Number 404

Dec 20th, 2013
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  1. >A loud knock sounded at Princess Celestia’s door, rousing the sleeping alicorn from a long awaited and much needed rest.
  2. >The normally benevolent princess briefly entertained the thought of sending the fool that dared interrupt her sleep to the moon, but quickly brought the impulse under control.
  3. >Surely whatever business was urgent enough to warrant waking up a sleeping alicorn was worth her attention.
  4. >Then she could contemplate banishment. But no sooner.
  5. >But that didn’t mean she had to enjoy it.
  6. >Groggily she raised herself into a sitting position and called for the servant to enter, not bothering to try making herself presentable.
  7. >The door opened, revealing the newest addition to her personal guard.
  8. “My apologies for waking you, my lady, but I come bearing urgent news.” the masked human said in his typical, overly formal manner.
  9. >”We’re friends, Ohfour, you can drop the formality,” she mumbled groggily.
  10. “I’m sorry, my lady, but I’m on duty. It would be unbecoming not to act as my station dictates.”
  11. >They’d had this conversation a dozen times and Celestia wasn’t going to get into it at such an ungodly hour.
  12. >With an exasperated sigh Celestia dropped the issue. “Very well, Number 404, now what is so urgent you couldn’t just go to Luna? Ruling the kingdom is her job while the moon is still in the sky.”
  13. “Forgive me, my lady, but what I am about to tell you must be known by as few souls as possible. Whichever one of you I tell will be the only one I tell.”
  14. >Ohfour had Celestia’s full attention now. “And why can I be trusted but not my sister?” she demanded suspiciously.
  16. >Ohfour entered Celestia’s chambers, locking the door behind him and thumbing a rune on the wall.
  17. >At his touch the rune glowed a brilliant gold and lanterns all throughout the room blazed to life, illuminating the chambers and eliciting an annoyed hiss from Celestia as she shut her eyes against the sudden brightness.
  18. >”You could have warned me you were going to do that, Ohfour.”
  19. “My apologies, highness.”
  20. >She tentatively opened her eyes, squinting while they became accustomed to the light, but finding Number 404 to be gone from where he’d been.
  21. >She glanced about for a moment and finally found him opening closets and cabinets, scouring every nook and cranny of the room, for what she couldn’t guess.
  22. >”What are you doing, Ohfour?” she demanded flatly, glancing at a nearby clock. “Three in the morning? Ohfour, it is far too early for this.”
  23. >404 swiftly concluded his search, evidently not finding whatever he was looking for, then moved to Celestia’s bed.
  24. >He then grabbed her roughly by the horn, a sharp gasp leaving her as the anti-magic field his kind generated cut off her magic.
  25. >A furious reprimand died in her throat as she felt the cold metal of his pistol press against her temple.
  27. >He pulled her close so they were eye to eye, the black cloth hood he always wore betraying nothing of his thoughts.
  28. “What oath did I swear to you when you inducted me into your guard?” he demanded.
  29. >It took a moment for her to get over her shock, but finally her mind caught up with the situation and when it did she was not happy at all.
  30. >”Number 404, what is the meaning of this!”
  31. >Her breath caught in her throat as she heard a click.
  32. “Word for word, or I pull the trigger.”
  33. >Celestia’s mind raced, the effects of having her magic cut off muddling her thoughts.
  34. >”I-I think it was… ‘I fear not my mortality, I will serve to the best of my ability, I give my life to my masters, I vow to smite my enemies.’”
  35. >Ohfour released his grip on her horn and holstered the gun.
  36. “Correct. My apologies for that, my lady, but it was a necessary precaution.”
  37. >”Ohfour, I demand to know what that was about!”
  38. “I’ve learned of a potential security breach. Canterlot has been infiltrated by one or more changelings, I had to be sure the room and your identity were secured before revealing what I knew.”
  39. >”Changelings? In the castle? How can you be sure?”
  40. “The heart-shaped cookies in the guards’ mess were all eaten.”
  41. >”Heart-shaped… what?”
  42. “A security measure developed by myself and my lords Prince Shining Armor and Princess Mi Amore Cadenza in the wake of the first invasion. A platter of complimentary, intentionally foul-tasting cookies is always left in the guards’ mess hall. No normal pony will eat them due to their taste, but they’re infused with so much love magic that any changeling would be hard pressed to resist eating them.”
  44. >”That’s… surprisingly resourceful. But why was I never made aware of this while you were?”
  45. “I’m a human, my lady, and changelings can only imitate equine forms. Only Shining Armor, Cadance, myself, and now you are aware of this security measure. It’s always best to limit the dissemination of such information to limit the chances of an infiltrator learning of it.”
  46. >”And where did you learn to do all of this? Surely not in the guard.”
  47. “It was part of my job on Earth, my lady.”
  48. >”I thought you were a roadie for a band.”
  49. “I was, yes.”
  50. >”What manner of band warranted such security?”
  51. “Don’t worry about it, you probably wouldn’t like them.”
  52. >”Alright… So you don’t know the infiltrator's identity yet, then?”
  53. “No, my lady.”
  54. >”Do you have any ideas for how to uncover them?”
  55. “Mandatory blood tests for all castle employees, with emphasis on the guards. No exceptions will be made for officers of any rank.”
  56. >”I do not believe our world has the level of technology required for such a task, Ohfour.”
  57. “Then exposure to an anti-magic field.”
  58. >”Their illusions are psychic in nature, not magical. They’re a race of psychic vampires that feed off of a particular emotion, magic only aids the process rather than facilitating it altogether. They only use magic to make the host’s significant other easier to control and less likely to notice inconsistencies in their imitation of the original. Exposure to an anti magic field would only agitate them in the way it would any other pony.”
  59. “Then we do it anyways, only we scan for ponies affected by changeling magic. Then we can determine the afflicteds’ significant other and bring them in for interrogation.”
  60. >Celestia thought Ohfour’s suggestion over, for a moment unwilling to subject her ponies to the unpleasantness of anti-magic. While only unicorns could actively use magic, every pony was infused with magic and would suffer equally from exposure.
  62. “I understand you may have qualms about this course of action, my lady, but I assure you a little discomfort is worth the security of a nation.”
  63. >”You don’t understand, Ohfour. I don’t think there’s any way you could, your species inherently repels magic. But all ponies have as much magic flowing through their veins as they do blood. It would be torture to put them all through that, no matter how brief the exposure is.”
  64. “The alternative is a life under changeling subjugation, provided they succeed. Would you rather see them uncomfortable for a moment, or slaves for a lifetime?”
  65. >Put into such words Celestia found that the decision was a much easier one to make.
  66. >”Moments for years,” she sighed.
  67. “Moments for lifetimes,” Ohfour corrected her. “If they succeed then a few moments of exposure to an anti-magic field will be the least of their worries.”
  68. >”As always you’re right, Ohfour. You have my leave to do this.”
  69. “Very well. I’ll begin making preparations immediately. In the meantime the castle must be locked down, so we’ll need the assistance of Shining Armor. Princess Twilight will be of great assistance with her mastery of long range teleportation, but I’ll need to clear her first.”
  70. >”Wait, are you saying you mean to start right this moment?”
  71. >Ohfour gave her an odd look.
  72. “Of course, my lady, we must act immediately if we are to retain control of the situation. I will clear Princess Twilight immediately and have her retrieve her brother and Princess Cadenza. Once they are cleared then we can proceed with the lockdown and testing.”
  73. >”Why do we need Cadance if we need to lock down the palace?”
  74. “For more heart-shaped cookies, of course. If there’s a chance it might increase our chances of success then we have to try it.”
  76. “Now I must take my leave, there is much to do and little time to do it in.”
  77. >”One last thing, Ohfour.”
  78. >The human stopped in his tracks with his hand on the door handle.
  79. >”When you clear Twilight Sparkle, could you perhaps use a less… traumatizing method?”
  80. “How do you mean, my lady?”
  81. >”Well waking up with a gun to her head and her horn in someone’s hand might give her the wrong idea about the situation.”
  82. “As you will, highness. I will use a different method with Twilight Sparkle.”
  83. >”That still doesn’t reassure me very much.”
  84. “I promise I won’t do anything too drastic.”
  85. >”That reassures me even less.”
  86. “Desperate times, my lady. Desperate times.”
  87. Minutes later…
  88. >”Please put the lighter down, Ohfour! What did books ever do to you?” Twilight practically screamed in her near frantic state.
  89. “Answer my question and I will, but you have ten seconds.”
  90. >”But it’s embarrassing!”
  91. “It’s the only way I can be sure. What was the first book I ever saw in your library in Ponyville? Ten, nine, eight…”
  92. >Twilight bit her lip in panic as Number 404 slowly brought the lighter closer and closer to the innocent book in his clutch.
  93. “Seven, six, five…”
  94. >She couldn't use magic to stop him, he’d just repel it. And she was sure the instant her horn lit up he’d burn the book, there looked to be only one way out of this.
  95. “Three, two, one…”
  96. >”You skipped four!”
  97. “Four.”
  98. >A corner of the spine began to blacken as it came into contact with the flame.
  99. >”It was a copy of Rainbow Dash’s erotic Daring Do fanfiction that she let me borrow!” Twilight shouted in desperation, her face bright red.
  100. >404 tossed the book back onto her bed as Twilight buried her face in the covers.
  101. “Correct. You’re clear.”
  102. >”I hate you.” came Twilight’s muffled reply.
  104. >”You did what?” Celestia demanded.
  105. “You’re the one who told me not to use my gun, my lady.”
  106. >”Why did you tell him not to use his gun? That would have been infinitely better than threatening to burn a book!”
  107. “She believed this would be less traumatic.”
  108. >”You told him to do that?”
  109. >”I did no such thing! I only told him to make it less traumatic than putting a gun to your head!”
  110. “Well evidently it didn’t work.”
  111. >”What’s this all about anyways? Why is Ohfour coming into my room at three in the morning and threatening to burn my books?”
  112. >The mood shifted suddenly, all present instantly becoming very serious when reminded of the dire situation at hand.
  113. >”Twilight, Number 404 has uncovered evidence of changeling infiltration in the castle.”
  114. >”Changelings?” Twilight exclaimed. “You’re sure about this? How can you know?”
  115. “Traps consisting of strategically placed, bad tasting, love infused cookies. They’ve all been eaten, only a changeling would have the stomach for them.”
  116. >Twilight cocked a dubious eyebrow. “Cookies? You’re sure it couldn’t have just been a pony with really odd tastes?”
  118. >404 reached into a pocket and pulled a heart-shaped cookie out, holding it out to Twilight.
  119. >Twilight took hold of the cookie, looking it over suspiciously. “Oh my, these absolutely radiate love magic. You’re certainly right that a changeling would like them. But they don’t look any different from a normal cookie, how bad could they possibly be?”
  120. “I don’t think you understand just how bad they taste.”
  121. >Curiosity getting the better of her, Twilight popped the cookie into her mouth and swallowed it after a few disinterested chews.
  122. >”See? They’re not that… bad… after… oh my.”
  123. >Twilight's stomach gurgled loudly in protest.
  124. “I told you.”
  125. >Twilight’s face began taking on a greenish tinge.
  126. >”I, uh, you’re going to have to excuse me for a moment.”
  127. “Of course, my lady.”
  128. >With a flash of violet light Twilight vanished, the sound of violent vomiting sounding from Celestia’s bathroom shortly after.
  129. >”And everypony knows how bad they taste?”
  130. “Yes, my lady.”
  131. >”Why hasn’t anyone said anything?”
  132. “We told them that you made them to show your appreciation for the guard. They don’t want to hurt your feelings, but unfortunately the guard now unanimously thinks you’re an awful cook.”
  133. >Celestia made no reply, opting instead to fix Ohfour with a very displeased glare.
  134. “Well it worked, didn’t it?”
  135. >Twilight’s continued vomiting was his only answer.
  136. “No need to thank me, my lady, I’m just doing my job.”
  137. >”Oh Celestia, make it stop! I’m throwing up things I haven’t even eaten yet!”
  139. Several minutes later…
  140. >Twilight tossed away an empty water bottle, adding to the growing pile.
  141. >”Oh Celestia, I’ll never get the taste out of my mouth,” she mumbled wearily.
  142. >”Don’t you think that may have been a little much?”
  143. “Not at all. We had to make absolutely sure none but a changeling would ever eat them willingly.”
  144. >”Alright, so far you’ve threatened to burn one of my books, humiliated me, and then gave me food poisoning. Please tell me there was a point to all this.”
  145. “Well the first two were to make sure you weren’t compromised by changelings. In the first invasion they went straight for the royalty, so naturally you’d immediately be under the most suspicion.”
  146. >”And the cookie?”
  147. “That was an accident. I’m very sorry, my lady.”
  148. >”Uh huh. So I assume the plan now is to clear Luna, then my brother and Cadance?”
  149. “No, I don’t want to clear Luna until we’ve managed to lock down the castle. But for that we will need Prince Shining Armor and Princess Cadenza, so you were correct about that.”
  150. >”Why not Luna? Wouldn’t it be best to know she’s on our side as soon as possible?”
  151. “Well imagine she has been supplanted and we subdue her first. What if her guard have been supplanted too? It would tip off any other infiltrators that we’ve caught on to them, giving them ample time to escape. We need your brother here to lock down the castle. Unless you can do that, then we can go straight to Luna.”
  152. >Twilight shook her head dejectedly. “I can cast forcefields, but nothing like the ones my brother can. I could protect a small house, but an entire castle? I couldn’t manage that.”
  153. “Then we’ll need to continue on with our plan. You need to go to the Crystal Empire immediately and verify the identities of Shining Armor and Princess Cadenza, then return here with them so we can continue.”
  154. >”What if one or both of them have been supplanted?” Celestia asked.
  155. “Then subdue them and return them to Canterlot, we can interrogate them here. We’ll just have to make due with what we have if we can’t get them.”
  157. >Twilight looked nervously from Ohfour to Celestia. “Can’t one of you come with me?”
  158. “We can’t risk tipping the invaders off. You regularly move throughout the kingdom, so your leaving won’t arouse any suspicion. However Celestia rarely ever takes any unscheduled leaves of absence and I never leave the princess’s side. On top of that I can’t be affected by teleportation spells.”
  159. >”Oh, right.” The uncertainty in her voice spoke volumes. “I just don’t like the idea of doing something this important alone, I suppose. What if I can't handle it? I was useless against the changelings last time.”
  160. >Celestia nuzzled the smaller alicorn reassuringly. ”Twilight, you know those two better than any other pony, you’re the ideal one for this task. Have faith in your abilities, last time you were the only one of us who managed to see through their tricks. Just because your friends aren’t with you doesn’t mean you’re powerless. Even without them you’re still Princess Twilight Sparkle of Equestria. We believe in you.”
  161. Ohfour shifted awkwardly in place. “Er, yes. We, uh, couldn’t do this without you. I have full confidence in your, uh, abilities.”
  162. >Twilight’s anxiety seemed to have somewhat abated in the face of her friends’ reassurances, awkward as they may have been.
  163. >”Thanks, I needed that,” she said, standing a little taller. “I promise I won’t let you down. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
  164. >With a deep breath to steady her nerves and a bright flash of light Twilight was gone, transported thousands of miles away in less than a second.
  165. >”I wonder how she’ll handle confirming their identities,” Celestia mused.
  166. “One can only guess.”
  168. Meanwhile in the Crystal Empire…
  169. >”J-just calm down, Twiley, you’re not thinking clearly!”
  170. >”I’ll do it!” Twilight yelled hysterically, hundreds of miniature figurines held suspended in the air by her magic. “Prove you’re who you say you are or kiss your action figures goodbye!”
  171. >”How many times do I have to tell you they’re not action figures, they’re hobbyist miniatures!”
  172. >”Shiny, your sister’s right, they’re action figures. And you promised me that you’d donate them to a children’s charity when we moved in together,” Cadance interjected.
  173. >”Hyperspace Hyperwars is a serious thing! They have tournaments!”
  174. >”Please, Shiny? It’s unbecoming of a prince to be seen playing with toys-”
  175. >”Hobbyist. Miniatures.”
  176. >”Oh sweet Celestia. Fine. It’s unbecoming of royalty to be seen playing with hobbyist miniatures.”
  177. >”I’ll have you know I was the Hyperspace Hyperwars champion in the Canterlot Academy Gaming Club! It was in our yearbook and everything!”
  178. >Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. Yes, these ponies were definitely her brother and sister-in-law.
  179. >”Alright,” Twilight said, lowering the collection of tiny soldiers. “I think I’ve heard enough, I’m convinced you aren’t changelings.”
  180. >”That was high school, Shiny, you have to grow up some time.”
  181. >”I did grow up, I helped save Equestria! Twice! I’m a prince!”
  182. >”Um, guys?”
  183. >”And you still play with toys!”
  184. >”Guys?”
  185. >”HOBBYIST. MINI-”
  187. >”WILL THE TWO OF YOU SHUT UP FOR ONE MOMENT?” Twilight screamed, silencing the two.
  188. >”Oh, right. Twiley’s here.”
  190. >”Oh dear, I’m so sorry,” Cadance said, hiding her face in her hooves. “That was so unbecoming. A princess should never lose control like that.”
  191. >”What was that all about anyways? You only threaten my miniatures when I do something really stupid.”
  192. >Twilight glanced around conspiratorially, after a moment settling on casting a muffling spell on the room.
  193. >”There, now we can talk in private.”
  194. >”That’s great, now why are you threatening my miniatures?”
  195. >”Yes, as welcome as your visits are, why choose such an hour?”
  196. >Neither of them liked the look of the stony expression Twilight wore.
  197. >”Changelings have infiltrated Canterlot,” she said, immediately catching their attention. “Celestia and 404 have a plan to root them out, but we need the two of you to do it.”
  198. >”Changelings?” Shining Armor exclaimed. Horrible memories of his first encounter with the psychic vampires surfacing in his mind.
  199. >”Was it the cookies?” Cadance asked.
  200. >”You know about those?”
  201. >”Well of course. Shiny, 404, and myself came up with the idea. I made them myself.”
  202. >”I sure hope you don’t cook like that for my brother,” Twilight deadpanned.
  203. >Cadance cocked her head, regarding Twilight curiously for a moment before understanding dawned.
  204. >”Oh dear. You didn’t… did you?”
  205. >”Eeyup.”
  206. >Cadance gasped and Shining Armor put a hoof over his heart. “You poor, poor thing.”
  207. >”Are you alright, dear?”
  208. >”I don’t wanna talk about it.”
  209. >”Of course, of course.”
  210. >”Let’s just get back to Canterlot and sort this all out. Ready?”
  211. >”As we’ll ever be. Beam us up, Twiley.”
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