Ink Well stood on the balcony of the capitol building, looking grimly at the chaos below. There was a crowd of ponies from the door filling three blocks of Mane Street, all of them unicorns and their families clambering to get out of the cities and across the borders to the Solar Empire. And that was just in that direction. Coming in the east side of the building the line of pegasi and their families needing homes after fleeing the empire was astonishing, at least rivaling if not surpassing the unicorn line. It was all a mess.
Even worse, a keen eye could see members of the 'wrong' race in both lines, keeping their heads low and sticking close to their partners as they fretted for what would become of them in their new nations. Ink Well had witnessed the Battle Beneath Cloudsdale, he'd heard with his own ears the threats Princess Celestia had laid out after the pegasi's 'counter attack,' and he, of course, felt an innate fear for his feathered kin willing to brave it, but he'd also seen what had been done in retaliation an entire nation away. The pegasi, he felt, would at least survive. He wasn't so sure about the unicorns.
He, more than most, understood the riotous rage ruffling the pegasi's feathers. Cloudsdale was his home for so many years, and even when it wasn't, he was loyal to the floating city and its ancient cultural heritage. Even when he'd witnessed and stopped the atrocity going on within its city limits, he never tarred the pristine clouds with that brush of shame. And, unlike most of the rioters below, he had watched it burn, turn to mist, and break apart as it tumbled from the sky. He had witnessed the injured ponies plummeting to the hard ground, watched the wounded valiantly fight to save what buildings they could, and he felt the hole deep in his heart where his son had once stood. He understood why the pegasi raged, but even through his tears and keening grief, he didn't see how he could ever join them.
“We fear the numbers will never end,” said President Luna, alerting Ink Well that she had joined him to oversee it all. There was worry in her voice that carried to her cyan eyes as she scanned the scene before her. “Our nation would empty out its borders before the week's end were it not for those we are struggling to find room for. At least the homes won't remain empty for long...”
She placed a booted hoof on the banister, the cobalt metal clinking lightly as she put it down. She looked at Ink Well, clearly hoping for some conversation in her brief free time away from the throngs below. But just because the time was free did not mean she was relaxed. She was always dressed in armor now, believing that if she would ask her ponies to go to war, she should be prepared to join the fight, and despite her advising against it, the decorative design of her armor, matching both the color and the shapes of her flag, truly showed her as a champion of her nation. Even her mane was ready for war, no longer long and flowing, but bobbed as short as her tail was, the ethereal stars still shimmering with her every movement and gleaming off of the small armored circlet she wore on her crest.
Her worry broke as she looked at Ink Well, a little life being breathed into her movements as her demeanor eased outside the presence of the masses. “How are you holding up, friend? These days have been hard on us, but could only have been more so on you.”
Ink Well shook his head sadly, his age showing in the crows feet at the edges of his eyes. “This is all... madness. From the bottom to the top, none of this makes any sense. But... I believe you are doing the right thing. Better to let them leave now in peace then end up like that community outside of Trottingham...” He sighed, looking out into the city, where even now guards held back the protesters just waiting to turn violent. “You'd think we'd all have seen enough destruction.”
Luna walked over to his side, placing an armored hoof on his shoulder. “We have. All of us. But despite the best efforts of the ages, when hurt and frightened, ponies still run for safety and fight any who may threaten it.” The gesture was comforting, but the effect was cold and heavy, leaving him chilled as she removed her hoof and continued to speak. “Unfortunately, it has revitalized the war effort. Ponies are signing up in droves to retaliate, and we cannot afford to turn them down.” It was her turn to sigh. “We shall have to remind them their enemy is not the ponies themselves, but the tyranny the enemy represents, else we fear very little shall stop the cycle from continuing. And even that will do little to help those still within our cities.”
“Your propaganda machine had better be well oiled, or it will only print in blood. These ponies you are saving won't dampen the fire the loss of those choosing to stay could ignite.” Ink Well looked over at Luna, once more seeing the worry on her face. It was well founded. “But you know all too well what could happen if an uncaring regent is careless with her iron hoof.”
“And this is why our every step is chosen carefully.” She lifted her booted hoof so she could look at the intricate design on the front of the armor plating. “If we wear our burdens every day, they cannot be ignored or forgotten. They shall weigh upon our mind until the day we are free of them.”
Ink Well looked at Luna, his face determined, though the sorrow in his eyes could not be denied. “One day they will be gone, Selene. The days will come when peace will reign once more and the weight of thousands will be lifted from your shoulders.”
Luna nodded sadly, turning reluctantly to the door to take her place inside once again. “That day will be the first to see us smile again, Ink Well, and we await it eagerly. But in the light of the moon and the sun both, the end is impossible to see. Those days have been delayed so long, even the optimistic fear they never will return, or will be replaced by sorrows we have not yet imagined. We cannot afford wait for them idly, and so, we must return to the work at hoof. Fare thee well, Ink Well. We hope for more wisdom as the days go by.”
Ink Well watched her leave, a fire growing in his chest as he did so. “I'm afraid you hope in vain, Selene. Since you cannot afford to wait for peace,” he said to himself, wings twitching in agitation, “somepony will just have to find it.” He trotted quickly through the capitol building, heading directly for the room he'd been so generously given. There was much preparation to be done, but by that night, there'd be one more room free for an incoming refugee.
* * * * *
Steam Cloud peeked her eyes open and stretched out luxuriously on her slightly musty but oh-so-comfortable bed before snuggling the warm downy quilt tightly in her arms. Judging by how little light was coming through the window, she had woken up bright and early, as she had the day before, but this time it was her choice to do so, and she relished it. No freezing dog nose, nopony forcing her to get moving, no tiresome dead-end job to be getting ready for... She practically purred as she sunk back into her sheets, knowing that this was the life she'd been meant to live for the past five years. Isn't it amazing what happens when you finally do get across that border?
She could see the old clock on the wall ticking away the minutes until dawn truly broke, each sound accusing her of laziness and trying to pull her out of bed. She defiantly stuck her tongue out at it, turning over to look at the sandy beige wall and curl up even cozier beneath the covers. She watched the light from the window appear high on the wall, tracking it as it slowly descended towards her. Once it was there she'd have to start moving. Make the bed, clean up anything she and Rose had missed the day before, do a quick tune up on the Ready Wings...
She scratched that one from her mental checklist, remembering that she'd left the wings back at Rose's house... and had forgotten to check them the day before. They should be alright, she thought to herself. It's not like they were delicately built.
But what if somepony finds the letter? Steam's cheeks blushed at the thought and she pulled the covers over her head. If anypony else reads that... She shook her head, feeling her slightly messy mane rub against the covers and frizz even more than it normally did in the morning. Nopony will. Nopony is using them. Just take a trip over there later and it'll be fine... maybe sooner. You could get breakfast in the process! Assuming Rose is awake. She frowned, moving the cover away to see the sunlight's progress down the wall.
It was much slower than she'd been expecting. Still, when it reached her, she was going to make the bed, clean the room, take a quick morning shower, run to the other house, hope somepony was awake and the door was open so that she wouldn't be bothering anypony, check the Ready Wings, eat breakfast, come back here, check on the work from the night before, plan out the rest of the repairs the place would need, and then do them.
And get Wind's help, that needed to be inserted into the plan somewhere. Though... why did it? It had been so very long since she'd had her own room, she should be enjoying the time to think like she used to. So why was she feeling so...
She shook her head. No, she wouldn't accept that she was feeling lonely. She'd been on her own for years, and she'd never been lonely then. There'd be no reason to be feeling it now! Except that then she'd always been paranoid and miserable and worried about dying, while now she was warm and safe and happy. It was so quiet without somepony else breathing in the room, and the covers were no substitute for a soft wing draped ever so-
Nope. I'm not lonely, I'm not thinking like that, and even if I am, I just... got used to company. Yeah. And there's no reason to bug her anyway! Let the mare be with her mother, for Luna's sake, it's been years! She looked at the light's progress on the wall, positive it hadn't moved since she'd last checked it. She stared at it, daring the sun to continue its game, before, frustrated, she kicked off the comforter, got off of the bed, and decided to meet the dawn head on. With the golden glow of her horn she made the bed immaculate, then spun around to see what needed sprucing up in the room.
Nothing, it turned out. She and Rose had been very thorough, even getting rid of the dust and making sure the water was running before calling it a night. It meant that things were going quite smoothly this morning, as it had been intended. Sooooooo smoothly, thought Steam as she looked at the sun barely peeking over the horizon. Even if she took a slow morning shower, there was no way that she wouldn't—
A knock came from the front door, catching Steam off guard and derailing her train of thought with amazement at how audible it was considering the soundproof room below. Switching from the knock to whoever was behind it, the only pony she could think would be awake this early would have been Silver, who she'd only met the night before and would be hard at work on today's weather. Still, when the knock sounded again, Steam knew it wasn't a fluke and made her way down stairs, through the dormant, shining work of the night before and out into the shop.
There was a moment of hesitation at the shop door, an image of the wanted poster coming to mind, but that was all in the past. She was on the other side of that border, where... well, where Wind might have a matching poster soon, if she wasn't careful, but nopony would go searching for them here, right? No, it was probably just... the mailpony. Or Rose remembering something she forgot the night before. Perhaps she didn't have an extra key, so she had to knock? Reassured, Steam opened the door, ready to deal with whatever was behind it.
But she hadn't once expected Wind. “Good morning, Steam! I hope I'm not too early, but mom was up super early and I convinced her to make her cinnamon apple muffins for breakfast, and they're much too good warm to eat cold, especially on a cold winter day like today is planned to be, so here I am!” She walked inside quickly, shaking her shoulders to knock off some of the snow that had accumulated on her back while she was outside, revealing what was hidden between her wings. It was a large brass harness, with folded bits that seemed a lot like...
“Did you bring over the Ready Wings?” Steam asked, staring at the strap where even now she could barely see the paper poking out, her heart pounding in her throat.
Wind nodded brightly. “Yup! I figured we could get started right away on the rest of the repairs and stuff here, and then, to celebrate, we could both take a quick flight around the town. I could show you some of the sights, give you an aerial tour, it'd be great!”
While Wind was distracted taking off the pack, Steam slid the letter out of it with her magic, folding it tightly and placing it in her own mane for later. It was then that a few inconsistencies from Wind's story hit her, along with the tantalizing aroma of her breakfast held in Wind's wing. “That sounds great, but won't ponies be suspicious of ponies flying around over town? And how early were you up to get your mom to make these muffins?”
Wind shrugged at the questions. “I was hoping they'd let it slide if they saw you were a unicorn, and I'm willing to get yelled at if I'm wrong. And... well, I guess I asked mom to make them last night when she got home, and I remember Flora saying something about mom sometimes waking up super early, so when I got up these were already almost done. But I didn't even eat one, just grabbed a few and came straight over here.” She opened up the bag in her wing, filling the perfume store with the scent of perfectly baked pastries.
Steam pulled one of the muffins out of the bag with her magic, floating it over to her hoof, where it sat warmly and smelled divine. Unable to hold herself back, she bit into it, her tongue delighted by the moist muffin's delicate balance of apple and cinnamon dancing across her taste buds. Her eyes shot open wide as she swallowed her bite and looked at Wind. “These are amazing! I wish I could cook this well.”
Wind smirked, taking a bite of her muffin before answering. “Well... mom might have gotten some pointers from Applejack, so technically these are Apple family muffins, but that doesn't really matter when they taste this good.”
“Agreed!” The two mares finished their muffins, then Steam reached into the bag for seconds, only to empty it as she pulled out one final muffin. She offered it to Wind. “You can have it, you've already done more than I have lugging the wings over and delivering these.”
Wind shook her head, pushing the pastry back. “It's all yours. You've got the harder task ahead of us when we get to the repairs, and you've never had them before.”
Steam smirked, then pulled apart the muffin, splitting it roughly in half and tossing one half to Wind. “Fine, be difficult about it. But we're going to have to work fast if you want that aerial tour to happen in the light.” She ate the rest of breakfast as she walked into the back room smiling brightly, soon joined by Wind doing much the same. In moments they were both fueled up and hard at work, ready to get on with the day and get to the plans they'd made for later.
* * * * *
Rose and Flora walked side by side through town, enjoying a brief moment of togetherness before they went their separate ways for the day. The greenhouse was on the way to the marketplace, where Rose was hoping to find a few ingredients she would need to fulfill one specialized order, and since they were both heading the same direction it seemed silly not to go together. Some mares might have complained about being under their mother's watch, but after how well her advice had gone to Flora, she was thankful to have a mom so wise to walk with.
At the small path to the building they parted ways with a warm hug and promises to be safe before Flora made her way into the greenhouse, wondering what she would find inside. Holding the key in her snow chilled hoof, she unlocked the building, holding her breath as she slowly opened the door.
And letting it out in a slightly disappointed sigh. There had been no huge jump like the day before, though the fact that the crystal bush hadn't shrunk at least let Flora know she wasn't going mad. She watered the plants in the building, then began to compare measurements against those from the day before. Everything was exactly the same apart from one key difference: of the two flower buds that had formed, one was much larger than the other. She had no idea what it meant, but it was something, and every little change brought with it a sense of purpose. Something big was coming, and now she just had to remain patient to see what it was.
A flurry of knocks at the greenhouse door meant she didn't wait very long. It was rare for somepony to disturb her, so it had to be important, though she made sure a set of pruning shears was within reach just in case. She carefully swung open the door, only to nearly be nailed by the hoof preparing to pound again. Luckily, it stopped, the pegasus it was attached to able to contain her nervous energy.
“Flora!” Silver yelled, running into the greenhouse and shoving at Flora's rump. “You need to get to Town Hall! I've never seen anything like this!”
A second shove had Flora outside, looking rather frustrated at Silver's antics. “What? What is it? I was in the middle of something!”
“Flora, your flowers can wait. Get your sister and get to Town Hall, now. Your mom was already on her way.” Silver shut the greenhouse door, then started to shepherd her friend around to the road.
Flora huffed in annoyance. “What is so important for all of this?”
Silver gave her a dead serious look, standing stock still apart from her nervously twitching wings. “Flora, just trust me on this one. Whatever's going on, it's big, and you won't believe me if I tell you so just go. I'll see you there.” Before Flora could question any further, Silver was off, flying in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres.
It was rare that Silver showed nerves like that, and she was never as serious as that last message had been. Taking those into account, Flora decided she'd trust her best friend on this one. Breaking into a quick gallop she made it to Rosewater in no time, sprinting through the shop and slamming open the door to the distillery. This startled the ponies inside, causing a metal pipe to lose the magical aura around it and crash loudly against the floor. “Flora, what's up?” asked Wind, looking worried after Flora's rushed entrance caused her to spill polish all over her wings.
“I... don't know,” said Flora, suddenly feeling completely foolish for her actions. She really wished she'd asked for more details. “But Silver said there's something huge going down at Town Hall, and we should all be there to see it.”
Steam looked at Wind, raising a concerned eyebrow, which Wind met with a small confused shrug. Wind was tempted to tell Flora to head off on her own, but even if it was just some overreaction, like many that flooded Ponyville's streets when she was much younger, it would still be interesting and only cost a little time. “Alright,” said Wind, wiping off some of the oil that clung to her fur and scraping her wings as best as she could on the polish container. “Let's go see what all the fuss is about.”
With Wind agreeing to go, Steam decided her work could wait, bringing up the rear as all three of them went to find out what was going on.
* * * * *
The square in front of Town Hall was filled with enough murmuring ponies to actually create a significant block between Rose and the square itself. It was as if every pony in Ponyville had come out of their homes to see what was going on, and that was no wonder. It wasn't every day that Princess Celestia herself showed up in your town surrounded by a retinue of the highest officials in the Royal Army. Captain Applejack, Princess and Arch Magus Twilight Sparkle, and General Ironsides all stood proudly before a full platoon of knights in shining armor, all surrounding Princess Celestia's Royal Carriage, where the leader of Equestria could sit in unseen safety and watch over whatever was happening.
But nopony seemed to know what was happening, as apart from showing up in town unannounced, the army seemed to be simply standing at the ready, some more patiently than others. The knights closest to the carriage nervously eyed the ponies around them, horns and spears at the ready should the crowd suddenly prove traitorous, a seemingly likely thought in the mind of General Ironsides. He was an old grey unicorn with a strong jaw line and years of tactical training even before the war had begun. Some might have seen him as a relic of a past age in times of peace, but he seemed to be holding his own and truly proving his use these last twelve years.
It was clear that he was more used to the safety of the castle, however, as his gleaming, mostly decorative armor and almost jumpy paranoia showed. Applejack's dinged, heavy plate had been proven in countless battles, with no frills that might stop her from leading the charge in the field, and it sat calmly on her form as she looked almost relaxed to be back home. Even Twilight, in her light armor for those few instances where she was on the front line, seemed at ease, scanning the skies with purpose. Her armor hadn't seen use since that fateful night beneath Cloudsdale, a choice she had willingly made and willingly broken today.
Rose looked on the visiting army with more than a hint of distrust. She still hadn't replaced everything broken by the last time Twilight had shown up in town with armored ponies in tow, and the youthful faces of both Twilight and Applejack just reminded her of her own age. At least Princess Celestia had the decency to look a more proper age for a wise and timeless ruler. Though the fact that she remained in her veiled carriage was unsettling. If she was going to leave the castle for the first time in years, even under heavy guard, why wouldn't she show herself? This mystery was what had most of the citizens of Ponyville chattering in hushed tones.
Nopony in Ponyville could resist some good gossip, and the constant chatter continued until one of the guards broke the silence held by the army. “Incoming forces, four o'clock and approaching fast!” Twilight had seen them long ago and remained calm, but all other heads turned to look where the knight had pointed, jumping at the announcement.
Swooping low and skimming over the trees of the Everfree was a great dark blob moving across the bright sky. It grew larger, then, as it entered the clearing between the forest and the town, it ducked low, disappearing behind the buildings. The General was the first to move, taking a step away from the incoming form and barking out an order. “Knights! Defensive positions! Be ready to attack on my command!” The armored forces got on guard, ready for whatever they were about to face, while he quickly made his way closer to the safety of the carriage.
The dark mass was upon the army in seconds, a hundred pegasi strong as it swarmed over the town. Ponies screamed, citizens panicked, and every knight held up his spear or set her horn glowing in readiness. However, as jumpy as they were, they waited patiently, seemingly driven so by Twilight and Applejack's complete calm as they watched the display with careful eyes. Rose watched on as well, joined by her daughters and Steam, all of whom were held rapt by what was going on before them.
The swirling forces, for all of their apparent randomness, were well organized, forming into a sphere above the Town Hall before shooting down, landing swiftly across the square from the members of the Royal Army. They landed in unison, hitting the snowy earth heavily and standing, despite their tension, at ease, not one of them ready to attack. At their head, closest to the opposing army, was President Luna herself, flanked by Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo. Luna wore her armor, commanding a regal presence, but the only other armored pony was Scootaloo in a set quite similar to Applejack's, the rest of the unit in a deep blue cloth uniform matching Rainbow's. That is, apart from one bouncing sprig of pink moving between the disciplined troops. Nopony seemed to be paying too much attention to Pinkie Pie, and none on the ground had any idea how she had gotten there, but in her wake even the grimmest NLR soldiers couldn't help but smile.
“Knights! Take aim!” Ironsides bellowed, causing the armored members of his army to ready their weapons at the stationary members of the Republic. There were two Royal Army members for every member of their foe, and yet, the Lunar Republic forces didn't shake, didn't balk, didn't even give an inch, standing proudly behind their leader. The aging general turned red at this, anger seeping into his eyes, and he took in a large breath of air before he was frozen in Twilight's magic field.
“Hold, Ironsides. They aren't here to fight, we should at least hear them out.” Despite Ironsides' outraged expression, Twilight took a few steps closer to her enemies, looking directly into Luna's eyes. “President Luna, what is it that brings you unheralded into these lands?”
“We have come to talk to you, Princess Sparkle, as well as our sister, on a matter of utmost importance. We come to talk of peace.” This brought a whole new murmur through the crowd, as well as through the Royal Army, many of whom seemed disbelieving that this could happen. Behind Luna, Scootaloo scowled at her former companions, having known that this would be their reaction.
However, before anything more could be done, the screech of a train whistle wrenched away everypony's attention. A large train of pure crystal was rumbling into Ponyville station, its entrance nearly unnoticed thanks to the display that the New Lunar Republic's soldiers had made. However, even if it had been surreptitious in its arrival, the following moments were nothing similar. The second the vehicle came to a stop the doors shot open, pouring out not just a wave of sparkling ponies in crystal armor, but an equal number of gryphons, who rushed the town square in their own formation, taking up a position on the edge between the two other forces. They were lead by Princess Cadance and, at her side, a large gryphon with a colorful feathered crown perched atop his head, King Grandis.
The arrival of both of these forces together brought confusion to both Twilight and Luna's faces. Together, the gryphons and the crystal ponies had an army that matched the Royal Army, but Cadance was allied with Twilight, while Grandis was allied with Luna. Conveniently, Cadance was more than willing to address their confusion. “Leaders of the Empire and the Republic, we request a council.”
At her side, Grandis stepped forward, proclaiming over the entire square. “For too long we have been seen as pawns in this great war you two wage. For too long we have been made to send aid while receiving nothing in return. While you allow us in your lands, you treat us like toys or leeches, and we will stand for it no more. You will hear our demands or you will fall here before—”
“I did not summon you here to threaten, Grandis. I asked you, all of you, here to do one thing...” The voice carried over the citizens of Ponyville, with no apparent source, and yet many of them should have known it. Rose's eyes went wide at the first words, scarcely able to believe her own ears. She was the first to spot the cloaked figure standing on the steps of Town Hall, his voice carrying past its own ability. “I wanted you to sit down and talk.”
Ironsides looked up at the mystery stallion, his eyes wide with barely contained fury. “And who do you think you are, citizen, to claim to have orchestrated this madness? I will see you suffer for this!”
The cloaked figure paused for a moment, chuckling to himself before he continued. “General, you do not know the meaning of suffering. The ponies around you have watched too many of their friends die for something they didn't believe in. Some of those you call enemy were once your friends, forced from their homes by a cruel and careless decree, while many you call friends only stand by your side for fear of the danger they faced otherwise. And, while it is true that I asked them all to come, I am not the one who actually brought them here. They did that all on their own.”
As the cloaked figure gestured to his right, another group of ponies could be seen waiting in the shadow of the Town Hall. They bore a marking all in the army knew by now: The Peace Corps, headed by their 'fearless' leader Fluttershy. Or, more accurately, she stood in the center of the crowd, edged onward on either side by her personal Angels, her rabbit and Dented. They were surrounded by nearly every doctor in the corps, as well as many a wounded warrior in both side's armor. Yet the wounded did not join their kin, instead waiting to see what developed.
“You may want me to suffer, Ironsides, but I can assure you I have had plenty of time for that.” All eyes arrived on the cloaked figure once again, only to see yet another familiar face having arrived. Rarity stood in the shadows behind him, calmly surveying all the ponies present as the stallion continued his speech. “But pain is not just a destructive force. It has driven me onward and taught me harsh lessons, as it has all of the ponies you see around you. I offered them little, merely a chance at conversation, a glimmer of hope that they may resolve this all in one fell swoop. Peacefully. And every one of them took it. They've learned, some over months, some over a decade, and some over centuries, that we are not so different that we cannot talk. Violence is a solution for the weak and the fearful: it is the brave who step forward with empty hoof and offer peace.”
“Wait a second...” said Wind, brow furrowing as she tried to get a better look at the shrouded figure. “Is that Homeward?”
“No,” both Steam and Rose said in unison, one remembering her discovery, the other knowing the truth no matter how hard it tried to hide. They gave each other a look, asking silently who would be the one to explain, but their attention was soon drawn back to the square.
The General laughed smugly at the cloaked figure. “The weak and the fearful? Do you know who you are talking to? I—”
“I don't think you really belong here, do you General? I'm certain you demanded to come along when you heard of the others moving out, refusing to leave your Princess 'unprotected.' You didn't think two Elements of Harmony were enough, right?” The figure in the black cloak stepped down to street level, walking directly between the two armies, his hood giving the and giving the impression of a stern glare at the General standing on the carriage. “Well, people thinking like you aren't allowed at these talks.” The stallion moved towards Ironsides, looking him in the eyes, before the head tilted, a smirk barely visible from the shadow.
“Do you understand the foe you fight? They rose up, not because they wanted to, not for any petty reason or to rip the nation apart, but because your leader refused to send them the aid they requested. When they needed water, it was being used for you precious unicorns in Canterlot to keep the gardens nice and green, and, after years of neglect and willful ignorance, that was a straw too far. They rallied behind their leader looking for freedom from oppression. Looking to matter again. While Equestria tried to hide its past and pretend everything was fine, pretend it could reign in the will of a people as though they were just an unruly teen, it destroyed the very city that could have saved it and drove all those attached to that city's mistake from the country.”
The stallion stood in front of all of the knights, seeming to dare the spears to fall on him as he spoke. “The Solar Empire is weak, not in numbers, but because it refuses to stop clinging to memories of better times. It ignores its mistakes, and that's why it loses its fight to a smaller nation only fighting for its own freedom.”
The cloaked figure then whirled around, glaring up at President Luna and making his way towards her. “Which is not to say your nation is without fault. You fight for your right to exist, for freedoms and a fear that tomorrow will be taken from you, but your fear has taken over the people. The Republic embraces the new with an almost fervent desire to get rid of the old, and when you are given a black eye, you try to retaliate to show you aren't to be pushed around. You, rightfully, fear that you will be crushed by numbers or torn apart by magic, and so you commit atrocities as bad as those you ran from to escape magic's grip, with plans for weapons that should make you ashamed to call yourself civilized ponies! The other side fights to keep its nation together from these rowdy rebels, and with the way you act, ignoring even the ponies who led you to your freedom, I'm not surprised they fight as hard as they do!”
“And who are you? If you are so brave to point out the nation's flaws, why do you keep yourself hidden away?” Ironsides ran from the carriage to the empty space between armies, only to stall when he felt the weight of hundreds of eyes watching his every movement. He was outnumbered here, and there were far too many armed ponies for that to end well.
But the cloaked stallion did not turn or show a hint of worry. He merely moved a hoof up to his hood, shaking his head sadly. “I am no brave pony. I am the largest coward and greatest fool to traverse these lands. I am, according to some, the Harbinger of War, but to many more I am nothing but a wanderer and a storyteller, always running in search of a way to see others see the truth.” The hood of the cloak fell, revealing the aged stallion with fur the color of parchment, his inky blue black mane kept neatly beneath the tattered and torn hat he wore. “I am Ink Well, Public Enemy Number One, and I am here to end this war.”
A gasp could be heard throughout the crowd, though none made as much noise as Wind and Flora, both stunned that they had not recognized their own father. The moment was short lived, cut shorter still by the barking from the enraged general. “Knights! Arrest that pony in the name of the Princess!”
“You have no authority over me, General.” Ink Well flung back his heavy cloak, spreading his wings wide and showing his off the woven vest he wore beneath, pinned on either side with symbols unmistakable to the important ponies around him. A golden ruby-studded sun, a silver star and cobalt crescent moon, a single feather tipped with gold, and a small heart-shaped phial filled with a glowing green liquid. “I am blessed by both the Sun and Moon, I am the Gryphon's Wings, and as I stand, I represent far more than myself. I am the will of all the people here, the only arbiter in this senseless destruction, the only voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Our land is being torn apart by war, and, with the help of everyone present, I hope to see it safe and sound by Hearth’s Warming Day.”
The General stalled, instantly recognizing the golden broach Ink Well wore. It was the highest honor a pony could receive in the Solar Empire. Nopony had been given it since before the Elements of Harmony had been found... What was it doing on his chest?
Ink Well lowered his wings to his side, his left resting comfortably on his tattered and heavily patched messenger bag. “I didn't want your brand of help, General, but since you are present, I suppose I will accept it as well. In return, there's something you'll have to accept.” He gestured with a hoof, calling forward a sandy colored pegasus with a partially missing ear: the only pegasus to still be wearing the Royal Army's armor. As the knight made his way to the clearing, Ink Well continued speaking. “Whether one nation or many, it is my belief Equestria belongs to all of its inhabitants, be they pony or gryphon,” he gestured to the armies around him, then to the pegasus in the armor. “...or even changeling.”
A flash of green fire engulfed the armored pegasus, replacing his sandy fur and soft feathers with black chitin and a hard clear membrane used to fly. He removed his helmet, revealing his solid blue eyes, as well as the frills that replaced his mane, tail, and ears. The frill on the right side of his head was almost completely gone, matching the ear he'd lost in his other form.
Immediately, weapons were drawn on all sides, none willing to forget the threat those creatures had been so long ago. Even most of the Elements of Harmony took a worried or aggressive stance, only Twilight seeming unfazed by the appearance of a former enemy before her. Ink Well shook his head at the display, a frown weighing heavy on his features. “See? Even torn apart, all of you remember your history lessons and jump at your 'enemies.' It's almost as if you'd still be on the same side if changelings had remained a threat.” He looked around him, his eyes scanning to meet every eye in the crowd, only lingering when they passed over his family. Unfazed, he continued speaking. “It is time for a new chapter to be written in their story. Sandstorm was just the first, but friends, please... It is time to stop hiding.”
There was a long pause, and Sandstorm himself had to give a pleading look into the crowd, but eventually there was another flash of green flame, replacing another knight in Celestia's army. As weapons turned on her, another flash joined, then another, then a half dozen more, each appearance sending the ponies around them scurrying away from former allies. But it didn't stop with the Royal Army. Three ponies in Luna's army changed in unison, standing proudly among their friends even when said friends looked flabbergasted. Even two of Grandis' gryphons changed, one of whom was his personal bodyguard. Then it spread past the armies. Bystanders in Ponyville burst into flames, only to be replaced with changelings as well. Some were proud, some were ashamed of their true form, but in the end, another eight had been under everypony's nose the whole time.
Ink Well motioned to the changelings, as well as the startled ponies near them who couldn't believe their friendships had all been lies. He knew that look, and it had to stop. “I know many of you are scared right now, and I am sure there is a lot of explaining that these brave changelings will have to do to their dearest friends, but this is not a bad thing. As much as you may think the worst, the changelings you now cower from are the same friends you have always known and have been since the day that bond was formed between you. They, like yourselves, are nothing more than citizens of this country, and, like all of us, they want to see a nation returned to peace.”
Ink Well walked back up to the balcony of Town Hall, turning so that he could see everyone in front of him so they knew he was speaking to them all. “Peace seems like an impossible task. Think of how strong Equestria used to be, all of the principles it used to stand for, then remember that it was ripped apart so violently even the Elements of Harmony were unable to come together, creating a rift that set the sun and moon fighting for dominance in the sky they were supposed to share. Fixing it will be nigh on impossible, and it will involve a lot of compromise. A lot of ponies aren't going to walk away from this happy, and a lot of you will probably want to walk away long before any kind of agreement can be met. This will be difficult, you may even think it unsatisfying, but think of the alternative.”
Ink Well watched all of them closely, seeing who was disheartened and who looked uneasy with the whole prospect. It was they he spoke to next. “Right now, you may walk away. You may decide that you 'can't reason with those maniacs' and run for safety, or think that now would be the perfect time to wipe your enemies out. I can't promise you those won't be very appealing. All I can promise is this: if we can't work this out here in the next few days there will be fighting once more. Even as we talk, ponies far away are patrolling like they have been ordered. What if they meet? Imagine the chaos, the confusion, the damage... Now imagine if the talks break down here: take that fight and multiply it a hundredfold. There will be blood, there will be destruction and death, and by the end, many of those you stand beside right now won't be standing when all is said and done. But maybe, right now, in the spirit of the warring tribes that came together at Hearths Warming or just to avoid that image in your minds, all of us can sit down, talk, and maybe, just maybe, find that common ground where something truly great could grow.”
The silence that followed was contemplative and heavy, everypony considering all that had come before. Would they be able to put their fights aside and talk? Could peace really be brokered with the side opposite them? Could they forgive the enemy for all of the ponies they had lost? In the cold winter air ponies pondered the questions, and one saw the time to make his move.
Their army was right there! If he could just take out the leaders... One shot from the alchemical contraption hidden in the Princess's carriage and this war would be over immediately! Ironsides slipped through the crowd quickly, glad that they were so preoccupied by that pandering fool in the center of the square and thanking him for delivering such a perfect target.
Ironsides ran to the side of the coach and was reaching for the secret panel behind the door when a gold adorned hoof lightly touched onto his. He looked up, straight into the ancient magenta eyes of his ruler. “That's enough, General,” she said calmly as she stepped out of the carriage, a hoof lightly touching down in the Ponyville snow.
It was Princess Celestia's first public appearance since the Grand Galloping Gala that year, and the first outside her castle in many more. This alone was enough to draw the attention of everyone there, causing those still loyal to her to supplicate themselves as they always did. She looked over them, and yet, her eyes were tired, the soft regal smile she'd once been known for completely gone. Still, when she spoke, it was with the same dulcet authority she had always held. “This is a golden opportunity we hold in our hooves now and, come what may, it must be seen through. Ink Well has spoken very clearly and truthfully, and I believe many of us have to think long and hard on his words. Tomorrow, once our hearts and minds are clear and set, we shall begin the talks. Until then, we should make camps and celebrate this time we share once more.”
President Luna nodded, watching her sister's flowing mane behind the golden tiara Tia had worn for centuries. Celestia might look the same as she had when Luna had left, but maybe this time things could be different. “We shall be ready to talk in the morning. There is much we all must consider before then.”
Grandius huffed, but was stopped by Cadance's hoof. This was something he was going to have to accept, and reluctantly the king did. “I see no reason for the delay, but if it must be done... We will wait. Tomorrow, though, this is settled.”
Grandius and his forces walked away at that, but there was a brief hesitation between the other two armies, both forces seeming to be daring the others to make a move. Fluttershy's doctors readied themselves for the fallout, but none came. The process was slow, but the Royal and Republic Armies both backed away from town square peacefully, each heading for a different outskirt of town. The last ponies to leave were the Elements of Harmony, all looking as though they wanted to say something, but none making the first move. Eventually, in pairs, they all went their separate ways, Rarity joining Fluttershy's doctors and offering them rooming around the Carousel Boutique.
As the armies dispersed, so did the crowd, the townsponies all going on with their day as though the strangeness had been nothing, though some life had been breathed into the previously dead town. Tomorrow would prove to be something amazing, whatever happened, but the only thing created today were whispers about the changelings nopony had known was among them. It wasn't enough to change the world, but it could at least pass the time before they waited for the morning.
Five ponies remained in the square when it was emptied, though, all waiting for the horseshoe to drop. Ink Well, wrapped in his cloak and bearing the marks of nations and the wear of years of travel, stood silently, watching his wife and daughters to see what they would do. But they didn't even know, none of them actually expecting this moment to ever come. Only the chilling winter breeze let them know it wasn't a dream.
The first to move was Wind Key, recovering from her shock and doing the one thing she'd wanted to for over five years. “Daddy!” she yelled as she leaped into the air, charging him and tackling him into the thin snow with a crushing hug. “I missed you so much... Why didn't you tell me you were Homeward?! Why could I never find you?”
Ink Well opened his mouth, about to attempt an explanation, when it was snapped shut at the sight of Flora, a furious glare sitting firmly on her features. “You've got some nerve coming back like this! Do you have any idea what mom's been through? Not a package, not a letter... you might as well have died for all we knew, while leaving us with the guards! If I didn't—”
“Flora... that's enough.” Rose put a gentle hoof on Flora's shoulder, moving her aside before gently doing the same to untangle Wind from Ink Well. When that was done, she offered the hoof to her husband to help him up, which he solemnly accepted. When finally they were standing there, face to face, they both seemed emotionless, just looking into each other's eyes and reading all that had happened in them.
After a long moment in silence, Rose lifted a hoof to Ink Well's cheek, caressing it once gently before she suddenly pulled back, smacking him hard across the jaw. In that moment he still looked solemn, as though both expecting and accepting that this would be the outcome, which is why his expression turned to surprise when Rose stepped forward and hugged him tightly, love pouring from the gesture. After just a moment of hesitation he hugged her back, tears rolling down his cheeks as he nuzzled against her neck.
She did the same to him, tears she didn't know she had left to cry spilling from the side of her eyes. “Don't you dare leave me like that again,” she said quietly. “We go together or not at all.” Despite her tears, she was smiling slightly, a warmth she hadn't felt in ages coming back to her heart.
Ink Well's hug grew tighter, joined in by his wings wrapping around her entire form. “Never again.” It pained him to do so, but eventually he had to pull away from his hug, looking into Rose's eyes sadly. “I had to go alone, but I will explain everything I can. You deserve that much at least.”
The reunited couple walked towards home, side by side as though the other would disappear if they moved even a step away. Wind started to follow, but stopped, instead going over to Steam and nodding in the direction of the shop. They had spent weeks traveling with him, Rose deserved her time undisturbed. Flora, however, was long gone, unwilling to watch her parent's happy reunion.
It all hurt just a little too much right now.