“TONIGHT!” bellowed a handsome stallion with a finely combed black mane and wearing glasses. The audience sitting in the studio with him giggled in response to the stallion’s unexpected outburst. Stage hands and radio technicians monitored instruments to make sure the show was recording as expected.
The stallion on stage continued, “Is there a culture of secrecy in Canterlot? Well, the fillies here don’t seem to mind opening up to me!” he exclaimed, throwing his forelegs wide towards the audience. They responded with much giggling and shrieks of delight before the stallion went on. “THEN: I profile the rising sport of ball bouncing! It’s all the fun of bouncing an object repeatedly off your skull, with only half the associated brain trauma! And my guest tonight is DJ-Pon3! She-” He had to stop for a moment as the audience roared with applause. “She is going to bring down the house! Then, time permitting, she’ll play some music for us.” The audience followed up with more laughter as the stallion continued. “Historians now suspect that Star Swirl the Bearded had a lover! ‘Cause nothing turns a mare on like a guy who refuses to shave. THIS IS THE COLTBERT REPORT!”
The audience cheered with delight as Coltbert sat back in his chair, drinking in his audience’s applause as the theme song for his radio show played. The chants of ‘Ste-phen! Ste-phen! Ste-phen!’ thundered through the studio as lights danced across the stage. Coltbert flashed a broad smile at the audience, letting the chanting continue on for a moment before speaking again.
“Thank you, fillies and gentlecolts! Aw, you're too kind!" He paused for a moment as the thunderous applause continued, giving a bashful grin. "Welcome to the Report, in here and out there listening at home! Nation: tonight we are recording in front of a live audience here at the Royal City Music Hall in Canterlot!” The crowd roared in applause again at the mention of their hometown, a rare treat given that Coltbert usually broadcasted his shows from Manehattan. “Canterlot, of course, so-named for the obscenely long distances you have to walk to get anywhere in this town,” he added, pausing for the laughter that followed. “Tonight we are very excited to have DJ-Pon3; she will be out with us shortly, but let’s jump right into the big story from this week!
“Folks, unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve heard about the secret service scandal that has rocked Canterlot this week. And if you have been living under a rock, chances are you’re on the run from that secret service. Anyway, this all started when several employees of the royal government were kidnapped from their homes. Now, since then the ponies have been found and we’ve been told they are all safe and sound, but in the course of the investigation into their disappearance, local police found evidence that each of these ponies were involved in secret missions for the royal government. Basically, they would spy on anyone the royal government deemed a potential threat, sometimes breaking the law in order to do so. It’s kind of like playing Battlecloud, only you get to look at the other player’s board and the weather pony is paying you to break into the seagull’s house,” he remarked, eliciting more laughter from his fans.
“And from there, the scandal has only grown, folks. As the investigation went on, it came to light that there was an entire agency of spies in the royal government, working with Princess Celestia’s knowledge. Now for some reason, many ponies have objected to the idea of a group of trained spies working outside the law and with no oversight save for the whims of the crown. Personally, I don’t mind. My fans stalk me all the time; this just makes it official.” Said fans whooped loudly before Coltbert went on.
“One of these worry-whinnies is friend of the show, Ponyville mayor and Gray for Mane© spokespony Mayor Mare.” He paused as the audience laughed knowingly at his remark. “She had this to say. Jim?” He gestured at one of the ponies off-stage, who began playing an audio recording of the mayor. Judging from the murmur of ponies in the background and the occasional sound of a camera flashbulb going off, it sounded like it had been taped at a press conference.
“I am rather bothered by this news that the Canterlot government has agents who don’t follow the rule of law. It upsets the long-valued balance between the power of the crown and that of the local governments. Now I trust Princess Celestia, but she’s not the only member of the Canterlot government. This seems to me like a dramatic overreach of executive powers.”
“WRONG, MAYOR MARE!” Coltbert bellowed after the tape ended, which caused some of his audience members to giggle. “This isn’t an overreach of executive powers! It’s a reach-around of executive powers! A...” He had to pause for a second and suppress a chuckle as his audience cackled with laughter. “...a loving embrace, if you will, that you usually don’t see coming.
“Now Princess Celestia has refused to comment on this matter, but fortunately the nobility have stepped in to defend the agency. Like my old blue-bro, Prince Blueblood!” The audience giggled, knowing full well that Coltbert made fun of the prince on a weekly basis. “P.B. and I are good friends. We used to be on the same rowing team! Well technically, I was on the rowing team. He owned the rowing team.
“Anyway, in a statement the prince said, and I quote: ‘Frankly, I am relieved to hear of this agency. With all the threats to Equestria, all these ruffians and scoundrels, it is good to know we have ponies bringing the war to their doorstep,’” Coltbert read off a notecard. “And Blueblood knows war, folks. After all, he had to fight off cake!” he added to much laughter and applause. “Some scars of war go unseen. Especially after you have them cleaned off your tuxedo.
“Nation, I think this agency is a great idea! But if the mayors are worried about oversight of this agency, then the answer is obvious: give the mayors their own secret agents who work outside the law!” The crowd laughed uproariously before Coltbert elaborated. “The mayors’ spies can spy on the royal spies to make sure they don’t misbehave. Of course, we’ll need some sort of oversight for the mayors’ spies, so the royal spies will have to spy on them in turn.
“And why stop there, folks? What better way to promote governmental oversight than to make sure every single aspect of the public sector is spied on? What kinds of business deals is your mayor cutting? How much does your tax collector make? What kind of music does Princess Cadence like?! The public has a right to know!” he bellowed, receiving cheers from the audience.
“Then, once they’re all spying on each other and mistrust rules every action in our government, we can set out to achieve the ultimate dream: letting the free hoof of the market decide! Pinkieton Detective Agency? Ball’s in your court! We’ll be right back!” he announced as the audience applauded and the show took a break for commercials.
“Fillies and gentlecolts...DJ-Pon3!” Coltbert announced, sweeping a forehoof towards one side of the stage. There, a white mare with a spiky blue mane and stylish purple-tinted glasses was standing behind a turntable and a set of giant loudspeakers. At the mention of the DJ, the audience roared with applause as she put on a pair of earphones and lifted her forehooves towards the audience.
“Heeeeelloooo, Equestria!” she hollered, much to the delight of her fans in the studio. “DJ-Pon3 is IN THE HOUSE!” She twirled a record over her hoof for a second before smacking it down on the turntable and cranking up the bass. The heavy beat of techno music filled the studio as the audience cheered loudly and strobe lights flickered across the stage. The beat grew louder and became faster and more intense, approaching the climax when the rhythm would abruptly shift. The audience waited with baited breath for the bass to drop...
...But it never did. The intro beat continued repeating for a moment as the DJ staggered backwards from her equipment. The audience watched on in confusion, wondering what was happening before a few of them noticed a long, thin arrow protruding out of the DJ’s chest. The audience didn’t seem to know how to react, with some of them exchanging confused glances, a few gasping in shock and others who thought it was just part of the show. The DJ crumpled to the ground, falling on her back. A moment later there were shrieks of horror in the studio as the white skin of the DJ suddenly melted away, revealing the black, pitted shell of a hideous creature. It seemed to be part-pony and part-insect, with fangs, a spiked horn protruding from its forehead and shining blue eyes.
The changeling struggled to lift a hoof to her chest, wrenching the arrow out of her exoskeleton. Her eyes narrowed as she examined the tip, which was covered in some sort of toxin. She could feel her muscles relax even as her mind remained alert. She struggled not to panic as her body went numb and she found herself incapable of even lifting her legs.
A dark shape suddenly swept towards her. The changeling looked up to see a pony leaping down from the catwalk above the stage, landing gracefully on the ground beside her. She was clad in dark clothing to hide her features and wielded a long blade in one hoof, which the pony quickly held to the changeling’s neck. With the other forehoof, the pony pulled down her mask to reveal the face of a gray-coated mare with violet eyes. She regarded the changeling coldly before leaning over and whispering harshly:
“Where is Vinyl Scratch?”
Vinyl Scratch groaned as she clenched her eyes shut and clutched her head. She had a pounding headache and felt slightly nauseous. Then again, that wasn’t anything particularly new. At least it was nice and dark here.
“Uggghhh...buck me,” she moaned as she began pulling herself across the floor, looking for her nice soft mattress to sleep on. “That’s it, I am never touching booze again.” A stray thought reminded her that she always said this when she had a hangover, but Vinyl immediately dismissed it.
Still, something seemed off. Vinyl was thankful that it was dark, but she couldn’t remember her apartment ever being this dark. And her floor seemed strangely clean as she crawled along it. For that matter, shouldn’t she have bumped into a table or the wall by this point? She lifted a hoof to her face to turn on her goggles’ night vision, only to poke herself in the eye. Her signature shades were missing.
Vinyl frantically began searching for her goggles. They weren’t perched on her forehead or hanging around her neck, so she began stumbling around blindly, sweeping her hooves across the floor in an attempt to find them. “My goggles...I can’t see in here without my goggles!” she muttered. “For that matter, I can’t be seen without my goggles! I have appearances to keep up!”
Her search was in vain. But one thing became clear to her as she looked; this was definitely not her apartment. Sighing, she resorted herself to one last tactic, even though she knew it would hurt. Concentrating, Vinyl summoned her magic, trying to ignore the pounding headache that made her forehead feel like it was being repeatedly bucked. A faint, uneven glow illuminated from her horn and danced across the walls, giving the DJ her first glimpse at her surroundings.
For a brief second she thought her goggles were on, just with the lenses cracked. The walls had a purple tint and were highly reflective, like glass. It took her a moment to realize they were made of some sort of crystal. As she trotted towards the wall, she saw herself reflected in each face of the crystalline wall before her. She looked much like she normally did, albeit without her shades and with dark circles under her eyes. The walls stretched far above her, giving the impression that she was in some sort of cave.
“Where am I? Hey! What’s going on?!” she yelled, hearing her voice echo through the cavern. “Hello? Can anypony hear me?” Only silence greeted her. Vinyl sat on the ground, trying to remember what had happened to her. She recalled meeting a friend at the bar, sharing a drink, then leaving, then somepony grabbing her and shoving a cloth over her mouth...
“Oh. Yeah.” Vinyl sighed as her memories of the previous night came back to her. She had been kidnapped and brought here, which could only mean that something serious was going down. She had to get out of here, but first she needed to figure out where ‘here’ was.
“HEY! CAN ANYPONY HEAR ME?” she yelled again. “Your prisoner is awake and demands a glass of water! Oh, and some aspirin!” She paused for a moment. “And some food would be nice too! I’m not picky!”
Silence reigned. Oh, they were good.
The white mare continued to walk along the walls, searching for any sign of a way out. She managed to circle the room three times, but nothing presented itself. No crack, no opening, nothing but solid wall. The ceiling looked just as impenetrable. Vinyl frowned. Unless she had been teleported into here, which seemed unlikely as that would have eliminated the need to be drugged in the first place, there had to be some sort of door. Which meant it had to be hidden.
Her forehead throbbed painfully and she had to extinguish the light from her horn to stop her headache from getting any worse. In the darkness, she rubbed her temples with her forehooves, gently massaging her head in small circular motions. At that moment, she heard a strange chittering sound.
Her head shot up and she immediately lit her horn again. The cavern was still empty, but Vinyl could have sworn she heard that noise. It sounded like some sort of animal, but she couldn’t quite place it. “Hello?” she called out again.
Suddenly there was another chittering sound, even louder and more urgent this time, which ended with a loud ‘THUMP,’ like something heavy being knocked against the wall. Vinyl approached the wall where the noises seemed to be coming from, only to step back in alarm as one section of the wall slid away, revealing a gray mare with a black mane. She was standing in a very proper pose despite also wearing a saddlebag and brandishing a long blade encased in a musical bow.
Vinyl couldn’t suppress a grin. “Hey, Octy. Fancy seeing you here.”
Octavia sheathed her sword, giving the DJ that raised eyebrow the cellist frequently deployed. “You don’t seem very surprised to see me.”
“Who else would save my sorry flank?” Vinyl replied jokingly, throwing her forehooves around her friend’s neck and pulling Octavia into a hug. The gray mare let her haughty expression drop for a moment, smiling softly as she returned the hug. “So let’s see,” Vinyl continued as she broke the hug. “If I’m here, and if you’re here, that must mean something really big is going down.”
“See for yourself,” Octavia answered, gesturing at the tunnel she came through. Vinyl spotted the bodies of two changelings lying on the ground, both knocked unconscious. “They were guarding this secret door to your cell. Though I must say, it’s not much of a secret if you station a pair of guards in front of it.”
Octavia pulled off her saddlebag and tossed it to Vinyl, who only just managed to catch it. “Here, you can carry that now. It’s got the usual equipment: rope, grappling hook, glass cutters, copper wire, lantern, communications device-”
“Rubber duck?” Vinyl asked, already rummaging through the sack.
“I said the usual equipment,” the cellist replied, rolling her eyes. She began walking down the dark passageway while Vinyl pulled out a lantern. She turned it on and gripped the handle in her mouth before throwing the saddlebag over herself and following her friend through the cave.
“...So...?” Vinyl asked expectantly.
“So...what?” Octavia replied in a confused tone.
“So how are things?” the DJ continued enthusiastically. “What’ve you been up to? How’s your music going?”
“It’s...going,” the cellist answered with a shrug. “The nice thing about classical music is that it doesn’t have to conform to the whims of the latest trend. The classics will be there when I’m ready to return to them.”
“Hey, watch who you’re talking to,” the DJ teased, winking at her friend. “I am the latest trend.”
“I know. I’m very happy for you, Vinyl,” Octavia said in a sincere tone. “But right now I think we need to focus on getting out of here.”
“Okay,” the white mare said with a mock sigh. “So how’d you find me, anyway? For that matter, where am I?”
“You’re in the caverns under Canterlot and I found you by interrogating your doppelganger. As I’m sure you heard, we’ve had agents disappearing left and right lately,” the cellist explained, discreetly peering around a corner to make sure nothing was coming the other way. “When they didn’t come back, we had to move to make sure the rest were safe.”
“But...they did come back,” Vinyl pointed out. “It was all over the news.”
“No, they didn’t. Take a look at your captors and make a deduction,” Octavia said.
Vinyl gasped. “You don’t mean...”
The cellist nodded grimly. “They were changelings in disguise. Somehow, they’ve infiltrated the agency and uncovered the identities of our spies. Once we realized what we were up against, Melody ordered every agent, past and present, put under watch.”
“Well that was nice of her,” Vinyl said airily. “Speaking of which, how is ol’ Double-M doing?”
“She’s under quite a bit of stress right now, so I would recommend not calling her ‘Double-M’ when you see her.” The two ponies emerged out of the tunnel into a small cave. A lone mine cart sat on a rail track leading out of the cave into the darkness beyond.
“Hey sweet, we can take this!” Vinyl said, galloping over to the mine cart. “It’ll be like Daring Do and the Temple of Gloom!”
“You mean in that the competent lead mare has a loud, annoying and immature sidekick?” Octavia asked, smirking.
“Exac-Wait, what?” the DJ inquired, frowning. The cellist chuckled lightly.
“Anyway, that is far too risky. We have no idea where that track leads or if it’s even safe,” Octavia pointed out. “We should go-” She stopped mid-sentence as a loud chittering sound cut her off. The two ponies whirled around to see several pairs of shining blue eyes approaching them through the darkness. Their strange clicks and snarls echoed ominously off the walls of the cave.
“On second thought, maybe we’ll go with your idea,” Octavia said hurriedly.
“Okie-dokie, Ms. Octy!” Vinyl added, already dashing for the mine cart. The two jumped in as the DJ used her magic to begin turning the wheels of the cart, letting it pick up speed as it wheeled down the tracks. The changelings’ wings started buzzing as they began hovering off the ground, but weren’t fast enough to catch the two ponies as they hurtled down the tracks.
Octavia clung to the side of the cart, hanging on for dear life as they raced through the tunnel. The cart rattled loudly as it rolled down the tracks, creating a cacophony from all the noise echoing off the walls of the enclosed space. Vinyl sat in front, her lantern illuminating the tunnel walls, but the cart was going so fast and there were so many curves in the track that they couldn’t see very far ahead of them. The stale air rushed through their manes and their teeth rattled with each bump the cart hit in the track.
Suddenly, they were out in open air, or what felt like it after being inside an enclosed tunnel. The mine cart had emerged into a huge cavern that stretched many lengths upwards, so high that the lantern couldn’t illuminate the ceiling. The track creaked ominously on the stilts that were holding it high above the ground. Vinyl looked over the side, seeing the track run around the cavern in wide circles before reaching an abrupt end over a crevasse where a section of track had fallen away.
“Octy!” the DJ yelled, pointing frantically at the dead end. The cellist’s eyes widened in alarm as she spotted the danger.
“Rope and hook! Quick!” Octavia yelled urgently. Vinyl quickly levitated the rope and the grappling hook out of the saddlebag and tied one of the ends of the rope to the hook before hoofing it over to her friend. The cellist grabbed it and drew her musical bow, pulling the hook against the string as she aimed for a ledge high up the wall of the cavern.
After only a few seconds she let go, sending the hook flying into the air. They watched it sail across the cavern as the cart raced towards its doom. After a moment, they heard a loud ‘clang!’ as the hook caught hold of the rock wall. Vinyl and Octavia had just enough time to grab the rope and tie it around their midsections before the cart collided into the barrier at end of the track.
Vinyl and Octavia were sent flying, tumbling around in mid-air before both felt the sharp, abrupt tug of the rope around their bodies. Suddenly they were swinging backward, praying that the rope would hold. A huge, booming crash came from below them as the mine cart smashed into the floor of the cavern. The two ponies remained as still as possible, hardly daring to breathe as they swung back and forth across the cavern. Each swing became shorter until they dangled limply from the ledge.
“Just like old times, huh?” Vinyl said, grinning. “We should hang out more often.”
Octavia rolled her eyes. “Indeed, just like old times. Now how about getting us out of here?” she added, gesturing towards the ledge above them. Vinyl nodded and touched her horn to the rope, casting her come-to-life spell to allow it to wrap itself around the rock ledge, pulling them up towards the ceiling. They clambered onto the ledge just as they heard the buzzing of the changelings flying through the tunnel they had come through.
“Time to go,” Vinyl suggested, jerking her head towards a nearby tunnel. Octavia nodded and they dashed inside, the lantern bobbing in the DJ’s grasp and casting its dancing light upon the walls as they ran as fast as they could from the sound of their pursuers. The two ran side-by-side, both panting from their exertion. After a moment however, Octavia began to pull ahead of Vinyl without really attempting to. The cellist couldn’t help but note this aloud.
“Um...perhaps it is just me,” Octavia began, looking back at her friend. Vinyl noticed the cellist had a certain glint in her eye. “But I seem to recall you being faster than this.”
“Huh?” Vinyl blurted out, taking short breaths to keep her going. “What are you (pant) talking about?”
“I think being away from the agency has made you soft,” the cellist teased.
“What?” the DJ exclaimed. “No way! I’m in...(pant) the best shape... (pant) of my life!”
Octavia couldn’t stifle her giggle. “I think somepony needs to get back into physical training. We wouldn’t want you getting thicker around the middle, now would we?”
“Just shut up and keep running,” Vinyl grumbled, picking up her pace. Even from the dim light of the lantern, the cellist could make out the faintest hint of a blush reddening her friend’s cheeks. She smirked as they continued galloping through the tunnel.
At last, after a hard hour of galloping, the two ponies could finally see the faint glimmer of light coming from outside. It was accompanied by the roar of water, giving the two a good idea of what they were about to find.
They emerged into another cave, this one large but with a low ceiling and open to the outside world. Spilling over the wide opening was a massive waterfall, one of several that flowed through the city of Canterlot. However, neither of the two ponies were paying any attention to the waterfall or the spectacular view beyond. They both stopped short, all their attention on the shadowy figure of a familiar stallion standing in the middle of the cave.
“N...No...” Octavia muttered, her voice faint and unusually high. Vinyl’s mouth merely fell open in shock.
The stallion took a step forward, allowing a beam of light from the lantern to reveal his handsome face, slicked-back mane and his outfit of a tuxedo and bow tie. He gave the two mares a broad, smug grin.
“Hello, darlings,” Con Mane greeted them. “Did you miss me? What am I saying, of course you did! Who wouldn’t miss this face?” he added, flashing another toothy smile.
“Wh...What... in Celestia’s name are you doing here?” Octavia sputtered, her voice almost cracking from her surprise.
“Enjoying death,” the stallion answered smoothly.
“That’s impossible,” Vinyl muttered, beginning to recover from her surprise. “You can’t be here. I saw you die!”
“Please,” Con Mane scoffed. “It would take more than an airship crash to kill me.”
“But...the cops recovered your body!” Vinyl exclaimed. “Your death was reported all over the news!”
“Yes, I was reported as dead. By cops on my payroll,” the stallion answered, smirking. “I told you: San Franciscolt was my city.”
Octavia snapped out of her shock and, with a roar of fury, leapt at Con Mane. The stallion, taken aback, had no time to react. Within a second, the agent had him pinned to the ground as she drew her sword and held it against Mane’s neck.
Mane, however, did not look particularly alarmed. He smiled up at Octavia, who had her teeth gritted, bracing herself to make the decisive move.
“You made your last mistake coming here. If you didn’t die before, then I will end it here,” she growled.
“I think not.” The words, despite being Con Mane’s, didn’t come from the stallion lying beneath Octavia’s sword. The agent looked up in the direction of the sound, spotting another Con Mane trotting out of the shadows. Indeed, all around them were copies of Con Mane, each giving the two mares the same sly grin.
“You see, you’re going to find it very difficult to kill me,” one of the Con Manes said.
“Especially when that’s not even the real Con Mane,” another one pointed out.
Octavia felt the fabric of Con Mane’s tuxedo and his fur beneath her hooves morph into something hard and spiny. She looked down to see the fanged smile of a changeling grinning up at her.
Vinyl backed slowly towards Octavia and the changeling as the group of Con Manes closed in around them. The cellist did a quick mental count; there were a dozen of them, each emerging from the shadows of the cave and cutting off all escape routes save for one: the waterfall.
Octavia swiftly rose to her hind legs, pulling the changeling against her so that she faced the group of Con Manes. The cellist held her blade threateningly against the changeling’s neck, giving each of the stallions a hard stare.
“Stay back, or your friend here will pay the price,” the agent growled. “Vinyl, get beside me.”
“Right,” the DJ muttered quietly, backing up to stand beside her friend, never for a second taking her eyes off the bizarre sight in front of her. “This is seriously creeping me out...”
One of the Con Manes adjusted his bow tie, looking as smug as ever. “You know, I always thought it a tragedy that there weren’t even more of me for the world to love.” Each of the other Con Manes chuckled, a sound magnified by the same twelve mouths and sending shivers down the two mares’ spines.
“Yes, from all the time I’ve spent with these changelings, they’ve really picked up on my mannerisms,” one of the Con Manes offered.
“And they take their acting very seriously,” said another.
“It would be annoying if it wasn’t so flattering.”
“After all, who wouldn’t want to look at this face?” Laughter erupted from the twelve stallions again.
“ENOUGH!” Octavia yelled, looking increasingly alarmed and infuriated at this flawless display of imitation. It was as if each of the doppelgangers spoke with the same mind. “You’ve been kidnapping agents and replacing them. Why? What did Con Mane offer you?” A couple of the Con Manes offered their answer in turn.
“The chance of a lifetime.”
“An opportunity to take down Canterlot’s elite spy force.”
“To penetrate the Equestrian government.”
“Revenge.” This time it was the exposed changeling rather than one of the Con Manes who spoke. The stallions nodded grimly.
“Revenge for the defeat of the changeling queen.”
“Revenge for what this agency did to me.”
Octavia slowed backed away, drawing closer to the waterfall. She could feel the spray of water on her back as she leaned over towards Vinyl, who was also retreating towards the waterfall as the Con Manes resumed drawing closer to the two mares and their changeling hostage. “Follow my lead, and keep that saddlebag close,” she muttered under her breath.
“Got it,” Vinyl whispered back.
“You know, I realized how much damage a single capable pony can do, much less two of them. You showed me that back in San Franciscolt,” one of the Con Manes explained casually as he took another step closer.
“And what I realized is: if just one of me could cause so much trouble...”
“Why not a whole bunch of me?” another finished with a grin.
“You made a terrible mistake coming back to Canterlot, Mane,” Octavia growled, her eyes darting from one stallion to the next, wondering if she was looking at the true Con Mane. “You can’t hide from the agency here.”
“Ms. Octavia, I’m a spy,” one of the stallions scoffed.
“Hiding is what I do,” another added, in perfect synchronization with his partner.
“Now if you would please, let our dear comrade there free and allow us to take you back to your prison cell with as little distress and blunt force trauma as possible.”
“I respectfully decline,” Octavia stated, placing a hoof on the changeling’s back and shoving it toward the group of Con Manes before promptly turning on her hind legs and bolting out of the cavern. Vinyl was hot on her tail.
“You got the bag ready?” the cellist asked urgently.
“Yep,” Vinyl quickly answered.
“STOP THEM!” one of the Con Manes yelled frantically, realizing something the others didn’t, but neither of the two mares saw which one it was. The sound of a dozen sets of hooves galloping after them could just be made out over the roar of the waterfall.
At the crucial moment just before they reached the edge, aiming for a narrow gap between two large streams of water, Octavia threw her forelegs around Vinyl. They both flung themselves over the edge, easily clearing the waterfall before plummeting towards the ground.
Octavia clung to her friend as Vinyl fumbled with the saddlebag. The cellist squinted her eyes against the rush of the wind, catching a glimpse of the cloud of mist that obscured the jagged rocks she knew must be at the bottom of the waterfall. At last, Vinyl yanked on a string connected to the saddlebag, causing a mass of fabric to unfurl into the air, held to the bag by several cords. It unfolded into a large parachute, catching the breeze and abruptly halting their fall, slowly carrying them away from the cliffs beneath Canterlot.
In the cave, the group of Con Manes - save for one - promptly transformed into changelings. They watched the two mares sail away under their parachute, the changelings buzzing their wings angrily as they prepared to take to the air and pursue them.
“Wait,” Con Mane commanded, holding out a hoof in front of the nearest changeling. The group of villains watched as the shape of a small airship came into view around the waterfall. It was a brightly colored blimp with the words ‘CANTERLOT SIGHTSEEING TOURS’ printed in large letters on the side. As they watched, it began moving towards Vinyl and Octavia as they waved frantically to the airship.
“We can’t go out there now,” the stallion muttered. “There would be too many witnesses. And we need to stay undercover until we enact the plan.” He nodded curtly at the changelings, who nodded back before they all retreated into the depths of the cave.
Melody Maker sat at her desk, scribbling furiously on a piece of parchment before putting down her quill and staring down at what she had written. After a moment she sighed, crumpled up the paper and tossed it into a bin behind her. The unicorn mare closed her eyes and rubbed her temples with her forehooves before opening one of the desk drawers and levitating out a bottle of hard cider and a small glass.
She took a long drink of the cider before leaning back in her seat and looking around her spacious, well-appointed office. It was furnished in the classic Canterlot style, with marble checkered floors, high ceilings, walls painted in purple overtones and tall windows that lent the room a light, airy atmosphere. But here and there were touches that reminded the mare of her hometown of Trottingham: a crystal chandelier, plush leather couches, chests and desks carved from the finest wood, portraits on the walls and a large woven rug in the middle of the floor.
Melody Maker swiveled around in her seat, gazing absentmindedly at the tall stained glass window before her. It sat in the middle of the wall, adorned with the Canterlot coat of arms. She stared out at the gleaming towers of the city and a glistening pool of water below that was surrounded by a tranquil garden, all filtered through the colored panes of glass. Her eyes became unfocused and she began staring at her faint reflection; she took particular note of her graying mane and the growing number of wrinkles around her eyes.
A sudden crackle of static snapped her out of her thoughts. “Ms. Maker?” said the voice of her secretary through the intercom on her desk.
Melody Maker placed the glass on her desk, then cleared her throat before pressing a small button next to the intercom. “Yes, Ms. Gofer?”
“Agent Octavia and Ms. Scratch are here to see you,” the secretary answered back. “We’ve already verified that they aren’t imposters.”
“Finally some good news,” Melody grumbled under her breath. “Send them in.” She removed her hoof from the intercom button and downed the rest of her cider in one gulp, bracing herself for what was to come. It had been a long time since she had seen either Octavia or Vinyl in the flesh. Normally, the agency preferred to keep its distance from its agents, in part to maintain plausible deniability but also to avoid raising the suspicions that would be caused by a bunch of undercover, supposedly normal ponies frequently visiting a government office. However, these times were proving to be anything but normal. She put the bottle and glass back in the drawer and closed it just as her office door opened.
“Ms. Maker,” said an authoritative voice from behind the door. Melody looked up to see Octavia striding confidently into the office. She was followed by Vinyl Scratch, who looked as relaxed as ever behind her signature shades. The DJ’s movements had that eraticism of barely contained energy and an unbridled excitement, while the cellist moved in carefully coordinated, calmly dignified strides. Melody found herself envying their youth before her mind turned to more urgent matters.
“Vinyl, it is good to see you alive and well. Namely alive,” she added.
“Aw, you always know just what to say, Double-M,” Vinyl chortled as she sat down across from Melody. Octavia hissed and poked her friend in the side, but Melody’s face remained expressionless.
“I only let employees of the agency call me by any nicknames, Vinyl,” the elder mare said sternly. She wasn’t looking up at Vinyl as she spoke, instead occupying herself with some papers on her desk.
“Oh.” Vinyl paused for a beat. “Sorry, Ms-”
“Fortunately for you,” Melody added, her tone lightening, “I’m reinstating your agency privileges. Welcome back, Agent Scratch.”
Vinyl’s mouth hung open for a moment and even Octavia raised an eyebrow at this news. After an awkwardly long pause, the DJ finally got her mouth to start working again. “Uh...I’m...not sure what to say...”
“Usually ponies start with some variation of ‘thank you,’ if that helps,” Melody answered briskly, never once glancing up from her papers.
“Uh...look, I appreciate the offer, but—”
“This isn’t an offer, Agent Scratch,” Melody interrupted, now looking up at Vinyl again. “This is a command. I need every pony I can get working on this. The entire agency could be in danger. For that matter, the safety of Equestria could be at stake,” she uttered with a stern finality.
“Hmph. I knew you’d guilt me with that ‘do it for Equestria’ stuff,” Vinyl grumbled, leaning back in her chair and crossing her forehooves. “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.”
“Glad to have you back, Agent Scratch,” Melody said airily, looking down at her papers again and using her magic to grab a quill and scribble something on a form. “Now go check in with the quartermaster, he’ll want to bring you up to speed.”
“Yes, boss lady,” Vinyl said, giving Melody a mock salute. The elder mare merely glared at the DJ as she sauntered out of the room. Once Vinyl closed the door behind her, Melody’s attention turned back to what she was writing.
“Agent Octavia, status report,” the elder mare demanded.
“Yes, Ms. Maker,” Octavia promptly answered. “I’m afraid the situation is much more dangerous than we had originally thought.”
“You have new information, Agent Octavia?”
“Yes. The changelings have somepony leading them. Con Mane is behind this.”
Melody’s quill slipped within her magical grip. She remained completely still, taking a moment to process what Octavia had just said. An icy silence fell between the two ponies.
“Agent Octavia,” the elder mare began, choosing her words carefully, “I was under the distinct impression that Con Mane was dead. By your hooves,” she added, her tone becoming very cold. The cellist swallowed hard before answering.
“I...was clearly mistaken,” she muttered, hanging her head shamefully.
“Are you sure it’s Mane? For all we know, it could just be a ploy on part of the changelings.”
“No, Ma’am. He knew details of our fight that only he would know. It has to be him.”
“You’re absolutely certain?” Melody asked urgently.
There was a long silence. Melody stared down at her desk, not moving an inch. Octavia sat nervously in her chair, watching her boss with a feeling of dread and anticipation. The only sound in the room was the soft ticks of a clock on the wall.
“Thank you, Agent Octavia,” Melody said abruptly. “You may go.”
Octavia quickly stood up and nodded at the elder mare before turning around and trotting out of the room. Melody resumed writing, her quill making scratching sounds of the parchment before her. The moment the cellist left the room and quietly shut the door behind her, Melody stopped writing. She sat there, staring into space for a few seconds before burying her face in her forehooves.
“You know, changing your password every six months doesn’t really make you that much safer,” Vinyl grumbled. “It just increases the chances that you’ll forget your password.”
“Well, that’s the procedure now, Agent Scratch,” the quartermaster, a elderly stallion by the name of Quite, said curtly. “Now pay attention, this is important.” He led her through a large, sterile room that served as the agency’s laboratory. The room was lined with various gadgets and weaponry mounted on the walls, as well as a couple of carriages and larger items covered with black cloths taking up much of the floor space. It was one of these covered items that Quite was currently approaching.
“I think you’ll enjoy this,” Quite said, placing a hoof on the cloth and pulling it off to reveal a gleaming cannon-like device with what appeared to be a large speaker on one end, a chrome finish and handles for holding it in one’s hoof. Vinyl’s jaw dropped as she gazed upon it and she lifted a hoof to remove her goggles from her face.
“Is that...?” the DJ asked, her tone breathless.
“Quite,” Quite answered, smiling. “We improved on your original design. It’s not quite as powerful as you originally envisioned, but the blast is nothing to sneeze at. Additionally, it utilizes a sonic disruption spell which will provide quite the annoyance to any pony you hit it with.”
“Can...can I try it?” the DJ asked tentatively.
“But of course,” Quite answered, pressing a button on the wall, which caused a wall on the opposite side of the room to slide away, revealing a glass window painted with a bullseye on the front. Vinyl trotted deliberately towards the weapon, taking a deep breath before wrapping a hoof around the handle and picking it up. It was lighter than she had expected, but still felt durable. She sat on her haunches, raising the device with one forehoof while wrapping the other around the base of the weapon to steady it as she aimed at the target.
Vinyl inhaled deeply before activating her magic, feeling it flow through her and into the device. A glow of blue light, matching that of her normal magic, appeared in the center of the weapon, increasing in brightness and intensity. The device began emitting a high pitched whine as the glow within the machine coalesced into a ball of energy that continued to intensify. Finally, Vinyl willed the device to fire and a blast of solid noise shot out of the speaker and hit the target square on. It took less than second for the window to be reduced to nothing more than a million glittering shards.
“It’s...glorious,” Vinyl breathed, practically salivating at the sight of what her device had caused.
“Vinyl?” The voice of Octavia announced her entrance into the room. “Ah, there you are. I was wondering where you were. ...Wait, what is that?” she asked, finally spotting the shining weapon that her friend was clutching in her hooves.
Vinyl didn’t speak for a few seconds, clearly savoring what she was about to say. “Oh, nothing...it’s just MY BASS CANNON!” she squealed in an unusually high voice, wrapping her hooves around the weapon and hugging it tightly to her chest. Her eyes were closed and she had a smile stretching across her face; indeed, she was practically shaking with excitement. Octavia wouldn’t have been surprised if her friend began weeping from sheer joy.
“Well, she seems happy,” the cellist commented to the quartermaster.
“You know what? I don’t care about Con Mane, some dumb changelings, any silly threat to Equestria or having to put my skyrocketing music career on hold,” Vinyl said, rubbing a hoof lovingly over the bass cannon. “This...this makes it all worth it.”
“Are you...caressing that machine, Vinyl?” Octavia asked incredulously, but her friend didn’t seem to have heard her.
“I’m gonna call you Wubsy,” the DJ whispered softly in the general vicinity of where the cannon’s ear would be if it had ears. “Mommy loves you, yes she does...”
Octavia exchanged a nervous glance with Quite. “What have you done?” she muttered under her breath.
Quite cleared his throat, looking slightly uncomfortable. “If we’re quite finished, we have the matter of your accommodations to take care of. Word from command is you two are in particular danger from this threat, so we can’t have you returning to your homes; far too risky. Instead, we’re putting you two into an apartment nearby that will be kept under guard.”
“Under guard? By whom?” Octavia inquired.
“That will revealed in due time,” the stallion answered. “But you have my personal assurance that the apartment is in fine condition, in a convenient location, and with enough space to comfortably fit both of you.”
“That’s...wait, both of us?” Octavia asked, her eyes widening in alarm. “As in...living together?”
“Yes, you’d be sharing,” Quite replied simply.
“Never!” Vinyl yelled, startling the other two ponies. The DJ was clutching the bass cannon tight to her chest. “Wubsy is mine! Besides, Octavia wouldn’t even know how to use him!”
“No, Vinyl, apparently we are to share...an apartment,” the cellist corrected her friend, hardly believing the words coming out of her mouth. She had known Vinyl for a long time, but the thought of living with her sent terrifying memories of a litter-strewn apartment flashing through her mind.
“Oh.” Vinyl relaxed and laughed in relief. “That’s good, I thought...” She trailed off and her expression changed as the meaning of what Octavia had just said sunk in. “Wait, what?”
Octavia glanced up at the apartment building standing before them. It was indeed in a convenient location; it sat on the edge of the Royal City, the central district of government buildings and parks that were oriented around the Royal Palace. What’s more, it was on the edge of the Royal City closest to the wealthiest neighborhood in Canterlot, where every street was lined with trendy boutiques, art galleries, sidewalk cafes and fancy restaurants. Only the richest ponies in all of Equestria could hope to afford a place here, and the building matched the neighborhood’s profile. It had white washed walls, balconies overlooking the street and what seemed to be a rooftop garden. It was the kind of place Octavia had only dreamed of living in.
“This looks like the kind of place that would have a noise ordinance,” Vinyl commented wryly.
“Actually, the neighborhood has seventeen noise ordinances,” Quite answered matter-of-factly.
“Grrreat,” Vinyl muttered darkly. “I don’t suppose we could trade off for a different apartment? Maybe in a more relaxed neighborhood?”
“Vinyl!” Octavia hissed. “I am not going to live in some pigsty of an apartment just because you want to blast your speakers at night!”
“How am I supposed to get any work on my music done?” Vinyl cried. “I need to feel the bass!”
“How can you think about music at a time like this?” the grey mare asked incredulously.
“How can you not think about music at a time like this?” the DJ shot back.
“Ladies, please,” Quite implored, stepping between the two mares. “I believe a public disagreement would be in violation of one of those noise ordinances we just discussed.”
“Really? Then how about this?” Vinyl took a deep breath and cupped her forehooves around her mouth. “THANKS FOR NOTHING, BOSS LADY!!!” she bellowed in the general vicinity of the agency headquarters. Several ponies on the street jumped in alarm from the noise.
Octavia merely frowned at the white mare for a few seconds. “Are you just angry because we made you leave the bass cannon at HQ?”
Vinyl was silent for a moment, glaring angrily at the ground. “I just wanted to play with Wubsy...” she muttered under her breath.
“You’ll have plenty of time to do that later,” the cellist chided. “Now stop being immature and come inside.”
“Yes, mom,” Vinyl answered in a mocking tone, reluctantly following the grey mare inside. Quite trotted along in their wake.
The three ponies entered the lobby of the apartment building. The interior was light and airy, with marble floors, high windows and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. On one side was the desk of the doormare, who greeted them as they walked in. On the other side of the room was a set of couches arranged around a fireplace so clean it seemed unlikely it had ever been used. Sitting in one of those couches was a young stallion with a charcoal grey coat wearing a black bowtie and a bowler hat and reading a newspaper. Upon his flank was the cutie mark of an illuminated lightbulb, which stood out in bright contrast to his otherwise dull colors. At the sight of the newcomers he stood up and trotted towards them.
“Doctor Watt Sun, I presume?” Quite inquired.
The stranger nodded, reaching out a hoof to shake Quite’s. “Yes. Quiet, was it?”
“Quite,” the stallion corrected.
“Heh, that’s good. Normally I’m terrible with names,” Watt said with a chuckle. Before Quite could correct him any further, the stallion turned towards the two mares. “And I assume you are Octavia and Scratch?”
“Yes. And you are?” Octavia replied.
“Doctor Watt Sun, engineer and high-ranking member of the Pinkieton Detective Agency, at your service,” he answered, bowing slightly and removing his hat as a show of respect.
“A Pinkieton?” Vinyl asked skeptically.
“Quite,” the quartermaster said. “With every member of Her Majesty’s Secret Service in danger and their identities known to our enemies, Princess Celestia requested the aid of the Pinkieton Detective Agency for our protection.”
“If Princess Celestia wanted to give us protection, why not give us the Royal Guards?” Vinyl inquired.
“Please,” Watt scoffed. “The idea is to keep you undercover. A bunch of Royal Guards would draw a lot of attention, wouldn’t you think?”
“Well then, forgive me if I don’t place my full trust in you,” Octavia said coldly to Watt. “We had some...issues with one of your agents.”
“Ah, you’re talking about Golden Harvest, right?” the stallion asked knowingly. “I assure you, she was taken care of. Nopony breaks a Pinkie Promise and gets away with it.”
“So the Pinkie Promise is a real thing?” Vinyl inquired. “I thought that was just some urban legend.”
“Oh no, it’s real. We take very dearly to the ideals of our founder.” Watt Sun placed the bowler hat back on his head. “Now, shall I lead you to your room?” With that, he turned and began trotting up the main stairs, followed closely by the other three ponies.
They proceeded up to the fourth floor of the building before turning down a hallway and walking past several doors until they reached one labeled ‘404.’ Watt rapped a hoof against the door and after a second it opened to reveal a young mare standing inside the apartment. She seemed to be similarly aged to Watt, with a chestnut brown coat and a cutie mark of a magnifying glass.
The two stared at each other for a moment, seemingly sizing the other up, before both simultaneously traced a hoof across their mouth, pawed at the floor with their forehooves, made a motion as if dropping something, pushed their forehooves along the floor, then traced a shape in the air with their hooves before placing one hoof on their chest and pointing the other to the side. Satisfied, they both stood back up, apparently oblivious to the odd looks the three agents were giving them.
“It’s alright, she’s not a changeling,” Watt said as if this explained everything. “This is my colleague Sharp Eye. She’ll be your other bodyguard, so you’ll be seeing plenty of us both.” Sharp Eye nodded to the two agents as she stepped back to let everypony into the room.
The apartment was expertly furnished, with a spacious layout and plenty of comfortable chairs and couches and a large window that let in lots of sunlight. The balcony had a few potted plants and offered an excellent view of the street below. One corner of the room was devoted to a cozy kitchen that was already well-stocked, separated from the living room by a bar.
“Now, there’s five floors in this building, three below and one above. You’re in the most defensible one,” Sharp Eye said as she began running through a mental checklist of defense measures. “Nopony can see you from the street unless you stick your head over the balcony, and the balcony overhead should provide some cover from anything that flies. One of us will be monitoring you at all times from the building across the street,” she explained, pointing a hoof out the window at another apartment building facing theirs. “Both of your bedrooms have a window, so each room has been arranged so that the bed isn’t within sight of anywhere outside the window, in case of a sniper attack. The walls have been muffled, but loud noises will still carry into the apartments next door, so be careful about any loud conversations.”
Octavia raised her eyebrows, looking mildly impressed. “Well, it looks like you thought of everything.”
Sharp Eye smiled at the compliment as Quite approached them. “Well, we shall leave you to it, then,” the quartermaster said before turning to the two Pinkietons. “Gentlecolt, filly, you may take your rounds.” Both nodded and promptly trotted out of the room, followed by Quite. He turned around and glanced back at the two agents. “Ladies,” he said with a bow before stepping out of the room and closing the door behind him, leaving Octavia and Vinyl alone in the room.
The two mares glanced at each other. “Right,” Octavia began. “Let’s set some ground rules.”
“Oh, here we go.” Vinyl smirked and rolled her eyes.
“Firstly, you are to always clean up after yourself. Wash your dishes after you use them and pick up anything you leave behind. If you want to make a mess, you can do it in your own room. Secondly, anytime one of us leaves, we are to tell the other where we are going.”
“Fine,” Vinyl replied with a shrug.
“And no loud music. Use earphones at all times.”
“Now that is crossing the line!” the DJ cried. “That’s like me telling you you can’t play your cello!”
“Excuse me, my cello doesn’t create nearly as much noise as your tastes in music!” Octavia said indignantly.
“It’s about the principle of the thing,” Vinyl grumbled.
The grey mare relented. “Fine, you can play your music, but just keep it down.”
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. The two mares glanced at each other before Vinyl, who was closest, shrugged and trotted over to the door. She opened it to reveal a elderly, orange-coated mare with a white mane, manicured hooves, a shining necklace and a considerable amount of makeup on her face. “Hello!” she said cheerfully. “I thought I heard voices coming from in here! I’m from next door, just thought I’d say hello! Oh, my name’s Amber, by the way.”
“Hi there,” Vinyl answered. She was slightly taken aback by how friendly this mare was. Ponies who were wealthy enough to live in a place like this were usually too snobish to even bother speaking to her. “Name’s Vinyl, nice to meet you. Oh, and this is Octavia,” she added, jerking her head back towards the grey mare.
“Charmed,” the cellist said, bowing gracefully.
“Oh my, aren’t you polite?” Amber replied, laughing lightly. “Judging from your cutie marks, I’d say you’re both musicians! Are you two in a band together?”
“Oh no, we don’t play together, but we’ve known each other for a long time,” Octavia answered.
“Oh, I see...” Amber said with a glint in her eye. “Well, let me just say that you two are an adorable couple!”
“...What?” both musicians answered simultaneously, looking dumbfounded.
“Well, don’t let an old mare like me keep you then!” Amber chortled, already walking away. “If ever you need anything, I’m right down the hall! Ta-ta!” She waved farewell before stepping into her own apartment.
Vinyl and Octavia remained silent even after she left. After a moment, they glanced at each other.
“...Did that really just happen?” Vinyl asked.
“Joy,” the DJ grumbled, returning inside as Octavia shut the door.
“You know, this could be to our advantage,” the cellist said thoughtfully. “Posing as a married couple could alleviate a lot of suspicions—”
“If you ask me to take you out on a date, I’m bucking you across town,” Vinyl growled threateningly.
“Perish the thought,” Octavia muttered, rolling her eyes.
Octavia fumed, her right eye twitching violently. In her life, she had been through many horrors. In her time as a secret agent, she had gone through lengthy training, snuck into some of the most heavily guarded places in the world, fought countless thugs and done battle with fiendish villains. And she had suffered the injuries for it, feared for the safety of herself and her comrades and faced almost certain death.
But nothing had prepared her for this. This was a diabolical betrayal of her trust. This was a grievous error that its perpetrator would come to regret. This was the single most aggravating thing she had ever had to experience.
“VINYL!” she screamed, pounding on the bathroom door. “LET ME IN!”
“Just a moment, Octy!” the muffled voice of the DJ replied.
“YOU SAID THAT HALF AN HOUR AGO!” Octavia yelled, now trying the handle and finding that it was locked. She had been standing in the hallway wearing a purple bathrobe and clutching a hairbrush, a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo for approximately the last forty minutes. “What are you doing in there, anyway? I don’t hear any water running now!”
“I’m busy! Just give me another moment!”
“NO!” Octavia bellowed. “This is preposterous! Vinyl, I’m coming in there! You will open this door on the count of three! One! ...Two! ...Three!” She waited for a couple of seconds, but nothing happened. Fed up, she placed her forehooves on the ground and gave the door a mighty buck, smashing it open with such force that a few splinters from the wooden frame fell to the floor. Vinyl started, looking at the furious cellist in stunned surprise.
Octavia gave the DJ a double take. Vinyl’s hair was its normal shades of blue, but half of it hung limply over her face while the other half was done up in its normal spiked form. Around her, suspended in mid-air by the unicorn’s magic, was a bottle of hair gel, a can of hairspray and a comb.
“You’re in here doing your hair?” the cellist asked incredulously, beside herself with anger.
“Hey, a sweet mane like this doesn’t happen by itself,” Vinyl said defensively.
“There’s a mirror in the living room! Now get out and let me take my shower!”
“But Octy!” the DJ whined, sticking out her lower lip to do her best pout. “It’s chilly out in the living room! And it’s so nice and steamy in here!”
“OUT!!!” Octavia bellowed, rearing up on her hind legs and snatching the bottle of hair gel out of mid-air before forcefully throwing it into the hallway. Vinyl yelped and dropped her other items, leaping out of the bathroom and barely managing to catch the gel with her magic before it could smash against the wall. She turned around just in time to narrowly dodge the hurled can of hairspray. However, she didn’t manage to dodge her own comb, which was thrown with such precision that it embedded itself in the DJ’s hair. The bathroom door slammed shut in Vinyl’s face, only to slowly creak back open as there was now nothing holding it closed. Left outside with her various hair care products, Vinyl sulked over to the living room.
Inside, Octavia removed her bathrobe and turned the faucet on. “How could a mare who is so unkempt spend so much time on her mane?” she grumbled to herself, grateful for the relieving sensation of warm water flowing over her back.
“So why are we going to the dungeons, again?” Vinyl inquired, keeping pace alongside her friend.
“Holding cells,” Octavia muttered. She had been in an irritable mood all morning, even when the two agents had been called in to headquarters for something urgent.
“Official vocabulary guidelines now state that we are to refer to the prisoner containment facility below agency headquarters as the ‘holding cells,’” the grey mare explained.
“...Why?” Vinyl asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Because the word ‘dungeons’ suggests old-fashioned law enforcement techniques and inequine means of imprisonment,” Octavia snapped.
“But...they are dungeons!” Vinyl exclaimed. “They’re old and underground and made of stone and have big metal grate doors! Are they still lit with torches?”
“No, thankfully,” Octavia answered as she nodded at a pair of stallions, who were standing guard at the entrance to the holding cells. “We finally installed a modern lighting system that enhances the holding cells considerably.” The guards unlocked and pulled open a heavy set of doors, allowing the two agents to proceed.
Vinyl’s description had been apt. They were underground beneath the streets of Canterlot, so there was not a single window. The walls were hewn from stone and indeed looked quite old, if clean. Lining the corridor were dozens of cells, each protected with a locked metal grate door. The only thing that prevented it from looking like an old-fashioned dungeon was the bright, harsh lighting that illuminated every inch of the room in stark detail.
“Oh yeah, this is a huge improvement,” Vinyl scoffed. “Now I can make out all the grime.”
Octavia ignored her and continued down the corridor, trotting towards the figure of Melody Maker, who was waiting for them at the middle of the hallway. She nodded at the two agents as they approached.
“Thank you for showing up on such short notice,” Melody said.
“What was so important that we needed to come down to the d-” Vinyl stopped herself. “Sorry, the holding cells for?” she corrected herself, glancing sideways at Octavia.
“Please Agent Scratch, feel free to call them the dungeons,” Melody muttered. “I’ve been working here too long to start calling it anything else.” She started trotting towards the end of the hallway while Vinyl shot a sly grin at her friend. Octavia merely scowled in response.
“What did you want to see us for, Ms. Maker?” Octavia asked, now walking alongside her boss.
“It’s that changeling you apprehended, the one who was impersonating Agent Scratch. She said she has answers, but she would only speak to you.”
“Me? But why me?” the grey mare responded, taken aback.
“Beats me, but she gave you the location of Agent Scratch.” Melody shrugged. “Perhaps we lucked out and captured the weak link in Con Mane’s group.” She led them to the end of the corridor, where a heavily fortified metal door stood. “See if you can get her to spill where Con Mane is,” she instructed, levitating a key out of her pocket and opening the door. She pushed it open with her magic before stepping back to let Octavia inside.
“Careful in there,” Vinyl warned.
“I believe I can take care of myself,” the cellist answered coldly as she strode into the room. Another bit of magic from Melody shut the door behind Octavia, leaving her alone in another corridor, similar to the one outside but much shorter. There was only one cell in here, separated from the hallway by metal bars. The agent looked inside to see the changeling lounging on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. As Octavia trotted closer, the changeling glanced at her.
“You wanted to see me?” the agent said curtly.
The changeling gave her a savage looking grin and was suddenly enveloped in a flash of green light. A second later, Octavia was staring at a perfect replica of herself. “Ah, Agent Octavia, I presume?” the doppelganger said in the agent’s voice. She stood up and began walking towards the metal bars in a perfect replication of the cellist’s dignified gait. “Forgive me, but pony tongue is far easier to speak when you’re playing the part.”
“I wouldn’t know,” the grey mare growled.
“Hmm, but this form seems to be making you uncomfortable,” the changeling remarked. “Like looking into a mirror, is in not? But no matter. How’s this, darling?” With a flash of light mid-sentence, she had changed into a replica of Con Mane. Octavia suppressed a shudder, but the changeling noticed her discomfort and chuckled softly. “My, that got a reaction. I do seem to have that effect on mares,” she added in the stallion’s voice, winking at the agent.
“I was told you may have some information. Was there a reason you wanted to speak to me, or did you just want to show off?” Octavia snapped.
The image of Con Mane chuckled. “Indeed, I do have information. But first, I need to know something.” Another flash of green light and Octavia was staring at Vinyl Scratch. “Be honest now, where’d I slip up?”
“Sorry?” the agent said, raising an eyebrow.
“How’d you know it was me?” the changeling asked eagerly. “Or rather, that it wasn’t me?” She gave Octavia a goofy grin that was such a perfect impersonation of the DJ that the grey mare had to take a second to remind herself that this wasn’t her friend.
“Why in Celestia’s name should I tell you that?” Octavia muttered, scowling.
“‘Cause I live for espionage! It’s my very life! You wouldn’t understand. You were just trained to be a spy. Me?” With another flash of green light, the changeling changed back into its original form and gave Octavia a wicked smile. “I was born to be one.”
The agent narrowed her eyes. “Not that it will matter to you any longer, but we sent a coded signal to each of our agents, something only they would recognize. When you didn’t respond, we knew you were an imposter.”
“Oh, I see,” the changeling hissed, grinning slyly. “Isn’t it interesting, this little battle of ours? Taking place right in the midst of a pony city, yet just out of sight. Oh, what it must be like to be a pony. Your minds are so placid, so inattentive, so barely used. You hardly consider your surroundings and are ruled by your emotions. And that’s what makes you so...delicious,” she remarked, licking her lips.
“Hmmm. And yet, for a member of such a superior race, you seem to be the one behind bars.”
“Perhaps, but you can’t consider yourself very secure when I can read you like a book.” Another flash of green light and Octavia was staring at herself again. “For instance, just by glancing at you I can tell you slept badly last night, are irritated with your friend and didn’t get a chance to eat breakfast this morning.”
Octavia failed to hide her surprise. “How could you possibly know all that?”
“The evidence is upon you,” the changeling smirked. “Your gait, so careful and dignified, is just a touch out of sync today, likely the result of a lack of sleep inhibiting your motions. I felt the briefest pang of annoyance from you when I transformed into the image of Vinyl, suggesting you and her haven’t been on the best of terms. Or perhaps you are and that’s just the normal state of your relationship?” she mused thoughtfully. “And then your stomach has receded slightly, an obvious sign that you haven’t yet eaten today.”
Octavia suddenly felt very self-conscious. The changeling sat on the floor, enjoying her reaction. “When you’re as skilled at impersonation as I am, you notice the little things.”
“What is Con Mane planning?” the agent asked, trying to steer the conversation back to where she wanted. With each passing second she became further convinced that this was just a waste of time and that this monster had no information to share. The changeling looked unconcerned as Octavia continued. “If you tell me, we can make life easy for you. In return for your cooperation, we can give you protection from your old allies, if that’s—”
“Protection?” The changeling laughed lightly. “I’m afraid you have it backwards. I am not the one in danger, you are. As we speak Con Mane is working to enact our revenge.”
“If you are still working with Con Mane, then why are you telling me this?” Octavia inquired.
The changeling smiled. “I wanted to learn a little more about you before Con Mane sets his plan into motion. When he is done, I assure you that I shall be on the other side of these bars.”
“What plan?” Octavia blurted out before catching herself. Her doppelganger grinned upon seeing the agent’s concern.
“Ambitious stallion, that Con Mane,” the changeling said admiringly, speaking five words in a tone that Octavia hoped never to hear herself say again. “I’ve never seen a pony with such drive. He kept mentioning her. A pony he swore to protect with his life.”
The memory of taking the Oath of Allegiance to the Royal Sisters flashed through the agent’s mind. “Con Mane couldn’t be foolhardy enough to attack Princess Celestia. She’s constantly protected by the Royal Guard!”
“The Guard? You mean the easiest armed force to infiltrate that ever existed?” the changeling replied, yawning mockingly.
“And what’s more, the princess herself is too powerful for the likes of Mane,” Octavia continued in a firm tone.
“She may be powerful, but she is not invincible,” the changeling reminded the agent. “Especially if she doesn’t see it coming. I believe our own queen proved that to you.”
It only took a second for Octavia to realize she was right. An attack that came without warning could spell disaster for even one as powerful as Celestia. Her guards, while presenting a powerful show of force, were not well equipped to repel spies. This revelation hit the agent like a ton of bricks.
“When?” Octavia asked urgently, trying to keep her tone level.
“How long have I been in here?” the changeling asked in a tone that suggested mere curiosity.
“About eighteen hours.”
“Uh oh,” Octavia’s doppelganger replied, cracking a smile that looked like she was barely managing to contain her excitement. The grey mare’s heart skipped a beat.
“What? Why ‘uh oh’?!” Octavia yelled, finally losing her temper and grasping onto the bars that separated the two. “Tell me!”
“Oh dear, I think you might already be too late,” the changeling said mirthfully.
Octavia gave one last fearful look at her impersonator before bolting for the door, galloping as fast as possible. Even in her panic, she could clearly hear the changeling call after her: “Until next time, Agent Octavia!”
“I’m sorry, but you want me to do what?” Shining Armor asked, sounding skeptical and completely bewildered. “There’s been a threat against Princess Celestia and you want me to call off my guards?”
“You can’t trust any of your guards!” Quite exclaimed, clearly frustrated at his lack of progress with the guard captain. “Don’t you understand that we’re dealing with changelings, dear boy? Until you’ve verified that they aren’t monsters in disguise, we can’t trust anypony. Especially those closest to the princess.” Both stallions were inside a pegasi-drawn carriage heading for the Canterlot Racetrack, where Princess Celestia was currently waiting for the start of the Wonderbolts Derby.
Before Shining Armor could respond, a device buried within the folds of Quite’s bowtie began beeping. “Excuse me,” he said curtly before pressing a hoof to his tie, speaking softly into it. “Agent Scratch, what’s the situation?”
“So far, nothing,” Vinyl replied, discreetly talking into the microphone on her watch. She took a long, sweeping look over the racetrack, looking for anything out of place. The stands were full of ponies eagerly awaiting the start of an exciting race. The DJ’s mane was a completely different color with the help of a little magic and she was wearing an outfit to disguise her cutie mark and blend in with the crowd. “But ‘nothing’ might not be a good thing.”
“Where’s Princess Celestia?” came the voice of Melody Maker, who was apparently listening in on the same channel as she coordinated her agents from headquarters.
“Still in her suite upstairs,” Vinyl answered, glancing up and seeing Octavia discreetly pace along the roof of the box suites perched above the stands. Elsewhere she could spot other ponies in the crowd who she recognized as agents, given that they weren’t engaged in conversation with the ponies sitting next to them or even looking down at the oval racetrack. Instead, they were glancing around the stadium, watching for something to happen. Melody had taken no chances with the princess’ safety, deploying most of the agency to the racetrack.
“I don’t like this,” Vinyl muttered. “Even with all our agents here, this crowd is big. Why doesn’t Princess Celestia just skip the race?”
“She said she committed to being there and didn’t want to disappoint anypony,” Melody groaned. “Just told me she’d be careful. I don’t think she fully appreciates what we’re up against. And if the guard has been infiltrated, we don’t want to tip them off that we know. Damn it Quite, what’s taking Captain Shining Armor so long?!”
“He remains unconvinced,” the voice of Quite answered. “Perhaps you would be able to persuade him.” Vinyl heard the scuffling sound of somepony removing a microphone before she heard a new voice.
“This is Captain Shining Armor speaking. Look, I’m personally traveling to the stadium to ensure the princess’ safety. Plus I sent another unit ahead of me to increase security.”
“Call them back!” Melody exclaimed. “The last thing my agents need is more guards to keep track of!”
“You’re telling me the princess is in danger and you want me to pull back her first line of defense?” Shining Armor said incredulously.
“I know you trust your guards, but there’s still a risk that some of them have been replaced. My agents can protect the princess, if you will let us.”
“How am I supposed to know if your agents haven’t been replaced?” the captain shouted back, clearly annoyed.
Melody groaned and put a hoof to her forehead. “Damn it, Captain, do you not think I would have checked for that before I sent out—”
“Hold it!” Octavia’s voice suddenly blurted out of the radio. Vinyl looked up at her just as the sound of fanfare filled the stadium. “Princess Celestia is coming out!”
“I see her,” Vinyl confirmed. She glanced around, noticing many more royal guards. “And it seems like the number of guards just tripled in the last few seconds.”
Vinyl heard a string of barely muffled curses coming from Melody. “Agent Octavia, stay with the princess!” the boss ordered. “Get next to her box and keep an eye on her closest guards! The rest of you, maintain sights on the crowd! Quite, stay with Captain Shining Armor. For all we know, the changelings could be targeting him too.”
“Quite,” the stallion replied.
“I’m on it,” Octavia replied, creeping silently along the roof and approaching the huge Royal Box that stood above the center of the stands. Princess Celestia stood within, looking regal as ever and in full sight of the crowd. On the cloud oval, an announcer was introducing each Wonderbolt to the crowd, who responded with applause at each of their names. At every corner of the stadium and within the Royal Box were the princess’ guards, all looking as stiff and dutiful as ever. Below, she could see Vinyl and a few other agents she recognized in the crowd.
“Racers, take your marks!” the voice of the announcer boomed over the stadium. Each Wonderbolt took their place at the starting line. With a blast of a whistle and the wave of a flag from the referee, the pegasi flew down the track, eliciting a roar of applause from the crowd.
There was a sudden crackle of static over the agent’s radio, barely audible over the sound of the audience. Octavia recognized the voice of Agent Clandestine, one of the oldest members of the force. “I see him! I see Con Mane!”
“What? He’s here?!” Octavia hissed. “Where?”
“In one of the boxes down the princess’ right side. Third from the center,” Clandestine answered.
“I see him,” Vinyl confirmed. She pressed a hoof to the side of her goggles to activate their binocular function. “He’s talking with...is that Fancypants?” The DJ immediately recognized the dapper stallion, with his monocle, tuxedo and finely combed blue mane.
“What’s he doing there?” Clandestine muttered through the radio. “He’s not in on this, is he?”
“I dunno. They’re just...chatting,” Vinyl said, watching the two stallions carefully. “And now Con Mane is trotting away, talking to some of the other guests. He looks like he’s just mingling.”
“Stay on him,” Octavia demanded. “I’ll cover the prin—”
Before she could finish her thought, there was a collective gasp and a few shrieks of horror from the audience. The cellist looked up to see one of the Wonderbolts spinning out of control, hurtling off the track and straight towards Princess Celestia. The guards sprang into action, unfurling their wings and leaping into the air to catch the Wonderbolt before he could crash into the Royal Box.
The audience remained enraptured by the sight of the guards wrestling the Wonderbolt to the ground, not understanding why they were taking such measures. Vinyl’s attention, however, went back to the stallion who was now racing through the boxes, unseen by any of the audience members and heading straight for the Royal Box.
“It’s a distraction!” Vinyl exclaimed. “Mane’s coming right at you, Octy!”
Octavia quickly jumped to the edge and peered down into the box below her, where she could see the stallion quickly yet calmly making his way towards the center of the stadium. With a single deft motion, the agent swung over the edge of the roof, catching the audience members in the box by surprise before she let go, launching herself at Con Mane and tackling him to the floor.
The agent rolled off of him and made to get up, only to see that it wasn’t Con Mane lying on the ground, but Fancypants. There were gasps of shock from the wealthy audience members in the box as the stallion struggled to rise to his hooves.
“Dear me,” he muttered in surprise, maintaining his dapper manner. “What just happened?”
“That mare attacked you!” one of the guests, a rather hysterical sounding mare, exclaimed as she pointed a shaking hoof at Octavia. “How dare you harm a pony of such prestige as Fancypants!”
The agent wasn’t buying the stallion’s disguise for a second. She drew her sword and pointed it threateningly at the changeling. “Stay back!” she ordered to the ponies in the box. “This isn’t who you think it is!”
Every audience member gasped in horror, backing away quickly from Octavia. “Guards! GUARDS!” the hysterical mare began screaming. Her shrieks quickly drew the attention of a pair of royal guards who were trotting past, on their way to assist their comrades with the struggling Wonderbolt. Their faces showed their shock as they entered the box and spotted Octavia holding Fancypants at swordpoint.
“Halt right there!” one of the guards bellowed as they both launched themselves at the agent. Despite their size, they proved quite fast. Octavia barely had enough time to dodge out of the way, dropping her sword and leaping up at the rafters, grasping on to a beam as the two guards sailed underneath. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the changeling scampering away, unnoticed by anypony else.
With a grunt of exertion, the agent swung off the beam and flung herself at the changeling, catching him by the hind legs and causing him to fall to the ground. His head slammed against the wall, briefly dazing him and causing the creature to lose his disguise.
A piercing scream rent the air when the hysterical mare caught sight of the changeling. The monstrosity, now revealed, shook off his dizziness and sprang to his hooves, snarling at Octavia before leaping onto the handrail separating the box from the stands. Now he stood in full sight of the audience. With a snarl he leapt down into the stands.
Pandemonium broke out in the stadium. The nearest audience members shrieked and galloped away frantically, nearly trampling over other ponies in their mad dash to get out of the stadium. The guards holding down the Wonderbolt glanced up at the source of the chaos, which gave the Wonderbolt the opportunity to worm his way out of their grasp. With a flash of green light, the Wonderbolt transformed into the form of a changeling and leapt away into the thick of the panicking crowd.
Octavia jumped to her hooves and was quickly joined by the two guards as they looked down at the stands, trying to spot the changeling but unable to see anything except ponies running for their lives. The creature had vanished.
Meanwhile, Vinyl fought her way through wave after wave of fleeing ponies, trying desperately not to get pushed out of the stadium. She noticed a flash of green out of the corner of her eye and turned to see the changeling who had been impersonating the Wonderbolt transform into the form of another well-dressed audience member.
The DJ leapt across the aisle at him, trying desperately to capture him before he could make an escape. She almost caught up with him before something barreled into her, knocking the air out of her lungs. Vinyl looked up and glimpsed two panicking unicorns, a pale yellow-colored mare with pink earrings and a grey stallion with a black, curly mane and eyeglasses. The image lasted but a second before she was slammed to the ground, the sound of her goggles smashing against the concrete joining the thunder of galloping hooves and the distant screams of ponies.
Vinyl curled on the ground, throwing her forehooves over her head as a few more ponies ran around her. As the last thumps of hooves hitting the ground faded into the distance, the agent chanced a peek up. The entire audience had fled, leaving the stands completely empty save for a couple of ponies lying on the ground, apparently trampled as Vinyl had been. With a groan, the agent rolled over, holding a forehoof against her ribs while pulling her broken goggles off her head with the other.
Hovering over the stadium was a completely bewildered and concerned looking Princess Celestia, surrounded on all sides by the other Wonderbolts from the race and her guards, who were shielding the princess and keeping their eyes on their surroundings. But it was quite unnecessary, given that almost nopony was left in the stadium. Vinyl turned at the sound of galloping hooves and saw Octavia approaching her.
“Octy, where’s Mane?” Vinyl wheezed, finally catching her breath.
“It wasn’t Mane,” the cellist answered shortly, helping her friend to her hooves. “Just a changeling in disguise.”
“But...” The DJ glanced around uneasily. “Then where’s Mane?”
“Con Mane’s not here. Repeat: Con Mane is not here.”
The words sent a chill through Melody Maker. She was standing in her office, listening intently to the chatter over the radio. The situation had deteriorated incredibly quickly, yet it seemed that nothing had really happened. She was confused and, knowing who she was up against here, waiting for the other horseshoe to drop.
“Ms. Gofer!” she snapped, pressing the button on her intercom. “Get me a status report on every high-importance location in Canterlot!”
Melody leaned forward in her chair, rubbing her temples with her forehooves. She felt like she was missing something. Changelings were at the racetrack, but Con Mane wasn’t? Where was he? What was his game?
It was at that moment that it occurred to Melody that her secretary hadn’t answered her request.
“Ms. Gofer?” she repeated into her intercom.
“My apologies, Melody,” the secretary answered back. “I was just gathering the information.”
Melody froze. Her assistant had never called her anything but ‘Ms. Maker’ before. After a mere second of hesitation, she pressed the button on her intercom again. “Thank you, Ms. Gofer. I’ll be in my office.”
The mare turned off the intercom, then reached down and opened one of her desk drawers. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Yes, she would be in her office. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be prepared.
She reached into the drawer and pulled out a rifle, hefting it onto the desk with her forehooves. It was a custom agency design, able to transform a unicorn’s magic into powerful bolts of energy. Melody’s horn glowed as she concentrated her magic into the weapon before crouching behind her desk, bracing the butt of the rifle against her shoulder and aiming it at the door to her office.
She didn’t have to wait long. Her ears twitched as she caught the sound of something scuttling along the hallway outside her office, obviously trying to sneak up on her. Melody narrowed her eyes, focusing on the entrance and taking aim.
The doors burst open with a loud bang as two changelings forced their way through. They both grinned savagely before glancing up and catching a glimpse of the barrel of Melody’s rifle. Their eyes widened as the agent let loose a massive bolt of energy, blasting the two intruders out of her office, along with the remains of her door and a sizeable portion of the wall around the doorway.
Melody glanced over her rifle, taking in the smouldering hole in her office. The two changelings were now unconscious and embedded in the wall on the opposite side of the hallway outside. She charged the rifle with more of her magic as she heard frantic galloping coming down the hall. She took aim once more, waiting for the first sign of movement.
A sudden motion on the edge of the hole drew her fire. Just as she sent another massive blast at the hallway, she saw an object flying through the air towards her. Too late, she realized it was something that had been thrown at her by whoever she was shooting at. Her eyes widened when she saw that the object was a small, silvery canister. Melody tried to dodge, but the canister exploded in mid-air nearby, unleashing a sickly yellow gas that quickly settled around her.
The mare coughed violently, stumbling out of the yellow haze and feeling herself becoming weaker by the second. She felt her weapon slip from her hooves and fall to the ground, where she shortly followed. Melody collapsed on her side, still alert but quickly losing all feeling in her limbs.
She heard the muffled thump of hooves walking across her carpeted floor. A moment later, a pair of well-dressed forehooves walked into her line of sight. She glanced up from the white cuffs and brass buttons of a tuxedo into the handsome face of the stallion who was the current source of her troubles.
“Hello, Constantine,” Melody said calmly.
Con Mane smiled down at her. “Hello, Melody.”
He glanced around the wrecked office. “My apologies about the office, but then again you did most of the damage yourself.” He strode over to the desk, just out of Melody’s line of sight. “I’ll just make myself at home, dear. Do you still keep the hard cider in the desk? You don’t mind if I have a glass, do you? After all, it would be a shame to let it all go to waste.” Melody heard one of her drawers slide open and the clink of a glass and a bottle being levitated in the air. Con Mane walked back in front of her, unscrewing the cap of the bottle and pouring himself a glass of the fine cider. He took a gentle sip, savoring the taste as it washed over his tongue. “Delightful,” he commented, smacking his lips. “I can see why you keep it hidden; Sweet Apple Acres cider is hard to come by.”
“Indeed,” Melody replied, her tone remaining absolutely calm. “But if I may, shouldn’t I be asleep?”
“Different toxin,” Con Mane answered, taking another sip. “I wanted you to be awake for this conversation.”
“I see,” the mare said. “You know, I was surprised to hear of your return. Agents Octavia and Scratch had informed me you died.”
“You think so little of me!” Mane exclaimed, feigning dismay. “That, or you think a little too highly of the abilities of your agents.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Melody countered. “You’re one of us.”
“I was one of you,” the stallion corrected. “Those days are long behind us.”
“And yet, here you are,” the agent observed. “Would you like to make amends while you’re here?”
“No. I’ve come to say farewell.”
“But of course,” Melody said, sighing heavily. “You always need to have the last word. You haven’t changed in that regard.”
Con Mane chuckled, using his magic to pull up a chair besides Melody. He sat down and leaned back against it, observing the mare closely. “You know, I’ve been looking forward to this.”
“I wish I could say the same,” Melody muttered.
“Oh, come now. You don’t mean that,” Con Mane scoffed.
“I do,” the mare replied, looking up at the stallion with a pained expression. “I have dreaded this moment, because I knew it would mean acknowledging that I lost the stallion I once knew. You’re not the pony I remember, Constantine.”
Con Mane adjusted his bowtie. “The pony you remember was a simple donut maker who was naive enough to put his faith in this agency. I realize my true calling now. I’m much bigger than that lowly baker.”
“No, you’re not.” Melody gave him a sad look. “That ‘simple donut maker’ had so much more to offer to the world. So much love and passion...” she trailed off and closed her eyes. “When did we lose sight of what is important?”
Con Mane glanced down at the series of musical notes that decorated Melody’s flank. “How has your music been coming?”
“It hasn’t,” the mare replied shortly. “I don’t hear it anymore. And I have tried so desperately to find it again, but nothing I do seems to work.” She sighed deeply. “This job has corrupted me, just as I corrupted you.”
“Don’t give yourself too much credit,” the stallion said with a chuckle. “You opened my eyes to what was possible, but it was up to me to fulfill it.”
“‘Fulfill’ it,” Melody scoffed. “Fulfill what, Constantine? We were so much better as regular ponies. A musician and a baker. An artist and a craftspony. Music and food. We had so much to give to the world. And I’m sorry I took that away by introducing you to the agency.”
“I’m not,” Con Mane replied, his tone becoming quiet and serious. “I was a simpleton before I met you. The happiest days of my life were those we spent fighting side-by-side.” He paused, staring down at the glass of cider in his hooves before a grin crept up his face. “But listen to me, waxing nostalgic about our past. I think heartbreak made me go insane.”
Melody’s expression hardened. “You were insane from the moment you joined this agency, Constantine. I just refused to notice it until it was too late.”
“Then that makes two of us. To insanity.” He raised the glass in a mock toast before downing the rest of the cider. “Now then, it has been a pleasure, but I must be on my way soon,” he added, rising out of his seat.
“Try to remember the old you, Constantine,” Melody implored. “There’s a good donut shop in town called Joe’s. You would have loved it.”
“Duly noted,” Con Mane answered, his tone indifferent.
“They make milkshakes as well,” she continued. “There’s one flavor where they mix in hard cider.”
The stallion glanced over at the bottle of cider still sitting on the desk before grinning broadly. “Sounds like a winning combination.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve had it so many times it tastes bland to me now. But every time I’m there, I still get one. For old times sake.”
Con Mane levitated something out of the inner pocket of his tuxedo and placed it in the middle of the floor. It took Melody a second to realize it was several sticks of dynamite, wrapped tightly together and wired to a small device with a stopwatch on it. “Any last words?” he asked, arming the bomb.
Melody found herself blinking back tears. “Just that I’m honored to be the only mare - neigh, the only pony - who knew you as you once were.”
The stallion was silent for a moment. His head was lowered and his eyes were closed, as if he was deep in thought. Then he pressed the button on top of the stopwatch and it began ticking. He began trotting towards the hole in the wall, glancing back as he reached it.
“Farewell, Melody.” With that he turned away and began trotting briskly down the hall.
Melody watched the stopwatch. The second hand was ticking rapidly and she knew once it was pointing at the top again it would be over. That gave her less than a minute to figure something out. Her mind worked frantically, desperately trying to get her body to move, but her limbs still felt heavy and limp.
She called upon her magic, feeling the glow of her power wrap around her. But she lacked the strength to pull herself to safety. Melody glanced at the stopwatch, watching as time ran out. She saw only one option left.
Concentrating, she cast a shield spell around her, pouring her energy into it. The stopwatch ticked closer to its end. She closed her eyes tightly, feeding the last of her strength into the shield before everything went white.
She felt herself lifted into the air and blasted backwards, smashing through the stained glass window in her office. Her shield gave out from the impact, and she opened her eyes to find herself falling through the air, watching as an enormous fireball erupted out of the building.
Time slowed down. The glittering shards of the window danced in the air around her as great orange flames leapt above her into the heavens. Suddenly, Melody could see a cozy kitchen, warmed by the morning sun, the ovens baking delicious sweets and the presence of a handsome, tan-colored stallion. Then she was in a dark alleyway, cornered by dangerous thugs but standing beside the stallion she trusted. That same stallion was now lying in her bed as she cared for his wounds. She rested against him, rubbing her hooves across his soft chest. She was falling away from the window, which was now completely engulfed by fire as fragments of the roof and walls were blasted outwards onto the streets below.
The stallion, now well-dressed, was standing on a rooftop, facing her. In her office, she held a note in her trembling hooves as tears fell upon it, staining the writing. Back on the rooftop, she drew a dagger before charging at the stallion. He simply stood there as she came closer, giving her a twisted grin.
Melody continued to fall away from the window, coming closer to the ground. She was sitting in that cozy kitchen again, playing a violin as the stallion smiled warmly at her. She could hear her music again. It wafted through the air, passing through her very soul and lifting her spirits. Such sweet, beautiful music.
Her body hit the water of the pond that sat in the garden beneath her office. In her paralyzed state, she didn’t feel the impact. Melody could still hear the soft, lovely music as the world went black.
The agents of Her Majesty’s Secret Service realized what had happened almost from the moment that they heard a great boom echo across Canterlot and out to the racetrack. Princess Celestia and every winged guard quickly flew off into the city as thick black smoke billowed into the air.
By the time that Octavia, Vinyl, Quite and Shining Armor returned to the city, the headquarters of the agency was a smouldering husk of a building. The combined powers of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, who had also rushed to the scene when she heard the explosion, had quickly put out the fire, but the structure could not be saved. The agents watched as a crowd of onlookers gathered around the perimeter the firefighters and guards had established around the building. Embers and charred pieces of paper fluttered through the air, blown out of the now exposed offices. The smell of burnt metal permeated the air, lingering in the nose and mouth. Ambulances lined the street, treating ponies that had been struck by debris or those that had been rescued from the building.
Octavia and Vinyl watched on with horror as the firefighters retrieved a familiar body out of the garden pond. Melody’s body was pale and limp. The firefighters yelled something and two ponies raced over with a stretcher, gently placing the mare on it before carrying her onto an ambulance cart. The two ponies then hitched themselves to the cart and raced down the street.
“They’re taking her to the hospital,” Vinyl remarked, her tone shaky and fearful. “That means she’s alive, right?”
Octavia didn’t say anything. A moment later they heard yelling coming from behind them. They turned around to see the firefighters racing out of the building as it creaked ominously. Several onlookers screamed as the structure began to topple to the ground. Working quickly, Shining Armor cast a shield around the building, forcing it to collapse harmlessly in on itself. Dust filled the shield bubble as it stood in place, like a huge, filthy fishbowl in the middle of the city. As the dust finally began to settle, Shining Armor gradually uncast his shield, revealing the charred remnants of the building. Twisted beams protruded out of the smouldering pile of stone and rubble.
The agents looked on, still in shock. The headquarters of the most secretive group in all of Equestria was now laid bare for everypony to see. The most heavily guarded place in all of Canterlot, next only to the Royal Palace, was now a smoking ruin. It took great effort on Octavia’s part to hold back her tears.
Vinyl Scratch glanced out of the window of the apartment, looking up at the morning sky. Its normal blue was tinted purple and shining in the bright sunlight. In the aftermath of the attack, Shining Armor had cast his shield over Canterlot. It wouldn’t do much good protecting them, since the changelings had already infiltrated the city, but it did its task, which was to calm the populace. Princess Luna had ordered round-the-clock guard patrols of the city, again as a means of preventing a panic. The sight of royal guards marching down the main avenues seemed to soothe everypony’s fears, but every time Vinyl heard them stomp down the street it just reminded her of what they had yet to accomplish.
She lowered her gaze from the transparent dome encasing the city to the building across the street, where she could spot one of the two Pinkietons watching her. She tapped her goggles to enable the zoom function and saw that it was Sharp Eye staring at her through a set of binoculars. Upon seeing Vinyl watching her, she lowered the binoculars and gave her a friendly wave. Vinyl responded by sticking out her tongue and blowing a raspberry before using her magic to draw the curtains closed.
The agent turned around to face the living room. Octavia was seated on the couch, pouring over a copy of every newspaper she could get her hooves on (even the Foal Free Press, which she generally didn’t bother with). To her frustration, the press was giving just as much attention to the incident at the racetrack as they were to the destruction of the building. Images of a changeling amidst terrified ponies were splashed across the front page of every newspaper while the stories were filled with exaggerated accounts of the incident from audience members. With such a clear indication of their attackers in the presence of so many famous Canterlot personalities, the fiery destruction of a nondescript government building was being treated more as a side note.
“An entire sidebar story on the front page devoted to ‘Fancypants’ Daring Escape’ and yet the destruction of a building gets relegated to page five,” Octavia grumbled as she scanned today’s copy of the Equestria Inquirer.
“Just as well,” Vinyl commented. “If the press ever figures out what was in that building, they’re going to flip out.”
“But ponies almost died in that explosion!” the grey mare exclaimed. “How could the account of a celebrity possibly be more important than that?!”
“What I want to know is how nopony thought to get a quote from DJ-Pon3!” Vinyl threw her forehooves up in a overly dramatic fashion. “Equestria’s hottest act, on the scene of both incidents, and nopony thinks to get her story?” She gave her friend a cocky grin, which quickly vanished when she caught the look on Octavia’s face.
“Vinyl Scratch, how could you?” the cellist said in a severe tone. “Ms. Maker is in the hospital and you want to make light of this?!”
“Geez Octy, I was just kidding,” Vinyl muttered, sitting down beside her friend. “Look, I know things are bad, but try to lighten up a little.”
“This is no time to ‘lighten up,’” Octavia said firmly. “Melody Maker is lying unconscious in a hospital bed and Con Mane is still out there.” She picked up another newspaper. “There must be something we missed,” she added in an undertone. “A clue or some piece of evidence or something that would give us a lead as to where Mane is.”
“I don’t think you’re gonna find much in the papers,” Vinyl replied in a skeptical tone. “No reporter is going to know more than we already do.”
“It pays to be thorough,” the cellist said shortly, now scanning the day’s copy of The Canterlot Post. Vinyl cocked her head to one side as she watched Octavia read.
“Is this because of that changeling?” the DJ asked. Octavia froze, looking up from the newspaper but refusing to glance over at her friend. Then she sighed and continued reading.
“I can’t believe I fell for such an obvious bait-and-switch,” she muttered, more to herself than to Vinyl. “The ‘her’ Con Mane swore to protect wasn’t Princess Celestia, it was Melody Maker!” Octavia put a hoof to her forehead. “We already knew that Mane was targeting the agency. How could I have been so blind?”
“It wasn’t that obvious,” Vinyl remarked. “Made sense that the changelings wanted to get Celestia. And they wanted us to think it too. They had this whole thing figured out.”
“Even so, Melody Maker is in the hospital because of my failing,” Octavia said. “And I’m not going to rest until I find that accursed stallion,” she declared, returning to her newspapers.
“Suit yourself,” Vinyl muttered, getting off the couch. The grey mare turned a page to see the headline ‘Canterlot Stars Offer Harrowing Accounts’ staring at her. She groaned inwardly.
Vinyl Scratch walked into her room, closing the door behind her. She glanced at the window, making sure nopony could see her inside before trotting over to her bed. After a quick glance back at the door to check that the coast was clear, she reached under the bed and pulled out her saddlebag, opening it to reveal a gleaming, silvery device.
A broad smile spread across Vinyl’s face. “Hi, Wubsy.”
There was a rapid knocking at the front door. Octavia put down her newspaper and trotted over to the door, opening it to reveal a harried looking stallion.
“Watt Sun?” she asked in surprise. “What are you doing up here?”
“I’ve come to relay a message,” the Pinkieton replied, taking off his bowler hat and quickly bowing his head towards her. “May I come inside?”
“Hold on, I want to make sure it is actually you,” Octavia said, holding up a hoof. “What did I tell you when we first met?”
“That you didn’t trust me because of what Golden Harvest did,” Watt Sun responded promptly. “And what was my answer?”
“That nopony breaks a Pinkie Promise and gets away with it.” Octavia stepped aside to let the stallion enter. Watt Sun walked across the room and sat down in a chair just as Vinyl came out of her room.
“What’s going on?” the DJ inquired.
“Captain Shining Armor sent me,” Watt Sun answered. “Your quartermaster is missing.” Both mares gasped before the stallion continued. “He left for home last night, accompanied by a pair of guards the captain sent with him. That was the last anypony has seen of them.”
Octavia sighed and pressed her forehooves to her face, while Vinyl stood quietly to the side. A heavy silence filled the room as Watt Sun fidgeted with the bowler hat in his hooves. “It’s Mane,” the cellist growled. “He’s picking us off one by one.”
“Shining Armor is about to make an announcement. In fact...” He glanced at his watch. “It should be about to start. Do you mind?” he added, gesturing at a radio sitting on the bar separating the living room from the kitchen. Vinyl nodded and used her magic to flip it on. They turned it on just in time to hear a news announcer wrapping up the headlines at the start of the news show.
“—with leading defense experts to find out what they have to say on this latest breach of royal security. All that and more coming up.” The show’s theme began, a dramatic tune that was punctuated by the ticking of a clock that counted down the last remaining seconds until the start of the hour. The theme rose in volume before the ticking finally stopped and the tune ended with a grand flourish.
“Good afternoon and welcome to the EBC News in Canterlot. I’m Nut Graph, filling in today for Head Liner. In the wake of yesterday’s changeling attack on the Equestrian capital, authorities are declaring a state of emergency effective immediately. This morning at a press conference, Shining Armor, Captain of the Royal Guard, announced several new security measures, including a curfew that would go into effect beginning tonight. All large gatherings are banned until further notice, the Royal Court has been suspended indefinitely and police powers have been extended to enable search of ponies without warrant. This comes shortly after the establishment of round-the-clock patrols of Canterlot and a shield around the city.”
“I just want to ask that everypony be patient with us.” Shining Armor’s voice was now coming through the radio. He sounded exhausted and his voice lacked its usual upbeat tone. “Everypony should remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the authorities.”
The announcer’s voice returned. “Authorities are also looking for a unicorn named Constantine Mane, who is wanted for questions regarding the incident. Mr. Mane is described as a tall, middle-aged stallion with a tan coat, green eyes, a light brown mane and a cutie mark of a donut with pink icing. Anypony who has any information should immediately come forward.
“The incident has raised serious questions about the preparedness of the royal security forces against these sorts of threats. We turn now to former guard captain Praetor, who is with us in the studio—” Watt Sun flipped off the radio, apparently satisfied.
“Wait, that’s it?” Vinyl asked incredulously. “He didn’t say anything about Quite! Is anypony even looking for him?”
Watt Sun looked uncomfortable. “So far, I’m afraid nopony has been able to do much,” the Pinkieton said sadly. “Shining Armor put out the word among his guards to keep their eyes open for him, but between increased security around the Royal City and the round-the-clock patrols, he hasn’t even been able to dispatch anypony to Quite’s house yet. And he doesn’t want to announce his disappearance to the public, lest it draw any more attention to the agency. The Pinkieton Detective Agency would normally be eager to step in, but all our operatives are either protecting you and your fellow agents, or going through the wreckage of your building.”
The three ponies were quiet for a moment. But where Watt Sun had been expecting a heavy, emotional silence, the two mares glanced at each other, both with thoughtful expressions on their faces.
“Say Octy,” Vinyl began with a small grin, “you wouldn’t by chance know where Quite lives, do you?”
An hour later, the two agents were standing around the corner from Quite’s house. Unlike most Canterlot residents, the quartermaster didn’t live in an apartment but in a spacious townhome in a quiet neighborhood. A row of similar townhomes lined both sides of the street, giving the appearance of one long building facing the street.
Vinyl glanced upwards to see a pair of royal pegasus guards flying past overhead. “I’m not sure how we’re gonna get in there. There are too many eyes on the street for us to climb through the window without getting caught.”
“If we can just get inside one of those buildings, we should be able to get over to Quite’s house,” Octavia said.
“Hmmm.” Vinyl wore a thoughtful expression, putting a hoof on her chin. After a moment she suddenly grinned and slapped her forehooves against each other. The DJ turned to Octavia, taking off her goggles as she did so. “I think I’ve got an idea! Punch me in the face.”
It took Octavia several seconds to register what Vinyl had said. And even then, she didn’t seem to know how to respond. “...Sorry?”
“Punch me in the face!” Vinyl repeated, sounding exasperated. “Didn’t you hear me?”
“I frequently hear ‘punch me in the face’ when you’re speaking, but it’s usually just wishful thinking on my part,” Octavia muttered.
“Oh, for crying out loud.” With a grunt of frustration, Vinyl called on her magic. The blue glow encasing her horn suddenly spread to Octavia’s ears. Before the cellist realized what was happening, she threw her forehooves over her ears as a piercing sound filled her eardrums. She clenched her teeth and shut her eyes, squirming in pain before she finally reared up and thrust one of her forehooves forward, landing a firm blow to Vinyl’s right eye.
The DJ dropped to the ground, her magic promptly going out as she did so. Octavia took a few heavy breaths, massaging her ears as her normal hearing came back while Vinyl stood back up again, now sporting a black eye. “Ouch,” she commented calmly, gingerly touching her face. “Okay, now we—”
But Octavia wasn’t finished with Vinyl just yet. Before the DJ could finish her thought, the cellist leapt at her, pinning her down before grabbing her in a neck hold. “Don’t you ever do that again!” the grey mare growled through her teeth, wrestling her fellow agent to the ground.
“Hrk...okay!” Vinyl sputtered, trying to wrench free of Octavia’s grasp. “I think you’ve done enough, Octy!”
After a few moments of violent tussling, the two finally separated and Vinyl trudged up the street, now sporting a few cuts and bruises in addition to her black eye. Octavia reluctantly followed, grumbling the whole way. “You could have just told me this was part of your plan, rather than subjecting me to that horrid noise you call music.”
“Yeah, but my way was more interesting,” Vinyl replied, grinning. “Now hush and play along,” she added, trotting up to the front door of a townhouse adjacent to Quite’s and ringing the doorbell.
“Yes?” The door opened to reveal an elderly mare wearing fine clothes and jewelry. As soon as she opened the door, Vinyl began hyperventilating and speaking in a shaky, fearful voice that was very uncharacteristic of her.
“Uh...I-I’m really sorry to bother you Miss, but...I-I was just attacked! S-Somepony...n-no, something just stole my saddlebag, a-and ran off, and c-could you help me please?” She broke down, seemingly weeping uncontrollably into her forehoof.
“Oh, you poor dear!” the elderly mare exclaimed, patting Vinyl’s shoulder. “Here, come in, come in! Everything’s fine now, dear.” Vinyl took a few shaky breaths and allowed the old mare to gently lead her inside while Octavia awkwardly followed along.
“I, um, saw the whole thing happen,” the cellist said uncertainly.
“I don’t know what this city is coming to, when innocent ponies can’t walk down the street without running into danger,” the elderly mare said, shaking her head. “Were you able to tell who stole your bag, dearie?” she asked kindly.
“I...(sniff) I dunno,” Vinyl muttered. “It was some kind of monster! It was big with grey hair and it had these horrible purple eyes! And it stood up on two legs!” she added, shuddering. Octavia bared her teeth and glared at her partner, but the elderly mare didn’t notice.
“Um, she might be exaggerating just a touch,” Octavia jumped in. “If I may, I have some limited medical knowledge. If you have a bathroom we can use, I can patch up these cuts.”
“Oh, bless you dearie,” the old mare said, smiling warmly at Octavia. “It’s up on the second floor, on the left. I’ll make you a strong cup of tea.” With that, she trotted away into the kitchen while the two agents made their way upstairs. They entered the bathroom and shut the door behind them.
“Some kind of monster, was it?” Octavia growled.
“Oh, hush.” Vinyl was opening the bathroom window, which looked out on nothing more than the wall of the adjacent townhouse and the narrow space between the two buildings. The DJ poked her head out and looked around. “Okay, I see a window into Quite’s place just down there. Think we can make it in?”
“I can,” Octavia answered, clambering onto the windowsill. “You stay in here in case our host comes upstairs,” she instructed. The grey mare jumped out, landing gracefully on a narrow ledge on the adjacent building before swinging down to a window. She found that it was unlocked, gently pushed it open and slipped inside.
The first thing that struck her was the smell. It was the pungent scent of sweat and filth, like somepony that hadn’t bathed in a week, which was a far cry from the clean and orderly appearance of the bathroom Octavia had snuck into. The agent strode across the room, quietly opening the door to the hallway.
The smell was even stronger out in the hall. Octavia started when she heard a dripping sound coming from the adjacent room. She slowly made her way down the hallway, carefully peeking around the corner. A spacious and well-furnished living room was laid out before her, but a couple of chairs and an end table were tipped over on the floor. And the smell was stronger than ever.
Octavia took a step forward only to feel her forehoof slip out from under her. She caught herself in time, looking down to see a puddle of green liquid on the floor. As she examined it, a single drop of the liquid fell from the ceiling. The agent tentatively glanced upwards. What she saw didn’t surprise her, but she still felt a chill go down her spine.
A pair of transparent green cocoons were suspended from the ceiling, each containing an unconscious royal guard. They hung upside down, both still in their armor and looking badly beat up. One of the cocoons was leaking drops of the strange green liquid that preserved the unmoving bodies of the guards.
Octavia pressed a forehoof to her bowtie. “Vinyl, can you hear me?”
“Yeah,” Vinyl’s voice replied through the radio embedded in the cellist’s bowtie. “Find anything?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Octavia muttered. “The changelings got to Quite’s guards. They’re hanging from cocoons above my head.”
“Can you free them?”
“If I was a pegasus or a unicorn, I might be able to,” the cellist said with a sigh. A stairwell wound up to the second floor, which had a balcony that looked down onto the living room. Octavia trotted up the steps to the balcony, getting as close to the cocoons as she could. However, they remained far out of her reach. “Let’s leave them for Shining Armor and his guard. They’ll be able to help.”
The agent looked around. A small table and a vase were overturned and there were scratches along the wall, as if something had been dragged along it. A nearby door stood slightly ajar, a long crack running down the middle and splinters littering the floor, clear signs that the door had been forced in. She walked up to the door and slowly pushed it open.
She found herself in Quite’s study. It was a mess, with chairs overturned, drawers pulled out of a dresser and lying on the floor. A vase of flowers lay on the ground, its water spilt on the carpet and the flowers already wilting.
“There was a fight in here,” Octavia muttered, looking around. She gave a heavy sigh as the pieces came together. Somehow the changelings had found their way inside, defeated the guards and trapped them in the cocoons, then came upstairs and removed a struggling Quite.
The agent starting cleaning up, hoping to find some clue among the mess, but her hopes were not high. She picked up the chairs and the vase and put the drawers back in the dresser, searching through the papers within to see if there was anything of interest. But nothing revealed itself.
She turned back towards the door, spotting a stray quill lying on the floor near the door beneath a small table. Octavia picked it up and placed it back on the table. She was about to leave when she noticed something else on the table. Sitting there was a small notepad lying open, with four words hastily scribbled on the top page:
The rays of the morning sun shone into the living room of Octavia and Vinyl’s apartment, once again finding Octavia sitting on the couch. On the coffee table in front of her was the note she had found in Quite’s house. It sat before her, a constant source of puzzlement for the agent.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. The cellist rose and walked across the room, opening the door to find Sharp Eye standing in the hallway.
“Morning, ma’am,” the Pinkieton greeted her, giving the agent a quick salute. “Just here for the check-in.” She paused, then added, “I suppose you should make sure I’m not a changeling.”
“Yes,” Octavia replied. “Hmmm, let’s see...” She considered a question for a moment before glancing in the direction of Vinyl’s bedroom. “What did Vinyl say when you and Watt Sun told us the Pinkieton Detective Agency was going to do regular checks on us?”
“I believe her words were ‘this is bucking ridiculous.’” Sharp Eye seemed to be suppressing a grin.
“Yes, that they were.” For her part, Octavia looked more annoyed than amused.
“Speaking of which, where is Agent Scratch?” the Pinkieton inquired, looking around the room.
Octavia frowned and glanced over at Vinyl’s bedroom door again. “She’s been spending nearly all of her free time locked up in her room.”
“Is that unusual for her?” Sharp Eye asked, looking concerned.
The cellist opened her mouth to reply, but then closed it when she couldn’t immediately think of something to say. “...I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. We’ve never lived together, you see. For all I know, she’s just working on her music.”
The Pinkieton nodded, stepping inside and closing the door behind her. “I’m afraid I must be the bearer of some bad news, Agent Octavia. Last night, two more agents went missing, along with their Pinkieton guards.”
Octavia gave a weary sigh. “How do they keep finding us?” she wondered aloud.
“I wish I could say. Rest assured, we’re doing everything we can to figure out how this happened. If this keeps going on, we have contingency plans to move you out of the city, given that you two are Con Mane’s next logical target.”
Sharp Eye glanced around the room again. “Well, it looks like everything is in order, so I guess I’ll report back to Watt Sun now.”
Octavia nodded as the Pinkieton turned around to leave. But just before she made it back to the door, the cellist was struck by an idea. “Wait, Sharp Eye, could I ask for your assistance with something?”
“Of course,” Sharp Eye replied, looking eager. Octavia led her to the coffee table and sat back on the couch, while the Pinkieton sat down beside her.
“I found this in Quite’s house,” she said, handing the note to her. “I feel like he left it for somepony to find, but I can’t make sense of it. At first I thought it was referring to the changelings, since they ‘hide in plain sight.’ But that was already obvious, so it would make no sense for him to feel the need to explain that. Then I thought perhaps it was a command, telling us to hide in plain sight, but I don’t know what he would mean by that. I’ve thought it over and have come up short. Perhaps you’ll have better luck?”
Sharp Eye took the note in her hooves and gave it a scrutinizing look. “Hmmm... interesting...”
“Would you say that Quite is very...oh, how should I put this?” The Pinkieton considered her words for a moment. “...Proper? Uses correct grammar and punctuation?”
“I’d say that’s a fair assessment,” Octavia confirmed. “Why do you ask?”
“Doesn’t it strike you as odd that he capitalized the first letter of each word?” Sharp Eye asked, showing the cellist the note. “Why would he do that?”
“It hadn’t crossed my mind,” the cellist admitted.
“Let’s see...” the Pinkieton murmured thoughtfully, picking up a quill off the table with her teeth and scribbling the words ‘Hide In Plain Sight’ on the blank edge of a newspaper lying nearby. “H...I...P...S.”
“HIPS?” Octavia asked, raising an eyebrow. “What does that mean? Does it stand for anything?
“It’s no acronym I can think of.” The Pinkieton frowned down at the paper. “I don’t know about you, but that looks like an anagram to me.” She started rearranging the four letters, scribbling down every possible variation and crossing out the ones that weren’t real words. In the end, only one word remained.
“SHIP,” Octavia read off the paper. “Ship? As in an airship?”
“‘Hide In Plain Sight,’” Sharp Eye repeated. “Yeah! Maybe they’re hiding in an airship!” she exclaimed. “Airships are big and really obvious, so they’d be hiding ‘in plain sight!’”
“And Con Mane had access to airships in San Franciscolt!” Octavia said excitedly. “It would probably be quite easy for him to get his hooves on one!”
The two ponies sat there in breathless excitement for a moment, besides themselves that they now had something to work with, before the cellist’s face suddenly fell. “But, wait...how could Quite have possibly known they were taking him to an airship?”
Sharp Eye opened her mouth to reply, but then closed it and put a hoof on her chin. “Oh, yeah...I guess that doesn’t make much sense, does it?” she added sheepishly.
Their silence was interrupted by the sound of Vinyl’s bedroom door clicking open. The DJ strolled out into the living room, catching sight of the two mares sitting beside each other next to the table.
“Don’t let me spoil your fun,” Vinyl grumbled, walking across the room to the kitchen.
“For the love of Celestia, Vinyl. You could at least greet our guest!” Octavia replied angrily.
“Oh, right. ‘Sup,” she said, giving Sharp Eye an indifferent wave. “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced. You’re the pony who keeps staring at me through the window.”
The Pinkieton blushed slightly. “Eh heh. Well, as a celebrity, surely you are used to getting a lot of attention?”
“Hmm. No, I can’t recall ever having a stalker.”
“Vinyl!” Octavia exclaimed. “What in Equestria has gotten into you?”
“I’m sick of this!” the DJ shouted, banging a hoof on the counter. “It’s like living in a glass box! I can’t go outside, I can’t do anything and my room is the only place where I can get just a midicrum of privacy!”
“It’s ‘modicum,’ Vinyl,” Octavia corrected. “So is this why you spend all your free time in your room?”
“No, I spend all my free time in my room because I’m sick of hearing you going over that stupid note over and over again!” Vinyl replied hotly. “‘Hide in plain sight?’ What the hay does that mean? Even if he was trying to leave us a message, he was about to be kidnapped! Who’s to say he couldn’t think of something good to write before they broke in?”
“I have to admit, she’s got a point,” Sharp Eye remarked.
“Well, it’s all we have to go on,” Octavia said in a severe tone. “But if finding Con Mane isn’t that important to—”
“Oh, don’t you try to pull that guilt junk on me! Admit it, Octy. You have no idea what to do! We’re all just sitting pretty, waiting for Mane to finally show up and finish the job!”
Vinyl stomped over to the front door. “Buck this. I need some air.”
Octavia quickly stood up. “You’re going to risk us getting discovered!”
“I’ll put a disguise on,” the DJ grumbled, her horn glowing. Already, her mane and tail were changing to a fiery shade of orange and her hide tanned several shades in a matter of seconds. With a flash, her cutie mark was replaced by a depiction of a notebook and quill. She glanced back as she opened the door. “I’m not stupid, you know.”
Octavia glared back. “Well, you could have fooled me.” Vinyl slammed the door shut behind her.
Sharp Eye stood in the room, quieted by an awkward silence. “I, uh, should probably, um...go,” she said meekly, already making her way over to the door. “I’ll think over that note some more. Maybe there’s something we didn’t think of,” she added as she stepped out into the hallway.
“Yes, thank you,” Octavia replied. “You’ve given me a lot to consider. I’m very grateful for your help.”
The two of them heard the click of a doorknob down the hall and turned to see the door of the apartment next door swing open. A well-dressed elderly mare with an orange coat and a white mane stepped out. “Is everything alright, dearies?” she asked, looking at Octavia and Sharp Eye. “I thought I heard shouting.”
“Everything is fine, Ms. Amber,” Octavia answered. “But thank you for your concern. We just had a disagreement is all.”
“Oh, first row?” Amber said, giving the cellist a knowing look. “Well, don’t worry too much about it. Every relationship goes through them, you see. In the end, you’ll only come out stronger for it!”
Sharp Eye glanced sideways at Octavia, who was wearing an extremely forced grin on her face. “...Thank you,” she said through a painful smile. “I’ll bear that in mind.”
Vinyl silently crept up to a door on the exterior of an apartment building, pushing a key into the lock and turning it before quietly opening the door. The interior was dark and she stumbled as she tried to find the lamp. At last she found it and illuminated the room, looking around at her apartment — her apartment, not the place she had been forced to share with Octavia — for the first time in days.
She closed the door behind her and swayed slightly as she made her way across the room. After partaking in several drinks at a nearby bar, the idea of returning to her apartment and retrieving some of her records suddenly seemed quite appealing. It had been at least a couple of weeks since she heard the haunting sounds of DJ Shadowbolt or Deltrot 3030 and that was far too long to go without her inspiration.
She grabbed a saddlebag lying open on her couch before walking up to her record shelf. She scanned the stacks of records, pausing to snag her favorite albums off the shelf and slide them in the bag. Within a minute she had no less than a few dozen records in her bag and found it too heavy to pick up. She reluctantly narrowed her selection before finally strapping the bag over her back and getting up, turning off the light before stealthily leaving the apartment.
Vinyl glanced westward to see that the sun was already setting behind the mountains on the horizon. “Gotta get back before curfew starts,” she thought to herself. “I just hope Octy doesn’t ask too many ques-”
“GAH!” the DJ yelped, turning to see Octavia galloping towards her. “Octy? What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?!” the grey mare replied angrily. “You came back to your apartment? Did it never once cross your mind that the changelings might be monitoring it?”
“Uh...well, no, actually it didn’t,” Vinyl said sheepishly.
Octavia sighed and put a hoof to her forehead. “Let’s just return before we are discovered here.”
Vinyl gave her friend an awkward grin and started making her way back to the center of the city, with Octavia walking beside her. “What could possibly be so important that you had to come back here?” the grey mare asked.
“Just thought I’d grab some tunes,” the DJ replied, jerking her head back to indicate her saddlebag.
“Oh Vinyl, for the love of...” She trailed off when she caught a wiff of something in the air beside Vinyl. “Are you drunk?”
“No!” Vinyl swayed slightly, bumping lightly into her partner. “Just a little buzzed is all.”
“Clearly,” Octavia remarked darkly. “Let’s get back before you do any more damage.”
“Hey, there was no harm done! I made sure nopony was following me. And I’m already disguised,” Vinyl pointed out. That was when a thought crossed her mind, one that had taken a while to come to her in her drunken state. “Hang on, why aren’t you wearing a disguise?”
Octavia hesitated. “There wasn’t any time. With curfew coming, I was starting to get worried.”
Then Vinyl noticed something else she had missed. Octavia had been following her, which was a reversal of the norm. “Octy, which way is the apartment?” she asked.
The gray mare gave her a puzzled look. “Why? Are you too drunk to remember your way back?”
“If I was, I’d be in real trouble,” Vinyl replied, frowning at Octavia and backing away slightly. “Because I don’t think you know where it is.”
Octavia gave the DJ a blank stare in return. “I don’t know what you are implying.”
“Oh, I think you do, changeling.” Vinyl gritted her teeth and braced herself, crouching low to the ground and charging a spell in her horn.
Octavia stared back calmly before closing her eyes and sighing. “Damn,” she muttered in a very uncharacteristic tone for her. “And here I thought I was doing so well.” With a flash of green light, ‘Octavia’ was suddenly replaced by a perfect double of Vinyl Scratch, albeit undisguised.
The true Vinyl glanced around only to see that the streets were mostly empty and even many of the windows had their shutters closed. There were few ponies nearby, and none who could be counted on to help. “Damn it, where’s a cop when you need one?” she grumbled.
The changeling chuckled. “Yeah, your guard doesn’t seem to have their act together, do they?” She paused and took a step towards Vinyl. “But no matter. Let’s talk about your partner.”
“If you think I’m going to tell you where Octy is, you’ve got another thing coming,” Vinyl growled, her horn glowing brightly now.
“Nah,” the changeling said in Vinyl’s voice. “I just want to talk. You know, get to know you a little better.”
“Uh huh,” the agent muttered skeptically. “Well, I’ve done plenty of interviews, if you just want to read one of those.”
“But I bet none of those interviews mention Octy, do they?” Vinyl’s double smirked. “So why do you hang out with her anyway?”
“I mean, you two are just so different,” the changeling went on in a casual tone. “She’s serious, you’re laid back. She’s quiet and reserved, you’re loud and outgoing. She’s the fighter and you are...uh, what is it you do again?” she asked, giving Vinyl an inquisitive look.
“Why do you care?” Vinyl shot back.
“It’s quite simple, really.” With another flash of green light, the changeling took on the form of Octavia and began speaking in her refined tone. “I consider myself a master of espionage, even amongst changelings. But to truly be the best, you must enter the minds of the ponies you impersonate. You must understand them. Only then can you truly be a spy.” She took another step towards Vinyl. “And I’ve been absolutely fascinated with your friend, even since before I spoke with her.”
“Spoke with her?” The gears in Vinyl’s brain finally clicked in place. “Wait, you’re the changeling who talked to Octy? The one who impersonated me?”
The changeling flashed back into the form of Vinyl and gave her a cocky grin. “Guilty as charged,” she said proudly before flashing back into Octavia. “And I can’t tell you how fortunate I am to have been the one alerted to your return to your apartment.”
Vinyl glanced around, but it was still quiet and nopony was paying the two of them any mind. The last rays of the sun disappeared beneath the horizon. “What the hay do you want?”
“I want to know what Octavia sees in you,” the changeling replied calmly. “A rambunctious, ill-trained mare who can barely fight and is more interested in making music than saving her fellow ponies. Your very presence here is a testament to your disloyalty.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Vinyl growled.
The changeling chuckled. “Poor Vinyl Scratch. Always the sidekick, always the one who needs rescuing, not cut out to be a spy...it’s no wonder Octavia doesn’t respect you the way you respect her.”
Vinyl raised an eyebrow. “What is this? Are you seriously trying to get me to betray Octy?”
“Think of it more as...relationship counseling.”
Vinyl was silent for a moment. “...For crying out loud, we’re not a couple!” she exclaimed.
“Yes you are,” the changeling said shortly, smirking at Vinyl’s indignant expression. “Oh, you might not have romantic feelings for each other, but your dedication to each other is strong nevertheless. Why, I’d say it’s positively heartwarming.”
“Frankly, I’m amazed you even have a heart,” Vinyl retorted.
“I feed on love, Agent Scratch. I know hearts.” Another flash of green light and Vinyl was now staring at a perfect likeness of Melody Maker, which took a step closer to her. “And I see it in your eyes. You know there’s no escape from us. Everypony you’ve counted on to keep you safe, from the agency to the guard, has failed. And the rest don’t want anything to do with you agents. You’re alone, with nopony to trust.”
Vinyl backed away, giving the changeling a wary look. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Why?” The changeling laughed heartily. “You poor idiot. Because I’m trying to delay you.”
“There she is!” somepony shouted from behind Vinyl. She turned around only to feel her heart stop when she saw a contingent of royal pegasus guards flying straight for her. Their expressions were as dead serious as ever, but Vinyl realized their appearance now could not be a coincidence. The agent whipped her head around, recharging her magical energy and unleashing a blast of sonic energy at the changeling in front of her, who was still in the form of Melody. She was blown backward off her hooves as Vinyl made a run for it.
“Trust no one, Vinyl Scratch!” the changeling yelled after the agent, who didn’t dare look back. The beats of the wings of the ‘royal guards’ grew louder in her ears. She could just make out the outstretched hooves of one of the guards almost upon her. Thinking quickly, she called upon her magic and her saddlebag suddenly came undone, flying up into the air and smacking the disguised guard square in the face. She darted down a side alley just as he hit the ground behind her, barely missing her.
The agent galloped frantically down the alleyway, hearing the disguised changelings hurriedly shouting orders to follow overhead, given that the alley was too narrow to fly through. She emerged out of the other side of the alley onto a bustling street lined with shops and filled with ponies strolling down the avenue, making their last-minute purchases before curfew went into effect. Vinyl darted into the nearest shop just before the changelings could spot her.
The disguised guards calmly landed in the middle of the street, frowning as they looked around at the crowd of ponies, which made sure to give the guards a wide berth as they walked past. Vinyl stared out the window of the clothing store she had taken refuge in, peering out from the safety of a round clothing rack stocked with dresses. She was crouched low to the ground and hiding within the depths of fabric as she watched the guards disperse and began interrogating anypony on the street they deemed suspicious. Knowing she was in the clear now, Vinyl heaved a sigh of relief before hearing a small cough coming from above her.
A well-dressed mare who was apparently the shopkeeper pulled back a couple of dresses on the rack and peered down at Vinyl over the rim of her glasses. She gave the agent a severe look. “Err...can I help you?”
“Eh heh heh,” Vinyl replied, looking around to see a pair of customers, a mother and her young filly, staring awkwardly at the DJ. “Yes, can I take this one?” Vinyl asked quickly, tugging at the nearest dress. “Also, one of those big floppy hats on the wall.”
Vinyl walked down the hallway outside the apartment she and Octavia were presently occupying, removing her floppy hat and shedding her disguise before putting her goggles back on. She had just barely missed making it back before the start of curfew and had been the target of several grouchy royal guards who were trying to clear the streets and get everypony inside. The effects of the alcohol had worn off by this point, which was fortunate as Vinyl may have snapped at the guards otherwise. She turned the corner to see Amber outside her open door, receiving a package from a delivery pony.
“Oh, Ms. Vinyl! Yoo-hoo!” Amber called out. Vinyl groaned inwardly as she put on a plastic smile. “I hope everything is alright between you and Octavia?”
“Uh, yeah, just fine,” the agent quickly replied. “Just had to leave her alone, let out some steam, you know?”
“Sign here please, ma’am,” the delivery pony requested, holding out a clipboard with a quill attached. Amber signed before continuing her conversation with Vinyl.
“Well, that sounds like it’s for the best. Some time away can be the best remedy,” she said as the delivery pony tipped his hat towards Amber and walked past Vinyl down the hall. “Well, if you ever feel like talking about it, you know where to find me!” Amber added cheerfully.
“Right,” Vinyl muttered, opening her door. As much as she didn’t want to talk to Octavia after this morning, anything had to be better than the torture of speaking with Amber. “Well, g'night Ms. Amber.” She quickly stepped inside and shut the door behind her.
Vinyl slumped against the door, closing her eyes and groaning as she tossed the floppy hat and dress to the side. “What a disaster,” she mumbled.
“Had fun, did we?” Vinyl opened her eyes to see Octavia sitting on the armchair in the living room, facing the front door. Something seemed off to Vinyl. The curtains behind her were closed. The cellist’s expression was unreadable and her tone was eerily calm. But what truly alarmed the DJ was the sword that was lying in Octavia’s lap, unsheathed and plain for her to see. “And where did you go?”
Vinyl hesitated. “Uh, you know, just...around,” she replied with a shrug.
“And the hat and dress?” Octavia asked, cocking an eyebrow at Vinyl’s outfit.
“New disguise,” the DJ answered. She was now sweating slightly, trying to assess the situation. Octavia was acting strange and there was nopony else around. Vinyl could quiz the grey mare to see if she had been replaced by a changeling, but that didn’t seem like a good idea when said mare was cradling a sword in her lap.
“Well, uh, I’m just going to head to my room now,” Vinyl said, getting up on her hooves. But she didn’t get more than two steps before Octavia spoke.
“Not so fast,” she demanded. The DJ froze in place. “Come over here and sit on the couch.”
“Why?” Vinyl asked, trying to keep her tone even.
“I just want to have a conversation with you is all.”
‘I just want to talk.’ The words of the changeling rang in the DJ’s ears as she considered her options. She could walk over to the couch, where this creature in the guise of Octavia could leap across the table and slice her into bits before Vinyl would be able to do so much as raise a hoof. Or she could make a dash for her room, grab her bass cannon from under the bed and at least have a fighting chance.
In the end, the second option sounded far more appealing.
Vinyl casually trotted towards the couch for a couple of steps before suddenly darting to the side, racing for the door to her room. Octavia was after her in an instant, leaping off her chair and raising her sword, trying to beat Vinyl to her room. Panicking, Vinyl levitated a nearby vase of flowers into the air and flung it at the grey mare. She easily sliced through it with her sword, splashing water on the rug and littering the floor with ceramic shards and chopped flower stems, but the distraction gave Vinyl the time she needed to dive into the hall and into her room.
The DJ slammed the door shut behind her and locked it before bolting for her bed, reaching under to pull out her bass cannon. But her hooves found only empty air. Her heart leapt into her throat as fear began to take hold. She ripped the covers off her bed, looking around frantically for her weapon before there was a huge crash from behind her. Vinyl spun around to see that Octavia had kicked the door down and was now brandishing her sword in the DJ’s direction. With a growl of fury, the cellist charged at her.
Without really thinking about it, Vinyl began charging her magical energy. Just before Octavia could leap upon her, the DJ unleashed a sonic wave from her horn, causing the cellist to drop her sword and throw her hooves over her ears, cringing in pain from the onslaught of sound filling her eardrums. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Vinyl yanked a lamp off her bedside table and smashed it over Octavia’s head. She collapsed to the ground, injured but still conscious. Without thinking twice, Vinyl raced out of the room.
“Where is it, where is it, where is it?!” she muttered furiously, looking around the living room for her bass cannon. This imposter must have found it and hidden it away somewhere in the apartment. If she could get her hooves on it, she could turn this fight to her favor. She threw open the cabinets and pulled away the curtains, but it was nowhere in sight.
The stomping of hooves in Vinyl’s room told her that ‘Octavia’ was after her again. Desperate, the DJ ran for the door to Octavia’s room and flung it open.
There, sitting on the bed and in plain sight, was the bass cannon.
Vinyl leapt for it just as Octavia spotted her. With an alarmed cry, the grey mare raised her sword and ran at the DJ just as she grabbed her cannon and began channeling her magic into it, powering it up. Octavia ran into her room and was almost upon Vinyl just as the DJ spun around and fired the cannon.
The blast of energy blew Octavia backwards, smashing her through the wall and back into the living room. Dust filled the room as drywall and brick fell to the floor, leaving a gaping hole in the wall separating the two rooms. Vinyl sat perfectly still on the bed, her chest heaving as she clutched the cannon. She couldn’t hear anything but the sound of feedback from the weapon and she strained her ears to make out any other noise.
Vinyl rose to her hooves, standing on her hind legs as she maintained her grip on the bass cannon, charging it for a second blast. She carefully stepped out through the hole in the wall, looking around as the dust settled. But there was no sign of Octavia.
Suddenly there was a scream of fury and Vinyl turned just in time to see the grey mare leaping down from atop a bookshelf, swinging her sword at the DJ’s head. She barely ducked the sword in time as Octavia collided into her, pinning her to the ground and pointing the sword at Vinyl’s throat just as the DJ aimed her cannon no less than two inches away from Octavia’s face.
“PUT DOWN THE CANNON!” the cellist bellowed.
“PUT DOWN THE SWORD!” the DJ screamed back.
“WHAT?!” Octavia yelled, wincing.
“I SAID PUT DOWN THE SWORD!” Vinyl repeated.
“WHAT???” the grey mare shouted, straining to hear over the lingering effects of the bass cannon.
“I SAID PUT! DOWN! THE! SWORD!”
“I ASKED FIRST!”
“I DON’T CARE!”
The two of them didn’t dare move, breathing heavily and not taking their eyes off the other before the front door suddenly smashed open. Both mares turned to see the two Pinkietons gallop inside, only to come to a dead halt at what they saw. The four of them remained frozen in place, staring at each other in an awkward silence.
“What’s going on here?” Watt Sun demanded.
“SHE’S A CHANGELING!” both Octavia and Vinyl yelled simultaneously. They quickly looked back at each other. “WHAT? NO, YOU ARE!” they both shouted at each other.
“Wait, which one of you is the real pony?” Sharp Eye asked, clearly confused.
“I AM!” the two agents bellowed at the same time. Both of them thrust their weapons an inch closer to their opponents, gritting their teeth and trying to stare the other down.
“Okay, hold on a moment,” Watt Sun said hurriedly, looking scared at the prospect of a fight breaking out again. He heard the sound of doors in the hallway outside opening as Vinyl and Octavia’s neighbors came out to investigate. Thinking quickly, Sharp Eye ran out into the hallway and shut the door behind her before Watt Sun turned back to the two agents. “What makes you think the other is a changeling?”
“BECAUSE SHE’S TRYING TO CUT ME IN TWO, YOU IDIOT!” Vinyl screamed.
“BECAUSE SHE’S BEEN HIDING WEAPONS IN HER ROOM!” Octavia yelled back, although her loud voice didn’t care the frantic tone of Vinyl’s. Rather, she just seemed to be trying to make herself heard over the feedback in her ears. “I KNEW YOU WOULD TRY TO GRAB YOUR CANNON WHEN YOU GOT BACK, SO I TOOK IT!”
“Why’d you go into my room?!” Vinyl exclaimed.
“BECAUSE YOU WERE SPENDING ALL YOUR TIME IN THERE!” the cellist replied. “I HAD TO KNOW WHAT YOU WERE DOING!”
“But it’s my room!” Vinyl said indignantly.
“Err, I think that may be a little beside the point, Ms. Scratch,” Watt Sun remarked in a nervous tone.
“Then how did you get your hooves on the bass cannon?!” Octavia demanded. “We left it at headquarters! The only way you could have gotten it is if you were a changeling who grabbed it when you attacked the building!”
“I took it before they attacked!” Vinyl exclaimed. “After you talked to that changeling, when you and Melody were trying to figure out where Princess Celestia was, I went down to the lab and grabbed the cannon before we left for the racetrack! I thought maybe I could get a chance to use it!”
“Then why did you hide it?” Octavia said forcefully.
“I...well...” Vinyl looked sheepish. “After HQ was attacked and Melody was put in the hospital, you got so serious. So it didn’t seem like a good time to bring up the bass cannon and all...”
The cellist was silent for a moment, giving Vinyl a stunned look. “Are you serious?!” she exclaimed, standing up and pulling her sword away from Vinyl. “You didn’t think mentioning the fact that you have a high-powered weapon was worth mentioning at any point?”
“Uh...no?” Vinyl said, giving Octavia an awkward grin.
Octavia smacked her forehead with one of her hooves. “You... I can’t believe... the sheer stupidity...” she stammered before sighing deeply. “Never mind. You can’t be a changeling. No changeling would ever be that stupid.”
“What, that’s it?” Vinyl exclaimed. “I’m just supposed to ignore the fact that you almost severed my head from my body?!”
“I thought you were a changeling, Vinyl!”
“Well gosh Octy, so did I! If you wanted to know how I got Wubsy, you could have just asked!”
“Would you stop calling it ‘Wubsy!’” Octavia yelled. “For the love of Celestia, Vinyl! It’s a weapon, not a child!”
“Don’t you talk about Wubsy that way!”
“OKAY, ENOUGH!” Watt Sun bellowed, cutting the two off. “Now clearly, there’s been a terrible misunderstanding here. But it seems like you’re both really who you say you are. Now, can I leave knowing you two won’t kill each other once I exit through that door?”
The two mares glared at each other for a long, intense moment before reluctantly giving Watt Sun a silent nod. The Pinkieton let out a heavy sigh and trotted to the door, leaving silently. Vinyl and Octavia could hear him reassuring the few remaining ponies out in the hallway. “Nothing to see here, folks,” they heard him say. “Just a domestic disturbance, everything’s fine now. Nothing to get worried about.”
The agents continued to glare at each other in silence. At last, Vinyl stood up. “Tomorrow morning, once curfew ends, I am leaving,” she declared.
“That is fine with me,” Octavia huffed. Vinyl marched into her room and tried to slam her broken door shut, only to find it wouldn’t close. The cellist sat down upon the couch, laying her sword beside her and crossing her forehooves across her chest.
There they remained, Vinyl in her bed and Octavia on the couch, fuming over what had taken place. Several hours later, neither had moved. But neither had fallen asleep, either.
Octavia awoke early the next morning, risen by the sun shining in her eyes. She looked around to see that she had fallen asleep on the living room couch. Her bedroom was visible through the gaping hole in the wall and the carpet was covered in drywall and dust. Her ears were still ringing and she yawned deeply in an effort to pop them. When that didn’t work, she swallowed repeatedly until her hearing began to resemble its normal state.
She got off the couch and slowly walked around the corner before looking into Vinyl’s now deserted room. Even though she had expected to find the room empty, it still stung to see that her friend was gone. A quick look around told her that the DJ had taken what few possessions she had brought with her, including the bass cannon.
Octavia retreated to the living room, glancing out the window to see Watt Sun in his usual spot across the street, reading a newspaper. He glanced up and upon spotting the cellist, folded up his newspaper and held it aloft, tapping the front page with a forehoof. Octavia frowned as she tried to decipher the meaning before pointing at the radio and giving the Pinkieton an inquiring look. He nodded in response.
She flipped the radio on as she moved past into the kitchen, paying only a small amount of attention to the sound of two news commenters speaking as she looked for the makings of breakfast. She opened the cabinets to find that nearly everything had fallen over and spilled their contents as a result of the bass cannon’s blast through the adjacent wall. A pair of mice raised their heads from the mess before darting back into the shadows of the cabinet. Octavia made a noise of disgust before opening the icebox. Nopony had made a grocery trip yet and already what food remained inside was starting to spoil.
The cellist opened one last cabinet, finding that something had managed to survive the blast: a large case of white wine, which had been saved owing to its copious amount of packaging. Octavia sighed, resigning herself to a plain breakfast of oats as snippets of the conversation on the radio reached her ears.
“...I think we’re going to see a big shift in Equestrian politics as a result of this debate. We’ve never seen such a direct challenge to royal power like this.” Octavia paused, her ears pricked. “There’s simply no precedent for what we’re seeing today, where the royals are actually having to take action to defend their political legitimacy.”
“If you’re just joining us,” the other news anchor spoke, “this morning it was announced that the royals would disband Her Majesty’s Secret Service, pending an investigation into the spy agency. The existence of the agency was only recently revealed to the public. This announcement came as a result of increasing political pressure on the royals in light of news that the recent changeling attack was allegedly in retaliation to the agency’s activities. The target of this investigation will be the head of the agency, one Melody Maker, who was injured in the attack and is currently making a recovery in a Canterlot hospital. Upon her recovery, she will be required to answer—”
Octavia couldn’t listen any longer. She turned off the radio and slumped against the wall, placing her face in her forehooves.
Melody Maker was incapacitated. Quite was missing. Vinyl was gone. And now the one source of legitimacy she had, secretive though it was, had been stripped from her. She glanced up. From where she sat on the floor, the room seemed cavernous, its walls towering over her. The attributes that had made the apartment feel spacious now made it seem desolate, making Octavia feel alone and exposed in its vastness. The ringing in her ears seemed to intensify as she remained there, not moving and dimly hearing the sounds of Canterlot outside.
She rose to her hooves and returned to the kitchen, but her appetite had vanished. The cellist stood in place for a moment, staring blankly at the bland oats sitting on the counter. She glanced over at the wine inside the open cabinet. Except for those rare occasions when skill in wine tasting had proved useful at a fancy gathering, she hadn’t drank alcohol in years. With the role of a secret agent, Octavia had closely monitored her health so as to always be at peak condition when duty called. Blemishes weren’t something one could afford in this line of work.
Octavia stared at the wine for a long moment before reaching into the case and pulling out a bottle, uncorking it with her teeth. She poured herself a glass, inhaling its sweet scent as she did so. Though she had been trained to ask for red wines at any Canterlot party, given their rich taste and their fancier reputation which appealed to the Canterlot elite, she preferred white wines. They were lighter and sweeter, easier on the palate and more crisp.
Octavia took a gentle sip, frowning as it washed over her tongue. It was cheap wine, barely worth the elaborate packaging it came in. She paused for a second, then took another sip.
Vinyl twiddled a empty bottle between her forehooves, letting one corner rest on the surface of the bar as she spun it before letting it fall gently on the side. She stared down at it from underneath the hoodie she was wearing.
“Hey,” she called out to the barkeep, who responded promptly. “Another Dos Equines,” she ordered, slapping a bit on the bar.
“You’re the boss,” the barkeep said as he swept the bit into his pocket and pulled out another bottle of beer, placing it in front of Vinyl.
“You’re damn straight I am,” she muttered to herself before pushing the bottle to her lips. The beer went down easy and Vinyl gave a satisfied sigh. The first sip was always the best.
She glanced around the room. There were only a few other patrons given the early hour, all of them pairs of friends who had come inside to share a drink and chat. Their pleasant conversations were about as far removed from Vinyl’s present mood as possible.
“I’m the boss,” she murmured under her breath. “Nopony tells me what to do...”
Vinyl looked around at the other patrons. She couldn’t understand how they could be so happy. All of them, so blissfully unaware of what was happening around them and just enjoying the company of friends. Vinyl found herself envying them.
She lifted the bottle to take another sip and caught sight of the logo on its surface. It was the silhouette of two ponies, sharing a bottle and smiling broadly at each other. Below was the tagline, ‘You don’t always drink, but when you do, do it with Dos!’
“Shut up,” Vinyl grumbled before taking another sip.
Octavia swayed unsteadily as she reached into the cabinet and pulled out another bottle of wine. Three empty bottles were perched on the counter as she wrenched out the cork of the next one and poured yet another glass. With every sip she felt her muscles loosen and her tension fade. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so relaxed.
The cellist strolled out onto the balcony, carrying the bottle and glass with her. She leaned against the railing, looking down at the midday traffic passing down the street.
Across from her, Watt Sun sat facing the window, still reading his newspaper. As Octavia watched the street traffic, she noticed there seemed to be an unusually high number of mail delivery carriages on the street. They were a common sight in Canterlot, but there were currently no less than three parked in front of the building. The carriages were covered to protect the packages within, their sides decorated with a prominently displayed EPS logo and a flashy advertisement with the words ‘WE SHIP ANYWHERE!’
Octavia’s thoughts were interrupted by a knock at her door. She returned inside, placing the bottle and glass down as she swayed unsteadily across the room to the front door. She leaned against the door for a second, taking a deep breath and shaking her head rapidly, trying to clear her mind. She rubbed her eyes quickly and straightened her mane, trying her best not to look like she wasn’t under the influence of alcohol before opening the door.
Amber was standing on the doorstep, looking at Octavia with a concerned expression. “Hello there,” the elderly mare greeted the cellist. “I just wanted to check in on you. I heard you had a fight last night.”
Octavia winced. “...Yes, we did.” She paused, trying to think of something else to say. “She left this morning,” she added.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Amber said sympathetically. “Would you like to talk about it?”
Octavia couldn’t think of anything less appealing, but in her present state of mind she decided there wasn’t any harm in it. Besides, it wasn’t like she had anything worthwhile planned. She opened the door wide, stepping aside to let Amber in before trotting across the room to pull the curtain closed. It wouldn’t do to have Amber spot Watt Sun, especially given that he had been here last night.
“My word, what happened to your wall?!” the elderly mare exclaimed, gaping at the massive hole where Octavia had been flung out of her bedroom.
“...Inadequate construction,” the cellist answered after a beat. “Yes, that’s it. They just don’t make them like they used to, right?” She gave Amber a forced grin as the elderly mare took a seat on the couch.
“This building is nearly a century old,” Amber commented.
“...Yes. That’s...what I meant. It’s a good thing they don’t still make them like they used to.”
The elderly mare raised an eyebrow at Octavia but shortly changed the subject. “Well, you should talk to the maintenance pony about that wall. But enough about that; do you know if Vinyl will be returning?”
“No, I don’t,” Octavia answered as she sat down on a chair opposite the couch. “I don’t even know where she is.”
“Any idea where she might have gone?”
The cellist frowned. “Why are you so concerned about her?” She was dimly aware of the fact that normally she would never be so blunt with what was essentially a stranger, but in the fog of her thoughts she dismissed it.
“I’m just concerned for you, dear,” Amber said, giving Octavia a kind smile. “Such a strong friendship like yours would be a terrible thing to waste.”
Octavia paused. In the silence, the dull ringing in her ears began to return. “Yes, it would,” she answered. “Tell me, you’re experienced in these matters. Do you think there’s any mending this relationship?”
“Oh yes,” the elderly mare said breezily. “A good friendship doesn’t end so easily. Anything can be mended if you just give it the time and care it needs. True friends are always there for you.”
A small smile crept across Octavia’s face. “Your mask is slipping.”
Amber cocked her head to one side. “I beg your pardon, dear?”
“Amber believes me and Vinyl are in a romantic relationship,” the cellist replied. “And I wouldn’t know what experience she has in these matters, if any at all.”
The elderly mare stared back with a blank look on her face before scowling. With a flash of green light, she transformed into a perfect replica of Octavia. “Curses, you two keep seeing through my disguises. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say I’m getting sloppy.”
“How did you find this place?” Octavia’s mind was now far more alert, although it wasn’t enough to entirely cut through the fog of drunkenness in her mind.
“You have your friend to thank for my visit,” the changeling said. “Of course, we would have found you eventually. One of our operatives was in the building when Vinyl Scratch walked past him in the hallway. Given our past experience, I was sent to investigate, by which I mean take the form of your gullible, annoyingly friendly neighbor.
“I’m afraid this is where the chase ends,” she continued. “It’s a shame, I know; I was enjoying it too. But we have the building surrounded, so it’s only a matter of time now.”
“The building is surrounded?” Octavia replied in surprise. Something clicked in the back of her mind. The mail carriages gathered in front of the building. Hiding in plain sight as mere delivery ponies, allowed access to any building. They ship anywhere...
“I must say, I think I prefer you drunk,” the changeling commented with a snicker. “You wear your emotions on your sleeve. Even more than usual, I might add.”
“I wouldn’t count on victory just yet, if I were you,” Octavia muttered. “We have agents monitoring the building at all times. The only reason they haven’t attacked yet is because they’re waiting for you to make the first move.”
“Oh please, you think we don’t know about your stupid Pinkieton guards?” the changeling scoffed. Octavia’s mouth went dry. Her bluff had been called. “Any idiot with half a brain could have noticed that pony watching you from across the street.”
The cellist started before racing for the window and whipping the curtain aside. In the apartment across the street, two changelings were wrestling Watt Sun to the floor. Though he continued to struggle, the two changelings had already tied him up, rendering him helpless. As she watched, one of the changelings drew the curtain closed, hiding the fight inside. Octavia felt her blood run cold.
“So, this is how this is going to work,” the changeling said casually, as if discussing the weather. “You and I are going to have a nice conversation while my comrades below finish getting ready, at which point they will take the form of royal guards and come up here to place you under arrest. Since both dear Con Mane and I admire you, we’d rather you wouldn’t make the mistake of trying to fight us and forcing my comrades to kill you right here and now.” She gave Octavia a wide smile. “Does that sound agreeable?”
The cellist’s heart beat faster as she stared at her doppelganger, hardly daring to breathe lest she reveal her panic to her enemy. “Con Mane and you?” she muttered, trying to keep her voice under control. “Who are you?”
The changeling grinned broadly. “I am no one. And yet, I am everypony I have ever met. Funny how that works, isn’t it?”
“Oh, I see.” Octavia sat down again, glaring at her own face across from her. “You’re a parasite. A parasite with no identity of her own who can only live off the identities of others.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” With another flash of green light, Octavia was staring at a perfect replica of Con Mane. “Who needs any old identity when you can be me?” the changeling said, throwing a cocky grin at the cellist.
“Why are you working for Mane? Why let a pony send you here in his place?”
“Right, a stallion that every guard in the city is looking for should just waltz down the street and drop by for a visit.”
“But why work with a pony?” Octavia asked. “I could understand attacking Princess Celestia, Cadance or Shining Armor, deplorable though that is, but Con Mane’s enemies are not your enemies.”
“Au contraire,” ‘Con Mane’ retorted. “This is but the first move in a larger game. Do you really think we are so singularly focused on those few who defeated our queen?
“Equestria’s love is powerful enough to sustain us for generations to come,” the changeling went on. “We’re not going to turn away from it after one mere defeat. We are on the cusp of war, Agent Octavia. A long war that will take place in the shadows, rarely seen by pony eyes. And the first step in our glorious conquest will be to remove Equestria’s first line of defense in this war: its spies. This is what Con Mane has given us.”
There was a knock at the door, followed by a gruff voice. “Royal guard, we’re here to search the premises.”
“Ah, the cavalry has arrived,” the changeling said, getting up off the couch and strolling over to the front door. Octavia remained rooted to the spot. She considered making a run for it before the changeling turned around and smiled at her with Con Mane’s smug grin. “And don’t you think of going anywhere, darling. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your bodyguard across the street, right?”
The changeling opened the front door as she watched Octavia, turning back to the doorway to find herself facing the mouth of a huge cannon.
There was an explosion of sound that nearly deafened her as the world suddenly became filled with bright colors around her. The changeling barely had time to register the thin strands of colored paper fluttering in the air before a hoof came flying at her, colliding with her head and promptly sending her to the ground.
Octavia watched on in stunned shock as Sharp Eye leapt over a bright, blue cannon aimed at the door and delivered a flying kick to the changeling, pinning her to the floor. Another swift blow to the head caused the changeling to lose conscious and her disguise, which melted away with a flash of green light. The Pinkieton looked up at the cellist, who merely gaped back.
Sharp Eye cleared her throat. “Well, don’t just sit around, let’s get you out of here!”
“What...what...what is that?” Octavia stammered, pointing a hoof at the cannon.
“Party cannon. Standard Pinkieton equipment,” the young mare explained, patting the top of the cannon.
“But...how did you know to impersonate a guard?”
“Oh, I heard her as I was coming upstairs,” Sharp Eye said, reaching under the coffee table to pull out a small microphone that was hidden underneath.
The cellist looked aghast. “You bugged our apartment?”
“You can thank us later. Now grab your weapons and let’s get out of here!”
Octavia moved to grab her bow-sword, but stopped short. “Wait, we can’t leave Watt Sun behind. The changelings are holding him in the other apartment.”
“I’ll take care of him,” Sharp Eye shot back, already reaching into a saddlebag to pull out a set of equipment. “You focus on getting out of here.”
“No.” Octavia’s voice was stern, and the Pinkieton looked up to see her gripping the handle of her bow sword tightly. “You two are the only ones I can count on now. If I weren’t to help you, I wouldn’t be worth my title as an agent.”
Sharp Eye considered Octavia for a moment before nodding. “Alright, if you insist.” She pulled a grappling hook out of her bag tied to a long section of rope and showed it to the cellist. “Have you used one of these before?”
“You’re joking, I hope,” Octavia replied with a satisfied smirk. She grabbed the grappling hook from the Pinkieton before walking out onto the balcony, facing the apartment across the street. “Watch and learn.” She raised the hook and drew it against the string of her bow, aiming for a spot just above the balcony of Watt Sun’s apartment. After a moment she let the hook fly, watching it sail through the air at the apartment building across the street. It looked to be on target...
Until it smashed through the glass door of Watt Sun’s balcony, disappearing into the folds of the curtain before retracting and catching hold of the balcony railing. There was an awkward silence as the tinkle of breaking glass faded. Sharp Eye glanced at the half-finished bottle of wine on the counter before looking up at Octavia, who blushed.
“I might be a little rusty at the moment,” the cellist said.
The sound of hooves galloping down the hall reached the two ponies’ ears. “You know what, good enough,” Sharp Eye muttered before tying the rope around the balcony railing and attaching a small pulley to turn it into a makeshift zip-line. Octavia sheathed her sword and the two nodded at each other before grabbing hold of the pulley and pushing off the balcony, launching themselves over the street.
Octavia glanced down to see a few passing ponies stop and point up at them. She looked up as they were closing in on Watt Sun’s apartment to see the two changelings pulling away the curtain to see what had just smashed through the window. With perfect timing, the cellist swung her body backwards before swinging forwards and letting go of the pulley, launching herself up over the balcony railing and straight into one of the two changelings.
She collided hard with the changeling, striking it with her rear hooves before they tumbled over each other, ripping the curtain off the wall and quickly becoming entangled in it as it fell on them. Octavia lashed out blindly, catching hold of something hard nearby. Frantic, she hit it repeatedly, her hooves flailing out in front of her as her breathing became heavy in the suffocating folds of the curtain...
“Octavia! Agent Octavia!” Suddenly all was light and air again as the curtain was yanked off of her. The cellist looked up to see Sharp Eye standing above her, holding a vase over her head. Upon catching sight of the cellist, the Pinkieton quickly lowered the vase. “Oh, it’s you.” She glanced down at the changeling, whose face was now covered in a rather alarming number of purplish bruises. “I thought you were the...erm...one in trouble,” Sharp Eye explained.
The changeling beneath Octavia groaned and stirred. In response, the cellist grabbed the vase out of Sharp Eye’s hooves and smashed it on the changeling’s face. Its movements quickly ceased.
Octavia stood up and the two ponies ran over to a corner of the room where Watt Sun was entrapped in a cocoon lying on the floor, apparently waiting for the changelings to carry it away. The cellist cut through the cocoon with her sword and she and Sharp Eye pulled the quaking stallion out. He was shivering and covered in green slime, but very much alive.
Suddenly the sound of hooves pounding on the front door filled the room. “Royal guards, open up!”
“And that would be our cue to leave,” Sharp Eye muttered, pulling Watt Sun to his hooves. The two mares helped the stallion back outside, where they emerged into the daylight to see several ‘royal guards’ taking flight from the balcony of Octavia and Vinyl’s apartment.
“Hold it right there!” the lead guard bellowed, flapping in place above the street and flanked by a few guards on each side. Octavia drew her sword and the two Pinkietons braced themselves as they heard the front door splinter behind them.
Sharp Eye audibly gulped. “Should we jump?” she asked in an undertone.
“I think we’d break our legs if we did that,” Octavia pointed out.
The lead guard yelled again, “Give yourselves up peaceful—”
There was a sudden blast of noise as a beam of bright, blue light suddenly shot through the air, striking the lead guard square in the back and sending him tumbling to the ground, entangled in a swirling mass of blue magical energy. They looked up to see Vinyl standing on the roof opposite them, levitating her bass cannon next to her and wearing a smug grin.
The door to Watt Sun’s apartment smashed apart as the changelings behind them forced their way in, still in disguise as royal guards. Octavia’s mind raced as one last means of escape came to her. “Both of you, grab the rope!” she yelled. The two Pinkietons didn’t hesitate, swinging over the edge of the balcony railing and gripping the rope tightly. Octavia followed suit, holding her sword over her head as the changelings closed in.
Watt Sun’s eyes suddenly widened. “Wait, you’re not going to—”
“Hold on!” Octavia hollered, bringing the sword down and slicing the rope just below the grappling hook. The three plummeted to the ground, holding onto the rope for dear life as they swung across the street. The growing crowd of passersby below gasped as the three ponies hurtled towards the apartment building.
Luckily for the two Pinkietons, somepony on one of the lower floors had stepped outside onto her balcony to see what all the commotion was about. Said pony ducked as the two sailed in through her open door, letting go of the rope and landing harmlessly on the floor of the apartment within.
Octavia wasn’t so fortunate. Being lower on the rope, she hit the wall just below the balcony, causing her to lose her grip and tumble to the ground. Her only saving grace was that she had hit the building just above the first floor, making the fall quite short. She landed on the sidewalk forehooves first, tumbling onto her side with a pained grunt. She lay on the cement, looking over herself for a second. Aside from a couple of fresh scrapes, she had gotten through unharmed.
“AaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!” The panicked scream of Vinyl coming from above was shortly cut off. Octavia looked up to see her friend hovering but a few lengths over the street, her face straining and her horn glowing brightly as she was encased in her own magical aura. It gave out briefly and Vinyl dropped quickly before she caught herself with her levitation spell again, but that too shortly faded and the unicorn fell the last remaining short distance to the earth with a small thud.
“Ow. I...am not dead,” Vinyl said, almost in disbelief. “That went better than I expected.” She quickly stood up and charged her bass cannon. A few well-aimed shots sent three more disguised changelings dropping like flies.
“What are you doing here?!” Octavia exclaimed.
“I think the better question is what are we doing here?” the DJ retorted. “Run!”
The two agents made a break for it, with Vinyl firing off a few more shots to give them some cover. “What about the Pinkietons?” Octavia yelled.
“They can take care of themselves! Besides, we’re the ones they’re after!”
The two ducked into a nearby alley, racing through while the guards desperately tried to catch up. Several of the disguised changelings flew into the alley, where they found themselves easy fodder for Vinyl’s cannon. By the time the changelings managed to regroup and make it through the alley to the busy street on the other side, the two agents had vanished.
From a seat in a small fast-food joint nearby, Octavia and Vinyl watched the guards through a window, keeping their heads low to stay out of sight. The changelings dispersed, searching for the two ponies in every direction, but none approached the restaurant. The two ponies breathed a sigh of relief.
“Hold on a second,” Octavia said as a realization dawned on her. “That was strangely convenient timing for you to show up right when we needed help. How do I know that you’re the real Vinyl Scratch?”
Vinyl smiled before using her magic to levitate her goggles off her head, revealing a shining black eye hidden underneath. “Remember giving me this?”
“I remember you asking for it,” Octavia grumbled. Vinyl chuckled, rubbing the back of her head. “In that case, why did you come back?”
“Just...I dunno, felt like the right thing to do,” the DJ answered just as a waiter arrived at their table. Vinyl glanced up at her. “Oh, uh...two fries, please.”
“I don’t want any fries,” Octavia quickly added.
“I’m not ordering for you,” Vinyl scoffed. The cellist stared back for a moment before sighing.
“I’ll just have a glass of water. I’m starting to get a headache,” she grumbled. The waiter nodded and left. “So that’s it, then? You returned because ‘it felt right?’”
“...Yeah. You’re welcome, by the way,” Vinyl grumbled, avoiding Octavia’s gaze. The cellist glared at her in silence. “That’s the second time I’ve saved your skin.”
“This coming from the mare who I have had to free from imprisonment twice,” the cellist retorted. Vinyl bit her lip.
“So what, that makes me the wing mare here?”
“Well, you’re certainly the least mature one, not to mention that you clearly don’t take this job nearly as seriously as I do,” Octavia said, crossing her forelegs over her chest.
“Yeah, well you’re totally uptight and stuck-up,” the DJ retorted.
“You’re lazy and uncoordinated.”
“You’re obsessed with this job.”
“You’re the sorriest excuse for an agent I have ever met,” Octavia hissed.
“You’re...” Vinyl pointed a hoof at her fellow agent, but her next words were a long time coming. “...You’re...right.” She lowered her hoof and looked down at the table separating the two. “You’re right.” Octavia’s eyebrows lifted in surprise as the DJ slumped in her seat. “I don’t want to do this anymore, Octy. I just want to make music. That’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at.”
“Oh, now you’re just being melodramatic.” Octavia sighed. “This isn’t a question of want, Vinyl. It’s a question of duty.”
“It wasn’t for me,” the DJ replied. “I never did it out of duty. What made you become a spy in the first place?”
“Me? Oh...” The cellist paused and thought it over for a few seconds. “I suppose it was a chance for me to do some good. My music career wasn’t going anywhere at the time, and this was my opportunity to give back to the country that had given me so much. What about you?”
Vinyl shrugged. “I dunno, it sounded cool. Mainly I just needed the money at the time.”
Octavia sighed in exasperation. “You know, there are more important things than money, Vinyl.”
“Notice it’s always the financially secure who say that,” the DJ replied with a smirk on her face.
“What’s that suppose to mean?”
“Oh come on, your family’s always been rich.”
“We were not rich!” Octavia cried in an indignant tone. “As a matter of fact, I’ll have you know that my family was the poorest on our block!”
“Oh wow, how painful that must have been. To be the only family on the block who could afford only one golden chariot. The horror,” Vinyl mocked, a broad grin stretching across her face.
Octavia glared back. “You’re so immature. How did I ever get stuck with a mare like you as a partner? We’re simply nothing alike!”
Vinyl’s expression became more serious. “If you didn’t like working with me, why didn’t you just find a different partner?”
“I...” The cellist faltered. “I don’t know. To be honest, I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me before. I could have always gone to Melody and told her we were incompatible as partners. And yet I never did.”
A thoughtful silence fell between the two as they looked away from each other, thinking over their times together as secret agents. Octavia lifted her head to face Vinyl. “Did you ever speak to Melody about me?”
“Me? No, I just never questioned it. She assigned us together, said we’d make a good fit, so I figured that was the end of the story. When I met you, I thought there was some mistake. How could we ever be a good fit for each other? But...things always worked out somehow.”
Octavia placed a hoof on her chin and gave a thoughtful hum. “Perhaps Melody wanted to show us that even two ponies as different as us could get along.”
Vinyl looked over at Octavia, meeting her gaze. “Maybe we owe it to her to prove her correct.”
Octavia and Vinyl were huddled behind a parked mail carriage, crouched low to the ground and clutching their respective weapons. They were sitting outside a large warehouse on the edge of the city, just barely within the confines of Shining Armor’s shield. The words ‘EQUESTRIA POSTAL SERVICE’ adorned the side of the building, next to a large EPS logo. Dozens of mail carriages were parked around the building, sitting overnight as they awaited going into service the next day.
Crouched behind a stack of crates nearby, Watt Sun and Sharp Eye were watching the warehouse, the latter examining the scene through a spyglass. “There’s definitely movement in there,” she whispered, turning to the two agents. “It’s past curfew; nopony should be working this late.”
“Strictly speaking, we shouldn’t be here either,” Vinyl remarked. She glanced around at the couple dozen Pinkieton detectives and what little was left of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, all taking positions behind mail carriages, crates or whatever could hide them from view of the building. After the two agents regrouped with the Pinkietons at their headquarters (which was housed in the back of a shop called ‘Party Headquarters’), they had amassed the full force of the detective agency and the few remaining secret agents onto the EPS warehouse. “Have you called in the royal guard yet?”
“Not yet,” Watt Sun answered. “We’re holding off until the last possible moment. If the changelings have infiltrated the guard, we can’t risk tipping them off that we’re on to them. Once we move in, then I’ll contact Shining Armor.”
“Very well then,” Octavia muttered, sheathing her sword and eyeing the warehouse warily. “I’ll take the roof. Wait one minute, then storm the building.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to join you on the roof? This baby is pretty good at shooting down any flyers,” Vinyl offered, patting her bass cannon.
“I’m sure. Besides, you need that firepower more than I do,” the cellist replied. “You focus on taking down the changelings. I’m going to find Mane.”
“Good luck,” Sharp Eye murmured. Vinyl and Watt Sun nodded in agreement as Octavia slipped away into the shadows, heading for the warehouse.
Octavia crept along the edge of the roof, careful to stay out of sight of anyone below. A glance through a skylight mounted in the roof revealed a few changelings pacing around inside, confirming her suspicions. The warehouse was filled with crates and packages, giving the appearance of a normally functioning mail facility. But Octavia was frustrated not to see an office or anything that would be a logical place to start looking for Con Mane.
“Ah, you’re here! Feel free to take a seat, dear.”
Octavia whirled around to see Con Mane laying on a wooden deck chair in the middle of the roof, facing away from her. Sitting on a small table next to him was a tall glass cup filled with a frothy milkshake with a colorful straw sticking out.
The stallion reached up a hoof and gestured over his shoulder at something in the mare’s general direction. “Oh, and while you’re on your way, could you pass me the remote?”
Octavia remained rooted to the spot, staring at the back of Con Mane’s head with a mixture of shock and silent fury. After a long, quiet moment, the stallion spoke again. “You know what, don’t trouble yourself dear. I can get it.” His horn began glowing, and a pale yellow aura appeared around a small remote control sitting on a utility box near Octavia. It floated over to his outstretched hoof as he took a sip of his milkshake.
The cellist finally found her voice. “What is the remote control for?”
“Would you believe that it’s a detonator to activate an explosive device planted inside the Royal Palace?”
Octavia inhaled sharply, gripping the handle of her sword tightly and bending her knees as she prepared to leap at the stallion and draw her sword in one motion if it proved necessary.
“No, of course you wouldn’t, that would be silly. This is just the remote for the radio.” He pressed a button at the top of the device, causing a radio standing several lengths in front of him to turn on. A long, thin, silvery antenna extended out of the top as the strains of classical music filled the air. Octavia instantly recognized the song as the finale to the Overture of Pegasopolis.
“Do you like it?” Con Mane asked. “Or perhaps we should play something your friend would like. After all, you two seem to have made up.” The sound of cannons booming over the brass fanfare of the Overture was quickly replaced by a heavy bass beat.
The stallion took another sip of his milkshake and relaxed against the back of his chair. “I’m glad you came. I was expecting you.”
“Is that so?” Octavia said slowly. She retained her grip on the handle of her sword as she tried to decide between lunging at the stallion’s back and catching him before he could turn around, or circling around so she could see him more clearly before attempting anything.
“Indeed. When the attack on you failed, I figured you would be able to piece together where our base of operations was.”
“If that was true, then why would you still be here?”
“Because frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Con Mane said airily. “The changelings have their silly notions of grandeur and overthrowing the nation, but I have already accomplished nearly everything I set out to: Her Majesty’s Secret Service is dead. Melody will be too, once the tight security around her is lifted.
“Quite honestly, I’m getting bored,” he continued. “I have little to keep me engaged in life now. I’m lost. A rebel without a cause. The only thing left is killing you, and for that all I had to do was wait for you to come to me. I’ve been anticipating this moment, so I hope you can make it a satisfying one.”
Con Mane turned around in his seat, looking at Octavia for the first time. “Maybe when we’re done here, I can take up a hobby. What do you think of resurrection? I’m already pretty good at it.”
Octavia gritted her teeth and lunged at the stallion, drawing her sword out and raising it over her head in one smooth motion. Quick as a flash, Con Mane jumped off his chair and kicked it, causing it to fold together with a snap before he snatched it with his forehooves. The stallion reared up on his hindlegs and swung the chair at the oncoming mare, batting her out of the air in an explosion of splintered wood.
Octavia skidded across the roof, barely managing to hang on to her sword. While she rose to her hooves, Con Mane dropped the mangled remnants of his chair and casually strolled over to the radio. With one clean motion, he snapped the antenna off, revealing that it narrowed to a thin blade with a sharp point on the end. A doughnut-shaped protrusion shielded the handle at the base from the blade. He flexed the weapon before letting it snap back like a whip.
“You like it? It was made for fencing, but it’ll do in a pinch. It’s also a splendid tool in the bedroom, if you’re interested,” the stallion said, grinning slyly and waggling his eyebrows.
Octavia growled as she rose onto her hindlegs. She let out a strangled cry and charged forward, sword held at the side in a slashing position. The stallion merely stood in place, giving the rapidly approaching mare a cocky grin.
The massive warehouse door, wide enough to accommodate two mail carriages moving side-by-side, buckled at the sudden onslaught of sound. A few ear-splitting seconds later, the crumpled door fell inward with a crash that echoed through the vast building. Standing just outside were several Pinkietons and Vinyl Scratch, who was holding a smoking bass cannon.
They rushed inside to be met by several royal guards. One of them held up a hoof. “Halt!” he screamed. “What are you—”
Vinyl raised her bass cannon and let off a bolt of sonic energy, which struck the guard dead-on. A viciously swirling mass of blue magic quickly encircled his head. With a flash of green light, the stallion took the form of a changeling as he fell to the ground, holding his hooves over his ears as he clenched his eyes shut and let out a pained growl.
The other guards, realizing these intruders weren’t buying their disguise, let out a collective snarl and revealed their true forms before charging the Pinkietons. The ponies responded in kind, meeting the changelings head-on in a collision of hooves and bared fangs. They would have been evenly matched if it weren’t for the bass cannon tipping the battle in the Pinkieton’s favor. A few blasts from Vinyl were all it took to leave the changelings lying on the floor, squirming in pain.
The DJ moved swiftly through the battle, taking down each enemy with ease. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the dark shape and shining blue eyes of a changeling lunging at her. Vinyl spun around, grasping her cannon in her forehooves as she lined up a shot. The changeling was almost upon her when she let off a massive cannon blast, blowing the creature back into the air and sending it flying into a stack of open mail crates. The stack came tumbling down onto him, burying the changeling in an avalanche of envelopes and packages.
Vinyl looked around the room. The other changelings were now subdued, thanks to the Pinkietons tying them up while they were under the influence of the bass cannon’s magic. The agent jerked her head towards the back of the warehouse, receiving silent nods from each of the Pinkietons in response.
They quietly made their way deeper into the warehouse, peering cautiously around stacks of crates, shelves or anything that would give them cover. Vinyl moved slowly on her hind legs, holding her cannon against her shoulder as her eyes darted about the room.
There was a sudden scurry of movement in the shadows just beyond a shelf ahead of them, startling the agent and causing her to quickly aim her cannon at the spot. Heart pounding, she glanced at the Pinkietons and gestured towards the ground. They all crouched low, slowly following Vinyl. She backed up against the shelf, clutching the cannon to her chest and taking a steadying breath. The agent looked over at the Pinkietons, seeing that they were also bracing themselves, readying for the attack. Vinyl nodded before leaping around the corner, aiming her cannon ahead of her.
There was no one. Vinyl swung her bass cannon around, scanning the room for any sign of life, but there was nothing but more crates and piles of envelopes and packages. The Pinkietons stopped in their tracks after rushing out after Vinyl, looking around in confusion. Vinyl trained her gaze towards the ceiling, pointing her cannon anywhere she looked.
A sudden flash of green light drew her attention. She spun on the spot to see a changeling speeding through the air at her, head lowered and horn aimed directly at the pony. As she registered this, a cone of green light appeared around the creature’s head, shielding it as he shot like a missile towards her. It was almost upon her when she lifted her cannon and fired.
Octavia fell back against a utility box, hissing in pain as the cold metal touched her stinging skin. Her body was covered in razor-thin cuts, each deep enough to draw blood but individually not serious enough to cause concern. Collectively, however, they made her want to scream in agony.
In front of her, Con Mane held back, holding his blade in a forehoof and casually wiping it clean with an inner fold of his red bowtie. “Tell me dear, which do you think is worse?” he asked. “To sustain a single mortal blow, or to suffer death by a thousand cuts?”
The mare growled and lunged at the stallion, swinging her sword over her head. He quickly blocked her attack with his own blade, sidestepping her as he did so. Octavia tried desperately to power through his defense, watching the stallion’s weapon bend easily at her strength, but Con Mane proved too quick. He drew his blade back and, with alarming speed, nicked her on the shoulder. She lifted her sword again, but the stallion managed to leave a cut on her cheek before she could react.
The agent fell back on her haunches as Con Mane sprang away on his hind legs. He tapped the ground with his blade before pointing it in the mare’s direction. “En garde!” he cried, looking jubilant. However, his face fell when Octavia didn’t rise or look up at him. Instead, she remained on the ground, breathing hard with her teeth clenched shut as she pressed a hoof to one of her many cuts.
Con Mane gave her a disappointed look. “Oh dear, don’t tell me you’re already getting tired!” He swung the blade at her. It whistled as it passed through the air before cracking like a whip when it struck her back. A lock of black hair fell to the ground and a fresh cut appeared below the mare’s neck, but her only reaction was a twitch. “Come now, we need to make the most of this! After all, we almost never see each other anymore! I want to make this last.”
A loud boom echoed through the space beneath their hooves. Con Mane glanced at a nearby skylight, seeing flashes of green light illuminating the shadows within. “Oh, would you look at that. It seems your friends have found mine.”
He turned back to face Octavia, only to catch the briefest glimpse of a gray hoof before it collided with his face. The stallion staggered back, surprised to see the mare now lacking her sword and moving far quicker without its weight slowing her down. He raised his blade but only managed to land one last strike before she spun around and planted her forehooves on the ground, bucking Con Mane square in the chest. He flew back, losing his grip on the blade. Octavia kicked the weapon away, rising up on her hind legs so she stood over the stallion’s body, her teeth gritted and her expression determined.
Con Mane looked up at her, raising an eyebrow. A thin trail of blood trickled down from his nose, dripping over his upper lip. He gave her a sly grin as his gaze became steely.
Vinyl Scratch couldn’t remember where she was.
Wait, scratch that. Her memory was coming back, and with it the knowledge of where she was. She looked around to see that she was on the floor with the Pinkietons who had accompanied her, all of whom were lying motionless with her. Several changelings took the form of the unconscious ponies before scuttling away into the shadows to face the next group of ponies who dared penetrate the building, leaving one solitary changeling standing guard over Vinyl. The creature leaned over to face the pony, changing into the form of Octavia. She gave a weary sigh.
“So, we meet once again, Agent Scratch. Although I hesitate to use that title.” She leaned in closer to Vinyl’s face. “I thought I made it perfectly clear that you’re no agent, Vinyl. So what are you doing here?”
Vinyl glanced over to see that her bass cannon was lying several lengths away, too far out of her reach. She looked up at the changeling, who continued talking. “I don’t respect you, Vinyl Scratch. And that is the lowest insult I can give you. You are unworthy of replication. Your love is barely worth feasting upon. You are a deadbeat with delusions of artistic genius, relying not on your skills but dependent on a machine that spins disks.”
The changeling pressed a hoof to Vinyl’s chest. “I despise your idiotic name, I despise your idiotic appearance and I despise you, idiot.”
Vinyl stared back, her expression passive. There was a long, intense moment of silence as the changeling glared into the pony’s eyes. Finally, Vinyl opened her mouth. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.”
The changeling bared her teeth and swung a hoof at Vinyl’s head, landing a blow square in her right eye and shattering the lens of her goggles. The pony yelped, raising her forehooves to her face. “OW! Bucking—”
There was a flash of green light and before Vinyl could register what was happening, she was being lifted into the air by what appeared to be a muscular, white-coated stallion that was at least twice the size of a regular pony. She felt herself being slammed against the wall, held in place by a freakishly huge foreleg pressed against her neck. The world began to go dark as her limbs flailed about frantically. Vinyl began trying to call on her magic before the pressure suddenly relented and she dropped to the floor, gasping for air.
She looked up, her vision distorted by one fully intact purple lens and one shattered one, to see the muscular stallion replaced by the form of Octavia. The changeling knelt down and picked up the bass cannon before turning around and grinning at Vinyl. “No, this feels far more fitting. I see you left it charged with some of your magic. Time for you to get a taste of your own medicine.”
She lifted the weapon, aiming it directly at Vinyl’s head. The pony looked into the heart of her bass cannon, watching the glowing ball of her own magical energy brighten before the changeling pulled the trigger, unleashing the cannon’s power onto its owner. Vinyl barely saw the bolt coming before it struck, slamming into her face as a swirling mass of blue energy quickly encircled her head.
But it had no effect. The sonic energy of the cannon continued to circle her head, but now it wandered about aimlessly for several seconds before dissipating. The changeling stared at the pony in confusion. Now it was Vinyl’s turn to smile.
“When I said I wasn’t listening, I didn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention,” she said. She lifted a hoof to her ears, showing something that had been hidden from the changeling’s sight: earplugs. With no means of entering the ears, the bass cannon’s magic had no effect. The changeling looked down at the unmoving bodies of the Pinkietons, spotting a cork in each of their ears.
Vinyl’s horn began to glow as the changeling felt the bass cannon vibrate in her hooves. A glowing ball of energy appeared within the depths of the cannon, quickly becoming so bright the changeling had to shield her eyes. The weapon pulsated with energy, fed by an incredible amount of power from the unicorn. Vinyl strained, her expression determined as she gritted her teeth and clenched her eyes shut, pouring her strength into the cannon. The weapon vibrated so violently that the changeling lost her grip, but rather than falling to the floor the cannon hovered in the air before her, now gleaming so brightly it lit up the building like a miniature sun. The changeling was able to get only a few paces away before she felt the explosion.
Con Mane ducked under Octavia’s punch, catching her forearm with one of his own while ramming the other into her chest. A violent cough erupted from the mare, spraying saliva from her mouth before she staggered back, her head hung and her mind woozy from the sudden lack of oxygen. The stallion advanced a few paces before Octavia suddenly lashed out, delivering a fierce uppercut that caught Con Mane square on the chin. He fell back, raising his forehooves too late to block the spinning kick the mare delivered to his ribs.
The stallion collapsed onto his side with a grunt as the mare remained standing, swaying unsteadily on her hind hooves before she fell to her knees, hissing in pain. She could feel blood trickling down her sides, her legs, her face, over her bruises... She let out a ragged cough, taking in short, rasping breaths. A shadow passed over her and the mare looked up to see Con Mane standing on all fours, glaring down at her. He reared up on his hind legs just as a loud humming sound filled the air. Octavia’s eyes widened and she threw her forelegs over her head.
The first thing the two ponies felt was a great shuddering beneath their hooves, as if the whole building was shifting of its own accord, before their ears were filled with a thumping beat that grew in strength. Con Mane, caught unawares, cried out as he planted his forehooves over his ears, cringing in pain. The thumps became more constant until they resembled a steady stream of ear-splitting noise that caused their bones to rattle and the very structure beneath them to shake. Every bit of glass in the building suddenly shattered, from the windows to the skylight to Con Mane’s milkshake glass, reducing it to a fine, crystalline powder.
After what felt like an eternity, the noise finally began to relent. Octavia removed her hooves from her ears, wincing at the feedback assaulting her eardrums. Sparks were flying out of a nearby utility box, the result of the delicate instruments inside shattering from the sonic onslaught. The agent spotted her sword lying where she had left it and raced over to grab it.
She was almost upon it when she felt her hooves slip out from under her. The agent looked down to see a pale yellow glow encase her hindlegs before vanishing. She looked over to see Con Mane, horn glowing as he clutched his head, groaning. Octavia took advantage of his pain to grab her sword and turned around to face him. The stallion, realizing he wasn’t going to be able to summon the focus for magic in his current condition, braced himself as the mare charged.
She swung the sword at his head, forcing him to duck. Con Mane unleashed an uppercut of his own, sending the mare flying. She skidded across the roof, losing her grasp on the sword as it clattered on the ground beside her. Octavia turned around to see the stallion galloping at her, eyes burning with fury. Time seemed to slow down as she raised herself to her haunches and grasped the handle of her sword. There wouldn’t be enough time to swing her sword before he collided with her. He reared up onto his hindlegs and swung his forehoof towards the back of her head just as she plunged the blade of her sword in the gap between her arm and her side.
There was a wet squelch and Octavia suddenly felt the weight of the stallion on her. But he wasn’t moving. Something warm began to flow down her back as Con Mane let out a gasp that was cut short.
The stallion fell off of her, pulling the sword out of the agent’s grasp. He landed on his side and Octavia looked down to see her blade sticking out of Con Mane’s chest, protruding out of where she knew the lungs to be. Blood seeped out of the wound, soaking his tuxedo and spilling out onto the ground. He gasped for air, but his breaths were becoming short and ragged. Each gasp was short, unable to deliver the oxygen he desperately needed.
He reached out with a trembling hoof, grasping Octavia by the shoulder. She felt his clammy skin as his eyes locked with hers. The stallion’s face now resembled a fish out of water, his mouth hanging open as he tried to breath. But his eyes were bright, tears glistening at the corners. He began sputtering, each syllable he spoke taking its painful toll as blood and saliva dripped from his mouth. Despite the grisly sight, Octavia couldn’t turn away.
“G-gif... m... m... my... ap... pol... gies... t... t-to... M... Me... Mel... dy...”
His hoof fell away. He stopped breathing, letting out one, slow exhale before his eyes dimmed and his body ceased movement. Octavia’s lip trembled as she remained rooted to the spot, taking a shaky breath and shivering uncontrollably. There were no tears, for there was no sadness. Only an overwhelming feeling of emptiness.
Octavia was dimly aware of the smell of smoke and the crackling sound of fire. But she relegated it to the back of her mind, her focus entirely on the lifeless body of the stallion laying before her.
Melody gave the newspaper in her forehooves an amused look. “So in addition to being sinister ponies working above the law, in cahoots with snobbish nobles who think they know better than everypony else, and under investigation for questionable practices, we’re also destroying everypony’s mail.”
She was sitting across from Octavia at a small table in a sidewalk cafe. They were the only occupants sitting outside, owing to the early hour. The sun was just making its way above the horizon, shining through a noticeably shield-free sky and warming the two just-dismissed hospital patients. Melody was still covered in bandages but was able to walk and well on the way to making a full recovery. For her part, the cellist had several small bandages that covered her worst cuts and bruises, but otherwise looked normal, if distressed.
Melody’s horn glowed softly as she lifted the pot of tea towards her, but before it could rise more than an inch off the table she winced painfully and narrowly avoided spilling the pot’s contents. “Ah!” she cried, placing a hoof to her forehead. “Confound it!”
“Let me help you with that,” Octavia offered, grabbing the pot and pouring some tea into the elder mare’s cup.
“Thank you, Octavia. Oh, I’ll be glad when I can do proper magic again. You just don’t realize how wonderful health is until you don’t have it.”
Octavia nodded as she set the pot down. “I’m not sure how complete a story the newspaper article is giving you, but—”
“Watt Sun filled me in on everything,” Melody said. “I just want to see what we’re being accused of in the public eye.” She idly turned a page. “It’s a good thing you all found Quite and the other hostages before the fire spread. I’d scold Agent Scratch for her recklessness, but it’s hard to argue with methods as effective as that.”
“Speaking of Vinyl,” Octavia began, “she wanted me to tell you that she’s leaving the force again to get back to her music career. But, she would be available if you ever truly needed her help.”
Melody smiled. “Smart pony, that one. Musicians often make for the best spies, you know. They’re creative thinkers, usually poor, eager to be part of something greater...” She trailed off with a sigh. “That is, until they realize they can bring more joy to the world with their music than they ever could spying.”
Octavia couldn’t think of anything to say in response, so she silently watched Melody take a sip of tea before she stowed her newspaper away. “I want to thank you two. You resolved my greatest mistake, and with perfect timing too. The nobles are going to want my head for this.”
The cellist glared at the ground. “You deserve better than this. After what you went through, they should be treating you with some dignity.”
“Oh, to heck with dignity,” Melody scoffed. “I just wanted to make sure the job was done. You two saw to that.
“But it’s clear now that we...I’ve made some grave mistakes in running this organization,” the elder mare continued. “Con Mane would not have been the threat he was if I hadn’t built him that way.”
“You had no way of knowing what he would become!” Octavia said. “I’m sure the nobles will understand when they finish their investigation.”
“There isn’t going to be an investigation. Princess Celestia is going to quietly call it off after she receives my resignation letter. Actually, it probably already got there. From this day hereafter, by royal decree, Her Majesty’s Secret Service is permanently disbanded.”
Octavia’s jaw fell open. “But... but... you can’t! You’ve given so much to this country! You’ve defended Equestria with your life! Surely Princess Celestia can—”
“I’ve caused her enough trouble over this scandal. Battle scars mean little in politics. The government doesn’t want to be in the spy business anymore.” Melody casually sipped her tea, looking thoughtful. “You know, it’s ironic. Con Mane set out to destroy the agency. And he succeeded, but in the end it wasn’t truly by his doing. Oh, he would have hated that.”
The cellist’s hooves were shaking and she had trouble finding her words. “But... the changelings! I told you what that creature told me! They’ll return! Who will protect Equestria from them?! We need spies now more than ev—”
Melody held up a hoof. “Hold it, Agent Octavia. I said the government no longer wants to be in the spy business. That doesn’t mean they don’t want spies.”
Octavia was silent for a moment, giving her boss a puzzled look.
“There’s going to be a slight change in the commanding structure,” Melody explained. “The work will be the same, and much of it will still come down from Her Royal Highnesses, as will your paychecks. But officially, we no longer work for the government.”
“I’m... not sure I understand.”
“We’ve been working on this ever since the scandal first broke, as a fail-safe measure. My final act as the last director of Her Majesty’s Secret Service was to initiate Code Pink.”
Melody reached into her bag sitting beneath the table, pulling out a sealed envelope and hoofing it to Octavia. The cellist opened it with trembling hooves as the elder mare gave her a broad grin.
“Ms. Octavia, on behalf of the Pinkieton Detective Agency, I would like to welcome you to the private sector.”