon turned and strafed the pony with his wicked natural knives.

Ravenwing was just playing with him now, softening him up for the maiming strike, intending to leave him bleeding and helpless, perhaps to die like the other unfortunate challenger. However, the griffon had grown overconfident and careless, believing that Path could do him no harm. It was time for the griffon to learn otherwise.

Path had realised that his one chance of winning this fight was to lull Ravenwing into a false sense of security. He had deliberately not done his best to dodge the last attacks, although the broken leg had been unplanned. Now the griffon was attacking much more slowly, giving Path the opportunity to set up his secret weapon. There was more than one unicorn spell that he had learned to modify for use by earth ponies, and as Ravenwing came at him for another strafing run, Path spun around on his one good foreleg and crouched to buck.

Ravenwing laughed at the sight, knowing full well that he would be well out of range of those hooves as he flew over the pony. However, he did not anticipate those hooves glowing bright green with magic power.

Path bucked, but although all he struck was air, a thunderous boom was heard, and a huge shockwave slammed into the griffon. Ravenwing was knocked aside, feathers flying, struggling to regain control. He dazedly tried to reorient himself and get back into the attack, but Path had made his best speed to place himself in a strategic position to repeat his assault. Again his hooves thundered, and this time Ravenwing was slammed by the shockwave into the arena wall, his head impacting sharply on the stone. The griffon slid down the wall, ending up on his back, barely conscious.

Path hobbled over to the griffon and stood over his twitching opponent. “You demanded that this was to be to the maiming? Very well, so be it.” He reared up and then brought down the full weight of his right hoof on the bone of Ravenwing’s left wing, close to the shoulder joint. The griffon screamed as it broke, and struggled to get up again. Path knocked him back down with a blow to the head. “That wing will heal, but this won’t.” Again he reared up, but this time his hoof was charged again with magic, and it slammed down on the right wing this time. There was a small boom, and the wing was reduced to a bloody pulp. Immediately the duel drum echoed the boom, signalling the end to the duel.

The crowd roared, screeched and pounded the floor in applause as Path turned away from his defeated foe. Path mused that Ravenwing was apparently somewhat less than popular. He hobbled over to Ravenwing’s discarded cape, picked it up and threw it over his back, grunting in pain as it slapped his wounds. Then he made his way over to where the king was watching intently.

“I claim victory!” Path shouted as strongly as he could before sinking to the floor in exhaustion.

The medics had come into the arena by now, half attending to Ravenwing, while the others headed for Path. Before they got there, both Roseclaw, Free, and Twilight flew down to him.

“You magnificent pony!” Roseclaw exclaimed, cradling his head to nuzzle him. “I accept your suit.”

Twilight’s horn lit up, and she said to the medics, “Let me at him, please. I can use a healing spell to stop the bleeding.”

Path felt a warmth spread across his body, and the sting and pain from the gouges eased dramatically. Looking around, he saw the weeping wounds magically close up, staunching the flow of his lifeblood. Then he yelped as his broken leg was brought into alignment and fused together.

“There, that takes care of the worst of it,” Twilight declared. “Keep off that leg for a few days to give it a chance to completely fuse and regain its full strength. Also, you’ve lost a lot of blood, and I can’t do anything about that, so take it really easy for a few weeks.”

One of the medics spoke up. “Princess Sparkle, we have a medicine that promotes blood replacement. He should be up a lot sooner than that.”

Remembering Zecora’s amazing medicines, Twilight realised that they probably had something similar in their repertoire. Considering their penchant for fighting, it should hardly be surprising that they had developed treatments for blood loss. It was a pity that combat should be the stimulus for innovation though.

With Path fully treated, they brought out a wheelchair for him, and Twilight levitated him into it.

Glimfeather stood up and announced in his booming voice, “Long Path of Equestria, you have won honourably this day. I congratulate you, Thunderhooves. You will attend my court first thing tomorrow morning.” The king then flew out of the arena, along with his retinue.

Free started pushing the wheelchair to follow suit. He had purposely not said anything up until this time so that the others would not hear how choked up with emotion that he was just then. However, he did manage to say, “These griffs are going to remember this day forever.”

“They’d better!” Path responded with a tired smile. “I’ve no intention of doing this ever again!”

“How did you do it?” Twilight asked.

“A simple unicorn percussive spell adapted for use by earth ponies utilising the magic focused in my hooves. It relies on touching nothing but the air, but sends a shockwave that is very powerful, as you saw for yourself.”

“Exactly like thunder. The king nicknamed you well. That’s a remarkable achievement, and I’m extremely impressed. You will have to show me exactly how you do it so that I can document it.”

“Of course. While we’re at it, remind me to perfect a defensive spell against kinetic attacks. One broken leg is enough, thank you!”

Twilight giggled. “I’ll do that.”

Path then turned to face Roseclaw. “I was a bit dizzy back then, but did I hear you correctly when you said that you accepted my suit?”

“You did,” she said with a huge smile.

“Then that means we’re….?”

“Betrothed,” she finished for him.

“Do I get any say in this?”

“As you haven’t had a chance to recant your suit, no.”

“Isn’t this moving a bit too fast though?”

Roseclaw shook her head. “I know what I want in a mate, and what I want is you. Don’t worry – this is only a betrothal. We have as much time as it takes for us to get to know each other better, and when you’re ready, then we can get married.”

Path considered this calmly until he realised that his emotions were already sealing the deal. “That seems like a good plan to me.”

Behind him, Free silently pumped his fisted talons, and yelled in his head, ‘YES!

Long Path had eaten a big dinner – with a huge steak of course. “Red meat will help blood recovery,” he claimed, but while that was true, no one doubted that it was a victory meal. He retired early to recuperate from his ordeal.

He woke up to find Roseclaw spooned up to him behind his back. Craning his neck around, he saw her open her eyes, apparently woken by his movement. “Couldn’t find your bed last night?” he asked.

“I think I found the right one,” Roseclaw replied.

“We’re not married yet.”

“We’re betrothed. Close enough.”

“What will others think though?”

“Who cares? Yesterday you established your right by combat. You have nothing more to prove.”

“Except perhaps to the king? I have to see him this morning.”

“No, nothing, my warrior,” she reassured him.

“Um, okay, if you say so. I think I’d better get up now though.” He tried to do so, but slumped down very quickly. “I seem to be weak as a kitten.”

“It’s the healing spells – they take a lot of energy from you. Once you get some breakfast into you, you’ll start to feel stronger. Stay right there and I’ll bring it to you.”

She scrambled off the bed and headed out of the bedroom.

Life’s never going to be the same,’ Path mused while he waited.

He managed to prop himself up in bed before Roseclaw returned with a tray loaded with breakfast including loads of bacon and eggs, and a huge mug of coffee. She waited patiently while he finished it all off before saying, “Get into the wheel chair, and I’ll take you to the bathroom to freshen up. I think a shower might be a bit too much for you yet, but at least you can look presentable for the king.”

Yep, life’s going to be very different now,’ Path concluded.

Path arrived at the king’s court well in time, along with Roseclaw, Twilight, and Free. One of the royal guard informed them that they would be the first order of business, and they were placed near the throne to await the king’s arrival. They did not have to wait too long before Glimfeather made an appearance, but to the group’s surprise, he was accompanied by Ravenwing whose wings were heavily bandaged. The king settled on his throne, and Ravenwing stood to his left.

The group bowed to the king, Path doing his best from the confines of the wheelchair.

“Long Path step… er… roll forward,” Glimfeather commanded.

As Path did so, Ravenwing looked ready to burst from fury. “Your Majesty! The pony dares wear my cape! Make him give it back to me!”

For the first time, the group saw the king truly angry, and he rounded on the pied griffon. “Shut your beak, fool! You have lost your rank, and your status. Would you lose your honour also? You do my House a grave disservice. Get out!”

A pair of royal guards hustled the foolish griffon out of the throne room, and they were to never to see him again.

Glimfeather turned back to Path, once more with a smile on his face. “Thunderhooves, you have won the right to take Ravenwing’s cape as your prize, but I cannot allow you to wear it. It proclaims that the wearer belongs to the House of Glimfeather, and you do not.”

“I understand, your Majesty.” Path started taking it off, but Roseclaw stepped in to assist him.

“Besides,” the king continued, “you can’t wear two capes at the same time. I had this commissioned for you.”

He made a gesture, and a servant stepped forth with a folded cape on a tray. Roseclaw took it from him and let it unfold to show both Path and the rest of the group. It was tri-coloured, with broad swathes of purple, green, and red. A heraldic style shield was in its middle, split into four sectors. In each corner was a silhouette stitched in silver thread – two griffons and two ponies. Various other symbols adorned the cape in gold thread.

“Because you are possibly unfamiliar with some of the aspects, I will explain,” Glimfeather continued once more. “An honour duel is winner-takes-all. What was once Ravenwing’s is now yours. You defeated a warrior, and that makes you one of the warrior caste also, represented by the bright red cloth. He was also of the ruling caste, and he forfeited that too. That is represented by the royal purple. And of course the green is that of the scholar caste. You have acquired his rank also, and are entitled to command as a lieutenant in the Royal Griffonian army.”

“Your Majesty – I… I did not expect this,” Path said, bewildered by his sudden promotion.

“Obviously, but your avowed purpose for coming here was to learn more about our ways and customs. You took a rather drastic means to educate yourself, but now you get to reap the rewards. However, I am not finished yet.”

“Oh. My apologies, your Majesty.”

“Two nights ago, you proclaimed the House of Path, and claimed Roseclaw, Princess Sparkle, and Free Agent as yours. Today I am making that official. As of this day, the House of Path is added to the roster of Noble Houses of Griffonia, and you four are its founding members. The shield on your cape is your new House’s standard. Let it signify the new bonds formed between Equestria and Griffonia. May you bring much honour to us all!”

The assembled soldiers in the court gave a rousing cheer, and Path felt overwhelmed by emotion. Then he felt pained as Roseclaw hugged him fervently, Free shook his hoof enthusiastically, and even Twilight patted him on the back before remembering the barely healed wounds.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Path said as soon as he could extricate himself from Roseclaw.

“My pleasure, Lord Long Path. Now, I think it’s best that you attend to your new House and its members. I have other business to attend that may not be as enjoyable, but won’t be kept waiting.”

The group bowed once more and made their way out of the throne room.

Once outside, Roseclaw said, “You know, you now have enough rank and status to order me to marry you, and I couldn’t say no.”

Path grinned. “Impatient, are we? Not going to happen, dear.”

Roseclaw didn’t care – he had called her ‘dear’.

The door of the pub burst open from a telekinetic shove, and Free bounded inside.

“Announcing his Lordship, Long Path, and the members of the House of Path!” he bellowed.

Lots of startled patrons turned their eyes to the door just as Path was pushed inside gleefully by Roseclaw, with a grinning Twilight providing magical special effects.

Path held up his forelegs to command quiet, and then addressed them all. “I said that I would return, and I have kept my word. Today we celebrate! Now who’s thirsty?”

There was a roar from the crowd, and the group was herded inside. The bar staff smiled widely. Tonight was going to be a good night!



Chapter 8: Romancing the Alicorn


Fortunately for everyone, but especially for Path, the next few days were relatively uneventful. While he was still recovering, Path spent a lot of time in the library doing research, but on the first day, it was Roseclaw who kept him company.

“It’s your turn to go out and meet the common griff,” Path had told Twilight. “The pub was a great start, but as much fun as that is, it’s not the only aspect of their lives that we’ve come to study, and you should be getting some impressions of your own. Besides, I don’t think that I could persuade Rose to leave my care to somepony, or somegriff else right now.”

Roseclaw did not say anything, but merely fixed her gaze on Twilight with one eyebrow lifted in question: ‘Do you want to argue with me?

Twilight took the hint and spent the day in the company of Free for a change, and she ended up in places she never would have dreamed of seeing otherwise. It left her quite thoughtful as they made their way back to the castle that afternoon.

Free had been delighted to be able to spend the day with Twilight. He made it a point to find those aspects of the griffon society that would most pique her interest. Not all of the things that they learned that day were aspects that they liked, but they did provide valuable data on how to better understand the griffons here as opposed to the Equestrian citizens, and Twilight was already working on a paper in her head. In other words, she was a very happy pony right now, and a happy Twilight Sparkle made for a very happy Free Agent.

The second day, Roseclaw decreed that Path was recovered enough to do some light touring, and she would take him to places that she thought would intrigue him, so Twilight was allowed to work in the library, partly to do more research, and partly to start writing up her findings. While Path did get to see a lot of new sights, it was the fact that he was so readily recognized and welcomed virtually wherever he went that was the most surprising.

“I think my notoriety might be skewing many of my observations on your culture, Rose,” he told her later that afternoon.

“I’m sure you’re right, dear, but it also highlights a significant point about us.”

“And that is…?”

“Once you are accepted by us, it’s wholehearted and unreserved. Aside from the fools like Ravenwing, you will forever be regarded as a true griffon. You have in one fell swoop gained an enormous amount of honor and status, and in a spectacular manner that was witnessed by a great crowd. When we start putting the House of Path together, we are going to get flocks of griffs who will want to join our House. The fact that you are a pony has become irrelevant.”

“Yes, I get that feeling too. Putting together a noble House seems both exciting and daunting though.”

“A new House being created rarely happens. We have to decide a lot of things such as our charter, our goals, the type of griffs we want joining...”

“Or the type of ponies,” Path added.

“That too. So you’re still thinking of opening an auxiliary branch in Equestria?”

“Of course. This whole venture started as a quest to better understand and make friends with other species. While the Griffonian and Equestrian Houses will likely each just take the local race initially as they get established, it will be expected that they will soon interchange freely between the two nations. A House Path griffon in Equestria will be equal to a House Path pony in Griffonia, or any other race that joins in the future. We will lead by example!”

Roseclaw smiled. “And you say that you are daunted? You are already so far ahead of what I have been considering. You dream big, Long Path.”

Path blushed a little. “And I also still get a bit preachy. However, I do have big plans, and I hope that perhaps we can make a difference in this world.”

Roseclaw leaned over to nuzzle him. “You already do.”

One other thing had changed for Path – he did not get to sleep alone any more. Although he was adamant that he and Roseclaw should get to know each other a lot more before becoming intimate, she was equally adamant that she would share his bed at night, if only for sleeping. Path found that his heart was not into disagreeing with her, and he had to admit that he found her to be a comforting presence at night.

Thus Roseclaw was there sharing breakfast with the others on the morning of the third day when a strange ringing bell sound started coming from Twilight’s room.

“What’s that bell?” Roseclaw asked. “I don’t know of anything in these quarters that could make that sound.”

Twilight got up from the table. “It’s an alert from my Talkie Trottie. Excuse me, please.” She headed off to her room.

“What’s a Talkie Trottie?” she asked bewilderedly.

“It’s a magical communications device that Twilight invented,” Path answered. “I think Talkie Walkie is a better name for it, although Prince Shining Armor insists on just calling it a comm. The stallion has no imagination!”

“Either name means nothing to me. More explanation, please.”

“It’s a means of talking to people over enormous distances. There’s another that has been left with Princess Celestia so that she can contact Twilight immediately in an emergency. The ringing bell is a secondary spell that is activated when the other TT unit is used, and makes a ringing bell sound. That way no pony has to have it with them all the time, or have someone awake every moment in case a call comes in.”

“That’s a sensible idea.”

“Yeah, I wish I’d thought of it.”

“So who did?”

“Um... Shining Armor.”

“The stallion with no imagination?” Roseclaw said pointedly.

“Ah... yeah,” Path admitted with embarrassment.

“So, what do you think Princess Celestia is calling about?”

Path shook his head. “I have no idea other than it must be very serious. They agreed that they would not use the device for idle chatter.”

Twilight re-entered the room just then, the TT device held to her ear in the glow of her magic. She had a frown on her face as she listened to whatever Celestia was saying. Then she shifted it to speak into it.

“How sure are they that it’s her? We’ve had false alarms before.”

Twilight listened to the reply, and then sighed.

“I understand – it’s certainly not worth the risk. I’ll start preparations immediately. Goodbye, Celestia.”

Free said, “What’s up, Twi?”

Twilight replied glumly, “I’ve been recalled to Equestria. It seems that there has been some reliable intelligence that Queen Chrysalis is about to make some sort of attack on the Crystal Empire. We suspect that information on the effects of the Crystal Heart on changelings may have leaked out, and she seeks to control that power.”

“Didn’t the news that it would burn out a changeling also leak out?” Path asked.

Twilight shrugged. “Who knows? She either she doesn’t know, doesn’t believe it, or reckons that she can control it safely. In any case, her army can wreak a lot of havoc in the attempt, and Celestia wants me to join the other Harmony Bearers in supporting the defense. So I have to leave immediately for Equestria.”

“What about the barrier?” Free asked. “I know it was pretty damn solid to m... um... to changelings.”

“Cadance and Shining Armor have already started modifying it for the purposes of allowing authorized and controlled visits as recommended in the report. It’s possible that something has gone wrong, or even that she has found a way around it. Considering how the Crystal Heart powers them up, it’s not a possibility that we can afford to ignore.”

“But we haven’t even come close to completing our mission here!” Path objected.

“I know, but you don’t have to go back with me. You can stay and keep working on your project.”

“It’s our project, Twilight. You’re just as big a part of it now as me. All of us are.”

The alicorn smiled a little sadly. “I know, but sometimes there are higher priorities and obligations. I’ll return as soon as I can, or if I can’t, I will be waiting eagerly for your return to hear what you’ve learned. I’ve got to send word now for Captain Fairweather to prepare the dirigible and its crew for immediate departure.”

Twilight then trotted hastily out of the room.

“Well this sucks!” Free said emphatically.

Path considered his friend’s displeasure at the turn of events, and grinned. “Why don’t you go back with her, Free?”

“Huh? I can’t abandon you. I’m here to help you with this project just as much as Twilight was.”

“Yes, but I have Rose to help me until you return. However, I reckon that Twilight is going to need a little company on the journey back, don’t you think?”

Free stared at Path for a long moment before he burst out laughing. “I can’t believe you are setting me up with a girl. Oh you’re awesome, mate!”

“Just promise me one thing, Free.”


“Make her happy.”

“That’s what I do best! And may I suggest you do the same in my absence?”

Path looked up at Roseclaw who smiled back at him. “Already working on it, Free.”

Immediately nevertheless took a few hours as crew were recalled from shore leave, and the dirigible prepared for its journey. Twilight used the time to gather her notes and take her formal leave from King Glimfeather’s court.

It was therefore late morning before the dirigible hove into sight above the city and Twilight made her final farewell to the others. “I’m leaving the Talkie Trottie with you so that I can keep you up to date once I get back to Equestria. I’ll call every day, I promise.”

“We’ll be thinking of you, Twilight,” Path said, stepping up to give her a hug.

Roseclaw followed suit. “May fair winds follow you, House Sister.”

Twilight looked around. “Where’s Free?”

Path pointed up. “He’s up there waiting for you. Perhaps he wants to give you a more personal send-off?”

“Oh. Alright. I hope he realizes that I intend to teleport up there.”

“I’m certain you won’t miss him,” Path said confidently.

“Okay, I had better be going.” She stood there for a moment before adding, “Huh! I didn’t think it was going to be this hard to leave.” Her horn lit up, and with a pop of air rushing in to fill the void, she was gone.

Twilight materialized on the observation deck, and was a little surprised to find Free already there waiting for her. She smiled and said, “So you did guess that I’d teleport up here.”

“You had intended to teleport down when we arrived, so it wasn’t a big leap to guess that you’d want to teleport back up.”

“Logical – I like that. Anyway, I get to say goodbye to you too now.”

“No need, babe. I’m going with you,” he replied with a grin.

“Huh? Why? Won’t Path miss you?”

“Path knows and approves. As for why, I have lots of reasons. For starters, you’re part of House Path now, and we don’t abandon each other. Path has Rose, and you get me. Secondly, I think that you’d appreciate the company on the way back. Sure, there are some good ponies on the crew, but they are on duty and shouldn’t be fraternizing, even if I think that’s a pretty silly rule. But thirdly, I want to spend some time with you, Twi.”

Twilight’s ears pinked a little at the latter. “Um... well, that’s nice. I mean, I have a lot of work to do, but I would appreciate the company when I’m not doing that.”

“Just ask. I’m here for you anytime.”

“Right. Well, I had better check in with Captain Fairweather. Talk to you later!”

Twilight hustled inside, leaving the griffon satisfied. ‘She didn’t teleport me off the airship, so that’s a good start.’ He went to the railing and looked down to the castle courtyard. With his griffon far-sight, he picked out Path and Roseclaw still standing in the castle forecourt. He waved farewell to them, and apparently Roseclaw was watching just as keenly for she waved back, immediately followed by Path who was cued by his fiancée.

Okay, Free, you have a couple of days to do this, so better get it right. It might be the biggest change in your life in years, and maybe the second-most important one. I have a promise to keep to Path too.’ He waved one last time before turning to go inside. ‘I’m going to miss you dearly, Thunderhooves.

Twilight busied herself with her notes and writing up her observations and speculations so far. She started working in her cabin, but just as it had on the journey to Griffonia, it rapidly grew stuffy and uncomfortable, and later that afternoon, she moved out to the observation deck. Unsurprisingly, she found Free there already, painting once again. She had not anticipated seeing Captain Fairweather there though, posing for a formal portrait.

“Good afternoon, Your Highness,” she greeted the alicorn.

“Hello, Captain. What’s going on?”

“I requested a portrait from Free Agent that I plan to give as a present to a special somepony,” the mare replied.

“You mean Quiet Words?”

“I see that I have been less than discreet. It seems everypony knows of our relationship.”

“I have no objection to it, and it’s none of my business anyway.”

Free said, “Hey, Cap! Stop stiffening up! You want this to be a portrait or a mug-shot?”

Twilight hastened to add, “Don’t pay any attention to me. I just want some fresh air while I work.”

“It’s not surprising that you don’t like the confines of your cabin,” Fairweather replied. “Neither Princess Celestia nor Princess Luna enjoys prolonged stays in there.”

Twilight gave her a look filled with curiosity. “Oh? Why is that? It’s certainly a very comfortable room, obviously built for important passengers.”

“Because you are an alicorn. You are part pegasus, and whether you are thinking of it or not, you are up in the air and yearning to fly.”

“I’ve never thought of it like that.”

“Ma’am, I’m an earth pony, and all I have ever wanted to do since I was a filly was to fly. I can only imagine how much more that urge must be to one who has wings.”

Twilight flexed hers for a moment. “You may be right. I think that I take these for granted sometimes. It’s been years since I ascended and gained these, but I couldn’t wait to learn how to fly properly back then. Now it seems I never have the time to do so.”

Free put his paintbrush down and said, “I’m not going to be able to finish the portrait this afternoon, Cap. Wanna pick this up again tomorrow?”

Fairweather nodded. “It’s about time that I went back and checked up on our status anyway. A captain’s work is never done. I’ll see you at dinner time, Your Highness.” The mare then left the observation deck.

Free started cleaning up and packing away his art materials while Twilight carefully arranged her notes and journal.

“She’s right, y’know?” Free said.

“About flying, you mean?”

“Yep. I’ve been feeling the need myself. We’ve all been too ground-bound lately mostly because of Path. Back in Canterlot, I probably walked more than any other griffon who lived there for the very same reason. Not that I minded, but still it takes away from fulfilling that need to feel the wind in your feathers. In fact, that’s exactly what you should do right now.”

“What? But I have work to do!”

“It’ll keep, and you need time just for yourself occasionally. Put away those books, Twi. We’re going for a flight.”

“Right now?”

“Yep! Right this moment!” He grasped one foreleg, and urged her over to the railing. “Go on, you know you wanna. Or do I have to do to you what I did to Path?”

Twilight looked at Free with a mock glare. “Don’t you dare!” She then spread her wings and took off.

Free immediately followed suit, and as they turned to fly in the same direction as the dirigible, they passed a startled guard pegasus who had been stationed out of sight of the deck. “Tell the captain that we’re going for a joyflight if she asks,” Free shouted to the guard.

Free caught up to Twilight, but let her set the course. He looked at her, and realized that she had closed her eyes and had a smile on her face. ‘Yeah, you’ve missed this.

For a while they just flew ahead of the airship until Free suggested that they fly a bit higher.

“I don’t want to lose sight of the dirigible,” Twilight objected.

“Don’t worry, babe, I won’t lose track of it. Just have some fun.”

Twilight did as he urged, and started climbing, banking and diving, closely shadowed by the griffon. Without interfering with her exuberance, he subtly kept her moving in a westerly direction, keeping them in the vicinity of the airship. Then he did a little showing-off of his own, demonstrating his own aerial skills, playfully tagging Twilight and trying to keep out of her reach as she tried to tag him back. Minutes turned to hours before the duo finally settled down on a cloud to rest.

Twilight panted hard, but she had a smile glued to her face. Free lapped up the happiness that she was radiating, replenishing the energy that he had spent on the exciting flight.

“That was wonderful. I don’t think that I have had so much fun just flying for years,” Twilight said when she caught her breath.

“Y’know, I think I can say the same thing.”

“You’re a very good flyer. I know that I’m only an average flyer myself, although that is enough for me usually.”

“You didn’t have wings from birth, so you’ve done quite well, I reckon. Who did you get to teach you?”

“One of my best friends is Rainbow Dash, the best flyer in Equestria. She made it her goal to get me airworthy.”

“How did that work out?”

Twilight giggled. “You want to know how many times I made a one-point landing?”


Twilight raised a hoof to her nose. “Yeah – face-first!”

Free chuckled. “I think she should have told you how to make landings before getting you up in the air.”

“Yeah. Not that her flying instructions were much help either.”

“Why? What were they like?”

“Oh, for example, she would say things like ‘you have to flap your wings real hard’, and then I would end up smashing into a tree.”

Free laughed. “I would have loved to have been watching that. I don’t think much of her as a flying instructor though.”

Twilight smiled ruefully. “True. She is such a good, natural flyer that she really doesn’t understand how she does it, so she isn’t good at communicating how to do it to a learner. I ended up going to flight school with a class of foals to get some real instruction. Don’t you dare tell her that though! She still thinks she was the one who taught me to fly properly.”

“Don’t worry, Twi. My beak is sealed.”

“Thanks. How about you? Did being a changeling affect you when learning to fly?”

“Well, I certainly didn’t know I was a changeling back then, and it was a long time ago, so I don’t recall everything, but I was a bit of a precocious learner. Just like griffon parents have done for centuries, he used to take me out regularly as a young chick on a training leash and pull me along, letting me get the feel of the air under my wings. He really didn’t expect me to start flying for several weeks yet, but I surprised him one day and took off. He wasn’t expecting it and was off balance, so I ended up dragging him along with me.”

“A little griffon chick dragging along a full-grown male?” Twilight said incredulously.

“Yep. Dad says my wings were whirring like a buzz-saw. He kept calling out for me to stop, but I was just too excited. I wore off the feathers and fur on his belly that day.”

Twilight laughed. “Oh, that beats my story. I can just imagine how hilarious that must have looked.”

Free grinned. “It’s one of my favorite memories from my childhood. Dad was so proud of me! I took him for a drag a few more times after that, just so he could show me off to his friends.” He sighed happily. “I had a great childhood.”

“What was your relationship to your mother like? After all, she didn’t give birth to you. She knew that you were not only adopted, but also not a true griffon.”

“If I had never learned the truth about myself, I would never have known the difference. Mom was just as stern and loving as any griffon mother could be. She taught me so much about being a true griffon, while leaving out the stupid stuff that we saw back in Griffonia. Twi, I can be any species I want, but I can’t imagine being anything else but a griffon. I love so many aspects of ponies and other species, but I will always revert to griffon form as my true self.”

Twilight considered that, and then said, “I think that I know how you feel. I entered into Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns as a young filly, and as Celestia’s personal student, no less. I grew up with her being almost a second mother to me, and I wanted to emulate her so badly.” She giggled and fluttered her wings. “I never really expected to emulate her physically also.”

“You earned your wings, Twilight; now you get to enjoy them. I hope that you take the time more often to do so.”

“It’s funny, but it’s always because of my friends that I end up accomplishing things, or doing things that I would have considered a waste of time. But it isn’t a waste, is it?”

“Nope. There’s little point to being alive if you don’t live it to the full.”

Twilight looked at him appraisingly. “That’s you, isn’t it? You take every single moment and live it to the fullest, don’t you?”

Free grinned widely. “Now you’re getting it! What’s the point of having wings if you don’t fly? What’s the point of being talented if you don’t make great accomplishments? What’s the point the point of having friends if you don’t share your life with them?” His expression turned serious and he gazed Twilight in her eyes. “What’s the point of having a heart if you don’t take a risk having it broken?”

Twilight blushed and turned away. “Perhaps we should return to the dirigible now?”

“No, not yet. The sun is setting, and we should have an awesome view from here.”

It was a procrastination, and Twilight knew it, but it was a seemingly safe one. “Okay, I’ve never seen a sunset from the clouds before.”

“What? In all the years that you have had wings, you have never checked out a sunset or sunrise from the sky?”

“No,” Twilight admitted in embarrassment.

“You’re going to love this then!”

The sun had reached the horizon, and as it slowly sank out of sight, the reddening light lit up the surrounding scattered clouds. As the sun shot beams of light up between the clouds, Twilight almost did not notice Free’s wing come around her and draw her close to the griffon. They enjoyed one of Celestia’s best sunsets together, and it had sunk well out of sight before Twilight felt like stirring.

“Now we had really better head back to the airship before we lose the light.”

“You’re right. Follow me.”

Twilight said not a word about the experience, but then again she did not have to. Free had tasted her enjoyment of the moment, spiced with the thrill of feeling his wing about her. It was a great end to the day.

They had been late to dinner, and the cook had scolded Free for keeping the princess away for so long that the meal had been less than optimum, but the griffon did not care. Twilight probably did not notice anyway, and he wasn’t going to let an overcooked dinner spoil his day.

Afterwards he headed back to the observation deck and gazed at the moon rising in the east for a while. Twilight joined him a few minutes later, and they both quietly appreciated the night seascape. Eventually it was Twilight who broke the silence.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, but for what in particular?”

“The flying, and the sunset.”

“I only encouraged you to do what any pony should enjoy.”

“But you were the first to do so. I’ve had wings for years, but I’ve never had someone take me on a flight like that before now.” She was quiet for a long moment before asking, “Is that how you’ve made so many conquests?”

Free was startled. “Conquests?”

“Yes, all those ponies and others that you’ve banged over the years. Did you take them on a joyflight or equivalent to get them to have sex with you?”

Free sighed and replied sadly, “Is that how little you think of me after all? Okay, so you really want to know? None. I’ve never ever ‘conquered’ anypony. I have an unfair advantage in that I can taste their emotions and have a good idea of what they need rather than what they think they want. I awake them to the joys of life and frequently we end up banging to celebrate it. There are never any second thoughts, and never any regrets. Some of them have occasionally come back to me when life has got them down and I help them again, and we bang again. Some of them just want to bang anyway, and that’s good too. Whatever the reason, there are only winners in my relationships – no conquered or conqueror.”

“Oh... so have you never had a steady marefriend?”

“Actually I’ve had a couple.” He gazed out at the night scene with his eyes unfocused as he recollected. “One was a griffoness, and she was a real cute thing, but I knew it wouldn’t last. There just weren’t any griffon cocks her age in Canterlot and she was a little desperate. Even though I was a little older than what she was looking for, I did my best to help her, and we banged a lot, but it wasn’t me that she really needed. When I found that a new griffon family that moved into Canterlot had a son her age, I introduced him to her. They’ve been married for over two years now. The other was a pegasus mare. Unlike most, she was attracted to me first, and she enjoyed a lot of the things that I did too. We were together for a few months before she moved on. No regrets – she was just not prepared to be tied down to anything permanent.”

Free turned back to Twilight. “Now that I’ve bared all, what about you? How many coltfriends have you had?”

Twilight did not meet his eyes. “I’ve got plenty of stallion friends,” she replied.

“Not the same thing, and you know it.”

Twilight refused to answer for a long time. Free waited patiently though until she finally said, “None.”

“Really? Not even a date?”

“I make time for my friends, and I’m even godmother to a couple of cute foals, but otherwise I have a lot of responsibilities that take up my day. I really don’t have the opportunity to date or spend time with a coltfriend.”

“I didn’t know the bit about being a godmother. I want to hear about that.”

“Funny thing – it involves another changeling.”

“There’s an odd coincidence. That why you’re so involved with changeling affairs?”

“Part of it, although I ran into this one by coincidence. This emotion harvester met a unicorn mare, fell in love, and they had a couple of sweet fillies.”

“Whoa! Stop right there. I may not be the best informed changeling in Equestria, but even I know that drones are not fertile, let alone with other species.”

“You’ve never heard of the Loving Deceit?”


“It’s how changelings have children with ponies. Basically, he took the form of a mare, had sex with a donor stallion, then changed back to a stallion and impregnated his wife.”

“Well, I can certainly see the deceit part. I suppose it’s loving too if it gives her what she really wants.”

“Yes, although she knew exactly what was happening. She knows he’s a changeling.”

“That’s weird. I didn’t think that changelings ever gave away their real selves.”

“They don’t normally, but times have been changing lately, although in this case he revealed himself when he saved her from some timber wolves. However, I have something even more amazing to tell about the children.”

“They look like him?” Free replied jokingly.

Twilight giggled. “Close, but not quite. I crafted a special spell that when used during conception, part of his nature is imposed on the donor sperm, so both of the fillies truly are his daughters.”

“Wow, that’s really cool. So that’s why you’re their godmother?”

“That’s right. It’s a real privilege.”

“And you’ve not considered having foals of your own?”

Twilight’s smile faded. “Maybe, but it’s the same problem as finding time for a coltfriend.”

“I’m willing to bet that you didn’t have time to be a godmother either before you did become one.”

“Heh! You’re right, I didn’t.”

“We all find the time to do what we need to do, if it’s really important.”

“So you think I need a coltfriend, and you want to be that coltfriend. Why me and not somepony else?”

“You know, that’s the first question that you’ve asked that I’m having a hard time answering. I’ve rarely had a hard time understanding what my companion of the moment needs, but when it comes to myself, it’s not as simple. You know I enjoy sex a lot – I’ve never made a secret of how many I’ve banged, and I look forward to banging many more, including Path one day, I hope. My emotional needs have been fulfilled by him for years, and I love the guy with all my heart, but he isn’t a mate, and I think I feel the need for one. It’s not as if I haven’t looked at any of the other mares for that possibility, but it’s never worked out. Then you came along and captured my imagination.”

“And how did I do that?” Twilight asked, genuinely curious by now.

“When we first met you at the True Brew Café, I could tell that you were every bit as intelligent and caring as your reputation painted you to be. You were practically ambushed by Path’s rant and yet instead of being angered, you waded right in, found out what was going on, and started us on the adventure that we’re now living. That’s so awesome! My life, and of course Path’s as well, has become so much greater because of you. For once in my life, it wasn’t me giving somepony what they needed, but you giving me something that I never realized that I lacked. You had given me a greater purpose, one that I could share with Path, and now I can share with Roseclaw and you too in House Path. You give of your entire self, and make others happy, just as you should as Princess of Friendship, but you never think of yourself. I want to be the person who thinks of you even as you are thinking of others.”

“So you think you’re the best choice, do you? Why not Path, for example? He’s a handsome stallion, intelligent, has the same tastes as I do, and even has some unusual talent with magic. If he and Roseclaw weren’t betrothed, I might even consider asking him out on a date.”

Free grinned. “Don’t let that stop you; he’d make a great herd stallion.” Then his expression grew a bit more serious. “But he isn’t what you need.”

“Oh? And what do I need? A horny griffon?”

“By coincidence, yes. It’s the same thing that Path needed. If I hadn’t been his friend, he would have buried himself in books and never made friends. He certainly would not be in Griffonia today and have a fiancée. You can see for yourself how happy and full of life he is though. It was always within him, but he needed someone to bring it out, and I had that privilege.”

Twilight was uncomfortably aware of how closely that echoed her experience up until she was sent to Ponyville and finally made some friends. And here Free was showing her that despite that, she was still holding herself back from the next step – finding a life partner. Still, she was not going to be convinced that easily. “Perhaps you should have changed into a griffoness and became his wife.”

Free chuckled. “Don’t think that I wouldn’t have if I thought that was what he wanted. I even would have become a mare for him, but as much as I love him, I’m not what he needed in a mate. Rose is that person. You don’t know how bloody thrilled I was when he got interested in her when we were at Celestia’s party for the griffon ambassador.”

“I heard that you were annoyed not to get a chance at her,” Twilight pointed out.

Free grinned back. “I was that also. It was damn ironic that the she-griff that I intended to ask out, turned out to be exactly what he needed.”

“Why did you think Roseclaw was a potential mate for Path so soon?”

“You needed to see them to appreciate that. She was bored, and he was there expecting to have a crap time. Both came alive when they started talking. It wasn’t their similarities that made it work, but their differences. It’s the same thing that has made Path and I lifelong friends. And it’s the very thing that you need too. If you and Path had become mates, you probably would be happy enough, but you would never be challenged as much. You would just reinforce each other’s habits and become so much less than your potential.”

“Wow, you certainly have thought this through. Think you’ve sold yourself yet?” Twilight asked drolly.

Free laughed. “I hope I’ve made some impression. I wouldn’t go to this much effort for just anyone.”

“You’ve given me a lot to think about, Free. And with that, I think I’ll turn in for the night.”

“Not a bad idea. I might just do the same.”

Free followed Twilight inside and they headed for their rooms. She paused outside of her room and said goodnight. When he just responded with the same, she gave him a quizzical look.

“Aren’t you going to ask if I want company tonight?”

“Why? Do you want some?” he replied with a leer.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I trotted right in to that one, didn’t I? No, I just meant that it seems strange that you aren’t asking that anymore.”

“Perhaps my goals have been set a bit higher. Some mutual fun in the bed just doesn’t seem enough now. Sweet dreams, Twi.”

Free left then, and as she closed her door, Twilight wondered if perhaps she should not have let him.

When Twilight went to breakfast the next morning, she found out that Free had already had his and gone. It wasn’t too surprising as the changeling needed less sleep than she did due to his nature. She asked about the captain, and was told that she was unavailable for a while unless it was urgent. Twilight guessed why that might be, and went to her room to gather her notes once more.

Stepping out onto the observation deck, she found Fairweather there with Free, as expected. After exchanging greetings, they all quietly went about their tasks. Free occasionally asked the captain to adjust her pose, but that was all that was said for a couple of hours.

Eventually Free put down his brush and palette and said, “That’s it for now, Cap. I don’t need you to pose any more. I’ll be able to finish off the details without you.”

Fairweather got up from her seat and asked, “May I see it?”

“If you wish. As I said, it isn’t quite finished yet though.”

“I understand.” She moved to where she could see the canvas and regarded it thoughtfully before nodding. “Very good. I look forward to seeing it completed.”

“I’ll have it ready for you before we disembark tomorrow.”

“Excellent. Have a good day, Mister Agent. You too, Your Highness.”

When the captain had left, Twilight asked, “How much are you charging her for the portrait?”

“Charging? I’m doing it for free! Do you know how rarely I can get someone who is willing to pose quietly for the time it takes for me to do a detailed portrait? She gets a painting and I get a lot of practice.”

“So you get no payment at all?”

“I’m an artist, Twi. I get my payment in the creation of art.” Free then grinned. “Of course if you do it for free, people feel they owe you a favor, and one day I might have a need for a favor.”

“I was beginning to get worried there, Free. You seemed to be getting too good to be true.”

“Daddy didn’t raise no dumb griff. Building up a store of goodwill could pay off handsomely in the future. Best of all, everyone wins.”

“I suppose I can’t argue with that.”

“Good, because I’m hungry and I don’t want to argue either. I’m going to get me some lunch. Want me to bring you some sandwiches or something?”

“That would be nice, thanks.”

About ten minutes later, Free returned with a tray laden with a plate full of sandwiches and a couple of tall glasses of fruit juice, and he was already munching on a sausage that he had brought with him from Griffonia.

“Help yourself, babe.”

Twilight put aside her work and started tucking into the sandwiches. Free also had a few after finishing his sausage.

“Y’know, I could get used to this,” Free said.

“What exactly do you mean?” Twilight asked between mouthfuls.

Free waved his arm expansively. “Everything! The travelling, the excitement, the new faces, these restful periods in between. But especially, doing it all with you and Path and Rose.”

Twilight smiled and nodded. “I’ve done a lot of travelling around with my friends, or for my obligations, so I understand what you mean. Still, it’s nice to come home again too.”

“It’s a bit too easy to let inertia take hold if you spend too long at home. I was always pushing Path to get out and do things. This quest of ours has been the best thing to happen to him... and frankly to me too. I might never have met you otherwise.”

“It’s been a real eye-opener for me also. I’m rather torn between this quest and my normal life back home. Both are important to me, and both have their merits. There’s only one thing that keeps me returning.”

“Your role as one of the Bearers of Harmony?” Free guessed.

“Exactly. It’s Equestria’s greatest defense, but it requires all six of us for it to work.”

“It seems to me to be a rather fragile defense if it can so easily be nullified simply by removing one of you six, whether deliberately or accidentally.”

“You’re absolutely correct, and it’s something that I have been looking into. The encouraging thing is the nature of Harmony – it does not need exactly we six ponies, but somepony who embodies one of the Elements. In other words, we should be replaceable. The biggest problem of course is finding those replacements.”

“Without meaning to flatter you, wouldn’t that be particularly difficult in your case?”

“Believe it or not, I already have somepony in mind who could fill my role. The difficulty would be in persuading her to come back to Equestria to take it.”

“She lives in another country? Maybe our travels will take us there so that we can help try to convince her for you?”

Twilight laughed. “Oh, a lot further than that. In fact you could say that she’s out of this world.”

Free looked puzzled. “You’re speaking in riddles, Twi. I take it that there’s magic involved?”

“Yep. She’s in another universe only accessible via a magic mirror. I’ve been there, and it’s a very strange place, but some things are universally true, and that’s the power of friendship. That’s what’s keeping her there, and what makes it hard for me to ask her to come back.”

“Another universe? You’ve lost me.”

“There is more than one reality, Free. Some of them are very similar to our own, and some can be unrecognizably different. The Laws of Magic or Physics can vary too. Some can change you too. In hers, I took a different form that is called a human. It’s very weird, and I couldn’t do magic at all in that body. Celestia knows what you would become if you went there.”

“I’d be game to find out!”

Twilight giggled. “I bet you would at that. However, that’s not a practical idea at this time, and for the moment I must balance my time with you and with my obligations back home.”

They finished off the sandwiches in thoughtful silence.

“Well, I had better get on with my work,” Twilight said after finishing her drink.

“And I have some detail work to complete on the painting.”

They worked in companionable silence for the moment. After about an hour, Free was satisfied with the painting and started packing up his art tools and materials. He carefully placed the canvas aside to dry before taking the rest away to his cabin. When he returned, he had his lute with him, and he settled down in a chair to play. He started with some gentle tunes, and Twilight looked up from her work to smile at him appreciatively.

They spent a considerable amount of the afternoon like this. Free had almost made his way through his considerable repertoire of easy-listening music before Twilight gave a sigh of satisfaction and laid aside her quill.

“That’s done,” she declared. “Thanks for the pleasant music, Free. It helped a lot.”

“You’re more than welcome, babe.”

“That’s another thing that puzzles me. You’re obviously a professional level musician, but you don’t do it for a living. Instead you work at a gymnasium.”

Free grinned. “No big mystery. You see, I’m an artist, and I make music for the joy and inspiration it gives. Turning it into a profession introduces limitations for me, especially when it comes to staying at home with Path. Professional musicians almost always have to go on tours of the country to make a living, and that keeps them away from home sometimes for months at a time. I don’t want to do that. Besides, I really do enjoy my work as a trainer at the gym, and I don’t have to tour for that.”

“But this quest took you away from home too,” Twilight pointed out.

“But it was with Path, which is the whole point. And now it’s also with you, and he has Rose for when I can’t be there.”

“Goodness! You’re like an old married couple sometimes.”

“Ha! I suppose we are. The only thing missing has been the sex,” he said a little wistfully.

“You still want to have sex with him then?”

“Of course! I love him, and I’ve wanted to bang him ever since I realized that.”

“But his relationship is and should be with his new mate, Roseclaw.”

“I don’t see those facts as being mutually exclusive, Twi. That’s not my nature.”

“Even though you have indicated you want a relationship with me?”

“I’ve been nothing but honest with you, Twilight. I’ve laid my soul bare, and you know my deepest secrets. I have my special talent tattooed on my butt. I’m a changeling but I’m a griffon too. This is me! I love Path, but I think we two can have a future also. These are not things that I see as conflicting. We four are all embarked on a journey together, and I see us not just as united in a House, but also as a herd. Would you give up something so promising over this?”

“It’s... tempting.”

“No, it’s frightening. I understand; I really do. Your decision will change your life forever, and not in a small way. You already know the benefits, but you fear the consequences. Tell me though, what happened the last time that you made a big frightening choice?”

Twilight thought back and smiled. “I came out so much the better for it. You’re right, fear is one thing that is holding me back.”

“Then I’ll ask you straight out – will you be my very special somepony?”

Free could taste her indecision, her fear, and her hopes. Had he pressed her too hard, too soon? Had he done everything possible to convince her of his sincerity? This was a huge step for him also, and perhaps he had made a mistake? What more could he do? Then a thought occurred to him and he mentally kicked himself.

“You know that I love being a griffon, and if I couldn’t shape-change, it wouldn’t bother me to be stuck in this form forever. However, I admit that there’s one thing that ponies can do that griffons can’t.” With a flare of changeling magic, Free’s griffon form was replaced with a pegasus whose fur was identical in color to his mahogany feathers, and his tail and mane matched his leonine tail tuft’s bright red hue. He leaned over and said softly, “A pony has lips to kiss you with.” And he did so, gently and lovingly kissing the alicorn on her cheek.

Twilight was thrilled by the touch of his lips, and she felt a surge of emotion – something both familiar and new; something that she shared with just a few ponies, and yet was uniquely different. All she knew was that she wanted to feel it again.

Free spoke up once more. “Twilight Sparkle, in a moment I am going to kiss you again, this time on your lips, and I will kiss you long and passionately. All you have to do is say no, and I will not bother you again.”

He tasted her whirl of emotions as they calmed down and steadied into decisiveness. As she opened her mouth to reply, he already knew her answer.


Free did as he had promised, and Twilight returned the kiss with equal fervor. They paused only to catch their breath before resuming kissing once more.

Eventually they parted and grinned at each other.

Free said, “Wanna fly with me, babe?”

“Love to, Firetail!”

Together they dived over the railing and flew away with powerful strokes of their wings, laughing with joy.

“The lookouts are going to wonder where the strange pegasus came from,” Twilight said with a giggle.

“I don’t care! Nothing could spoil this moment for me.”

Free reached out with his hoof, and Twilight met it with her own. They flew together, at last united in heart as well.

They were late for dinner again, but Free was oblivious to the cook’s glare. In fact neither he nor Twilight could later recall exactly what they had to eat. They spent the evening back out on the deck, with Free playing the lute. The big difference this time though was Twilight cuddled up to him, with his wing possessively around her. Occasionally she would sing along with him to a familiar tune. Neither paid attention to the time until she yawned hugely.

“Time for you to go to bed,” Free told her.

“I don’t want to,” Twilight replied dreamily.

“I know how you feel, but you need your sleep.”

“What about you?”

“Babe, you’ve given me a feast of emotional energy today. I’m so hyped up, I’m not sure that I could get to sleep if I wanted to. Now up you get!”

Free chivvied her up and they walked together to her room.

“Sweet dreams, love,” Free said, kissing her on the cheek.

“Thanks, dear. You too, I hope.”

Free walked further down the corridor and opened the door to his room as Twilight watched.

“Y’know,” Twilight said as she walked down the corridor to the griffon, “I think Roseclaw has the right idea. I think there’s room enough in that bed for the two of us to cuddle, don’t you?”

Free grinned. “I never doubted it,” he said as he ushered her into his room and closed the door behind them.

It was nearly midday when they rounded Canterhorn Mountain and Canterlot castle hove into sight. With practiced skill, the crew brought them to a smooth landing in the airfield from which they had departed over a week ago. The gangway was quickly extended and Twilight exited along with Free. Naturally they were expected, and a group was waiting for them. Five ponies trotted up to meet Twilight and they all exchanged hugs.

“Welcome back, Twi,” the orange earth pony said with a country twang.

“About time! Did the griffon fly you over?” the blue pegasus with the colorful mane complained.

“Now girls! She had to come a long way,” remonstrated the white unicorn.

“A very long way,” the yellow pegasus insisted almost inaudibly.

“But she’s here now and it’s time for a welcome back party!” squealed the pink earth pony.

Twilight held up her forehooves to stay her enthusiasm. “Wait a minute! First I have to introduce you to someone.” She gestured for Free to join her. “Free, I’d like you to meet my very best friends, Applejack, Rarity Belle, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy. Girls, I want you to meet my coltfriend, Free Agent.”

“Hi, guys!” Free said with his most dashing grin.

Applejack stared and said, “Seriously?”

“But griffons are so uncouth!” Rarity objected.

“Nah! Griffons can be cool too,” Rainbow disagreed.

“He’s kind of cute,” Fluttershy decided.

“Hey Twilight, did you know that he’s m-m-mph...” Pinkie started before Twilight stuffed her hoof in Pinkie’s mouth.

“Not now, Pinkie,” Twilight told her, removing her hoof cautiously.

“Oh. Okay!” Pinkie replied brightly.

“Now we had better go see Princess Celestia,” Twilight said, starting off in the direction of the castle with Free beside her. “I did have to come back for a very important reason, after all.”

“We all did, dear, and I agree. Business before pleasure!” Rarity said, bringing along the rest of the group, with Pinkie happily pronking along in the rear.

I wonder how Twilight knew that Free isn’t an ordinary changeling?’ Pinkie thought to herself. ‘He’s going to be fun!



Chapter 9: With Friends Like these, Who Needs Enemies?


As the Mane Six headed into the castle, Twilight updated them with titbits of news from their trip, with Free adding the occasional detail. They were soon entering the throne room, and Twilight was a little surprised to find Luna there as well as Celestia.

It must be really serious if both princesses are involved,’ she thought. “It’s good to see you again, Celestia. You too, Luna. I hope that I returned quickly enough?”

“Welcome back, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia replied. “I believe your return is timely enough, although the true situation is still somewhat unclear. There have been some developments since we talked on your device though.”

“The girls and I are ready to proceed whatever the case. So, the changeling threat is real then?”

“It would seem so. As I told you earlier, Blue Changelings were caught trying to sneak past the checkpoint at the shield portal in the Crystal Empire. It was a very good suggestion of yours to station some of our changeling Royal Guards there who could spot their hive affiliation.”

“I knew it would be inevitable that Chrysalis would learn of the Crystal Heart’s ability to power them up, so being able to spot her minions was vital.”

“Yes, and it seems that it was a wise move. Since then, there have been others detected at various points around the shield’s perimeter. They appear to be very determined to find ingress.”

“Have you been able to question any of them?”

“The few that we have managed to capture have suicided before we could get anything of use out of them.”

Twilight was shocked by that. “How were they allowed to suicide?”

“There was no way of preventing them. Apparently they can simply will themselves to death somehow. Our changeling allies suggest that they release all the emotion energy that they need to live, and their bodies just stop working.”

“That’s disturbing. Chrysalis seems quite willing to sacrifice her subjects if she’s ordering them to suicide rather than be captured.”

Celestia sadly hung her head a little. “Yes, but it’s vital that we learn what she’s planning, so we need to question any captives. It’s a vicious circle.”

“So that’s why we Harmony Bearers are needed – in the absence of useful information, we need to prepare for the worst and be available to defend the Crystal Heart if necessary.”

“Exactly. Luna has volunteered to lead a contingent of the Royal Army for that purpose, but they should hopefully only be support and protection for you six.”

“And what about you, Celestia?”

Luna spoke up. “As I pointed out to my sister, it is possible that the Crystal Empire might be a feint, and Canterlot’s defence must not be overlooked while we are focusing our attention up north. It is best that Celestia stay here while I command the army. Cadance, Shining Armor, and their soldiers shall form the final line of defence, of course. Whatever happens, Chrysalis must neither capture the Crystal Heart, nor Canterlot. We shall not be caught out again.”

“That seems sensible. Should we be making our way immediately to the Crystal Empire?”

“Almost immediately,” Celestia replied. “With the return of the Skylark, you six and a support group can be transported to the Empire more quickly than by train. The airship will need to be serviced and provisioned first though, so there will be a few hours delay. Also, Cadance and Shining Armor are due to arrive here very soon for planning the details of your course of action. They will be returning with you on the Skylark.”

Twilight was excited by the news. “That’s wonderful! It’s been too long since I’ve seen my brother and sister-in-law.”

Celestia smiled widely. “I thought that you would be pleased to hear that. I have ordered a full banquet to be prepared for you all to enjoy before you depart.”

“Aw, yeah!” Rainbow Dash declared. “Now you’re talking!”

Luna said, “Meanwhile, may I suggest that you take the opportunity to freshen up before they arrive? The next few days may be less pleasant, so enjoy yourselves while you can.”

“We can all meet up at the banquet hall in about an hour,” Celestia added. “If the train is on schedule, I believe Cadance and Shining Armor will be here by then.”

“Then I can tell them the news too,” Twilight said with a smile in Free’s direction.

Celestia cocked her head questioningly. “News?”

“Free Agent is now my coltfriend.”

Celestia looked nonplussed. “I had been wondering why he was here with you.” She looked at Free intently. “Tired of picking up guests at my parties?”

Free grinned back unabashedly. “Nope. Found somepony who means more to me, and hopefully I’m good for her too.”

Celestia turned away from the griffon, mumbling something that sounded suspiciously like, ‘You’d better!’

Luna just grinned, amused at this turn of events. “Thou must tell me all about it later, Twilight Sparkle.”

“I quite agree,” Rarity commented. “I need to understand what she sees in him.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “We’ll tell you all about it at dinner, okay? Now let’s freshen up as Luna suggested.” She walked away before any more questions or comments could be made, and Free hastened to join her.

“So, you have your own room at the palace?” Free asked.

“I have since I was a foal. It’s just that my current one is, well, more princess-worthy, I suppose. I’d be happy with a cot in the library, but there’s a certain amount of image that I need to live up to now. Besides, I like the balcony view. And it has a lovely shower! That’s the thing that I most missed while on the airship.”

“Wanna share one then?”

Twilight was about to laugh off the suggestion, but one look at Free’s grinning face made her change her mind. “Okay, but just a shower. No hanky-panky!”

“How about a back scrub?” He held up a front foot and wiggled his claws. “These digits can do magic, y’know?”

“Ooh, I haven’t had a good back scrub in ages.”

“That’s a yes, then. Don’t blame me if you want to go further.”

“I said no funny stuff!”

“Just kidding!” Twilight glared at Free. “Hey, don’t give me that look – you knew who you were hooking up with.”

Twilight sighed. “Yes, I did. I’m just not as certain with myself. It’s all new to me.”

Free toned down his grin. “I know, babe, and I promise that I will try to never go too far. Just promise me in return that you won’t pass up opportunities to enjoy having a coltfriend.”

“I promise. I think I might have a few lessons to learn though.”

“You have a willing teacher, Twi.”

“I’ve always been a good student, Firetail.”

Free’s smile lit up again.

Twilight enjoyed the shower so much that she and Free barely had time to dry and groom themselves before hastening to the banquet hall which was already laden with the feast to come. Nevertheless they were beaten there by the rest of the Harmony Bearers who were chatting with two newcomers.

“Shiny! Cadance!” Twilight called, rushing over to them.

Free was amused to watch Twilight and Cadance do their ‘Sunshine, Sunshine’ greeting again. It was the complete unselfconsciousness of it that appealed to his nature.

After Twilight gave her brother a hug, Cadance said, “I can tell that you’re really excited about something… or should I say someone?”

Twilight blushed a little, but gestured for Free to join them. “You remember Free Agent, don’t you? Well, I am very happy to say that Free is now my coltfriend.”

Shining Armor looked thunderstruck, and then it was replaced with boiling rage. “What have you done to Twily?!” he shouted, powering up his horn.

Abruptly, Free was surrounded by a force bubble and lifted off the ground.

“You’ve bewitched her like Chrysalis did to me! I won’t let any damn bug get away with that ever again!”

“You’re crazy!” Free shouted back. “I’ve done nothing to hurt Twilight. I care for her like no pony before except Path.”

“Put him down, Shining!” Twilight demanded.

Shining Armor did not even look at his sister as he wanted to keep a close watch on the changeling. “Don’t worry, Twily, I won’t let you down this time. I know what they can do.”

“Honey, he isn’t doing it,” Cadance tried to tell him, but he was too focused on Free.

“You think that I could get away with hurting Twilight in front of the princesses? You’re paranoid! You just haven’t gotten over that incident in the Crystal Empire, have you? That wasn’t my fault, and you know it!”

“You changelings can’t change your nature,” Shining replied stubbornly.

“Yeah? Well I can change this!” Free shape-shifted into a unicorn, still retaining his normal colours, just as he had with his pegasus form with Twilight.

Shining Armor sneered. “You think that a fake unicorn can break my force bubble? You haven’t got the Crystal Heart’s power to help you now.”

“Nope, but I can do this.” Free’s horn glowed green.

A banana-custard pie levitated from the banquet table and slammed into the side of Shining Armor’s face.

The surprise and shock of the pie attack caused the unicorn stallion to lose his concentration, and the force bubble popped. Free hit the ground running, dodging between the ponies watching the spectacle in confusion, just as Celestia and Luna walked into the banquet hall.

Shining sputtered and tried to wipe off the pie even as he shot bolts of magic after the fleeing changeling. “Help me!”

“Certainly, dear,” Cadance calmly replied, and planted another pie on the other side of his face.

“Gah! What’s got into you? Get him, not me!”

“I’ll get him!” Rainbow Dash shouted, streaking after Free, only to run headfirst into a pie that the changeling had been holding in reserve, and then blindly crashing into the chairs.

“What in heaven’s name is going on here?” Celestia asked in bewilderment.

“I’ve seen many a dream like this,” Luna replied with a grin.

“Pardon me, Your Highnesses!” Free shouted as he dodged around them.

Shining roared in rage as he tried to get pie filling out of his eyes. He decided to fight fire with fire and started hurling various foodstuffs in the direction of the infuriating changeling despite being half-blinded.

“Heads up!” Luna told her sister.

Celestia was still caught out though, and a salad impacted on her snout, with one tomato squishing directly between her eyes. Meanwhile a plate of sandwiches slid harmlessly off Luna’s shield.

“I knew he was going to be fun!” Pinkie declared as she picked up a chocolate cake and randomly threw it, collecting Applejack and sending splatters over the others.

“Oh, dear,” Rarity said as she telekinetically fended off the cake, “this can’t end well.”

Celestia’s mane started burning brightly with the power of the sun, and she opened her mouth, only to have it filled with bread roll. She spat it out, and with the Royal Canterlot Voice said, “Cease this foolishness at once!

“Oh, pooh!” Luna sulked. “Just as it was getting fun.”

All activity in the hall abruptly stopped except for Shining Armor desperately trying to clear his vision as it finally got through to him that something was amiss.

“Will somepony tell me what’s going on here?” Celestia demanded in her normal voice.

Free had decided that behind Luna’s shield was the safest spot for the moment, but now he crept out and sheepishly said, “Me and Shining Armor had a little disagreement.”

Celestia looked at him keenly before recognition lit her eyes. “Free Agent, is it not? Why are you a unicorn?”

“Oh… right.” Free shifted back to his griffon form. “I needed a bit of telekinetic help to get out of Heiny’s bubble trap.”

“And why did Prince Armor try to trap you?”

Shining Armor stepped up, his face still slick with custard and pie filling, making his attempt to look formal and dignified quite ludicrous. “Your Highnesses, I suspect this changeling of using his powers to bewitch my sister’s mind and make her fall in love with him.”

Twilight then stepped up next to him and added, “And I suspect my brother is an idiot.”

“But Twily…!” Shining objected.

Cadance joined them and asked, “Did you think to check with me first before jumping to conclusions? I could tell immediately that there is true affection between them. Alicorn of Love, remember?”

“But… well I… oh, horseapples!” Shining had the grace to look embarrassed.

Twilight was not finished with him yet though. She glared at her brother furiously. “Not only did you jump to conclusions without checking, but you gave away Free’s secret! You had no right to do that!”

“I’m sorry, sis. I was just worried about you, that’s all.”

“And that’s the only reason I’m still talking to you. But I want you to know that I’m serious about this relationship. It’s an enormous step for me, but it feels right, and I don’t need your prejudices ruining it for me. So behave yourself – got it?”

“Yes, Twily,” he replied meekly.

Celestia said, “When we gathered today to discuss changeling problems, I hardly thought it would be Free Agent that would be the first subject. If this has been sorted out, you will excuse me while I wash up.” A lettuce leaf that had been sticking to her cheek, chose that moment to fall off. “And that salad has too much dressing,” she added as she turned away to go to the washroom.

Luna giggled. “Methinks my sister protests too much. I recall a glorious food fight that we had when we were but fillies. Ah, good times.”

“Does this make anypony feel hungry?” Free asked with an innocent smile.

Twilight stared at him for a moment before bursting into laughter. When she could stop chortling, she asked, “What do you want to do now that my friends know about your secret?”

Free shrugged. “If they’re really your friends, then I suppose I can trust them.”

“As if we’d ever do anything to hurt you, darling,” Rarity declared.

Applejack nodded in agreement. “Personally I think yer nuts, Twi, but if this ’un makes you happy, then we’ll respect that.”

“It was a secret?” Pinkie asked brightly.

“I suppose we’d better let the staff clean up a bit before we have our meal,” Luna said. “I suggest that we all re-gather in a half hour.”

As they all started to leave, a plaintive voice came from a pile of chairs jammed under the table. “A little help here, please!” the entangled pegasus pled.

The second attempt at a banquet went well, although it pushed the castle staff to the utmost in order to clean up and replace the food in the limited time. Shining Armor even managed to be polite towards Free the entire time. Because they had lost some time, they discussed their plans during the meal.

“You had best remain here,” Twilight told Free.

“Not a chance, Twi. I’m coming with you.”

Shining Armor frowned a little, but tried to be reasonable. “We can’t let you inside the shield. You know what happened last time.”

“I could hardly forget! However, who said anything about going past the shield? Chrysalis is outside, and that’s where we’re going to have to concentrate our efforts. I can help there.”

“Free has a point,” Twilight said. “We have the other changeling Guards coming for the same reason.”

He’s not a Guard though.”

“Neither are we. Are you saying we shouldn’t go either?” Rainbow Dash challenged.

“Don’t be ridiculous! You’re the Harmony Bearers!”

Applejack grinned and said, “Darn tootin’! United in friendship; just like Twi’s new special somepony. Ah admit that he takes some warmin’ up to, but Ah trust Twi. So he’s in! Right girls?”

“Indeed,” Rarity affirmed.

“You got it, AJ!” Rainbow confirmed.

“I liked him from the beginning,” Fluttershy pointed out.

“And he’s fun besides!” Pinkie said excitedly.

Shining Armor waved his hooves in surrender. “Okay! I get it. He’s in.”

Celestia stood up from the table. “If that’s decided, then you had best begin your journey. The Skylark should certainly be ready now, considering the delay.”

“Just one other thing, Celestia,” Twilight said. “I need the Talkie-Trottie back so that I can talk to our friends back in Griffonia.”

“Certainly, Twilight. If you would accompany me, I will fetch it for you. I’m sorry that we haven’t had the chance to talk with you about that. I hope that it went well?”

“Better than I dared dream. So much has happened in so short a time that I can’t possibly sum it up in the time that I have, but let me say that you can expect much closer ties with Griffonia in the future.”

“It seems that Master Path’s ideas are already bearing fruit.”

“You have no idea how much!” Twilight said fervently.

Twilight and Free did not get a chance to talk with Path and Roseclaw until after they departed Canterlot. Although it was a little cramped, they shared a cabin this time, just as all the others had to double-up due to the scarcity of cabins.

“This is a lovely airship, but I think we’re going to need something with a bit more capacity in the future,” Free commented.

“And faster too,” Twilight added. “This will get us to the Crystal Empire a lot sooner than the train, but nowhere near as fast as might be needed.”

Free grinned. “If we didn’t spend as much time as we did travelling here from Griffonia, I don’t know if I could have had enough time to convince you to kiss me.”

“You had better keep convincing me,” Twilight said slyly.

“By your command, Princess of my Heart!” Free then put words into action.

Some minutes later, Twilight reluctantly brought that to an end. “Time for us to call and find out how the other half of the House of Path is doing.”

Twilight picked up the communicator and, holding it between them so that they both could hear, she made the call. Almost immediately, she got a response.

“Twilight! We were beginning to wonder if something had happened,” Path’s voice came clearly.

“Sorry, but it’s been a bit hectic since we got back to Canterlot. Our first priority had to be dealing with the reason I was called back. Free and I are now headed to the Crystal Empire along with Princess Luna and my friends.”

“So the threat is real then?”

“It’s not certain yet, but it looks likely.”

“You’re not leaving Canterlot undefended, are you?”

“Thought of that possibility, and Princess Celestia is staying behind. The Council of Mages will be supplying the defence. It helps that we know what we’re up against this time.”

“Don’t be too sure of that, Twilight. That Chrysalis is a mighty sneaky changeling.”

“Yeah. Let’s hope we don’t underestimate her again.”

“Anyway, is Free there?”

“I’m right here, Path. Wanna hear some good news?”

“I’ll trade you some. You first.”

“I kept my promise.”

“You mean…?”

Free looked at Twilight. “You wanna tell him, babe?”

Twilight smiled and nodded. “Free is now my very special somepony… or somegriff I suppose.”

“Excellent! I knew you had it in you, buddy! I can hardly wait to tell Rose. Congrats to both of you!”

“Thanks, Path,” Twilight replied.

“You said you had some good news to trade?” Free prompted.

“Heck, yeah! We were summoned to a meeting today with the king’s chamberlain. He had to finalise the details of the transfer of Ravenwing’s properties to me, especially his estate. You’re not going to believe this, but I now have a castle! House Path has got a home!”

The griffon was old but dignified, his sea eagle plumage blending nicely with his snow leopard hind quarters. His most prominent characteristic though was the keen gaze with which he regarded Long Path and Roseclaw from behind his desk laden with official papers.

“Thank you for joining me, Lord Path and Lady Roseclaw. I apologise for the time that it has taken to complete the necessary legalities, but I am sure that you must understand that it is no small matter to transfer all the properties and possessions of one of Ravenwing’s former status.”

“It’s not a problem, Lord Stormwind. Roseclaw has been filling me in on some of the things involved, so I was prepared to wait. Frankly, seeing as I went into the duel without expecting all this, it’s not as if I have been desperately seeking it.”

“Few engage in such duels without being desperate in one form or another. I believe I understand the nature of yours. I regret not witnessing your victory in person, but even so I am most impressed. It will be a long time, if ever, before Ravenwing has any influence due to the enormity of his loss. However, we are not here to discuss the duel, but the rewards you have reaped from your win. Foremost of course is Ravenwing’s estate consisting of his home, grounds, and a portion of adjacent forest. All furnishings of course, plus the entire staff.”

“Staff? I get staff also?”

“All employment contracts are transferred to your title. As with the rest of your property, you may do with them as you see fit.”

Path looked at Roseclaw. “Y’know, this is going to be a huge boost to our plans. The House of Path is getting to be less of a dream and more of a reality.”

Stormwind said, “It’s already a reality, Lord Path. Once you sign the royal deeds of bequeathal, your House will be as real as any other in Griffonia.”

Path grinned at the chamberlain. “On paper, yes, but you have no idea yet what I intend it to become.”

Stormwind regarded the pony for a long moment before giving him a slight smile. “Yes, I do believe you could be right, and I look forward to seeing what the future brings. Now let’s get this paperwork signed.”

Path and Roseclaw stood on a ledge on the outer rim of the crater which bounded the city. From there they overlooked the estate that was now legally Path’s. They could see the house which in fact was a small castle built into the side of the crater, and the attractive grounds that flowed down from it until they reached untouched forest a couple of hundred metres away. As Griffonian estates went, it was on the small side, but to Path, it was huge.

“Sweet Celestia! I can’t believe this, Rose. I mean, Stormwind may have described it, but this… this is overwhelming!”

“The fruits of victory well earned, my love. Shall we look it over?”

“Of course! Umm… how do we get down there?”

“The only service road to the estate is too far from here. It is meant to be accessed by air.” Roseclaw opened her wings to emphasise the normal mode of travel by the griffons.

“Oh… That’s a bit of a problem.”

“Let me carry you down there.”

Path looked at her with a nervous smile. “You know heights and me don’t exactly get along?”

“Do you trust me, Path?”

“Of course I do!”

“Then you have nothing to worry about.” With that, Roseclaw virtually pounced on Path, wrapped her limbs around him, took off into the air, and then dived rapidly towards the castle.

Path gritted his teeth and tried not to let any sounds of fear escape. ‘Am I going to have to get used to this?’ he wondered. Still, once his hooves were firmly on the ground once more, he realised that it was not quite as bad as his first experience had been. Then again, he doubted that anything could be worse than being thrown out of an airship without warning.

They walked up to the main entrance, and Path was surprised to have the door open just as they arrived. A griffon clad in servant’s livery stepped out and bowed.

“Welcome home, Lord and Lady Path.”

“You know who I am?” Path asked.

“The entire staff is aware of who you are, sir, and if I may be so frank, it was not hard to recognise you as the new master of this House.”

“No, I don’t suppose you have too many pony lords here.”

“Quite. Would you wish me to show you around your domain, sir?”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea, but first, what’s your name?”

“I am Goldenquill, head of staff, and your personal butler.”

“Butler? I don’t really think I’ll be needing that.”

Goldenquill smiled faintly with amusement. “I think that your lordship may feel otherwise soon enough. Please follow me and I will introduce you to the rest of the house staff and give you a tour of the premises.”

“I’m in my new study right now, Twilight. You’re going to love it – it’s got quite an interesting collection of books. But that room is only a fraction of the potential of this place! We have so many rooms that aren’t being used or pretty much wasted on the puffed-up nonsense that Ravenwing utilised them for. The grounds are both beautiful and useful for practical purposes. I’m already figuring out how we can use this to expand our goals of studying and understanding other cultures into something so much bigger!”

“Whoa! Getting a bit carried away there, aren’t you,” Free asked with a laugh in his voice.

“You’re seriously asking me if I’m overdoing it? That’s quite a switcheroo. Maybe I am, or maybe I can see just what I can achieve with the right resources. Free, this is a Royal House of Griffonia! As its lord, I have real power here, and the status that I achieved through the duel gives me the respect needed to make my voice heard. With you, Twilight, and Rose with me, we can start something amazing! Sure, it’s small right now, but if we can attract new members and spread our message of friendship through knowledge and understanding, we can make a real difference in this world.”

“And now you’re preaching again.”

“Oops. Sorry. I’m just too excited. It’s been a big day for Rose and me.”

“Where is she anyway? We haven’t heard a peep from her.”

“She’s resting out on the balcony.”

“I didn’t think checking out a castle would be that tiring,” Twilight said.

“Umm… no, that wasn’t what tired her out. It was the… er… celebrating that we did. It seems that there’s a bit of a tradition when a new lord and lady claim their domain.”

“Ooh! What kind of tradition,” she asked, curiosity fully aroused.

“Well, you see, the griffons have a rather earthy manner of demonstrating things…”

“I already realise that.”

“It involves the lord and his mate showing all in their domain their prowess…”

“Yes? And…?” Twilight prompted him when he hesitated again.

“We went out onto the balcony… and did it.”

“Did what?” Twilight asked with slight frustration.

Free caught on much more quickly though. “Ha! They banged! They banged right there on the balcony for all of Griffonia to see! Jeez, Path, I almost didn’t think you had it in you!”

Twilight blushed profusely as she realised exactly what she had been trying to drag out of the stallion.

Path replied, “Neither did I, but the moment was just right, and Rose was waiting for it. She had me, Free, and I didn’t want her to let me go.”

“How are you still standing, mate? Aren’t you still convalescing?”

“Who’s standing? I was lying on my couch in the study, resting just like Rose.”

“Why not rest alongside her?” Twilight asked curiously.

Path chuckled. “Because we couldn’t keep our hooves off each other, Twilight.”

Free said, “And there you’ve made her blush again, Path. I think it’s best that we let you rest and give her time to recover too.”

Twilight glared and poked her tongue out at him.

“Okay,” Path replied. “Give us a call again tomorrow if I don’t call you first.”

“Of course. Rest well, buddy!”

Twilight put down the communicator and looked at Free. “Now don’t you start getting any ideas, Firetail.”

“Aw, you wanna snuggle; I know you do!”

“Snuggle, maybe, but later. I have to update my friends on what’s been happening.”

“Gonna tell them about Path and Rose’s celebration?” Free asked slyly.

“Good reports are always edited for relevance,” Twilight replied primly, and headed out of the cabin.

Free grinned and followed her out. ‘But someone has to add the colour,’ he added to himself.

The late start meant that their arrival at the changeling barrier was right at sunset. Luna did not even wait for the airship to land, instead taking off from the observation deck to be ready to raise the moon when Celestia lowered the sun.

A mooring tower had been erected near the railway siding since the last time that Free and Twilight had been there, and a base of operations had been hastily built. The sleepy little platform was now a bustling waystop before the city itself. Before they lost the light, they could see pairs of Royal Guards patrolling a perimeter only defined by flags, but which Free presumed was where the invisible changeling barrier terminated. He noticed that one of the buildings intersected that perimeter.

Cadance pointed to the building. “This is now our official changeling portal. Any changeling who has received permission to enter must pass through here, and is scrutinised thoroughly before the portal is opened. We have both unicorn and changeling Royal Guards stationed there to detect any possible incursion by Blue Changelings.”

Twilight asked, “What if they simply charge the portal before they’re identified or can be stopped?”

“The portal is failsafe – it must be deliberately held open to allow passage by any changeling. The shield has been re-tuned so that it takes two gatekeepers acting in concert to open it. Either can close it, and knocking out one will result in the same. The building is designed such that there can be no easy direct access to the portal so that there can’t be an attack so sudden that it can’t be closed in time. And of course, the portal isn’t kept open – it’s only needed sparingly after all.”

“You seem to have covered all the bases. Which changelings have been allowed in so far?”

“We have had visits from the Green and Yellow Changeling queens who have been given a very cautious introduction to the Empire. Both have recommended that any possible changeling consulate be located well away from the city. While they felt that they could cope with something closer, it would be a foolish risk. We have also let some of the changeling Royal Guards inside, but they have been limited to patrolling the far outskirts of the area bounded by the shield. Their purpose is to try to detect any possible incursion that was overlooked, or present before the shield was erected. It’s a very remote possibility, but we cannot afford to overlook it. After reading Long Path’s report, I consider any uncontrolled presence to be a danger to the Crystal Empire, to Equestria, and to themselves.”

“What about me?” Free asked. “Now that I know what it’s like and I can be careful, will I be allowed inside the shield?”

Cadance hesitated, and Shining Armor spoke up for her. “No. Not unless there’s a very specific reason for doing so, and at the moment, there isn’t.”

Free shrugged. “What? Afraid that I'll kiss you again?”

Cadance gave her husband a strange look as his ears reddened.

Free walked off and let him try to explain that away.

After they disembarked, Twilight and her friends were shown to their quarters, and while they were Spartan, they were comfortable. After putting away their belongings, they re-gathered in a meeting room where they were introduced to a field-uniformed navy-blue Crystal Pony with a light blue mane and tail.

Shining Armor introduced the pony to the group. “This is Captain Diamondhard, and she is in charge of this unit. In the absence of either Cadance or myself, she is the ultimate authority here. Captain, let me introduce you to Princess Luna who is here to coordinate the Equestrian forces with ours.”

Diamondhard bowed her head momentarily and said, “An honour to meet you, Your Highness. I look forward to working with you.”

“And I with thee, good Captain.”

“And this is Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Friendship, Element of Magic, and my sister.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Princess Sparkle.”

“Thank you, Diamondhard, but from now on, please call me just Twilight outside of formalities.”

“Understood, Your Highness.”

Shining continued to introduce the rest of the Harmony Bearers, and then came to Free. “And lastly, this is Free Agent, Twilight’s… companion, and adviser on changeling matters. While he chooses to be a griffon, he is in fact a changeling too, and the one that precipitated our need to put extra precautions into place.”

Diamondhard regarded Free with a fierce stare before she said, “Do you know how many mares got pregnant as a result of your shenanigans, including my sister?”

Free gave her a nervous grin in return. “Ah… not really. I wasn’t exactly in my right mind then. Sorry about that.”

Diamondhard snorted. “My sister isn’t sorry. She had been trying to convince her husband that it was time that they had a foal for quite some time. Your intervention was quite the motivation for him. However, while most of the other mothers-to-be have accepted the unplanned pregnancies, a few were less than happy due to being unmated or such. Princess Cadance has promised support for them though, so it’s not as bad as it could be, but we don’t intend for this to occur again. I will not be authorising passage for you through the shield.”

“Sheesh! Make one mistake that isn’t even your fault, and you get treated like a criminal,” Free grumbled.

“No, a threat, not a criminal,” the Captain corrected. “We learn from our mistakes.”

“You’re not the only one, Captain Hardcase.”

“Free, don’t provoke her,” Twilight chided. “She’s perfectly within her rights.”

“But not her attitude. If you need me, I’ll be outside, checking things out, and y’know, not being a threat.”

After Free exited, Twilight turned to Diamondhard and said, “While this is a military operation, may I remind you that many of Equestria’s greatest threats have been solved by the power of Harmony, and not by military might. You would do well to remember that before you provoke Free Agent again.”

“Understood, Your Highness,” the Captain replied stiffly.

But do you agree?’ Twilight wondered.

Luna decided to intervene in order to defuse the situation. “May I suggest that we are apprised of the current set-up and discuss our plans for the morrow? Then we may have our repast and turn in for the evening. We doth have a busy day ahead of us.”

“An excellent idea, Princess,” Diamondhard replied. “If you would turn your attention to the map, I will show you the disposition of our resources….”

Free did not return to the outpost until a few hours later. Entering his room, he found Twilight there already.

“Hi, babe. Why’re you here?”

“Waiting for you, of course. You missed dinner.”

“Wasn’t hungry.”

Twilight smiled sympathetically. “Yeah, overly officious people spoil my appetite also, but I can’t afford to skip meals like you can.”

“It’s not just that, Twi. Never in my life have so many people known what I am, and I’m finding that I have to justify or prove myself all the time.”

Twilight sat on the bed and patted the spot next to her. Free sat down and she put her foreleg around him comfortingly. “You don’t have to prove yourself to the ones who count, and the others will come around eventually.”

“Ha! Not even all your best friends trust me yet.”

“Let me guess – Applejack and Rainbow Dash?”

“Yeah. You know your friends well.”

“It’s not too hard to figure out if you understand them. Applejack represents the Element of Honesty, and she has to be absolutely sure of her facts before she commits herself. Rainbow Dash’s loyalty is to me, and you are as yet a little known quantity who has gone into a relationship with me. Once you’ve earned her trust, she will be your staunchest ally also. Just give them both time and you’ll enjoy their friendship too.”

“Easy for you to say, Twi. You don’t have to taste their distrust, let alone Captain Hardhead’s hostility. Your brother isn’t exactly a fan either.”

“Let me see if I can take some of that bad taste out of your mouth. I promised you snuggles later, didn’t I?”

Free’s smile returned. “Yeah, I distinctly remember that.”

Twilight stretched out on the bed. “I keep my promises, Firetail.”

Free settled himself next to her and they wrapped a wing about each other. He could already taste her affection for him, and he consumed it greedily.

“Better?” she asked.

“Much,” he agreed.

She nuzzled him and giggled. “Promise me something?”

“Anything, babe.”

“Find an excuse to put a pie in my brother’s face again. That was hilarious.”

Free burst out laughing. “Thanks, Sparkles, I needed that.”

Twilight kissed him and said, “You’re welcome.”

Free shape-changed to pegasus form so that he could properly kiss her back, and the couple spent the next few minutes exploring each other with their lips, and occasionally nibbling with their teeth. They only stopped when Twilight yawned widely.

“Better get some sleep now, Twi,” Free advised her.

Twilight nodded. “Good idea. Sleep well, dear.”

“With you, I always will.”



Chapter 10: Faster Than A Speeding Bullet...


It is said that an army marches on its stomach, and no less could be said for the soldiers and Royal Guards stationed at the portal barracks. Free, Twilight, and the rest of the Harmony Bearers took full advantage of the copious amounts of good food provided for breakfast. While they did so, they also discussed their plans for the day.

“I still say we should check out the barrier border for suspicious activity,” Rainbow Dash said between mouthfuls.

“All that walking for what, darling?” Rarity protested. “That’s the job of the soldiers.”

“Who’ll be walking? I’ll fly around the entire perimeter in no time!”

“Provin’ what, sugah?” Applejack scoffed. “You ain’t gonna see nothin’ movin’ at that speed.”

“And we won’t be splitting up anyway,” Twilight stated emphatically. “The whole point of having us all here is in case the power of Harmony is needed, and without all of us, we can’t wield it.”

“So we gotta sit around here all day? Not cool!” Dash sulked.

Twilight shook her head. “We’ll do exactly what Diamondhard asked us to do – watch out for anything odd in the vicinity, and stay available at a moment’s notice.”


“I can throw a ‘Defending the Crystal Empire’ party,” Pinkie suggested, getting up from the table to do exactly that.

Applejack grabbed Pinkie’s tail before she could leave. “Later, sugah. Them guards are on duty, and we should be too.”

“Aw!” Pinkie pouted.

“What about you, Free?” Twilight asked. “Want to join us?”

“Maybe later, Twi. I think I’ll poke around a bit; learn the lay of the land; stick my nose into everything; that kind of thing. Can’t tell if something is wrong if I don’t know what’s normal.”

“Okay. Have fun.” She then surprised him with a quick kiss on his cheek in front of everyone.

Free was impressed with how bold Twilight was getting, and a little heartened that there was not anything worse than a headshake of disbelief from Applejack. Fluttershy actually smiled at the sight.

“Catch ya later, girls. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he added with a wink.

Free left the mess hall and had a good look around. The place seemed a lot different in the morning light compared to yesterday evening. It was a lot clearer now what was where. To his right were the barracks which were located outside of the changeling barrier in order to accommodate the changeling Royal Guards and other hive volunteers. Across from the road were the officers’ and guest quarters where they had all stayed last night. Directly across from him was the supplies and stores building, located right next to the station platform to facilitate the transfer of goods and equipment directly from the train. Lastly was the command post which included the portal facilities. During his wanderings the previous evening, Free had found that the building straddled the border of the barrier roughly three quarters of the way in, so he had not been able to circle it like he had the other buildings. Of course to ordinary ponies, it was as if there was nothing there at all.

Free decided to poke his nose into that. Having been specifically told that he would not be allowed through the barrier, of course he had to try to push his luck. He entered the office and was immediately confronted by a unicorn guardspony.

“What are you doing here, griffon?”

“I just wanted to see the portal set-up.”

“There’s nothing to see, and you should know that already.”

“Just checking the security arrangements – independent observer, you know?”

The Guard looked like he was going to argue, hesitated, and then smirked. “Very well. It’s through there.” He pointed to his left with his hoof to a hallway flanked by two Red Changeling Royal Guards.

“Thanks, pal!” Free wondered if this was going to be too easy as he walked up to the hallway.

The Guards blocked the hallway with their spears, and one said, “Halt, changeling. You are not authorised to pass.”

“Aw come on! Didn’t you just hear the other guy? How can I check out the security arrangements if you won’t let me through?”

“Sir, we are the security arrangements. You have not been authorised to pass through the portal, so you may not enter the hallway.”

Free scowled at the Guard. “Don’t you know that I came in with Princess Twilight Sparkle and Princess Luna and the Harmony Bearers as part of the defence reinforcements?”

“I do. It makes no difference.”

“I’m a citizen in good standing of Equestria, and I don’t like being treated as a criminal suspect!”

“So are the rest of the changelings stationed here. They do not get to pass the barrier without authorisation either.”

“What’s your name, Guard? I intend to file a complaint to the princesses about this treatment!”

“When you do, you may tell them that Sergeant Sterling Shield sends his compliments,” the changeling replied, utterly unfazed by Free’s threats.

Free regarded him with a long glare before bursting out laughing. “I’ll do that, Sergeant. No hard feelings – I really am just testing the security situation though, and I would have been very surprised if you had been swayed by my idiotic demands. I hope you don’t get too bored standing there all day. Catch you later when you’re off-duty!”

Sterling Shield nodded in acknowledgement with the barest hint of a smile. “Have a good day, sir.”

Free left the office a little disappointed that he had not been able to bullshit his way past the Guards, but relieved that they seemed on the ball. He assumed that there would be many more soldiers out of view around the bend in the hallway, preventing the enemy from seeing the security arrangements. He would have to look for other possible weak points in the Empire’s defences.

Just then, a dust devil swept out of the fields and through the outpost, sending stinging sand into Free’s eyes. Judging by the cries of annoyance from the nearby soldiers, they were not any better off than he was, but after just a few long seconds, the dust devil had passed on. Free spat out the dirt that had blown into his beak and went over to one of the soldiers.

“Does this kind of thing happen often?” Free asked.

“All the time,” the earth pony replied. “It’s been pretty hot and warm lately, and the fields are dry. Those dust devils can blow up any time, and they’ve been a bit of a nuisance here.”

“Aren’t there any weather pegasi to control them?”

“The weather phenomenon is unpredictable and brief. By the time that a pegasus could be mobilised to do something about them, they’re already gone.”

“Leaving dust coating everything, I see,” Free said, shaking his wings to dislodge said dust.

“Like I said, they’re a nuisance. Word of advice – keep the window to your room closed when you’re not there.”

“Thanks, I’ll do that.”

Free was left considering his next move. There really was not much to see at this little outpost, and he had seen most of that last night. ‘Might as well look around the surrounding countryside,’ he thought, and took wing.

As had been described at the meeting the previous night, and similar to what he had seen the last time he had been in the Crystal Empire, the immediate area was primarily agricultural, with ploughed fields, barns, haystacks, and the occasional line of trees for windbreaks. There was a large amount of open space between the outpost and the nearest farm building, so there was not any easy way to hide ground forces. Free could see soldiers patrolling along a line of flags that gently curved away in the distance, obviously demarking the barrier’s invisible border.

Out of curiosity, Free flew up higher and cautiously headed for the barrier. Eventually he touched it, but much closer to the city than the border showed, indicating that it was in fact spherical. He considered going higher, but decided it was not worth it. ‘If its diameter is this wide, the top of the sphere will be way beyond my height limit.’ He considered his options, randomly selected a direction, and then headed that way to see what he could see.

“So did you find anything?” Twilight asked when Free returned for dinner.

“I ended up flying around a great deal of the countryside, trying to spot anything unusual, but with no success. At least I’m not feeling tired at all.”

“You mean you’ve been flying non-stop all day, and aren’t the least bit fatigued?”

Free shrugged. “I know we’re pretty far from the Crystal Heart, but there’s still some ambient love in the air keeping me topped up.”

“Maybe you should go back to Canterlot,” Twilight suggested.

“Oh, please! I’ve been better buzzed at a party. Besides, if you really needed to send me away, you would have to send away all the changeling guards also. That would sure throw a wrench in your security plans.”

“You have a point. Just let me know if you notice any potential problem, please, Firetail.”

Free gave her a confident grin. “I won’t let you down, Sparkles.”

Twilight nuzzled him gratefully, and then said, “I can’t wait until we hear what Path and Roseclaw have been doing today. It’s got to have been a lot more exciting than ours has been.”

While neither rushed their meals, they did not dawdle over them either. They soon were back in Twilight’s room and placing the call to Griffonia….

“We’ve had some setbacks, Twilight,” Path admitted. “It’s taking us more time to sort through the details of this estate, and we’re only now discovering that Ravenwing had been pretty heavily in debt.”

Roseclaw added, “His determination to marry me makes even more sense now. My family, while not as rich as some, is involved in a lot of business dealings, and Ravenwing owed money to some of them. Marrying into the family would have reduced or even cancelled out many of those debts, not to mention getting him more money to pursue his excessive lifestyle.”

Twilight thought about it for a moment, and then said, “But now that you are the First Lady of the House, wouldn’t that mean that your family would cancel those debts for you now?”

“That’s the good news,” Roseclaw replied. “Many have already been wiped out, and Path is negotiating deals for the rest. However, it will mean several steps backwards before we can start making progress on our plans for the House of Path.”

“Look at this way, Rose – we’re still ahead of the game,” Free reassured her. “Without the estate, there would be no House of Path outside of our drunken imagination. It’s early days yet, and I have confidence in Path and you.”

Path sighed. “You haven’t heard it all yet, Free. To save money, one of the first things that I looked at was reducing the number of staff. Ravenwing seemed to be keeping far more than he could possibly need, even allowing for his lifestyle. Many of them are indentured servants, but while I could write off their debt, the problem is that they indentured themselves to get out of grinding poverty, and they literally have nowhere to go if I dismiss them. I really don’t want to do that.”

“I agree,” Twilight said. “If our House is going to make a difference in Griffonia, setting a positive example is just one of the most important things that we can do. What about the rest of the staff though?”

“Some of them simply quit because they did not want to work for a pony.”

“Hardly a surprise,” Free commented.

“No, it wasn’t, but what did surprise me was the number that had no problem with it.”

Roseclaw said, “I had to explain that it has more to do with rank and status than species. Those servants respect Path’s status even if they find it odd to have a pony lord. Even with the lowest classes, rank and status mean everything.”

Path added, “Yeah, the staff have their strict rank structure too, and Goldenquill is effectively a lord among the servant class. Others strive to increase their status within their class just as much as the likes of Ravenwing do among the upper class. And that leads me to the most disturbing discovery that we made while reviewing the staff. I had instructed Goldenquill to bring all the staff one by one to my office to review their employment. Then he brought one middle-aged griffoness who seemed terrified of me. You’re not going to like why.”

Goldenquill stood in the doorway and addressed the next staff member waiting outside Path’s office. “Snow Wing, you are next. Compose yourself, hen – you are meeting your new lord, not your executioner,” he said sternly, but not without a note of sympathy in his voice.

The griffoness entered the office cautiously, giving Path and Roseclaw a chance to have a good look at her. Her avian half was covered mostly with mottled grey feathers except for the white plumage on her wings, hence making her name obvious. Her feline half was also basically grey, but with black rosettes patterning her fur. She would have been very pretty except for obvious scars marring her flanks, and the broken or missing feathers in various places.

Roseclaw gasped in dismay, and Path immediately got up from behind his desk in concern and approached her. He was shocked when she cringed away from him.

“Goldenquill, why is Snow Wing like this?” Path demanded.

The butler replied, “Snow Wing was Ravenwing’s concubine, milord. He was… less than considerate about her comfort in satisfying his desires.”

“Concubine? Is this normal, Rose?”

“Concubine is an honourable profession here, Path. You must realise that the constant striving for increasing rank and status leads to many arranged marriages, or marriages of convenience. The husband and wife are together purely for political purposes and to produce heirs. It is not unusual for either or both to have a concubine to meet their physical and emotional needs. Usually, to be a concubine means a lot of status, and a very pleasant lifestyle for one of the servant class, and so it is a sought-after position. I fear that something very wrong has happened to Snow Wing though.”

Path turned his attention back to Snow Wing. In his gentlest voice, he said, “There is no reason to fear me. Please tell me what has happened to you and why.”

Without taking her gaze away from the floor, she tremulously replied, “Lord Ravenwing would take me in a fit of rage whenever the Lady Roseclaw rebuffed him, sir. The worse his frustration, the more violent he became.”

Path had a sinking feeling. “Those newest wounds – he gave them to you just a few days ago, didn’t he?”

“Yes, sir – after he found out about your suit for Lady Roseclaw.”

Path winced at the confirmation that he was indirectly responsible for her latest abuse. “Why did you stay as his concubine if this is the way he treated you?”

“Because of my son, milord.”

“How is your son involved?”

“Lord Ravenwing promised to sponsor him through officer’s school in exchange for my services. If I had left, he would have had to drop out.”

“Surely a life as a simple soldier would have been sufficient if it gave you freedom from abuse?”

“Milord, my son would have not become a regular soldier. It was agreed that if he failed to become an officer, he would have to become Lord Ravenwing’s indentured servant to repay his debt.”

“And so you were trapped by your concern for your son’s future. Well, you don’t have to worry about Ravenwing anymore. He has lost all his status, his possessions, and his rights over you.”

“Yes, milord. I am now your concubine.”

“Wait! What?! No, that’s not what I mean! I neither want nor need a concubine,” Path hastily clarified.

Snow Wing looked only slightly relieved. “Then what does milord want of me then?”

“Stop calling me ‘milord’ every five seconds, for starters.” At seeing Goldenquill’s disapproving expression though, he amended, “An occasional ‘sir’ shows sufficient respect, Snow Wing, but I want you to know that the House of Path represents Friendship, Love, and Tolerance, and respect works both ways. I respect what you have done for your son, but I don’t need a concubine – I need happy, diligent staff members. You have not been happy here, obviously, so perhaps it’s best that you find other employment?”

Snow Wing looked crushed. “Milord does not need me then? I will tell my son to report to you tomorrow then.”

“Huh? What am I missing here?” Path asked.

Roseclaw spoke up. “I believe that she cannot afford to pay for her son’s schooling, and only Ravenwing’s sponsorship made that possible. We’ve inherited that responsibility, but you have just effectively told her that we would not be continuing the sponsorship in lieu of Ravenwing.”

“Is this true?” Path asked.

For the first time, Snow Wing looked up to gaze at Path directly, and he saw that her eyes were filled with tears. “Yes, sir.”

“Oh, Snow Wing, I am so sorry! I’m still very new at this stuff, and I’m going to make some more mistakes before I settle into my role as Lord of House Path. Let me reassure you right now that we will continue your son’s sponsorship, and we will find a place for you in this House also.”

Roseclaw stepped up and put a reassuring wing around Snow Wing, hugging her gently. “You are obviously a good and conscientious mother, and I could do with someone like you when I have children.”

“Er… you’re not being a bit hasty, are you, dear?” Path asked.

“Later, my love. Snow Wing, until then, would you like to take a position as my personal assistant?”

“Milady? Really?”

“Yes, really. I have a feeling that you will do well, but even if that doesn’t work out, you will have a job here at least until your son graduates. I hope longer though.”

“Thank you, milady! Thank you too, milord! You won’t regret your decision.”

Path reached out with one hoof and Snow Wing flinched a little before he lifted her chin and said, “Your son should be proud of what you have done for him, and you can be proud for your dedication. Welcome to House Path.”

Roseclaw added, “Take the day off to do whatever you wish. I suggest you see a healer to see if they can do something about your injuries, and then maybe visit a bathhouse and get a good grooming. And before you protest that you can’t afford it, we will cover any costs. I expect to see you bright and early tomorrow, looking your best for the start of your new job.”

Snow Wing actually smiled, and although the tears continued, it was from the overwhelming feeling of gratitude and relief this time. “Yes, milady!”

“Dismissed,” Path said with a grin.

They watched her nearly scamper out of the office with satisfaction. Then Path’s expression turned serious again. He looked at Goldenquill and said, “You were aware of all this?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why would you want to work for such a creep as Ravenwing?”

“We all had our reasons like Snow Wing. Some of them were worse than others.”

“Then what’s keeping you here now?”

“Because I believe that like Snow Wing, we have good reason to stay now.”

Path nodded thoughtfully. “I see. ’Quill, I believe you and I are going to work well together, but try to keep me from making foolish oversights like that again, please.”

“I will endeavour to do so, sir.”

“Thanks, ’Quill.”

“Is milord going to continue calling me by half my name?”

Path smiled. “Probably.”

Goldenquill sighed melodramatically. “I suppose not everything can be perfect.”

Roseclaw giggled. “I can see you two are going to be a lot of fun.”

Path sat back down behind his desk once more. “So, any more nasty surprises in store for me today?”

“Probably, sir,” Goldenquill deadpanned.

“Bring ‘em on!”

“So what sort of surprises did you get?” Free asked.

“Oh, all sorts of things. Former cronies of Ravenwing who thought they would get a similar deal with me, but were shown the door instead. Suspected thieves. A couple of bigots. One idiot who thought Roseclaw was a new hire and tried to put the moves on her.”

“Ooh, what did you do to him?”


“Nothing at all?” Free’s disappointment was enormous.

“Why should I? My fiancée is a warrior too, after all.”

“Let’s just say that he couldn’t wait to leave after I was through with him,” Roseclaw said smugly.

“I am so sorry I didn’t get to see that,” Free bemoaned.

“Back on subject,” Twilight said, although fighting off a smile of her own. “Did you manage to get the staff sorted out?”

“Almost. The head groundskeeper will be taking us out to see the grounds staff tomorrow. We’ve pared down the staff to a manageable level already however, and we’ll be looking at other cost-cutting measures after that. I did have one other interesting meeting today though.”

“Oh? Who with?”

“Did I mention that Ravenwing was deeply in debt…?”

“Sir, there are two griffs here to see you. They are former associates of Ravenwing, and they say that they now have business with you to sort out.”

Path sighed. “I wonder how many of these I’m going to have to deal with? Okay, better send them in, ’Quill.”

“Very well, sir, but may I recommend a touch of caution. These are less than savoury types.”

“Forewarned is forearmed. Thanks, ’Quill.”

Path disliked the two griffs on sight. They were almost stereotypical in their demeanour – one a big brute and the other a shifty-eyed individual whom he wouldn’t trust for a moment. He could almost guess Ravenwing’s association with them already.

“I am Long Path, Lord of this House. I hear that you have had dealings with the previous owner of this castle.”

Shifty-eyes smirked. “Yeah, and I hear that you won all of Ravenwing’s possessions and titles. Dunno how a pony could do that, but business is business. He owed us money, and now you do.” The brute loomed over Path to add emphasis to his colleague’s words.

Path did not like the contemptuous note in the griff’s voice, and he replied, “I don’t believe that is true, and in any case, your disrespectful attitude towards me won’t buy you any satisfaction from me.”

“I’ll tell you what we respect – crowns! You fork over the crowns, and we fork over the respect.”

“Did Ravenwing owe you for goods purchased from you?” Path sincerely doubted it, but he had to be sure. “If so, you can have said goods back.”

The griff guffawed. “Nah, he owed us for being very bad at poker. Now you have all his assets, so you pay up.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Told you ponies are stupid, Crackbeak.”

“Stupid,” the brute agreed.

“Gonna tell you just once, pony – pay up or else.”

“Or else what?”

“Or else we get to eat pony steaks tonight. Kinda curious what that might taste like actually.” They both stepped closer to Path and reared up with talons extended, adding a lot more menace to their words.

“Then let me tell you just once – get out of my House before I lose my temper.” He reared up on his hind legs and put a hoof on each of their chests.

Shifty-eyes looked at the hoof on his chest contemptuously. “Think those clawless things will stop us?”

“Yep.” Path could not do the thunderhoof with his forehooves, but the same spell that powered it also allowed him to easily kill the changeling invader months back. Path had some mercy though – he only knocked them halfway through the wall.

“Quill!” Path called.

“Yes, milord?” The butler had evidently been waiting, prepared for almost anything.

“Please arrange to have the trash removed from my office.”

“With pleasure, sir.”

“Last I heard, they were both in the hospital, and likely to make full recoveries. Hopefully they’ll spread the word that this new House is not ever going to be a pushover.”

“Is gambling what got Ravenwing so into debt?” Twilight asked.

“Only part of it, Twilight. Hopefully his other debtors will be more reasonable. If they have reasonable claims over goods, then I will be happy to negotiate a fair settlement with them. If it’s a personal debt though, they can take it up with Ravenwing. Those are his problem, not mine.”

“Seems like you have your work cut out for you. I wish that I could be there to help. After all, I’m part of the House of Path too.”

“Wish you were here also, although it has more to do with the charter that me and Rose are putting together.”

“We can still discuss that over the Talkie.”

“Yes, and we can do that tomorrow if you like? Meanwhile though, it’s getting a bit late, and I’d like to head off to bed.”

“We’d better be getting to bed also,” Twilight replied and then looked at Free who grinned back at her. “Although I think we might be doing some serious snuggling first.”

Path laughed. “Yeah, I think I could do with a bit of that too. Goodnight!”

After breakfast, Free headed over to the portal building again. Although no pony intercepted him this time, the changeling guards were already on duty, and he ambled over to them. Once again they crossed their spears to prevent access to the hallway.

“Good morning, Sergeant! Did you get the memo that I was to be allowed through the portal today?”

“Good morning, Free Agent, and no, I didn’t, so I’m afraid you’ll not be going through right now.”

“Even though it was Princess Twilight Sparkle who said so?”

“Princess Sparkle is not my immediate superior, nor the commander of this outpost.”

“Looks like I’ll have to work on that, won’t I?”

Sterling Shield smirked. “Good luck with that.”

Free grinned back. “Thanks. Y’know – you’re awfully chatty for a Royal Guard. Most I’ve met are very businesslike – never using three words when just one will do.”

“Comes from our normal duty directive. The Changeling Royal Guard Squad was first formed with the intention of familiarising the citizens of Canterlot with the growing population of undisguised changelings in the community. We were to mingle and interact with the ponies while being obviously sanctioned by the princesses in our position of authority.”

“In other words, you were ordered to chat with everypony and make friends where possible,” Free summed up.

“While we still had our normal Guard duties to perform, that’s basically correct.”

“Nice. And here I haven’t even gotten your comrade’s name yet.”

The other guard spoke up. “My name is Bazztuk.”

“What? No pony name like Sterling here?”

“I joined the Royal Guard after changelings started being seen undisguised in Canterlot. I had no need to take on a pony-style name, unlike the sergeant.”

Sterling Shield added, “Bazztuk is the youngest in the squad, barely out of basic training before he was selected. He doesn’t even have a pony alter-ego yet.”

“Still don’t feel the need for one, sarge.”

“You might change your mind about that eventually,” Sterling said with a knowing smile. “It could come in handy.”

Bazztuk just shrugged.

Free said, “I’ve seen your squad around Canterlot occasionally. Are you all Red Changelings?”

Sterling replied, “Yes. While there is no restriction on hive, Reds do tend to gravitate towards this profession. Speaking of hive affiliation though, why is it that I can’t tell what yours is?”

Free grinned. “I’m my own hive, mate! You’ll never see me kowtowing to a queen!”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“Better believe it! Nopony has ever….”

“Mister Agent!” A stern voice interrupted Free.

Free turned around to see Diamondhard standing there, glaring at him.

“You have no business here. Please move along.” While it was phrased as a request because Free was a civilian, he knew a firm order when he heard it.

“Aye, aye, Captain Hardhead!” Free trotted out of the building under the baleful gaze of the captain. Once outside, he looked around, considering what to do next. Like yesterday, there seemed nothing obvious, so he took off in the opposite direction from last time. Perhaps today he would find something of interest?

Twilight found Free in the shower when she came back to their room before dinner to freshen up.

“Hi, Free. How was your day?”

Two dust storms, Twi! Two eye-stinging, feather-fouling whirlwinds caught me today. I’m so glad to be back.”

“One’s bad enough, but two? That must have been awful. Want a little help scrubbing your back?”

Free grinned at the coy look Twilight was giving him. “Don’t need to ask, hon. I’m always up for a scrub from you.”

Twilight giggled, joined him under the shower, and set to work on his back.

“So how was your day, Sparkles?”

“I spent some of the morning discussing House Charter with Path. He reckons he’ll have a firm final version ready for us tonight.”

“Awesome! Anything else?”

“Not really. It’s been pretty quiet actually. I gather that you haven’t seen anything of importance either today?”

“Nah. Everything is so boringly normal, it’s hard to believe that there’s any threat. Maybe that’s Chrysalis’ plan – to bore us to death?”

“I wouldn’t put it past her,” Twilight said as she shifted to cleaning Free’s wings.

“So what are the rest of your friends doing?”

“Well, Rainbow Dash is doing much the same thing as you – scouting around and looking for anything unusual. Those trunks that Rarity brought along – they’re filled with materials for gowns that she’s working on for customers.”

“I remember that she was complaining about having to pack so ‘lightly’,” Free said with a smirk.

“You should see what she brings when there isn’t a weight restriction!”

“I shudder to think. What about Applejack?”

“We’re in the midst of farmlands – guess what she’s sticking her nose into?”

“I’ll take a wild stab at apple-growing.”

“However did you guess? Although to be fair, she's also interested in other produce and their farming techniques.”

“That leaves Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie. I’m gonna guess that Flutter's been getting cosy with the local fauna. As for Pinkie… hmm… baking?”

“You got it, although she’s planning a party for tonight. One of the crystal ponies has her birthday today, so plan on sticking around after dinner.”

“Sounds like fun. Seems like everypony has something to fill their time except for you.”

“Actually the free time has been very welcome. I’ve been using it to do some projects that I’ve had to put off for a while. Top of the list has been making more of my Talkie Trotties. I feel that communications will be a key factor in defence, and with Rainbow Dash scouting so far away, we need her to be able to return at a moment’s notice.”

“Yeah, not much point in having you here if one out of the group is out of touch. My turn to scrub your back, Twi.”

Although she could easily scrub her own back with telekinesis, Twilight found she much preferred it when Free did it, even if she did not need it. Maybe especially if she did not need it. From that point, scrubbing quickly morphed into more intimate touching and nuzzling. If they had not needed to get to dinner on time so as to not spoil Pinkie’s party plans, things may have gotten even steamier.

Free was a little giddy by the time that he and Twilight got back to their room from the party. The amount of positive emotion that had filled the room had stuffed him almost as much as the huge quantities of cake and other goodies. Spirits were certainly high after that little morale-booster.

They collapsed onto the bed with groans of satisfaction, and as Free cuddled up to Twilight, the alicorn levitated the Talkie over from the dresser. She activated the spell that would set its opposite number ringing, and it was quickly answered.

“Hi, Free! Hi, Twilight! I’m glad to hear from you.”

“Twi tells me that you should have our House Charter ready,” Free replied.

“Yes, but something a lot more important has come up; something very disturbing.”

From the tone of Path’s voice, they could tell it was serious. Twilight said, “Better tell us about that first then. What’s happened?”

“Remember that the head groundskeeper was to introduce me to his staff today? Well, let’s just say that my preconceptions of them could not have been further from the truth….”

Groundskeeper Greenclaw was only a small griff, with the avian half being that of a burrowing owl, which Path thought was most appropriate. His rear half looked to be of a bobcat, which seemed a bit of a mismatch, but at least his bobtail wouldn’t get in the way of his work. He seemed to be a dour individual, but perhaps it was the novelty of a new lord in charge that was responsible for that. Free would give him time to get used to it.

Greenclaw started with giving Path and Roseclaw a tour of the grounds to familiarise them with some of the less obvious attributes. They were impressed by the variety to be found, ranging from formal garden beds to almost natural ponds and small copses of trees. In fact, it was so good that Path had to question it.

“Frankly I can’t see Ravenwing being so interested in gardens this complex and beautiful,” Path said to Greenclaw. “So what’s going on here that I don’t know?”

“ 'is lordship didn't care much at all. ‘Make it pretty to impress my guests’, 'e tells me. Only time 'e ever came out here was fer one of 'is fancy events, fairly boasting about them then. Never a word about our hard work, but we knew who deserved the praise.”

Path could tell that there was no love lost between Greenclaw and Ravenwing. The question was whether that attitude would spill over onto him.

“Well, I want to meet the griffs who did this wonderful work. Where are they anyway? I haven’t spotted any yet.”

Greenclaw snorted in amusement. “Yeah, griffs. They’re waiting to meet their new master at the workshop.”

“I dislike being called ‘master’, Greenclaw. I am their employer, nothing more.”

“I calls it as I sees it, yer lordship.”

They were brought to a large building that was set out of sight behind a stand of tall trees. It looked like a combination of a barn and a smithy, and Long Path assumed that it was the main workshop where all the tools and supplies were kept. Greenclaw took them in through one of the doors where they found they were greeted by a sea of faces. The owners of those faces though, shocked Path to the core.

“They’re all earth ponies! Are you telling me that Ravenwing’s entire grounds staff are ponies except for you?”

“Yep. Finest bunch of slaves in all of Griffonia. Earth ponies make the best gardeners.”

“Slaves! You can’t be serious?!” He whirled around to look at Roseclaw. “Did you know about these? How are there pony slaves here?”

Roseclaw looked embarrassed and apologetic. “I’m so sorry, darling, but it never occurred to me that there would be pony slaves here. My family doesn’t keep them at all.”

“But you still knew about slaves? How can this be?”

“They’re descendants of the prisoners taken during the last pony-griffon war. While Griffonia lost, the king at that time concealed the fact that they had many prisoners, and those ponies were thought to have been killed. Instead they were put to work in the fields. Pegasi were frequently killed trying to escape. Unicorns had their horns hacked off, but they were more trouble than they were worth without their magic. Earth ponies survived though, and they eventually had children, and their children had children, and… well… these are some of the latest generation.”

Path looked at the ponies who were quietly and nervously watching and listening. It made sense – a horrible and tragic one, but one that brought him to one inescapable conclusion: he was now a slave-owner.

“Rose, I can’t own another pony. How do I go about freeing them?”

“Yer Lordship can’t be serious?” Greenclaw objected.

“Be quiet! I wasn’t addressing you!” Path snarled at Greenclaw, who recoiled as if bitten.

“I’m sorry, dear, but I don’t think there exists any formal means of freeing slaves.”

“Then we’re going to create one.” He turned to the crowd. “Who among you can speak for all of you?” he asked in Equish.

There were a lot of confused looks before a mare spoke up. “No speak pony – griff speak,” she said in halting Equish.

Path suddenly realised that most of these ponies had probably never heard anyone speaking Equish. Through the generations, they had only needed to know Griffish, and most of their native tongue had been forgotten. He repeated his question in the griffon language.

A shire stallion even bigger than Path stepped forward. “I am Groundpounder, headpony of this clan. How can I serve you, your lordship?”

“Did you know that a pony had taken over this House?”

“So I was told, milord.”

“And didn’t you see anything odd about that?”

“We belong to the House, your lordship.”

“No pony should belong to any House, or any griff for that matter. I intend to set you all free, and offer you passage back home to Equestria.”

There was a squawk of outrage from Greenclaw that Path ignored.

“Home? We are home, your lordship.”

“I mean, back with other ponies.”

Groundpounder looked about himself, and then replied, “We are already with other ponies.”

Path wondered why he could not get his point across, but Roseclaw spoke up.

“Don’t you see, darling? This is the only home these ponies have ever known, and they have their families and their lives entrenched here. To them, Griffonia is their home, and Equestria is a fearful unknown. Am I right, Groundpounder?”

“Yes, your ladyship.”

“But Rose, I can’t be owning slaves!” Path objected.

“Then don’t. Proclaim that they are free, and then formally hire them back. You won’t have slaves, but you keep your staff.”

“I won’t be able to afford that! If they’re all slaves, then that means that they aren’t paid. If they become staff, I will have to pay them, or else it all becomes meaningless words.”

“I’m sure that you’ll find a solution, dear. Meanwhile, why don’t you ask what they want?”

Path facehoofed. Why hadn’t he thought of that? “Well, you heard her ladyship – what do you want of me?”

Groundpounder looked thoughtful before replying, “Respect.”

Path blinked in surprise. “That’s all?”

“It’s a lot, your lordship.”

Path considered that. As slaves, they literally had nothing that was not given to them by their owner. They all looked healthy and strong, so they were well fed, and the condition of this building suggested that they did not lack decent housing, but the one thing that they probably never got from Ravenwing was the respect that they deserved for their hard work. He gave the ponies his most sincere smile.

“Mares and stallions, I am most deeply impressed with the work that you have done to make these grounds and gardens one of the most impressive that I have ever seen, and I am proud to have you on my staff. I will be discussing a suitable reward for your efforts with Greenclaw and Groundpounder soon.”

One blue-coated colt stepped forward. “Hey, us colts and fillies do a lot also!”

“Blue Streak!” a mare urgently called out. “Show your lord some respect and get back here!”

“No, wait.” Path’s interest was aroused by the first pony who had shown some spirit, even if he was just a colt. “Blue Streak, is it? I see your cutie mark is a lightning bolt – does that mean you’re fast?”

“The fastest, your lordship! No pony can match me.” He looked at Roseclaw and grinned cheekily. “No griff either!”

Path was liking this colt more and more, and he could see that Roseclaw was amused by his cheekiness also. “Okay, Blue Streak, I’d like you to come with me for a while, if it’s okay with your mother.”

“Naw, that’s my aunt. My mom and dad died when I was only two.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. So your aunt is your guardian?” he asked, looking up at the mare in question.

“Yes, your lordship,” she replied.

“I’ll have him back to you soon enough,” he reassured her. “Come on, Streak, I want to see what you can do. Oh, and Greenclaw, thank you for the tour. I suggest you all get back to your normal duties until I can sort out exactly what I want to do about this situation.”

“As you wish, your lordship,” Greenclaw replied.

Path exited the workshop, accompanied by Roseclaw, with Blue Streak following close behind as instructed. When they were clear of the concealing trees and could see the castle clearly again. Path halted and said to Blue Streak, “See the archway into the courtyard?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Race you there!” Path galloped away, leaving the startled colt behind… but not for long.

Path was still recovering from his injuries, but he was still making good speed. Moments later, though, a blue blur overtook him and left him in its wake. Path chuckled and eased up a bit. There was no point in overtaxing himself if he was going to be so comprehensively beaten anyway.

Blue Streak was sitting at the archway, waiting a little impatiently for him, not even breathing hard. Roseclaw joined them moments later, having taken to the air to watch them.

“Well, my young colt, you certainly got the best of me. My dear, would you care to test Streak’s claim at being able to go faster than a griffon?”

“My pleasure, love. Blue Streak, see that pond? We will race around the pond, touch the tree, and return. Are you ready?”

“Yes, ma’am!”


Blue Streak took off, kicking divots of turf as he accelerated to top speed in almost nothing flat. Roseclaw leaped into the air, beating her wings hard. Path watched in fascination as the two raced. Roseclaw had the advantage of being able to take a direct route, while Blue Streak had to dodge around garden beds and other features. Nevertheless, the colt was living up to his boast and holding his own, and they reached the tree nearly simultaneously. However, there the balance changed. While Roseclaw brushed the foliage and banked to make a turn, Blue Streak simply leaped at the trunk and bounced back, reversing his course in virtually no time, gaining him a significant lead. As hard as Roseclaw tried, she could not make up the difference, and Blue Streak skidded to a stop a second ahead of the griffoness. This time the colt was panting hard, but he had a grin a mile wide.

“Told you so!” he boasted. “Sir!” he added belatedly.

“It’s not hard to see how you earned your cutie mark,” Path said with a smile. “I have never seen any earth pony so fast before.”

“Nopony is as fast as me, sir,” Blue Streak said confidently.

“Ha! Rainbow Dash might dispute that, I reckon, unless you’ve done a sonic boom lately?”

“A what, sir?”

“Never mind. Streak, I want you to see me again tomorrow. I think that I might have an idea that could change your future… unless you’re looking forward to a career as a gardener?”

“I’m a good worker, sir… but…” Streak said hesitantly.

“But you have dreams of something more, don’t you? I sensed that from the moment you spoke up.”

Blue Streak merely nodded, not daring to hope for more.

“Good. You can go now, Streak.”

“Bye, sir!” Streak galloped away again.

“I don’t think that colt can go slow,” Path commented to Roseclaw.

“I agree. I quite like him.”

“Me too. You didn’t take it easy on him, did you?”

“No, but although I’m very fast, there are faster griffs than me.”

“Doesn’t matter – he’s proved himself as far as I’m concerned. He has a lot of potential.”

“You’re considering such a young colt for your plans for the House?”

“I am. In fact I think his youth will count in his favour. Less bad habits to undo.”

“And his status as a slave?”

Path set his jaw grimly. “That’s something that will be very high on my list of priorities. No matter what it might cost me, I’m going to put a stop to the business of owning ponies.”

“Be cautious, love. I strongly suggest that you establish our House securely so that we have a foundation on which we can build support for your ideas.”

“My ideas, yes, but do you agree with them, Rose? I’m going to be shaking some things up a lot.”

“I already made my choice, darling. I will support you unreservedly.”

Path put his foreleg around her neck and pulled her into a kiss. “Thank you, Rose. I love you.”

“And I love you too, my warrior.”

“So, we’re slave-owners until we find a way to change their status?” Twilight summed up.

“Yeah. I’ve asked for an audience with the king, and while it was initially to present the charter for our House, I fully intend to bring up the slavery business.”

“I hope you get Quiet Words to help you there. It’s not something that will be changed overnight, no matter how we feel about it.”

“Don’t worry, Twilight. After I cooled down, I thought things through a bit better and I can see that it won’t be easy. I fully intend to formally emancipate ours though, even if not legally as yet.”

“Can we handle putting them on as staff though?”

“Fortunately, it won’t be as bad as I first thought. A little creative thinking was involved, but basically they are living in my dwellings, so I can charge rent, and they’re growing food on my land, so I officially get my cut. That means that with those deductions and a few others like the education that I plan to give the foals, I need only pay them a nominal wage. Of course I will bring that up to more realistic levels when we can afford it, but they’ll still be better off, and we won’t be slave-owners any longer. Win-win, I reckon.”

“Sounds good, but have you managed to decrease the overall staff costs enough?”

“I think so, but I plan to hit the king up for a little more support anyway.”

“What makes you think he’ll give it?”

“Because I think we’re being manipulated, Twilight. Why did the king create a new noble House for us? Sure, I won Ravenwing’s status and possessions, but that didn’t make me a noble. I have this suspicion that the king has an agenda of his own, and we’re the means of achieving that. What are the chances that Glimfeather did not know that Ravenwing had pony slaves?”

“I see your point, and that may be just the first of the things that we might encounter. Are you going to be okay, Path?”

“I have Rose to help me, Twilight, and I think I have some pretty good staff to assist me also.”

Free said, “That’s great, buddy, but never forget that we’re just a comm call away.”

“I know. Miss you guys a lot!”

“Same here, mate! Hey, did you get that House charter finished like I asked about?”

“There was a delay due to the slave business, but it’s basically done. Want to hear the tenets of the House?”

“Sure! Let’s hear ’em.”

“Okay. We added one more after today’s experience, but it holds number one position.” He then listed them, pausing between each to let them take each in before proceeding to the next:

• All thinking creatures are your brothers or sisters.
• Embrace cultural differences.
• Never stop learning.
• Hone the body and the mind; find the balance and master yourself.
• Honour the House, honour the Crown, honour your opponent, and honour yourself.
• Every failure is a learning experience; every victory is a time to reflect.
• Perfection is an unobtainable goal; while one may strive for it, only a fool thinks that they can reach it.
• Graciousness in defeat; humility in victory.
• The lion helps the mouse; the mouse helps the lion.
• Excessive force is never authorised.
• Elders are your past; you are the present; youth are your future – preserve the link.
• All truth is subjective to the observer.

“We’re leaving the list of tenets open. I believe that as we grow as a House, we may realise that we have omitted something that is dear to our philosophy.”

“That’s going to be a hard sell in Griffonia, you know that?” Free asked.

“I know, and it will probably mean a slow start to getting new members, but it also means that those that come first are most likely to believe in the same things that we do.”

“Sounds good. And you already have your first student too.”

“You mean Blue Streak? Not yet, but I think he’s the type to jump at this sort of thing. Maybe some of the other slaves, but I’m thinking that it’ll be their foals who will raise the status of their families. However, it’s the existence of pony slaves that will also push another agenda, and that’s my status as an officer in the Griffonian army.”

Twilight said, “Conflict of interest.”

“Yep. You’ve obviously been thinking of this, Twilight.”

“From the very beginning, actually. The slaves just complicate things, as you have realised. You are a representative of the Equestrian Crown, and as such, you have to put Equestria’s interests first, and owning slaves is very much illegal. As a Griffonian officer though, you have to defend their kingdom and support their laws, which includes legal slavery. You need to resolve that conflict.”

“Right, and I think I have a solution, but I’m going to need your help.”

“How so?”

“As an Equestrian princess, you have the authority to make a deal between the two countries, and have I got a deal to offer the king!”



Chapter 11: Pawns, Kings, and Queens


Path was both dreading and looking forward to this meeting with King Glimfeather. He was going to start a revolution among griffon society at best, or provoke a great deal of enmity at worst. He took a deep breath to compose himself before entering the king’s audience chamber.

Roseclaw gave him a reassuring hug. “Stand your ground and be confident, my love. The king can be a lot more reasonable in the privacy of his audience chamber.”

Path nodded. “You’re right, so we better get started. Don’t want to get things off on the wrong hoof by being late.”

Path knocked on the chamber door and was admitted by the king’s chamberlain. Glimfeather was already seated behind a magnificent oak desk that had been lovingly carved and polished to perfection. It was also an imposing reminder of the power in this kingdom. Path and Roseclaw stopped before it and bowed respectfully.

“Good morning, Your Majesty. Thank you for this audience.”

“Good morning to you too, Lord and Lady Path. I was expecting your request for an audience anyway. It isn’t often that new House is created, and there is inevitably much to be sorted out. You have our undivided attention for now. I believe you have your proposed House tenets and goals to present to me?”

“Yes, sire, and a few conflicts to resolve.”

“Then perhaps we should have a look at those first,” the king replied equably.

“Right. First of all, as a lord of a Griffonian House and especially as an officer in the Griffonian army, I am expected to give my services to the nation and the Crown. However, as a citizen of Equestria, an envoy of the diarchy, and with a princess of Equestria as one of my House’s founding members, you can see that there can be a considerable conflict of interest.”

“You are correct, although I reassure you that I have no designs against Equestria.”

“I did not wish to imply that you had, Your Majesty, but there are other problems that aren’t so simply resolved. Unless they can be, I might at least have to resign my commission in your army.”

“I would advise strongly against it. You have been here long enough to understand the value of rank and status in our society, and that would be a major blow against your other efforts.”

Path got the impression that the king had already anticipated a number of points that he was going to bring up. “You would be correct, but before I pursue that further, I wish to bring up the most important matter that came to my attention just yesterday. Are you aware that there are ponies being held as slaves here in Griffonia?”

“I am,” the king replied without changing his expression.

Path would have been hugely surprised if the king had not been aware. “And did you realise that Ravenwing kept a large herd of them to maintain his castle’s grounds?”

“I did.”

“So you expected that I would find this out and be outraged by it?”

“Correct. So what are you going to do about it?” Glimfeather asked calmly.

Path was startled by that response. “Me? I’m not the one who allows slavery! I can emancipate my slaves, but they’d still be regarded as property by the majority of griffs. I talked to them again this morning , and most of them don’t even understand the concept of freedom. I can’t even send them back to Equestria because they were born here and consider this country their home. I need to break this mindset and the cycle of slavery from one generation to the next, and I am certainly not stopping with just the slaves on my property! I need your authority to put an end to all slavery once and for all.”

Throughout Path’s rant, the king listened calmly. He then asked, “Tell me, Lord Path, what is your impression of your slaves? Are they well fed? Healthy? Happy?”

“I suppose so. Aside from being respectful to authority, especially me, they seemed more like servants rather than slaves.”

“I can tell you that this was not always so. Back when their ancestors were captured, they were much abused, and several died from their maltreatment. After many years, the survivors and their owners settled into a harsh but sustainable relationship. The troublemakers were eliminated and the strong survived. Eventually those survivors bred, producing foals who never knew anything else but life as a slave. Despite severe punishments and privation, they were slaves and that was how it ever was, and despite being told tales of Equestria by their parents. By the time that I came to power, yet another generation had been born who by now regarded those tales as mere fiction. It came as a surprise to them when I started making laws requiring that slaves be treated with due care and consideration. Whipping and other corporal punishments were banned, and slaves were required to be adequately fed and housed. By now, those pony slaves are much more as your impression of them – servants of the nobles and warriors.”

“But still slaves,” Path pointed out. “They are not paid, don’t have any choice in their careers, and may not leave their employ or the country. If you are so benevolent, why didn’t you just simply free the slaves and send them to Equestria?”

Glimfeather laughed. “If only it was that simple. Let me give you a lesson in being a king, my young stallion – a king that doesn’t listen to his nobles will quickly lose their support, and thus his ability to rule, and a king who doesn’t listen to his warriors will soon be king no more. The possession of slaves had become more than just an act of defiance against Equestria, but also a big status symbol. If I had tried to take their slaves away, that would have affected their status enormously.”

“And status is everything in griffon society,” Path concluded. “So you’ve done as much as you can, and now you’re expecting me to take it further?”

The king grinned broadly. “I knew you would figure that out. You are in a unique position, Lord Path – a noble in both Griffonia and Equestria. You might be able to do what I cannot do alone.”

“That answers one question that has been bothering me – why did you create a new House for me and my friends when all I had won was Ravenwing’s possessions, status, and castes? You knew that my title would probably be ratified by Princess Celestia and Luna, especially with Twilight Sparkle as both witness and member. You have manoeuvred me into providing a balance between the Equestrian and Griffonian kingdoms, with my recent popularity giving me the status to actually achieve something.”

“Excellent! So I ask you again – what do you intend to do about it?”

“It’s funny that you should ask, Your Majesty, because I have some proposals that could radically change the relationship of griffons to ponies. But before I present those, I would like to clear up why Princess Celestia never did anything about the slave situation. It seems unlikely that in the nearly eight decades since the end of the war, she has been unaware of them.”

The king shook his head. “She did not at first, and that was her own fault. King Warscream had been quick to offer to repatriate the prisoners of war in exchange for some face-saving concessions. What he did not tell Celestia was that they had far more prisoners than the ponies knew about, many already regarded as being killed in action. Warscream retained a large portion of these ponies who had never been in contact with the other prisoners, and he handed those out to the various nobles and warriors whose support he wished to keep. Those pony slaves were probably what saved Warscream’s crown, else he may have been quickly deposed rather than ruling for another half century. Kings who lose wars don’t often survive their loss. Anyway, Celestia imposed a strict embargo on Griffonia, preventing all trade and communication with our nation. The secret of the slaves was kept for a long time; so long that by the time that Celestia did learn of their existence, it was too late to do anything else but very slow diplomatic approaches. The only alternative would of course have been war, and that would have lost far more lives than they would have saved from slavery.”

“So you and Celestia have been working on this together for decades then?” Path concluded.


“Why didn’t she warn us about this situation then?”

Glimfeather shrugged. “Neither she nor I are omniscient and can’t foresee every contingency. We had intended that you be gradually introduced to the situation as you came more familiar with our ways, as was your original intention, I believe. Princess Luna’s enthusiastic backing of your project only accelerated our plans. The duel was completely unanticipated though, but I was quick to see how it could be turned to our advantage.”

Path’s respect for the griffon king grew. He was not only intelligent, but also caring. In a society where status and strength were worshipped, he had achieved much, but there was still a lot more to be done. “Okay, if we are to be your tool, then we are going to need a lot of support from you. First of all, we need money. Ravenwing left his estate deep in debt. By selling off some things, dismissing excess staff, and negotiating various deals, I have greatly reduced that debt. However, there is still a considerable amount left, and this would greatly hamstring my efforts.”

“Present Stormwind with the details of those remaining debts, and he will take care of them,” Glimfeather said with a nod towards his chamberlain.

Path understood why the chamberlain was present at the meeting now – some of those needs had already been anticipated also. That gave him greater confidence with his further proposals. “The House of Path will not be merely trading on its status. As such, we propose that this House be warrior-scholars. The art of war will be balanced with the power of knowledge. Our purpose will be defending those who need it. We will not go to fight any war, but we will defend the weak and defenceless, and when we have built up our numbers, we will also be the final line of defence when war comes to us. As such, I wish to retain my commission, but be detached from the regular Griffonian army, with the members of House Path be considered a special defence corps.”

“Interesting, but I can’t have mere lieutenant command such a potentially powerful unit.”

“I suppose not, Your Majesty, but I cannot have an outsider to the House as commanding officer.”

“I suppose I’m just going to have to promote you to colonel then. That is high enough rank for you to command and not suffer undue interference from other officers and nobles. Perhaps one day, if you get sufficient experience, you might even make it to general.”

Path felt a little dizzy at that unexpected promotion. “Aren’t you going to cop some criticism for giving me such a hefty raise in rank?”

The king waved his talons dismissively. “That’s my problem. You will have enough of your own.”

“Ah… right. Well, seeing as you are amenable to the proposal, I hereby request a stipend to establish the school and training facilities.”

“Have you drawn up details of your needs already?”

“We have a list of the essentials plus a lot of other things on our wish list. I would like to point out to Your Majesty that the best tools give the best results though.”

Glimfeather laughed. “Yes, yes they do. We will discuss these details and more after I examine your proposals in depth. Anything more?”

Path was really feeling excited now. The king’s ready acceptance of his ideas steeled his resolve. “I intend to start the school as soon as possible, and while I intend to get griff students, I also want all the slave children to attend it. The ones that graduate will become members of my House and go on to further studies as warrior-scholars also. In fact the school will take in all species. Our long-term goal is to establish a wing of our House in all countries, with Equestria being the first.”

“That’s going to be a very hard sell. What do you have to offer that will appease the nobles?”

“A mutual defence pact.”

“Your House is not powerful enough to offer that as yet.”

“The House, no, but one of its members, yes. Princess Twilight Sparkle has full authority to negotiate such a pact, and she has indicated to me a willingness to do so in the name of bettering relationships between our kingdoms. As Princess of Friendship, she wishes that there will never be war between ponies and griffons again, and that we learn to be friends through mutual respect.”

Glimfeather was quiet for a long moment while he considered this. Eventually he replied, “This could work. You may have reason to promote your cause sooner than you think though.”

“How so, sire?”

“Our eyries to the north and east have been suffering raids from the centaurs recently. They are a clever and dangerous foe that has given us much trouble for decades. I believe one of them almost conquered Equestria a few years back?”

“You mean Tirek? Yes, his talent for stealing magic was nearly our undoing, but fortunately the power of Harmony was even greater.”

“And that is probably what is going to sell your proposal eventually. Princess Sparkle will have to come to my court to make her proposal in person, and be prepared for some stern opposition from the warriors and nobles, but I am more than willing to consider it.”

Path smiled. “Then I think we have the basics covered. Shall we discuss the details now?”

Twilight found Free just outside of the portal outpost with his easel and painting materials set up about him.

“Hi, Free. How’s your day been so far?”

Free put down his brush and gave Twilight a nuzzle. “Pretty dull so far. After I harassed the portal guards as usual, I thought I’d do another patrol, but there’s nothing around here that has changed from the previous couple of days, so I got bored. I decided that I might as well practice my landscapes. What about you?”

“You’re right in that nothing seems to be happening. I’ve been using my time productively though. I’ve been looking into spells that Path can adapt to earth pony magic, as he requested. It’s something that I have never considered before in my magic studies, and I find it quite fascinating. Makes me wonder if there are other cross-species spell adaptations possible. Could a pegasus do earth pony magic, for example?”

“Umm… Fluttershy?” Free suggested.

Twilight smiled. “You got it. Fluttershy’s abilities are noteworthy in that they aren’t typical of pegasi, but I had never looked at it before as an extension of earth pony magic. After I found out that she has a great grandparent who was an earth pony, it did give a bit more impetus to the idea though.”

“So, what kind of stuff are you looking up for Path?”

“I’m keeping my eye open for anything with potential, but I’m prioritising fighting magic. I suspect that he may need greater offensive and defensive abilities in the future if he’s going to be a griffon kingdom noble. The thunderhoof is a great surprise weapon, but if you know about it, you know how to avoid it.”

“Yeah, you have a point. What about the… oh, horseapples!”

“What’s wrong, Free?”

Free Agent pointed behind the alicorn. “Another of those whirlwinds is coming this way. Help me pack up my stuff before it gets ruined,” he answered, putting words into action.

“Calm down, Free. There’s no need.”

Her horn glowed and a bubble of magic formed around them. Moments later, the whirlwind engulfed them, but neither wind nor debris penetrated the shield. A minute later it was gone.

Free gave a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Twi. That was quick thinking.”

“I got lessons from my brother on making shields. It’s his special talent, after all, and he’s very adept at making different kinds for different purposes.”

“Like this one,” Free said, standing up and leaning back, only to stop hard against thin air.

“I didn’t realise we were that close to the changeling shield,” Twilight admitted.

“With that there, any enemy changeling can’t sneak up behind me while I’m preoccupied,” Free explained.

“Smart thinking.”

“Yeah. Pity it doesn’t help with suspicious ponies.”

“What do you mean?”

“Applejack still doesn’t trust me and keeps spying on me.” He turned around and indicated a bush that was not too far away on the other side of the shield. “Right now she’s hiding behind that bush, thinking that she’s concealed from me, but I can taste her suspicion from here.” He waved to the bush. “I hope you didn’t get too bored watching me paint!” he called out.

The orange earth pony emerged from behind the bush and stalked off without comment.

Twilight could not help smiling a little at her friend’s discomfort at being caught out. “Sorry about that. Do you want to go on with your painting now?”

“Did you have anything else in mind, babe?”

“Oh, I dunno. Maybe a mare and her special somepony could take a quiet walk by the riverside for an hour or so.”

Free’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Princess Twilight Sparkle – are you saying that you haven’t got more important things to do with your time?”

Twilight giggled. “Everything is relative, Mister Free Agent. Right now, this is very important to me.”

Free grinned and replied, “Looks like you’re going to have to help me pack up after all.”

That evening, they listened eagerly to Path and Roseclaw’s report on the day’s negotiations.

“So my suspicions were correct,” Twilight commented. “I had a feeling King Glimfeather had a larger agenda, and we were being manipulated.”

“Mostly me,” Path agreed, “but you’re going to have to play a big part. You are going to have to sell that mutual defence pact to some rather hostile griffs.”

“I think that’s part of the obligation of being a princess,” Twilight replied. “I’ll play my part like you play yours.”

“What about me?” Free asked.

“After your success at the pub, I reckon your forté is going to be relations between the average griff and Equestrians. I think we’re especially going to have to look at Equestrian griffs who emigrated from Griffonia because they were disaffected with society there. They’re going to be even more sceptical than the average pony. However, that’s a bit more long-term, and I’d be happy with whatever you can do to thaw relationships between our countries.”

“That’s what I do best,” Free boasted. “They ain’t seen nothing yet!”

“And Roseclaw’s role in all this?” Twilight asked.

“She’s keeping me on track, guiding me with her local knowledge. Most of all, she’s my pillar of support. Sometimes I think that there’s too much for me to cope with, but she’s always there to lean on.” There was a long moment of suspicious silence, and neither listener had any trouble imagining what was happening just then. Eventually he continued, “I have been so used to having you with me for support, Free, that I was wondering if I could deal with you being away, but Rose has always been by my side to help me. She’s truly the First Lady of this House.”

Rose added, “How could I not support my chosen mate? It just makes me prouder that I have two other members of this House to help make it greater.”

Free said, “I can hardly wait for this herd to get back together. We rock as one!”

“Hey, Sterling, I hear you like cherry delight?”

The Red Changeling Royal Guard looked at Free suspiciously. “Have you been snooping into my personal details?”

“Nah, I caught you sneaking an extra slice the other night, and I asked around. Seems it’s not the first time either.”

Sterling Shield looked slightly embarrassed. “Umm, yeah, I do like it a lot.”

“Really, sarge?” Bazztuk asked. “Aren’t you always ragging on us about self-discipline?”

Sterling glared at the junior Guard. “Everyone has their little weaknesses. Unlike you though, I exercise off my indulgences. When our shift finishes, I think you’ll be running a few dozen laps of the outpost to run off a few of yours.”

Bazztuk gulped and wisely decided to shut up.

“Besides,” Sterling continued talking to Free, “it reminds me of a good friend that I made a few years back. You might call it my happy food.”

Free took out a plate from concealment and showed Sterling the large slice of cherry delight with whipped cream that was upon it. “You can have my piece if you let me have a peek down the hallway.”

Sterling merely looked disgusted. “Really? You think I can be bribed with a piece of pie? Or at all? I’m disappointed with you, Free Agent.”

“Nah, I didn’t really think so. That’s why I’m going to torture you by eating it front of you instead.” Free produced a spoon and started to cut off a piece of the pie.

“Out! Get out of here, you crazy griff-ling!” Sterling yelled, pointing his spear menacingly at the griffon.

Free fled, but his laughter floated back to the irate Guard. Sterling shook his head in disbelief. “Celestia help me – what shenanigans am I going to have to put up with from him tomorrow?”

Bazztuk knew a good time to keep being silent.

Free was enjoying his cherry delight. Stirring up the changeling Guards was becoming the highlight of the mornings. Saving his pie from the previous night’s dessert course had been inspired, and he wondered how he was going to top it. He finished it with a satisfied sigh. Unfortunately the rest of the day was already looking to be dull. Maybe Twilight would want another romantic walk? Probably not until later though. Maybe burn off all the extra energy that he had lately with a long, fast flight? He looked up into the clear skies. “Yeah, let’s see how high I can go over the shield!” He took off with renewed enthusiasm.

The advantage of having a monarchy is that when the king commands something to be done, it gets started immediately. King Glimfeather had announced the establishment of the House Path College for Warrior-Scholars, and both teachers and students would be required. Interviews for both would begin immediately. Not even Roseclaw had anticipated how rapidly things would progress, and Path was blown away by getting his first prospective instructor almost immediately after the proclamations were made. He was even more surprised when he found out exactly who it was.

“General Warfist Bloodfeather? Please come in and make yourself comfortable while we discuss your application,” said the slightly bemused Path.

The elderly griffon entered Path’s office with no sign of infirmity. While his light brown feathers and orange fur showed fading from his age, his golden eyes were as bright and sharp as a youth’s. However, unlike a young griffon, those eyes also showed a world-weariness of somegriff who had seen many battles in his lifetime.

Path sat behind his desk and considered the paperwork that Roseclaw had given him, and then deliberately set it aside. “I suppose it would be pointless asking what sort of military experience you have, although I am curious about your specialties, if any?”

“Unarmed combat, Lord Path. However, I am also very proficient with spear and arrow. I hope though that my greatest contribution will be my knowledge of tactics.”

“Excellent, but I already guessed that would be the case. The real question is why an old soldier like yourself would want to be a teacher in my college? You have a whole army of warriors at your beck and call.”

“Warriors? Pah! Brawlers at best. Besides, I am retired from the army. They had no place for an old bird like me. Now it’s all puffery and arrogance – a claim for status. The true warrior is a thing that is nearly forgotten.”

“General, I am not seeking to build my own army – I am pursuing a philosophy that includes martial abilities. What makes you think that your ideas about warriors fit with that?”

“You wish to create a caste of warrior-scholars, correct? I have knowledge of battles spanning back to before House Rockfeather rose to power.”

Path blinked and looked to Roseclaw.

She explained, “He means that he is familiar with battles going back a couple of thousand years, which is no mean feat.”

“Ah, I see. And again, how do you see this fitting best with us?”

“If it’s your intention to be true defenders, you must have equal knowledge of how to attack, or else you cannot plan to effectively cover all contingencies. To defend, you must know your enemy and their motivations. To defend, you must be able to fight well. These and much more I can teach to those willing to listen.”

“That’s very appealing, but we come back to my initial question – why would you want to join this House and be a teacher?”

Warfist grinned. “Why do I want to join? It’s not every day that a pony bests a Glimfeather, and becomes an ally of the kingdom, and that impressed me. My House never was noble, and I am the last of them. That’s the thing when you are forged in war – you either become increasingly tempered with each battle, or you eventually break. I want to pass on what I know before I am felled in battle, and this seems to be the best opportunity for me to do so. And if that isn’t enough, then I consider your goals to be worthy. You have chosen to take the path of non-aggression, and that takes more strength than most so-called warriors realise.”

Roseclaw said, “Well I think that you would be a massive boon to our House, but would you be okay with teaching other species – pony, changeling, dragons, or any that seek to join our House?”

“I will be teaching the art of war, and war knows no species, rank, nor gender. Send me students and I will make them into warriors if they are worthy.”

Path stood up and held out his hoof. “Welcome to the House of Path, General.”

Warfist took Path’s hoof in his talons and shook it solemnly. “Thank you, your lordship. Please call me just Warfist though because I am no longer a general. I am a warrior-scholar.”

Path grinned. “That’s the spirit! And you already have your first student.”

“I do? Who would that be?”

“Did you see my duel with Ravenwing?”

“Yes, I did.”

“And you saw my special magic attacks?”

“Again, yes.”

“If you and I faced off in the arena, could I defeat you?”

“You would lose badly, sir.”

“Exactly. Teach me to not lose that badly.”

Warfist grinned. “My pleasure, Lord Path.”

Path and Roseclaw received a surprising number of applications that day and the next. It seemed that their notoriety from the both the pub and the duel had caught the interest of the population, especially the younger griffs that Path most wanted for the college. He even had a few parents bring along their younger children, hoping to enrol them in the new school. It was obvious that some of them were seeking a better life for their chicks, and Path was certainly empathetic with that, but some of them just as obviously were status-seekers, and were rejected.

Warfist insisted on sitting in on the interviews, and Path and Roseclaw were grateful for his insight. He caught out many in lies, and intimidated those who would not have made good warrior material anyway. A few of the more arrogant decided to challenge Warfist to show off their prowess. Few of those got to join the House.

“Now get out of here before I really get mad!” Warfist told the griffon who was sprawled on the floor.

Path looked at Roseclaw and said, “I didn’t know a griffon could head-butt somebody across the room.”

Roseclaw shrugged. “Neither did I.”

“Send in the next victim!” Warfist yelled outside.

Path had initially thought to stop him from this rather intimidatory call, but he realised that the old griff was doing so deliberately in order to weed out a few of the obviously unsuitable applicants before they could waste his time. Not quite what Path would do, but he deferred to Warfist’s judgement on this.

However, this time a completely unruffled young griffoness entered Path’s office. She was lanky of build, had white feathers with numerous blue spots, bright white feline fur, and a bright blue tail tuft. Oddly, she had a bow slung over her shoulder and a quiver of arrows belted to her waist, as well as a backpack on her feline half.

“Hi, I’m Techbird Sunbeak,” she said, handing over her résumé.

Roseclaw spoke up. “Isn’t the Sunbeak family a non-noble House primarily involved in agriculture?”

“You know your Houses! Yes, that does describe my House, but it doesn’t describe me. I’m horrible with plants and animals. My passions are mathematics, physics, and astronomy.”

“Oh? Say something to wow me,” Path instructed.

“Okay!” She pulled out a scroll from her backpack and got Warfist to hold it up. It amused them that she was so behaviourally blind that she was not intimidated by him. She pointed to an illustration and said, “As a teenager, I figured out the distance to the sun by observing the different angles of a vertical pole at the same time of day at two widely separated points.” At Path’s look of surprise, she added, “My family took a vacation to visit relatives in Smokey Mountain Eyrie in Equestria, and I took advantage of it,” she explained.

“I’m surprised that you even thought to do that,” Path replied.

Techbird smiled. “Yeah, but it was so cool to be able to do it! The hardest part was getting an accurate measurement of the distance between those two points; the maths was easy,” she said enthusiastically.

Path and Roseclaw returned her smile, her enthusiasm being infectious. Warfist retained a neutral expression though, and spoke up next.

“I have the feeling that Lord Path won’t need further proof of your competence in those fields, but that is only half of what it takes to join our House. What skill do you have to offer as a warrior?”

Techbird pointed outside through the open balcony doors. “See that oak tree? See where a branch was removed and left a plate-sized end facing us?”

The tree was pretty far away, but they could see what she was pointing at. “Yes, I do,” Path replied.

The griffoness had unslung her bow as they had looked, and she drew an arrow from the quiver. She nocked it, drew it back, and let it loose all in one smooth action. The arrow hit the target virtually dead centre. Lowering her bow, she said, “I have always had a knack for archery.”

“But can you teach it?” Warfist asked.

“I can try, if griffs are willing to learn.”

“You won’t be teaching just griffs, you know?”

“I know! Isn’t that so cool?!”

Finally Warfist smiled. “Yes. Yes it is.”

“Well, I think we can consider your application acceptable,” Path said with barely concealed glee.

“We haven’t even asked why she wants to join our House,” Roseclaw pointed out.

“I can answer that,” Techbird said. “I don’t want to be a farmer, and that angered my family. In fact they threw me out of the house when I told them that I wanted to pursue other goals. I want to broaden my horizons and meet other species. Perhaps they will have a piece of the puzzle.”

“What puzzle?” Path asked.

“The only thing known about the puzzle is that the only attribute of the puzzle is that it’s puzzling,” she replied.

Warfist looked at Path and Roseclaw and grinned. “I like this one – she’s just the right amount of crazy.”

“Welcome to House Path, Techbird,” Path said, slightly bemused once more.

“So what have you got in store for me today?” Sterling Shield asked in a resigned tone.

Free was silent for a long moment before saying, “Pretty please?”

Sterling was surprised. “That’s it?”

Free shrugged. “I’m dry. Can’t think of anything else that wouldn’t be outright nasty.”

“Then why did you bother coming here this morning?”

Free’s expression hardened. “Because I am genuinely concerned about security, and I can’t help feeling that we’re all overlooking something here. I’m going to keep coming back until I figure it out.”

Sterling nodded. “If you do, don’t hesitate to tell me.”

“Of course.” Free turned to leave, but paused and looked back. “You gonna come to that dance competition I’ve organised for tonight?”

“And give you a chance to mock my dancing abilities?”

“Naturally,” Free replied with a grin.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Sterling reassured him.

“Great! Seeya!”

Free’s grin faded as he left the building. Once more he was left with practically nothing to do, and he wondered what could fill in the rest of the day. He spotted Twilight walking between the buildings and went over to join her. “Hey, Twi. What are you up to?”

“Just fetching some materials from the stores to make a few more of my talkie-trotties.”

“Need help?”

“Bored again?” Twilight asked.

“Uh-huh. I think that’s Chrysalis’ secret attack – boring us to death.”

Twilight giggled. “Yes, that seems likely.”

“Seriously though, how much longer can we keep this up? Rarity needs to get back to her shop; Applejack is champing at the bit to get back to farming and she’s taking out her frustration on me; Fluttershy is pining for her animals; Rainbow Dash is treating it like a holiday from her responsibilities with the Wonderbolts, but even she’s getting bored with the inaction. We can’t keep the Harmony Bearers here on hold indefinitely.”

“I know what you mean,” Twilight replied glumly. “Even I’ve been wanting to get back to Griffonia to pursue our quest. So much is happening there with Path and his new House and the college he’s establishing… oh, I so want to have a part of that!”

“Me too. I’ve always done just about everything with Path before, and this is slowly killing me.”

Twilight gave him a reassuring hug. “He’ll do okay for a little while longer, and I’m honoured that you sacrificed staying with him to be with me.”

Free grinned. “It was a tough choice, but you cuddle better.”

“We hadn’t cuddled before we left Path back in Griffonia.”

“Oh, I dunno. I seem to recall a bed with two ponies and two griffons after a night at the pub….”

Twilight’s wings pomfed out as she recalled that event. “Umm… yeah. Wait – weren’t you still asleep?” She looked at Free’s expression and blushed. “No, obviously not.”

“You know what I’ve been dreaming of, Twi?”

“Tell me.”

“The four of us – one bed – together again and loving it. We’re a herd, Sparkles. We should be together.”

“That’s still a big step for me, Firetail.”

“I said it was a dream, but if you try hard enough, sometimes dreams come true.”

“I know. I didn’t say that I disliked it. I’ve been enjoying the progress so far. For instance, I like being able to do this now.” She then kissed him on the cheek, quite publically.

As he was in griffon form, Free could only give her a nibble-lick in return, but it was enough.

“Go fetch your paints, Free. I feel the need for a portrait done of me working.”

“As you command, my princess!”

Path had been surprised when Goldenquill had announced the visit of two griffon nobles. He had been so buried in work and the stress of organising so many things in so short a time that he simply hadn’t had time to have anything to do with the nobility.

“I suppose I had better see them. I can’t put them off indefinitely. Send them in, ’Quill.”

The butler nodded and left, returning moments later.

“Announcing Lord Razorbeak and Lord Blacktalon.”

A white-feathered griffon with tan fur entered, accompanied by a silver-feathered griffon with black-spotted grey fur. Both wore status capes heavily adorned with their rank and accomplishments, and both had jovial expressions that instantly rang false with Path.

“Lord Path – a pleasure to meet you at last.” He held out his right foot and Path reluctantly shook hoof and claw with him, repeating it with his companion.

“What can I do for you, my lords?” Path asked.

“We are here to make you aware of an important event that had been arranged before your acquisition of this estate,” the spokesgriff replied.

“Oh? The king neglected to mention any such event.”

“Mostly because the king wasn’t directly involved, I assure you.”

“Then what is this event?”

“It’s called ‘The Hunt of the Broken Wing’, and it was to be held on Ravenwing’s estate this year. While he obviously cannot lead the hunt anymore, nevertheless it is too late to organise an alternative. As the new lord of this estate, we expect that you would want to grab this opportunity to host the hunt anyway. It’s a very prestigious event, and could boost your status considerably. A young lord with such a new House as yours would not usually get this honour.”

“Exactly what would be my involvement with this hunt?” Path asked suspiciously.

“As it would be on your estate, you have the privilege of leading the hunt.”

“And how could I do that? I cannot fly.”

“Ah! But that isn’t a problem at all. The hunt is called by that name because it is a test of a griff’s ability to hunt despite being incapacitated. It is done entirely on the ground, and I believe running is well within an earth pony’s ability?” Razorbeak said smugly.

“Ponies don’t hunt,” Path countered.

“You only need to lead the hunt, if it bothers you. The other members will happily take the privilege of making the kill.”

“Just what are you hunting?”

“Any medium to large prey. It’s symbolic of a griff being able to sustain his family under adversity, so the bigger, the better.”

Recalling that in the past, ponies were considered fair game, Path asked distrustfully, “Do you hunt pony slaves or any other sapient being?”

Razorbeak smiled reassuringly. “It would only be the wild beasts on your estate.”

Path mulled it over for a while. The concept of being in a hunt at all was repugnant to him, but he was now in a wholly different situation where he needed to constantly compromise to deal with what were normal social conventions for griffons. This was a lot more extreme than he was used to, but it had larger social implications also. As he had been told, status was everything to these griffs, and his fledgling House could ill afford any setbacks right now. “When would this hunt be held?”

“In two days’ time,” Blacktalon replied.

“I will give you my decision tomorrow morning. That should give you plenty of time to advise the members of the hunt.”

“Excellent! We look forward to hearing your decision.”

Both griffons got to their feet.

“Until we meet again, farewell, Lord Path,” Razorbeak said smarmily.

“Until then,” Path replied.

When the nobles were gone, Path called out, “ ’Quill!”

The butler stepped inside Path’s office and said, “You called, sir?”

“Please arrange a meeting with the king at His Majesty’s soonest convenience.”

“Yes, milord.”

It was perhaps indicative of the king’s own interests that Path was able to secure a prompt appointment, and he and Roseclaw were in the king’s audience chamber little more than an hour later.

The Hunt of the Broken Wing? Yes, it’s a legitimate event, although more of an indulgence of the nobles rather than a cultural event. However, it’s precisely for that reason that it has much ability to affect your status.”

“Then you’re recommending that I accept it?” Path asked.

“On the face of it, I would. However, it’s also very strange that they would offer it to you. It certainly could be hosted elsewhere, and young lords like you with brand new Houses simply don’t get offered the privilege normally.”

“Yes, they did point out the honour they were giving me.”

“Those nobles never give away such honours lightly. Also, both Razorbeak and Blacktalon were, or perhaps still are, cronies of Ravenwing. It seems suspicious to me that they would be encouraging you to participate.”

Roseclaw said, “The nobles haven’t been very happy with some of the changes that have been happening because of Path. Could it be their attempt to have a little revenge by making him do something that would normally be anathema to him?”

“An excellent point, and not something that I would put past their petty minds. Maybe even suggested by my idiot nephew.” The king sighed.

“Can’t choose your relatives, even when you’re a king, can you?” Path asked.

Glimfeather grimaced. “That’s true of any species. Anyway, even bearing all this in mind, it would still be to your benefit to host the hunt. At this point, you need every bit of status and support from the nobles that you can garner.”

“So, suck it up and deal with it?” Path concluded.

“And watch your back,” Glimfeather added.

“That’s what I’ll be doing,” Roseclaw stated with a cold finality.

To alleviate boredom and burn off his restlessness, Free had organised some competitive athletic games for the off-duty troops that morning. He had just finished a flying race with some pegasi and a couple of changelings, and only managed third place. Admittedly trying to beat Rainbow Dash had been a forlorn hope, but being beaten by gloomy old Hailstorm had been annoying. He didn’t understand why, but something was bothering him, affecting his performance. He had just started resting up from his race on a small cloud that had been parked there by for their convenience by a weather pegasus, when he heard Twilight calling his name. Looking over the edge, he spotted her flying in his direction.

“What’s up, Twi?” he called out.

“Free! There’s a call on the talkie-trottie! Hurry down!” the alicorn told him urgently.

Free launched himself off the cloud and power dived to meet her. Path never called at this time, so it had to be something urgent. They nearly crashed through the door of their accommodation in their haste, and the communication device was loudly ringing on the cupboard.

Free snatched up the talkie-trottie and said, “Path! What’s wrong, buddy?”

It was not Path’s voice that answered him though. “It’s Rose, Free. A terrible thing has happened.”

“Where’s Path? Has something happened to him,” Free asked with a hint of panic in his voice.

“He’s in the bedroom, and he’s not hurt – at least not physically. Just listen for a moment.”

As Free and Twilight listened, they could hear the muffled sound of crying which grew louder as Roseclaw apparently carried the device closer. And it was not mere weeping but heart-rending sobs and the occasional wail. Then the sound faded again as Roseclaw withdrew from the source.

“Rose! What’s happened to him? Why is he crying like that? I’ve never known him to cry – ever! He’s always been so tightly self-controlled.”

“It started with ‘The Hunt of the Broken Wing’ that we told you about. The nobles gathered at our estate as planned, and we set off on the hunt….”

So far things had not been too bad for Path. As a natural runner, he had the advantage over the griffons, and it allowed him to retain the nominal lead. However, several griffons had spread out to try to find and flush out potential prey, so where they had been exactly in relation to him had been unknown. It had taken nearly an hour to find something bigger than a rabbit, though, but eventually they had a small deer on the run. The griffons and he had almost encircled the prey though, and before long, they had it trapped, its every move quickly countered by a grinning griffon. Then one of the nobles pounced and pinned it to the ground.

“Lord Path,” the noble called. “Do you wish the honour of the killing blow?”

Path’s nose wrinkled in disgust at the thought as he beheld the helpless creature before him. “No, that ‘honour’ is all yours.” He turned his head away so he would not have to witness the sight, disgusted with himself for having even participated this much.

“No, please don’t,” a small, trembling voice said.

Path’s head whipped back around to see the deer gazing desperately at his captor with his bright, intelligent eyes. “NO!” he screamed at the noble, lunging at him to try to stop the fatal blow… too late.

That was a sapient deer!” he yelled at the noble.

“Not a terribly clever one if it strayed onto griffon land,” the noble replied.

Path whirled around to face Razorbeak. “You promised me that you wouldn’t be hunting sapient beings!” he roared at him.

“I said we would be hunting wild beasts. It seemed pretty wild to me,” Razorbeak replied with a smirk.

Path’s fury mounted. “Get out!” he screamed at Razorbeak, and then whirled around to address the rest. “Get out, all of you! Get off my land before I buck you all to Equestria!” Magic began to glow about his hind hooves, and the griffons hastily started scrambling away, knowing exactly what that meant. The noble who had killed the deer tried to take it with him though, and that slowed him down. With a fearful scream, Path spun around to face away from him, and released the thunderhoof. A crash of thunder rocked the forest, and the griffon was buffeted hard by the shockwave. He lost his grip on the carcass and it dropped to the ground. However, he had managed to get far enough out of range to not be knocked out of the sky, and so he painfully flapped away out of reach of the furious earth pony.

Path staggered over to the dead deer and the anger abruptly drained from him. He collapsed to his knees and he laid his head upon the deer’s body. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I should never have agreed to this hunt! I thought I was being manipulated but I still went ahead because I thought it necessary. I didn’t know! I just didn’t know! I’m such an idiot! I’m so sorry!” He burst into incoherent wailing at that point, great sobs wracking his frame.

Roseclaw had witnessed all this helplessly until now. She went over to him and laid a wing over her mate. “It wasn’t your fault, Path. If anygriff should have seen this coming, it should have been me. I should have stopped this before it happened.”

However, Path was beyond listening at this point, lost in a sea of self-recrimination and remorse. The wailing and the tears continued unabated for a very long time.

“I ended up having to carry Path all the way back to the castle, and he’s now in our bed. I still can’t seem to get through to him though. I can’t console him at all. Free – Twilight – what can I do?”

Free replied, “Just keep trying for however long it takes, Rose. He has to respond eventually.”

Twilight said, “I’m going to order the Skylark to depart immediately to pick you two up. I’ll send a doctor along with the crew. Even if Path responds before the Skylark gets there, I still want you back here. There could be serious psychological harm done if left untreated.”

“Can Skylark swing by here and pick us up before heading to Griffonia, Twi?”

“It could, but it would mean losing far too much time. I’m supposed to give advance notice if I need its services, and last I heard, it had been sent to Fillydelphia on official royal business. It means that they are actually closer to Griffonia right now anyway. Besides, I can’t leave this post as yet.”

Free slashed the bedding in frustration, and Twilight gently put a hoof on his shoulder. “I want you to go too, but it’s best for Path if we get him back here as soon as possible.”

“I know, Twilight, but this has got to be the most frustrating thing to ever happen to me. He’s my brother! He means as much to me as my parents, and you too. I don’t know what I’d do without him!”

“He has so many who love him, Free. We’ll help him, believe me.” She pulled him into a hug to reassure him.

“Rose,” Free said in a pleading voice, “Give him my love.”

“If that will help him, of course I will,” she replied.

“Are you okay, Free?” Sterling Shield asked.

The griffon had wandered in as usual after breakfast, but instead of approaching the changeling Guards, he just stood there listlessly, barely even bothering to look around. He sighed and said, “Sorry, guys – my heart isn’t in it this morning. Seeya.” He then turned about and left.

“What’s up with him?” Bazztuk asked.

“He got some very bad news yesterday. Rookie, you’re getting to see one of the disadvantages of a changeling getting emotionally bonded to a pony. While the highs are very high, the lows can be painfully low.”

“I thought he was courting Princess Twilight though, and she’s fine, isn’t she?”

Sterling frowned. “You really need to be more observant if you’re going to make a good Royal Guard. It’s not the princess who has caused this. Free’s an unusual changeling, perhaps unique. He was brought up outside the hive as a griffon, and he bonded with his childhood friend, Long Path, an earth pony. He’s in Griffonia at the moment, and from what I’ve heard, he’s had a very nasty incident that has left him incapacitated. Free is suffering because of this.”

Bazztuk grimaced. “If that’s what happens, I don’t know if I ever want to bond with a pony.”

“Junior, you don’t know what you’re talking about, so shut up and mind your post.”

“Yes, sergeant!”

“Twilight, I want to go to Canterlot to wait for Path.”

“Free – you know he won’t be back for a few days yet. There’s no point in going to Canterlot right now.”

“Yeah, I know, but it would make me feel that much closer to seeing him again.”

Twilight sighed. “Maybe, but you would be there without emotional support, and that would be worse for you, and no help to Path. Besides, I need you here still.”

“Doing what? It’s not as if I’m the only one here who can detect changelings, or a trained fighter like the Royal Guards.”

“No, you’re not. You’re a pain in the plot, free-thinker who sees things a different way from us regular ponies and changelings. You keep telling me that you think there’s something not quite right, and I believe you, so I need you to stay alert and watch for it.”

Free smirked a little. “Pain in the plot?”

“Yes – outrageous and frustrating too.” Then she nuzzled him. “Also endearing, thoughtful, loyal, and fun. Just what I need to keep me from getting to be a boring old bookworm. After all, I can’t be around my friends all the time and still do my work, but a coltfriend? Somepony who I can count on to support me? I think that I might keep him around.”

Free managed a real smile this time. “I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve said to me yet. Okay, I’ll stay. So what are you going to do now?”

Twilight’s expression took on a more serious tone. “Being cut off from Path just highlights how I can’t be in more than one place at a time, and if I’m going to fulfil my role as Princess of Friendship, not to mention my part as a member of House Path, I’m going to have to look into some contingency plans. I’m going to the city to discuss some things with Cadance and Shining Armor. I wish I could bring you along, but….”

“Yeah, I know – no Alicorn of Awesome again.”

Twilight kissed him on the cheek and grinned. “Right. How much awesomeness can one mare take?”

Free actually laughed at that. “Come back as soon as you can, okay?”

“I will, I promise. Bye!” Twilight took off and started flying in the direction of the city before her horn lit up and she teleported away.

Twilight did not return until mid-afternoon, but she spent the rest of the day in the company of Free.

The word from Roseclaw that evening was not very reassuring. Path had apparently cried incessantly until at last he had slipped into an exhausted sleep. No one could say though whether it would help, or whether it would all start again when he woke. None of them slept well that night.

Despite his restless sleep, Free woke up with energy to spare. He got out of bed, careful not to disturb Twilight, and headed for the bathroom.

Some benefit to sleeping near a source of ambient love,’ he mused as he made his morning ablutions. He sighed. ‘I’d trade it in a heartbeat to be with Path right now though.

He was considering whether to wait for Twilight to wake up or head off for breakfast when he heard her sleepy voice say, “Morning already? Ugh!”

Free smiled. Twilight hardly needed an alarm clock because she usually woke bright and early, eager to start the day. Normally it was she who had to drag him out of bed. “Hey, Twi, want to go with me to breakfast?”

“Huh? Oh! Just a minute, Free. Let me freshen up first. I won’t be long.”

Free waited patiently for the alicorn, knowing that unlike some mares, when Twilight said she wouldn’t be long, she meant it. Sure enough, she quickly reappeared with her mane tamed back into its normal style and ready to face the new day.

They headed off to breakfast, finding Applejack already there as usual. The farm mare always got up at dawn and complained about how she always had to wait for the rest of the sleepyheads. Twilight and her friends made it a point to start the day together, so poor Applejack usually had to wait around the longest for the last member of the group to arrive. Inevitably that was Rainbow Dash.

“Hi, girls! Morning, Beaky!”

“Morning, Crash,” Free replied.

After flip-flopping for a while, Rainbow had decided that Free was cool, and they had started trading good-natured insults. Rarity still thought him to be uncouth, but otherwise gave him the benefit of the doubt. Applejack remained the sole sticking point, perpetually suspicious of Free’s motives. She was why he preferred to wait for Twilight before going to breakfast.

With breakfast done, they parted company, and Free headed off to the portal building to take out some of his frustrations on the changeling Guards. He had thought of a real zinger to pull, and he was eager to try it out to help keep his mind off other things.

From the moment he stepped inside the office though, Free sensed that something felt wrong. He could not put a claw on it though – everything looked the same, including Sterling and Bazztuk standing guard. As he approached them though, something odd happened: they regarded him with confused expressions – expressions that he had seen before. For a moment he struggled to recall when, and then his heart started pounding as he remembered. Rather than the zinger he had planned, he simply said, “I’m ready to go through now.”

To his dismay, they stepped aside and let him through. He trotted hastily down the hallway and around the bend before they decided that something was wrong. As expected, two unicorns waited near the end of the passage, but their glassy-eyed stares were disconcerting.

“Open the portal!” Free commanded in his most authoritative voice.

“Open the portal,” they echoed in a toneless drone, and did exactly that. Free dashed through the opening and into the room beyond. There was an ordinary room beyond with an ordinary door to the outside. The room obviously was used to station earth pony Guards – obvious because four of them were unconscious on the floor. Free hoped that they were only unconscious. He dashed out the door and could see the rear of the building for the first time. It was utterly unremarkable except for the fact that he should never been able to realise that fact. He raced around the corner to try to find someone in authority, only to smash into the changeling barrier.

“OW! What the bucking hay?! Should’ve known the bucking thing works both ways. Where’s a soldier when you need one?” He looked around frantically and finally spotted Twilight heading for the store. “Twilight!” he yelled, waving his wings frantically to try to gain her attention. Fortunately she noticed, and changed course to meet him.

“What’s wrong, Free?” she asked, puzzled at the panicked look on his face.

“We’ve got a huge problem, Twi.”

“What problem?”

“This!” Free stood up on his hind legs and leaned against the invisible barrier.

Twilight’s eyes widened in realisation. “You’re on the wrong side of the barrier! How did you do that?”

“The changeling Guards – they’re not ours! I think they’re Blues. The unicorn portal-keepers are bewitched. I asked and they just let me through. Twilight – I think Chrysalis is making her move!”

Just then, another of the frequent whirlwinds roared out of the farmlands and started moving through the outpost. Twilight threw up a shield to protect them both from the wind and dust, so they were quick to see that as it passed, ponies stepped into view from the concealment of the whirling debris. They seemed to be ordinary unicorns, earth ponies, and pegasi, all in Equestrian soldier uniforms the same as that of any other soldier based here. There was also a larger than average unicorn mare in officer’s uniform bringing up the rear.

Free pointed at the soldiers. “Twi – I can’t taste any emotional energy coming from them. They’re all changelings! They’re heading inside the portal building!”

Twilight started to head to the back of the building. “We’ve got to close off the portal!”

Free hastened after her, but before they got to the door, changelings started pouring out.

Twilight immediately powered up her horn and started firing magic bolts at them. Free leapt at another with talons extended, slashing viciously, while trying to clamp down on his mounting fear. He grabbed one more, but yet another jumped on his back, seeking to sink his fangs into Free’s neck. This would normally paralyse a pony for the changeling to feed on their love, but Free was a changeling also, and all it did was inflict a painful wound. Free screeched and snapped with his powerful beak. The injured changeling was knocked off, and Free finished off the changeling in his claws. They tried to force their way into the doorway, but more changelings poured out of the portal faster than they could deal with them, pushing them back. Twilight threw up a shield, temporarily blocking their exit, but they immediately started battering away at it, just as they had against Shining Armor’s at Canterlot.

“Go get reinforcements!” Twilight said urgently.

“What if they’ve all been taken out like the others? Twilight, we need your friends to do their thing with you, and I can’t get to the other side of the barrier to find them! You go and fetch them! I’ll hold this lot back as much as I can.”

“Are you crazy?! What can you do against this horde?”

“Whatever it takes to slow them down! Ultimately the drones will burn themselves out if they get past me, even if they cause a lot of damage before that happens, but Chrysalis is back there, and she’s the real danger. I can’t stop her, and neither can you by yourself. Remember what happened to Celestia?”

“She was super-powered on Shining’s love though!”

“And who’s to say she hasn’t stolen some other poor pony’s love to power herself up? Twi – stop arguing and get your friends before it’s too late!” Free exerted his power, and his wings shrank into his body as he absorbed their mass, but his overall form grew larger, and his talons sharper. He could not increase his real mass, but he could improve his reach and potency.

With an anguished cry, Twilight dropped the shield and launched herself into the air, making her best speed.

The changelings had immediately burst out of the building, and a couple started to chase her, only to hit the barrier. Free didn’t notice because he was already wrestling with several others. There was no finesse to his actions – he slashed, bit, stabbed, bucked, and trampled them. As he had told Twilight – whatever it took to slow them down. Unfortunately, they were equally merciless. Adrenalin and the extra energy he’d accumulated lately were all that kept him going as he suffered bites, cuts, and bruising impacts. He was being buried under a wave of changelings. He barely noticed the sonic boom, but moments later, the blue changelings were swept away by a wave of rainbow energy.

Free collapsed to the ground, utterly spent, but from there he could see through the door to observe still more changelings coming through the portal. He tried to point and yell, but he barely could croak out, “Get the portal unicorns.” And then he saw her. Queen Chrysalis stepped through the portal with a vanguard of soldier changelings.

The Harmony Bearers were not caught unawares though, and another rainbow beam came blasting through the door. The soldier changelings threw themselves in its path, blocking it from reaching their queen, and even as they were blasted away, more changelings poured in to replace them. However, it was a losing battle in that confined space, and they were quickly overwhelmed. Chrysalis screamed in fury as she was blasted back through the portal, and the rainbow of Harmony neutralised the portal unicorns’ magic. The portal disappeared and ended the flow of invaders.

“Quickly, girls!” Twilight cried out. “Don’t let Chrysalis get away this time!”

That was the last thing that Free heard before he blacked out.

I hurt too much to be dead,’ was Free’s first thought. He forced open an eye and tried to take in his surroundings. It was an unfamiliar and nondescript room though, which left him none the wiser. He looked at himself, prising the other eye open to join in the effort. He appeared to be lying on his back, propped up with pillows in bed, with a blanket pulled over him. Not much he could see there, but the cast on his right foreleg was new. He tried to call out for someone.


He was instantly embarrassed that such a pitiful and incomprehensible noise had come from his beak. However, it did have the desired effect as a pony stuck her head around the doorway to investigate.

Twilight’s eyes lit up with joy. “You’re awake!” she cried as she bounded into the room. “Thank Celestia! You’re going to be okay!”

Free noticed that her eyes were extra shiny, perhaps from the tears that were welling in them? For him? That was so cool. He could taste her relief and happiness now. Nice to have survived for this moment. Time to say something appropriately heroic.


Right. Forgot that. Now he was even more mortified.

“Oh! Let me get you some water.” Twilight’s horn lit up, and a jug on the stand levitated and poured some of its contents into a cup which then floated over to the griffon.

Free tried to reach for it with his left claws, only to have multiple pains assault him all at once. He groaned involuntarily.

“No, don’t try to take it; let me help you.”

Twilight carefully placed the cup to Free’s beak and tilted it. Most of it made it inside, and the soothing liquid sloshed around his dry mouth. He swallowed with a bit of difficulty, but it was a blessed relief to feel it going down. She did it again, and this time it went down more easily. A third time, and he felt so much better.

“Thanks,” he croaked. He wouldn’t be doing much singing soon, but at least he might be able to be understood. “Hurts…”

Twilight put the cup down and said, “Wait a moment – I’ll get the doctor.”

She trotted out of the room, but was soon back with a unicorn in a white coat.

“Ah! I thought you might awaken soon. I couldn’t convince the princess that you weren’t about to drop dead at any moment though. Let’s have a look, shall we?”

The doctor then began prodding and poking, and doing just about everything but alleviating the aches and pains. “You’ve been an interesting case – ostensibly a griffon albeit one without wings and rather more vicious-looking, but actually a changeling. It made treating you quite an interesting prospect, I tell you!”

Free did not give a damn how interesting the doctor had found his patient. The unicorn might get very interested in treating himself if he kept this up much longer!

“Doc –pain!” he growled.

“What? Oh, yes, just a moment.” His horn lit up and a pill bottle floated out of a pocket and towards Twilight. “Give him two of these with water; no more. He seems to be recovering nicely, but I’ll come back and check him again later.”

“Don’t hurry back,” Free murmured fervently.

Twilight administered the pills and then sat down beside the bed. “Aside from the pain, how are you feeling?”

“Surprised to be alive. What happened?”

“You scared me badly, Free. I thought for sure that I had left you for dead. I could hardly believe my eyes when I returned and saw you still fighting the Blues. I’m sorry it took so long – I had to call Rainbow Dash back with her talkie-trottie.”

“Yeah, I thought I heard her sonic rainboom.”

“She made good time, but it still took a few minutes to round up everypony. You were unbelievable, lasting that long. How did you manage that?”

“You and everypony else was counting on me – I had to, didn’t I?”

“Oh, Free, that was incredibly heroic of you, but you should still have been overwhelmed. There’s something very strange about you that we’re going to have to figure out.”

“It doesn’t involve more poking and prodding, does it?” he pleaded.

Twilight laughed. “No, I shouldn’t think so.”

“Good – it can wait anyway. What happened after you shut off the portal?”

“We tried to chase down Chrysalis, but it was sheer chaos in the outpost by that time. Real soldiers were fighting with fake soldiers and undisguised changelings were causing confusion, allowing Chrysalis to escape. It took a few more Harmony beams to clear up that mess. It highlighted a problem that defence has – it’s great for single targets, but unwieldy for crowds. Maybe there’s a better way to wield it, but it doesn’t exactly come with an instruction manual.”

“Heh! If there was one, I’m sure you would have read it a dozen times by now.”

“Of course! One can’t be too prepared! Anyway, we then had to deal with the aftermath, and helping the injured was our first priority. I got back to you as soon as I could. Oh, Free, you looked dead! You were covered in gashes and bite marks, you had lost a lot of blood, and your right leg was broken. I used healing spells to stop the bleeding and set the bone, but you were way too weak despite my best efforts. So we brought you here. Notice the ambiance?”

The pills were starting to kick in, and with the ebbing of pain, Free noticed something that he normally would have tasted immediately – love was in the air!”

“Are we closer to the city now? There’s plenty of love energy around here.”

“Yes! We set up a makeshift hospital at a site that we judged would boost your energy intake to help you heal without overdoing things. Actually you aren’t the only changeling patient here. Our Red Changeling Guards fought well, but some of them got badly hurt also. None as bad as you were though.”

“Do you know what happened to Sterling Shield and Bazztuk? They must have been neutralised and replaced early somehow.”

Twilight’s head bowed. “We found their bodies concealed in the fields.”

That jarred Free badly. While he had done his best to heckle the changeling Guards, he had been impressed with their dedication, and had thought of them as friends. “How…?”

“Captain Diamondhard has been putting the pieces together as best she can. For starters, most of those whirlwinds, if not all, were generated by the Blue Changelings. By doing it frequently but randomly placing them, they got us used to putting up with them as just a regular natural nuisance. However, they were apparently biding their time for an opportune moment. They must have figured out who to grab to gain access to the portal.”

“How did they figure that out? It’s not as if we weren’t on the lookout for spies.”

“Well, before Queen Chrysalis went power-crazy, her Harvesters were known for their skills at solving problems and uncovering secrets. If any changelings could figure that out, they would be the ones. I suppose we’ll never know exactly how, but the point is moot. They knew that Sterling and Bazztuk were the first line of defence, and they also knew who the portal-keeper unicorns were. They only needed an opportunity to get all four at once. Under cover of a whirlwind, they presumably intercepted the four as they were going on their shift. They killed the Guards and replaced them, and Chrysalis bewitched the unicorns to respond to changeling commands.”

“That’s why the Guards looked confused when I came in. The Blue Changelings did exactly the same when they confronted me in the invasion of Canterlot. For some reason, they can’t figure me out. It bought me enough time to slip past them.”

“We really need to get to the bottom of that mystery,” Twilight said fervently. “Anyway, the stage was set to move in more changelings under cover of another whirlwind. They would have had a huge number inside the shield as well as Chrysalis herself if it hadn’t been for you. You always said that something was bothering you about the security of the set-up.”

“Yeah. Pity I didn’t figure it out before the horseapples hit the fan. Everypony was so focused on trying to prevent unauthorised changelings from sneaking through or hiding among the troops, that they completely forgot that the portal was not as vulnerable as they were. Sure, it took a sneaky trick with the whirlwinds, but they still caught us completely unawares. We were prize idiots.”

“Be grateful that Chrysalis made a huge mistake of her own.”

“What was that?”

“The portal – it’s just an opening made in the barrier, nothing more. It could be made anywhere, but we put up the building to control the access to the portal-keepers and to have an office to process the changelings with legitimate access. Chrysalis must have believed that the portal was a physical thing that was part of the building. If she had realised otherwise, she need have only taken the two bewitched portal-keepers, and opened a portal anywhere she felt like and we would have been none the wiser.”

“The non-changelings should have been kept behind the barrier, and not just the portal-keepers. Why are all the buildings outside anyway?”

“Simple, really. Because all of the changeling Guards were required to be outside of the barrier, none of them were allowed inside, and their barracks were therefore also outside. The stores and mess hall needed to be readily accessed by changelings too, so they were outside also. Why put the very few other buildings somewhere else?”

“And with that simple, lazy philosophy, we almost lost the battle.” Free sighed wearily. “How many died because of that mistake, Twi?”

“Too many. One whole contingent had apparently been wiped out and replaced. Another oversight – no one would report an imposter among them if they were all imposters. Now I have to tell Frothy Brew that his friend died for our stupid mistake.”

“Frothy Brew? Isn’t that the café owner in Canterlot? What’s the link there?”

“Sterling was the first changeling friend that Frothy made. He brought his whole squad there eventually, and the café became well known for being changeling-friendly. But it was Sterling who started it all, and I know that Frothy is going to take it hard.”

“I’m going to miss the big lug too. Couldn’t dance to save his life, but he could take a joke and gave as good as he got.”

They were both quietly sad for a long moment before Free asked, “Did they figure out how the Blues made those whirlwinds?”

“”Yes, unfortunately.”

“Why is that unfortunate?”

“Because apparently they kidnapped a couple of weather pegasi a long time ago and Chrysalis has had them under mind-control so long that we don’t know if they’ll ever recover their senses.”

“So you found them then?”

“It wasn’t hard because they were simply abandoned. Now that we know that ruse, they can’t use it again, so the pegasi weren’t any use any more. We found them just standing in a field, staring at nothing, waiting for orders. We’ve identified them as Twister and Cyclone. Twister’s family has been notified, but we haven’t been able to identify Cyclone’s as yet. I’m not even sure if we’re doing the kindest thing anyway. They might be mental vegetables now.” Twilight hung her head sadly and sighed.

Free reached out with his better leg and lifted her chin. “Hey, you thought I’d be killed, and yet here I am alive. They could beat the odds too, Twi. Don’t give up hope for them yet.”

Twilight smiled gratefully at the encouragement.

Free let his aching limb relax back onto the bed. “What happens now, hon?”

“Nothing for you. Diamondhard has already totally revised security. All changeling Guards are now inside the barrier, and she has a team of workers relocating all the buildings. Any unicorns empowered to open a portal are now strictly forbidden to be beyond the barrier, and the border patrollers are required to stay within the shield also, instead of wherever it’s most convenient. Those kind of things. The girls left on the train to Ponyville after they finished helping clean up. Their job is done now.”

“What about us?”

You get to stay here and heal for a while longer. Uh-uh!” she said as Free started to object. “No excuses. I promise that we’ll also leave in time to get to Canterlot before Path arrives. Meanwhile, right here is the best place for you to be.” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “You don’t want your very special somepony to worry about you, do you?”

“Blackmailer!” he replied with a smile. “Convince me a little more.”

Twilight smiled and gave him another longer kiss.

“I’ll be good,” Free promised. “Any news about Path though?”

“Skylark has picked up Path and Roseclaw, and they’re on their way back. I wish I could tell you more good news, but apparently he’s pretty much catatonic at the moment. I hope that the airship doesn’t get delayed because every hour counts right now.”

“I can help him, Twi; I know I can! I just need to be with him!”

“Calm down, Free – I believe you. In fact, I’m kind of counting on it. Path’s mood has been swinging rather strongly since you parted with him, and I suspect that you’ve been a moderating influence on him.”

“Because I’m a changeling?”

“Most likely, although the fact that you’ve been lifelong friends can’t be ignored either. We’ll find out soon enough when they get to Canterlot.”

Free nodded thoughtfully. For once, he wished that he knew more about changelings. It was strange that he knew far more about being a griffon than his own natural species. What else about himself had touched their lives?

Twilight got to her hooves. “If you don’t really need me for now, I have to go. I’ve been neglecting other duties while I’ve been concerned about you.”

Free gave her a gentle smile. “I’ll always need you, Sparkles. However, I think I’ll take your advice right now and get a bit more rest.”

“Good. My day will be a lot better now that I know that you’re really on the mend. I’ll be back in a few hours.” She started to leave, but then paused and looked back. “Oh! I almost forgot – I have a message to pass on.”

“Oh? Who from?”

“Applejack. She told me to tell you, ‘Well done, sugarcube’.” Twilight added a wink, and then left.

Free grinned. Acceptance from Applejack was a major milestone. Maybe he could even convince Rarity that he wasn’t quite as uncouth as she reckoned? Then he chuckled.

“Nah! Who am I kidding?”

Free Agent actually managed to keep his word and be good… or at least as good as he ever was. It had taken a lot of battle injuries to keep him down, admittedly, but that did not stop him from talking. Anypony who made the mistake of stopping to see him got regaled with the tale of how he had saved the day. Okay, maybe with a little help from the Harmony Bearers, but where would they have been without him?

By the end of the day, half the ponies thought he was an amazing hero, while the other half thought he was an equally amazing liar. Free didn’t care – he was just bored and was doing it for the entertainment value. They could stick medals on the soldiers, but he was just glad that he was going to be able to hug and kiss Twilight again. He smiled at the thought. Yes, a much better reward.

By the time Twilight returned though, he had tired himself out and was falling asleep. Apparently all the love energy he was taking in was being used by his body to heal himself; staying awake was not needed. Twilight stayed by him for a long while however – a little extra affection could only help, right?

The next day consisted of mostly boredom, but at least he was allowed outside to sit in the warm sun and soak up the love ambiance. He was healing fast, far faster than a pony would, but so were the other changelings. By mid-afternoon, he felt good enough to shift back to his normal griffon form without it causing too many aches. He flexed his wings in relief and considered taking a flight, but a stern look from one of the nurses quelled that idea. It was a huge relief when Twilight arrived a couple of hours later.

“Good heavens! You look amazing, Free! I can’t believe how fast you’re healing.”

“Yeah – apparently the constant supply of love energy is very close to a miracle cure for changelings, and there’s already some excited talk about setting up a permanent hospital for the treatment of changeling patients.”

“Umm, I’m not so sure if that’s a good idea,” Twilight said doubtfully.

“I said that too. I found myself in the rare position of being the voice of moderation and I had to cite my own previous experiences. Their patients would risk losing self-control or burning themselves out.”

“I think I’ll have a word with the medical staff before we leave. I think it would be wise to move the changelings who have already healed sufficiently back to the portal outpost.”

“What about me, Twi?”

“Normally I’d defer to the doctor in charge because of the extent of your injuries, but if we’re going to get you back to Canterlot to get there before Path arrives, we’re going to have to take the overnight train. I’ve arranged for it to make a special stop for us so we don’t have to transport you to the outpost first. Until then, you soak up as much love energy as you can to heal. Can I trust you to let the staff know if you think you’re getting too much?”

“I know the signs now. If I start getting hyper, I’ll fly away from the city before I lose my self-control. That’ll burn off some energy and get me into a less energy-dense area.”

“That’s perfect. I have to go back to the city now. I only stopped by to give you an update and check on your progress. I’ll meet you at the train stop tonight. Here’s your ticket with your compartment allocation and the scheduled departure.” She gave them to him and followed up with a hug. “Looking forward to spending the trip with you, dear.”

Free enjoyed the hug so much that he barely noticed the aches and twinges it caused.

The hours spent waiting for the time to depart were more like torture though. He asked about the cast on his leg, and the doctor informed him that it was magic-infused to help bring it up to full strength again, because Twilight’s healing spell had knitted the bones already. At the rate his body was healing, he could probably have it taken off very soon, but the doctor preferred that it be left on for now. He recommended that Free have a Canterlot doctor check it out again when he got there.

With still an hour before the train was due, Free checked himself out of the facility. Many of the more lightly wounded had already been shipped out, and only the more badly injured were still being treated. According to the doctors, he should still be among them, but for some reason, despite the seriousness of his wounds, he was healing even faster – yet another part of the mystery that was Free Agent.

Free looked around for a little while to kill time until the train arrived. It seemed that they had set up the temporary facility in a small outlying village. It had the convenience of access to supplies without being too close to the city, but its station was little more than a platform and obviously not a regular stop for the train to Canterlot. If it wasn’t for dealing with all the startled crystal ponies, Free would have very quickly gotten bored.

The sun had set, and only a couple of lamps lit up the small platform as Free waited by himself. Right on schedule though, the train pulled up to the station. He had no trouble figuring out which carriage to get into because Twilight was leaning out the window and waving. As soon as he boarded, the engine’s whistle blew and the train resumed its journey. Free found the compartment and soon was hugging Twilight again.

Twilight gave Free a kiss and asked, “Are you hungry?”

“What for? Affection or food?” Free replied with a grin.

Twilight matched his expression. “Both! I’ve ordered a nice big meal for the two of us. Affection is the seasoning,” she added slyly.

“Sparkles – I think I’m starving then!”

They only made one more stop at the portal outpost to allow Free to pass through the shield. At the same time, his possessions were loaded onto the train, and he found his lute and took it back to their compartment.

Free played for Twilight for a couple of hours before they decided to call it a night. Free was happy to leave the Crystal Kingdom behind, but something was still nagging him.

“Twi, you remember how I said that before that we were overlooking something?”

“Yes, and you were right.”

“Why do I have the feeling that we still are?”


“I’m not really the paranoid type.”

“Well, if there really is something else that we’re overlooking, I hope that you figure it out sooner than last time. Until then, you’ve earned the right to relax. Now stop worrying and come to bed. Your special somepony wants snuggles.”

Free gladly complied. He hardly noticed that his intake of love energy had barely declined since they left the Crystal Kingdom.

While Twilight reported to Celestia to discuss recent events in person, Free sought out Princess Luna. Normally the lunar diarch would be in bed by now in order to be refreshed for her night court after raising the moon at sunset. However, as sponsor of Long Path’s project, and virtually a fifth member of the team, she had stayed up in order to be present when Path arrived.

Free reported on the attempted invasion from his viewpoint. The princesses would compare notes later and decide on any further courses of action. For now though, both Luna and Free waited impatiently, fretting on the condition of their comrade. Twilight joined them with good news.

“Captain Fairweather reports that Skylark will arrive in half an hour.”

“Those communicators that you devised are most cunning, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna commented. “I would have a few of my own that I may put to good use.”

“I would be very happy to provide them for you, Luna. In fact I have a few made already. I had a lot of time on my hooves while we were waiting for Chrysalis to make her move.”

They moved out onto the balcony to await the airship. All three had the distance vision that flying creatures enjoyed, so it was a very close thing that Luna spotted it first. Twilight saw it as soon as Luna pointed it out.

“I’m not waiting for them to land. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Twilight then teleported away.

“I suspect that Twilight Sparkle will return with your companion most promptly. We shall await them inside.” Luna trotted back inside and noticed that her assistant was still present. “Scribe, you may be dismissed if you wish. This is long past your normal hour.”

Scribe replied, “By you leave, Your Highness, I would prefer to stay. My duty is to attend you while you wake, and admittedly I have some self-interest in this matter also.”

“Very well, you may stay.”

Just then, Twilight arrived in a flash of magic, bringing along with her both Path and Roseclaw. The earth pony was held in the griffoness’ arms, otherwise he would have slumped to the floor.

Free leaped over to join them and pulled Path into a hug. “Path! Talk to me, buddy! Are you okay?”

Roseclaw said worriedly, “Path hasn’t said a word for the past two days, and he’s been unresponsive all of today so far. Free, I think we’re losing him.”

“NO! I refuse to accept that! Path! Listen to me! You’ve got to get a grip on yourself. I’ve been waiting for you, brother, and so has Twilight. Rose is worried that she’s going to lose her mate. You have a family here, waiting for you to come back to them.” Tears started pouring from Free’s eyes. “You can’t leave us. You’re the strength of this herd – what would we do without you?”

Free hugged the earth pony harder, nuzzling and crooning to him. “I love you, Long Path. Don’t leave me, please.”

Suddenly, a soft green glow started to grow about the pair. Path’s eyes abruptly opened, and Scribe stumbled backwards as he was assaulted by a flood of negative emotions. Then his eyes widened in stunned surprise as that flood was just as quickly stemmed, and he realised what was happening.

“Free Agent is absorbing all of Long Path’s negative emotions,” he reported in awe.

Twilight looked at Scribe curiously. “How do you know? Are you a changeling?”

Luna spoke up. “Scribe is not only my personal assistant, but also my go-between to Queen Dianthia. He is supposed to conceal that fact though,” she added with a frown.

“My apologies, Your Highness. I was just shocked by the impossibility of what I’m seeing.”

“Why?” Twilight asked. “I already know that you can absorb negative emotions if you choose. A friend of mine was treated that way a while back.”

“Yes, but where are Free Agent’s fangs? He needs to connect with Long Path’s chi to do what he’s doing so fast.”

“Free is a changeling?” asked Roseclaw, startled by the revelation.

“He’s a very unusual changeling,” Twilight confirmed. “He’s been a griffon for most of his life though, so what you see…”

She was interrupted by a croaky voice. “Free? Oh, Free, I’ve done something so horrible,” Path lamented.

“Take it easy, Path. It wasn’t your fault. We all get fooled by people with wicked intentions occasionally.”

“But someone lost their life because I was so foolish. I hunted them, Free! I hunted them and caused them to lose their life. I could have said no, and they would still be alive.”

“No, you have to stop blaming yourself. From what I have heard, they would do this hunt anyway, and if that particular deer had not died, then possibly another would have instead. They only used the hunt to hurt you. Are you going to let them get away with that?”

Path burst into tears, and Free crooned his love for him, all the while pulling out a torrent of grief, hate, and self-loathing. The others could only watch helplessly, but with growing hope.

Eventually Path stopped crying, and weakly tried to scrub the tears from his eyes. “Thanks, Free. I’ve missed you, brother. Please don’t go away again.”

“I won’t, as long as you promise to not leave us.”

“I promise.”

“Good,” Free said in relief, and then keeled over unconscious as the aura flickered and died.

“What’s wrong now?” Twilight asked with alarm in her voice.

Scribe said, “Free Agent needs positive energy to counteract all the negative that he’s absorbed. If he doesn’t get it quickly, he may die.”

Twilight quickly picked up the unconscious griffon and hugged him. “Don’t you dare die, Firetail! You’re the passion that I’ve needed in my life, and I won’t let it go now that I’ve found it.”

Path reached out with a hoof to lay it on Free’s chest. “You took the worst of my feelings, but don’t forget to take the best too.”

Roseclaw looked at Scribe. “Can I help him at all?”

“Do you care for Free? Does he mean anything to you, especially now that you know he’s a changeling?”

“He’s my mate’s brother, and he’s one of my House. Yes, I care about him.”

“Then show him your affection – every bit helps right now.”

“Then I would offer mine also,” Luna said, turning the four into a group hug.

After a very long moment, Free’s eyes flickered open again. “Ooh, I’ve died and gone to heaven,” he said with a weak grin.

“Not yet, you silly griff,” Twilight said gruffly to hide her relief, realising belatedly that it was a pointless exercise with a changeling. “Are you feeling alright now?”

“Weak as a kitten, but nothing a good dose of loving won’t cure.”

“Between this and your injuries, you’ve taken quite a battering lately. Are you sure there’s nothing that you’re hiding from me?”

“Well, I have to admit that I have a bad case of blue balls.”

Path laughed as Twilight blushed. “Yep, he’s going to be okay, Twilight.”

“It’s good to hear you laugh again, my love,” Roseclaw said, cuddling her mate.

“It’s like an enormous weight has been lifted from me, Rose. I can recall the incident now without collapsing emotionally. It’s a bitter lesson to learn, but I will cope now with your help. One thing that I’ve learned is that I can’t stand alone. I need you and Free and Twilight, and I even need you, Princess Luna. I’ve tried to take on too much at once, but I know that I can count on you all.”

“Well, you’re going to take it easy for a while,” Twilight ordered. “You too, Free. A vacation is officially ordered for the pair of you.”

“Yes, Princess,” they chorused, and they grinned at each other.

“I will order rooms and servants for your needs,” Luna added.

Scribe said, “I will do that immediately, Your Highness. However, after I have done so, I would like your permission to report to Queen Dianthia. She should be apprised of the latest developments.”

“Very well. Arrange for your replacement to attend me at tonight’s court.”

Scribe bowed low and then departed.

“Forgive me, but I must leave you also. I need some sleep before I must raise the moon tonight.”

“Of course, Luna,” Twilight responded. “We’ll all be fine right here for now.”

“Yes,” Path said with a joyful smile. “House and herd reunited. I love you all.”

Free made himself comfortable on a sofa in their room. It was positioned in front of the balcony window, and was presently bathed in warm sunshine. When he was settled, Twilight got up to join him and laid her head on his back between his wings. She sighed happily.

“It’s good to be able to relax and forget about your cares for a little while.”

“It’s better to be able to share it with someone you love,” Free replied. Twilight’s silence spoke volumes to Free. “You don’t have to be afraid to admit it, Twi. I can taste it, you know.”

“It’s scary, Free. I need to admit it to myself first.”

“Why? Don’t you love your friends?”

“It’s a different kind of love, and you know it.”

“In the end, does it matter?”

“It matters because it can change my entire life. Making friends for the first time changed me forever.”

“And look how that turned out.”

“The consequences of this could be more drastic, Free. We’re hardly a typical couple.”

“Don’t let that put you off, Twi. You’re a mare first, not an alicorn, not a princess, not a Harmony Bearer. You owe it to yourself to put your needs and desires up there along with your responsibilities. They aren’t incompatible goals, I assure you.”

“You do seem to make a career of proving that,” Twilight admitted.

“Everypony needs passion. Everypony deserves love. I want to give you both, Twilight.”

Twilight contemplated that for a long while before she asked, “So – blue balls?”

Free grinned. “I haven’t banged anyone, pony or otherwise, since you became my very special somepony.”

“I never asked that of you, y’know?”

“I know. It’s not as if I’ve lost interest in it, but the focus of my attention has shifted.”

“You’ve been waiting for me?”


“Did you think that I might never feel that way about you?”

“Yes. Remember what you said about this being scary? It works both ways.”

Twilight was quiet for another lengthy period before she lifted her head and kissed him. “I love you, Firetail.”

“And I love you, Sparkles.”

Free’s weakness and injuries did little to dim the passion with which they made love for the first time. Her love was true, and it bolstered him until they were both sated. They then spent the next half hour just cuddling, enjoying being together.

Eventually Twilight asked, “You want to hear something really scary?”

“What’s that?”

“Let’s talk about marriage.”



Chapter 12: There's No Place Like Home!


Before they had retired for the night, Twilight had left word with Quiet Words that Long Path was okay, and they would be returning in due course to continue their work there. She had asked him to pass the talkie-trottie to Warfist in the morning so that they could update him also, and get any news from the House. Twilight vowed to make sure that there were more of her devices to spread around to key people in future. Instant communications was proving to be very important, and she intended to have a talk with the Council of Mages about further developing her invention for greater functionality and convenience.

All four slept in late that morning. Both Twilight and Roseclaw woke before their partners, but chose to stay with them until they also woke. Twilight’s emotional support continued to help Free’s recovery even as he slept, while Roseclaw simply wanted to be with her mate now that he had recovered. She was there for him from the moment that he opened his eyes, and they reaffirmed their love.

Because they had all retired very early, their breakfast was not too late in the morning, but it did drag out a good deal as they caught up with the details of their experiences while they had been separated. It might have gone on for even longer if they had not felt the need to contact Warfist, and they all gathered in Twilight’s palace apartment.

“It’s good to hear from you again, Lord Path,” Warfist replied. “I was confident that you would recover with your friends’ help.”

“Thanks, Warfist. It was Free Agent’s help that I mostly needed. I look forward to introducing him to you.”

“I look forward to meeting him. I hear that he has already made a big impression on the common griffs.”

“That’s his special talent, I reckon. Anyway, it will have to wait for a few days because I’m under orders to rest for a few days, and he’s recovering from battle wounds.”

“Battle?” Warfist asked, his voice giving away the curiosity aroused in the old griffon.

“Free was instrumental in saving the Crystal Kingdom from invasion by changelings. He got pretty banged-up, but he’s recovering fast.”

“I was under the impression that he was artist caste?”

“Free has many hidden talents, and it’s best not to underestimate him.”

“Wise words that I’ll take to heart, sir.”

Roseclaw said, “We’ll give you the juicy details when we get back. Meanwhile though, how are things at your end?”

“We have continued recruiting as much as possible during your absence, Lady Roseclaw. I have conditionally approved a few more, awaiting your and Lord Path’s final say. There is one I fully approved immediately though, if you will forgive my presumption. A griff hen by the name of Raza Copperquill. She has the finest knife skills that I have seen in any griff bar none. However, it’s her organisational skills that sold me. While I am grateful that you have confidence in me to leave me in charge, it takes a different skill set from mine to coordinate the many plans that you have set in motion. Raza makes it look easy, and I have already assigned her that job. With your approval, she will be your right claw as we build the House of Path.”

“That sounds great. Is Raza a noble?” Path asked.

“No – quite the opposite in fact. She sees membership in House Path as a major step up the social ladder.”

“As long as it isn’t just a perpetuation of the griffon quest for status. House Path must stand for more than that, even if she is otherwise excellently qualified.”

“I have already enrolled her in the House ethics program, sir.”

“One step ahead of me as usual, I see. I look forward to working with her. Any other news?”

“On the subject of nobles, yes – two in particular, actually.”

Path’s mood sunk. “Let me guess – Razorbeak and Blacktalon?”


“Mocking me, I suppose? Poor pony breaks down after seeing a deer killed?”

“That was the case, sir.”


“One does not mock a lord with impunity; especially the head of a House. Other members of said House might take exception….”

Warfist studied the invitation and pondered his response. While he was not a noble, his military rank had earned him regular invitations to high social functions for many years. However, unless he was obligated for some important reason, those invitations invariably ended up being thrown out. His status might put him on the same level as the nobles, but he had little but contempt for the majority of them. Most lived on their rank and achieved very little with their lives. Others were born into warrior Houses, but had never truly earned their caste. He felt no desire whatsoever to socialise with them.

This, however, was a golden opportunity. Razorbeak’s party was obviously the griff’s excuse to boast about the recent hunt and his coup in hurting Long Path. Lord Razorbeak was going to regret that he did not personally send out invitations.

When Warfist turned up at Razorbeak’s castle, the griff servant at the door looked at the former general curiously, never having seen him before. However, the invitation that he carried was genuine, so he admitted him. Warfist had deliberately turned up later than most in order not to be conspicuous, and he mingled with the crowd. His relative obscurity kept most from even trying to initialise conversations with him. When they did, inevitably most of what they talked about was boring and trivial, but it did enable him to listen out for the important things without really missing anything, or having to respond. However, it did not take long for the moment that he was waiting for to arrive, and Razorbeak started conversing with a group of fellow nobles.

“You should have seen his expression when he realised that the deer was sapient. The fool never realised that his lands are grazing grounds for a whole herd of them.”

Blacktalon added, “He started crying over the corpse. What sort of lord cries over prey?”

Razorbeak grinned, “A weak pony, that’s what. I knew that he would fold if I pushed him hard enough, and that upstart House of his would be shown up as the joke it is.”

Warfist spoke up. “What makes you feel that it’s a joke, Lord Razorbeak?”

Razorbeak eyed the old griff. “And who might you be?”

“Warfist Bloodfeather, General of His Majesty’s army, retired.”

“A true warrior! Then you of all griffs should understand what it takes to be a warrior and the leader of a House.”

“I do, perhaps more than you realise. I ask again, why do you think Lord Path’s House is a joke?”

“How can a pony understand what it takes to be a Griffonian lord and what is expected of his House? He won his caste, and certainly was not born noble. He seeks to undermine our very values, and attracts other weak-minded griffs to him and his bizarre causes. Where are the strengths and the proud traditions of griffon society?”

“He says he seeks to build something greater, with all species welcome in his House. Is this not a noble goal?”

Razorbeak scoffed. “He is a fool, and anyone who joins his House is a fool.”

Warfist let his self-control lapse and he flared his wings and gave out a war scream. “Lord Razorbeak, I am Warfist Bloodfeather, warmaster of House Path, and you have insulted me, insulted my House, and insulted my Lord! I demand satisfaction in an honour duel!”

Razorbeak had reflexively stepped back, and stared in shock. “You… you’re House Path?”

“I am, and on behalf of my House, I will defend its honour to my final breath!” He turned to look at Blacktalon. “You! You were Razorbeak’s accomplice in this matter – would you care to defend his actions?”

Blacktalon shrank back from Warfist’s glare. He was in absolutely no doubt that he was looking death in the eye. “No! It was Razorbeak’s idea.”

“Coward!” Warfist sneered, and then turned away, ignoring the griff.

Blacktalon realised that he had shown his true colours in front of a crowd of nobles, and knew that his status had just taken a huge, irreparable hit. Perhaps a duel would have been the better choice, but Warfist had been right – he was a coward.

Razorbeak meanwhile had been considering the situation. Warfist obviously had sufficient status to demand an honour duel, and his reasons for doing so would stand up. He had no choice but to accept. Unlike Blacktalon though, he knew how to fight, and was not afraid to do so. “Very well, we duel first thing tomorrow.”

“Done. We fight to the bloodletting.” While Warfist had the status to call a duel, he could not enforce anything more.

Razorbeak had other ideas though, and as head of his House, he had the rank to demand more. “No, we fight to the maiming, and all will see that the House of Path is the joke that I say it is.”

“You are an even bigger fool than you claim that I am. So be it.” Warfist then took to wing and left.

“Considering that you’re calmly talking to us this morning, I’m going to bet that Razorbeak was indeed the bigger fool,” Path commented.

“An honour duel is fought without weapons. What did I say was my specialty when I joined your House?”

“Unarmed combat – Razorbeak really didn’t do his research, did he? So how did you maim him? Destroy a wing like I did?”

“Let’s just say that his one-eyed opinions are now matched by his physical appearance.”

Path winced. “He sure got what he deserved, I suppose. What about you though? You’re not going to tell me that you got through a duel unscathed?”

“Hardly, but I’ve had worse wounds during my career. They’re not hindering me in the performance of my duties. I am glad that I have Raza to help me though. I seem to be awash with new possessions that I need to put to good use for the House.”

Path laughed. “I sure know that feeling. Warfist, I think I’ll be saying this a lot, but I am deeply honoured and pleased that you joined our House.”

“For the first time in decades, I feel that I am going to make a real difference, Lord Path. It is my privilege to be part of that.”

Roseclaw added, “We are more than just a House. Our unity of purpose makes us a family, or as my mate likes to put it, a herd. I am happy to have you as part of it.”

“Thank you, Lady Roseclaw.” They could all hear true pride in Warfist’s voice.

Twilight said, “I think we had better let Warfist get on with his work – it sounds like he’s going to be quite busy for a while.”

Path nodded. “Keep the communication device with you, Warfist. We’ll check in with you at least once a day, and you can call us if you need.”

“Yes, my lord. Farewell.”

“Why doesn’t anypony like my name for my device?” griped Twilight as she set it aside.

Roseclaw giggled. “Because it sounds silly, and nobody wants to sound silly also saying it.”

Twilight just pouted.

Free put an arm around Twilight. “So you aren’t great at naming things; nobody invented something like this before, so you get that satisfaction.”

“I suppose so,” she replied with a sigh of resignation.

“So what’s next on the agenda?” Roseclaw asked.

“I want to bring Twi home to meet the folks, and tell them about what I’ve been up to lately,” Free said.

“That’s a great idea, Free. I want my parents to meet Roseclaw too. What say we go to your place for lunch, and mine for dinner? I know Thundercloud and Zephyr are likely to be home because they’re retired, but my folks are still working. I can send word to them warning them to expect guests.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.”

Twilight said, “I need to run a couple of errands. Can I fit those in before we go to lunch?”

“Sure,” Free replied. “In fact I need to do a couple of things also.”

“I’ll take the opportunity to show Roseclaw around while you do that,” Path said. “She hardly got to see much of Canterlot when she was here with her father.”

Twilight nodded. “Let’s meet back at the castle gates at midday and then go to Free’s place.”

“Okay by me,” Path replied.

Twilight had been dreading this. She had asked for the responsibility, but it was not going to be easy. She had avoided the morning rush, so she would have decent opportunity to talk, but she hardly knew what she would say. She braced herself and walked into the True Brew Café. There were only a few patrons and only one customer being served, and that pony left the counter with his coffee and cake before she even reached it.

Frothy Brew’s face up lit up in pleasure at seeing her. “Twilight! It’s been a while. You want your usual?”

“Not now, Frothy. I didn’t actually come in for coffee today. In fact, I am the bearer of bad news. Are Peach and Cherry available? I’d like them to hear this also.”

Frothy was puzzled. “Peach is preparing for the lunch crowd over in the restaurant, but can spare a few moments. I don’t think Cherry has had a chance to take her nap yet because of Mocha. The young foal tends to need attention at the most awkward times.”

Twilight smiled. “Yes, I hear that they tend to do that.”

“Give me a moment while I fetch them. Mixitkl – look after the counter for a moment, please.”

Twilight fidgeted while she waited, but a couple of minutes later, Peach and Cherry had joined them in a quiet corner of the café.

“I’ve just returned from the Crystal Empire, dealing with an incursion by Queen Chrysalis, and unfortunately there were many casualties. It’s my sad duty to inform you that Sterling Shield was among those lost.”

Cherry gasped, but as expected, it was Frothy who looked as if he had been punched in the gut.

“How? What happened?”

“He was assassinated in a covert attempt to gain access through the changeling barrier. He died in the line of duty, and will be greatly missed. He and all the other Royal Guards who lost their lives that day are going to be formally buried in a ceremony tomorrow at the Canterlot military cemetery.”

“I… I need to attend, Twilight,” Frothy said.

“I expected that you would. I’ll leave word that you are to be admitted to the ceremony.”

“Thank you, Twilight. He may have been a great Guard, but to me he was a greater friend.”

As Twilight left Frothy in the comforting embrace of his wife and daughter, she could not help but think of what her feelings would have been like if Free had been one of the victims that dreadful day.

“Fired! But why?” Free asked.

“Look, Free,” his former boss began, “you’re a great physical instructor, but to instruct, you have to actually be here, and you just haven’t been for too long. I’ve hired somepony else to take your place now, and he’s more reliable than you can promise to be now that you’re gallivanting all about Equestria.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Free glumly agreed. Then he cheered up. “Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. No hard feelings. I’ll just grab my stuff and vamoose.”

“Thanks for taking it well, Free.”

“I suppose I’ll be too busy with a lot of other things like my engagement to Princess Twilight Sparkle,” Free said casually as he headed off to the lockers.

The flabbergasted gym owner could only stare after the griffon, wondering if Free was spouting a load of horseapples, or whether he had just fired someone who could have given his gymnasium a lot of publicity.

The Dean of Canterlot University felt distinctly uncomfortable under the gaze of the very large she-griffon who had accompanied Long Path as the earth pony had reported in. He shuffled the papers that Path had given him.

“I’m sure that this is going to make very interesting reading, Mister Path. However, while you were absent, all teaching positions came up for review, and the faculty has decided to terminate your employment.”

The griffoness’ glare intensified, but Path took it equably.

“That’s unfortunate. I’d hoped that the university and I could work together in creating a new campus for the branch of the House of Path.”

“The House of Path? What is that supposed to mean?”

Roseclaw spoke up. “What Lord Path means is that he is a noble of the Griffonian Kingdom, and his noble House is in the process of establishing a college there for warrior-scholars, and he wishes to do the same here.”

The dean gaped. “Surely you’re not serious? A pony lord in Griffonia? It could never happen.”

Path grinned. “I know it sounds impossible, but I assure you that it’s true, and if need be, I can call on Princess Twilight Sparkle as a witness. Oh, and she’s a founder of the House also. However, what you believe is irrelevant because I intend to set up the college with or without the university’s help.”

The dean threw Path’s papers back to him. “Get out! You’re not going to pull a fast one on the faculty while I’m in charge. I’ve never heard such a pile of horseapples in my life! Take your things and leave!”

Path shrugged and picked up his report. “Let’s go, Rose.”

If looks could kill, Roseclaw’s gaze would have slain the dean on the spot, but she followed Path out of the office without a word. Once outside though, she let her feelings known.

“What a pompous buffoon! How can you be so calm about this? Things are going to be a lot harder without the university’s support.”

“That was before Warfist substantially increased our resources. Yeah, it’s still going to be a little harder, but it has the advantage that we’ll be totally independent now. As for being calm, I just have to picture the dean’s face when he learns that we told him the absolute truth, and he threw away the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Roseclaw thought about that for a moment, and then her beak split in a grin. “Yes, that is a most satisfactory mental picture. I for one will be happy to follow it up with a personal visit to rub it in his muzzle.”

“Now, now, dear, no need to trouble yourself. I’ll be happy to do that for both of us.”

Roseclaw giggled. “Yes, my lord.”

The foursome met up promptly at midday and headed off in the direction of Free’s parents’ home. As they walked, they exchanged accounts of what they had done that morning.

“So you’re unemployed too?” Path asked.

Free shrugged. “I liked the job, but I wasn’t married to it. I like to think that it’s an excuse to concentrate on other things now, like House Path stuff, and my art. It’s not as if I will have to worry about being able to pay the rent anymore. Oh, crap! I haven’t paid the rent lately. We better see the landlord tomorrow.”

“I don’t think you need worry about a roof over your head,” Twilight pointed out.

Free shook his head. “Maybe not, but we still have all our stuff that we left there.”

“Good point,” Path said. “We better do something about that very soon.”

“I have a suggestion – I have a castle in Ponyville with tons of spare rooms. If you like, you can store your stuff there.” Twilight moved closer to Free to rub up against his flank. “I even have a special room for us.”

Path looked at his griffon friend curiously. “Free?” That one word conveyed a plethora of questions.

Free just gave him a huge grin that gave an equal number of answers.

“Congrats!” Path told them both.

“I am happy for you, House Sister,” Roseclaw added.

It was a very happy and carefree group that arrived at their destination. Unsurprisingly, it was a house located right next to one of the cliffs that delineated Canterlot. A rear exit gave immediate access to open skies which suited the large griffons who preferred more room to take off than pegasi. The street side though was an unremarkable two-storey dwelling, and unless you knew otherwise, it could have been home to ponies also.

“Here we are – home, sweet home,” Free declared as he rapped on the door.

Very shortly, the door was opened to reveal an elderly griffoness, grey of feather and fur, although the feathers were ticked with black markings that were quite attractive. She was also much larger than Free, although not quite as big as Roseclaw.

“Cirrus! Where have you been for so long? Don’t you want to visit your parents anymore?” she scolded him.

“It’s Free Agent now, mom – don’t you remember?”

“Call yourself what you like, but you’re always going to be my little Cirrus. And speaking of little, when are you ever going to grow up? How are you ever going to attract a mate and give me grandchicks?”

Free rolled his eyes. “Mom, you know I can’t do that anyway, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find a mate.” He turned his head to indicate the others behind him.

The matronly griffon eyed Roseclaw. “Well, she’s pretty, I give you that, but isn’t she a bit big for you?”

“Another crack at my size already, ma? Sheesh! Besides, Roseclaw isn’t my very special somepony. Twi, come meet my mom.”

Twilight stepped up and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Ironbeak.”

The griffoness eyed her coolly before remarking to Free, “Well, I suppose a changeling is an appropriate mate for you.”

Free blinked in surprise. “Changeling? Mom – this is Twilight Sparkle, alicorn Princess of Friendship, Harmony Bearer of the Element of Magic!”

“And I’m the Queen of Griffonia,” his mother replied. “Son, I love you dearly, and you don’t have to try to show off like this. I would have been happier if she had taken a more appropriate form instead of something so unbelievable as this.”

Free’s frustration was not helped by the sniggering that he heard coming from Path. “I know this sounds incredible, Mom, but this is the real Twilight Sparkle.”

“I really am,” Twilight said earnestly.

“Well, if you wish to keep up the pretence, I won’t nag you about it. Come on in and you can tell me what you’ve been up to while ignoring your parents for so long.”

Free shrugged and entered the house. Path and Roseclaw stepped up to the door.

“Hello, Zephyr. It’s good to see you again.”

“You too, Path. Why didn’t you bring Cirrus around to visit sooner? You’ve always been the more responsible one.”

“Busy with my castle and estate in Griffonia, while he was saving the Crystal Empire.”

“Oh, this just keeps getting better and better. I see I won’t be bored this afternoon. And this young griffoness came back with you, I suppose?”

“Yes, actually. This is Roseclaw, daughter of Far Scream, the Griffonian ambassador, and my betrothed. Rose, this is Zephyr Silverfeather, Free’s foster mother.”

“Betrothed? Now how did that happen?”

Roseclaw smiled in fond recollection. “First he won my mind, then he won my heart. He is my chosen warrior.”

“Warrior now, is it? Long Path the bookworm has won a warrior noble? Are you trying to outdo Cirrus’ tall tales now?”

Path exchanged grins with Roseclaw. “I think we both have enough to boggle your mind.”

“Well there’s no point in doing it here in the doorway. Inside with you both and make yourselves comfortable in the lounge room. I was about to make lunch; have you eaten yet?”

“Rose and I haven’t, and I don’t think Free and Twilight have either.”

They joined Free and Twilight in the lounge while Zephyr went over to the staircase to the upper floor.

“Thundercloud!” she shouted. “Come on down! Your son and his friends have come by for lunch.”

“Be there in a moment,” was the muffled reply.

Zephyr then bustled off to the kitchen.

“Well, that was unexpected,” Twilight said. “I’ve had quite a variety of reactions to me since I became an alicorn, but not outright disbelief.”

“My fault, Twi,” Free said, putting a wing around her and drawing her closer. “I never gave Mom a reason to believe that I would be anything more than a carefree bachelor with little ambition. I was happy with my life until you showed me something a lot better.”

“I don’t know, Free – it seems to me that a mother always expects more of their children than they think they can do.”

“Maybe, but I’m a rather unique case, and Mom has never had chicks of her own. I think she has been resigned to settling for raising me with low expectations.”

“Now you’re putting yourself down, and I know better than that.”

Free was about to retort, but he was interrupted by a bellowed greeting.

“Cirrus! It’s good to see you, son!”

The old griffon’s aqua feathers were fading, but obviously not his vitality. He bounded into the room, grabbed Free, and hugged the stuffing out of him.

“Awk! Easy, Dad!” Free gasped.

Free’s father let him go and stepped back to look him over. “You’re looking a little worse for wear; what’s been happening since you last visited?”

“Lots, Dad. We’ve got tons to talk about when Mom can hear it also, but for now, let me introduce my very special somepony….” Free started to indicate Twilight.

The griffon grinned broadly and said, “Princess Twilight Sparkle!” He grabbed her right hoof and shook it vigorously. “It’s a real pleasure to meet you. I hope my boy has been doing right by you?”

Twilight was a little dizzy from the sudden turnaround and introduction. “Um, yes sir. He’s been making my life pretty interesting lately.”

“That’s my son! Well done, Cirrus!”

“Please call me Free, Dad. You know I prefer that.”

“Sure! Sure! Free Cirrus Ironbeak.”

“Close enough,” Free conceded. “Anyway, Twilight, obviously this is my father, Thundercloud Ironbeak. As you might be able to guess by the paint splattered on his feathers which he has just smeared on me, he’s an artist.”

Thundercloud grinned. “If you don’t get a little paint on yourself, you’re not showing enough passion.”

Free returned the grin and said, “I take after Dad in that department. He gave me lessons as a chick, and I’m still trying to get half as good as him.”

Thundercloud turned his attention to the others in the room. “Long Path! Let me hug you, my boy! Seems like you’ve both been too busy to visit lately. And who’s this gorgeous lady?”

“It’s good to see you again, Thundercloud. This is Roseclaw, daughter of Ambassador Far Scream. We are betrothed.”

“A pleasure to meet you, sir,” Roseclaw said, extending a claw.

“The feeling is mutual, my girl! Young Path here is a fine catch for a fine noble griff like you.”

“I don’t need any persuading on that point, sir.”

Path said, “It’s okay, Thundercloud. It’s not like you and Zephyr.”

Roseclaw looked at Path curiously. “I sense a story here.”

Free spoke up. “He means that Dad was a low-born artist caste, while Mom was a high-born warrior. Mom fell in love with Dad, but Dad didn’t have the status to present his suit for her. They left Griffonia to live here in Equestria to get away from the caste system and other restrictions, and get married.”

“I see. That’s a touching story. I wonder if I would have had the same strength of commitment if Path had not gained warrior status?”

Thundercloud looked at Path in surprise. “You’re a warrior? How did that happen?”

“It came as a shock to me too. Long story.”

“I can’t wait to hear it.”

“Well you can tell us over lunch,” Zephyr said from the door of the kitchen. “Cirrus, come help me serve up the food for our guests.”

“Okay, Mom.”

“The rest of you make yourselves comfortable at the table. Food will be coming right out.”

“Just one moment, Zephyr,” Twilight said. “I have something to tell you first.”

“And what would that be?”

“Changelings can’t teleport; only alicorns and some unicorns.”


Twilight’s horn lit up and she popped out, only to reappear at the dining table. “I’m not a changeling,” she said matter-of-factly.

Zephyr gaped as realisation dawned on her. “Sweet Celestia! You really are Princess Sparkle! Oh, Your Highness – I apologise for my disbelief and rudeness. I’m honoured by your presence in our home.”

“It’s okay, Zephyr – I understand. I’m here today as just plain Twilight Sparkle, Free’s special somepony, and not as a princess. I hope that we can have a nice family get-together.”

“Yes! Yes, of course. Oh, I’m so flustered right now.”

“Told ya, Mom,” Free said as he passed by with a plate of sandwiches.

“No smart beak from you, Cirrus!” Zephyr said crossly.

“It’s Free Agent now, Mom!”

Twilight giggled. “Yep, just like home.”

The four of them spent all afternoon talking, catching up on the news, their change in status, and the plans for the future. They would probably have talked on into the evening if they did not have an appointment with Path’s parents for dinner. Hugs were exchanged on the way out, and they left in high spirits.

“I like your folks a lot, Free,” Twilight commented.

“I can’t complain, Twi. They took me in, gave me love, and raised me well.”

“I didn’t even know they had a griffon in the City Guard.”

“Yeah, but as a warrior, Mom liked the work. It let Dad concentrate on his art, and look after me as a chick.”

“It makes me wonder why we don’t have more griffons in the Canterlot community. We even have one living just outside of Ponyville near the Everfree Forest, and he seems to fit in well enough when he comes into town.”

Path replied, “That’s the kind of thing that we’re trying to find out with our studies. We’ve been a little side-tracked lately with the House and Chrysalis, but we’ll get back to it eventually. Maybe we can find the opportunity to have a chat with him while we’re there to bring our stuff to your palace?”

“It certainly can’t hurt to ask. The worst that can happen is that he tells us he’s not interested.”

They ambled along in quiet amiable companionship for a little while before Roseclaw asked Path, “How are you feeling now, dear? We aren’t putting too much strain on you so soon after recovering, are we?”

“As long as we take it easy like we’re doing, I’ll be fine. I’ve had a good rest and a couple of large meals to build up my strength again.”

Free laughed. “I thought Mom was trying to fix that all in one go, the way she kept pushing food on you.”

Path grinned back. “You know she’s always acted a bit maternal towards me. Hard to believe that she’s a tough City Guard when she’s like that. Anyway, she kept stuffing you almost as much. I reckon she still thinks you’re a growing boy.”

“That’s something I’m curious about, Free,” Twilight said. “Your mother pointed out that you haven’t grown to their size, and you’re certainly smaller than any adult griffon that I’ve ever encountered. It’s not as if you can’t use your shape-changing ability to ‘grow up’, so why haven’t you?”

Free shrugged. “I’ve never really thought about it. I hardly ever encountered other griffs before we went to Griffonia, so maybe I just wanted to blend in with the average pony. Path and I are virtually the same size, so maybe I just wanted to be more like my best friend.”

“Maybe it’s time you took a slightly bigger form? It’d probably help stop your mother from bothering you about that.”

“What? I thought you liked me like this?” Free said with an exaggerated wounded look.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I’ve liked you in all sorts of forms. A bigger one won’t make a difference to me, but might make your mother happier.”

“Your wish is my command, O Princess of my Heart.” Free looked about and then ducked into a nearby alley. A moment later there was a flare of magic, and then Free stepped back out, basically unchanged except for being a few inches taller. “Enough? Can’t grow too much in such a short time. Ponies might start wondering.”

“Good idea, and a fine start,” Twilight replied. Then she nuzzled him. “Hmm, I think I’ll have to take back what I said earlier – this does make a difference to me.”

“You like?” Free asked with a roguish grin.

“I like,” she replied happily.

“I think I’ll keep it then.”

“Hey, you two,” Path interjected, “Remember that we’re still in public before you start getting too steamy.”

Twilight blushed furiously as she realised what she was doing, and pulled away from the unrepentant griffon.

Path and Roseclaw chuckled. Neither of them cared about their significant size difference, but it was amusing to watch the reactions of their friends in the same situation.

Eventually they came to another home, this one somewhat more upmarket than Free’s parents’ house. The fact that Path had come from a fairly wealthy family compared to Free’s had never made the slightest difference to either of them though. Each had spent almost as much time at each other’s place as their own. One of the more obvious differences between their class levels was the maid who answered the door.

“It’s good to see you again, Long Path,” the maid said with a genuine smile. “And you too, Free. And these are the guests that you said you were bringing?” Her eyes widened in sudden recognition. “Oh my, are you Princess Twilight Sparkle?”

“I am,” Twilight replied with a warm smile. “But I’m not here on official business, so please just call me Twilight.”

“Uh… yes, ma’am.”

“And this is Roseclaw,” Path said.

Roseclaw gave the maid her friendliest smile, but it was clear that she was a bit intimidated by the large griffoness.

Free said, “Hey, it’s okay, Lacey. Rose may be a lot bigger than me, but she’s cool.”

White Lace nodded. “Please come in. Long, your parents are out on the balcony enjoying the afternoon sun. I suggest that you join them out there. Dinner will be served in about half an hour.”

“Thanks, Lace. Come on in, everyone.”

As they followed Path through the house, Free said, “What’s the bet that they make the same mistake that Mom did and think that Twi is your mate?”

“Don’t be too sure. Mom’s isn’t as narrow-minded as most – she’s never had trouble with you being my friend, after all,” Path said with grin. “Besides, with my mother’s connections, she might have heard something that most ponies haven’t.”

“Try not to give it away. I want to see if you’re right or me.”

They exited onto a west-facing balcony which was enjoying a colourful sunset. A black-coated earth pony stallion with a white mane was reading a rather thick book, while a green-coated unicorn mare with a dark green mane was sipping tea. She was the first to notice the group arrive.

“Winding, our son has arrived with his friends,” she said. “We also seem to have some extra special company for dinner.”

The stallion looked up and his face lit up in pleasure.

“It’s good to see you again, son. Your mother and I have been looking forward to hearing about your adventures. Ah, I see what my wife meant by special company. Welcome to our home, Princess Sparkle.”

“Thank you, sir. Please just call me Twilight though. I’m here socially, not royally, if you understand what I mean.”

Path said, “And this is Lady Roseclaw, daughter of Far Scream, the Griffonian ambassador.”

“Another unusual guest! You are most welcome also, Lady Roseclaw,” Path’s mother said with a genuine smile.

Path continued, “Rose, Twilight, this is my Father, Winding Road, and my mother, Ivory Tower. Dad’s a historian, and Mom’s on the board of the Council of Mages. I get my academic streak from Dad, obviously, but it’s Mom who got me interested in unicorn magic, and helped me figure out how to adapt it to earth pony magic.”

“Ivory and I are already acquainted,” Twilight said with a smile in the mare’s direction.

“Indeed,” Ivory agree. “It would be a little odd that the Element of Magic was not familiar with the members of the Council of Mages, and vice-versa. Twilight has managed to make quite an impact on our magical studies despite her youth.”

“Your son managed to do something that even I had not thought of yet, though. I think he owes a lot to you for that.”

“You’re too kind, but I am proud of his accomplishments.”

“You’re going to be flabbergasted by what he’s done lately then,” Free commented.

“And we’ll have plenty of time to talk about that later,” Path interjected. “However, first of all I have an important announcement to make. Mom, Dad, I have recently gotten engaged, and I’m here to show off my fiancée.”

Ivory eyed both Twilight and Roseclaw with keen interest. “Oh? Which one?”

Path winked at Free. “Told you!”

Roseclaw moved over to Path and wrapped a wing around him. “Path is my chosen warrior,” she said almost shyly. Apparently confronting her future mother-in-law was a little daunting even for a large warrior griffoness.

“A warrior now, is it? This is getting more interesting by the moment.”

“Heck, yeah, Ivy,” Free said enthusiastically. “We’ve all had quite an adventure or two in the past few months. Maybe the biggest adventure is still ahead of me. You see, Twilight and I are in a relationship too.”

That finally shook the mare. “You and Twilight? Is this your idea of a joke, Free Agent? I love you like a second son, but….” Ivory was lost for words.

Free chuckled. “Hey, I can hardly believe my luck either. Even my Mom couldn’t believe it, but I’ll declare this in front of you and anypony else who cares to listen…” Free paused to nuzzle Twilight’s cheek, and she promptly blushed. “I love Twilight Sparkle.”

When Twilight did not refute Free’s claim, Ivory was forced to accept the farfetched notion that her son’s eccentric best friend had indeed won the princess’ heart.

“I see history in the making here, Winding.”

Winding Road nodded gravely. “It has interesting implications for Equestria. My boys, you and I are going to have a long discussion on how this came to be.”

“Speaking of history, Dad, we’ve got some additions and corrections for you with regards to the last Pony-Griffon War. They’re going to intrigue you, and frustrate you also because some simply can’t be published as yet.”

“Son, if you think that will deter me, then you don’t know me as well as you think you do. However, I suggest that we move inside and start your stories from the beginning. We have all evening to hear all the details. And Lady Roseclaw – welcome to our home, and hopefully to our family.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Roseclaw managed to get comfortable enough with Ivory to relax in her company. She still spent almost every moment cuddled up to Path as if to affirm to the mare that she was serious about her relationship with Ivory’s son. Path was a little mortified when his mother brought out several photo albums to show Roseclaw pictures of him in his foalhood. Many were taken with a very young Free Agent with the colt, including one where Path was excitedly riding Free while he was flying.

“Moments later, Path fell off, but fortunately I caught him with my magic,” Ivory explained. “He never tried that again.”

Twilight said, “That might account for Path’s nervousness with heights.” She glared at Free. “You never did learn your lesson there, did you?”

Free shrugged helplessly. “I was only six then! Gimme a break, hon!”

They might have talked all night, but eventually Path had to plead weariness due to his recent debilitating experience. The foursome left in high spirits, promising to visit again before they left for Griffonia once more.

The streets were virtually deserted at that time of night. Of course the steady rain might have had something to do with that also.

“I forgot that rain had been scheduled for tonight,” Path said glumly.

“I still find it fascinating that your pegasi control the weather here,” Roseclaw commented.

“I suppose I could hold an umbrella shield over us all until we get to the castle?” Twilight suggested. She was feeling quite tired by now though, and wasn’t keen on putting in so much effort.

“”I’ve got a better idea,” Free declared. “Our place is much closer. We can crash there for tonight.”

“That okay with you, Rose?” Path asked.

“As long as I’m with you, I don’t care where I roost.”

“Seems like a plan,” Twilight said, powering up her horn and forming a large umbrella shield. “Let’s trot!”

With Path leading the way, the foursome set a fast pace.

Free kept close to the alicorn, working up the courage to ask a question. He knew it was inevitable, but it didn’t make it any less daunting. “Umm… Twi, when are we going to see your parents? I mean, we don’t have to immediately, but if you really want to…?”

“I checked this morning, and my parents are out of town at the moment. I hope they come back soon; I really want them to meet you.”

“Sure, sure, Sparkles,” Free replied, trying to keep the relief out of his voice. With a bit of luck, they would be gone before her parents returned. He would rather face Chrysalis than Twilight’s parents right now – at least he didn’t have to worry about her opinion!

They made good time to his and Path’s apartment, and were soon at the doorstep. Path fortunately still had his key in his saddlebag, and soon had the door opened. He stepped inside, groped for the light switch, and a moment later the magic crystal flared into life to illuminate the room.

“Come in and be welcome,” Path said with an exaggerated bow.

Roseclaw entered, closely followed by Twilight. Free pulled a piece of paper off the door before closing it behind them.

“What’s that?” Path asked.

Free scanned it and replied, “Notice of eviction. Apparently we’re really late with the rent.”

“Jobless and homeless – whatever will we do?” Path said melodramatically.

Free chuckled. “I’ll go see the landlord tomorrow and square us up for back rent, and to give us a chance to move our stuff out. What do you think, Twi? Start moving immediately?”

“You two are still recovering. I’ll arrange for some movers to take your things to my castle.” She looked about at the furniture and their other belongings. “Although I’m not sure how much of this stuff is actually worth taking.”

Path sheepishly rubbed the back of his head with one hoof. “We weren’t exactly much worried about the décor. It was a roof over our heads, and a place to sleep and eat. Neither of us had exactly been worried about bringing future wives here. Sorry, Rose.”

“A warrior needs no more than this,” Roseclaw pointed out. “That said, a lord deserves better.”

“Right now, I just want to get some sleep,” Twilight said.

“Allow me to show you to the boudoir, Your Highness,” Free said with an exaggerated bow and a sweep of his claws in the direction of his bedroom.

“Most gracious of you, sir!” Twilight said primly, with a barely noticeable smirk of amusement. She headed into the bedroom, with Free following close behind.

Path held out his hoof. “Will you join me, my lady?” he asked, keeping up the formal theme.

“With the greatest of pleasure, my lord,” Roseclaw replied, taking his hoof into her talons and allowing him to escort her to his bedroom.

Some minutes later, Free had switched to pegasus form in order to do some serious kissing and cuddling with Twilight in his spacious bed. Abruptly they heard a crash from the other room.

“What was that?” Twilight asked as she lifted her head and swivelled her ears in the direction of the noise. “Should we check on Path and Roseclaw?”

Free reached up to pull her head back down to his level. “My guess is that Path’s bed collapsed under the weight of a big earth pony and an even bigger griffoness. Judging by the emotions that I can taste coming from their room though, neither is particularly worried. In fact… oh yeah… that’s my buddy!”

“Free! Stop being so voyeuristic!”

“Can’t help but taste it, y’know?”

“Perhaps I can distract you?” Twilight suggested coyly.

The mare had the same aroused look that she’d had the previous night, and its effect was just as great as the feelings for him that she exuded and he savoured. Suffice to say, Free did not notice what was happening in the next room for the rest of the night.

Free was the first to wake up the next morning because the previous night had charged him up with sufficient love energy that he needed little sleep. He carefully disengaged himself from Twilight so as not to disturb her too much, even though he realised by now that she was a habitual early riser. She would wake up when she was ready.

He made his way to the kitchen with the intention of making breakfast.

“Hmmm, let’s see what we’ve got that can feed two ponies, a big griff, and myself,” he muttered as he opened the coolbox. He immediately slammed it back closed as a repugnant odour wafted out. “Uh-oh. Strike one. How about the pantry?”

A search of the pantry cupboard was less than encouraging. He found a box of oats, a bag of flour, and four cans of beans. He remembered now that he had not bothered stocking up due to their taking off for a long trip. He decided that a quick trip was in order.

Free grabbed his coin satchel and headed out to the market. Hopefully it would not be too soon.

Less than half an hour later, he returned with several parcels and headed for the kitchen. On the way, he noticed the sound of the shower running, and knew that at least one person was now awake also. He began the breakfast preparations promptly, starting with heating up the stove, and then he began making some batter for pancakes. Next he sliced up some fruits that he had bought and put them on a plate. Then he unwrapped one of the parcels to reveal the slab of bacon that he had been pleased to be able to procure. He sliced some off and had it ready to fry as soon as Roseclaw and Path showed up, along with some eggs.

Twilight walked in about then, freshly bathed, with her mane neatly brushed into her usual style.

“There you are! I woke up to find you gone.”

“Sorry, Sparkles. I hoped to bring you breakfast in bed, but we were short on a lot of stuff, so I had to zip out to the market. I’ll have some pancakes ready for you in a minute, but there’s fruit there already.”

“That was thoughtful of you, Firetail.” Twilight sat at the table and levitated some of the fruit onto a plate that Free had already set there.

Free started making the pancakes, expertly turning out a stack of them in a short time. He presented them to the alicorn along with a jug of syrup and a bowl of berries.

“Wow! These look marvellous!” Twilight said with a lick of her lips.

“I’ve been the chief cook for Path and myself for years. Practice makes perfect.”

“Didn’t Path do any of the cooking?”

“Let’s just say that after sampling his efforts when we first moved in here together, I knew that he was never going to earn a cutie mark in cooking. I banned him from doing anything more than heating up a can of beans. He gets to do the cleaning up afterwards.”

Meanwhile, Twilight had started on the pancakes. “Mmm, these are good. I’m glad that I’ve got a coltfriend who knows how to keep his special somepony well fed.”

Free grinned. “Oh? Then can I tempt you with my bacon and eggs on toast?” he asked mischievously.

Twilight paused chewing and glared at the griffon. “Are you trying to spoil my appetite?”

“Come on, Sparkles – you know ponies are perfectly capable of eating meat. You have to try it out eventually.”

“Not yet, I don’t. Right now I’m still working on not being revolted by watching others eat it.”

“Better be done before the others turn up for breakfast then. I’ll wait to have mine then also. You want a drink? I’m making coffee.”

“Coffee would be good, as long as you have milk to go with it. I don’t like it black.”

“You’re in luck – I picked up a bottle of milk while I was out.”

He was just pouring out a mug for her when Path and Roseclaw made an appearance, both looking a bit dishevelled.

“Hey, lovebirds, do you want to have breakfast now or shower first?” Free asked.

“Give us a moment to freshen up,” Path replied. “If you have breakfast ready, we’ll skip the shower for now.”

“Is that bacon that I smell?” Roseclaw asked.


“We’ll be back soon!” the griffoness said eagerly.

“See, Twi?” Free told her smugly. “Bacon is always good!”

“Free!” she said in a tone that warned him to drop the subject.

Free chuckled and went to prepare the bacon and eggs.

Path and Roseclaw were soon at the table, and Free served them both a big plate of bacon and eggs over easy, on top of hot buttered toast. Roseclaw got stuck into hers immediately, but Path looked at his with less enthusiasm.

Path looked at Free and said, “I’m sorry, but I really don’t feel like having bacon at the moment. Could you heat up some beans for me?”

Free was surprised for a moment before he realised what was wrong. “Sure thing. Do you want some extra bacon, Rose?”

The griffoness nodded and Free forked the bacon onto her plate, leaving the eggs on toast for Path. He then headed off to the pantry to dig out a can of beans to heat up.

Eventually Free was able to sit down and have his breakfast also. “So what’s on the agenda today?” he asked before shovelling a loaded forkful of food into his beak.

Twilight had fetched her day planner and was using it to ignore the carnivorous activity at the table. “We have to attend the funeral for the fallen soldiers this morning. Before then, I’ll arrange to have some movers come by after the funeral and you two can supervise what you want taken to Ponyville, and what you want to get rid of.” She looked up to eye Path and Roseclaw. “Things like old beds, perhaps?”

Path looked at Roseclaw with chagrin, and she giggled.

Twilight continued, “I don’t want either Path or Free exerting themselves unnecessarily – you’re both still officially recovering, and another day’s rest is ordered, so stick to packing just your personal stuff. Let the professionals do the hard work.”

“Yes, boss!” Free said with a salute.

She blithely ignored his cheekiness and went on, “I’ll have someone at my castle to supervise the unloading, so all you need do is mark everything for whichever rooms that they need to go to. There’s one for Path and Rose, one for me and Free, and a general storage for now. We can sort out anything more later.”

Free looked at Twilight with a serious look on his face for once. “Are you absolutely sure that you want me moving in with you, Twilight? I mean, it’s what I’d love to do, but you… well you’re kind of new to this and…”

Twilight closed his beak with a spark of her magic and smiled. “I made up my mind two nights ago, Firetail. Did you really think that I would have second thoughts? I love you, you idiot!”

Free abruptly transformed into pony form, wrapped his hooves around Twilight, and drew her into a deep kiss. Twilight’s wings snapped out in surprise, but she quickly enfolded them both in feathers and lost herself in the kiss.

Roseclaw said, “I’m never going to get used to that. Must be convenient being able to shift form like that though.” She looked at Path. “Do you miss me not having lips to kiss you?”

Path carefully considered his reply. “Darling, there’s so much of you to love, I don’t have much to miss. Besides, you still kiss very nicely.”

“Good answer,” she replied as she leaned down to affectionately rub her beak along his cheek.

When both couples were done showing their affection, Twilight got back to business.

“I’ll arrange for dinner in the banquet hall. Pinkie Pie will inevitably want to throw you all a ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ party, so we might as well take advantage of that and make it a dinner party.”

“Sounds fun,” Free said with a grin.

“I’m sure it will be, but for now we have to the serious stuff to prepare for. Let’s get ready and head up to Canterlot Castle. The funeral is going to be held at the military cemetery in about two hours.”

Free recognised many of the faces at the funeral, including that of Captain Diamondhard. To his surprise, the captain came over to Free when the crystal pony noticed him arrive.

“I was hoping to see you, Mister Agent,” Diamondhard said.

Free was surprised. “That would be a first,” he replied.

“No doubt, but I will be the first to admit that I was wrong about you. I didn’t appreciate having you foist upon me, and I didn’t like your attitude. I didn’t pay attention to your suspicions because of that, and that was unforgivably foolish of me. A pony in my position does not have the luxury of ignoring a problem just because I don’t like the person, and not only were you right, you were instrumental in preventing the invasion of the Crystal Empire. I wish to offer my sincere apologies, and also my gratitude, and that of all under my command.”

Free gave the captain a smile. “Apology accepted, Captain, but if you’re serious about your change of heart, then heed my warning – I still feel we’re overlooking something.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Sorry, I wish I could, but it’s eluding me. Unlike last time, I don’t have a specific target for my suspicions.”

“If you do, please don’t hesitate to inform me. I will endeavour to cover every possibility. Good day to you, sir.”

Free watched her go join the other crystal ponies who had come for the funeral. That was about as friendly as Diamondhard ever got, and it was with him? Wonders never cease!

Princess Cadance arrived to join Celestia, Luna, and Twilight who performed the commemoration ceremony. Prince Shining Armor could not attend as he had to stay in the Empire while Diamondhard and Cadance attended the funeral. The fallen soldiers were praised for their dedication to duty and mourned for their loss before being interred with full military honours.

Cadance took a moment to pass on her thanks to Free before she had to hasten back to the Crystal Empire. She almost missed him though because he’d had to excuse himself from the funeral. He found the burden of negative emotions was debilitating him, and he wondered how the changelings in attendance were able to bear it. Weren’t they overwhelmed by the sadness of every single one of the ponies in attendance like he was? He was glad when the service was over, and Twilight and the others reunited with him.

“Frothy Brew has invited us back to the family restaurant for luncheon in honour of Sterling Shield. Think you’re up to it?” Twilight asked Free.

“I’ll be okay,” he promised her. “I want to share with him what I knew of Sterling.”

The True Brew Café and Restaurant was closed to the public for the first time in years, but it was still crowded. Sterling Shield had had a lot of friends and comrades, and they remembered him with joy that day.

The luncheon delayed their return to the apartment, and they found the moving crew impatiently awaiting their arrival. After getting the process started, Free went to the landlord to square away their back rent and let him know that they were moving out today. Twilight accompanied him both for moral support, and to make sure that the landlord did not try any funny business. Perhaps because of that, things went smoothly, and they quickly finished business.

The movers were incredibly efficient, and had the apartment emptied in a very short time. Their belongings were loaded onto a pegasus sky-wagon, and the stuff that they were discarding loaded into a conventional cart to be hauled away to the junk yard by a couple of dour earth ponies.

Despite having lived in that apartment for years, neither Path nor Free was sad to leave it. Having had their horizons expanded so much lately, it was just a small episode in their lives now. Path locked the door to the now-empty apartment and passed the key over to a messenger colt to deliver back to the landlord.

“Let’s go,” Path said.

“It’s too late to catch the train to Ponyville in time for the welcoming party,” Twilight pointed out. “It’s not too far though for me to teleport us all there if you like?”

“Sounds good to me,” Free said.

“Okay by me,” Path replied.

Roseclaw looked a little uncertain, but opted to go along also.

“Good. Now as none of you have ever teleported before, it can be a little nauseating the first time. I suggest you take a couple of deep breaths and brace yourselves.”

“And you were going to teleport us from the dirigible at Griffonia?” Path pointed out.

“The longer the distance the worse it is. That hop to the ground would have been barely noticeable. Anyway, deep breaths!” She fired up the magic in her horn, formed the spell in her mind, and a moment later, the foursome disappeared from Canterlot…

… and reappeared in front of Twilight’s castle. “Welcome to Ponyville!” Twilight exclaimed. “How are you feeling?”

“A little dizzy, but okay,” Path replied.

“I think I left my stomach back in Canterlot,” Roseclaw said.

“I’m perfectly fine,” Free replied. “Cool castle, Twi!”

“If you think this looks nice, you should see how my friends decorated the interior. They really made it into a home. Come on – let me show you to your rooms and then give you a quick tour before the pegasi arrive with our stuff.”

Needless to say, they were impressed with the castle. Twilight took them into almost every room with one particular exception. “That’s Spike’s room. I don’t go in there unless invited. That’s his little sanctum.”

“Spike’s the young dragon that you mentioned lives with you, isn’t he?” Roseclaw asked as they headed back downstairs. “Where is he?”

“He is, and he’s probably with Pinkie, helping to organise the dinner party in the banquet hall right through here. He-eek!”

Twilight jumped ten feet in the air as the banquet hall doors slammed open and Pinkie Pie leapt out and yelled, “Surprise! Welcome to Ponyville!”

Twilight face-hoofed and muttered, “You’d think I’d be used to this by now after all these years.” She fluttered back down to the floor, trying to ignore the grins of her companions. “Pinkie – you weren’t supposed to surprise me!”

“I know; that’s why it makes it such a great surprise!” Pinkie exclaimed with a huge grin on her face.

Twilight sighed and gestured for the others to enter. “Looks like the party is ready to begin.”

Inside they found the rest of Mane Six, plus a few more guests, including Applejack’s brother, Big Macintosh, Mayor Mare, a stallion named Cheese Sandwich, several other Ponyville friends, and a yellow and red maned unicorn who had come in from the Crystal City with Cadance.

Spike stepped up to the group and said, “Welcome home, Twilight! These are the new friends that you told me about?”

“Thanks, Spike. Let me introduce you to Long Path and his mate Roseclaw, and this is Free Agent, my very special somepony… or somegriff, I should say. Guys, this is my little brother, Spike.”

Spike regarded Free a little suspiciously before extending his hand to Free. More introductions were made all around and then the party started in earnest.

The Great and Powerful Trixie finished her command performance to wild applause. Since turning down her ego and turning up the quality of her show, her popularity had grown considerably, and it had been fortunate that she had been available at short notice for the party. Of course the opportunity to dine and converse with royalty and other influential people was a strong incentive also. She took her bows and then left the stage to take a seat at the table. Twilight gestured her over to sit next to her.

“You stumped me with that last trick, Trixie,” Twilight enthused. “How did you manage that?”

Trixie smiled superiorly, and then winked to show she wasn’t being snotty. “A magician never gives away her stage secrets. Besides, it’ll give you something to try to work out for yourself, won’t it?”

Octavia Melody took the stage with her cello, along with a couple of violinists and a violist for their second set of the evening. By request, the mares had been playing more upbeat music than they usually did for formal affairs, and they started playing a tune that they called Kismet.

Some of the guests were oblivious to the great music though. Fluttershy was curled up against Big Macintosh’s flank, content to just enjoy the occasion in the company of her mate. The large stallion had brought along some of Sweet Apple Acres’ best hard cider for the occasion, and he and a few others had gotten into a drinking contest. Rainbow Dash was already snoring under the table, having passed her limit at least two mugs ago. Path knew that he was losing, and only a strong will had kept him upright so far.

“Hey Mac did I ever tell you about this cute thing that Rose does if you lightly ruffle the small feathers on the back of her head?”


“She turns into a cute little kitten! Which is ironic considering she’s half bird, half lion!”


“She curls up around you and makes half crooning and half purring noises.” He tried to pick up his mug to get a refill, but couldn’t figure out which of the two wavering objects was the right one. ‘Never have another drinking contest with a stallion as big as your fiancée,’ Path reminded himself before slumping over into said fiancée’s arms. “Hi, darling,” he slurred.

She grinned, propped him up against her shoulder, and held out her empty mug to the red stallion. “Another?”

“Eeyup,” Big Mac agreed, pouring her another mug full.

After the musicians finished the song, Cheese Sandwich leaped up onto the stage holding an accordion. “Hey ladies, I’ve got a song just for the dessert course. Try to keep up!” He then started singing, “Eat It!” The mares kept up suspiciously well, and as the song neared its climax, Pinkie Pie wheeled in a giant cake on a trolley and left it in front of the stage. As Cheese Sandwich sung the final “Eat it!”, Pinkie Pie burst out of the cake and threw a pie in his face.

“Wait! What? How did she…?” Trixie sputtered.

Twilight grinned. “If you ever figure that out, let me know.”

Free, who had been having a conversation with a white unicorn with two-tone blue hair, took to the stage with his lute, and challenged Cheese and the mares to a little improv, and they spent the next hour bashing out tunes. They might have still been going at it if Applejack and Big Macintosh had to beg off.

“Work to do, y’know?” Applejack explained. “Still catching up after spending so much time in the Crystal Empire. Anyhoo, glad to see y’all, and I hope you drop by and say howdy before you gallivanting off again.”

Other guests started making their excuses then, and the party drew to a close. Trixie was given a room for the night, and then once everyone else had left, the foursome headed off to bed. Actually Roseclaw carried Path to their room on her back; the stallion was still conscious, but rambling incoherently.

Roseclaw gave Twilight and Free a wink and said, “It was really good cider. I don’t think we’ll be trying out the new bed’s limits tonight.”

When the alicorn and the changeling griffon settled into their spacious bed, Free said, “I like your home, Twi.”

Our home, Free. It may be Princess Sparkle’s castle, but it’s definitely our home. What’s mine is yours.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have much to share in return, Sparkles,” Free replied sadly.

“Oh yes you do, Firetail, and you’re going to give it to me right now,” she replied with a smouldering look on her face.

Free didn’t need another hint, and they made love with renewed passion.

Path and Free spent the morning sorting out their stuff into the new rooms, and making a pile of some things that they intended to take to Griffonia with them. It would have taken less time if not for Path’s massive hangover. Twilight fetched a remedy from Zecora that got the earth pony functioning again though, and he was pretty much back to normal by lunchtime.

Meanwhile, Twilight took Roseclaw for a tour of her home town, or private little kingdom as she jokingly referred to it. Many of the ponies were a bit taken aback by the large griffoness, but were reassured because she was in the presence of Twilight.

Rainbow Dash ended up doing an aerial tour for Free after they got chatting about flying over breakfast. The colourful pegasus had apparently slept the night under the table, and had only woken that morning when Spike poked her and told her that food was on the table. With the highlights done, it didn’t take long for the competitive mare to challenge Free to another race. The result was as much a foregone conclusion as the one in the Crystal Empire, but Free enjoyed the challenge anyway.

“Hey, Beaky – wanna do a sonic rainboom?” Rainbow asked as they rested on a cloud.

“Oh sure, I’ll just fire myself out of a cannon to get up to speed,” Free replied sarcastically.

Rainbow Dash grinned. “I’d like to see that, but no, I think we can do it my way, if you’re game?”

Free could not resist a challenge. “So how do we do this?”

“Follow me!” Rainbow shot up like a rocket to gain altitude, and Free did his best to keep up with her. After getting to a safe height, she paused and waited for Free to get level with her. “Okay, here’s the deal. We’re going to do a power dive. When you’re up to your best speed, I want you to grab my hind legs and hold on tight. Try not to stab me with those talons though.”

Free held up his front limbs. “No problem!” A swirl of magic fire reduced the talons to mere nubs.

“That’s kinda handy,” Rainbow admitted. “Anyway, once you’ve grabbed me, fold back your wings and streamline your body as best as you can, and leave the rest to me.”

“Gotcha. Let’s do this!”

They dived and accelerated until Free could go no faster. He glanced at Rainbow who was easily matching his speed, and she nodded and moved in front of him. He grabbed her legs just above the ankles, and a moment later she accelerated while he hung on for dear life. The wind pressure was incredible, and Free could barely see with his watering eyes nearly shut. Just when he thought that he could hold on no longer, there was a tremendous shock, a loud boom, and an explosion of colour around them. Suddenly their high speed flight was smooth and almost quiet, and Free screamed in delight as the landscape passed by them at an incredible rate. Rainbow kept up the supersonic speed for a few moments longer until she had to slow down once more. Free let go once they dropped down to a speed that he could handle, and the pair circled down to a landing just outside the castle.

“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-ooooooo!” Free yelled. His feathers were mussed, his eyes were wide as saucers, and he was so full of adrenalin that he could hardly stand still. “That was so awesome! How often do you do that for others?”

“You’re the first. Wasn’t sure that I could pull it off while dragging a passenger, but it worked out because I’m the best!” Rainbow said proudly.

“No argument from me, sister! I’m gonna be talking about this for the rest of my life.”

“So, have you had enough for one day?”

“Are you kidding? I’m Free Agent, and I’m always ready for more!”

Rainbow grinned. “You asked for it. Let’s go!”

That day turned out to be one of Ponyville’s more infamous in terms of the hijinks that the pair got up to. Needless to say, Rainbow had found a kindred spirit, and Equestria would never be the same.

That afternoon, Rarity and Fluttershy invited Roseclaw and Twilight to join them in a session at the Day Spa. Roseclaw did not want to do it unless Path was with her, so they invited him also. It was exactly what the earth pony needed, and despite the girly nattering that went on, he relaxed and let the last of his troubles be soothed away. Between Free, Roseclaw, and the kindness of his friends, he reached mental equilibrium once more, and he would be ready to take up his duties as Lord of the House of Path when they got back to Griffonia. Life was good.

Breakfast the next morning was interrupted by a messenger bringing a telegram for Twilight. She smiled when she read it, and then turned to Free.

“Before we return to Canterlot today, I want to make a short visit to friends over in Whitetail Meadows Village, and I’d like you to come with me.”

Free was a little surprised but not unwilling. “Sure, but what’s the occasion?”

“I think I’ve mentioned a Blue Changeling friend of mine who settled down with a unicorn mare after the invasion of Canterlot?”

“Oh, yeah. So that’s where he lives?”

“Yes. I sent a message to him, asking if he’d be willing to meet up with me and you, with the implication that I’d be revealing his identity to you and vice versa. He says he’s okay with this, although he’s yet to refuse a request from me. He still feels obligated because of the big favour that I did for him a few years back. I keep telling him that we’re square, but he doesn’t pay attention. So please don’t abuse the privilege.”

“Hey, I kept my nature secret for years, so I can’t blame him for wanting the same. I’ll be good. When exactly do you want to go?”

“Thanks. Early this morning would be best. It’s a weekday, and he’ll be working, but he says he’ll make time for us today.”

“How about straight after breakfast? We can visit and get back with plenty of time for us both to finish our preparations for heading back to Canterlot.”

“That would be perfect.”

Less than half an hour later, Twilight and Free arrived above Whitetail Meadows Village in the typical flash-bang of teleportation. They spread their wings and started gliding down to the ground and through the town, with Twilight leading the way. They alighted in the main street in front of a florist signposted as ‘Wild Dreams’, and a few passing ponies gave Twilight a cheery greeting.

“The locals seem just as blasé about an Equestrian princess as the ones in Ponyville,” Free observed. “They don’t seem so sure of griffons though,” he added as a pony couple crossed the street to avoid him.

“I’ve been coming here often enough now that I’m a familiar sight, and I’ve always preferred informality. However, I don’t know if most have ever even seen a griffon before, so it’s hardly surprising that they’re a little nervous around you. Come on inside – we don’t want to upset too many ponies.”

Twilight led the way into the flower shop. Free followed and soon spotted a green unicorn mare with a two-tone purple mane, serving a customer. She had an oddly small horn for an adult, and he wondered about that. Twilight waited patiently until the mare finished the transaction and turned her attention to them.

“Twilight! It’s wonderful to see you again!” she exclaimed, coming over to hug the alicorn.

“It’s good to see you too, Lavender.”

“When Cogs told me that you wanted to pay a visit in the middle of a working day, I guessed that you must be squeezing it into a busy schedule.”

“You guessed right. I’ll be heading back to Canterlot this afternoon, and my friends and I have plans for Saturday. We’ll be heading back to Griffonia not long afterwards.”

“You’re certainly getting around a lot more nowadays. A princess’ job is never done, I suppose.”

“You’re certainly right, but it’s gotten a lot more interesting lately,” Twilight said with a glance at Free.

“And who is your friend?” Lavender asked with a smile in Free’s direction.

“More than a friend. Lavender, I’d like you to meet Free Agent, my very special somepony… or somegriff, I should say. Free, this is my very close friend, Lavender Dreams.”

Free took Lavender’s outstretched hoof and shook it carefully. “A pleasure to meet you,” he said with his most charming smile.

“Ah, I’m already seeing what you like in him,” Lavender said with a smile.

Twilight blushed a little. “He has his charms,” she admitted before changing the subject. “So, is Cogs available?”

“You’ll find him in the back yard working on a repair job. He brought it home with him yesterday, knowing that you would be dropping by sometime today, so he wouldn’t have to go out. He’s keeping an eye on the foals too, so mother isn’t here today, which means that you won’t have to be careful with what you want to discuss.”

“Perfect! I didn’t want to have to be rude and ask your mother to give us privacy for a while.”

The shop-door bell rang just then, and a stallion entered the shop. Lavender glanced his way and then said to Twilight, “Go on back – I’ll come when I’m free for a moment.”

Twilight nodded and then beckoned Free. “Follow me.”

She took them through the door at the rear of the counter, which led them into a large living room, but she didn’t stop there. Twilight opened the door that led into the back yard and they exited the house. There they saw a male, grey-coated pegasus with a teal mane and tail working on a piece of machinery that was sitting on a workbench that had been set up there. Right next to it was a playpen containing a very young unicorn foal, and playing in a sandpit nearby was a buttery-yellow pegasus foal.

Twilight said, “If we’d flown in from the other direction, we might have seen this touching family scene.”

The pegasus stallion looked up and smiled in delight. “Twilight! I’m glad that you could make it. It’s been too long since your last visit.”

“Auntie Twi!” the pegasus foal cried as she hurtled into the alicorn’s embrace.

“Hi, Dandy! Have you been a good filly since I saw you last?” Twilight asked.

“Best filly!” Dandelion replied proudly.

“Good! I brought treats for best fillies, and their sisters too.” Twilight telekinetically lifted two lollipops from her saddle bag and passed them to Dandelion. “Pinkie Pie gave me her very best lollipops from Sugarcube Corner to give to you and Fern.”

The filly’s eyes grew wide in delight. “Thank you, Auntie Twi!” She then scampered over to the playpen, gave one to the younger foal, and then started licking hers enthusiastically.

“You always spoil them, Twilight.”

“I get so little chance to do so nowadays, Cogs, and this rushed visit may be the last for a while.”

“Then we better make the most of it.” Cogs turned to look at Free. “So this is the changeling you wanted me to meet?” He cocked his head and frowned in puzzlement. “Why can’t I tell what hive he’s from?”

Free grinned smugly. “I’m my own hive!” he declared as usual.

“What do you mean by that?” Cogs asked.

Twilight interjected, “It’s a long story, but first – introductions. Free, this is Whirring Cogs, Lavender’s husband and father to these two foals. Cogs, this is Free Agent, also known as Cirrus Ironbeak, my coltfriend.”

“Judging by the feelings that I’m tasting right now, maybe a little bit more than a coltfriend?” Cogs asked with a knowing smile. “So, have you decided to copy our lifestyle, Twilight?”

“I hadn’t planned to,” Twilight replied with a blush. “It just kind of happened.”

“It kind of just happened to me too,” Cogs reminded her.

“That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to bring Free here to meet you. If we’re going to be serious about a relationship, I want him to see how it’s worked out for you and Lavender.”

“In that case, let me clean up and start making some lunch for all of us. We’re going to have to cover a lot of stuff in a short time. I hope you’re up to it, Free Agent?”

Free shrugged. “How hard can it be?”

Later as they returned to Ponyville, Free was to remember those words ruefully.

That evening in Canterlot, Princess Luna was considering wrapping-up Night Court. It had been a quiet night, and her schedule had been light, so although the official hours were not yet done, there was little point in staying in the audience chamber. There was not even Scribe to chat with, as she had yet to return from her visit back to her hive. Her sole companion was a very serious-looking thestral Royal Guard.

It was normal practice to have at least one member of the Royal Guard on duty at the court sessions, and the bat-pony was just one of the number that constituted a squad in the Night Guard. However, this was an unfamiliar face, probably freshly graduated, and taking his job extra seriously because of it. In other words, he was no fun whatsoever.

She was just about to dismiss the Guard and leave, when Free walked into the chamber without announcement, startling the young thestral.

“Hiya, Luna! Got a moment?”

The thestral dashed between Free and Luna, and lowered his spear threateningly. “Who are you? Show some respect for the Princess!”

Free stared at the Guard for a moment before bursting out in laughter, much to the thestral’s consternation. Free crooked a talon in the Guard’s direction. “A newbie, I take it?” he asked the Moon Princess.

Luna grinned. “Verily – most new. Stand down, Guard. Free Agent doth be a good friend of ours.”

The thestral was confused, but did as he was ordered.

Luna turned her attention back to Free. “I do indeed have a moment – several in fact. How can I help you?”

“What are you doing tomorrow night? The guys and I have some fun planned, and we’d love for you to join us.”

“’Tis a Saturday night with no Night Court, so I am open to suggestions.”

“Great! We know how hard it’s been for you to find opportunities to relax and have fun outside of things like Nightmare Night, so this is going to be something totally obligation-free and an excuse to let your mane down. Interested?”

“Indeed. Go on.”

“We have this group idea, but there’s only the four of us, but with you it would be five. Six would be best, but not essential.”

“One more needed? My sister might be interested, but she would likely be asleep.” She pondered for a moment, and then looked at the thestral. “Guard – what is your name?”

The thestral was startled to be addressed, and stammered his response. “P-private L-leatherwing, Your Highness.”

“Private Leatherwing, if you are to be my personal guard, you will need to attend me at all times, correct?”

“Yes, Your Highness!”

“Good. You shall join us. Free Agent, you have your sixth member.”

Free grinned at the dismayed look on the Guard’s face. “Great! If you’re free now, we’re about to start our first rehearsal, and it’ll give you both an opportunity to see what you’ve let yourselves in for.”

“Lead on. Leatherwing, attend us.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Leatherwing said reluctantly.

Revelry Restaurant was an unusual venue in that it was a theatre restaurant that had special nights at regular intervals where the diners could become part of the show. If the participants put on a good act, they could have their meals discounted in proportion to the reception that they got from the other diners. Really popular acts could even dine for free, but most came to watch rather than participate.

Tonight though was proving to be somewhat unusual, what with not one but two alicorn princesses among the guests. The staff initially started trying a little too hard to please their royal customers until Twilight and Free spoke to the manager and pretty much ordered him to cut it out and treat them like normal ponies. They made it clear that they were there to relax, and put on an act. The latter surprised the manager even more, but he did as requested, and the party of six enjoyed competent but not ridiculously good service.

When they had finished their meal, Free indicated to the act coordinator that they were almost ready to do their act, and he showed them to the dressing room at the back of the stage to prepare to go on in a few minutes. They had brought along costumes, and they donned them. Free gave them a looking-over and gave them an approving nod.

“Everypony ready? Great! Let’s do it!”

Free handed the stage manager a record with instructions on the track to play, and they headed for the stage. When the spotlight was turned on, Free stepped out onto the stage wearing a feather headdress and buckskin jacket. He took the microphone from the stand and said, “Good evening, Mares and Stallions! Have we got an act for you tonight! In fact, you might say it’s a royal command performance. So – how many of you have enjoyed the services of the Young Mares Canterlot Association? Let the Village Ponies tell you why you should if you haven’t.”

Free nodded to the stage manager who put the record on, and the amplified music started playing over the stage’s speakers. As the introductory bars played, the others marched onto the stage, starting with Path dressed in a construction worker’s shirt and helmet, followed by Roseclaw in a sailor outfit, then Luna in a leathermare jacket, boots, and bling, Twilight in a cowgirl outfit, and finally Leatherwing in a City Guard’s constable uniform and helmet.

Free started singing, with the others doing back-up vocals:

“Young mare, there's no need to feel down.
I said, young mare, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, young mare, 'cause you're in a new town
There's no need to be unhappy.”

“Young mare, there's a place you can go.
I said, young mare, when you're short on your dough.
You can stay there, and I'm sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time.”

“It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
They have everything for you mares to enjoy,
You can hang out with all the boys...”
“It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
You can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal,
You can do whatever you feel...”

By this time, it was obvious that Path, Roseclaw, Luna, and Twilight were really getting into it. Leatherwing was still looking nervous and uncertain, but his voice was steady and strong, perhaps because he was afraid of letting down Princess Luna.

“Young mare, are you listening to me?
I said, young mare, what do you want to be?
I said, young mare, you can make real your dreams.
But you got to know this one thing!”

“No mare does it all by herself.
I said, young mare, put your pride on the shelf,
And just go there, to the Y.M.C.A.
I'm sure they can help you today.”

On this chorus, they got up on their hind legs and started forming the letters with their forelimbs.

“It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
They have everything for you mares to enjoy,
You can hang out with all the boys...”

“It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
You can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal,
You can do whatever you feel...”

“Young mare, I was once in your shoes.
I said, I was down and out with the blues.
I felt no mare cared if I were alive.
I felt the whole world was so jive...”

“That's when someone came up to me,
And said, young mare, take a walk up the street.
There's a place there called the Y.M.C.A.
They can start you back on your way.”

“It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
They have everything for you mares to enjoy,
You can hang out with all the boys...”


Y.M.C.A. by the Village People
with slightly re-written lyrics.

The audience burst into applause, and the singers grinned in appreciation. Even Leatherwing started looking less worried and hesitantly smiled.

Free held up his arms to get the audience’s attention. “Do you want some more?”

There was a roar of agreement.

“I think we’ve got another for you because You Can’t Stop the Music! Hit it!”

“Everypony you meet, the children in the street
Are swayin' to the rhythm, there's somethin' movin' in them....”

When the song was done, the applause was even louder this time, and the singers were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Free waited for the applause to die down before he said, “I can tell you want more, right?”

There was much hoof-stamping and yells of agreement.

“Yeah, I thought so. Music makes the world go around in the magic of Harmony. That’s what makes this a Magic Night!”

“When I'm with my friends then it's magic in the air
Good vibrations always surround us
Play some good music, the moment has left
Happiness and joy's everywhere.”

“So have a good a time, everypony have some fun
Ponies leave your problems behind you
Come and sing along, join in on my song
Sing about this magical night.”

“Magic night - magic's in the music
It's a magic night - we all need the music
We can have a good time
And enjoy all the magical vibes of this great -
Magic night - good friends all around you
It's a magic night - magic sure will find you
So let's all try tonight to feel love
Coming from inside each other.”

“When I'm with my friends, friends with whom I can share
All my ups and downs and betweens with
When I'm with my herd, the moments are clear
So much love is found in the air.”

“Magic's when I come, together with my friends
People from the world all around us
Sharing good things we all love to share
So much love is found in the air.”

“Magic night - magic's in the music
It's a magic night - we all need the music
We can have a good time and enjoy all the magical vibes
Of this great magic night - good friends all around you
It's a magic night - magic sure will find you
So let's all try tonight and feel love
Coming from inside each other.”

“Ahh-ahh, ahh-ahh-ahh - so much magic!
Ahh-ahh, ahh-ahh-ahh - so much magic!
Ahh-ahh, ahh-ahh-ahh - so much magic!”

“Magic night!”

Magic Night by the Village People
with slightly re-written lyrics

Free was getting slightly high on the good feelings flowing from the wildly applauding audience, and while the rest of the group couldn’t taste the emotions like he could, they were still getting almost as buzzed from the reactions of the ponies to their act. It took a long time for the audience to quiet down and Free could talk once more.

“Thanks, everypony! That’s all we’ve got for you tonight, but we’ve had a great time singing for you.”

There was a collective groan of disappointment from the audience.

Free shrugged. “It’s been so much fun that maybe the Village Ponies will make another appearance sometime with some more songs for you.”

There was some enthusiastic hoof-stomping to that idea.

Free grinned. “Thanks again! It really has been a magic night! Goodnight everypony!”

The group marched off the stage and back to the dressing room.

“Verily, I have not had this much enjoyment in a thousand years!” Luna enthused.

“Told you it’d be fun. Gonna keep the outfit?” Free asked as they changed out of their costumes.

Luna looked surprised. “Of course! Didst thou not promise that the Village Ponies would return?”

Free grinned. “Hear that, everypony? We have a return engagement by royal command.”

“Fine by me,” Twilight agreed.

“I’m just glad that you sing better than you dance,” Path said with a grin.

Twilight just poked her tongue out at him.

“This is the kind of thing that I wanted to do when I was here with my father,” Roseclaw said. “He didn’t let me have any fun at all though.”

“Lots of things have changed for all of us, darling,” Path said. “Life is bound to be a lot more interesting, and hopefully fun too.”

“Well, the fun isn’t over for tonight yet. Once we settle up the bill, we’re heading off to a nightclub that a friend of mine is D-Jaying.”

“You didn’t mention that before,” Twilight commented.

“I said that I had plans for after dinner, but I didn’t mean that it was just our Village Ponies act. You don’t even have to do anything except enjoy the music and the drinks, and dance ’til you drop.”

“I’ve never been to one, but it sounds good,” Twilight agreed. “Let’s go!”

“Twilight Eve Sparkle – what is the meaning of this?!”

Twilight blearily lifted her head from… what was she sleeping on? It appeared to be somepony’s flank. She tried to track the source of the familiar voice.

“Well, young lady?”

Abruptly her vision focused on the face of a very annoyed middle-aged mare.

“Hi, Mom. Er… what’s up?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” Velvet replied, waving a newspaper in front of her daughter’s face. “And who are all these ponies?”

“And what are you all doing here in Luna’s bedroom?” came another familiar voice.

Twilight turned her head, making her head swim for a moment before she refocused. “Celestia? Where did you say?” She looked about, slowly taking in her surroundings. Path, Luna, Roseclaw, Free, and herself were all piled up on a thick rug with several thick cushions and blankets. The flank that she had been using as a pillow turned out to be Luna’s, but she realised that hers in turn pillowed Free. Roseclaw and Path were a tangled mess of limbs which looked mightily uncomfortable.

“I… I have no idea,” Twilight confessed.

“Well, you can’t sleep here all day,” Celestia said with amusement in her voice. “Time to wake up!” she added in the Royal Canterlot Voice.

Everybody’s head shot up, accompanied by many groans.

Luna’s head rose also, but her eyes remained closed as she declared, “The nightlife shall last forever!” Then her head crashed back onto the pillow and she started snoring.

Twilight’s head throbbed, reminding her of the pounding music of the nightclub. And the drinks. So many drinks! Everypony wanted to buy the princesses a drink, and how could she refuse? Reluctantly she struggled to her hooves.

Velvet opened the newspaper and practically shoved it in Twilight’s muzzle. “Who is this, and what’s been happening while I’ve been gone?” she demanded.

Twilight focused on the newspaper. It appeared to be a tabloid full of photographs, and her eyes widened in alarm at the plethora of images of her drinking and dancing in the company of an alicorn. Oh, and kissing. Kissing a lot. Twilight groaned as she recognised Free in his Alicorn of Awesome guise. “Oh yeah, that’s my coltfriend, Free,” she said before clapping a hoof over her muzzle.

“Coltfriend? And with an alicorn that nopony has heard of before? Where is this coltfriend of yours now?”

“Present!” Free said, unsteadily holding up his right arm.

Velvet frowned. “Quiet, griffon! We weren’t talking about you.”

“Um, yes, we were actually.” If Free was happy to reveal his secret, that suited Twilight. Honesty always sat better with her, although in this case she could have delayed the confession for a more auspicious moment.

Velvet looked annoyed. “You’re not making sense, Twilight. I get back from our trip on the overnight train to Canterlot, only to find the morning papers full of pictures of you, Luna, and this other alicorn at a nightclub, apparently partying the night away. Whatever happened to the dignity of the Equestrian royalty? Whatever happened to letting your mother know that you have a coltfriend? And I ask again, where is he?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Geez, Mom, you’d think I was still a filly. We had a perfectly wonderful night out… I think. It’s kind of hazy near the end there. Princess Luna needed to have a night off, and we showed her a fun time. There was nothing formal about it, so to hay with dignity! And as for letting you know, how could I with you and Dad out of town? And your final question has already been answered, but here’s the confirmation.” She looked at Free. “Honey, would you oblige?”

“Whatever you want, Twi.” With a flare of magic, the griffon was replaced by the alicorn seen in the photographs.

Velvet’s eyes bugged out. “Your coltfriend is a changeling? Are you out of your mind?!”

“What? No ‘welcome to the family’ for me?” Free asked mournfully.

Velvet glared at Free. “A common changeling harvester having designs on my daughter, an Equestrian princess? I see what you’re up to, mister!”

“Actually, Free is technically Griffonian nobility,” Twilight interjected.

“I don’t care if he’s King of the Changelings – my daughter isn’t going to have a changeling coltfriend!”

Anger burned Twilight’s mind clear, and she replied coldly, “No, not a coltfriend – a fiancé.”

“Uh-oh,” Free said, tasting the impending explosion. He looked at Path and Roseclaw and said, “Better run for your lives, guys.”

Before anyone else could say or do anything though, a quiet but firm voice interjected.

“Not in Luna’s bedroom,” Celestia ordered. “My sister obviously needs her sleep, considering that I had to lower the moon for her this morning. We will all adjourn to another room where we will calmly…” Celestia looked pointedly at Velvet. “…discuss this. Free Agent, please return to your normal form. We have more than enough to deal with already without having to add more sightings of a male alicorn in Canterlot Castle.”

Free obliged, and everybody followed Celestia out of the room. A magic glow surrounded the door and it closed behind them.

After a couple of minutes, a heaped-up blanket moved, and Leatherwing crawled out from underneath. He looked about frantically before face-hoofing. “The sergeant is going to kill me! But Princess Luna ordered me to stay with her… oh, who am I kidding? I’m doomed.” Leatherwing started to leave, but paused to say, “It was an honour serving you, Your Highness.” He bowed and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

Another two hours passed with nothing happening but the gentle snores of the Lunar Princess. Then one wing stirred and lifted to reveal a white unicorn with a two-tone blue mane. She looked about and grinned. “Whoa! Wake up in a strange room, cuddling up with a princess? Best. Night. Ever!” Vinyl Scratch declared.

Celestia had drinks served for everyone, and wisely forestalled more outbursts from Velvet by insisting that Twilight and her comrades give an account of their adventures since Twilight had last visited her mother. This gave the mare time to cool down while getting a truer picture of what was happening. Twilight only left out the parts when she and Free had made love, but otherwise told her everything, including the misgivings as well the highlights.

Twilight was glad that she had Free, Path, and Roseclaw there to help tell the tale. She had a pounding headache, and she kept having flashbacks of the previous night as she slowly sobered up. Had she really been the centre of a cheering mob as she and Luna danced to the bass beat? And the silly, drunken telekinetic tricks with Free – they seemed hilarious at the time. Roseclaw with dozens of glowsticks hanging off her, laughing and dancing with Path. Free up on the stage with the DJ, dedicating a tune to her! Then there was the kissing… A goofy smile spread on her face as she recalled that bit. Okay, that was nice. That was very nice.

Although Velvet’s dislike of Free was greatly softened when she heard about his heroism in averting the invasion of the Crystal Kingdom, she remained resolute in her opposition to her daughter being affianced to a changeling. “Twilight, I want you to come home with me and tell your father what you’ve been doing. Perhaps he can talk some sense into you.”

Something snapped inside of Twilight, and her mind turned icy cold. She got up and walked over to Celestia and said, “Please pardon me for what I am about to do.” She then turned around and spread her wings while powering up her horn. Her eyes glowed with the enormous amount of magic that she emanated which threatened to engulf them all. Then she began to speak.

I am Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Equestria, Bearer of the Element of Magic, Alicorn of Friendship, Lady of the Griffonian Noble House of Path, and I will not be talked to like a little foal!” She then turned down the magic aura, folded her wings, and walked over to her quivering mother who probably thought she was going to be turned into a potted plant again. “Mom, I love you, but I decide what to do with my life now, and I decide who I will marry. I love Cirrus Ironbeak a.k.a. Free Agent, and nothing that you or Dad says will change that.” She went to turn away, but paused and added. “And if you can’t live with that, then I won’t invite you to the wedding.”

Velvet was left in shock at the turn of events. Free, however, was awed. He came over to Twilight and took her in his arms. “My hero,” he said with a smile.

“And you’re mine too,” Twilight replied before kissing him thoroughly.

Celestia said, “If everything is cleared up now, I need to attend Day Court. I’m afraid that I’m going to have some rather annoyed ponies to deal with due to this delay.”

“Thank you for your time, Your Highness,” Path said.

“You are welcome, my little pony, but next time you take my sister out for the evening, do try to have her back before dawn.” She gave Path a wink, and she was about to leave when a court messenger hesitantly knocked on the door.

“Beg pardon, Your Highness, but a representative from the Green Hive has just arrived and she has requested an audience with you.”

“Please give her my regards and inform her that I will be there very soon.”

“Yes, Your Highness. She has also requested that if possible, a griffon named Free Agent be summoned to the court.”

“Me?” Free blurted out.

The messenger turned to him and said, “If you are Free Agent, yes sir. She was most insistent.”

Free looked at Celestia who nodded. “How intriguing. Tell our visitor that he will be accompanying me.”

“At once, Your Highness.” The messenger trotted away hastily.

Celestia said, “I suspect that this is going to involve more than just Free Agent, so you might as well all come to the court with me.”

Everyone followed the alicorn of the sun out, and they made their way to the Day Court at a dignified pace. They encountered a crowd of disgruntled ponies who had been waiting for some time for the court to open, but had been prevented from entering the audience chamber by the Royal Guards flanking the doorway. Celestia extended her apologies to them, and begged them for a little more patience as she dealt with one last matter before opening the court to the public. She led the group inside and the Guards closed the door behind them.

Once inside, they found a tall and graceful pegasus mare waiting for them, with Scribe standing beside her. She smiled and gave Celestia a small bow, and then did the same for Twilight.

“Thank you for seeing me at short notice, Your Highness. I am Princess Iridia of the Green Hive, and I have come with a message from my mother, Queen Dianthia. She has asked that the changeling known as Free Agent the griffon attend Her Majesty at her hive at his soonest convenience.”

Free looked at Path and Twilight with shock. “No bucking way!”



Chapter 13: Truth Hurts


“What’s wrong, Free? Why don’t you want to go to the green Hive?” Twilight asked with a puzzled frown.

“Why should I? I’ve heard about the hive-mind and how the queens control their drones that way. There’s no way I want to get into some queen’s clutches. I’m my own hive, and that’s the way it’s going to stay!”

Iridia approached Free and said, “You seem to have some misconceptions about the hive-mind, Free Agent.”

“Oh yeah? I just fought beak and claw with the Blue Changelings under Chrysalis’ control. Are you going to tell me that they aren’t slaves to her will?”

“Chrysalis is an aberration that has not happened before in our recorded history. The true purpose of the hive-mind is to give us unity, communication, and knowledge. The hive-mind coordinates our efforts, and gives us a sense of family. It enables the nymphs to learn the changeling language within days of birth, and it’s a repository of knowledge that we can share.”

Twilight’s ears perked up at that last bit, but Free ignored her reaction.

“Well, I’m not part of your family, and I have no intention of ever being part. So thanks, but no thanks.”

Iridia started to look a little irritated. “Free Agent, I assure you that we have no such intentions. My mother has been following your exploits with interest, and she believes that she may be able to shed light on the mysteries of your childhood. Aren’t you the least bit curious about that?”

“Not enough to want to step into a changeling hive. Where have you been getting all this stuff on me anyway?”

Scribe stepped up a little hesitantly. “That would be my fault, sir.”

Free glared at him. “You’re supposed to be Luna’s personal assistant – are you actually a spy?”

“Sir, by Princess Luna’s authority and Queen Dianthia’s appointment, I am the official liaison between the Equestrian court and the Green Hive. I report on all matters that may be relevant to Her Majesty, and coordinate with Her Highness, Princess Luna, where necessary. There is no spying, as you put it; I merely facilitate the discreet exchange of information.”

“Right – like a spy. Okay, here’s a bit of information for you – I don’t care! Apparently neither did whoever birthed me because I was abandoned as little more than a nymph. You know what I am? I’m the product of my true parents – the griffons who took me in and raised me. That’s what I care about.”

“That is a powerful argument,” Iridia admitted, “but it leaves enormous questions unanswered. How did you end up in your parents’ care? We don’t adopt out our young. How did you survive the recent changeling attack? No mere harvester should have been able to do so. How did you heal your soul brother, Long Path? The manner in which you did so was extraordinary. There is so much for you to learn about yourself that you have never had the chance to find out, and we might be able help you discover it.”

Free shook his head. “You still don’t get it. I know what I need to know already. Anything I was really curious about, I asked one of the changelings in the community long ago. I need nothing more from you.”

“Then what about how it might affect those close to you? Your brother? Or maybe your special somepony?”

That shook Free. How could he deal with the unknown if it caused Path or Twilight problems? He looked towards Twilight questioningly.

Twilight took the cue and said, “Free, knowledge is a powerful thing, and yes, we would be better off if we knew more about your past. With it, we are always stronger and better, but I believe you already realise this. I think that it’s your feelings about this situation that are the real problem. You want nothing to do with the hives because you have nurtured a feeling of abandonment since you learned that you are a changeling, and not a true griffon. You will never be able to let that go until you learn the truth about your past, and if Dianthia can help you do this, then I urge you to trust her and go.”

“Twi – what if I don’t like what I learn?” Free asked with the most timid voice she had ever heard from the changeling griffon.

“I’ll be with you, Free. We can face it together if you wish.”

Iridia said, “My mother only invited Free Agent…”

She was cut short by Free. “Then I won’t go,” he said with finality.

“…but considering the circumstances, I will authorise Princess Twilight Sparkle to accompany you,” Iridia continued as if that had been her intention all along.

“Path too – I’m sure that he’d love to learn some stuff about you lot while you’re interrogating me,” Free said. “And of course Roseclaw has to come with her mate.”

Iridia opened her mouth to protest, but was cut off by Free again.

“They’re my House and my Herd. You might even say that they’re my Hive. We are a team, and we stick together. If you really want me to come, then it’s all or nothing.”

Iridia stared at Free for a long moment, before she surprisingly smiled. “Mother warned me that I might get an unusual response from you, and I had to be prepared to be flexible. I wonder if she understands what she’s letting herself in for? Very well, all four of you may visit our hive. Be prepared to leave in about three hours.”

“Why three hours?” Free asked.

“Because otherwise we might miss the train, of course!” Iridia replied with a sly smile.

While Twilight had visited the Red Hive in the past, she looked forward with considerable excitement to getting to see the biggest hive in Equestria. Like the rest of her comrades though, she was puzzled as to why they were on an ordinary train on the main line to Manehatten.

The five of them had boarded the regular morning train to the big city, prompting the alicorn to say, “Surely the Green Hive isn’t hidden beneath Manhatten?”

Iridia shook her head and replied, “We will be getting off the train well before then.”

“Why couldn’t some Royal Guards take us in a pegasus carriage there then?” Path asked. “Or just me at least – the rest of you have wings.”

Iridia shook her head. “Despite being a huge hive, its location has remained a well-guarded secret for millennia, only known to a few outsiders even now. It has remained so because we are careful not to draw attention to ourselves. An alicorn accompanied by two griffons carried by Royal Guards is hardly discreet. No, we will be just normal passengers taking a normal train trip to a normal destination. That’s why I asked you to wear a cape for the journey, Princess Twilight. You blend in better if ponies think you’re just a unicorn, unless they recognise you of course.”

Twilight grimaced. “You’d be amazed at how seldom I get recognised outside of Canterlot or Ponyville. Still, it’s usually better for me that way. Celestia and Luna can have the high profile jobs. As Princess of Friendship, I work better on a more informal level.”

Thus it was the five of them travelling in a large private compartment. That was hardly unusual for nobles and important businessponies to do on that route, so they were basically ignored, and it left them free to enjoy the ride in peace. Twilight wanted to ask Iridia a lot of questions about the hive, but the changeling deflected all attempts to start a conversation on that subject.

“The queen will answer any questions that you may have. My task is just to bring you to the hive. If my mother wishes for me to do more, she will let me know when we’re there.”

So Twilight had to bide her time which she spent reflecting on the morning’s events – her mother in particular. When they had left the audience chamber, they had immediately sought out breakfast… and some headache tablets. Hangovers don’t go away quickly by themselves! Neither did her mother. Twilight had felt some regret for having used the Royal Canterlot Voice on her earlier, and she had decided to try to make amends.

“Mom, I’m sorry for shouting at you before,” Twilight began.

Velvet immediately jumped on that statement. “So you’re beginning to see that I’m right and that changeling…”

Velvet was cut off as Twilight placed her hoof over her mother’s mouth.

“Stop it! Stop right there. That’s the kind of thing that you always do – I give an inch and you take a mile. That’s why I tried my best to impress on you that I’m serious. I’m not changing my mind about this relationship, and even if it turns out to be a mistake, it’s my mistake to make.” She looked at Free and continued, “But so far, I have never been happier, and I won’t let you spoil this for me.”

“Cadance likes me,” Free offered.

Velvet scowled. “Princess Cadance is not Twilight’s mother, nor yours for that matter.”

“You’re rejecting the opinion of the Alicorn of Love?” Free asked ingenuously.

Velvet had had no answer for that.

Twilight checked on Free, and he was morosely gazing out the window, staring unseeingly at the scenery. “Cheer up, Free – we aren’t going to our executions.”

Free grimaced in a half-smile. “Feels like it though. I’m doing this more for your and Path’s benefit, y’know.”

“At least you know I’ll be there to support you, whatever happens.”

Free put one arm about Twilight’s shoulders and said, “Thanks, hon. That means a lot to me.” Then he grinned and added, “So now I’m your fiancé, am I?”

Twilight blushed. “I only said that to show Mom that I’m serious about our relationship.”

“It’s okay, Sparkles – I knew you were just yanking her chain. It sounded nice though.”

Twilight snuggled up to him and they enjoyed a mostly silent companionship up until they pulled up at a major train stop.

“Neighagra Junction! Change here for Neighagra Falls, Foal Mountain Ski Resort, and Hollow Shades!” came the voice of the conductor who repeated it as he made his way through the carriages.

“This is where we change trains,” Iridia announced as she started heading for the door.

Everyone picked up their baggage and followed her out onto the platform. Another train was already waiting on the other side of the platform, and they boarded that immediately. They waited for about six minutes before it departed.

When they started pulling into the Foal Mountain station, Path asked, “Is the hive hidden in the mountains here?”

“No. We’ll be riding the train all the way to its terminus at Hollow Shades,” Iridia replied.

The train line entered a dense forest after Foal Mountain, and it wound its way around rolling hills and over deep gullies for over an hour, leaving the passengers completely disorientated, but at least enjoying the view. Then the forest abruptly thinned out to reveal farmlands and eventually a moderately sized township.

As they pulled into the town’s station, the conductor announced, “Hollow Shades – end of the line! All passengers disembark here. This train departs for Neighagra Junction again in half an hour. Hollow Shades! All passengers must disembark.”

The group picked up their baggage once more and followed their guide out of the station. As they looked around, they saw a typical township, with a standard population of mixed pony species a little skewed towards the earth pony types. Shops and homes were of a very old style, but beautifully maintained, and landscaping enhanced every street and house garden. The community seemed to be peaceful and polite, reminding Twilight of a more mature version of Ponyville, and she wondered how they would feel if they knew that a changeling hive was apparently located nearby. All in all though, it seemed quite a pleasant place to live.

Free leaned towards Twilight and murmured, “Twi, about half the ponies here are changelings.”

That startled Twilight. “What?! Are you sure?”

“There are too many of them for me to distinguish more accurately, but yeah, about half.”

“But that would mean that we’re right on top of the hive! How can there be so many changelings here without the ponies knowing about them?”

Iridia apparently overheard Twilight as the alicorn’s voice rose in excitement. “Simple – they do know. The citizens of Hollow Shades and the Green Hive have been living in harmony for millennia, to our mutual benefit. We have escaped attention despite our size because we are part of the community. Our harvesters and foragers can come and go without looking conspicuous, and many of them live permanently with the ponies. In fact, the typical family unit here consists of one stallion, one or two mares, and a changeling. I think you might have to start a whole new chapter in your book just to look at those relationships.”

Twilight shook her head in disbelief. “All this practically under our noses! It’s quite an exemplary achievement and the rest of Equestria could do well to emulate it.”

“Yes, we’ve been observing how changeling acceptance has been growing in Canterlot and other places. We have yet to decide whether it’s a good thing that so many changelings are out in the open, but we tend to be optimistic so far. The only sticky part is the continuing efforts on the part of Chrysalis to tear it all down again.”

“So you continue to remain hidden,” Twilight concluded. “Fair enough. The hive is below the town, I gather? How do we get there?”

“In a sense, the town is part of the hive, so you’re already there. However, the main part, and the queen’s court are well below ground, and we’re heading for the main entrance right now.”

The group made its way to the centre of the township, with Iridia occasionally greeting, or being greeted by, some of the citizens. The griffons were given some curious looks, but the normally discreet nature of the inhabitants meant that they were not bothered by any of them. The biggest building yet turned out to be the town’s community centre, incorporating the town hall, council offices, and apparently the entrance to the hive. Iridia led them through the building which, unsurprisingly, looked like any other major town’s offices. Its very ordinariness made it a perfect cover. At the end of the hallway were the mayor’s office, and the council chambers. Two security guards – a unicorn and an earth pony - were stationed there, again a completely normal sight, but apparently not so normal in duty. Iridia stopped to address the unicorn.

“These four are guests of the queen.”

The unicorn looked them over and nodded. “Have them sign into the guest book, Princess.”

They did so, and were allowed to proceed.

“The unicorn is a changeling, in case you wondered,” Free murmured to the others. “The earth pony is genuine though.”

Iridia led them to one of the larger chambers and let them in. She closed the door behind them and crossed the room to the podium there. She touched something on the lectern and the back wall slid open to reveal a large tunnel.

“This is the main entrance to the hive. As you can see, it’s large enough to allow a high volume of traffic if necessary, but on average only a few dozen come and go each day. There are other smaller access tunnels that connect to strategic places, and a couple of huge emergency tunnels that have no opening normally because the last couple of metres of rock and soil have been left in place. It would take the burrowing drones mere moments to open them in an emergency though. Come in and be welcome.”

They all entered the tunnel, and the wall slid back into place, closing off the end of the passage once more. The tunnel was well lit though, and the walls were smooth and ornate. Twilight paused to examine one more closely.

“What kind of rock is this?” Twilight asked.

“It’s nephrite,” Iridia answered.

“So all these walls are essentially types of jade? No wonder it looks so pretty.”

“We’re rather proud of it. Nephrite is very common around here, and the hive has utilised it extensively.”

The passageway continued downwards for a while before it started branching off. Iridia kept them in the main hall though, and like the main street of the town above, it eventually led them to a huge cavern which was apparently the centre of the hive. From there, the changeling princess took them towards a pair of large gates flanked by two soldier changelings. As she approached, the changelings came to attention and saluted.

“Welcome back, Princess. Her Majesty is expecting you. Go right in,” one told her.

“Expecting us?” Path queried.

Iridia smiled reassuringly. “The hive-mind is useful for that kind of thing. My mother has been aware of our coming since we arrived in Hollow Shades.”

The soldiers opened the doors, and Iridia led them inside. The room beyond was large, but not exceptionally so. It looked to be some sort of audience chamber with a throne at the far end flanked by desks at which changelings sat, apparently working. It was the changeling who occupied the throne though who commanded the most attention.

Queen Dianthia stood up, and they could see that she was at least as large as Princess Celestia. The shiny grey chitin of her carapace contrasted strongly with the bright green band around her barrel and the darker green of her lengthy mane and tail. She had a double set of long, insect-like wings, a jagged horn, and wickedly sharp, long fangs. Despite all this though, she still managed to exude an air of friendliness and pleasure at seeing them.

Path’s eyes widened in surprise – she seemed kind of familiar. Before he could think it through though, the changeling queen spoke up.

“Welcome, Princess Sparkle! And welcome to you also, Free Agent, Long Path, and Roseclaw. Thank you for coming.”

“Many thanks for allowing us to visit, Queen Dianthia. I haven’t seen you since the last Council of the Queens at Canterlot, and I’m sure we will have much to discuss.”

Path stepped forward then and started uttering chittering noises, accompanied by clicks and hums. He seemed to say several sentences before stopping. Twilight and Roseclaw listened with slack-jawed astonishment.

Dianthia made a short chittering reply before returning to Equish. “Thank you for the compliments, Long Path, and may I commend you on the excellent command of our language that you have. I gather that Free Agent taught it to you? Is it your special talent?”

“Yes to both, Your Majesty. I started learning it straight after the invasion of Canterlot by Chrysalis, and got my cutie mark when I mastered it.”

“Impressive. Sometimes I’ve wished that we possessed special talents of our own to discover. I see that it’s not quite a hopeless dream though.” She looked pointedly at Free’s cutie mark. “And it’s that and so much more that has led to this moment. Thank you for coming, Free Agent. I hope that we can get to the bottom of the mystery of your past.”

Free frowned. “Just so you know, Queenie, I only came because Twilight and Path wanted me to. Personally I don’t much care what you want.”

Dianthia cocked an eyebrow at him. “No curiosity at all about yourself? I find that hard to believe. We all want to know what we truly are.”

“Like I told them, I know what I am, and I’m happy with that. But I told them I’d do it, so here I am. Why’re you so curious anyway? You aren’t going to tell me that you’re my mother, are you?”

Dianthia chuckled. “No, I’m not going to do that, but if my suspicions are correct, you might say that you’re on the right track. My reasons are simple – you are an anomaly in the changeling community, and it has aroused both my curiosity and concern.”

“Concern? Why?”

“Let’s just learn a little more about you before I go into that. You may be able to answer that question for yourself. For starters, could you tell me about your griffon parents?”

“How much do you need to know?”

“Just the general details from the time that they left Griffonia. If I need more specifics, I’ll ask.”

“Well, I suppose you know already that they left Griffonia because Dad was a low-caste artist and Mom was a high-caste warrior, and the rules of society wouldn’t let them be mated. They heard legends of the Kingdom of Griffonstone though, and decided to migrate there and start a new life. If you know your history though, you’d know that they found that Griffonstone society had collapsed and the kingdom had degenerated. My parents decided that they would not stay there, so they moved on, intending to head for the Smokey Mountains Eyrie, the only griffon city in Equestria. However, before they got there, Mom got herself a good paying job as a security guard for a caravan of travelling merchants, and they lucked onto a nice cottage outside of the eyrie where Dad could stay and work on his art. Mom and Dad had a good life there, but the one thing that they never achieved was having children. After consultation with some medical experts, it was determined that due to injuries that Mom had received early in her warrior career, she was now infertile. Dad loved Mom though, and he stuck by her.”

Free paused as he recalled their story. They had had a true love, and gone through much to be a family, only to be dealt this blow. It was both inspiring and tragic to his mind. He sighed and continued.

“One day, Dad was taking a walk in the forest as he often did as a respite between his art, and he came across this strange creature apparently abandoned, and he decided to take it back home as a pet. Mom reckoned that she thought it was a rather bizarre creature, but she was willing to indulge Dad. Imagine their surprise when, a couple of days later, it changed into a griffon chick. This was long before the invasion of Canterlot, so nobody knew of changelings back then. When the changeling stayed a griffon for weeks, they decided to raise it as their own child. Mom was quite clucky over it, in fact, and they loved him to bits. Just the thing for a growing changeling! When I got old enough, they decided that they wanted me to have a good education, so they moved to Canterlot where Mom took a job in the City Guard. They decided on Canterlot rather than the eyrie because of my unusual nature, and they thought that the more mixed population and variety of lifestyles might cover up any anomalies I might exhibit. And that was how things stood with me until I learned that I was a changeling, and my parents confessed that they had adopted me.”

Free looked at Dianthia and said, “So, is that enough for you?”

The queen nodded. “It fills in some very significant details, and firms up my theories. To confirm them though, I would like you to assume your natural form.”

“You’re looking at it, Queenie.”

“I mean your changeling form.”

“I know what you mean, but you don’t understand what I mean. I’ve been a griffon for the greatest part of my entire life, and I haven’t become a natural changeling since Dad and Mom took me in, with the one exception of when I got blasted by Shiny and Cadance’s love spell that ended the invasion. I even managed to retain my form after the beating I got during the attack on the Crystal Empire. As far as I’m concerned, this is my natural form.”

Dianthia looked sympathetic. “I understand, and it’s very good that you have a strong sense of self-identity. However, in this case I really do need to see your base form.”

“No,” said with finality.

“May I ask why not?”

“Look, I might take advantage of my shape-changing ability and I might have to consume love for sustenance, but as far as I’m concerned, I want nothing else to do with my origin. I’ve only ever bothered learning as much as I have about changelings because of how it affected my life. I even only know changeling language because it was already instilled in me before I was found.”

“And yet you volunteered to help your friend, Long Path, in his experiment with the Crystal Heart.”

Free glared at the queen, and then reluctantly replied, “Yeah, but I would do anything for my soul brother.”

“I see. You will help Long Path learn about changelings in general, but not you in particular. Would it help if I were to tell you that if what I believe is true, your very existence could drastically change changeling affairs?”

“Oh, you have to be kidding! You’re just trying to get me to change.”

Twilight decided to intervene just then. “No, Free, I think she might have a point. I’ve noticed several anomalies about you compared to other changelings. For me, it’s a matter of curiosity, but if Queen Dianthia thinks that there might be more to it than that, I believe you should indulge her.”

Free gave Twilight a pained expression. “Twi, ask me to become a unicorn, a thestral, or even a dragon – anything but a changeling!”

Twilight came over to hug and nuzzle him. “I think that I understand. You feel vulnerable because of your abandonment as a child, and you want nothing to do with that. However, I think you need to come to terms with those feelings and accept who you are. To do that, you need to understand completely as possible where you came from and what you are. So I am asking you to do this, not just for me, but for yourself.”

Free stood there in silence for a long while, his eyes downcast and his emotions in turmoil. Eventually he sighed and said, “Just because you asked, Twilight.”

Twilight stepped back, and Free’s form burned with green magic fire. When it passed, a much taller changeling stood uncertainly in his place, and Twilight gasped in surprise.

“You… you’re a queen!” the alicorn said with amazement.

“I am?” Free said with shocked surprise.

Free’s form indeed resembled that of a younger changeling queen, with a long mane rather than a crest, slitted eyes rather than the blankly glowing eyes of a drone, a long and jagged horn, and longer and more graceful wings. There was absolutely no doubt that he was not the harvester that he had long assumed he was.

Twilight turned to Path and asked, “You told me that you saw his natural form that one time – why didn’t you tell me he was a queen?”

“I’ve never seen a queen until we came here!” Path protested. “I knew he was a lot different from the other changelings that had invaded Canterlot, which is why I believed him readily when he told me that he wasn’t one of the Blue Changelings, but I had no idea that he was a queen.”

“Okay, that’s understandable I suppose.” She looked at Free again. “Why can’t I tell what hive he’s from though?”

Dianthia responded, “That had been puzzling every changeling who has ever met him. His colouration does not match anything I’ve ever seen before, and I know of a couple of hives outside of Equestria.”

Free was indeed very different. His carapace was shiny chrome lacking in any of the identifying colour of the hives. His mane, tail, and wings were all a washed-out blue shade, but his eyes were green.

“There is one answer which is what I have suspected all along, and now have confirmation. Free Agent is a mutant child. Such are not uncommon among nymphs bred to be queens, but they almost always die soon after they change into young drones. That also accounts for why he was left to die, although not why he was abandoned where he could be found by his father.”

“You let mutant children die without trying to heal them?” Twilight asked.

“Not always. It depends on how badly they are affected. Some live a full life, although they are usually useless to the hive. Most, however, are burdens that are simply allowed to run out of love to sustain them. They go to sleep and never wake up; it’s a painless and merciful death.”

“Can I change back now?” Free whined.

“If you wish,” Dianthia replied.

Free resumed his griffon form and shuddered. “That was creepy and unpleasant. So why did you have to ask about my parents first if that’s what you wanted to find out?”

“Because of how new queens are born,” Dianthia replied. She looked to Twilight. “Princess Sparkle – I am aware of the research that you have been doing into our species, but there remain large gaps in your knowledge, in this case it’s how new queens are bred. Tell me – how would you say we would go about this?”

Twilight considered the question for a long moment before replying. “I know that changeling queens can produce several types of egg that will hatch into different kinds of nymphs which mature into various types of changelings. Of these, only one type is fertile – the breeders. I can only presume that queens mate with a breeder to produce the appropriate egg.”

“That is a possibility, but not a good one. Think for a moment – all the breeders are the queen’s children, so what problem do you see?”

“Massive inbreeding,” Twilight responded.

“Solutions?” Dianthia prompted.

“Mating with a breeder from another hive seems to be the obvious answer.”

“Correct, and yet it very rarely ever happens. While we co-exist harmoniously with the other hives, no hive wants a member of another in their hive, or a crossbreed queen. So what is our alternative?”

Twilight looked very puzzled. “That only leaves breeding with another species, but I know for a fact that you aren’t inter-fertile with other species, and you would require a compatibility spell to produce a child. However, I researched that for a changeling friend of mine, and I don’t believe such a spell exists.”

Queen Dianthia gave Twilight a benevolent and slightly condescending smile. “Twilight Sparkle, I am a compatibility spell.”

Twilight’s mouth dropped open in a silent ‘oh’ before she face-hoofed. “Of course! Wait! Are you saying that Free is a product of a breeding attempt with a griffon?”

“I am saying exactly that. One of the giveaways was the part where he spontaneously changed into a griffon chick. You may not be aware of this, but our drones cannot transform until they mature, and even then they start with just imitating others. They need to learn how to make unique identities. The same is not true of queens though. They are capable of taking on the form of their sire’s species, hence why Free became a griffon chick. My own daughter was sired by a pegasus.”

Iridia nodded and added, “That’s why this is my preferred alter ego – it just feels comfortable.”

“Have you ever met your sire?” Path asked curiously.

“I have because he’s one of Hollow Shades’ citizens. He was very honoured to have the privilege of siring the next queen.”

Dianthia added, “Not all hives have this advantage though, and most new queens never know their sire. However, it’s usually a male that has been identified as being worthy in various ways, as well as being conveniently available for breeding. That is another reason why I asked about Free’s parents. Free – you said that they lived outside of the eyrie, and your mother travelled for her work. My theory is that your father was identified as being a suitable sire, and frequently available. All it would take is for the queen to come to his home, perhaps pretending to be his wife returning earlier than expected, and them making love. She would get fertilised, and he would get a big surprise when his real wife turned up later not knowing anything about their supposed lovemaking.”

“It all fits together, but it leaves just one question,” Twilight said.

“Which queen raped my father?” Free asked sourly.

Dianthia looked at Free sympathetically. “I can’t answer that with certainty, but I do have a very strong contender. There used to be a hive located between the Smokey Mountains and Griffonstone.”

“Which?” Free asked, although in his heart he had already guessed.

“Blue. I believe your mother was Queen Chrysalis.”

That bitch is not my mother!” Free screamed before he slumped his shoulders and repeated, “She’s not my mother. She might have given birth to me, but she was never my mother. Zephyr Silverfeather is my mother. Don’t ever give Chrysalis that honour.”

Path came over to give Free a heartfelt hug. “Free, I don’t care who gave birth to you. You are my best friend and my brother.”

Twilight watched them, wanting to give the same reassurance, but suddenly she had her doubts. Her special somepony was not only a changeling queen, but also the child of one of her worst enemies? An enemy who had mind-controlled her brother? What else about him didn’t she know?

While Twilight continued to agonise over those questions, Roseclaw went over to Free and laid a reassuring wing over him. “It’s not all bad news. I haven’t known for long that you’re a changeling, but since then you’ve kept telling me that you’re just as much a griffon. Well, here’s your proof – your sire was a griffon, so your claim is completely true.”

Free looked a little startled, and then his grin half-returned. “Yeah! Told you!” His expression turned serious once more. “Dad and I are going to have a long talk about this though.”

Path asked Dianthia, “What else made you suspect that Free was a queen?”

“There were many other pointers, such as him surviving the changeling attack. Obviously he has more power available to him as a queen, and better recuperative ability. He also was able to come closer to the Crystal Heart than he should have been able to and survive. His ability to heal Long Path’s emotional sickness without making contact through his fangs is also an advanced ability of queens alone. Actually, Long Path’s sudden extreme emotional collapse was probably due to the absence of Free who normally unconsciously mitigated negative emotions, also an advanced ability.”

“Hey!” Free exclaimed, “That explains why he was so bloody calm during the invasion of Canterlot – I was doing all the panicking for both of us!”

“That sounds correct. However, one of the earliest and most telling indications was Free’s sex-drive. Have you ever wondered why he is so sexually active?”

“We thought that it was because he was exposed to so many sexually stimulated fillies during puberty.”

“That could have served as a catalyst, and started him a bit sooner than normal, but it’s not the real reason. You may not realise this, but we queens are constantly driven to breed. Every changeling in this hive is either a child, grandchild, or great grandchild of mine. However, to rule effectively, we cannot be constantly pregnant, so we produce breeder types to take the majority of the burden. The urge to breed does not go away though, and we need to exercise self-restraint. That has not been true of Free Agent.”

The discussion caught Twilight’s interest and distracted her from her doubts for the moment. “Something puzzles me about that – if queens are capable of breeding with other species, why has Free never sired a child? We thought he was infertile like other drones. Or does it just work in one direction – fertilising the queen?”

“A valid question, but one lacking in background knowledge. While it is true that we can breed with any species, it is a very delicate balance between our changeling nature and that of the sexual partner. Therefore we must exactly match their species. For example, it is not enough that I took the form of any type of pony when I wanted a daughter. I had to become a pegasus to match Iridia’s sire. If he had been a unicorn, then I would have become one also. Did Free Agent ever do that?”

Free answered, “Not likely! The fillies took advantage of me to cool their fires precisely because they believed a griffon couldn’t get them pregnant, and that’s something that I’ve used to my advantage since then. While I’ve taken on pony form on occasions for sex, I rarely matched the type – it’s often more fun for them to mate outside of their own type when having a fling, but even then I didn’t do it with mares in heat simply because they didn’t want to get pregnant, and they didn’t know that I wasn’t a really stallion who could knock them up.”

“That makes sense,” Twilight said, nodding thoughtfully. “Dianthia, you mentioned a delicate balance – is that the reason why so many queen nymphs are mutants?”

“That is correct.”

“And if Chrysalis is Free’s mo… umm… dam, then she might have believed that Free was an unviable mutant, which is why he was abandoned. It all makes sense. It also means that if he’s her child, then that leaves a potential power struggle for the hive, which is why you wanted to resolve this question.”


“You’re dreaming,” Free said emphatically. “I have exactly zero interest in her hive. No, wait, I take that back. The only thing that I want for that hive is to have it wiped out completely.”

Path looked shocked. “That would mean destroying an entire sub-species. What about our goal of peace and cooperation through mutual understanding?”

Free looked at Path sadly. “Path – you’re going to have to accept that sometimes you’re not going to succeed. While Chrysalis lives, that ain’t going to happen, and if she dies, there goes the hive.”

“I don’t believe in a no-win situation, Free.”

“Equestria would be rid of a curse, and that’s a win in my book.”

Dianthia stepped in. “The Blue Changeling hive was once like the rest of the hives; it can be so again.”

“Good luck with that,” Free said with finality.

Path recognised that the subject was closed for now, and he decided to change the subject. “If we have finished dealing with the mystery of Free’s nature for now, can we explore some other avenues of interest? I would very much appreciate being able to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about changelings and their hives.”

“I suppose that’s only fair,” Dianthia conceded. “Iridia, would you please escort our guest around the hive and answer their questions? I have other matters to attend to now.”

“Of course, mother.”

“One personal question first, if I may be so bold?” Path asked.

“Ask. I don’t promise to answer though.”

“Do queens ever fall in love with their mates?”

Dianthia looked startled for a moment before she smiled. “Queens rarely have time for a relationship. However, there was a reason that I chose Sunbeam as Iridia’s sire. Does that answer your question sufficiently?”

“It does, thank you, Your Majesty.”

“If you would follow me, I will show you around,” Iridia said as she moved towards the entrance.

The group followed her, and she led them out and down one of several tunnels that led from the cavern. There was more jade-bearing rock for a while before it eventually gave way to normal rock. It was all smoothly polished though, and looked almost as attractive. The tunnel branched out and connected with various chambers, and the further they went, the more drone activity there was. They eventually came to another cavern, although smaller than the first, and filled with various materials and tools. There Iridia paused.

“We are now in the midst of the construction and maintenance nest. From here, we coordinate the construction of new segments of the hive, plan new rooms and tunnels, and maintain the existing structure. The drones that you meet here will mostly be of the kind responsible for those jobs. For example…”

The drones, while exhibiting mild curiosity, had not stopped or bothered with the group until then. However, one suddenly diverted from its course and came over to the group.

“Introduce yourself,” Iridia directed it in Equish, and followed it up with the chittering of changeling language.

The drone chittered in response.

“What did it say?” Roseclaw asked.

Path replied, “It said ‘I am Klikbik, and I am a tunneller’.”

The drone abruptly left, only to have another join them immediately and the process repeated.

“That one is Ruksak and he says he’s a support structure builder,” Path interpreted.

“You have a very good grasp of changeling language,” Iridia commented. “My mother was most pleased by your greeting, Long Path.”

“Changeling language was the first that I learned to discover my special talent for languages,” Path explained.

“What did you say to her?” Twilight asked.

“I said, ‘The House of Path thanks you for the gracious invitation to your Hive. Other than your inquiry about Free Agent which brought us here, I was wondering if a cultural exchange would be possible?’ Queen Dianthia replied, ‘I believe we can come to an arrangement once the main topic has been addressed.’ And here we are!”

“How come those drones came over without asking?” Free queried.

“The hive-mind, of course. I told you that it facilitated communications. I just focused on a drone and requested that it join us. Of course it was with my authority as a princess, but it was still a request and not a compulsion, as you seem to fear. Let’s move on to the next section.”

A journey through a tunnel brought them into a series of chambers that were filled with the smell of decaying wood and leaves.

“We grow mushrooms here. They’re an excellent source of protein, and we produce enough to sell the surplus in the markets both locally in Hollow Shades and shipped to towns like Manehatten. The job of the drones here is solely to farm mushrooms of various kinds.”

Iridia brought them to a huge kitchen next. “This is the preparation area for all the nourishment that the hive requires. Our foragers have it a lot easier than the rest of the hives because they can actively work with the farmers of Hollow Shades instead of discreet collection of wild plants, nuts, and fish. This cooperation has been a major factor in our being the largest hive in Equestria.”

The next stop was apparently a furniture workshop, then sanitation works, a cloth-making facility, and a nursery.

Iridia opened a door onto a chamber, but said, “Please just look inside this room from the doorway.”

They all looked and saw rack after rack filled with large eggs with shells of various shades. There were only a couple of drones in attendance, and they frowned in concern at the visitors.

“These are the next generation of drones. The temperature in here is strictly controlled for maximum viability, so I can’t have this door open too long.”

She led them further down the passage and took them into another room. This time it was filled with cribs in which were changeling nymphs. They all looked virtually identical down to their soft white skin, but a closer look revealed subtle hues that matched those of the eggs. Unlike the previous room, this one had a lot attendants looking after the needs of the baby changelings. Some of the attending drones were feeding a greenish gel to the nymphs, while others seemed to be doing little more than just cradling the nymphs.

Path pointed one out and asked, “Does that nymph require special care?”

Iridia smiled. “No, it is learning. The attendants don’t just feed and care for the nymphs, but they’re also their teachers. They are using the hive-mind to teach them our language and other things to prepare them for their lives as drones.”

“That is looking to be an extremely useful tool,” Path commented.

“Useful and reassuring: a changeling is never completely alone as part of the hive-mind.”

“Do you do all your learning that way?”

“Oh, no. There’s a limit to how far that can go. Drones need to be trained in the details of their jobs, and the more complex the job, the more schooling they need, not unlike for ponies. The emotion harvesters take the longest to train because they have the most to learn, but they are also one of the most essential workers for the hives as they supply us with the emo-gel that has the concentrated love that gives us energy.”

“So you have a library?” Twilight asked eagerly.

“Yes, although I suspect that you would be disappointed with it. It mostly contains reference materials for teaching the drones their skills.”

“But what about your history? Surely you have volumes on that subject, considering how large and old your hive is?” Path asked.

“We certainly do have a long and proud history, but it is something that we all share through the hive-mind. If you like, we are the library. All our records are part of the gestalt that is our collective memory.”

“It’s an Akashic Record!” Twilight realised.

“I have not heard of that term,” Iridia replied.

“It’s defined as a compendium of thoughts, events, and emotions believed by theosophists to be encoded in a non-physical plane of existence known as the astral plane. Up until now though, I haven’t heard of any real examples. Your hive-mind seems to match it quite well.”

“I agree, but it makes no difference because you can’t put it into a book on a library shelf.”

Twilight looked downhearted at that news. “No, I suppose not.”

“Is there no way for a non-changeling to access that knowledge?” Path asked.

“Well… yes, but you probably would not like it.”

“How?” both Path and Twilight chorused eagerly.

“I would need to connect you to the hive-mind, but I’m unsure of the effect that would have on you, not to mention the means by which it would have to be done.”

“And that would be…?” Path prompted, undeterred.

“I believe you have witnessed how a changeling can rapidly drain a victim’s emotions?”

“Yes, I have. You don’t mean that you have to put the bite on me?”

“I mean exactly that. I would have to make a solid contact with your chi and bind it with the hive-mind, but because you are not a changeling, I cannot predict the effect it might have on you.”

“Has no pony ever done this before?” Twilight asked.

“Not in our hive anyway. If a pony wanted information, he just asked.”

“But this way I would have access to all the knowledge at will?” Path asked eagerly.

“That should be the case, yes. Are you truly that eager to learn our history that you would risk the unknown to find out?”

“Yes! That is the very core of my arguments that peace and understanding between all species can best be achieved by learning everything that you can about them and understanding their perspective. Could you do that for me?”

Iridia looked uncertain. “I can, but I’m not sure that I should. I will think about it.”

“I hope you'll be careful if you try that out,” Roseclaw said with some concern.

Path gave her a nuzzle and said, “Fortune favours the bold, dear.”

Roseclaw sighed and nodded. “You are a dauntless warrior, I know.” She changed the subject to take her mind off her concerns. “Is that green stuff that the attendants are feeding the nymphs the emo-gel that you mentioned?”

“Yes, it is. They also are fed regular food to grow their bodies.”

“I find it fascinating that you can take emotions and store them as a physical object. How do you do that?”

“To us, love and other emotions are just a form of energy that can be stored. The gel is a matrix for that energy. Think of it like a battery.”

“What would happen if I ate it, or a pony? Is it harmful to us?”

Iridia’s lips curled in amusement. “No, it is physically harmless, but you would receive no energy benefit from it like us. You probably should not bother trying it. Speaking of eating though, this would be about dinner time for you all, and I’m feeling a bit hungry also. Would you be interested in having a meal?”

There was a general consensus that food would be good at this time, and so Iridia led them back towards the kitchens, but diverted to a huge hall nearby. It was filled with tables at which dozens of changelings were seated, eating. At the rear of the hall was a counter where more changelings were lined up, apparently being served.

Iridia explained, “This is our main meals hall. There are no set meal times here, and food is served 24 hours. While it is possible to get some variation in what is served, especially if you’re royalty,” she added with a wink, “everyling is normally served the same thing – a balanced meal of some sort of protein, vegetables, fruit and perhaps some treat. If you care to join me in the queue, we can all get a good meal.”

They all joined the changelings in line, and patiently waited for their turn to be served. Meanwhile they ignored the stares of the curious drones, but were never bothered by them, perhaps warned off via the hive-mind. The servers looked a bit uncertain when it came to their group, but then they shrugged and

them a tray each laden with small portion of appetising food. Twilight was relieved to see that the protein in question was fish this time. She did not want to have to look ungrateful by rejecting any meat. One additional thing that surprised her was the inclusion of a small cup of what had to be emo-gel. It made sense that it would be served along with the rest of the food. They got their minimal food requirements and energy requirements all at one sitting.

Iridia said, “I know that the food portions are a bit small for ponies or griffons, but it’s okay to go back for a second helping. As I said, this is just a standard meal for the drones. Queens and breeders need more also.”

While mass-produced, the meals were nevertheless interesting and tasty, and they all finished their first course and went back for seconds. Twilight felt replete after that, but she eyed the cup of emo-gel speculatively. She had noticed that Free tried it out too, and he’d had a look of pleased surprise on his face. “She did say it was physically harmless, so let’s see what it tastes like,” she murmured.

She picked up the cup and drank the contents. It had a faintly honey-like taste, but the texture of jello, and it slid down her throat quite easily. “Well, that was a bit of an anticlimax,” she decided before she looked up and noticed Free looking at her in surprise.

“What? I just wanted to try it out. It wasn’t bad. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I liked it.” She picked up the cup from her other serving and tipped that into her muzzle also.

Free squawked in alarm, bringing the situation to the attention of the others.

“You didn’t, did you?” Path asked, half in amusement and half in concern.

“Yes, I did, and I love it!” Twilight declared as a slow, goofy grin spread over her face. “In fact, I loved the whole meal! I love this meal hall, and I love these changelings!” She started nuzzling Free enthusiastically. “I love you too!”

“That’s odd, I don’t taste it coming from you,” Free replied.

Iridia said, “That’s because pure love is metabolised directly, and not wastefully radiated out like it normally does with ponies. You won’t taste any of it.”

Twilight rambled on. “I love your feathers – they’re so soft… and feathery. And I love your fur – it’s so wonderfully brown. I love your bright red tail… ooh, I love how it twitches!”

“Is this going to go on much longer?” Free asked.

“Yes, and seeing as she had two cups, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

“I thought that you said that it was harmless?” Path asked.

“I said it was physically harmless; it won’t hurt her a bit. I never said that there wouldn’t be any effects though. She’s going to be loopy for a quite a while,” she added with a grin.

Meanwhile Twilight had shifted her attention to Roseclaw. “I love griffons. I love big griffons like you! I love your bright purple plumage!” She snuggled up to the startled griffoness who looked at her a bit leerily.

“Help, please?” Roseclaw uncertainly.

Path tried to disengage Twilight from the discomfited griffon hen, only to have the alicorn’s attention turn on him instead.

“Ooh, I love big, strong earth ponies! I love sexy stallions like you! I love big, strong, handsome, clever, sexy stallions.” By now, Twilight’s physical affections were getting more blatant and enthusiastic.

Path was glad that Twilight had not yet started using her magic, and could still hold back the ardent mare. “Is there some place we can take Twilight so that she can get over this without causing a big scene?”

“I’ll take you to the dormitories and find a spare room,” Iridia said, getting up from the table and heading to the door.

Path heaved Twilight onto his back and carried her away, uncomfortably aware of how she immediately started nuzzling and licking his flank.

“I love your cutie mark! It tastes like words!” she declared before going back to licking.

Path was not amused by hearing Free chuckling at the sight, but was relieved that it had at least drawn his friend out of his funk. The journey to the dormitories though seemed to last forever.

They put Twilight on the bed after struggling to detach her from Path. She protested that she loved riding him and wanted to stay, but Free craftily drew her attention to the mattress and said, “Look, Twi – isn’t this the best mattress? I think I love it.”

Twilight’s attention was immediately focused on the mattress, and she leaped upon it and started fondling it. “Ooh, I love its feel! I love how warm and comfy it is! This must be the best mattress in Equestria!”

“Are we just going to leave her here like this?” Roseclaw asked.

“I’ll stay with her,” Free said. “It’s not as if I particularly wanted to see the hive in the first place.”

“Can you give us any idea when she’ll snap out of this?” Path asked.

“Normally ponies that have tried the emo-gel only have one cup. She’s had two, so I’m not sure. A few hours at least,” Iridia replied uncertainly.

“We’ll come back in a few hours then and see how she’s doing.”

Free asked, “What if she comes out of it sooner?”

“You can re-join with us,” Iridia replied. “Just find a drone and say my name. I’ll leave a prompt in the hive-mind for it to guide you to me.”

“Have fun, guys,” Free said, and turned his attention back to Twilight who seemed to be trying to make out with the mattress. “Hoo boy, this is going to be a long few hours.”

Twilight’s attention soon wandered to the other objects in the room, and how she loved them so much, but eventually she focused back on Free. “I love you, you silly, sneaky, funny, cheeky, griffling! I love your songs, and I love your art, and I love your kisses, and I love kissing you!” She proceeded to do exactly that, multiple times, and with great enthusiasm. Then she stopped, turned around, and lifted her tail. “And I love making love with you, you big studly cock!”

“Whoa! Not so fast, Twi! I love you, hon, but you’re not thinking straight – or is that feeling straight? Lower that tail and come over here and kiss me some more.”

To Free’s great relief, Twilight squealed in delight and did so, saying ‘Love you!’ between each kiss. He had no intention of taking advantage of her in this state, but he reckoned he could justify the kissing – maybe a bit of cuddling also to kill the time.

The tour of the hive continued with Path and Roseclaw, covering every aspect of how it functioned, and which parts were enhanced by their alliance with the citizens of Hollow Shades. However, after it was completed, Path revisited the idea of trying to connect to the hive-mind.

He argued, “As much as this visit has enhanced my viewpoint of changelings and their society, there can’t be any comparison to the in-depth knowledge that could be available to me in the hive-mind. I need to give this a try.”

Iridia sighed in defeat. “Okay, we’ll give this a try. Let’s find some place for you to be comfortable while you’re immersed in the hive-mind.”

She led them to a section that they had not visited before, and the room that she showed them into was luxuriously appointed in comparison to the rest of the hive.

“These are my own quarters,” Iridia explained. “Make yourself comfortable on the sofa, Long Path, and we’ll begin.”

Path climbed onto the sofa and settled down. Roseclaw sat at the end, still worried about what they were about to do, but supporting her mate’s choice.

Iridia smiled at her reassuringly. “I realise that what I am about to do will look a little dangerous to you, but I assure you that I will not harm Long Path, nor will I drain any of his love. I will only seek to connect to his chi so that I can attempt to join him with the hive-mind. The way to do so will be for me to bite him, preferably on the neck and close to his spine. Our fangs are adapted to make this connection, and it’s the only way that I can do so.”

“I understand,” Roseclaw replied.

“Me too,” Path said. “So bite me already,” he added with grin.

Iridia smiled in return before transforming into her natural form. “This will sting a little at first.” She leaned over, carefully selecting her site, and then sunk her fangs into his neck.

Path jerked a little at the minor pain of entry of the fangs. At first there was nothing more, but then as if there was a large crowd rapidly approaching from the distance, he began to hear voices – lots of voices. Suddenly his consciousness expanded, and he became aware of much, much more. He could feel the presence of the thousands of changelings in the hive – some near, some further away, and even some in the township above. There was a soft hum of connection between the entirety, and yet he could still pick up individual strands of connections. He could identify Iridia’s strand, and it pulsed in recognition of his own. His mind swept further, recognising links to breeders, tunnellers, harvesters, farmers, nurses, teachers, and then he found Queen Dianthia’s. There was a spike of surprise before he moved on, diving deeper now, looking for knowledge. First he found the common stuff – what tasks needed to be done and how to do them, where to go, and when. Deeper yet, and he found the years of learning that some drones had put in to be able to do their tasks on top of the common knowledge. It was not far enough yet though.

Path continued to dive deeper and deeper until he could start reading the history of the hive. He saw the reaction to Chrysalis’ invasion of Canterlot. Deeper yet, and he saw the decades of peaceful cooperation with the citizens of Hollow Shades. He saw the rise to power of Queen Dianthia after the death of her mother. Then he realised that he had jumped back many centuries to the beginning of this hive and the fateful meeting of a young changeling queen with a unicorn stallion whom she had chosen to be a mate, and instead fell in love with, starting the alliance between changeling and ponies, and establishing the town of Hollow Shades. He took it all in, and went in search for more.

Dianthia looked at the pony on her daughter’s sofa and shook her head. “This was not wise. He has a strong mind, but he is not adapted to the hive-mind as we are. I felt his touch, and he was seeking unrestrained and indiscriminately. He might get lost.”

“I’m sorry, mother. He was so insistent though, and I thought it would be a valuable experience and worth the risk.”

“I understand, daughter, but some things are better learned the slow way. Meanwhile, I wonder what we can best do to guide him back?”

Roseclaw scowled. “Are you saying that Path’s mind is trapped in your hive-mind?”

“Not trapped,” Dianthia reassured her. “However, in this state, he’s unaware of the passage of time, how deeply he’s going, and how to retrace his route.”

“That says to me that he’s as good as trapped!” Roseclaw snapped back. “Can’t you just break the link?”

“No, he would still be in the hive-mind, but unable to return. He needs a guide. Someone must go deep into the hive-mind and bring him back first.”

“Then let me do it. I love him, and I want my mate back!”

“No, you would get lost also. If anything, your mind is even more vulnerable than his. If Long Path cannot make his own way back, then there’s only one person that we can send after him. Someone who knows him intimately enough to find him in the depths of the hive-mind and entice him back.”

“Free!” Roseclaw exclaimed.

“Correct. Unfortunately, Free Agent loathes the idea of being connected to the hive-mind. We had best hope that it doesn’t come down to that.”

Twilight’s exuberant loving of all the things in the room, not the least being Free, had worn her out, and the griffon was relieved when she slipped into slumber after a few hours. He was pretty worn out from trying to keep her under control. He’d had to fend off two more attempts to bang him, each harder than the previous. He studied the sleeping alicorn, wondering how he had been so lucky to win her heart. She had certainly stolen his. Once he would have banged her without hesitation, but now that was so much less important than the relationship he was building with her. He chuckled in wry amusement at the realisation that he could at least claim to be a prince for his princess now. At least there was something positive coming out of this disaster. No, two things – he couldn’t wait to talk to Dad, knowing now that he was truly his father’s son.

The opening door drew his attention away from Twilight, and he saw Iridia enter the room, along with a drone.

“Be quiet,” Free said softly. “Twi’s fallen asleep, and I don’t want to wake her.”

Iridia nodded, and kept her voice down as she replied, “We have a problem, and we need you now. This drone will look after Princess Sparkle for you.”

“Where are Path and Rose?”

“Long Path is the problem. Roseclaw is with him.”

Free hastily got to his feet. “What’s happened to Path?”

“I’ll explain along the way.”

Several minutes later, Free stood beside the sofa with his best friend upon it. Path looked as if he was merely asleep, but Roseclaw’s distress was a clear indication otherwise. “So, what am I supposed to do to snap him out of this? Shake his shoulder and say, ‘Wakey, wakey!’?”

“You need to enter the hive-mind and call him back…”

“What?! After I get through telling you what I think of your hive-mind, you want me to do that?”

Iridia tried to maintain a sense of calm in the face of Free’s ire. “Yes, I do. Believe me, if we thought that we could do it any other way, we would do it.”

“Are you trying to tell me that you can’t find him in your own hive-mind?”

“Find him? Yes. Get him back? No. Right now he is focused so much on his mission, he is pretty much ignoring us. You, on the other hoof, have a stronger bond to him, and can do what we can’t.”

“What is this mission you talk of?”

“We don’t know, but it is taking him deeper and further into past memories every moment that we speak. The further he goes, the harder it will be to retrieve him.”

“So I have to decide now, or not at all?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Free sneered at Iridia. “Lady, you’re pathetic if you think my fears will stop me from saving my friend. Now get me in there!”

Free laid down in front of the sofa, and the startled changeling princess hastened to comply with his demand.

Despite his fears, Free was a little surprised at how familiar the sensation of the hive-mind was. Perhaps it was a long-buried memory of when he was still a nymph in the Blue Hive? He put aside the speculation – he was there for an important reason, and time was of the essence. He sought out Path’s tenuous link to his body, and then started to follow it. Again, the ease at which he did it surprised him, but then again he was a changeling queen. That was one reason why they thought he could do this. He tried to not let himself be distracted by the memories that flashed past him, but he could not help but notice some of them. An image of a very young Celestia with a pink mane alongside a filly Luna startled him, but he forged onwards. He saw flashes of wars with griffons and dragons, never-ending winter, and alicorns preceding the current rulers. A particularly strong though ancient memory of the changeling immigration to the land which one day would be named Equestria distracted him for mere moments as he finally realised where Path was headed.

He’s looking for the origin of the race! That could be so deep though that even I won’t be able to get to him.

Free redoubled his efforts to trace the ever more tenuous link.

Long Path was more excited than he had ever been in his life. He was learning more in the short time that he had been in the hive-mind than he had in his entire life. Every step was a new revelation, and he longed to spend more time examining it. However, he was determined to achieve his main goal, and learn the secret of the beginnings of the changeling race. If their hive-mind was true, then every significant memory since its inception would be preserved in there somewhere, and he was going to find it!

After a lengthy period, he seemed to find a focal point at last. A figure – perhaps a progenitor? It was very fuzzy and hard to pin down at first, but now that he had something to latch onto, he began pulling it into focus. He recognised the lanky, tall shape of a changeling queen, a green aura about it – maybe the first Green Changeling? He got closer, and details started to resolve – the mane, the delicate wings, the holey limbs, the… cutie mark? “Free? What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to get you out, buddy.”

“What? But why? I’ve only been in the hive-mind for a few minutes or so, and I’ve already learned so much!”

Free’s soul-form moved close to Path. “Beloved brother, you had been in the hive-mind for hours before I came in after you. It’s probably been hours more since. If you don’t come back with me now, you might never be able to come back at all.”

Path was stunned. “Hours? Truly?”

“Do you really think I would have come in here after you if it wasn’t necessary?”

Celestia herself could not have managed that feat, which finally convinced him of Free’s sincerity, and he regretfully abandoned his mission. It was only then that he realised that he had no idea how to return. “Free, how do we get back?” he asked with genuine fear creeping into his voice.

Free smiled reassuringly. “Hold my hoof, brother, and I will take us home.”

Path held up his hoof, and Free linked it with his. There was a sensation like a rubber band snapping, and the memories that Path had so laboriously dived through before, all flashed past in an instant.

Path sat up in the sofa with a gasp, his heart hammering in his chest. He looked about wildly for an instant before being abruptly smothered by a joyous griffoness.

Free opened his eyes, but he could still see the links that bound him and Free to the hive-mind. With a growl of anger, he snapped them, and he surged to his feet and glared at Iridia. “Don’t ever do that again!” he snarled. He then turned back to Path, and joined Roseclaw in hugging the earth pony.

Iridia was shaken, both by the mishap and the righteous anger of the griffon changeling. She left the threesome to themselves for the time being, and sought out her mother to tell her the outcome.

Dianthia consoled her daughter. “I am 257 years of age, and there are two things that I know to be incontrovertible truths – we always continue to make mistakes, no matter how long we live, and we continue to learn from them or fail. One day you will take over this hive, and the lessons that you have learned today will help make you a better queen. Meanwhile though, do as Free Agent says, and don’t try that again.”

“Yes, Mother.” She paused and then added, “But we all learned a lot today, didn’t we?”

Dianthia nodded. “Whether they realise it or not, both Free Agent’s and Long Path’s memories are now a permanent part of the hive-mind. We are the stronger for having our new friends as part of us.”

Path finally managed to get unburied from the griffon pile and took a deep breath. He grinned at them and said, “Kwa der esposio! Ker aben moor yan aegi hy ejarro. Bene pur gaddy mo unt fador.”

Free stared at the earth pony before replying, “Huh?”

“What’s he babbling about?” Roseclaw asked.

Path frowned in puzzlement. “Beeno hargen ka trubla?”

Roseclaw looked at Free. “Are you sure you brought the right pony back?”

“Sounds like it might be some ancient language.” Free raised his right leg, made a fist of his claws, and then rapped Path sharply on the head.

“Ow! What was that for?”

“Just a bit of percussive maintenance. Don’t ever scare us like that again, you idiot.”

“Sorry guys. I thought it was a good idea at the time. At least I didn’t come back empty-hoofed. I have enough material to write a huge treatise. I’m going to love waving that in the face of the Dean of Canterlot University.”

“Not now, you’re not,” Roseclaw said firmly. “I’ve had my fill of this hive – let’s head out.”

“Two problems with that,” Free replied. “First – Twilight needs to recover her wits again, and I’m not going to wake her up to find out if she’s okay yet. Secondly, it’s the middle of the night outside. I think we’re going to have to find ourselves beds and take off in the morning.”

“Good points,” Path agreed.

“I’ll head back to join Twi. Let’s say I meet up with you at the meals hall for breakfast if nothing else happens.”

“Okay. We’ll wait for Iridia to come back and ask her to find us a room.”

“Pleasant dreams. Please don’t wake up speaking tongues again,” Free said as he walked out the door.

“Huh?” Path replied.

“Never mind, love – I don’t care if you’re incomprehensible,” Roseclaw said as she snuggled him.

“Would somepony tell me what’s going on?” Path asked plaintively.

It was early… really early… and nobody from House Path was awake yet bar one. Path carefully disengaged himself Roseclaw and slowly crept out of the room. Now that he had all of his faculties back, he had to own up to his folly. He arrived at the royal chambers just as Dianthia and Iridia were getting ready for breakfast. He chittered to the guard and waited until he was allowed in.

“Long Path – I was not expecting you to be up so early, especially after what happened yesterday,” the queen stated as she looked him over.

Path cleared his throat in preparation for communicating with them in their own language in an effort to show as much respect as possible. He bowed deeply, his muzzle mere inches from the floor as he chittered, “I am here to apologise for my transgression, especially to Iridia. I pressured her to let me have access to the hive-mind. It was a part of changeling culture that has never been discussed in any known text from any known culture that tempted me, but in my lust for knowledge I did not listen to her valid reasons for denying me. It was my own hubris that put me in danger, worried everyone, and could have potentially damaged the hive mind. I beg your forgiveness for this, and I will endeavour to compensate you for my transgressions.” Dianthia looked to her daughter. “What say you on this?” she asked formally.

Iridia replied, “He is correct in that he did pressure me, but I am not without fault in this matter, so I forgive him.”

Dianthia nodded and turned back to Path. “Your apology is accepted, Long Path, but I will expect two things of you as penance. First, in return for all the knowledge that you have gleaned from the hive-mind, you will be expected to add to it as fair compensation. You will return to this hive on a reasonably regular basis, and you will be guided into the hive-mind in strictly controlled circumstances to share with us everything that you have learned of other cultures through the efforts of the House of Path.”

“That seems fair and reasonable, Your Majesty.”

“Second, I will assign a Harvester to be member of your House. He will work for you, but report to me when necessary, in the same manner as Scribe does for Princess Luna.”

Path hesitated. “He would be expected to fulfil the same requirements as any other House warrior-scholar.”

“Of course. I will select an appropriate drone. Are these conditions acceptable?”

“They are, Your Majesty. Thank you for accepting my apology. Based on what I have learned here, I will be working on an updated version of Twilight’s original presentation on changelings that I will submit to you for your approval before showing it to the public. Right now though, I need to get back to Roseclaw.”

“Very well, we will talk more later.”

Path bowed deeply one more time before he left the throne room.

Iridia said to her mother, “I think that was a triple win for us.”

The hive queen smiled. “It was, but more importantly it was a mutually beneficial win.”

Twilight awoke to a headache and complete disorientation. If it was not for Free sleeping on the mat nearby, she might have started panicking. Then memories started slipping back and she recalled consuming the emo-gel, and then… oh, sweet Celestia! She was never going to live this down.

Twilight suffered through the recollection of all the things that she did under the influence of the concentrated love essence. Right now though, she felt strangely empty of any feeling of caring – perhaps a reaction to the overdose? One thing was for sure – it was way too easy to manipulate a pony’s emotions this way. She looked at Free again, thinking of all the times she had said she loved him and smothered him with kisses. Free Agent, the changeling child of Chrysalis, the lying and scheming power-hungry queen. How could she have been so blindly trusting? How had she not been suspicious of how quickly she had fallen for him? Her brother had warned her, and despite his firsthand experience, she had ignored him. She was such a fool!

Free stirred at that moment, and half-opened an eye to see her staring at him. He lifted his head from the mat and said, “Oh good, you’re awake. How are you feeling? Not going to smother me with kisses again, are you?”

“Not likely!” Twilight snapped.

Free blinked in surprise at the wave of negative emotions that came his way, but decided it was a consequence of withdrawal from the effects of the emo-gel. “Okay. Path and Rose are supposed to be meeting up with us for breakfast in the meals hall, and then we’ll head on home.”

With no other real options, Twilight decided to go along with him. As it turned out though, neither of their friends was there. “I thought you said that Path and Roseclaw would be here? Were you just trying to get me here to have some more of the emo-gel?”

Free gave her a puzzled look before replying, “I said we’d meet them here. It just seems that we’re here first. And no, I don’t want you touching that stuff again.”

A likely story,’ Twilight thought. ‘Lying, scheming queen. Is anything you tell me not a deception? Why didn’t I listen to Mom? I made a right fool of myself in front of her with my grandiose statements.

Twilight did not notice how the heads of the dining changelings in the hall were turning to look at her with discomfort and confusion.

Free headed to the queue to get some food. Twilight reluctantly followed, her empty belly making itself known with loud gurgling noises. When she got her tray, Twilight immediately levitated the cup of emo-gel off it before heading to the table where she sat on the opposite side of the table from Free.

For a long time, they ate in silence until Free could take it no more. “Okay, what’s bugging you so much?”

Twilight put down the apple that she had half eaten and glared at Free. “What’s bugging me is that it’s taken until now for me to see through your schemes, and how you’ve been manipulating me from the start.”

What?! What the hay are you talking about, Twi? I’ve always been open and honest with you.”

“Oh, sure – a changeling queen just happens to want me, an alicorn, as his mate. Could you possibly be more obvious? If your mother can’t get power one way, her child can get it for her in another.”

Free slammed his fists on the table. “I said don’t call her my mother! I’ve never met that bitch, and she certainly has no say in what I do.”

“You could have fooled me; in fact you did for a while with your slick words and singing and painting. You even had the gall to tell me to my face once that you wanted to bang all the alicorns in Equestria.”

“Yeah, I wanted to do that, up until I found something better. I’ve done nothing but try to make you happy, because it makes me happy also.”

“Yes, you changelings are masters of manipulating emotions, aren’t you? Well, I’m done being lied to and manipulated.”

What lies? I’ve never lied to you. Hell, I even told you I was a changeling the first day we met, and I never did that for anypony before.”

“You probably realised that I would figure it out quickly, and telling me up front would gain my confidence.”

Free looked at her incredulously. “Really? Are you going to rationalise every single thing we ever did together?”

“You mean every single thing that you did to manipulate my feelings for you?”

“I did nothing that any stallion wouldn’t do for their very special somepony!”

“Are you trying to tell me that you never used your changeling powers on me?” Twilight sneered.

“Of course I used my abilities! I used them to taste what you liked the most, and did that more. I used them to taste what you didn’t like so much, and skipped that in future. I used them to change form so that we could enjoy some other things together. I especially used them so that I could have lips to kiss you with, but I have never used them to manipulate you!”

“So you say. What about Long Path?”

“Huh? What about him?”

“You’ve been manipulating him all your life and feeding on his love. You even said it yourself how Path was so calm during the invasion of Canterlot because of you – you manipulate ponies all the time.”

Free stared at her, realising that anything he said would be twisted around. His heart felt as if it was breaking, and all he could think to say was, “I love you, Sparkles.”

“Ha! I can’t believe anything you say, and I don’t love you,” Twilight said, turning her face away from him.

Free was shattered, and his tears started flowing. “Goodbye then, Twi.” He turned to leave, but paused and said, “Pie Fight.”

Twilight frowned and asked, “What do you mean by that?” However, he just shook his head and left the hall.

After a long moment, Twilight realised that at least half the changelings in the room were staring at her. “Oh, mind your own business!” she snarled. She lit up her horn and teleported out of the hall.

Path and Roseclaw encountered the grieving griffon on their way to the meals hall. He had collapsed only metres from the entrance, lacking the will to go on, and he simply wept. He could not understand the change in Twilight, and the flood of emotions that had been coming from her had been an incomprehensible mess. How could things have gone so wrong?

“Free! What’s wrong, buddy?” Path asked with much concern for his soul brother.

“Twilight’s left me, Path. She accused me of lying and manipulating her.”

“What? That’s crazy!” Path protested.

“Perhaps it’s a withdrawal symptom from the effects of the emo-gel?” suggested Roseclaw.

Free said, “Maybe, but she went to a lot of effort to tear down any arguments that I put up. That seems a lot more than being depressed after being high on love.”

“Whatever the case, we’re not letting this stand,” Path declared. “Where is she? We’re clearing this up right now!”

“I left her back at the meals hall.”

“Let’s go then.”

Bolstered by the positive feelings from Path, and even some from Roseclaw, Free found the strength to get up and follow them. However, the alicorn had long gone by then.

The threesome collected their belongings before visiting the throne room, where they were introduced to a rather androgynous changeling in the shape of a pegasus by the name of Proper Place. He or she had a light green coat, with blond mane and tail, and a cutie mark depicting three green claws.

“What do those talons represent?” Roseclaw asked.

“My fighting talent,” Proper Place replied, producing fighting claws on his hooves seemingly out of thin air and striking a fighting pose.

Path blinked in surprise before he grinned. “You transformed to produce the claws, didn’t you?”

The changeling grinned back. “Yes, and they’re green to conceal the flash of transformation magic that produced them.”

“That’s excellent. We’ll see if you can surprise Warfist with that. And what about your non-fighting ability?”

“Economics. I had been considering teaching it in Manehatten before Queen Dianthia assigned me to you.”

“Economics and claw-fighting seem an odd mixture.”

“Even changelings have hobbies,” Proper Place replied with a grin.

“You’re going to fit in well, I can already tell. Welcome to the House of Path.”

Path and Roseclaw then expressed their thanks to Dianthia for her time and help, but Free could not bring himself to do the same after all the pain that the visit had caused him.

Iridia left her mother’s side to come over to Free, and laid a sympathetic hoof on his shoulder. “I regret that I did not anticipate Twilight Sparkle’s impulsive action and warned her, as well as Path and Roseclaw. I would like to reassure you that she should recover her normal mood soon, but the double-dose has already had unforeseen consequences. Don’t give up hope yet though.”

Free regarded her mournfully. “You weren’t there. While she was accusing me, I could not taste even a trace of love, nor even any caring at all. Can you tell me with certainty that this will change?”

Iridia hesitated, and then shook her head.

“I thought not.” Free turned around and started walking out of the throne room, saying, “Thanks for nothing, Queenie. Don’t call me again.”

The others bade the queen and princess a more polite farewell, and then they caught up with Free. They took the next train back to Canterlot, hoping to find Twilight there, but Celestia informed them that she had come and gone already.

“She seemed strangely upset, but refused to talk about it. She said something about Free Agent being a queen, the child of Chrysalis, and shouldn’t be trusted. Is that true?”

Free was sullenly quiet, so Path answered, “Yes, he’s a queen. Yes, we think the most likely changeling to have given birth to him is Chrysalis. No, we still trust him unconditionally.”

“Fascinating! I look forward to the detailed report on the matter. Anyway, about the only other thing that she said was that she would be heading for the Crystal Empire after taking care of some business in Ponyville.”

“She probably intends to seek some comfort from Shining Armor and Cadance,” Path guessed.

“I would say the same. I suggest that you see my sister though. I believe Twilight intended to have some words with her also.”

Luna seemed to have been waiting for them. “What did you do to tick off Twilight Sparkle so much?” was the first thing that she said as soon as she saw them.

“We’re trying to figure that out,” Path replied, “but poor Free bore the brunt of it. We were hoping you might know more.”

“She only stopped by to tell me that she was dropping her sponsorship of you, but I believe that your work is far too important, so I will be continuing to support you. Otherwise, she was far from communicative. She only left one message for you, and Free Agent in particular.”

“What was it?” Free asked hopefully.

“Don’t follow me.”

Free sagged dejectedly.

Path sighed and hugged Free. “Sorry to hear that. I suppose that there’s no point in hanging around here now. Rose and I have to get back to Griffonia and continue our work without Twilight. Any idea how we’re going to get there now?”

Luna smiled. “The Skylark is still available for your use. As I said, we consider your work to be of great importance, and the airship is ours to command too.”

Path smiled gratefully. “Thanks, Princess. Can we leave first thing in the morning?”

“I will inform the crew,” Luna assured them.

“Thank you.” Path hesitated for a moment, and then added, “There’s one other thing that we had been discussing before going to the Green Hive. We would be honoured if you would accept membership in the House of Path. I realise that as a ruler of a nation, it might be construed as a step down to a small noble House, but we…”

Luna held up one hoof to halt him. “Say no more, Lord Path. I would be honoured to accept. I can add it to my titles. Lady Luna has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?” she said with a wink.

Path grinned. “Thanks again, Your Highness.” He turned to Free and said, “There – Luna is your House Sister now. Does that make you feel a little better?”

Free snorted with unexpected amusement despite his depression, and he nodded.

“Coming with us, Free?” Path asked.

“There’s nothing here for me, Path. My place is with you, my brother.”

Free had mixed feelings as he watched Canterlot recede into the haze of distance. Ahead of him lay the potential for great things as a member of the House of Path, but behind him he was leaving a broken heart. He could only find one person to ultimately blame though.

“Chrysalis, if we ever meet, I will kill you!” Free Agent swore before turning to join with his friends.



Chapter 14: Where The Heart Lives


The regularly scheduled train to the Crystal Empire chuffed its way through the northern mountain range. If you were to look carefully, you would notice a despondent purple horned face in a window of one of the carriages. Twilight Sparkle had her hooves on the window sill and her chin propped upon them as she morosely watched the landscape roll by, wondering how things could have gone so wrong.

Mere days ago, everything had seemed to be marvellous – Chrysalis had been defeated, and the team was on a high. However, that was before she had discovered that one of them was a changeling queen – a lying, deceitful love-stealer who had set his hooks into her! And it all began on this very train when he had wormed and wheedled himself into her affections…. wait… that wasn’t quite right.

A puzzled frown crossed her face as memories came back to her. He had been nothing but completely open and honest about his intentions then. Crude, perhaps, but amusing and guilesless. Why didn’t she feel that way anymore though?

Her expression hardened again. Because he was Chrysalis’ child! Oh, he pretended that he had been ignorant of that fact, but of course he would lie about it. Anything to gain her confidence and trust… and make her laugh… and make her feel happier than she had felt in years….

No! Her mother had been correct – she had no business being a special somepony to a changeling queen. Mom had been so adamant, and she had been right. She had never lost an opportunity to say so either. Twilight had lost count of the number of times that her mother had said, ‘I told you so’, each more infuriatingly more annoying than the last. She had said it once too often though, and Twilight had stormed out of there, even though she had gone to her parents’ place in the first place to try to get help sorting out her feelings. However, that had been a mistake. The strange emptiness inside of her had left her unable to explain her motivations, so fear and anger had dominated those feelings. The shouting and the tears as she had fled her childhood home were so unlike her – she had never done that before. She was an adult now! She was the Princess of Friendship! How could she have been so nasty and vile?

She had turned to her best friends next. Applejack had looked at her as if she had suddenly grown two heads. “After spending so much time and effort convincing me that Free Agent is a good egg, you completely change your mind? Sorry, sugarcube, that don’t sit right with me.”

Rainbow Dash had added, “Sorry, Twilight, gotta side with AJ and Beaky on this one. Weird that he’s Chrysalis’ kid, but that doesn’t make him bad.”

“He Pinkie Promised me that he’d make you happy!” Pinkie Pie had declared. “He wouldn’t break a Pinkie Promise! Never!”

Rarity had still thought he was somewhat barbaric, but she had added, “But that's hardly enough to condemn him.”

Fluttershy had offered sympathy, but what she had left unsaid was just as strong a disagreement in her own quiet way.

“What’s wrong with you all?” she had shouted at them, and had left them stunned and confused. Why had she done that to her best friends? Why didn’t they support her when she needed it?

She had known who would listen though, and that’s what had brought her to be on this train right now. Her brother would understand, and so would Cadance. Both of them knew what Blue Changelings were really like.

Twilight watched the scenery pass and wondered why it seemed so much duller than usual.

Shining Armor was waiting for Twilight at the station as the train pulled in. The strange message that he had gotten had made him concerned for his sister, but he was relieved to see that she looked okay when she stepped out of the carriage, although she did seem kind of down.

“Twily! Good to see you again so soon, sis. I thought that you were going to head back to Griffonia?”

“Hi, big brother. A change of plans ended up revealing some awful truths. Let me tell you the whole story as we walk to the palace.”

Shining Armor decided not to mention the royal coach that he had waiting for them. If it gave her the motivation to talk about her problems, a walk would do quite nicely.

Twilight recounted Dianthia’s request for Free to visit the Green Hive, and their subsequent visit. She described it in detail, leaving out only the critical information that would betray its location. She told him how Free’s past had been revealed, and her realisation of his true intentions. As they arrived at a private lounge room in the palace, she asked, “So what do you think? You see what he was trying to do, don’t you?”

Shining Armor hesitated a long moment before replying, carefully considering his words. “I believe that if you truly feel that way about him, then he’s not the special somepony for you. As for the rest – Twily, you know how I felt about him from the first time we met.”

“Then you do understand! At last!” Twilight exclaimed.

“Umm… it’s not what you think. As far as I’m concerned, Free Agent proved himself, and I was wrong to accuse him of everything that I did.”

“What?! Not you too? Has he bamboozled everypony but me?” Twilight groaned in frustration.

“I know it’s not what you wanted to hear, but I think that you’re wrong about him.”

“And I think – like mother, like son. He’s done to you the same thing that Chrysalis did!”

“Twilight, I didn’t trust you when you warned me about the fake Cadance, but this is different. There is something wrong, but I think it’s with you this time.”

“What? No! Just because I’m the only one to have seen the truth, doesn’t make me crazy.”

“No, it doesn’t,” came another voice from the doorway, “but there is something not right about you.” Cadance stepped into the room and walked over to join them. “Sunshine, sunshine?” she said hopefully.

Twilight did not feel like responding. “This is serious, Cadance,” she said with a scowl.

“So I see. Better tell me all about this situation.”

“Again? Okay, but you’ll see what I mean though.” Twilight recounted her story once more, although slightly distracted by how Cadance’s horn was lit up and apparently scanning her. Perhaps checking her tale for exaggeration? She knew the facts though! Occasionally she embellished a detail at Cadance’s request, but essentially she told her the same story as she had told her brother. When she finished, she asked, “Is that all clear now?”

Cadance nodded. “I believe so.”

“And do you agree with me?” Twilight asked suspiciously.

“I believe that I fully understand the problem,”

“Great! Now what are we going to do about it?”

“I’m going to send you to bed,” Cadance replied matter-of-factly.

“Huh?” The unexpected response threw Twilight for a loop.

“Twilight, there is something very wrong with you at the moment. I could explain it to you, but the very nature of the problem would prevent you from accepting the truth. Right now, the best thing that I can do for you is to get you to hopefully sleep it off.”

“Sleep what off?” Twilight demanded to know.

“The suppression of your positive emotions.” As Twilight started to protest, Cadance held up a hoof. “Stop right there. Twilight – I was your foalsitter for many years, and I know you well. You should know me equally well. Do you trust me?”

“Of course I do!”

“Good.” Cadance’s horn glowed with magic, and the two alicorns were teleported to a bedroom. “Now please do as I ask, and get some sleep.”

Twilight eyed the bed reluctantly. “But I’m not sleepy.”

“Easily fixed.” Cadance cast a quick spell on Twilight, and the young mare started swaying drowsily on her hooves.

“Sleep spell… not fair…” she objected weakly before crumbling to the floor.

Cadance caught Twilight in her telekinetic field, lifted her onto the bed, and tucked a blanket over her. She then kissed her on the cheek and softly said, “Dear sister-in-law, I pray that your foolishness has not caused you permanent harm. Sleep well, and wake to a fuller heart.”

Long Path gritted his teeth as Roseclaw flew them down to their estate. Proper Place trailed behind them, but Free flew alongside, a grin across his face.

“I thought heights made you nervous?”

“I’m trying to get over that. I have a griffon mate, and an estate that is best approached by air, so I kind of have to.”

“He’s getting better,” Roseclaw said with a smile. “Not so much screaming now.”

“Oh, ha-haa!” Path said sarcastically.

Roseclaw exchanged a grin with Free.

They landed at the front door, and were a little startled to have it open for them. Goldenquill stood in the doorway and bowed slightly. “Welcome home, Lord and Lady Path. It’s good to see you in good health once more, sir.”

“Thanks, ’Quill. It’s great to be back. You can thank my brother, Free Agent, for my return to health. I literally couldn’t have recovered without him.”

Goldenquill held out a foreleg to Free and they shook talons. “Thank you, Master Free Agent. I was deeply concerned.”

“You’re welcome, ’Quill, but I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I couldn’t have fixed him up.”

“Will Princess Sparkle be joining you later?”

Path gave Free a look of dismay, but the griffling took it well.

“Twilight has been… detained in Equestria indefinitely,” Free replied.

“And this is Proper Place. He will be joining our House and will be helping with the administrative duties.”

Goldenquill gave the pegasus changeling a small bow. “Welcome, sir.”

“Could you show Free to his quarters, ’Quill? I trust that they’re ready?” Path asked.

“Everything has been in readiness for days, sir.”

“Great! When you're done with Free, find a guest room for Proper Place. Roseclaw and I are going to freshen up in the meantime. Please arrange a meal for the four of us as soon as possible after that.”

“Very good, milord. Master Agent – if you would care to follow me, I will show you to your rooms.”

“Rooms, plural?” Free queried.

“Certainly, sir. As one of the founders of the House, you rank just below the Lord of the House, and your quarters reflect this.”

“Lead on then!” Free ordered with a broad grin.

While Path and Roseclaw made their way to their own quarters, Goldenquill showed Free the way to his. He was blown away when the major domo opened the door to the luxurious apartment. Despite being stripped of the expensive indulgences of Ravenwing, the room still retained the permanent fixtures and furniture suited to a noble, and that was just the lounge. The bedroom was also large and well-appointed, with an en suite bathroom attached. The bed was magnificently huge!

“So these are my new digs?” Free asked.

“If this is all to your satisfaction, then this will be your home while you are in Griffonia. I can arrange an alternative if this is not to your liking?”

“Heck, no! This is pretty sweet. Thanks, ’Quill.”

“My pleasure, sir.”

“Hey, ’Quill, I don’t know if you’ve been told, but I’m a kind of informal guy. Knock off all the ‘sirs’, will ya?”

“And I am a very formal employee with appearances to maintain. I hope you can respect that, sir.”

Free smirked and replied, “If you can put up with me, then I’ll put up with you. Deal?”

“Deal, sir.”

“We’re going to get along fine, dude,” Free declared.

“I will have your luggage forwarded to the room when it gets delivered from your airship. I’ll leave you to settle in and freshen up now.”

“Thanks, ’Quill,” Free replied with a sincere smile.

The smile quickly died when the door closed behind Goldenquill. Free looked about the room and realised how empty it seemed with just himself in it. Empty and lonely. He had shared a crowded cabin with Path and Rose on the journey over. Path had said that he wanted to have his company for a while longer to fully recover from his bout of extreme depression, but Free knew that it was himself that his brother was most concerned about. Without Twilight there to complete the foursome, there was a huge hole left in their herd, and an even bigger one in Free’s heart, but his companions did their best to fill it. The result was not quite the same thing though. As much as he hated to admit it, he was a changeling, and when a changeling fell in love, it was as eternal as an alicorn. Tears welled in his eyes as he murmured, “Please come back to me, Sparkles.”

After their meal, Path and Roseclaw immediately set about catching up with the backlog of work that had accumulated in their absence. If it had not been for the diligent work of Raza Copperquill, it would have been much worse. They introduced Proper Place to her, and the two immediately hit it off, although that was not too surprising as that was what changelings were adept at doing. She quickly found tasks for him that were better suited to his skill-set, and they dived into the work, leaving Path and Roseclaw to concentrate on the most important stuff. The next highest priority was checking in with Warfist.

The warmaster was normally of serious disposition, but he had a genuine smile of pleasure at seeing Path again. “Welcome back, Lord Path! I’m happy to see that you have recovered well. Is this the Free Agent that I have been hearing so much about?” he asked, looking in Free’s direction.

“It is indeed. Free, this is General Warfist Bloodfeather, Warmaster of House Path. Warfist, please meet Free Agent, noble of the House of Path, and my blood brother.”

“An honour to meet you, sir,” Warfist said, holding out his talons to shake with Free’s.

“I’ve been curious about you, War. Can you sing?” Free asked.

Warfist looked startled. “I’ve been known to sing in a few bars occasionally.”

Free grinned. “Great! You should fit in well.”

Warfist shook his head in bemusement. “I had heard that you were a bit odd. I’ve also heard how you held back the invasion of the Crystal Empire until reinforcements arrived. Actions speak louder than words, and I respect you for that.”

“Thanks. Try keeping that in mind when you have to deal with me in the future.”

“I can already tell that it’s going to be interesting.”

Path said, “So, what have you managed to get going in our absence?”

“I’ve accepted a large number of pupils for the first classes. There are a few new House members for you to approve first though, as all of them will be teachers for those classes. There are a couple of disciplines that for which we are still recruiting.”

“Put me down as a music and painting teacher,” Free told him. At the looks of surprise that he got, he responded, “What? I’m artist caste – what did you think I was going to do?”

“I don’t think any of us really thought of you as a teacher,” Path replied.

“It’s either that or sit around getting bored. Until such time that we go out in the field again, I need something to occupy my time. I’ve got a lot of knowledge to pass on from my dad about art. I think he’d like that.”

“Very well. I will ask Raza to fit you into the school’s staff,” Warfist replied.

Path asked, “What about your own specialty? Have you got a class together yet?”

“I have a small class of young griffons and ponies. So far I have been restricting lessons mostly to basic training exercises and team-building tasks. I feel that it’s important for both species to get used to working cooperatively first. I will be getting the older griffons to be my assistants for the training, but I would very much like to get a couple of pony warriors to help balance out the skill sets.”

“We’ll have to introduce you to Proper Place, a pegasus whom we brought back with us. He has a particular fighting style that I’d like you to evaluate. Right now though, he’s starting work as Raza’s assistant.”

“Send him to me at your earliest convenience, sir.”

“Will do. How about Blue Streak? I hear you’ve taken him under your wing, so to speak?”

Warfist smiled. “You could say that. I am delighted with the colt. He is the perfect age – not too old to have been oppressed by his former slave status, and not too young to start some serious training. He is a keen learner, and showing huge promise. In fact, I have a test of his abilities scheduled for tomorrow. I would like you to be there to witness it.”

“Tell me the time, and I’ll be there. What’s his specialty going to be, do you know yet?”

“His speed is his specialty. He not only moves fast, but he thinks fast. I’m going to be honing that speed to put it to good use in unarmed combat, my own specialty. Then I plan to work on weapons training when we figure out which works best for him. At this point, I suspect that the short sword will best suit his talent; he has the earth pony strength combined with lightning-fast moves.”

“That sounds good. I hope he’s enjoying the training?”

“I believe he loves it, although some of it might be because it gets him out of the dull chores that he would have been otherwise required to do.”

Path chuckled. “Can’t fault him for that. I’d like to have a chat with him though to see for myself how he’s coming along. Could you send him to have dinner with us tonight?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Excellent. Tomorrow I’ll check out that test for him, and you can introduce me to the rest of the students.”

“I will have them ready for you.”

“Good. Now I’m going to check out the new House members that you have pre-approved. I’m getting very excited about all this – are you?”

“Very much so. After all, that is why I chose to join the House, sir.”

Blue Streak had been understandably nervous at being inside the castle for the first time, unsure as to how to behave. However, when his hosts proved to be friendly and informal, he had loosened up, and soon he was chatting quite comfortably with them. He was excited about the new direction his life was taking, and even pleased to be going to school. Roseclaw invited him to come back for future dinners to discuss his progress, and he had left for home full of anticipation for the next day.

However, that had been yesterday. Today, the colt was a little more antsy, and he pranced a little on the spot with nervous energy as he waited to find out what Warfist had in mind for him.

“So what exactly have you got lined up for Blue Streak today?” Path asked Warfist.

“A small test and hopefully a lesson,” the griffon replied.

“Why the soldiers?” Path asked, indicating the three regular army griffons waiting nearby.

“They’re part of the test.” The old warrior beckoned to Blue Streak, and the young colt trotted up to them.

“Yes, Master Bloodfeather?”

“Your test today is to defeat in unarmed combat all the warriors on this field now. You must disable or symbolically kill each of them.” Warfist lifted his staff and pointed at each of the soldiers. “These are among the best fighters in the king’s army and are under instructions to not take it easy on you. If you manage to accomplish your tasks, I will deem your progress satisfactory.”

Blue Streak looked the soldiers over and nodded. “No problem, Master.”

A couple of soldiers laughed at the colt’s cocky reply.

“Now I know why we’re here,” one said. “Someone needs to be taken down a peg or two.”

Warfist glared at the soldier. “Shut your beak, fool, and concentrate on your task. Now take your positions around the field.”

The three spread out around the field. Although it was part of the castle grounds and well cared for, it was hardly tame. The grass covering the undulating earth was occasionally interrupted by large boulders or stately ancient trees, plus a pond. Blue Streak took up a position roughly equidistant from the soldiers.

Warfist held up his cane and said, “On my mark, begin.” He dropped the cane, shouting, “Go!”

All three griffons leaped into the air, but one led the charge. Blue Streak did not wait for him though, and took off at high speed, weaving and dodging around boulders and trees. The lead griffon struggled to close in on his quarry, but he had nearly caught up when the colt looked over his shoulder and grinned. Instead of dodging the next boulder, Blue Streak jumped onto it and launched himself up into the air, right into the griffon’s flight path. He bucked, and his hind hooves slammed into the griffon’s belly before he had a chance to react to the colt’s extraordinary move. The soldier squawked as all the wind was knocked out of him, and he doubled over and plunged to the ground. Blue Streak made an easy four-point landing next to him and tapped him on the head.

“First kill,” Warfist murmured.

Blue Streak wasted no time in taking off again. The remaining two soldiers, having witnessed the fate of the first, became more cautious about their flight path. Nevertheless, they were hot on his trail, and started to cooperate to limit the colt’s manoeuvres. Soon they had herded him into a copse of trees, greatly inhibiting his speed.

“Uh-oh. Looks like he’s been outmanoeuvred,” Path commented.

Warfist faintly smiled. “Someone has been,” he replied.

One soldier flew down to go under the branches and attack Blue Streak, only to hesitate in confusion. “Where’s he gone?”

Blue Streak burst out of the branches over the soldier, landing on the griffon’s back, slamming him into the ground. A tap on the head ended his fight.

“Kill number two,” Warfist confirmed.

“Obviously the soldier didn’t realise that earth ponies are very good at climbing,” Path observed.

“A foolish assumption,” Warfist agreed.

Blue Streak was living up to his name and tearing across the field at a pace that the remaining griffon could barely match. As he thundered past the two watchers, he called out, “Hey, Master, I thought you said that these guys are good?”

“A bit arrogant, don’t you think?” Path asked.

“His statement wasn’t aimed at us,” Warfist disagreed.

“Oh?” Path watched and listened a bit more, and realised that the colt was continuing to taunt his remaining opponent while dashing and dodging tirelessly all over the field. The griffon’s attempts to catch Blue Streak got more and more desperate and careless. They got closer to the stone wall that bordered the grounds and the colt abruptly dodged to the right and through the archway leading to the castle courtyard. His pursuer banked sharply to follow, but he had been so focused on the infuriating pony that he had lost awareness of his surroundings, and slammed into the wall. He slumped to the ground just as Blue Streak casually trotted back through the archway. The griffon was obviously incapacitated, but he shrugged and tapped him on the head to confirm the ‘kill’.

“That’s gotta hurt. Three kills, and all without actually needing to engage in formal combat. Very impressive,” Path said as Blue Streak trotted back to the watchers. “He certainly knows how to take advantage of his raw speed.”

“That he does, but I am more interested in his ability to think a situation through clearly. He has a lot of potential for one so young.”

Blue Streak came up to them, barely breathing hard. “Mission accomplished!” He declared with a grin.

Warfist rapped him on the head with his cane.

“Ow! What was that for?” the colt protested.

“Did I not say that you must defeat all the warriors on the field?” asked Warfist.

“And I did!”

“And what are Lord Path and myself?”

Blue Streak stared for a moment before grimacing. “You tricked me.”

“I stated your task clearly. Your enemy will always take advantage of any mistake that you make. Never make an assumption! Always be thinking one step ahead!”

Blue Streak’s grin returned. “Yes, Master!”

“Good. You may go clean up for the evening meal.”

Blue Streak nodded and then raced off towards the castle.

“He seems very happy for being reprimanded?” Path wondered.

Warfist smiled. “The lad loves learning. Today he learned a lesson that won’t be forgotten, and he will be the better warrior for it, and he knows it. I’m very proud of him.”

“So that was the real test?”

“Correct. The rest was just a training exercise that I was fairly sure he could cope with.”

“Then why not four or five opponents to make it more challenging?”

Warfist chuckled. “Because these arrogant fools needed to be humbled a little, and there were only three deserving of the lesson. If they still haven’t learned, then I will invite them to a rematch in claw to hoof combat.”

“I don’t think I can allow that,” Path told him.

The old warrior cocked an eyebrow at him. “Oh? Why not?”

“How would I explain to the king that I allowed his soldiers to be beaten up by a colt?”

Warfist guffawed. “You have a point, Lord Path. We will have to hope that they will realise that they would be better served to learn a little humility.”

Twilight forced her eyes open despite the lingering lethargy. “Darn sleep spell,” she mumbled and struggled out of bed. She felt the stiffness that only occurred when she overslept, and wondered how long she had been asleep. She noticed a tingle of magic, and smiled in recognition.

“Seems I will be expecting someone soon. Better freshen up, I suppose.”

Twilight managed to wash her face and brush her mane in the en suite bathroom before there was a knock on the bedroom door, followed by Cadance entering after a courteous pause.

“How are you feeling?” Cadance asked.

“Rested. Less stressed. Annoyed at being ambushed.”

“Sorry about that, but it was genuinely the best thing for you then. Let me scan you.” Her horn lit up, and a beam of magic washed over the younger alicorn. Cadance sighed in relief. “Thank goodness! You seem to be recovering.”

“Okay, it’s time for you to explain yourself. Recovering from what? You said something about suppression of my positive emotions?”

“Come along with me, and I’ll explain while you have something to eat. You’re probably hungry right now. You’ve been asleep for nearly thirty hours.”

Twilight needed no reminder that she was feeling famished, but her gurgling stomach did so anyway. “Why so long? Overdo the sleep spell?” she asked as they headed out of the room.

“No – I was wondering if it would be long enough, in fact.”

“Okay, now I’m really curious!”

“But not angry like you were before,” Cadance pointed out.

Twilight considered that, and realised that she was right. “So that was part of this problem that you keep mentioning?”

“Yes. With your positive emotions suppressed, it greatly magnified your negative ones – fear and anger especially. However, your balance seems to be coming back.”

“So exactly why was this balance out of whack? Was it to do with the emo-gel?”

“Of course it does,” Cadance said with visible annoyance. “Whatever possessed you to eat it?”

“Iridia said it was harmless, and I thought I’d see what it tasted like.”

“I believe you said that she said that it was physically harmless? Didn’t it occur to you that there might be non-physical effects?”

Twilight looked sheepish. “I seem to have been doing a lot of impulsive things lately, like falling for a changeling queen.”

“Yes, I’ll get back to that soon.” They arrived at a small dining room which had been laid out with a large variety of foods. “Anyway, have something to eat and I’ll explain just how big an idiot you were.”

That stung Twilight, but she had to admit that she had been incredibly foolish, so she meekly sat down at the table. “Ooh, pancakes! Um… is all of this for me?”

“Yes. I think you’ll find that you need a bit more than you think. It’s all better than eating emo-gel, that’s for sure. Did it occur to you that I already know all about the substance? As the Alicorn of Love, I make it my business to know about related things, and a gel that acts as a matrix for emotional energy, especially love, certainly qualifies. Unlike you, however, I arranged some very careful and structured experiments with several volunteers instead of overdosing myself on it.”

“Ab wat wad d’ rethult?” Twilight mumbled through a mouthful of food.

“The obvious first result is that while a pony can’t gain energy from it like a changeling does, apparently the stored love can strongly affect a pony’s emotions. It amplifies all similar emotions that the pony is already experiencing, and basically that covers almost everything. You see, while most ponies think of romantic love when talking about the emotion, that is hardly the only type. There’s love of a parent, love of a sibling, love of a friend, love of a pet, and then there are the more abstract ones such as love of music, art, scenery, and even love of life. The changelings can use all of these for their energy needs, and the emo-gel can contain a complex mixture of any or all of these, plus their preferred flavourings of other positive emotions. And you ate a double dose.”

“Yeah. I can confirm that I loved absolutely everything after that. Embarrassingly so. Though I am surprised that Free didn’t take advantage of me then. I… I’m confused, Cadance. I know he’s a queen and probably the child of Chrysalis and can’t be trusted, so why didn’t he press his advantage?”

“Still not fully recovered, I see. That will become clear soon though. Anyway, the amplification of all your positive emotions comes at a price. When it wears off, your ability to feel those emotions is severely stunted, and so the imbalance tends to amplify the effects of your negative emotions. Therefore you feel fearful, angry… and suspicious. However, you took twice as much as a changeling normally eats, far more than I dared test on volunteers, and I was terrified that you had managed to actually burn out your ability to feel love any more, and it made the imbalance even worse. It’s taken days for you to start feeling positive again, which I confirmed with that scan that I did of you earlier.”

“So that’s why I yelled at my parents… and created my fears and suspicions about Free?”

“Twilight, the imbalance only amplifies what is already there. You must have already felt doubts and fears before then. Why would you doubt someone who so obviously loves you?”

“But he’s Chrysalis’ child! The queen who imprisoned you, bewitched my brother, attacked Canterlot, and hurt Celestia! How can I trust a changeling like that?”

“A changeling who was brought up from infancy as a griffon, who didn’t know he was a changeling until he was much older, let alone who birthed him? A changeling who went out of his way to make you happy?”

“How can I tell that it wasn’t all an act though?” Twilight pleaded, torn between her returning feelings and lingering fears.

Cadance shook her head. “Oh, Twilight, the answer has been in front of you all this time, but you are only now recovered enough to be able to perceive its truth. What was the last thing that he said to you before you parted? The thing that confused you so much?”

“Huh? He said ‘pie fight’. What was that supposed to mean though?”

“I am assuming that he and you have only been involved in one pie fight, so what happened then that would be so significant?”

“Shining Armor was suspicious of Free’s motives, and he and Free had a fight before Celestia brought it to a halt.”

“Yes, and what did I say to my foolish husband?” Cadance prompted.

“Something about not jumping to conclusions and checking with you, the Alicorn of Love.”


Twilight’s eyes grew huge with realisation. “That you sensed that there was true affection for me. Oh sweet Celestia! He really is in love with me!”

Cadance smiled happily. “And there it is. I feel the love back in your heart once more.”

Twilight burst into tears. “How could I have forgotten that? How could I have ignored all the wonderful things he did for me, and the beautiful times we had together. How could I forget true love?!”

“The emo-gel nearly burned the ability to feel that way out of you. Now instead of wallowing in your regrets, what are you going to do about this?”

“I have to find him! I have to tell him I’m sorry, and ask him to forgive me!”

Twilight started to get up from the table, but Cadance gently pushed her down again with her telekinesis. “The next train back to Canterlot leaves in about eighty minutes. Finish your meal first before heading off to the station. I’ve already taken the liberty of reserving a compartment for you in the hope of your recovery. And in the meantime, you can recount all those good times you had with Free. After all, I love a bit of gossip too.”

The journey to Canterlot never seemed so long, and Twilight teleported from the station to the palace rather than spend one more minute travelling. She was shocked and dismayed to learn from Celestia that Free and his companions had long departed for Griffonia.

“Is there another airship that can take me there?” she asked.

Celestia regretfully shook her head. “All the Royal Airships are on assignment, and I cannot justify pulling them away for personal reasons, even yours. May I suggest that you investigate private means if you are in such a hurry to get back to Griffonia?”

“Right! I’ll do that!” Twilight raced out of the throne room, past a startled Luna.

“What has gotten into Twilight Sparkle, sister?” Luna asked as she walked over to join Celestia.

“Some sense, apparently. She’s desperate to re-join with Free Agent in Griffonia, and is off in search of a means to get there without the Skylark at her disposal.”

“Why did you not offer to teleport her there? You have the range and power to do so.”

Celestia grinned. “I think our young princess needs to put in a bit of effort to earn Free Agent’s forgiveness.”

Luna shook her head in wonder. “Oh, Tia, still playing the teacher?”

“I don’t see you leaping to her aid,” Celestia pointed out.

Luna chuckled. “Nay. I agree that Twilight will better appreciate what she has if she has to earn it.”

Twilight was having no luck with the local air shipping companies, and the pegasus coaches weren’t willing to take her over the ocean.

“I recommend that you go to Fillydelphia and try your luck there,” one shipping agent suggested. “It’s a busy port, and might have what you’re looking for.”

Twilight considered that to be her best option, and galloped to the train station, only to discover that she had missed the morning train to Fillydelphia. She bought a ticket anyway, and took off out of Canterlot and flew past the obscuring mountain range. With a good line of sight now, she teleported in the direction of the rail line to that city. After failing to see the train where she arrived, she repeated her actions, this time spotting it approaching a small country platform. One last teleport took her to the platform, and minutes later she boarded the train.

It was mid-afternoon before the train pulled into Fillydelphia’s central station, and Twilight wasted no time seeking out various passenger and shipping options. Unfortunately there were no regular passenger services to Griffonia, and while there was some trade between there and Equestria, there were no ships that plied that route currently in port. It was a very frustrated Princess of Friendship who sat down on the dock and looked at the unbroken stretch of water in front of her, with the setting sun warming her back. The day was almost gone with little gain.

Twilight considered her options. ‘Perhaps I’d have more luck in Manehattan? Then again, I could end up wasting my time just like here, and that’s not acceptable. Only one other choice, but I need to rest up first.’ She got up and started heading back to the shore in search of a hotel to spend the night. ‘I’m sorry, Free, but I’ll be there soon, I promise!

With the organisation of the first classes for the new students still being finalised, Free had plenty of time to spare. He used the time to work on his painting, and prepare some materials for his future pupils. It also helped a lot to distract him from thoughts about Twilight. This afternoon, the weather was ideal for landscape work, and without weather pegasi to maintain those conditions, Free was taking advantage of it while he could. His room came with a balcony, and he had set up his easel out there in the morning, and had been working at painting the castle’s grounds all day. His only distraction was when Warfist brought a group of students out to give them training exercises. The odd mixture of griffs and ponies was both amusing and reassuring, giving him hope that Path’s grand plans would work out. Better than his own plans anyway.

He was preoccupied with his paints though when a shadow flickered over his canvas as something obscured the lowering sun behind him. He turned around in time to see Twilight land heavily on the balcony, panting and trembling.

“Twilight!” Free exclaimed, both hoping and dreading what she had to say. “How did you get here?”

“Teleported and glided, then repeated until I got here.”

“All the way across the ocean?” he said incredulously.

“I had to get here to see you!” she said as she stepped up and reached out to him.

Free flinched back from her touch though. “Why? Twilight, you hurt me like I have never been hurt before in my life! If you’ve come here because you still fear what I am, or suspect my motives, I don’t want to know about it. In fact, I’d prefer it if you just go away.”

“I made a mistake! I made lots of mistakes! It was the emo-gel that caused them, honestly!”

“Emo-gel can’t make you fear me, or make you suspicious of me. Those had to be there first.”

“I was taken badly by surprise by the revelation that you are not only a queen, but also Chrysalis’ child, and I didn’t find the time to deal with the foolish fears that caused before taking the emo-gel. I’m back to normal now, and I’m so sorry that I said all that. I love you, Free! Can’t you taste it?”

Free desperately wanted to believe her, but he had his own doubts now. “Yes, I can, just as I tasted it before we went to the hive. You told me you loved me then too. You even more adamantly told me that you don’t love me in the hive. How can I know that you won’t change your mind once more? I never want to feel that pain again.”

Twilight’s face was streaming with tears by this time. “I won’t! I wouldn’t have done so then if I hadn’t been so incredibly foolish as to eat that stupid stuff. I swear… no, I Pinkie Promise that I will never hurt you that way again.” She started rummaging in her saddlebag and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “Look – while I was on the train to Fillydelphia, I wrote this out.” She telekinetically passed it over to the griffon.

Free looked at the neatly lettered first page. It was titled ‘Why Free Agent Should Take Back Twilight Sparkle’ and had an index of chapters starting with ‘My Mistakes’, then ‘The Consequences’, ‘My Recovery’, ‘Why I Love You’, and ‘Why We Belong Together’. A smile grew on his face, and he involuntarily snorted with amusement as he shook his head. “Dammit, Sparkles, you’re so bucking adorkable.” He tossed the papers aside, stepped up to the hopeful alicorn, and threw his arms about her. “I love you so much! Thank you for coming back to me!”

Twilight’s love flowed into him, filling the gaping hole that had been there since leaving the Green Hive. He shifted to unicorn form and they kissed passionately until the need to breathe made them part lips. She then leaned into his embrace, saying, “I promise to love you for the rest of your life.”

Free chuckled and replied, “It seems that changeling queens can live for about three centuries; you’re going to be stuck with me for a long while.”

“Worth it,” she responded before sagging wearily.

“Are you okay, Twi?” Free asked with concern.

“I’m just very tired. I’ve been travelling from Fillydelphia since this morning.”

“How many teleports did you make anyway?”

“I’m not sure. I lost count after a few dozen times.”

“What?! Are you nuts?! You could have run out of power in the middle of the ocean.”

“Yeah, just call me the Alicorn of Exhaustion. I had to get here though, and I wasn’t going to spend one more day making you wait for my apology. My love for you kept me going.”

“Sparkles, you’re my kind of crazy. Right now though, you need sleep, and I have just the place for you to get it.” He was still in unicorn form, so he used his horn to magically lift the alicorn and carry her inside where he put her on the bed. “I hope you like my new bed… our bed, I hope?”

“Yes, definitely our bed. Our nice… cosy….” She never completed her sentence as exhaustion overtook her.

Free pulled a blanket over her and then sat down beside the bed to watch her sleep for a while. Tears of happiness welled in his eyes, and he wiped them away while murmuring a prayer of thanks for bringing Twilight back to him. After several long minutes, he got up and fetched his painting materials. With a blank canvas on the easel, he started a sketch for a new painting of his favourite subject.

To this day, the finished ‘Sleeping Princess’ portrait hangs in House Path Art Museum as its finest example of putting emotion into art.



Chapter 15: Like Sand Through An Hourglass...

“What has your day been like?” Roseclaw asked her mate as they walked together to the castle’s dining hall.

Path gave her a rueful smile. “When Warfist won Razorbeak’s possessions, it was a huge boost to our resources, but a massive headache for me and Raza. I’m glad we’ve got Proper Place to help us sort it all out. He might have been thrust upon us, but Dianthia at least gave us competent help.”

“He has a pleasant personality also, although I suppose that would not be unusual for his kind. Nevertheless, I think he’s an asset to our House. Fortunately we won’t be needing him to teach his fighting skills too soon, so he can concentrate on the administrative duties.”

“How are the classes coming along then?”

“I’m very pleased with the classes for the young pony foals – so many of them are eager to learn. The older ones are having a harder time because of the slave indoctrination and lack of early education, but I have paired them with griff students to help them out. I have made it clear to the griffs that they would be also judged on their ability to integrate ponies with griffs in our House.”

Path nodded. “The first and most important lesson must always be that the House of Path is a family, and if they can’t learn that, then they don’t belong with us. One of these years, a griff might depend on his pony brother to save his life, and then there must not be a moment’s hesitation.”

“It would be good if we could get more species involved as soon as possible for that very reason,” Roseclaw pointed out.

Path shrugged. “Yes it would, but right now I’ve got my hooves full just trying to deal with those that we have already. However, Raza had an idea to post advertisements at the docks, and spread the word through the crews of the trading ships. I’m working on a recruiting drive in Equestria, especially for unicorns and pegasi. Maybe even get the attention of some thestrals.”

“It’s a pity that you never got around to checking out the thestral town that you told me about.”

“The Thestral Grand Colony is still on the list of places that we will visit someday. Our original mission is postponed, not cancelled. I see it as parallel to what we’re achieving here with the House. Originally we set out to learn more about the perspectives of other species so that we can learn to be better friends. Here we’ve started actually putting that into practice already. It’s a lot sooner than I ever dreamed it could happen, but we’ve had some amazing good luck.”

“And some bad too,” Roseclaw reminded him.

“Yeah, but it’s worked out for the most part. I hope Twilight comes to her senses and puts Free out of his misery though. He’s been a bit of downer to all of us.”

Roseclaw examined Path’s face for a moment. “And yet you seem a lot more cheerful than you have been for the past few days, despite everything.”

Path nodded. “It’s an odd thing, but a short while ago I just started feeling happy for no apparent reason. Sure, I was enjoying the work despite how much there is to do, but it’s not the kind of thing to put me in such a positive frame of mind.”

“I’ll take it, whatever the cause.” She leaned up against him as they walked down the passageway. “Puts me more in the mood.”

Path grinned and kissed her on the cheek. “Heh! Me too.”

Dinner was ready to be served as soon as they reached the dining hall, but they waited a little while for Free to turn up. Blue Streak was already there, and they chatted with him about his day. Path was taking a special interest in Streak and, as the colt had no parents, he decided to mentor Streak personally, and part of it was having the colt come for dinner at the castle and discuss what had been learned that day.

However, when after nearly a quarter hour had passed and Free was still a no-show, Path got up and said, “Free could be feeling more depressed than usual, and not hungry. I’ll go check up on him.”

A knock on Free’s door elicited a quiet ‘Come in’, and Path entered. He found the griffon seated at his easel, with lamps set up to illuminate his subject. Path’s eyes widened in surprise when he spotted the striped mane. “Is that Twilight? When did she get here? How did she get here?” he asked in hushed tones.

Free gave him the happiest grin Path had seen in far too long. “She got here less than an hour ago. Would you believe she teleported and flew all the way over the ocean?”

“That’s amazing. No wonder I heard nothing about it. Is she back to normal then?”

“She’s back to her adorkable self. She even wrote an essay to prove it,” Free said as he pointed it out still lying on the floor where he had tossed it.

Path picked it up and glanced at it, snorting in amusement at the title page. “So, did this explain everything?”

Free shrugged. “I didn’t read it. I didn’t care because she came back to me, Path. I hardly dared hope, but she nearly killed herself to be with me. I should be angry with her for what she accused me of, but I don’t care. She’s here now where she belongs.”

“It’s dinner time, Free; do you think she would want to join us?”

“I don’t think you could wake her up right now. She barely made it here, and she’s wiped out.”

“I see you’ve started painting her portrait.”

“I want to capture this moment. I’m so happy and inspired right now.”

“Huh! Y’know, I think I felt the moment that you and Twilight reconciled. Suddenly I felt in a very good mood for no specific reason.”

Free looked a little chagrined. “If the past few days have taught us anything, Path, it’s that you and I share a close bond. For the most part, it’s been a good thing, but occasionally it’s backfired on you. I don’t believe you would have been hit so hard by the death of that deer if I hadn’t been absent. On the other hand, I don’t know if you wouldn’t have made the big step and become Rose’s mate either.”

Path reached up to put a hoof on Free’s shoulder. “Free, I don’t care if that bond has caused us some trouble. I am proud to call you my brother, and I’m glad to have you sharing my life. I’m just glad that we’re all back together again.”

“Believe me, I am too.”

“I guess you don’t want to leave Twilight at this time. Want me to send food up?”

“That would be great, thanks.”

“It’ll be here soon.” Path turned to head out, taking Twilight’s essay with him. “Talk to you both tomorrow.”

Twilight pried one eyelid open, wincing a bit at the bright sunshine pouring through the window. She looked around and noticed a tray of food left beside the bed, the aroma of which had woken her up. She propped herself up on the pillow and looked around, wondering exactly where she was. Wherever it was, it was pretty fancy. Considering that her last memories were of flying to Path’s castle, she supposed that it was most likely a bedroom in there. Wait… not quite the last memories… something about the bed… our bed?

The memories started flowing back, just as Free entered the room, carrying a large pot of coffee.

“Good morning, sleepyhead. Breakfast is served.”

Twilight’s eyes snapped wide open and her face lit up in delight. She leapt out of bed, rushed over to Free, and hugged the stuffing out of him, nearly causing him to spill the pot of coffee.

“It wasn’t a dream! I made it, and you took me back. I love you!” She started kissing Free profusely.

“Whoa, girl! It’ll be a nightmare if I spill this on you. Let me put the pot down first.”

Twilight only released Free enough to let him put the pot down safely before resuming her ardent display of affection. However, this time Free was a willing participant. Eventually though, he gently pried her off and pointed her towards the food.

“Eat! I didn’t haul this here for it to get cold.”

Twilight was suddenly reminded that she was hungry, and willingly tucked into the food, while Free poured a large mug of coffee for her, and then another for himself.

“How long was I asleep?” Twilight asked between bites.

“Oh, about thirteen hours. You probably would have slept more, but I figured you wouldn’t want to waste more of the day.”

“Good heavens, no! I’ve got days to catch up on. I want to see everything that has been done since I left Griffonia. I want to meet the new members of the House. I want to see the students. I want to teach!”

“Whoa again, Sparkles!” Free said with a laugh. “We’ll get you into the groove soon enough. Concentrate on eating your breakfast so that we can go see Path and Rose. They’re eager to see you too, y’know?”

“Right! Food now!” She resumed eating in an enthusiastic and very unprincesslike manner.

“Hmmm, maybe a shower next. Darling, you worked up a sweat yesterday.”

Twilight stopped eating long enough to ask, “Will you scrub my back?”

Free grinned. “Sparkles, I was hoping you’d ask.”

“… and after I got a good sleep and a big breakfast, I was ready to leave at sunrise.”

“How could you be sure that even that much preparation would be enough to get you over the ocean, Twilight?” Path asked.

“I honestly didn’t know for sure. It was terribly impulsive of me, but I was so desperate to get back to Griffonia to see you all – to see Free again and ask him to forgive me.” Twilight tightened her embrace of the griffon. Throughout relating her experiences since they parted company at the hive, she had been hugging Free as if she was afraid that he would change his mind and leave.

“But you did make it. Free says that you combined teleporting and gliding?” Path asked.

Roseclaw said, “That makes sense; griffons will resort to energy-saving gliding on thermals while hunting for prey, so that would be the most efficient way to conserve power for teleporting.”

Twilight nodded vigorously. “Roseclaw has it exactly right. I knew that if I did nothing but a continuous series of teleports, I would run out of energy halfway there. So after teleporting as far eastwards as I could without overstraining myself, and at the same time raising my altitude to my height ceiling, I could just use my wings to glide with little effort. The great altitude gave me a lot of glide time, and by then I was fully rested and teleported again. However, the sheer number of teleports that I had to do eventually wore me out from mana drain. It’s a very good thing that I was able to get some rest on a cloud bank around midpoint.”

“It was still foolish. We could have sent the Skylark back for you,” Path chided her.

“Which would have taken at least a couple more days than I was prepared to wait, and frankly with my doubts about whether Free would want me anymore, I didn’t know if you would send it anyway.”

Free chuckled and said, “Twi, it’s a Royal Airship and you’re a princess – your commands would have overridden ours.”

“Still too slow,” she replied, poking her tongue out at him before snuggling him again. “Besides, that wasn’t the silliest mistake that I made coming over.”

“Oh? What was that?” Path asked.

“I took off due east, in the direction of the sun. In the middle of the ocean, it was an easy way to tell my direction. However, what happens closer to midday?”

Roseclaw shook her head in disbelief. “You lost your bearings because the sun was overhead!”

Twilight blushed. “Yes. I should have brought a compass. That was another reason why I rested on the cloud bank and the journey took longer than I had anticipated. I had to wait until the sun started lowering enough to be confident of direction again. I’m rather ashamed of my poor planning.”

“It was impulsive from the start,” Path agreed. “However, it also demonstrated how sincere you were in wanting to get back together with us, and we’re so happy to have you here.”

Twilight smiled happily. “I can confidently say that I’m where I belong. So, when do I get to meet the new House members?”

“And this is all the awesome equipment that Lord Path was able to get for me!” Techbird enthusiastically explained as she showed off her workshop. “After Warfist won his honour duel, the House had the resources to buy all this.”

Twilight grinned at her enthusiasm. “I gather that you already have some projects in mind?”

“I already had so many before I knew we would get the resources. I hardly know where to start!”

“I know that feeling. I hope you’ll share some of that equipment with me when I wish to pursue one of my own projects?”

“Oh, of course, Twilight! Maybe we can cooperate on an experiment or two also?”

“I think I’d like that. Since scientific research is my responsibility, you’ll be reporting to me anyway, so we can discuss any projects that you have in mind.”

“I’m so thrilled to have you here. I think you’re going to love what I have in store for you.”

“Techbird, I think that I have finally found someone who actually exceeds my own enthusiasm for science. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.”

“Oh, yes! Science should be fun, shouldn’t it?”

“Definitely! It’s even better if it has practical applications though, and with that in mind, I have a high priority task for you to have a look at.”

Techbird was immediately intrigued. “What’s that?”

“Faster intercontinental travel. While the current airship is reliable, it still takes too long to get between Equestria and here. There have been plans in the works to build a faster model for quite a while, but there have been problems that have held up the design, and little priority on the need until now. I would like you to have a look at the designs with an eye to applying Griffonian engineering techniques, perhaps incorporated with Equestrian mana-powered engines.”

Techbird’s eyes lit up. “Ooh! That sounds like a challenge. How soon can I start?” she asked eagerly.

Twilight giggled. “Just as soon as I can get copies of the plans couriered over. I think you’ll have plenty to occupy your time meanwhile.”

The griffon looked a little disappointed, but she shrugged it off. “You’re right, I do. By the way, have you heard of the Puzzle?”

Twilight looked at her curiously. “Which puzzle?”

The Puzzle. The ultimate puzzling question.”

“No, but I think I’m going to enjoy finding out.”

“This is the class that I’m most proud of,” Path said quietly to Twilight as they stood in the doorway of the room filled with a mixture of pony foals and griffon chicks. A small griffon hen was patiently teaching them spelling and sentences. “We’re starting these foals education alongside their griffon peers, and it’s our goal to see them grow in full equality. They’re the future of ponykind in Griffonia, with the griffs growing up accepting ponies as a normal thing, and worthy of respect. Hopefully, slavery will eventually be nothing but a bad memory, and wars between us a thing of the past.”

Twilight was a little less optimistic. “History shows that it’s not that simple, Path.”

“I know. History also shows us that it’s our lack of understanding between species that starts some of those problems. This is my way of doing something about that. Education is just the beginning, but it’s the bedrock that is the foundation on which we will build.”

“I couldn’t agree more. I hope that you… no, we succeed.”

Path showed Twilight some of the other classes for the older students. The proportion of ponies to griffons dropped off sharply with age, but there was always at least one. “I’ve also started a mixed class teaching basic Equish which I am teaching. It’ll help a lot if the House members can all be at least bilingual. Fortunately the ponies haven’t forgotten all of their former language, so that gives them a head-start over the griffons.”

They moved onto another classes, and Twilight noticed something. “There seems to be more colts and fillies here than your description of Ravenwing’s herd indicated?”

“Surprisingly, we have a few ponies from other Houses. I never expected it, but some of the lords were interested in educating their slaves also. Of course they’re greatly in the minority, but it’s a start. I think they’re putting the onus on me to make this work, but I’m fine with that.”

“I’m proud of what you’re doing, no matter what the outcome.”

As they moved on, Path said, “There’s a favour that I want to ask of you if you have the time?”

“Sure! What is it?”

“When I was connected to the hive-mind back at the Green Hive, I acquired a great deal of knowledge as a consequence. However, I am having a lot of trouble sorting through it and organising it in a useful fashion. I need someone to aid me in this, and I think that you’re best suited to the task.”

“That sounds like it could be fascinating. I’d be happy to help you. Once I’m completely settled in and have had a chance to make a proper schedule, I will make a timeslot for us to work on that.”

“Thanks, Twilight. I’m so glad that you’re back with us. There’s also that deal that I’m trying to broker with the king and nobles that needs your support.”

“The mutual defence pact in particular, you mean?”

“That’s the one.”

“I gave it a lot of thought back when you first mentioned it. I’ll write up a speech to present to the court, but I’ll let you and Quiet Words review it first. I suspect that it’s going to be no easy task to persuade the nobles to ally themselves with Equestria.”

“Yeah. Getting past the warrior mentality is going to be your biggest problem.”

“Or perhaps the key to success? The more years I have had as a princess, the more that I’ve realised how things can be turned to one’s advantage. Celestia has mastered this in her centuries of experience, but she’s not in a position to do this at this time, but we are. I’ll make this work, I promise.”

“I’ll be happy enough that you tried, Twilight.”

Warfist was quite formal in his greeting of Twilight. “It is an honour to meet you in person at last, Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you, General. I would be interested in spending some time with you to do some research on Griffonian history.”

“I am at your command, Your Highness.”

“Please, Warfist, here in the House, I am just Lady Twilight.”

“As you wish, milady.”

“I also wish to discuss battle techniques with you. While I have a lot of power at my command, fighting is not my forte, and if the aims of this House are to be achieved, I must remedy that.”

“Is there anything specific that you have in mind?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. I have a presentation to make to the king and nobles of the court, and I expect that it won’t go without challenge. While I will also be looking for a broader education, this is the most immediate need.”

“If you would like to arrange a time for me to assess your abilities, we can work on that for you.”

“I’ll let you know when I have my schedule made. I’m really looking forward to this, General.”

“Wow! Can I get wings like those too?” Blue Streak asked as he stared at Twilight’s feathered appendages.

“Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way, my little pony,” Twilight replied. Before she could explain further, Blue Streak changed his attention to something else.

“What’s that pointy thing on your head?”

“That’s a unicorn horn.” She looked at Free and asked, “Hasn’t he seen a unicorn before?”

“He’s only ever seen earth ponies. Wings and horns are a complete novelty to him.”

“What’s it for?” Blue Streak asked.

“I can do strong magic with it, like this.” She telekinetically lifted the colt a couple of metres up into the air.

“Whoa! I don’t need wings!” he exclaimed with a giggle.

“And I can make magic shields,” Twilight said as she formed a bubble of energy around herself. She lowered Blue Streak onto the top of the bubble, and the colt tapped experimentally on it with a hoof.

“Looks strong,” he commented.

Twilight was intrigued to sense the colt’s own earth pony magic vibrate through her magic field. ‘Quite a strong talent in this one,’ she mused. She picked up the colt and put him back on the ground. “I hear that you’re very fast. Let’s do a short race, and I’ll show you another trick that I can do.”

“Sure! Where to?”

“Just to that oak tree over there. Ready? Go!”

Blue Streak was off like a flash. Twilight powered up her horn and teleported over to the tree. She was shocked to see though that Blue Streak was almost to the tree already. She had barely beaten him in the time it took to power up the teleportation spell!

“Wow! That’s a cool trick!” Blue Streak exclaimed, unfazed at losing. “Wanna rematch? I think I can beat you.”

Twilight gaped in awe at the colt. ‘Scratch that – make that an extremely strong talent!’ “I believe you. I think I’m going to need a longer race, my young friend,” she said with a laugh. “Let’s give you a test against my wings this time.” She pointed to a statue that on the far side of the castle’s grounds that she could barely see even with her farsight. “Do you know the statue over there?”

“You mean the one on Ravenwing’s dad’s grave? Sure!”

Twilight had no idea what it was, but it was the only one in that direction. “I want you to race me over to there. Don’t hold back.”

“Is this a test?”

“Kind of. I like to study talented ponies like you.”

He grinned. “You ain’t seen nothing like me!” he said proudly, but without arrogance. He was just stating an obvious fact.

“That’s what I’m hoping, Streak,” Twilight replied, matching his grin. “Ready?”

“Of course!”

Twilight spread her wings. “Go!”

Blue Streak kicked up clods of dirt as he raced off while Twilight pumped her wings to take off and put on speed. She was not anywhere near as fast as Rainbow Dash, but she had considerably improved her speed over the years since gaining her wings. Nevertheless she quickly realised that she was not going to be able to catch up with the colt. However, winning the race was not her goal. She powered up her horn to scan Streak and she was amazed at what she found.

His earth pony magic is reinforcing his running ability in ways that I’ve never seen before! Normally it gives them great strength or stamina, but this seems to be translating mostly into great speed for him. Sweet Celestia! He’s still accelerating!

Twilight was losing ground as Streak’s speed kept increasing. The gap might have gotten even greater faster if the colt had not reached the statue and skidded to a halt. Moments later, Twilight landed beside him, and she noted that he was barely breathing hard.

“Congratulations, Streak, you beat me easily. You are quite the remarkable pony. Would you mind if I test you again in the future?”

“You think I can do better?”

“If you can go this fast at this age, I’m wondering what your speed limit will be as you get older.”

“Will you race me again?” he asked eagerly.

Twilight laughed. “If you wish, but you’re already faster than anything except my teleportation. Maybe I can persuade my friend, Rainbow Dash, to race you someday. She’s the fastest pegasus I know.”

“What’s a pegasus?”

“Oh! That’s a pony with wings like me, but no horn. She’s the only pegasus to ever do a sonic rainboom.”

What’s that?”

“That’s when she goes so fast, she breaks through the sound barrier.”

“Wow! I’m going to be the second pony to do that one day,” Blue Streak declared confidently.

Twilight opened her mouth to tell him that was impossible, only to stop herself as doubts hit. If what she had just witnessed was any indication, the young colt might just prove her wrong someday. Instead she said, “Would you like to see what it’s like to travel instantly with teleportation?”

“Heck yeah!”

The colt’s indomitable enthusiasm was infectious. “Okay, but just a warning – first time can make you feel a little queasy.” She powered up the teleportation spell for the two of them and bamfed over to where Free was patiently waiting for them.

“Yeehaa! That was awesome!” Streak exclaimed.

“Glad you enjoyed it. Do you feel okay?”

“I’m fine, Twilight.”

“That’s all for today, Streak. I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Okay! Bye!” Streak left at his usual breakneck speed.

Free chuckled and said, “You’re going to regret showing him how you teleport.”

“Oh? Why?”

“Because one day, he’s going to figure out how to go faster than that!”

Twilight stared at Free for a long moment before replying. “Y’know, you might just be right.”

“… I therefore conclude that I believe that the proposed mutual defence pact between our great nations will bring peace, prosperity, and glory to us all. I await your decision.”

Twilight had to put the speech before the King’s Council as the most nerve-wracking of her career. The unrelenting and generally hostile reception that she had been given was not unexpected though, and she had been braced for it. There could have been nothing worse than trying to make a speech of this nature while showing any signs of nervousness.

There was a rumble of conversation as the nobles exchanged views for a couple of minutes before one of them stood up.

“I wish to question the Princess.”

The court page announced, “The court recognises Lord Ripping Talon!”

“Princess Sparkle, you come here promising us much with little but your words to back you up. You claim to have warrior status, but we know nothing of you beyond your words once again. How do you expect us to react to your proposal when we know next to nothing of you?”

Twilight considered his words and replied, “I have been a princess for only a few years, and yet in that time I have fought against many enemies, both by myself and with allies. I am not without experience, but I can understand that many of you would not have heard of any of this. What can I do to convince you that I have earned the title of warrior?”

“Prove it in combat – a duel to settle whether we will accept your status and consider your proposal.”

“I have seen your honour duels, and cannot accept such a challenge. You have no claim on me to demand one, and I have no wish to inflict such harm on you just because of a perceived insult to me.”

There came a lot of scoffing from the audience, and Ripping Talon smiled slyly.

“You think that you would be the one to inflict the harm? I think you’re boasting to cover up your fears. You are no warrior.”

Twilight sneered at him. “You think to either shame me or goad me into a duel? Now who is playing with words? However, I will offer a compromise. I will engage in a demonstration fight with you, and any other griff who seeks to test me. I will seek to disable you with a minimum of harm to prove my point.”

“And what of us? What would you have us achieve to prove us right? A scratch on the cheek? A broken feather?” Ripping Talon mocked.

Twilight shrugged. “Do what you will. Prove that you are more than a blustering fool.”

Ripping Talon scowled. “You will regret that, pony princess.” He turned to the other nobles and asked, “Who else wishes to put this upstart would-be warrior in her place?”

“I do,” one immediately replied, followed rapidly by three more.

Ripping Talon turned back to Twilight. “Five warriors – five chances to prove yourself, princess.”

Twilight shook her head. “I will waste no time fighting five duels. I will fight you all at once. I trust that will settle things once and for all?”

The griffon nobles looked startled by that, but then they laughed uproariously. Ripping Talon just smiled though. “You will pay for your overconfidence, pony.”

King Glimfeather rapped his sceptre to draw everyone’s attention. “It is decided! Princess Twilight Sparkle will duel Lord Ripping Talon and his supporters in a demonstration duel. This court will reconvene at the arena in half an hour. Page, advise the arena authorities to open the schedule and prepare for our arrival. Court dismissed!”

Twilight trotted over to where her companions were sitting in the audience section. “Well, what do you think?”

“Just the right amount of griffon noble arrogance in your challenge,” Rosepetal said approvingly.

“Thanks. It’s really not my style, but Warfist convinced me that it was best, and it seems to have worked.”

Path added, “We knew that they would probably challenge you eventually, so shaping it to our advantage was always going to be the best course.”

“Just be careful, Twi,” Free said worriedly. “I just got you back, and I don’t want anything to happen to you now.”

Twilight gave Free a kiss on the cheek. “Don’t worry too much – we’ve got this planned.”

The group quickly made their way to the arena. The king and his right-claw griff, Silverbeak, were already in the royal box, and the nobles settled into their areas. Free noted with interested that some were making wagers, and briefly considered getting into the action. The thought that Twilight would not approve though quelled that idea.

The master of ceremonies waved to Twilight to come into the arena, and she flew down to the centre and calmly stood there, waiting for all the warriors who had challenged her to take up positions around her. When the fifth and last settled to the ground, Twilight spoke up.

“I don’t wish to deprive the king of so many of his best warriors at one time, so I would remind you that as an alicorn, I possess more power than you realise.”

Ripping Talon smirked and replied, “More powerful boasting perhaps.”

Another griffon said, “Rank and species mean nothing in a fight. Prove that you’re a warrior!”

“Then none of you will withdraw?”

Twilight was greeted by stony silence.

“Very well. Let the contest begin.”

The griffons leaped to attack – some from the ground and some in the air. Twilight was ready for them though, and she immediately threw up a magical force bubble around herself as she had planned.

The warriors slowed to a halt.

“Hiding behind a shield? You are no warrior!” Ripping Talon mocked.

Twilight shook her head. “You forget – a shield can be a weapon too.”

In the blink of an eye, she expanded the shield, slamming three of the griffons into the arena wall, and the remaining two into the roof. She immediately retracted the shield to lower the unconscious griffons down to the ground before turning it off.

Twilight bowed to the king and then to the nobles. “I trust that this has been a sufficient demonstration and proof of my claim. I will await your decision on my proposal.” She bowed again to Glimfeather and then flew out of the field to join her friends.

King Glimfeather chuckled and said to Silverbeak, “Five warriors taken out in just seconds, and she was trying not to hurt them too much! These Equestrians continue to amuse me greatly.”

“Do you think that this will placate the more belligerent warriors?” the king’s right claw griff replied.

“Do you recall how not too long ago, my spies reported a fight between Princess Twilight Sparkle and a centaur named Tirek? This monster had stolen all the magic in Equestria, including the flight magic of my spies. A mountain was nearly levelled and a new lake fills a crater that was formed during their fight. If but one of my spies had reported this, I would have called him mad, but they all had similar stories, and the shattered mountain and the crater are there to be seen. Knowing all this, which would you advise – war with Equestria, or the princess’ proposed mutual defence pact?”

“I believe that is a rhetorical question, sire.”

“That’s why you’re second-in-command and not one of those idiots. See to it that the status reductions of these five are posted prominently.”

“At once, Your Majesty!” Silverbeak replied. He never did like Ripping Talon.

“Magic armour is hardly a new concept,” Twilight told Path.

“This isn’t going to be regular armour, Twilight. Since we signed that pact with Griffonia last month, I’ve been considering ways that we can uphold our part of the deal, and that means being ready to fight. Now I’m not a soldier, so that means taking advantage of my other talent, and what is that? Adapting unicorn magic to earth ponies! I’ve been consulting with Mom about this, and instead of trying to do it all internally, she reckons that it would be best to do it with some form of talisman or power object. There’s no reason why that talisman can’t be armour, and every reason why it would be a good idea to have my battle armour be that power object!”

Twilight nodded thoughtfully. “You make a good point. However, talismans have to be shaped to suit the spell or spells that they are required to augment. There’s a reason why magic wands aren’t more common – they’re just too limited in scope. What are your requirements?”

“Besides the thunderhoof and shield against magic attacks, Mom and I have been working on a few new spells. The biggest priority was a physical shield because I don’t ever want to go through something like that honour duel again without being able to defend myself somehow. Second, because the thunderhoof only works best if it’s a surprise, I needed another offensive technique. Mom reckons that would probably work best if I draw upon the power of the earth as is the earth pony nature, and use a conversion spell to turn it into a form of energy that can be projected. I think that would require a specialised device.”

“An artificial unicorn horn!” Twilight exclaimed. “We could incorporate it into the armour’s helmet, and the conversion talisman into your hoof gauntlets. You would be the instigator and controller of the spells, drawing mana from available sources, converting it, and projecting that energy via the horn. That’s a great idea! Hmm… I’m going to need Techbird’s help, I think. She’s better at the practical application while I’m better with the theory. Now let’s see… I’m going to have to take some readings and measurements of your mana flow, the revised unicorn spells, and the proposed armour materials.”

Twilight’s eyes focused on the unseen equations being written in her head, and Path knew that she was hooked. While his mother had been uncertain of the possibility of achieving his goal, he was confident that once Twilight set her mind to it, it could and would be done. He only hoped that it would never actually have to be used for its intended purpose.

Path was getting a little tired of all the tests that Twilight had been running on him, but he only had himself to blame. He had set her a complex task, and that required a lot of data. However, this time it gave him the opportunity to ask a semi-related question.

“Streak asked me today if it was possible for him to learn the thunderhoof technique, and I wanted your opinion.”

“On what? Whether you should teach him, or whether it was possible?”

“Er… both, I suppose, although I have already told him the basics.”

Twilight frowned in thought. “Hmmm… I’m not sure if teaching that to such a young colt is a good idea, but on the other hoof, I was already learning some dangerous spells at his age. If you think he’s ready, I won’t object, just as long as you also teach him to be responsible with it also. Not that I think that he wouldn’t, but you can’t be too careful with something like that. However, the point may be moot.”

“Huh? Why?” Path asked with a puzzled frown.

“Because of the way he uses mana. He has a very specialised and powerful talent for magically enhancing his speed, but that same talent would likely interfere with other spells. He could in fact be a one-trick pony – an extremely good trick, but limiting him in other ways.”

“He’s going to be disappointed to hear that.”

“I know, but he already can do things that other ponies can’t, so I believe he should be satisfied with that.”

“Me too. He’s young, and he’ll get over it.”

“There’s something that I wanted to ask you too.”

“What’s that?”

“Techbird and I have been making a lot of progress with the new airship design, but we’re running into one major stumbling block – it’s too heavy.”

“What about using aluminium?”

“Hard to produce, very expensive, and not suited to some of the applications.”

“Then what did you want to ask me?”

“I was wondering if in that reservoir of knowledge that you brought from the Green Hive, whether they know of any suitable lightweight materials that could replace some of the heavier ones that we’re currently using?”

“That’s an interesting possibility. Let’s have a session after you’ve done with these tests.”

The regular data-sorting sessions that Path had scheduled over the weeks since coming back to Griffonia, had largely consisted of her using magical hypnosis techniques to allow Path to focus his concentration on a particular area of the vast cloud of information that he had unwittingly brought out with him from the hive-mind. He was then able to relate that information to Twilight in a coherent and complete manner, and she preserved it in a more accessible way. They had begun to build a small library of reference materials, and yet they had barely scratched the surface of what he subconsciously knew.

This time was slightly different though, in that they were looking for specific information rather than working their way through the mass of knowledge. In a surprisingly short time, they had their answer.

“Of course!” Twilight exclaimed, slapping herself in the face with her hoof. “The answer was staring me in the face all the time!”

“To be fair, it’s been years since you’ve seen it put to use out in the field,” Path tried to mollify her.

“It’s kind of hard to forget how Celestia was encased in that chrysalis. However, the resin that they exude fits the bill perfectly! It’s light, strong, and even flexible up to a point in different types. With that, we can not only meet the weight restrictions, but beat them by a comfortable margin.”

“That’s if we can persuade the changelings to produce a lot of it to meet our needs,” Path pointed out.

“Seeing as I’ll have to go back to Equestria in a few weeks to attend to duties anyway, I’ll take the opportunity to pay a visit to Queen Dianthia and discuss this with her. If she’s not willing, then perhaps one of the other hives might be.”

“It’s certainly worth pursuing. Maybe you can ask it as a favour for Iridia failing to warn you not to eat the emo-gel?”

Twilight shuddered. “I hope it doesn’t come to that. I’d much rather forget all about that incident, thank you!”

“Yeah, I suppose you would. Still, if any hive would be amenable to cooperation with this, I’d say they would. Anyway, aside from all that, I bet you’re happy that you’ll be getting to see your friends again.”

“Oh yes! And my goddaughters too. I used to see them a lot more often before this all started happening.” She paused and chuckled.

“What’s so funny?”

“I just realised something about my goddaughters. Think about it – Free is my special somepony, and he’s the child of Chrysalis. So is Whirring Cogs, or at least a grandchild, and that makes Dandelion and Fern her great-grandchildren. We’re practically related!”

Path grinned. “You’re not becoming envious of Cogs’ foals, are you?”

Twilight gave him a mock glare. “I’m in no hurry to become a mother, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“Why not? Rose has certainly been hinting broadly enough about it lately. I thought you might feel the same.”

“She has? Why hasn’t she asked me for a compatibility spell then?”

Path laughed. “She picked up one while we were in Canterlot.” At Twilight’s startled expression, he said, “Don’t look so surprised; Roseclaw has always known what she has wanted, and has prepared appropriately. There are only two things stopping it from happening – first: she has to go into heat, and second: I have to be willing to become a father.”

“I gather that it’s the latter that’s the real hold-up?”

“Yeah, but she’s been wearing me down. Wanna know what has really been making me think seriously about being a dad? Blue Streak. That colt is a joy to have around, and if he was my son, I’d be enormously proud of him. Heck, I am anyway! I’d love to be able to point him out to ponies though and say, ‘That’s my son’.”

“We all like having him around. He’s always attentive and full of life and laughter. We’re so lucky that we found him before slavery could oppress him.” She paused thoughtfully. “You know, we could always adopt him into the House?”

Path was startled. “We can do that?”

“Why not? He hasn’t got any family other than his aunt who cares for him, and nowadays he spends most of the day with one of us anyway, and even comes to dinner a lot of the time. His aunt is a good and responsible pony, but not really a mother to him. We are already providing more of a family to him than he’s known since the death of his parents. If we adopt him into the House, we can provide even more for him.”

“I think… I like that idea. I’ll ask Rose about it later and hear what she has to say.”

“I’ll mention it to Free also. If we’re going to do this, it should be a unanimous decision. Of course, as Lord of House Path, you could make it a unilateral decision.”

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s just a title. All four of us are the House, or the herd in this case. We all agree on these big decisions, or else they won’t pass.”

“I think that’s wise, but frankly I doubt that you have anything to worry about.”

“Thanks, Twilight. Funny, this started off as a discussion about Streak, and now it’s come back to him again. Maybe I had him more on my mind than I realised?”

“Maybe not that surprising? Did you consider that he might be seeing you as a father-figure, and subconsciously pushing that idea onto you?”

Path gave her a lopsided grin. “Maybe that’s a good thing? If we both have the same idea, I think we might just make it work.”

A few weeks later, Path stepped into Roseclaw’s office. “Have you got a few minutes to spare, Rose?”

Roseclaw looked up from the reading material that she had been preparing for her students and replied, “I’d be glad for a break, actually. What’s up?”

“Twilight and I have been studying Streak’s ability. She’s determined that he mostly draws on his magic talent subconsciously, and she believes that if we can get him to draw on it on a more conscious level, he’ll be able to go even faster still. However, we need more data.”

“So where do I come in? He’s already faster than me in a flat race.”

“In a flat race, yes, but we need him to perform far more than just straightforward racing with minor dodging around obstacles. What we want him to do is every possible twist and turn at speed.”

“An obstacle course then?”

“More than that. With a set course, he can plan ahead. We want him to make instant decisions on the run. So what we’d like you to do is play a game of tag with him. You will go through the course while doing your very best to evade him. Make him work his hardest to try to catch you. Maybe we’ll reverse it and have you chase him. Twilight will have some magic monitors on him to track his mana usage and so forth.”

“Sounds exhausting!”

Path put his foreleg around her and gave her a smooch. “You’ve been sitting at a desk too much lately, love. A bit of exercise will do you good.”

Roseclaw prodded him in the side with a talon and replied, “Look who’s talking. I believe you’re putting on weight. At least I have an excuse for that.”

“All the more reason for you to get a bit of exercise,” Path retorted.

Roseclaw grinned. “Let’s do this then.”

Blue Streak recited the essay that he had written in Equish, while Path listened with a critical ear.

“That’s enough for today, Streak. You’re making good progress with your lessons.”

“Thank you, Lord Path.”

While Blue Streak was an otherwise unexceptional student, he had become determined to be able to speak and read the Equestrian language, and had requested extra lessons. Path had been only too happy to oblige, and he had scheduled tutoring lessons in his den in the afternoons just before dinner. While it was clear that the colt was not ever going to be a linguist, given his poor education before House Path had started teaching the former slaves, his progress had been very satisfactory.

“I’m going to have you practice what you learned at dinner tonight. I want you to speak only Equish if possible. Don’t stress too much over this – it’s only for practice, not a test.”


“Good. Let’s go eat.”

They were running a few minutes later than usual, which meant that Free, Twilight, and Roseclaw were all in the dining room already before they arrived. Streak greeted them in Equish, and continued to do his best during dinner conversation. Path let him off the hook though as dessert was brought in – a large cake with candles on it – which was placed in front of the colt.

Path smiled at Blue Streak and said, “I found out from your aunt that today you turn eleven years of age. Happy birthday, Streak!”

The others chorused ‘Happy birthday!’ and the colt started grinning from ear to ear.

“Gee, thanks! I’ve never had a birthday cake like this before!”

“Blow out the candles and make a wish,” Twilight urged him.

Streak did so, and Path gave him a knife to cut slices for everyone. As he did so, they started taking out presents from concealment, which they’d had the opportunity to do because Path had deliberately let Streak’s lessons run late. Roseclaw presented hers first.

Streak eagerly opened the box and pulled out a set of shoes with cleats.

“When we were testing you the other day, we noticed a problem that these might help you with,” she said. “They should stop the traction problems that you’ve been having at your super speeds. I asked Techbird to create some special shoes in your size out of lightweight metal, and Twilight enhanced them with spells to make them automatically adjust to different surfaces. I think that you’ll be able to run faster than ever, don’t you?”

“Oh, wow! These are great! Thanks, Lady Roseclaw! You too, Lady Twilight!”

“Don’t forget to thank Techbird later also,” Roseclaw reminded him.

“Don’t worry – I will!”

Free gave him his present next.

“A caste cape?” Streak gaped in awe. “Only important griffs get to wear these.”

“Important ponies can too, and we think you’re very important,” Free replied. “Besides, you might want it when Path gives you his present.”

Streak looked to Path with puzzlement. “Why?”

Path smiled. “I think you’ll figure that out for yourself. My present is a bit different though, and it’s only mine to give because I’m the Lord of House Path, but it’s really from all of us. Streak, we have all grown very fond of you, and I believe that you enjoy spending time with us also. We’ve talked this over between ourselves, and with your aunt too, and we think that this would also be to your greater benefit. You still have the choice to accept it or reject it though. Blue Streak, we wish to formally adopt you into the House of Path. We want to be your new family. I know that we can’t replace your real parents whom you lost so long ago, but we…”

Path got no further because Streak threw himself into a hug with the stallion. “Yes! I want to be your son, Lord Path!” The colt was starting to cry with the strength of his emotions at that moment.

“Phew! What a rush!” Free said as he was a hit with a wave of emotional energy. “Told you he was going to need the cape!”

“Whoa!” Path said with a laugh. “I need those ribs, Streak. And drop the ‘Lord’ now. Since you obviously accept our present, you are now officially family, and you get to call me just Path from now on.”

“Can I call you ‘Dad’ instead?”

Path felt a little choked up at Streak’s ready acceptance of his new status. “I would be proud to be called your father, Streak.”

“And you can call me Mama Sparkle, if you like?” Twilight suggested.

Streak disengaged with Path to give Twilight a hug too. “Thanks, Mama,” he said with a teary smile.

Roseclaw said, “I hope you like being part of the family, because you’re going to be a big brother in a few months.”

“You’re having a foal?” Streak asked.

“A chick, yes. Or maybe a foal after all? How does that work between a griffon and a pony?” she asked nobody in particular. She shrugged. “Anyway, do you think you’ll like that?”

“I’ll be the best big brother; you’ll see!”

“How about us, champ?” Free asked. “We’re still going to be best buddies, right?”

“Yeah! Of course!”

“Then I’m going to let you in on a family secret.” Free looked around to check that none of the staff was present. “Don’t tell anypony or anygriff, I’m kind of special because I’m only part griffon,” he said in a conspiratorial tone.

“Are you part pony too?”

“A little, but I’m a lot of one other species. Watch!” With a flare of green magic fire, Free transformed into his least favourite form – his natural one.

Streak gaped in surprise for a long moment before asking, “What are you?”

“I’m what is called a changeling. I was brought up as a griffon though, but I can take other forms.” Free changed into a pegasus. “Hi, I’m Firetail,” he said with his usual cheeky grin.

“Whoa! That’s so cool! Can I do that too?”

Free laughed. “No, I’m afraid not. You need to be born this way.”

“Aw!” Streak’s disappointment lasted only a few seconds though. “I have an awesome new family though. Thanks, everyone. This is the best day of my life!”

Free untied his caste cape and hooked it up on the coat rack.

“Phew! A bit warm for capes today,” he commented to Proper Place.

“Then why wear one? Does it really matter that much to you to show off your caste membership and rank?”

“Of course it does! At least in griffon society.”

“I’ve noticed that only the upper echelon bother with the things. Are you sure that there isn’t another reason that you wear it?”

Free grinned. “Heck, yeah! It makes me look cool!”

Proper Place just arched a sceptical eyebrow.

Free rolled his eyes. “Okay, okay! It’s also because I get tired of griffs bugging me about my cutie mark.”

“Why don’t you just conceal it when you go out?”

“You think I wouldn’t if I could? No matter what form I take, it’s always there!”

Proper Place looked surprised. “You’re saying that not even illusion can hide it?”

“Say what?” Free said in perplexed tone. “Am I supposed to go out and get a cutie mark concealment spell, or something?”

“No – just use your illusion power.”

Free stared at him blankly. “What power?”

“Surely you can’t be serious?”

“I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”

The quip threw the green changeling for a moment, but he decided to ignore it and pursue the important part. “I know that you were raised as a griffon and only learned that you were a changeling many years later, but surel… but you must have learned about illusions at the same time as shape-changing?”

Free shook his head. “Learning that I’m a changeling was a shock, and frankly I didn’t want to have anything to do with it beyond learning the bare minimum.”

“Wow. I’m truly amazed. Illusion is how we can make ourselves look like something that we can’t physically transform into. For example, we’re limited by our mass, so we can compress our bodies no smaller than about a six year old foal, but more importantly we also have a limit to how big we can get. I would have a hard time trying to imitate Princess Celestia for example, and yet I can do this….”

With a flare of magic fire, Proper Place suddenly grew enormously to practically fill the room, forcing Free to step back away from the gigantic pegasus changeling.

“Whoa! Don’t tread on me!” Free said half-seriously.

“I couldn’t if I wanted to. This size is all illusion. Like I said, there’s a hard limit on just how big our physical transformations can be.” He shrank down to normal size again. “However, that’s hardly the only use for illusions. For example….” He gestured to his flank, and his cutie mark changed to one consisting of four books marked A, B, C, and D stacked in alphabetical order. “That was going to be my alternative mark. I didn’t transform to show you it though – it’s an illusion on top of my current one. In the same way, you could make your cutie mark disappear and you’d be a blank flank again.”

“Tell me how to do it!” Free demanded.

Twilight idly traced the pattern of Free’s cutie mark as they rested after making love. “Y’know, there’s probably a lot more to your cutie mark than we originally thought,” she commented.

“How so?” Free replied with mild curiosity.

“Well, we thought that you got it because of your lust-filled craze, but now that we know that you’re a queen changeling, it could be more indicative of your inherent urge to breed for the hive, brought forth by your overexposure to the Crystal Heart.”

Free shuddered. “Don’t remind me. I don’t see my destiny as an egg-laying factory for changelings.”

“I thought you had come to terms with what you are by now?”

“I accept what I am, but it doesn’t mean that it’s who I am. I’m still Free Agent, son of a griffon, and the bastard lucky enough to have won the heart of an alicorn princess.”

Twilight giggled. “Yes, that sums you up well. And yet, it still leaves so many questions unanswered. You’re still the first changeling that we know of to get a cutie mark. We’re pretty sure still that it’s because you were in pony form at the time, but you’re hardly the first queen to have taken a pony form.”

“But am I the first to do so near the Crystal Heart?”

“Since the Crystal Empire returned? Almost certainly. Before it disappeared?” Twilight shrugged. “We have no way of knowing for sure.”

“It wouldn’t have anything to do with me being a mutant, could it?”

“It’s certainly a possibility that we can’t eliminate at this time.”

“Well I’d say it’s a strong possibility. After all, how many non-equines have ever gotten a cutie mark? Zero, I believe, and I am half changeling, half griffon, and no pony.”

“That’s not entirely accurate,” Twilight demurred.

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“From what Dianthia told us about queens breeding heirs, it’s likely to the point of certainty that Chrysalis’ mother conceived her daughter the same way, and the sire was extremely likely to have been a pony. In other words, your grandfather was a pony.”

Free chuckled. “Heh! How about that? I wonder what type? Maybe a pegasus? It’s my favourite pony form, and that might be the reason – just like Iridia takes after her sire.”

“Unless you ever get to ask Chrysalis, and providing she herself knows, you might never know for sure.”

“Eh – it’s not as if it matters. I’m always what I want to be anyway.”

Twilight giggled. “Yeah – a griffon with a cutie mark!”

“Oh, shut up. I’m used to it by now.”

“Is that why you still wear that caste cape of yours all the time?” Twilight asked with a sly grin.

“Like I told Proper Place, it’s not the cutie mark that bothers me – it’s all the griffons who won’t stop gawking at it and bugging me about it! Besides, I can dispense with the cape now anyway.”

“Why is that?”

“Watch the cutie mark.”

Before Twilight’s gaze, the indelible mark faded from view to leave unblemished fur.

Twilight looked at Free in consternation. “You got rid of your cutie mark? How?”

Free smirked. “No, I didn’t get rid of it. Proper Place educated me on the use of illusion in shape-changing. Basically you’re looking at an illusion of what my fur would look like without the cutie mark.”

“Oh! That makes sense. Why didn’t you ever do that before?”

“Like I said, Proper had to teach me. I must be the most uneducated changeling in the world! I’ve learned so much about myself in just a few months. It makes me regret a little that I turned my back on it when I was younger.”

“Weren’t you curious back then?”

“No, I was disgusted to realise that I was a freak, and not even a real griffon. If it wasn’t for my loving parents, and for Path especially, I don’t know how I would have coped. Of course now I know that I really am part griffon, and that’s been a major source of comfort to me, and it’s helped me cope with learning more about my nature.”

“But not enough to want to pursue it further?”

“Twi – I might have been born a changeling, but I don’t see it as my destiny. You, Path, this House - those are parts of my destiny, not a hive.”

Twilight snuggled up to him. “I like that. It’s something that you’re making for yourself rather than having it hoofed to you.”

“Hey – you earned your wings, and so can I! Metaphorically speaking, of course,” he added with a grin.

“Want to earn some more?” Twilight asked while nibbling on his neck.

“Again? We have to get up early for the flight back to Equestria tomorrow.”

“We can make up for the sleep on the trip. Right now, your princess wants some more loving.”

“By your command, Your Highness,” he replied with a tender smile.

The long flight back to Equestria was a bit of a vacation for both Free and Twilight. Both had thrown themselves into their new roles as teachers and role models for the new House school, and they welcomed a break. Or at least Free did.

“Twi, for Celestia’s sake, stop preparing lessons for when you get back, and relax a bit!”

Twilight pushed back from the desk a little sheepishly. “Sorry, it’s a habit that’s hard to break.”

Free put a wing around her and gave her a hug. “I know, and you wouldn’t be you if you stopped completely, but even over-achieving alicorns need to relax now and then. I was thinking of taking Streak for a flight. Wanna come along?”

“That sounds like fun, and I could do with some fresh air.” She closed her reference books and neatly stacked them and her notes to one side. “Okay, I’m ready. Where do you think Streak is at the moment?”

“Probably the same place he’s been since we left Griffonia.”

“The bridge?”

“Yep. He’s fascinated by how the airship is run.”

“It’s a good thing that Captain Fairweather is tolerant of having a foal on the bridge,” Twilight said as they started heading that way.

“Probably because he keeps his hooves off everything and pays attention to what he’s told. I think he doesn’t want to make us regret bringing him along with us to Equestria.”

“There’s no real risk of that; it’ll be good for his education,” Twilight replied.

“It’ll be fun,” Free retorted.

“Education is fun!”

“Am I going to have to do an intervention, Sparkles?”

Twilight merely giggled and poked her tongue out at him.

They found Streak on the bridge as expected, listening intently to Captain Fairweather’s explanation of the function and use of one of the instruments. They waited until she was finished before interrupting.

“Hey, Streak – wanna go out for a flight?”

“Sure, Free! Thanks, Captain,” the colt replied as he joined the two.

They went to the observation deck where Free surreptitiously increased his size. “Climb aboard,” he instructed as he knelt down.

Streak scrambled onto Free’s back, settling himself between the griffon’s wings.


“Let’s go then!” Free leaped over the railing, closely followed by Twilight. While they had done this before back in Griffonia, they always played it safe and had Twilight ready to catch the colt in case of emergencies.

Streak squealed in delight as Free power-dived, and then pulled up sharply into a high-gee climb. After some low-risk aerobatics, he then beat strongly for a nearby cloudbank, coming to a landing on a puffy cumulus facing the dirigible.

“How do you like the view, Streak?”

“It’s great! Can we get a closer look at the airship from above? I haven’t seen that yet.”

“Sure, we can do that.”

Streak reached out with a forehoof to a puff of cloud within his reach, only to have it whirl away insubstantially. “How do you stand on the clouds?”

“It’s part of our flight magic. All griffons and pegasi can do it,” Free replied.

“And alicorns,” Streak pointed out.

Twilight said, “Alicorns have the abilities of all the pony types, so it’s the pegasus in me that has the ability.”

“I wish that I could do that too, but I’m only an earth pony.”

“I can’t run half as fast as you despite being an alicorn,” Twilight pointed out.

Streak’s smile brightened. “Yeah, because nopony is faster than me!”

“Ooh, you’re going to love meeting Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said with a knowing smile.

“Let’s give you that look at the Skylark,” Free said, spreading his wings and taking off in pursuit of the airship.

“Yeah!” Streak yelled in excitement.

Half an hour later, they finished their flight and Streak trotted off to tell Fairweather all about it.

Free watched him go with a grin on his face. “That was fun. Adopting Streak into the herd was a great idea. One day, we’re going to have a foal just like him.”

Twilight smiled slyly. “Seems I’ve already got two on my hooves. I’m in no hurry for another.”

“Hey! Is that a crack at me? Oh, it is on, Princess!” He mock-growled while reaching out with his talons.

With a shriek of laughter, Twilight turned and made her escape.

Free grinned and gave chase. Someone was in for a severe tickling!

Streak watched in wide-eyed wonder as they closed in on Canterlot. He was sitting in the captain’s chair as the mare gave a steady stream of orders to manoeuvre the dirigible around the castle and down to the landing field outside the city. Eventually there was a gentle bump as the airship touched down.

“All hooves – secure stations!” Fairweather ordered before turning to the colt. “End of the journey, my young pilot,” she said with a smile.

Streak saluted her and said, “Thank you, Captain!”

“Better get going. Musn’t keep the princess waiting.”

“Yes, ma’am! Seeya!”

Streak dashed off at his usual breakneck speed as the mare watched him fondly.

“Feeling a bit maternal, Captain?” a crewmare asked.

“Perhaps, and mind your own business, Lieutenant,” she replied curtly, but the smile never left her face. ‘Perhaps it’s time that Quiet Words and I take our relationship to the next level?

Twilight and Free were waiting for Streak at the passageway to the boarding ramp. They exited together and started off for the castle. The colt’s head kept swivelling around while trying to take in all the new sights.

“So many ponies!” he said in awe. “Why are there so many with horns?”

“Canterlot was established mainly by unicorns, and it remains a city dominated by unicorn families,” Twilight explained. “I grew up here before I moved to Ponyville, and before I became an alicorn. Of course, you’ll find other types of ponies here, as well as a few griffons.”

“Cool!” He then barraged them with questions about just about everything he saw along the route.

At the castle gate, the Royal Guards saluted and one stepped up to say, “Welcome back, Princess Sparkle.”

“Thank you.” Twilight beckoned Streak forward. “Sergeant, this is Blue Streak whom we have adopted into our herd. He is authorised to be anywhere in the castle with the normal exceptions. Please inform the Captain of the Guard to pass the word around.”

“It shall be done, Your Highness.”

They then proceeded inside, and Streak resumed his questions.

“Where are we going now?”

“We’re going to the throne room. Princess Celestia is expecting us.”

“That’s the princess in charge, right? What about the other one?”

“Princess Luna is probably asleep right now. You’ll get to meet her later.”

When they reached the throne room doors, Twilight asked Streak to put a hold on his questions for the moment. The Royal Guards at the door nodded respectfully and allowed them inside. They marched up the thick red carpet that led to the throne room, and Streak’s mouth dropped open in awe.

“That’s the biggest pony I’ve ever seen in my life!” he said without taking his eyes off the majestic alicorn sitting on her throne.

Celestia smiled. “Hello there, my little pony. You must be Blue Streak. Twilight has told me much about you,” she said in Griffish.

“I… I…” For once, the colt was lost for words.

Twilight nudged him and said in a loud whisper, “Just say hello.”

“Hello, Princess!” he squeaked out.

“Welcome, Blue Streak. Those are very interesting shoes that you’re wearing. I can feel the magic in them.”

Streak snapped out of his awestruck mood and proudly held one up for the alicorn to better see. “They’re my birthday present. They help me run faster. Wanna see?”

“Oh yes, but not right this moment. I don’t think my throne room is a very good running track.”

“Oh. Right.”

Celestia turned her attention to the others. “Welcome back, Twilight, and to you too, Free Agent. I trust that you had a pleasant journey?”

“It was quite enjoyable,” Twilight replied.

“Yeah,” Free said, “but I’m looking forward to having some fun back in the old home town. Had any good parties lately, Celestia?”

The princess allowed herself a small smirk. “A few, but they weren’t as much fun without a certain griffon there to stir them up a bit.”

“Naturally! I think we owe you a day out. Luna has had her turn, so what do you want to do?”

Celestia looked surprised. “I don’t know if that’s a practical idea. There’s so much on my schedule right now.”

“Luna made time,” Free pointed out.

“My sister has less on her schedule.”

“Your sister knows how to open her schedule.”

“I find it difficult to go out with everypony worrying about what I want and making me uncomfortable by going out of their way to please me.”

“Luna went to dinner with us as she is, and then dressed up as a leathermare.”

“I’m not dressing as a leathermare!”

“Why not? You might enjoy it!”

“I’m thinking more like a long, slinky evening gown.”

Free blinked in surprise, and then a huge grin split his face. “You’re on, Princess!”

Celestia shook her head. “No, not Princess. You’ll be taking Sunny Skies out on the town.”


Twilight smiled knowingly. “Don’t worry about it, Free. Will tonight be okay, Celestia?”

“That would be best. We have a busy couple of days ahead of us tomorrow.”

“We were planning to leave for a night out on the town about six o’clock. You will have set the sun by then.”

“I’ll be ready at the usual place,” Celestia replied.

“We’ll be looking forward to it. Come on, Free.”

Twilight started heading out of the throne room, with Free and Streak following suit.

Free said, “Celestia is very good at containing her emotions, but I get the feeling that I have manoeuvred myself into doing exactly what she wanted.”

“Celestia has had centuries of experience with that sort of thing. Did you think that you would so easily get her to do what you wanted?”

“Fair point, but what did she mean by taking Sunny Skies? A pseudonym isn’t going to make her any less conspicuous.”

“You’ll see,” Twilight replied enigmatically.

“What about me?” Streak asked.

“You get to go to a play that I hear is popular with foals at the moment. After that, you go to bed. You’re only eleven years old still.”

“Aw! But it’s my first night in Canterlot!”

“There will be several more before we return to Griffonia. Free will be spending a lot of time with you over the next few days while I take care of my princess duties. You won’t miss out on anything.”

Streak gave a dramatic sigh. “Okay.” Then he smiled slyly. “Who’s going to understand me? Who’s going to tuck me in later?”

Free grinned. “Guess what, champ? My mother is going to foalsit you. Not only does she speak Griffish, but she sure knows how to make cheeky foals behave.”

Streak’s face fell. “Oh.”

Free and Twilight chuckled at the colt’s dismay at being outmanoeuvred.

“Are you ready yet, Twi?” Free called out to the bedroom.

“All set,” Twilight said, stepping out and stopping to pose. She was wearing an attractive evening dress that covered over her wings, and she had her hair done up in a different style from her normal bangs.

“Wow! If I had lips, I would wolf whistle right now, but you’ll have to settle for a hubba-hubba!”

“Speaking of lips, could you change into your unicorn form, please? Oh, and make your size a little bit bigger than me.”

“Uh… sure.” He did so. “How’s that?”

“Good. Oh, wait. Could you use illusion to change your cutie mark?”

“Sounds like we’re going incognito. Okay, I often used to use this cutie mark when I posed as a pony before we met.” Free concentrated, and an image of a bass clef covered over Free’s real mark. “As a musician, it was obvious what it was meant to represent.”

“That works fine. Now, I had a formal jacket sent here for you. Have you seen it?”

“Oh, that’s why it was too big for me before I transformed – you planned for me to increase my size. I’ll go put it on.” He did so, and then asked, “How do I look?”

“Like a million bits, dear. Now let’s go or we’ll be tardy.”

“Hey, I’m not the one who was primping for an hour.”

“We’re exactly on my schedule, as long as we leave right now,” she urged.

Free decided that now was not the time to tease her with a bit of procrastination. He was still curious about what Celestia was going to do, although considering what Twilight had done and his present alter ego, he suspected something in the same vein.

“Where are we headed, Twi?”

“Stick to calling me Sparkles tonight, Firetail. We’re heading for the rose garden.”

“Ooh! Secret moonlight rendezvous in the palace garden – I like this already!”

Twilight shared a smile with him. “Celestia used to do this occasionally when she wanted to get away from the court for a while. Sunny Skies is her secret alter ego. She shared that secret with me one day after I had become a princess, and was having a bit of difficulty dealing with the constant demands of the office. We've had a mare’s night out more than once since then, and they've really helped us both. The rose garden was our normal rendezvous point. It’s in line of sight of Celestia’s balcony, so she can tell if anypony is there before teleporting down so that she can elude her Royal Guard for the night.”

Free chuckled. “There’s something really amusing about the idea of a princess sneaking out of her room like a naughty teenage filly.”

“That only made it more fun.”

When they reached the rose garden, they found a white unicorn with pink mane and tail there. While she was much larger than an average unicorn, she certainly was not as large as Celestia, and the sleek and slinky red evening gown that she was wearing certainly did not conceal wings like Twilight’s did. Free’s doubts as to who she was were quickly allayed though when Twilight greeted her.

“Hi, Sunny! You remember my coltfriend, Firetail, I hope?”

“I do,” the unicorn replied in Celestia’s distinct voice. “You’re looking particularly fine tonight, Firetail.”

Free stared at Sunny for a moment before saying, “Okay, you’re no changeling, so how did you do it?”

Celestia laughed. “By suppressing my magic, my mane loses its ethereal flow and reverts to its natural colour, and my size reduces to this. I also cast an invisibility spell on my wings. Goodbye alicorn, and hello unicorn.”

“So now it will be just three fairly ordinary unicorns going out together,” Twilight said smugly.

Free grinned. “A stallion out on the town with his marefriends – I’m going to enjoy this! Where to, ladies?”

“Luna highly recommended the theatre restaurant that you patronised, so I would like to try that also,” Celestia/Sunny replied.

“Aw! If I had known that we’d be doing this, I would have worked up an act,” Free/Firetail lamented.

“Which is probably why you weren’t told in advance,” Twilight/Sparkles replied.


Without the hassle of the recognition that had caused Luna some trouble, the threesome had no trouble being seated and served in the venue’s normal competent and pleasing manner.

During the meal, Sunny surprised the others by getting the attention of a waiter, and asking to be given the opportunity to sing for her supper. Sparkles gaped in astonishment.

“You’re really going to sing? How long have you planning to do that?”

“Since my sister told me how much fun that she had doing it. I figure that it was worth trying for myself.”

Firetail said, “I suppose you’re going to tell us that you even have a record in your purse, rather than using one of the theatre’s stock ones?”

“Of course,” she replied smugly. “You don’t get to my age and not know how to plan ahead.”

It wasn’t until some time after they’d had their desserts that Sunny was called up to the stage. She gave the stage hand the record with the music she wanted to sing to, and then stepped up to the microphone. Centuries of experience gave her stage presence, and she quickly gained the audience’s attention.

“Good evening, mares and stallions. My name is Sunny Skies, and I would like to invoke a bygone era of smoky nightclubs and torch singers. I hope you like smooth jazz.”

She nodded to the stage hand, and he started the record. A mellow trumpet began and Sunny closed her eyes and started swaying softly to the beat. Then she began to sing:

“I love the chase, 'til the minute I win it
A beautiful face 'til there's love for me in it
Give me your heart and baby I'll bill it
I love the chase, 'til the minute I win it
A beautiful face 'til there's love for me in it
Give me your heart and baby I'll bill it
'cause I always kill the things I love.”

Firetail’s jaw had dropped in surprise, matched by an equally surprised Sparkles.

“Some folk would die for the sake of another
Lay down their life for their sisters and brothers
For me sacrifice is something quite other
'cause I love to kill the things I love.”

“The look in your eyes will turn to surprise
As you feel the pain and you realize
The one hurting you is somebody who
Once said "I love you".

“Somebody we'll pay back all we've borrowed
What we loved today we'll lose tomorrow
But I won't need to wait for my share of sorrow
Because I always kill the things I love.”

“But I won't need to wait for my share of sorrow
Because I already killed the things I love.”

(I Always Kill) The Things I Love – LA Noire [original soundtrack]

The music faded out, and Sunny bowed. The audience broke into strong applause, and Sunny thanked them before making her way off the stage and back to her table.

“Well, what did you think?” she asked her dinner companions.

“That song… it’s just not you at all, but you did it so well!” exclaimed Sparkles.

Sunny grinned. “That was the whole point. I’m totally letting myself go for tonight. Tomorrow I’ll be the same proper and restrained person that I normally am, but just for this evening, I get to be a sexy and slightly wicked mare.”

Firetail said, “Sparkles, it’s lucky that I fell in love with you already, because otherwise Sunny might have just stolen my heart!”

“I think you have a big enough herd already,” Sunny replied with a smile.

“Don’t tempt him!” Sparkles warned, half-seriously. “Stranger things have happened.”

“Duly noted. So, who’s up for some ballroom dancing?”

Despite the late night, Twilight and Free rose early in order to have breakfast and get to the station in time to meet the train from the Crystal Empire. Princess Cadance was coming to join the rest of the princesses for top level talks with representatives from neighbouring countries.

Among the issues being discussed were the increasing public interactions of changelings with the local populations. While Equestria had been making big strides in that matter, other nations were only just coming to terms with the fact that there were likely many changelings living and working among them, and they needed to formulate policies on dealing with that if it became an issue. As Equestria’s foremost authority on changeling-pony relationships, Twilight’s presence had been required, hence her return from Griffonia. Queen Dianthia also made an appearance at the talks, arriving disguised as pegasus.

However, while that was the highest priority reason, it wasn’t the only one, nor necessarily the most important. Less urgent issues were examined and discussed, decisions made, and bureaucratic details dealt with. It did highlight Twilight’s need to commute more often to cope with her obligations in a more timely manner, so when she finally had time free after a few days of hectic work, she paid a visit to the Royal Engineering Service so that she could present the plans that she and Techbird had been working on for several weeks. She brought along with her a sample of the resinous materials that Dianthia had her drones supply. There was a lot of excitement among the engineers as they realised that many of the technical problems that had been holding up the construction of the new airship design had been solved with a combination of griffon technology, changeling materials, and advanced magical systems designed by Twilight. That evening, Free and Streak had to virtually drag the alicorn away for dinner.

During the days that Twilight had been busy, Free was enjoying seeing family and friends again, and introducing them to Blue Streak. He took the colt on a tour of Canterlot, mindful of Twilight’s instructions that at least some of it was educational. Dinners were eaten at Free’s parents’ home at Zephyr’s insistence. She had taken a shine to Streak, and insisted that he call her Oma, a Griffish idiom for grandmother.

On the fourth day after they had arrived, they packed up their luggage and headed for the station to catch the train to Ponyville.

“I can hardly wait to introduce you to my friends!” Twilight gushed excitedly to Streak.

“I know, Mama. That’s the seventh time you told me today,” Streak said with a touch of exasperation.

“Eighth,” Free corrected.

Twilight blushed. “Sorry. I just miss them a lot. That’s also why I want to be able to commute faster between Griffonia and here. Anyway, I have to see how Spike is coping with the new librarian too. Oh, and Pinkie is going to throw you a party, so be ready for that.”

“Fourth time you told me that too,” Streak said drolly.

“A-heh! Right. Shutting up now.”

Streak was left to enjoy the view as they travelled, and he had no time to grow bored before they pulled up at Ponyville station. They disembarked and were met by six mares who swarmed over Twilight, exchanging hugs and nuzzles. Then it was Streak’s turn to be fussed over. Free was not totally ignored either, and he got a few welcoming hugs.

It did not take long for Rainbow Dash to get buddy-buddy with Streak. “I hear that you’re supposed to be real fast – wanna race sometime?” Dash asked in a mixture of Equish and Griffish that he had learned from his childhood friend, Gilda.

Streak gave her a confident grin. “If you think you can keep up.”

Dash grinned in return. “I hope you don’t mind eating my dust!”

Applejack said, “Why don’t y’all get it outta your systems and get it over with? See Twi’s castle over yonder, young ’un? That’s where we’re headed. You two can race to get there first, okay?”

“Sure!” Streak replied after they made sure that he properly understood the farm mare.

“I’ll give you a head-start seeing as you can’t fly over obstacles,” Dash offered.

“You’ll be sorry!” Free sing-songed.

“Pardon me, girls – I’m going to teleport ahead to meet them,” Twilight said, and then put her words into action.

Free said, “Okay – ready? Go!”

Streak accelerated at an astounding rate, a gust of wind whipping the manes of the mares left on the platform, their jaws dropping in astonishment.

“Better get going, Dash,” Free prompted.

“Wha? Oh heck!” Rainbow Dash belatedly took off, sparing no effort to catch up with the colt who had already disappeared from view. A moment later, a sonic rainboom thundered through the village.

Rarity cringed and said, “Ooh! That’s going to annoy everypony.”

“How in tarnation can anypony run that fast?” Applejack said. “I thought Twi was exaggerating a mite when she told us about him.”

“It’s his special talent,” Free explained. “His reflexes are a lot faster than anypony else’s also. His whole body is wired for speed, and he keeps getting faster as he grows. Twilight isn’t sure yet, but she thinks he might one day be able to break the sound barrier like Rainbow Dash if he keeps improving at this rate.”

“That’s amazing,” Rarity said, still staring in the direction that Streak had gone, noting the reactions of the ponies he had passed. “So who do you suppose won the race?”

“With all the ponies, buildings, and other obstacles in Streak’s way, he probably couldn’t get up to anything near his top speed, so Dash probably won despite her late start,” Free replied. “I can see a re-match in the works soon, but with less of a handicap to Streak.”

“Well, we’d better see if you’re right and head over to the castle before Pinkie bursts. She’s been preparing for this party for days.”

“Where is Pinkie anyway?” Free asked, noticing that she had disappeared also.

“Probably at the castle by now. No, don’t ask how – that’s just Pinkie.”

The group headed off at a far more leisurely pace than the racers. When they got to the castle, they found Dash and Streak playing a game of tag while Twilight watched.

“Rainbow Dash beat Streak,” she confirmed, “but even she realised that Streak was hampered by the obstacles. They’ve already decided to race again, but I made them put it off until later. Right now she’s trying to test just how fast he is with a game of tag. She hasn’t managed to do so yet.”

Free shouted, “Hey, Streak! You can stop showing off now. Party time!”

Streak raced over to Free and Twilight. “I’m hungry. Let’s eat!”

Later that evening, as Twilight was tucking Streak into bed, she asked, “So how do like my castle?”

“It’s cool, Mama. And your friends are cool too, even Rainbow Dash.”

Even Rainbow Dash?” Twilight queried.

“Yeah – she won’t admit that I can be faster than her.”

“You realise that she probably is a lot faster than you?”

“Yeah, now, but not always.”

“Ah, I see. Rainbow has always been very competitive, so even if you get as fast as her one day, that might just push her to get faster still.”

“Then I’ll have to get faster again.”

Twilight laughed. “That’s going to be a mighty rivalry. I think I’m going to enjoy seeing what comes in the future. Now let’s see how fast you can go to sleep.”

After breakfast the next morning, they paid quick visits to Twilight’s friends’ places. At each stop, Twilight and Free encouraged Streak to speak Equish whenever possible, but translated back and forth as needed.

They visited Rarity’s boutique first before she got too busy with the day’s work. While Streak was not too interested in that work, he did like the scarf that she gave him.

“A young colt like you needs something to show off just how dashing you are,” she said as she wrapped it around his neck.

Streak thought that she might be right about that, and thanked her profusely.

Next they dropped by Rainbow Dash’s cloud home, with Free providing the taxi service for Streak. Dash showed off her collection of Wonderbolts memorabilia, and gave her a couple of free passes good for the next show that she and her team-mates were performing at. Of course they then had to have the re-match race. This time Streak had an open road to use, and he made the most of it. Dash still beat him without resorting to a rainboom, but she was pushed hard to achieve that.

“That was awesome, Streak! You gotta come back and race me again someday, ’cause I know you’ll be faster.”

“You bet, Dash!” he replied, hoof-bumping her.

The race had concluded at Fluttershy’s cottage, where the yellow pegasus showed him all the animals that she was caring for.

“Have you got a pet?” she asked. “No? Oh, everypony should have a pet! I’ll help you choose one.”

Twilight was a little dubious about Streak’s choice of a ferret, but Fluttershy assured her that they made good pets for young colts.

Fluttershy’s cottage was of course just a stone’s throw from Sweet Apple Acres, and that was their next destination. They found Applejack working the west orchard, and she paused in her work long enough to give Streak a quick tour of the farm. She gave him a demonstration on how she harvested apples by bucking the trees, but when Streak tried to emulate her, he failed miserably.

“Don’t you worry none, young fella. There’s a technique to bucking apples that you just haven’t learned.”

“Can I try something else, Applejack?” Streak asked.

“Go right ahead.”

Streak put his forehooves on the trunk and started shaking the tree. Faster and faster he shook until the whole tree was vibrating, and then it suddenly was raining apples.

“Well I’ll be jiggered – never seen that done before. Not bad, Streak. I could make an Apple of you someday.”

“That’s how I got almonds from the tree back home. I thought it would work for apples too.”

“Sure did! Well, you harvested them, so you get to take as many of those apples as you like with you.”

They left Sweet Apple Acres with a basket-load of apples and headed back into town. The next destination was Sugarcube Corner where they stopped for morning tea. Pinkie Pie had prepared a special confection just for Streak, and they sat in a booth enjoying it with mugs of hot chocolate.

“How did Pinkie know I’d like this so much?” Streak asked.

“Oh, you probably mentioned something to someone at the party last night, and Pinkie noted it down,” Twilight explained. She added in a conspiratorial whisper, “She has a secret room where she keeps detailed notes on everypony she meets. If it pertains to a party, it’s in there.”

“Where’s this room?” Streak asked between mouthfuls.

Pinkie suddenly popped up between them. “It’s a secret!” she hissed, and sank back out of sight.

Streak stared at the spot where Pinkie had been for a moment before grinning and saying, “I really like her – she’s weird!”

They spent the rest of the day exploring the rest of Ponyville and meeting the townsfolk. Blue Streak’s wide-eyed excitement for everything that he saw renewed Twilight’s love for her home town. Seeing the place through fresh young eyes helped her appreciate again what had become so familiar to her over the years.

Around four o’clock in the afternoon, Twilight announced, “I want to make a quick side trip over to Whitetail Meadows to check up on my goddaughters, and introduce Streak to Cogs’ family. Want to come along, Free?”

Free started scratching his head and looking askance. “Umm, I’m not sure if that’s a good idea, Twi. Considering what we learned about my past, it could get a bit awkward.”

“We don’t have to bring up the subject.”

“I know, but I don’t want to seem to be deceiving Cogs by not telling him either. Truth has a nasty habit of coming out at the worst time.”

Twilight cringed a little at that. “You have a point. Maybe I can bring up the subject in conversation, so you can visit next time without worrying about a negative reaction?”

“Okay, but don’t force the subject. There’s no hurry at this time.”

“I’ll be careful, I promise.” She kissed Free to seal the promise, and then held out her hoof to Streak. “Come on, we’re going to teleport to my friend’s home.”

Alicorn and colt disappeared with a bamf! Free half-regretted opting out, but he still thought it was the best course of action for the moment. He looked about and spotted the town’s tavern.

“Hmmm… a cold beer with the locals sounds mighty good right now,” he murmured to himself, and he set off to slake his thirst.

It was a weary trio who sat down to a dinner prepared by Spike that evening. Twilight asked Streak what he thought of Ponyville.

“It’s great, Mama! So many ponies, and so friendly!”

“Is this a place that you could call home then?”

Streak thought about it for a moment before replying, “Home is where you and Free are together with Dad and Mama Rose.”

Twilight was deeply touched by the colt’s sentiment. “You’re right, Streak. However, this castle will be our second residence, and Path and Roseclaw will be living here with us occasionally also.”

“Then it would be a great home,” Streak declared.

“I think so too,” Twilight said happily, holding out her hoof to Free who took it in his claws. She held out the other to Streak who took the cue from Free and joined hooves. “We’re happiest when we’re all together as a family, so tomorrow we’ll head back to Canterlot to start our journey back to Griffonia. Someday soon, I hope, we’ll all come here and stay a bit longer. Does that sound good to you, Streak?”

The colt grinned happily. “Yeah, Mama – that sounds great!”

Just as they had been met at the station when they had arrived in Ponyville, so were the threesome farewelled by their friends the next day. Upon arrival in Canterlot, Twilight made arrangements for the Skylark to be ready for departure in the morning. She then checked on the progress of the various projects that she had set in motion. With those out of the way, the remainder of the day was spent with family and friends, giving Zephyr an opportunity to fuss over her grandson once more. Even both Princess Celestia and Princess Luna took the opportunity to spend a little time socialising before they departed.

Eventually though, it was time for Blue Streak to go to bed. Twilight tucked him in and kissed him goodnight before starting her own preparations for sleep. Their departure at first light meant getting up early, and thus she felt it wise to get to bed early too. However, when she exited the bathroom and found Free posing saucily on the bed in pegasus form, she had to smile.

Perhaps not too early,’ she thought before leaping onto the bed to join him.

Something was wrong – the tree was falling too soon and in the wrong direction.

“Dad! Mom!” he screamed as he watched them frantically try to get out of its way, only to see the massive tree branches slam into both of them. He ran up to where he could see his mother pinned to the ground, blood pouring from a gash in her head. He tugged on her foreleg, trying to free her, but his efforts were totally in vain.

“Streak,” the mare began before breaking into a fit of coughing. She continued weakly, “Go get help. Run, son! Run as fast as you can!”

The terrified foal reluctantly backed off. “Okay, Mom,” he said as tears streamed from his eyes. He turned and galloped away, pushing himself faster than he had ever done before. He headed for the herd’s workshop where he knew he could find help, but no matter how fast he ran, it never seemed to get any closer. He ran until he felt his heart would burst, and then collapsed, wailing in misery at his failure.

“Hush, child, ’tis but a nightmare of things past,” came a sympathetic voice above him.

Streak looked up and saw that the forest and fields had been replaced by an amorphous mist, filled only by the midnight blue form of an alicorn.

“Princess Luna? What’s happening?”

“I would guess that you were reliving the death of your parents. Your nightmare distress touched upon me, and I sought you out. I am truly sorry for this to have happened to you when you were so young, but it is a shadow of the past now, and you have new parents who love you very much. Take strength in that, my little pony.”

“I ran as fast as I could to get help, but they were dead before I got back. I’ve never forgiven myself for that. If only I’d been a bit faster!”

“So you push yourself for ever-greater speed? You are a remarkable colt, but even you cannot cheat death. It’s not your fault that your parents died.”

“That’s what everypony tells me, but what if they’re wrong? What if I had been five minutes faster, or even just two? Would they still be alive?”

“Even I cannot answer that, but you cannot let the unknown tear at you and ruin your life. Mourn your parents, remember them with love, and put their memories to rest. Look forward to your life with your new family, because they deserve your love as much as you deserve theirs.”

“I do love them, Princess. I haven’t been so happy in a long time.”

“That is very pleasing to hear. Now remember that when you wake…”

The mists swirled away, and Streak sat up in bed with a gasp. Twilight was there at the bedside looking at him in concern.

“Streak, I heard you crying! What’s wrong?”

Streak shook his head and wiped away the tears on his cheeks. “It’s okay, Mama. It was just a nightmare. Princess Luna came and helped me though.”

Twilight hugged the colt. “If you want, you can spend the night with us.”

“Yes, please, Mama.”

Twilight led Streak to their bedroom where Free was sitting up in the bed, waiting to find out what was happening. He arched a questioning eyebrow at the alicorn.

“Streak will be spending the rest of the night with us,” Twilight explained.

Free nodded and patted the bed next to him. “Climb up here, champ.”

Streak did so and Twilight got into the bed next to him. She pulled the blankets over them all, turned off the light, and said, “Sleep well, boys.”

“Yes, Mama!” Streak said happily.

“Yes, Mama,” Free echoed with a grin unseen in the dark.

“Oh, hush up!” Twilight replied.

Streak giggled and snuggled up closer. He was soon asleep again, but his dreams were peaceful this time.

A scheduled overnight shower left Canterlot gleaming in the morning sunlight, nearly dazzling Twilight, Free, and Streak as they watched the city recede from the observation deck. The air was a bit chilly at that time, so Streak was wearing the scarf that Rarity had given him, and both adults had a wing around the colt between them. As they watched, a burst of light came from the highest tower of the castle.

“That was Celestia’s final farewell to us,” Twilight told Streak. “But it’s also a message that you’ll always be welcome in Canterlot. Do you regret having to go back to Griffonia so soon?”

“No, Mama. I know I’ll be back some day. Right now, I just want to go home.”

Free said, “We all miss your Daddy Path and Mama Rose too. Yeah, it’s time to go back.”

They watched for a while longer until their route around Mount Canterhorn took the city out of sight, and then they headed inside where it was warmer.

“Me and Slick are going to the bridge,” Streak announced.

Twilight eyed the ferret perched on top of the colt’s head which seemed to have become its preferred observation post. “Enjoy yourselves, but make sure Slick doesn’t get in the crew’s way.”

“Okay, Mama!” Streak dashed away at his usual headlong pace.

“You think he might want to be an airship pilot when he grows up?” Free asked.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all.”

Slick was promptly banished from the bridge. Who’d have guessed that Captain Fairweather would be allergic to ferrets?




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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just dinner. Why?” Twilight asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seeya then!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” Featherleaf asked.

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

“How much…?”


Featherleaf regarded Free for a long moment, trying to understand who and what was confronting him, but he finally said, “I need you to keep this confidential.” “Convince us that we should.” The Healer considered that for a long moment before nodding. “Alright.” Free stepped aside and Featherleaf addressed the others. “Everything that I told you was the truth, but it wasn’t all of it. I am more than just a griffon Healer.” Suddenly his body was consumed by electric-blue magic flames, and moments later stood before them transformed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Path looked at Free questioningly. “Free?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free grinned. “If looks could kill….”

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

“Who says I didn’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong, Mama?”

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

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

“Technically it’s still meat.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you genuinely enjoy her company?”

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

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

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

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

Proper Place retrieved his files and headed for the door.

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

“Thank you, sir. I hope so too.”

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

“Hi, Mama!”

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

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

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

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

“No, Tech.”



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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Needs work?” Techbird asked.

“Needs work,” Path groaned in agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh? What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Now?”

Free just smiled more widely and waggled an eyebrow.

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

Free laughed and launched himself after her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds a bit odd.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And yet I managed to catch your eye?”

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

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

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

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

“What about Cadance?” Twilight asked slyly.

“Tricky, but not impossible,” Free admitted.

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

“You knocked me back.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Totally worth it,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very well, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you know so far?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love ya, Sparkles.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll dream of you tonight, Sparkles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shouldn’t we go back for it then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for the audience, Queen Aquila.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It shall be done.”

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

“I smell a trap,” Warfist concluded.

“But by whom and why?” Path asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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