Celestia lifted her head slowly, seemingly unsurprised as an unremarkable filly came bolting in through the door of her private rooms, looking about, panting hard with fear and exertion.
"P-Princess Celestia!" the filly squeaked, eyes wide as she stared up at the princess. "T-there's a dragon in the courtyard, come quick!" The filly bolted several steps back towards the door, to lead the way.
Arching a brow, Celestia slowly rose to her full regal height, and then, strangely, turned away. The princess strode over towards the balcony calmly.
The young filly stared at her, blinking once and then bouncing place, pointing a hoof in earnest, "Princess, we need you!"
Celestia calmly tilted her head as she stepped onto the balcony. Her horn glowed, and a candle lit itself, the flame burning an eerie blue. The princess stepped up to the edge of the balcony, peering out over the palace grounds. All was quiet. The crumpled, unconscious forms of several of her guards leaned against the wall, tied up.
"I anticipated this eventuality, Chitin," Celestia said with a shake of her head, not turning around. "Though I admit, I did not expect you to arrive so soon."
A derisive snort left the filly, and with a quick shudder, her entire form changed, revealing the Dark Queen in all her splendour. Chitin stepped over towards Celestia, moving to stand beside her, looking out over the ground, sharing the view.
"Your pegasus, the halfblood. She revealed us... forced us to act quickly," Chitin said reasonably. "And you, dear princess, have something that belongs to me."
"You speak of the Elements?" Celestia asked, an eyebrow arching upwards as she regarded the changeling queen.
An eager nod was the response, "We need them if our plans are to succeed."
"I can see that you are not well versed in politics. You should not reveal your intentions to your enemies so readily," Celestia chided.
"Unless you have no fear of your enemy and wish only to gloat and enjoy your power over them," Chitin responded calmly, locking eyes with the princess.
Celestia gave a reasonable nod at that. "Would you like something to drink? You do drink, don't you?"
Chitin nodded in response, "Aye, I drink. It does not sustain my existence, but it is pleasing."
Turning around, Celestia strode over towards the cupboard near the door. She saw several shadows in the corridor. They looked like armoured guards. Most likely, they were changelings masquerading as her guards. Reaching into the cupboard, she produced a dusty bottle filled with a clear, sparkling liquid. She levitated the bottle over to the table, and sat down in front of it, pouring out a measure into both glasses, and then sipped at one of them.
Chitin calmly walked over to the other side of the table and picked up the glass, slotting it neatly into one of the holes in her leg like a drink holder, and then sipping it, nodding appraisingly. "This is quite good, may I ask what it is?"
"It is wine produced from the Singing Orchid. I am pleased it appeals to your palate," Celestia said with a respectful bow of her head.
Chitin settled back in the seat, sipping at the drink and watching the princess. "I am surprised you have brooked no argument with my coup of your castle."
"I am hardly in a position to argue. My castle fell out of my control when you discovered how to bypass my protection magics. I have merely been a groundskeeper until you arrived," Celestia pointed out with a thin-lipped smile.
"Ah, that. Your methods of detection are woefully inadequate," Chitin said with a soft, mirthless laugh.
"Please, do tell me what I was doing wrong," Celestia said with a bow of her head.
Chitin pondered on that for a moment, taking another sip of her drink. "...Very well. I believe that your methods detect the 'link' my kind uses to maintain the 'hive mind'. We simply willingly severed the link and you had no clue we were amongst your ponies the whole time."
Celestia frowned at that, looking down at her drink, lips pursed. "So that's why I didn't discover any of you after the attack on Canterlot during the wedding?"
"I believe so, though the link was severed by the magic back then. I didn't even need the Elements of Harmony to fool you," Chitin said quite smugly, smiling openly at the princess.
"Then are you coveting the elements merely to spite me?" Celestia queried, ears perking.
Chitin shook her head once. "No. I am merely removing them from your control. My kind knows no magic to counteract your elements. Therefore, we take the elements themselves."
Something about the explanation didn't sit right with Celestia, and it showed. "No... That's not it. Why are you really after the elements?"
A soft snort left the changeling, and she shook her head. "You are much better at discourse than I am, I see. Do you really wish for me to bare my heart to you, Celestia?'
"If it'll make you feel better," Celestia said with a gentle nod.
Chitin snorted at that, and then gave a low growl in the back of her throat, standing up and beginning to pace. "To be perfectly honest, I would feel better to just lay it all out and get it off my chest, as it were."
Celestia nodded gently, watching the changeling queen. "I am going nowhere, you have seen fit to that." Celestia flicked a hoof towards where the guards stood in the hallway for punctuation.
"But of course," Chitin said bluntly, continuing to pace, and then pausing to sip her drink, before continuing speaking. "You know of Chrysalis, yes?"
"Of course," Celestia answered with a nod.
"And you know that she abandoned us?" Chitin furthered.
"I am rather sketchy on the details. I know she assumed the guise of a unicorn and lived out her life in the Everfree," Celestia said, tilting her head slightly to the side.
Chitin growled and stamped her hoof. "Evergreen," she hissed, her tone low and violent. "How I wish to stain the ground with his blood."
"Why would you wish to harm a simple woodspony?" Celestia asked, confused, blinking once.
"Because he took our queen from us!" Chitin hissed, stopping and glowering at Celestia, her eyes narrowed. "She fell in love with the bumbling fool and abandoned us! A changeling. The blast from Cadance and Shining Armour must have addled her senses. Made her think she was in love with him," Chitin stated, beginning to pace again. "We lost our queen, our army was decimated, and I was forced to lead what was left of the changelings from the ashes."
"And... How is any of this relevant?" Celestia asked carefully, ears perking.
Chitin stopped in her pacing, and then turned to the princess, grinning slowly, revealing her fangs. "Because I'm going to use the Elements of Harmony to fix everything."
Celestia slowly arched a brow at that. "I... Don't see how that will change anything."
"I'm going to build a time bridge," Chitin said with a flippant wave of a hoof. "Go back to just after the wedding, and ensure that Chrysalis never meets Evergreen. She'll remain our queen."
"A... time bridge?" Celestia asked flatly. "I remember the last time that was attempted." Celestia sniffed, wrinkling her nose, "It took quite a while to clean the ponies participating from the floor of the experiment room."
"I've had a long time to study the elements, and I've been taking love from Spike for years now. I am confident I can make this work," Chitin said with a wild grin.
"If you have harmed Spike, I will destroy you," Celestia murmured softly.
"You needn't worry about the dragon. I take good care of him, and he is quite willing," Chitin replied dismissively.
"And if you succeed with this time bridge, what will it accomplish?" Celestia asked flatly, staring at the changeling queen.
"I'll have my queen back!" Chitin hissed, grinding her hooves against the floor in anger. "And that is a worthy goal."
Celestia gave a slow nod of understanding. "I... sympathise with you. But Chrysalis is dead and gone."
"Because she turned herself into a pony!" Chitin spat, giving a dangerous hiss. "As a changeling, she could lead us for centuries after now!"
"And if you succeed... you will cease to exist," Celestia said with a wave of her hoof, giving a sad smile at the changeling. "Did you think of that?"
"I will live on," Chitin said stubbornly, "As the old changeling that I was."
"So that's it?" Celestia asked, giving a slow shake of her head. "You're going to attempt to change history just because you lost your queen?"
"I told Chrysalis that no matter what happened to our attack, I would remain her faithful servant forever. I will protect her from herself." Chitin scowled, downing the rest of her glass of wine and then putting it on the table between them.
Celestia shook her head sadly. "I'm... sorry that you lost your queen. But a time bridge is not the answer. There was never any evidence to suggest that they are even possible. Moreover, I spoke to Chrysalis in her final minutes. She... she was happy. I didn't quite understand at the time, but I think I understand now. She had done all she needed to do in this life, and was content for it to end. She saw that there was more to her life than just stealing love."
Chitin shook her head firmly. "No. Her mind was addled after the blast. I know if I can get to her before she reaches Evergreen, then I can keep her from convincing herself that she loves him."
"And you think the Elements of Harmony will help with a time bridge?" Celestia asked, her tone amazed.
"Indeed," Chitin replied with a shrug. "They are a force of balance. Saving Chrysalis will keep balance in the world."
"Your judgement is flawed," Celestia stated flatly, rising to her hooves and placing her glass on the edge of the table.
"It matters not. When I succeed, none of this will have happened. I'll rewrite our history," Chitin said with a low, mirthful laugh.
Celestia shook her head, sighing and turning away. "Very well."
"You will come quietly?" Chitin asked.
"In a manner of speaking," Celestia said with a wry grin, before turning back to the queen, her horn glowing bright gold and a bolt of magic spinning from it.
An explosion rocked the palace, followed by several aftershocks, and then more explosions as the queen and princess fought bitterly.
Elsewhere in Equestria, a blue candle, just like the one Celestia had lit upon her balcony, flamed to life all on its own. A hooded figure moved over to the candle, and stared at it.
Princess Luna shook her head sadly, and then extinguished the candle with her hoof, tightening her cloak around herself more tightly. The signal was what she had been waiting for, but she was not pleased to see it. The changelings had moved on Canterlot.
Luna pushed open the door of the small cottage and stepped outside, starting down the forest path.
Raindrop, Sentinel, Wisp, Remedy, and Firebrand stood in the crowded examination room as the doctor humming and looked over the injured stallion's leg, checking his wound.
The doctor apparently assumed they were merely curious, or wanting to help him with the stallion, as he neither questioned nor commented on their presence.
"Ja ja, thiz iz a quite painful injury, but not so severe, yes?" the doctor said, tapping the stallion's foreleg with a hoof, testing. "Ze bone iz intact. You vill merely be unable to walk on your leg for a few days."
The stallion gave a sigh of relief. "Any idea how long that'll be? I have a field to tend."
The doctor nodded, and then lifted his head, his horn glowing faintly as a bell jingled somewhere in the hallway. A nurse came in after a few moments.
"Ze nurse will tend to you," the doctor said with a gentle nod, straightening up. "I must tend to my other patients. But ze nurse vill see to your problems." With that, the doctor was exiting the room, pausing to whisper to the nurse: 'See if we can find him a helper for ze week'. He smiled back at the injured stallion, and then slipped out the door.
Raindrop immediately followed after him. The rest of her entourage followed after a few moments, leaving the stallion alone with the nurse.
"Doctor, wait!" Raindrop called.
The doctor paused in the hallway, looking back over his shoulder. "Yes?"
Raindrop paused, unsure what to say, before just blurting, "You're the bearer of the Element of Generosity."
Brow slowly raised, the doctor gave a snort. "And?"
Raindrop blinked, confused, as Sentinel moved to stand beside her. "That... Doesn't mean anything to you?" Sentinel asked, a single ear perking.
The doctor shook his head. "Indeed it does not. Now, if you please, I have patients to tend to."
Blinking slowly, Raindrop stared at the doctor hurried down the hall, his horn glowing, and a bell jingling.
Sentinel snorted a moment. "Well that was... not how I expected it to go down."
Raindrop shook her head slightly. "I wasn't really expecting that either," she admitted, looking down at her forehooves for a moment. She tossed her mane, and then stalked down the hallway, pushing the door to the doctor's office. Opening her mouth to speak, Raindrop faltered. The doctor was sitting in his chair, rubbing his forehead with his hooves, looking quite old and tired.
The doctor looked up after a moment, raising a brow. "Yes?"
The pegasus snorted, and then stepped into the room. "We need you, doctor."
"Need me for what, exactly?" he asked flatly, glowering up at her. "You come barging into my clinic and make demands, and you do not even announce yourself."
"Well... It's just," Raindrop paused a moment at that, frowning deeply, trying to decide how much to tell the doctor. "We need you because the changelings are back, and Celestia needs the Elements of Harmony to make sure that we can beat them back to the dark ages if needs be."
The doctor frowned at that, and then past Raindrop, peering at her friends, crowding the hallways behind her. "And I take it that zese are the other bearers, yes?"
Raindrop nodded once, peering over her shoulder. "That's Sentinel, he isn't a bearer. He's my personal guard. Wisp is the Element of Laughter, Firebrand is the Element of Honesty, and Remedy is the Element of Bitc-I mean, Kindness."
Each of the ponies nodded as their name was said, and Wisp waved a paw goofily. "Hi!"
"I see..." the doctor said with a frown, one ear perking slowly. "And vat is it that makes you zere leader?"
"I'm... Well, I kinda need their help. The elements, that is," Raindrop said, lowering her gaze in shame.
"And vhy vould you need ze elements?" the doctor pressed.
Raindrop sighed faintly, and then looked up, her expression determined. "Because I'm part changeling. And I want it out."
The doctor nodded at that, frowning. "Well... Zat is certainly an interesting problem. But I cannot leave my clinic. Unless ze changelings are a pressing issue, then you will have to come find me in case of emergency."
Raindrop blinked at that, her ears pinning back. "But doctor... we need you at Canterlot." she protested, waving a hoof for emphasis.
"And zere are dozens of patients needing my daily attention!" the doctor responded flatly, waving a hoof in a firm motion, leaving no room for argument. "Go, find ze other bearers. And then maybe I will have cleared some time in my schedule to see to your problems."
With that, the doctor turned away, and stalked down the hall to his room, slamming the door behind him.
Raindrop stared after him, unsure. "I... That didn't go according to plan," she said quietly, heaving a sigh.
"We have the Seeker Stone, we can find him whenever we want," Sentinel said with a sad shake of his head. "C'mon, we'll come back tomorrow. We'll just have to find a different bearer."
Nodding, Raindrop turned around, and began walking down the hall with the rest of her group in tow. "So who'll we find next? We don't even have the Element of Magic yet. The Seeker Stone for loyalty is missing, and our bearer for generosity is well... He's a dick."
Sentinel gave a wry grin at that, looking sideways at Raindrop, and then leaning in to kiss her cheek. "Cheer up, Raindrop. We'll find a way. Or we could all die horribly at the swiss-cheese-like legs of Chitin. Either way, there's not a whole lot we can do about it."
Raindrop's eyes flicked green for a moment, and she murmured quietly, "I could knock him out and drag him to the castle. I'm sure I could convince you all to help. Which reminds me, we need a unicorn in this group already. Seriously. Magic."
"Well, if we convince Mr. Surly to come with us, we'll be able to blackmail him into using magic for our every whim," Sentinel said with a grin.
"Want me to try?!" Wisp said, bouncing along beside the pair. "I mean, I could talk him to death until he agrees!"
"We want him to join us, not go inside," Raindrop said in her kindest tone to the diminutive griffon.
Remedy stepped up on the other side. "I could give him some really deep, meaningful things to think on and then slip a roofie into his drink while he's not looking."
"Also helpful," Raindrop said with a roll of her eyes.
"I don't particularly care either way. Another non-winged pony will just slow us down further," Firebrand stated with painful bluntness.
"Even more helpful!" Raindrop growled, lifting a hoof to rub at her forehead, pausing a moment. "I need a drink. I need like five drinks."
"I would advise against drinking," a voice cautioned.
Raindrop looked up, realising that they had made it outside during their conversation. A larger pony in a dark hood was watching them.
"I'll do what I like, thank you very much," Raindrop said with a very fake polite tone.
The mare snorted, and then threw back her hood, revealing her long flowing blue mane. "Listen, whelp. I am here to help you, but if you speak in that disrespectful tone again, I will gladly go back to my hole."
"Princess Luna!" Sentinel said, immediately straightening and saluting.
Wisp stared up at the princess in confusion, "Who is she?" the griffon whispered to Remedy.
Remedy giggled under her breath, "That's Princess Luna, she raises the moon."
"Oh!" Wisp said with an eager bounce. "Hi, Luna!"
"Keep your voices down!" Luna hissed, stamping a hoof, glowering at them all. "Now shush, and come." Without another word, Luna turned and began to lead them out of Ponyville.
The group followed in the trail of Luna's hoofsteps, whispering amongst themselves.
"What's up with her?" Raindrop asked of Sentinel.
"I've never really met Luna more than once or twice... I think she might just be bitchy?" Sentinel offered helplessly, giving an awkward smile.
"Sure does act like a spoiled princess," Firebrand stated, far too loudly for a whisper. Luna scowled back at her.
It was several long minutes of pushing through the Everfree Forest, that they came to what appeared to be a deserted cottage. Pushing her way through the front door, Luna magicked the table out of the way, and then lifted the trap door concealed underneath. Luna lifted a hoof, beckoning them into the cellar.
Raindrop stopped immediately upon entering the cottage, her eyes widening. She felt something, something very strange coming from underneath, where Luna was urging them to go. She could feel it.
Behind her, Sentinel stiffened, his eyes likewise widening. He stared down at the floor, his eyes narrowing.
"Changeling!" he hissed, and then looked up to Luna. "There is a changeling below!"
Luna gave a nod, waving for them to continue down the stairs. "That is fine. I am the one who put her there."
"A changeling?" Raindrop asked cautiously.
"Do not worry. She is very weak, and not long for this world. We are going to use her to gain information on our enemies," Luna said, and then lowered her head, seemingly shamed. "... Please forgive us, Raindrop."
Wondering what Luna could be asking forgiveness for, Raindrop cautiously stepped down the stairs. A lamp was lit at the base of them, throwing light across the small room.
Diagrams were pinned to the walls, hastily scrawled, detailing changeling anatomy, identifying marks, and weak points. Diagrams of the Royal Palace were spread out across the table that rested against one wall, held down by empty bottles of what appeared to be some of the finest, strongest wine that could be purchased in Ponyville.
A white unicorn with a flowing blue mane and tail sat at the table, swaying unsteadily. She was a changeling. Raindrop could feel it. But as the changeling turned and peered over her shoulder, pink eyes regarding the pegasus, Raindrop knew she was far more than just a changeling.
Raindrop could only stare, eyes wide, slowly sitting down as her legs began to shake. Sentinel moved to stand beside her, watching the changeling guardedly.
The changeling's entire form shook unsteadily as she turned to look over her shoulder. A piece of charcoal fell from one hoof as the changeling smiled warmly back at Raindrop, looking her up and down.
Her voice was weak, barely audible. She was the picture of a creature on its deathbed. But her gaze was still firm, and held all the power of her race behind it as she locked eyes with Raindrop.
"You've grown much, Raindrop," Chrysalis said.
"Grandmother?" Raindrop asked weakly, staring up at Chrysalis.
The unicorn nodded gently. "'Course it's me," she replied with a wave of a hoof, before taking another hearty swig from her bottle of alcohol and slamming it back down on the table. She reached down, picked up her stick of charcoal, and continued to scrawl on the paper in front of her.
"B-but... how?" Raindrop murmured, looking left and right, as though the answer might be written down somewhere. "I... Just..."
"Celestia was... hasty, when she built the memorial," Luna said, as she descended the stairs and stepped to the side, bowing her head in shame. "We merely reversed what our sister did, and used some of our magic to strengthen her. She is still very weak though. The alcohol doesn't help." Luna's tone turned accusing on the last sentence.
Chrysalis snorted, taking another long swig from the bottle. "Yer're the one who brought me back and didn't bring back Evergreen. Yer don't get a say in this."
Luna's ears splayed backwards, and she said quietly, "The male was too far gone..."
Raindrop rubbed a hoof against her temple in disbelief. "I don't get it..."
"Your grandmother. She never actually died. Not before Celestia turned her to marble. Therefore, we could bring her back without too much trouble," Luna explained, lowering her head again. "We did not wish to cause pain... but this is the only way we have of finding a solution to the threat."
"Why now?" Raindrop asked, turning an accusing glare on the dark princess. "Why now?!"
"Because we have greater need of her," Luna said, opening her mouth to continue, when Chrysalis cut across her.
"Why don't yer tell her the truth?" Chrysalis asked quietly.
"The truth?" Luna asked blankly.
Chrysalis turned to look back over her shoulder her eyes flashing green a moment. "That Ah was never in that cottage to begin with," she said flatly, eyes narrowing. "That the body in the cottage wasn't even mine."
Raindrop stared at her grandmother for several long seconds, blinking slowly. "...r-really?"
Chrysalis gave a long laugh at that, slapping the table with a hoof. "Goodness no child!" she chuckled, and then clucked her tongue. "Ah had no idea my grandchildren would be so... gullible."
"This is hardly a joking matter!" Raindrop scowled, her own eyes flashing green.
"Luna told me. Changelings ah back. They're wrecking stuff. Yer got the name of their new leader, right?" Chrysalis asked brusquely.
"Chitin," Raindrop responded automatically.
"Ahhh, Chitin... She was a very loyal changeling, that one. Ah kept her close just for that. It's nice ter know yer'll not get stabbed in the back by yer underlings. She was also very much against killin'," Chrysalis said, rubbing a hoof thoughtfully against her chin. "She weren't exactly the ambitious type, either. Not a leader... More of a follower. Probably doesn't bode well that she's the new queen... She wasn't the type ter be ambitious. She wanted the changelings ter be happy as a race, and she kept trying to convince me that taking over Canterlot wasn't the answer..."
Raindrop could stare as her own grandmother recounted her plans for taking over the capital city of Equestria in the same tone as she might discuss her apple pie recipe.
"She's gotta have an agenda. She can't just be takin' the elements because. There'd have to be a bigger plan behind it. Very methodic, she was." Chrysalis hummed to herself thoughtfully, and then went back to her scrawling.
"Chitin has taken over the Royal Palace," Luna declared into the temporary lull in the conversation.
Sentinel stiffened, eyes widening.
A gasp behind her told Raindrop that Remedy had joined them, and she looked back over her shoulder to see Wisp looking confused, and Firebrand looking rather flippant about the whole issue. Personally, Raindrop wasn't sure how to feel about it. It was getting to be a bit much to take in all at once.
"That's... definitely not like Chitin," Chrysalis said, frowning deeply and slipping off the seat, beginning to pace slowly back and forth. "She's not the type ter launch a full-out offensive. Though she mighta changed a bit since I last knew her."
"We need the elements," Luna stated.
"Yer elements, they're just the solution to all yer problems, aren't they?" Chrysalis accused.
Luna snorted once at the changeling. "They tend to be the most effective means of defusing a situation."
"Raindrop, yer one of the bearers, right?" Chrysalis asked, perking an ear at her granddaughter
Raindrop recoiled slightly at that, and then she shook her head. "No, grandmother... I'm just... helping them."
Chrysalis frowned deeply at that, stalked over to the pegasus and staring into her eyes. Raindrop withered under the stern glare. She felt that Cee--Chrysalis--, could always tell when she was lying.
"Yer lyin. Yer got a vested interest in the elements," Chrysalis stated flatly.
"Your blood is starting to resurface!" Raindrop accused, lifting a hoof and poking Chrysalis on the nose. "It already cost me my coltfriend, and I want it gone!"
Chrysalis paused at that, raising a brow slowly, and then looking from Raindrop, to Sentinel.
"And yet... Yer got that one's scent on yer," Chrysalis said bluntly.
Chrysalis gave a soft laugh at that. "Already moved on, huh? And yer are just chasing the elements like ah did, hoping they'll magically fix yer so yer don't suck him dry?"
"I am immune to your kind," Sentinel stated, stepping forwards, narrowing his eyes at the changeling.
"Whatever Chitin did to the elements removed the block on my magic," Chrysalis said, giving Sentinel a bat of her eyelids. "So don't go makin' such bold claims 'less yer willing to test em."
"He's a Royal Guard," Raindrop stated flatly.,"Raised since birth to hunt down changelings."
"Ah heard of your kind." Chrysalis gave a faint chuckle. "Ah find it amusing that yer running with someone who was trained ter hunt us."
"There is no us," Raindrop said coldly, taking a step away from her grandmother.
"So that's how it's gonna be, huh?" Chrysalis asked, brows raising, her head tilting to the side slightly.
"Yes," Raindrop stated flatly, sidestepped to stand next to Sentinel, weaving her pinions with his own.
"Yer can't choose yer family," Chrysalis said with a shake of her head. "But ah'm glad yer found someone, Raindrop. Now tell me, how many of the bearers have yer got?"
"We have three," Raindrop said, motioning behind her. "The fourth is proving to be... difficult."
"Well, yer'll have ter go find him if yer expect them elements to do much good. Yer got leads on the other two, princess?" Chrysalis asked of Luna.
Luna nodded once. "Celestia was quite certain on who the Element of Magic bearer is, but we don't have the actual Element of Magic in our possession."
"Yer had all the others though, right?" Chrysalis countered, an ear perking.
"Then that'd be why Chitin attacked the palace. She done something with the elements to make its' powers wear off on me and my kin, so she must be planning ter use em for something," Chrysalis stated, lifting a hoof to rub at her chin again. "She wouldn't attack the palace without having a plan. Too methodical fer that."
"We need the Elements of Harmony," Luna stated. "If Chitin is indeed planning something that needs the elements, then we need to take them away from her. Even if it's just the one."
"And the other bearers?" Chrysalis asked, raising a brow. "What yer gonna do about them?"
"I shall retrieve the magic bearer, while Raindrop and the rest infiltrate the castle and take the elements," Luna stated firmly. "We'll focus on the other two bearers once we have the elements safely in hoof."
"Seems like a good plan," Chrysalis said calmly, slipping to her hooves, stretching them out slowly in front of herself, and then tipping out the rest of her drink over the dirt floor. "Ah'm going with."
"You're old and weak," Luna said with a shake of her head. "You'll slow them down."
Chrysalis snorted at that, and then stretched again, closing her eyes. Her entire form seemed to glow, and she stumbled a moment, before straightening up, standing just as tall as Luna now, in her 'true' form. Black form, sparkling, translucent wings, fangs. The Dark Queen once more. "We're not going in there to fight."
Chrysalis smiled, revealing her pointed fangs. "And I already know the way."
Luna scowled, looking thoughtful, before she nodded in acquiescence. "Yes... having someone who knows the routes in and out of the castle would be useful. But that is why I would have Sentinel lead the group to find the elements. As a royal guard, he would be most aware of the secret routes in and out."
Chrysalis gave a reasonable nod at that. "Indeed. But Ah know how to navigate the crystal caverns beneath Canterlot. Can you make such a claim, Sentinel?"
Sentinel scowled darkly at the changeling, standing between her and Raindrop. "I cannot. But I still wouldn't want you coming with us."
"The hate runs deep in this one. You realise, o' course, that Raindrop is part changeling, do yer not?" Chrysalis asked with a soft chuckle.
"And she is trying to change what she is!" Sentinel countered, staring up at the Changeling Queen.
"And yer know my story, yes?" Chrysalis queried quietly.
"I... heard a little of it," Sentinel said uncertainly.
Chrysalis chuckled, and then strode forward, lifting a hoof to gently stroke down the guards cheek. Sentinel recoiled in revulsion, making to push her away.
"Ah gave up being a changeling to be with Evergreen. Ah would still be Cee the unicorn if not fer what Chitin did to the elements. Or mayhaps it were Celestia who made the spell fail. Either way, I am not a changeling by choice."
"That's different," Sentinel growled, eyes narrowing. "Raindrop is a pony, she doesn't have a choice of who her family is."
"And did I?" Chrysalis asked softly, narrowing her eyes. "Or do yer think I wanted ter be born a changeling?"
Sentinel's ears pinned back at that, and he went quiet for a moment, before opening his mouth to protest.
A swift smack to the side of the head from Chrysalis' hoof stunned him, quieting him.
Raindrop frowned and stepped in front of the guard, between him and her grandmother. Wisp squeaked and backed away a few steps from the violent scene, bounding up the stairs. Remedy had already seemed to have excused herself, and Firebrand was watching like a spectator at a sports event.
"Hit him again, and you'll have to answer to me," Raindrop said in a low growl.
"So young, so angry," Chrysalis said with a soft sigh, and a shake of her head. "Were I but fifty years younger, I'd happily have wrestled yer to the ground and beat a submission out of yer. I had no idea my grandchildren would turn their back on their blood so easily."
"You're not my family!" Raindrop growled, and Sentinel rose to his hooves to stand beside her, showing a united front.
"Yer can't choose yer family Raindrop. Yer gonna have ter come to terms with that, one way or another," Chrysalis stated, shaking her head slowly.
"As far as I'm concerned, you're a parasite that passed on a disease to me. Nothing more," Raindrop stated, spitting on the ground at Chrysalis' forehooves.
Chrysalis grit her teeth at the stinging words, looking away, closing her eyes. She didn't respond.
"I'm glad you're dying," Raindrop said into the cold silence, before turning around and heading up the stairs, pushing her way past Firebrand.
Sentinel looked back and forth between the retreating form of Raindrop and her grandmother, before bounding up the stairs, following his mare.
Chrysalis sighed, hanging her head, a single teardrop making a trail down her cheek.
Raindrop paced back and forth in front of the cottage, a low growl bubbling from her throat, ears pinned back and wing half extended in a sign of strong annoyance.
"Why couldn't she just stay dead?!" Raindrop snarled to no one in particular.
"I believe it was Luna who brought her back. Well, technically she just reversed whatever Celestia did. Chrysalis never actually died," Remedy said, from where she was sitting beside the front door of the cottage.
"Semantics!" Raindrop hissed, stalking back and forth, hooves digging into the soft earth. "What are you doing up here anyway?!"
"Queens have always made me uncomfortable," Remedy admitted with a half-shrug. "But Chrysalis being back isn't such a bad thing, you know."
"It's bad," Raindrop protested, pausing and lifting her hoof as though to hit something. Her eyes flashed green for a moment, and she dropped her hoof, scowling and resuming her angered pacing.
"It's a chance to say goodbye to her, or, if she lives long enough, a chance for you to get to know her a little bit better," Remedy suggested, an ear perking at the angered pegasus.
Raindrop growled again, refusing to respond, still pacing, growling low in her throat.
"How did you feel about Chrysalis back when she was... whoever she was before?" Remedy queried, tilting her head to one side curiously.
"Cee," Raindrop said with another growl. "And I felt fine about her until I found out she was a complete bitch."
The nurse nodded at that, humming faintly to herself, looking down at the ground thoughtfully. After a few moments, she looked up, and then asked, "So... Before you found she was Chrysalis, you had no problem with her?"
"She was the perfect grandmother," Raindrop hissed, "But she's a changeling, that's what they do. They trick you into thinking they're something they're not!"
"...Don't we all?" Remedy asked quietly.
Raindrop stared at the nurse for a long moment, incredulously. "What? If you're going to compare us to changelings, then I'm going to hit you."
"Think about it, Raindrop. The perfect grandmother isn't... well, perfect, is she?" Remedy asked, giving Raindrop a pointed stare.
Raindrop stopped in her pacing, scowling at the nurse. "Explain."
"Did Cee ever yell at you? Did she ever hit you? Did she bake you cookies? Tell you wise wisdoms from ages long past?" Remedy asked curiously.
"I... Well no, not really. I barely even knew her apart from way back when my parents were still together. I was pretty young," Raindrop stated with a dismissive wave of a hoof.
"But you remember she was kind, yes? You said she was the model grandmother," Remedy pointed out.
Raindrop paused at that, and then gave a tentative nod. "I guess so."
"So she was a good grandmother the few times you saw her?" Remedy pressed.
"Indeed," Raindrop stated, "But I hardly see what that has to do with now."
"Well, for starters. We all present somepony different to ourselves when we're around others. You have to know somepony pretty well to realise who they are... Basically, whenever you meet someone, and interact with them... You're not talking to them. You're talking to their representative, and they naturally present the best side of the pony they're representing," Remedy explained, watching the pegasus closely. "Whether it be on a first date, or a grandmother doting on her grandchildren."
"Okay, so, what?" Raindrop spat, eyes narrowing. "Cee was being a representative for Chrysalis."
"Do you think Evergreen knew?" Remedy asked suddenly.
"What?" Raindrop asked, blinking once.
Remedy snorted. "Do you think Evergreen knew?"
"I... Honestly don't know how he couldn't know. But I don't know the story. They didn't talk much about the past," Raindrop admitted, ears pinning back.
"And do you think Evergreen would have stayed with Cee if he thought she was evil? If you can honestly say 'yes', then I'll shut up and let you go back to seething at her," Remedy said with a shrug.
"I... I... " Raindrop sighed and hung her head. "No. Evergreen wasn't the kind to stand by and let an unkindness be done."
"See, your problem is that you're looking at it very shallowly, Raindrop. You're looking at her as Chrysalis, and not as Cee. What do you see when you looked at her?" Remedy asked, eyes narrowing at Raindrop.
A scowl crossed Raindrop's face. "I see a changeling."
"You want to know what I see?" Remedy asked.
"I get a feeling I'll find out either way," Raindrop spat.
Remedy chuckled at that, and then sobered. "I see a pony who gave up her life of power for love. I know the story, Raindrop. She gave up her entire existence to be with Evergreen. She didn't just distance herself from her changelings, she destroyed them. And then she settled down and had kids." Remedy paused then, and looked Raindrop up and down. "She's the same pony you always knew. She just had a bad past. A bad past that has transcended death itself to bother her. Think back to all the bottles on that table, Raindrop. You think Luna drank all of those? Chrysalis, Cee, is drowning her sorrows with alcohol. And even though she's hurting, she's still trying to fix her mistakes. And all you're doing, her granddaughter, is making it harder on her. You think she wanted to do this to you? You think that she knew this would happen? You should be ashamed of yourself."
Raindrop's ears pinned back slowly under the slew of chastisement, her cheeks warming and her head lowering.
"And what's your excuse? Oh, 'I lost my coltfriend'. And you already replaced him! It can't have been that big a loss," Remedy continued with a wave of her hoof. "And you still want to make things hard on her when she's literally dying? Sweet Celestia, Raindrop. If you were my granddaughter, I'd beat the stupid out of you!"
Raindrop recoiled even further, her wings lowering and her head hanging, her ears burning with the thorough scolding.
"I... I just..."
"Do not give me that tone, young lady!" Remedy scowled, pointing a hoof at the front door of the cottage. "Now you swallow your insatiable urge to throw a tantrum, you get in there, and you reconcile with your grandmother before she dies."
Raindrop's head hung, if possible, even lower, as she slowly began to mince towards the front door, wings drooping.
Chrysalis was scribbling down something about changeling magic on a piece of paper when a hoof gently found her own, pausing it in its motions.
Raindrop looked up at her grandmother, noting the redness in her green eyes. She looked like she was holding back tears.
"C-Cee... I... I'm sorry," Raindrop murmured, before quickly leaning in and wrapping her hooves around the demonic form of her grandmother.
Cee gave a faint sigh of happiness at that, biting her bottom lip and returning the hug, resting her head on her granddaughters shoulder in a hug. "Don't bother yerself with it, child. Ah'm sorry this happened to yer."
"It's... It's not your fault," Raindrop said hesitantly, pulling back to stare up into Cee's demonic eyes. "I guess... I guess I don't blame you... But I just... I needed somepony to blame," Raindrop murmured quietly.
"It's fine, child. Ah understand. We'll get yer fixed up. Ah'll do everything ah can," Cee promised, nuzzling Raindrop reassuringly.
Raindrop nodded, and then cast her gaze down at the piece of paper, to hide the inexplicable tears forming in her eyes. "I-is there anything I can do to help?"
"Ask yer coltfriend about any changes to the palace in the last fifty years or so. Ah'll need to make sure we can get in and out without trouble. Might attract unwanted attention once we steal the elements," Cee said with a wry grin.
Raindrop nodded, and lifted a hoof to rest on her grandmother's shoulder for a long moment, before pulling away.
Sentinel was sitting in a chair in the cottage, perusing some pieces of paper that Cee had scribbled across: details on changeling anatomy and heirarchy.
"You heard all of that, didn't you?" Raindrop asked quietly.
Sentinel nodded mutely.
"You... You hate her, don't you?"
Sentinel nodded once more.
"I can't ask you to like her... But I will ask you not to complicate things. Please, Sentinel. For me."
Sentinel snorted at that, and chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment, before sighing and nodding once. "I'll tolerate her... but only for you."
"Thank you, Sentinel," Raindrop said, sliding over to him and kissing his cheek.
Remedy was still sitting out the front, humming idly to herself, when Raindrop exited the cottage, head held low.
"Well?" Remedy asked, raising a brow.
Raindrop pursed her lips, but slipped over to the nurse, wrapping her hooves around her neck in a hug, sighing and resting her nose in the other mare's mane.
"I hate you," Raindrop stated, shaking her head. "But... thank you."
Remedy chuckled faintly, and then pushed Raindrop away with a hoof. "C'mon now, personal space. I'm not a big hugger."
Raindrop nodded, and moved to turn away and head back inside.
"Fifteen bits," Remedy said, holding out a hoof.
Raindrop looked back over her shoulder, blinking once, confused. "What?"
"Fifteen bits." Remedy shook her hoof for punctuation, snorting once. "Told you I was gonna start charging for relationship advice."
Cee gave a thoughtful sound, looking down at the diagrams in front of her. The entirety of the group was ranged around her. Princess Luna, Raindrop, Sentinel (keeping careful distance from the changeling), Wisp, Remedy, and lastly, Firebrand.
Cee was formulating a plan.
"Yer say that there have been no changes ter the basement kitchens since yer training as a guard?" Cee asked over her shoulder, raising a brow at Sentinel.
Sentinel nodded once. "Indeed. I used to sneak down there for food all the time. It hasn't changed a bit in the last decade or so."
"That's good," Cee said, scribbling another line onto the piece of paper. "Now... Ah think we should separate."
"Separate?" Raindrop asked flatly.
"Dividing forces is only useful when there are two objectives at stake," Firebrand pointed out. "Unless you wish to create a flanking manoeuvre, which, frankly, is impossible in such close quarters."
"We do have two objectives," Cee responded with a shake of her head. "The Element of Harmony themselves, Chitin, and Princess Celestia."
"What're you on about?" Raindrop asked flatly, a feeling of foreboding making itself known to her.
"While yer all rescue the Elements of Harmony, Ah'm going ter go speak to Chitin. Failing that, Ah will attempt ter release Princess Celestia," Cee said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. "Ah wish to know what Chitin is thinking with her crazy plans. Maybe Ah can reason with her."
Luna cleared her throat, silencing them all.
"Princess Celestia is of the same mind. She is where she wishes to be," Luna stated.
Raindrop blinked once, an ear perking. Sentinel looked downright livid.
"You mean she wants to be a prisoner?" Raindrop asked uncertainly.
"Indeed," Luna responded, giving a faint smile. "Celestia thinks there is a chance that discourse will solve this problem... but without an opposing party with which to broach such discourse, peace talks are rather hard to create."
"But what can she possibly be intending to do?" Raindrop asked with a shake of her head. "They're changelings."
"I do not fathom my sister's motives. But she has asked that I do not mount an attempt to rescue her, and I intend to honor her wishes," Luna said with a sense of finality in her tone.
Raindrop snorted and shook her head.
"Either way. We must split up," Cee said firmly.
"But why, Cee? What are you not telling us?" Raindrop queried.
Cee gave a wan smile, looking back over her shoulder at her granddaughter. "Surely yer must have noticed it... Being in yer presence, Raindrop. Ah've gotten stronger. Ah'm drawing energy from yer, from yer love."
Raindrop blanched at that, wrinkling her nose and taking a step backwards. "Then stop it!"
"Yer don't understand... It's not something that ah can control. It's like breathing, see? Even if ah tried ter 'hold mah breath', as it were, ah would still continue breathing," Cee said with a shrug.
"But... If you're stealing love..." Raindrop trailed off, putting two and two together.
"Eeyup," Cee said with a sad smile. "Whatever the elements did ter me is well worn off. Ah'm back ter being a changeling."
"Then you're not... going to die of old age?" Raindrop queried, her ears splaying backwards, unsure what to make of the information.
"Ah don't intend ter persist in this world. Hence, Ah want yer ter leave me," Cee said with a firm nod.
Raindrop snorted once, shaking her head. "But you'll die."
A soft laugh left the changeling, and she shook her head slowly. "Child... Yer just don't get it, do yer? That's the point. Ah want ter die. Ah'm done with this world. Without Evergreen, this world is just... It's not bright fer me any more. It's like all the colour been drained right out of it. None of this matters. Ah'm going ter fix mah mistake, and then ah'm gone."
Raindrop's ears pinned back a little bit more at that, and she hung her head slightly. "But... I..."
"Child... When yer get ter be mah age, yer'll understand. Life ain't about living fer the sake of living. When yer lived everything yer need ter live, when yer done everything yer need ter do... then persistence is just selfish. Ah chose to leave this world with Evergreen. Ah failed him in that. Ah'll not disgrace our love by choosing ter persist."
Raindrop nodded quietly, understanding that she wasn't going to be able to convince her grandmother away from her choices.
Cee passed over the map with a slight smile, lifting a hoof ter rest on Raindrop's shoulder. "Ah'm proud of yer, Raindrop. Yer got thrown a curve ball by life, and yer facing it head on. There's lotsa ponies who woulda gave up a long time ago."
"I have good friends," Raindrop said in a strained sort of way, giving a soft smile at her grandmother.
"Ah can see that, though Ah'm not so sure about this one," Cee said, pointing a hoof at Sentinel. "Ah can see yer two beating eachother up every time yer get into an argument."
"We got past that point already," Raindrop admitted. "Now we just have angry, violent sex."
Sentinel stiffened slightly at that, Remedy rolled her eyes, and Wisp giggled.
"Atta girl," Cee said, patting her granddaughter on the shoulder. "Now leave. Every minute yer here, is another minute Ah'll have ter spend in quiet reflection waiting fer the end. Ah'm not one ter like waiting."
Raindrop nodded, and then leaned forwards to hug the changeling, squeezing her tight. "Goodbye, Cee... I'm... glad we got to talk before... you know..."
"Ah know, Ah know. Now go, yer got elements ter rescue!"
Raindrop, Sentinel, Wisp, Remedy, and Firebrand all walked up the path toward Canterlot. Raindrop held the map, inspecting it. Wisp was checking over her improvised explosive devices, Firebrand was flexing her wings, and Sentinel was stretching his fore and hind legs, getting ready for a workout.
"So what's the plan?" Sentinel queried Raindrop.
"Well, these scribbles tell me how to get into the crystal chambers beneath the palace. From there, we break into the kitchen, knock out some changelings, and then head up to the Hall of Harmony, steal the elements back, and then we fly away. Anything else, we just wing it."
"Winging it seems to be our favorite plan, doesn't it?" Sentinel asked with a shake of his head.
"It's the one that works," Raindrop replied with a grin, nuzzling against Sentinel's cheek gently as they walked.
"You guys fine with this plan?" Sentinel asked over his shoulder.
Wisp shrugged noncommittally, Remedy nodded once, and Firebrand snorted, rebuking, "I would have to be presented with an actual plan before weighing in judgement one way or another."
"We have no idea what we're walking in to. I'm going to assume that Cee will distract Chitin with whatever she's going to do... Chitin will be just as surprised as we were. We'll take back the elements. By the time we get back, Luna should have retrieved the doctor, and the bearer for magic. Then we just need to find loyalty, and then go and whoop Chitin's ass back to wherever she came from," Raindrop said confidently.
"Well, when you put it like that, it sounds easy," Remedy said sarcastically.
"She hasn't taken into account Murphy's law. Whatever can fuck up, will," Firebrand said with a shake of her head.
"I have improvised explosives for if we come up against a locked door!" Wisp said with a happy bounce. "I don't even mind if you accidentally lock it so that it needs to be blown open!"
"Those are safe, right?" Remedy asked cautiously, taking a step away from the smaller griffon.
Wisp giggled again. "As safe as a sleeping dragon! Which is pretty safe if you don't wake them up, uh-huh."
"That's what I thought," Remedy said, taking another step away, bumping into Firebrand.
Firebrand huffed, pushing the nurse with a hoof, sending her stumbling back towards Wisp.
Raindrop turned around, stopping and growling at the three of them. "Alright, children, do you think you can possibly keep it together long enough for us to get this done?!"
"If Wisp doesn't blow us up," Firebrand stated immediately.
"If you keep that thing away from me," Remedy said, pointing at Firebrand and scowling.
"If I don't blow us up!" Wisp squeaked in affirmation, nodding earnestly.
Raindrop rolled her eyes once, huffing and turning to face the front again.
"This is going to go spectacularly wrong, isn't it?" Sentinel asked of Raindrop.
Raindrop nodded once, sighing. "So spectacularly wrong."