Iron Shell sat with a stiff back as he picked at his food while Macintosh, Granny Smith, Applejack and the crusaders laughed and conversed over a dinner of an assortment of apple dishes. The tension in the air was suffocating from having to act as normal as possible (as normal as Rainbow Dash was) and keep a constant focus on his disguise magic. With half his concentration in his disguise and the other in his etiquette, he only responded to Scootaloo's many questions with a nod or shake of his head. He was shaken from his daze by something furry brushing his leg, and looked down to see a brown and white herding dog sniffing his leg. Nervous, he pushed it away. Apple Bloom saw this, and looked under the table. "Winona! Leave Rainbow Dash alone!"
Winona stepped out from under the table, growling at Rainbow Dash. "What's goin' on with Winona, Applejack? She never growled at anypony before." Shell watched Winona carefully, ready to jump out of his seat if the dog became violent.
"Girl, heel!" Applejack called to Winona. Winona stepped over to Applejack and put her head in Applejack's lap. "Sorry, sweat pea. Winona's usually nice to everypony." Shell nodded, silently sighing, and returned to his food. Filly foolin' dog was going to give him away.
Once everypony had finished, the fillies got into their pajamas. Apple Bloom's was, expectantly, red with a dotted green apple pattern. Sweetie Belle shifted uncomfortably in her light violet silk sleep garment, and Scootaloo's was the most surprising to Shell. It was a sky blue color, dotted with patches of different cutie marks, from Twilight's to Luna's, Applejack's to Vinyl Scratch's, and directly over Scootaloo's flank sat Rainbow Dash's cloud and rain-bolt.
The night stretched on as the fillies spent hours playing video games like 'Daring Do's Daring Adventures' and one that Shell thought pointless, 'Wolf Puncher 2'. After that they spent another hour or so styling each others manes, and turned to him with hair ties and other mane products. He groaned, almost wishing he as back at the castle. Then he thought back on Rainbow Dash's position, and chuckled to himself. He could do this. It was just a sleep over, right? When Applejack stepped in, she had to cover her mouth with her hoof to avoid bursting into laughter at the sight of the three fillies wrestling to keep hair pins and rollers in Rainbow Dash's rainbow mane, their victim looking to her with pleading eyes.
Once Applejack settled her laughing fits into occasional giggles, she removed the styling tools from Rainbow Dash's hair and began to tuck in the fillies, starting with Sweetie Belle. "Hehe, alright girls, time to hit the hay." She said as she allowed Apple Bloom to hop on her back and into her elevated bed. Sweetie Belle sat up in her bed, a look of curiosity in her eyes. "But how are we supposed to hit the hay when it's raining outside?" She asked, displaying her youthful ignorance. Scootaloo and Apple Bloom slapped their hooves to their faces and groaned simultaneously, while Applejack smiled and dismissed the filly's question.
Applejack finished tucking in Scootaloo, and nodded to to Rainbow Dash. He stretched and yawned with exhaustion, the day behind him, and flew up into bed as the door shut behind Applejack. The room was now pitch black, save for the faint moon light emanating from the window, and for a moment Shell felt like he was back at the hive. But upon his hooves touching the mattress he felt a jolt of pain course through his back. His disguise flickered for a moment, and his first thought was that he hoped they didn't see him change. He dropped face first into the plush pillow, his legs shaking violently and his eyes filling with tears.
"Rainbow Dash, are you hurt?"
Shell wiped his tears on the pillow and turned to see Scootaloo dangling over the side of the bed, her small wings fluttering to help support her. Managing a smile, Shell turned away from her. "I'm fine. I hurt my wing earlier. It's nothing Scoot." He waited, and soon heard the bed below him creak as Scootaloo returned to her covers. Shell slowed his breathing, his back numb and a tingling still running through his legs. He expected his wing to be sensitive, but if a fit like that happened again, he might blow his cover.
He sighed and closed his eyes, listening to the sounds of the dark house. The soft snores of the fillies and noise of crickets outside were the only noise in the dark room. He nodded slowly. Tomorrow he would leave Ponyville and return to the hive, where his swarm mates would welcome him with open arms. He gasped when he felt his head throb, and a voice called out to him.
"Iron Shell. That was a very bold move at the castle."
He held his head. Changelings often sent these messages when looking for another. He concentrated, responding, "This is Iron Shell. Who is this? Are you near by?" He waited for a response, but only an empty void echoed in his mind. He held his breath when a message came through. A raspy laugh resounded in his head. He felt a chill run down his spine as the changeling's voice spoke out.
"Our Queen has ordered all changelings back to the hive. Have you not received her message?" Shell felt another presence, as if someling were spectating the debate. Ignoring it, he replied,
"I've received nothing. My days have been spent as a captive in the castle of Canterlot."
There was another long silence. He could still feel the spectator as if it made no attempt to hide itself. The changeling hissed with frustration. "We know. The pitiful goddesses Luna and Celestia have taken greater measures to disrupt changeling magic than we thought, then." Shell furrowed his brow. Then how did he escape under his disguise? Shell felt the unknown presence pushing, as if it wanted to speak but was unable to form the words.
The changeling made another hiss, finally acknowledging the mystery spectator. "There is another presence, and it is not of us. We must be brief. Along the Everfree lies a cottage. Go there during the days darkest, while the princesses are preoccupied, and replace the pony in residence. We will meet you there at tomorrow's dawn." Shell opened his eyes with a calm expression when the link faded from his mind as if it were never there.
He remembered the unknown presence that made no effort to contact him. It was weak, almost alien feeling, and above all, close. He could only conclude it was a unicorn who had stumbled upon their conversation by accident. It had to be a pony of advanced magical knowledge, and even it would only have heard hisses and growls. He just hoped it wasn't the unicorn he was thinking of.
Twilight Sparkle sat at her desk as the moon rose higher in the sky, reading her previously taken notes studiously, soaking in all she could. She blew her bangs out of her face, and sat back with a sigh. She suddenly gasped, hearing a mass of hisses and growls echoing in her head. From what she knew it was a changeling message as Shell had described. Was somepony trying to speak with Shell? She lit her horn, trying to decipher the buzzing, as beads of sweat formed on her forehead. She managed to translate several fragments.
"... Can... hear me? ... You near by...?"
She pushed harder, feeling a veil stretch at her efforts but ultimately holding her back. Through her persistent efforts a large fragment leaked out.
"...Everfree... cottage... Replace the pony... rendezvous... Iron Shell."
All at once the veil released and the message dispersed, making Twilight lose her balance and crash into a book shelf, showering her with heavy novels and biographies. She stuck her head out of the pile of books, and gasped. "Everfree... cottage... Fluttershy's in danger!" Spike walked halfway down the stairway, grumbling at Twilight's mess. "Spike, take a note." Twilight spoke with authority as she paced in a circle. Spike raised an eyebrow.
"Twilight, I don't think the princess will be up at this hour."
Twilight groaned. "Then send it to Princess Luna! This is to important to wait until morning!"
Spike grumbled and picked up a quill and scroll. "You promised no more late night pacing..." Twilight ignored him and recited her assumptions and what she heard from the message. Once Spike had finished writing, he blew on the scroll and incinerated it into a purple dust. It breezed out the window, and Twilight waited impatiently. "So, can we go to bed no-" Spike was interrupted by a burp that caused a swirl of purple mist to flow out, forming into a scroll sealed with a blue wax stamp.
Twilight quickly levitated it and broke the seal, rearing back. The only thing present on the parchment was:
'A chariot is en route to the library. We must see you straight away.
Twilight reluctantly began packing her changeling notes and books, and turned to Spike. "Spike, I know it's late, but you're the only one I can trust right now to protect Fluttershy if something goes wrong." Spike saluted, and they heard the clopping of two stallions. "The chariot's here. I'll be back soon, Spike." They ran outside, rain dripping over them, and were greeted by a blue and black chariot, pulled by two barrel chested lunar stallions. Spike ran down the road towards Fluttershy's house, while Twilight stepped into the chariot. With a wisp of air, the stallions dashed before spreading their wings, and flew off into the night towards Canterlot.