chapter IX - Rendezvous
With Sweet Apple Acres behind him, Shell needed to find the cottage along the Everfree forest's boundaries and impersonate whoever lived there. He galloped around another tree, and slid to a halt when he heard voices ahead of him. He poked his head out of the cover of the thick oak trees, and saw two silhouettes outside of a small wooden cottage. Birdhouses draped from every tree branch and were settled on the overgrown grass roof. A small bridge arched over a small stream, and would serve as good cover to allow him to sneak undetected up to the pony and subdue her. He looked over the silhouettes and saw one a pony with a long mane that draped past it's shoulders and a tail that was so long it dragged on the ground as she walked. The other was of a smaller bipedal stature. A long mohawk of spines descended his head to his pointed tail, and from what Shell could guess, he was a baby earth dragon.
The mare's form seemed familiar, but from when or where he couldn't tell. He watched the pony enter the cottage, and the dragon stood guard outside. He gasped when he saw the dragon look over to his position. He must have seen his green eyes. He watched it near him, and slid behind a bush, ready to pounce the dragon once he fell from the sight of the cottage. He waited, his breath slowing and his ears catching the slight noises of water trickling down the nearby stream, the dirt and rocks shifting under his crouched body, and the chirping of crickets. He heard the bushes rustle as the dragon entered them, towards his position.
He dug his hooves into the ground, and the second the it entered his sight, he leaped forward. Tackling the dragon to the ground, he shot a quick green goo over it's mouth, preventing the dragon from speaking or using it's fire breath. Fear resonated from the dragon as it thrashed and Shell lowered his horn and touched the dragon's brow. Unlike before though, his hypnosis had no effect. He'd never tried it on a dragon, but never expected his spell to be completely useless. Resorting to his usual back up plan, he lifted the dragon up and, careful to avoid using his horn, headbutted the dragon. The dragon immediately quit thrashing and slipped into reluctant sleep.
He removed the goo covering his mouth, and placed the dragon on his back. He crawled to another tree, and looked out to see the lights in the house still extinguished, save for one window upstairs. He rolled out of the bush with the dragon held by his wings, and landed silently in the shallow stream. His wing twinged with a sharp pain as he folded his wings, but he quickly recovered and crept under the bridge. Peeking out, he saw the last light to go out on the second floor. "There... Just have to sneak inside..." He set the dragon down under the bridge on a small wooden pier, and climbed the bank of the stream and creeped up to the door. He checked the handle, and a click refused his entry. "Locked." He mouthed, and he clicked his horn into the key hole for a brief moment, lit off a pulse of green fire, and pulled out his horn. Trying the handle one more, the door slowly creaked open. He silently tip-hoofed in, and shut and locked the door behind him.
At the Apple house, Twilight looked over Scootaloo for any signs of injury, uttering an occasional spell and lighting her horn occasionaly. "A sleeping spell. Basic changeling hypnosis. I bet Shell regrets teaching me about changeling magic now." Twilight allowed a brief grin to show through her determined look, and looked over to Applejack, who sat across from her over the bed. Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom sat beside her, concern filling their eyes. "She's not hurt. But Shell may have disguised himself as Scootaloo to get through Ponyville."
Applejack couldn't bear to lie, so instead of agreeing she simply brushed Scootaloo's mane out of her face and remained silent. They both heard a gust of wind, and turned to see Rainbow Dash swoop in and land next to Twilight. "Rarity just told me! Is she okay? Is she hurt?" Rainbow Dash looked over Scootaloo worriedly, and Twilight nodded.
"Scootaloo isn't hurt. But she is under a sleeping spell, put on by Shell."
Rainbow Dash shifted her gaze back and forth between Scootaloo's blissful smile and Twilight's studious examining eyes. "Yah can fix her, right Twilight?" Applejack finally spoke. Twilight smiled.
"Piece of cake."
"Ooh! What kind of cake? Chocolate cake, Carrot cake, Cupcake, Sponge cake, oh! Or how about cookie cake?"
Rainbow Dash focused on Scootaloo, muttering the occasional 'wake up, Scoots...', while Twilight and Applejack turned to see Rarity and Pinkie Pie stepping in the doorway. Twilight returned to her spell weaving while Rarity and Pinkie sat next to her, opposite Rainbow Dash. Twilight lit her horn one final time, and tapped it on Scootaloo's forehead. Scootaloo's eyes fluttered open, and she yawned.
She asked, staring up at a frantic Rainbow Dash. Before anyone could answer, Rainbow Dash hugged her tightly. "Oh Scootaloo, I was so-" She stopped and released Scootaloo. "-I mean, it's good to see you, Scoots." She lightly slugged Scootaloo on the arm, and Scootaloo looked around the room to see everypony smiling with relief. "So what now?" Rainbow Dash asked aloud. Everypony looked to Twilight.
"It's almost sunrise. Unless we want to watch Princess Celestia raise the sun, I suggest we call it a night. Luna has sent guards to patrol the Everfree Forest, so we won't miss anything."
They all reluctantly agreed, and left the room. Pinkie, Twilight and Rarity walked off towards town, while Rainbow Dash stayed behind, scanning the orchard intensely. Scootaloo stepped up to Applejack. "Applejack, about where you found me..." Applejack smiled and hugged her.
"He wanted me to tell y'all he'll always be watching over yah, Scootaloo. Now get on up to bed."
She smiled and sent Scootaloo inside as Macintosh stepped up next to Applejack and put a hoof around her. Rainbow Dash turned and looked at Applejack. "Applejack, I want to go check on Fluttershy. Something doesn't feel right. Can you come with me, Mac?" Big Mac nodded and looked down to Applejack.
"Be careful, Mac. Both of you."
Applejack nodded to them. Mac nodded and trotted up next to Rainbow Dash. Rainbow Dash glided up, and flew off towards Fluttershy's cottage, Big Mac running after her. Applejack leaned on the door frame, sighed, and shut the door behind her.
Shell crawled up each step with careful weightlessness as he ascended to the pony's bed room, his wings fluttering to make him float enough to prevent the aged wood from creaking under his hooves. He glanced over the bed, seeing the rising of the pony's chest as it slept. He crept up next to the pony's bed and grabbed it's shoulder. But he felt such a swirl of sadness and sympathy that he winced and let go. The pony stirred, and he quickly dropped to the floor. The pony shifted in it's sleep and lied still once more. Shell rose and again grabbed it's shoulder.
Slowly he turned the pony over and prepared his hypnosis. But as he lit his horn he saw a pink flowing mane cascade the mare's face. A scent of flowers emanated from her locks as Shell looked down in disbelief. "It can't be..." He thought as he pulled the mare's hair back. But sure enough, the pony he was assigned to impersonate, and the one pony he couldn't stand to hurt, lied before him. "Fluttershy." He said aloud. He stepped back, and his mind raced.
"She helped me when no-ling else would... But my orders... But she's the nicest pony I've ever met... But... but..." He bit his lip, and stepped up to Fluttershy. Lightning his horn once more with green fire, he sighed shakily and whispered as he lowered his horn. "I'm so sorry Fluttershy..." As his horn neared her forehead, her eyes slowly open and, as Shell tapped her forehead, they locked eyes. Fluttershy closed her eyes once more and a sweet smile curved her lips. Shell gritted his teeth and tears filled his eyes as he watched the hardest mission he'd ever performed take shape. He had to continue, else he would dwell on his task to much.
He saw a golden beam of sun light streak the wall, and turned to see the sun peaking over the horizon. From Fluttershy's cottage he could see Princess Celestia floating higher into the sky, the sun following. He looked back to Fluttershy and sighed. "The others will be here soon. I have to hide her. She doesn't have a basement or attic, so I might have t-" A sudden presence echoed in his mind.
"We will arrive shortly. Is the soft shell taken care of?"
The same voice from before echoed in his head. "She's under hypnosis, but there is no place to cocoon her." He heard an angered hiss that chilled his spine.
"Then take her outside. She will have to come with us."
Shell's jaw dropped. Then he felt that third presence again. So strongly this time, that communication was lost with the other changelings as the veil that cloaked their conversation shattered.
He heard Twilight yell out with crying anger. He winced as the pressure of her presence pushed down on his shoulders. "Twilight, I hope you get here before we leave. You have to save Fluttershy. Chrysalis knows I can't." Shell cut the communications before she could retaliate, and hoisted Fluttershy onto his back.
This was bad, bad, bad! He didn't want Fluttershy involved! And now he was going to have to take her back to the hive, where they'd farm her for emotions for the rest of her life! His eyes teared up again as he carried Fluttershy down the stairs, a mix of sorrow and pain for his broken wing. He kicked the door open, breaking the lock, and hurried outside. He set Fluttershy down by a tree, and heard the sounds of wings and hooves approaching. He turned to see Rainbow Dash along with Big Macintosh racing toward the cottage. "Thank the Queen..."
As they saw him, he lit his horn and stood off with them. He wanted them to stop him, but he had orders, and he couldn't disobey them, no matter what he thought. Rainbow Dash growled and yelled, "I swear to Celestia, if you hurt Fluttershy, i'll-" She stopped when they all saw three lunar stallions spot them from their patrols and race towards them. They stopped in the between Shell and Rainbow Dash, looking between two. They laughed and turned to Rainbow Dash and Mac, their armor crumbling and their fur falling away to reveal a hard shell beneath. The one in the center stood a head taller than the other changelings, and wore a blue-gray armor over his chest and head.
His eyes and back shell were ruby red, and his back left leg appeared rough and gray as stone. Macintosh dug at the dirt, readying to charge, and Rainbow Dash growled, flaring her wings. The changelings lit their horns, and the two groups broke into a full gallop toward each other. The changelings launched fireballs at the ponies, grazing the tip of Rainbow's wing and skidding off Mac's shoulder. Mac rammed through the group, sending the two smaller changelings rolling back as Rainbow Dash collided with the armored commander and the two shot up into the sky. Mac stomped at a changeling, but it rolled to it's feet and jumped on his back. It sunk it's teeth into his shoulder, and Mac cringed and backed into a tree, crushing it forcing the changeling off. The other changeling shot a fireball that hit Mac on the flank, burning his leg. Mac growled and slumped, his legs shaking. He whirled around, kicking and ramming as the three exchanged blow after blow.
Rainbow Dash swooped around as the changeling commander shot after her, firing a barrage of fireballs that missed by mere inches. One grazed the mane on her neck, and she glanced back and growled. "Okay, not fair!" She shot forward, looped around a cloud, and rocketed at the commander with her hooves out and ready to collide into the changeling. But as she made contact, the changeling decoy flared up into green fire and disappeared, and the commander slammed down on Rainbow's back with his stone leg from above. It shot a green goo onto her wings, gluing them together, and grabbed her neck in it's mouth. It shot toward the ground, and pulled up inches from the dirt, letting Rainbow Dash crash into the ground. Rainbow slowly regained consciousness after a momentary black out, and felt a numb pain shooting up her leg when she attempted to stand.
A sharp ringing was all she could hear as Mac was tackled down and bitten repeatedly by the two changelings. Shell cringed as they sank their teeth into the stallion, and growled. He ran over and shoved the changelings off as one was about to bite at his neck. "Enough! He's to weak to move you parasprites!" The changelings grumbled and turned to see their commander land. He surveyed the defeated ponies and nodded.
"Good. Very good. Take the elements, leave the stallion." The two changelings looked on with clueless expressions. Shell shook his head, remembering how the intelligence of the hoof-soldiers was a bit lacking. The commander hissed. "The yellow and blue ones, you imbeciles. Grab them and let's go. The stallion will bleed out before we will return to the ruins. Let him die."
As the changelings grabbed Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, the commander stood with them, barking orders. Shell dropped next to a heavily wounded Macintosh, and with a pink glow of his horn, closed up enough bites to stop him from bleeding out. Mac's ear twitched as he heard Shell shakily speak. "Dear Chrysalis, what have I done? Mac, please don't die. Your the only one who can warn Twilight. Please, don't die Mac..." Mac's eyes shakily opened, and he reached out to grip Shell's hoof with his own and nodded.
Shell placed a hoof on his shoulder and stood. He trotted over to the commander and saluted. He lit his horn, rose his hoof to it, lighting his hoof, and brought his hoof to the ground with a 'C' shaped streak of fire. The armored changeling looked over to Shell and laughed. "Well done, Iron shell! The Queen will want to here your story on how you single-handedly outsmarted the princesses and these intolerable soft shell element wielders. I knew you were to loyal to die."
'Do... we know each other, commander?"
"Ahh, you must still be suffering from the amnesia. I am Stone Leg! Captain of the Queen's royal guard and second in command of the changeling swarm!" The commander pronounced his title proudly, clearly showing off his superiority to the hoof-soldiers. The name struck a cord in Shell's mind, and he remembered seeing Stone Leg before he had his red eyes and shell. The commander's nickname, though very few called him by it, was Stone Leg. Shell never learned how the he got his crippling injury, but the last changeling that asked had nearly all of his teeth broken by a swift kick from his rock hard hoof. They pieced the poor sod's mouth back together, but ever since then the changelings had been terrified of Stone Leg.
Stone Leg carried Fluttershy on his back, despite Shell's objections that she wasn't worth the hall. He took it upon himself to carry Rainbow Dash, careful to avoid touching her broken front leg. He noticed Stone Leg stepped with a limp from his leg, and realized that stone Leg must have been the guard that always watched over him at the castle. Following the other changelings, he reluctantly entered the forest, the colorful town disappearing behind overgrown trees and grass.