The sudden explosion of noise woke Rose and Ink Well from their slumber, causing each to fall from, and in Rose's case through, their bed. One moment the only noise was the breathing of the two ponies on their separate beds, Ink Well on the burgundy sheets and Rose on a brand new bed formed of the softest cloud, and the next moment held the flash and bang of magic and the chattering of seven voices all talking at once. Rose pulled herself up, her wings unfolding from where they'd crumpled beneath her and silencing the room with their beauty. As the other five ponies and the dragon in the room stared at Rose's wings, Ink Well turned to Twilight, yawning widely. “Good morning Ms. Sparkle. What brings you by so early?”
Twilight looked flustered from her effort. “Early? We've been trying to get here for hours, but the fanponies swarmed us when we tried to walk here, and losing them was difficult.”
Ink Well examined her and the others, all of them a little worse for wear apart from Rarity, who managed to look pristine, and Fluttershy, who managed to somehow pull off the 'chased by fans' look. “Well you don't look too bad. But that doesn't answer my question.”
Pinkie Pie was the first to snap out of the charm of the magic wings, appearing at Ink Well's side . “You need to watch out! My knee is pinchy!” She picked it up and showed it to him, waving her knee before his eyes.
Ink Well watched the leg move, no clue as to what was going on. “Um... I'm sorry?”
Pinkie put down her leg, jamming her face into his. “No! But you will be! Tonight, here!”
He backed up, removing himself from the cotton candy pink pony and nodding. “Uh-huh...” He looked towards the other ponies in the room, reaching for a lifeline. “Can somepony translate? I seem to be missing the important bit.”
Pinkie jumped to his side, grabbing him and pulling him close. “You are! You need to get out of here now, before the knee strikes!” Ink Well strained under the vice like grip of Pinkie's hoof, his ribs aching from the pressure.
Applejack was his savior, pulling Pinkie off of him. “What she's tryin' to say is her Pinkie sense is goin' off, and it's goin' wild around you.”
Ink Well rubbed his side. “Pinkie sense? What's a Pinkie sense?”
Twilight stepped next to him. “It's a supernatural reaction unique to Pinkie that can foresee the future. The pinchy knee variant indicated that something 'scary' is going to happen.” He gave her a puzzled look, and she just shook her head. “Don't question it, it works too often to be coincidence.”
Ink Well looked skeptical. “I see.. so why's it going off around me?”
Twilight took a step away, nervously kicking at the floor. “I may have caused it... Ponies broke into our home this morning, and since I finished my preparations I sent the Princess my list of complaints and my formal request for a trial and the closure of the Equirer. Here's the response.” She magicked a scroll with the royal seal before him.
Carefully he unfurled it, curious eyes running over the Princess's writing. Halfway through he groaned, speaking to the paper. “Oh, don't send them a letter...” He looked up at Twilight. “Great, they know I'm here now, don't they?” Twilight nodded. “Didn't you send her your files? Some sort of proof?”
Twilight shook her head. “It's customary to send the information after the guards complete their investigation, so as not to bias them. It is important that the suspect is thought innocent until proven guilty.”
Ink Well's brow furrowed. “What idiot came up with that rule? We have the proof! They ARE guilty!” He sighed. “Okay, some of the damage is done, but maybe we can close them down before whatever it is happens. Can you send them the proof from here?”
Twilight nodded. “I suppose I could... Spike, did you bring the file?”
Spike ran up behind her, holding the file in one hand and saluting with the other. “Yes ma'am! I kept it in my possession at all times, just as you asked!”
“Good, take a letter.” Spike pulled out a quill and piece of parchment, preparing to write as Twilight dictated. “'Dear Princess Celestia, though it goes against the customs of investigation, I am afraid that I must send you the information for the case now and ask that you take it into consideration that you close down the National Equirer's offices. If what I have found is true, then it is dangerous to allow them to continue to operate, even under Royal Guard watch. I eagerly await your response. Your faithful student, Twilight Sparkle.'” She watched Spike write down the last few words, looking to her for further instruction. She in turn turned to Ink Well. “Was that acceptable?”
Ink Well nodded. “Sounded good enough to me.”
Twilight raised an eyebrow at him. “And are you sure about this? It's fairly severe to go against the customs of the court.”
Ink Well shrugged. “It'd be more severe were something to happen. Send the file and let's get it over with.”
Applejack looked at him worriedly. “That's all yer gonna do about this? A letter? You ain't preparing of freakin' out or nuthin'?”
Ink Well turned to her, a smirk on his face. “What am I going to prepare for? I have no clue what they'd try, if they were to try anything. And the last thing you want to do is panic. That never solves anything. Twilight, send that letter.”
“You heard the colt, Spike.” Twilight nodded to her assistant, who took the letter and the file and vaporized them with his dragon flame. The smoke remaining swirled from the room through a window, flying quickly towards Canterlot. “There we go. Message sent. If I weren't her student I don't think I'd be able to get away with this, I'll have you know.”
Ink Well smiled. “I'm willing to take that risk. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go downstairs and work on some things. I'll be there if you need me.” He limped over to the stairs, taking them carefully down and out of the sight of the other ponies, most of whom stared at him in disbelief.
Rarity was the first to say something. “Is he crazy? We come here with a warning and he just brushes it off like it's nothing. He doesn't even have the decency to be scared at the right time.”
Rainbow hovered above her, looking a bit happier with the turn of events. “Hey, at least he has the right idea. Instead of waiting around for the guards, we push a little and get results! That's more like it!”
Applejack pushed up her hat, looking up at Rainbow, then eyeing the stairwell. “Yeah, well, you weren't one to go against bending the rules. I think he's pushin' things.”
Pinkie sat on the floor, thinking. “He didn't listen to my warning...” She popped into the air. “Oh! Maybe I should have come of with a song! That always gets everypony's attention!” She then spent the next few minutes hopping around and trying out lyrics. “They're coming to get you! It's gonna be a zoo! And if I were you, running is what I'd do! No, too many Oo's, needs more Ee's...”
Twilight and Fluttershy both looked at the stairs, Twilight in continued disbelief and Fluttershy in concern. “Oh, he really should take this more seriously...”
Twilight huffed. “After all the trouble to get here, he goes and asks me to blow off Canterlot Court tradition. Oh, the Princess is going to kill me...”
Rose watched the assembled ponies for a little while, apparently forgotten in the room once again, before clearing her throat, drawing their attention. “Since you are all here, feel free to make yourselves at home. Again. I've got to get to work restocking from the big rush yesterday, but I don't think you need me up here, do you?” The girls each shook their heads, apart from Pinkie who was far too distracted with her lyrics to notice Rose had asked a question. “Alright. Have a good time. If you need anything, you know where I'll be.” With considerably less attitude than Ink Well had managed to put into his limping, Rose made her own way down the stairs, leaving the six ponies and dragon to their own devices.
Ink Well sat at the work desk, pencil in mouth and an unsure look on his face. Beneath him was a piece of paper, the pencil wavering slowly above it. Rose walked in, seeing him concentrating, and was about to ask about it before stopping herself. With the concentration going into this, it had to be important. Carefully the pencil hit the paper, pressing in and dragging over it. Ink Well looked down at the page, a smile edging his mouth as he repeated the process, faster this time. When that was successful, he continued, writing across the page at an ever increasing pace until he flew down the page, filling it in mere moments.
When he hit the bottom, he looked up to see Rose watching him, a smile on her face. He put down the pencil and held up the paper, grinning widely. “Would you look at that? I'm back! Just needed a few days to toughen up, I guess.”
Rose read down the paper. The writing was messy and shaky, but it was definitely there. “You just push yourself too hard.” She walked into the room, starting up the machines halfheartedly. “Ugh, there always seems to be a problem, doesn't there? And when the bed was so comfy too...”
Ink Well nodded, leaning back in the chair. “Ah, cloud beds... they've got me through many a bad time, and inspired me to quite a few stories. It really is a shame you only have three days with those beauties on your back, there's so much more to wings than flight, it's going to be hard cramming that in.”
Rose sighed. “Especially if today is going to be taken up by something scary. Though I've already experienced so much more than I ever thought I would...” She looked over at Ink Well, whose smile had faded. “You're not worried about the knee, are you?”
Ink Well's head jerked towards her, like he'd forgotten she was there. “What? Oh! Nah, not in the least. We're taking care of it, no problems here, no way. I mean, it's just Pinkie Pie. She's just being weird, she does that. I haven't known her for long and I already know that.”
Rose shrugged as she prepped a machine. “I don't know. Her Pinkie Sense seems to be fairly accurate from what I can tell. It's one of those things that you learn to follow when you live out here.”
Ink Well laughed, brushing it off. “Well, yeah, but it's a superstition thing. It's not real, right?” His smile started to look forced, a little uncertainty in his eyes. “...right?”
As they flew last night, Rose felt a confidence returning to Ink Well that had been missing since the accident, but now it was waning. He was trying to put up a strong front, but he needed support or it was going to crumble again. She nodded. “Right. Not real at all. Nothing to worry about. You've already got this taken care of with your challenging the system.” She smiled playfully as she said this, waving her hooves around like she was telling a ghost story. “You're shaking the very foundations of society! It's the end of an era! Run, you weak-willed ponyfolk, from the change caused by the mighty Ink Well! It will be anarchy under his pen!”
Ink Well walked over to her, bumping her with a hoof. “Knock it off. I'm no world shaker, just a pony with a bit of common sense. You'd be amazed how rare that is.”
Rose nodded, going over in her head the moment when she'd first acquired it in front of Rarity's Boutique. “It's a gift, given out by those who have it and only then to those who listen.” She looked over at Ink Well, seeing him thinking deeply about something, a worried expression on his face. She decided to change the subject. “Hey, how about instead of moping over there you do something useful? I could use a hoof setting up the stills.”
Ink Well looked puzzled. “Isn't restocking the store what you were doing when I left yesterday?”
Rose shook her head. “Nah, I wasn't in the right mood. Any scent I made would have come out a little sour. I was reading just before you came in.”
“Ah.” Ink Well's eyes glanced at the paper on his desk, then the stairs of the room before returning to her standing by the big ornate brass machine, his emerald eyes taking in the options. He shrugged. “Sure, why not? Never hurts to learn something new.”
Rose's smile brightened. “Excellent. Let's get started.”
The two of them worked downstairs, Rose putting Ink Well through the ropes of how the machines worked and how perfumes were made, and for his part Ink Well was very interested, taking in what she said and trying his best to operate them when prompted. After her perfume finished, Rose offered to let Ink Well try a hoof at making his own, letting him put it together while she finished the final touches on what she'd created.
Upstairs the other ponies entertained themselves, Rarity and Pinkie finding a few board games in a cupboard and playing those while Applejack kept the antsy Rainbow busy with small physical challenges. Twilight went over Rose's bookcase, not finding anything she hadn't read but still finding something to take her mind off the rest of the world. Fluttershy came downstairs for a little while, but seeing Ink Well and Rose busy, went back up, instead spending her time talking with Spike, who seemed rather bored.
As the afternoon began to deepen, Ink Well stood next to the mixer, waiting for the machine to finish. He watched the timer ticking away, unable to help but tap a hoof excitedly on the ground. “Huh, I never knew waiting for a machine could be so agonizing! How do you do it?”
Rose smiled. “You just have to be patient. You can't rush the machine, especially at this stage.
Combine them to fast and the scent will dissipate, too slowly and the notes will be all wrong. Just let it do it's work. It's only a few minutes from completion.”
“A few minutes? It feels like I've been by this brass beast for hours.” He looked at the still, a random thought sparking in his head. “Did you know that brass is a special metal when it comes to magic?”
Rose raised an eyebrow. “Oh? How so?”
“It acts like a mirror, rebounding magical energies off of it. I learned about it when I did a story about UFOs far in the north. I went out to this monastery where unicorn monks sat inside a giant cone of brass pointed to the sky, searching for thaumatergical readings on other planets.” He tapped the machine, smiling at his golden reflection. “It's not something most ponies think about, but unicorns actually have a lot of trouble with trinkets or instruments with too much of the metal in them, often needing a different focal point all together if they want to use magic.”
Rose tilted her head, thinking about it. “Huh. You know, that probably explains why the Canterlot stills are all silver. I think the entire place was run by unicorns.”
“Makes sense to me.” Ink Well turned around, seeing her fit perfectly in her surroundings of pipes and brass fixtures between these machines, lights reflecting and playing strangely off of them and giving everything a warm glow despite their harsh nature. As he waited, a question came to mind. “So how did you end up a perfumer? Why do you do it?”
Rose looked stumped when the question hit her, like it was something she hadn't considered before. “How did I end up...? Well... I always liked flowers and stuff, but it didn't really hit me until the class trip to Canterlot. While the others all went off to play in the flower garden, I found myself drawn from the smells emanating from the Royal Perfumery. As I wandered between the giant silver distilleries with their intricate, beautiful designs, one particular scent swirled around me... To this day, I remember it, so beautiful, but with such subtleties and hidden notes that its complexity still astounds me.” She stared at her distillery, smiling as she was enraptured by the memory. “I was entranced, just stuck sniffing the air like a dog... Next thing I knew a Royal Guard was escorting me outside, still lost in my own world. I was led to everypony else in the garden, the whole class laughing at me when I showed up under watch, and I was told not to wander off again. I tried to enjoy the flowers myself, but... I couldn't anymore. Their scent was nothing compared to what I'd just experienced. And it was then that it hit me. Flowers are beautiful, but they are temporary. Two days, a week tops, then the flowers wilt and the smell is gone. But smell is such a strong sense! That scent from the perfumery will be with me forever. Every truly powerful memory a pony has is linked to every sense, smell included, so I'm trying to give ponies a memory they'll have forever.” She finished her story, returning to the real world slowly a smile on her face. She looked over at Ink Well, blushing when she saw him smirking at her. “What?”
“And you said I was the corny one.” A buzzer on the machine went off, the blending of the scents complete. Excited, Ink Well slipped over to the hatch, flipping it open and hurriedly removing the beaker full of his concoction. As it was moved from the collector and into the open air, a stench resembling rusty oranges seeped in moss exploded forth, stunning the two occupants of the room. Ink Well found himself trying to run, throwing the container into the air where it tumbled in slow motion. Thinking quickly, Rose leaped forward, barely managing to stop it from shattering on the stone floor. She flew over to the stoppers, corking the vial and freeing the room from extended exposure to the stench.
Her eyes watering she ran over to the ventilation fans, tuning them on and opening the vents as wide as possible. Slowly the room cleared while she walked over to the stairs, coughing away the smell that still burned her nose. “Geez! What did you put in there?”
Ink Well extricated himself from the tangle of pipes he'd hid behind to avoid the smell, his own eyes watering. When he was finally free he turned to Rose looking embarrassed. “Well... I was trying to make it smell like the storm over the Everfree, so there was a rusty nail for that metallic smell from the lightning strike, citrus for the energy from it, and the mustiest chunk of wood I could find for the forest. I thought it was just as easy as putting them all together...”
Rose looked worriedly from the murky bottle to her machines, starting to realize the work that would have to go into cleaning them. With that description she was surprised he she hadn't heard more banging from them. She sighed. “That's an... interesting way of thinking about it, but it's not quite that simple. The subtleties of smell are powerful, and getting all the notes correct would be... Well, I'm not even sure I could do that!” She looked at him looking down at the floor like a wounded puppy and stopped. “But that was a valiant first try! If I went for that on my first go, I wouldn't have done any better. I had to start a lot easier: just a simple floral base. I'll let you take a wild stab at the flower.” Ink Well still didn't look too happy, so she decided to change the subject, putting down the offending beaker. “Hey, we'll try again, and I'll help you out this time. It'll turn out great!”
Ink Well shook his head, distracted. “No, I'd just mess it up again. Thanks for the offer. I'm not thinking straight anyway... Maybe I should...” He limped quickly to the stairs, looking sadly up them, then back at her.
Rose shooed him off with a hoof, turning back to the machines. “Go on. You've every right to be worried.”
Ink Well nodded thankfully before hobbling up the stairs, finding the six ponies above huddled around a scroll Twilight was floating between them. She glanced at him, smiling and motioning him over. “Ink Well, I think your plan worked.” She floated the letter over to him, letting him read it himself.
“'My Dearest Twilight,
Though what I read troubles me, you were right in going against tradition to send this. My only question is why did you not send it sooner?'” He smiled. “What'd I tell ya? 'At your suggestion we shall indeed be shutting down the National Equirer's offices. By the time you get this, they are to cease operating pending further investigation. Hopefully this will put your mind at ease.'” He moved from the letter, sidling next to Pinkie. “Hey, is your knee still pinching?”
Pinkie lifted up her left leg, moving it around and testing it, then jumped up, placing every hoof bur the front left in the air and balancing carefully. From here, she shook her head, limbs still sticking in all directions. “Nope. Not a bit!”
All the ponies looked relieved, none more than Ink Well. He grinned happily. “There, everything will turn out all right. Just a touch of damage mitigation and all is well.”
Pinkie hopped up from where she was balancing, landing in a cartwheel that traveled across the floor. “Whee! You know what this calls for? A PARTY! Meet me at Sugarcube Corner in five minutes!”
Ink Well looked at her, confused. “Five minutes? Like from right now?”
“Yup! Had to give myself some set up time!” She rolled down the stairs, disappearing below.
Rainbow Dash shrugged as Pinkie left. “Yeah, I could go for a party.”
Twilight stopped her. “Hold on, we're going to teleport. We don't want the town down on us, right?”
Rainbow looked annoyed. “Come on! Pinkie just strolled out of here! Why can't we? They'll all be at the party anyway!”
Fluttershy looked nervous at the thought. “She wouldn't do that, would she?” She looked at her friend's faces and saw their blank looks. “She would...”
Twilight sighed, exasperated. “Fine. We'll walk. I didn't have any plans today anyway. Spike, go help Owlowiscious clean up, then both of you come over, okay?”
Spike looked disappointed, but gave a half-hearted salute anyway. “You got it.” With that, he too exited down the stairs.
Rarity watched him go, frowning. “Twilight, darling, you treat him too hard. Let him come to the party. He shouldn't be left out.”
Twilight waved it off. “He's not being left out, he's letting Owlowiscious join in. The clean up should be done by now anyway.” She walked over to the stairs, the others following her, leaving Ink Well grinning stupidly by himself in the center of the room.
Fluttershy, the tail of the group, stopped at the top of the stairs. “Are you coming Ink Well?”
He nodded. “Sure thing, I'll swing by soon. Start it without me.” She smiled, then went down, passing Rose as she walked up.
Rose watched Fluttershy walk past. “Where is everypony off to?”
“Pinkie is throwing a party. You're welcome to come by.” Fluttershy continued out of the shop, leaving Rose and Ink Well together.
Rose walked up next to him, crossing her hooves and leaning against the table, her wings spreading effortlessly behind her. “So, I take it the news went well if they're throwing a party for it.”
Ink Well nodded, still grinning. “Yep. The Equirer's officially shut down. Nothing bad is going to happen today.”
Rose smiled herself at the news. “That's great! You gonna join the party?”
“Yeah, in a moment. I'm just... I'm going to enjoy the moment. I was a little worried.”
Rose raised an eyebrow, smiling playfully. “Oh? I couldn't tell.”
He hopped onto the cloud bed, breathing in deeply the light floral scent hiding in the room. “But now I'm walking on air! Life is good.”
He turned around to see Rose smiling too, relief on her own face. Unfortunately, his eye was drawn rather quickly from this by the red smoke appearing in the air, a piece of paper fluttering to the ground. Puzzled, he flew over to it, picking it up. It was clean and businesslike, a note with writing not fancy, not flourishing, merely crisp and clear.
As he read it, Ink Well's face went from soft and relieved to cold and hard, the paper slipping back to the floor where he stood. Rose walked up, reading the note where it sat on the floor. 'You've disturbed the serpent's nest, and she is angry.' Rose looked over at Ink Well, whose face was locked in fear. “Ink Well? You okay?”
He shook his head slowly, not looking at her. “No, no I'm not. I'm not sure whether to run or throw up...” His visibly shook where he stood, causing Rose to slowly raise a hoof to calm him down. As it connected with his shoulder, Ink Well's gaze shot to the stairs. “We have to warn the others. I've made a terrible mistake.”
“What? What do you mean? You stopped the Equirer, didn't you?”
“Well yeah, but so what if I stopped the face? The shadow moves freely either way, and that shadow is going to strike here! I'm the reason the knee was pinchy, not Twilight! I made it worse.”
Rose put herself in front of his face, trying to calm him down. “What are you talking about? What shadow? Why are you so freaked?”
“The Enforcers! Viper is leading a back here. 'The serpent's nest'?” He pointed to his stitches, then to the bandages and burns on him. “They did this to me, I don't want her anywhere near Ponyville. We have to warn the others. We have to warn everypony...”
Rose saw both the fear in his eyes and how serious he was, and nodded. “Okay. Let's go.”
As soon as they exited the shop they found the town in chaos. Panicked ponies ran in every direction, screaming in fright. Ink Well and Rose were buffeted by the crowd as they made their way against the flow to Sugarcube Corner, meeting the others out front. Rose walked up to Twilight, yelling to be heard over the screams around them. “What's going on?”
Twilight shook her head. “I don't know! We just heard the screaming and came out!”
Fluttershy pointed to the center of town. “That might be why.” Spiraling slowly towards the sky was thick black smoke, completely out of place in the beautiful blue sky. Everypony hurried off towards it, those that could fly by wing and the rest by hoof. Rainbow was the first to find the source, pointing the others to it: the Town Hall. The entire building was an inferno, smoke and flames billowing from all the windows.
As it came into sight for Ink Well, memories flooded unbidden to his head of his own home collapsing around him, the heat and the ash burning his lungs once more. He froze in mid air, falling from the sky. Air rushed past him and he urged his wings to flap, but nothing would move, muscles locked despite the rapidly approaching ground and mind miles from the scene.
His fall suddenly stopped, Rose catching him mere feet from the hard ground. “Ink Well, are you okay? Snap out of it!” He couldn't respond, still staring at the building, the fear on his face impossible to miss. She landed him nearby, trying to shake him out of it.
In front of the Hall, a tan earth pony with a grey mane and yellow glasses ran back and forth, calling to the ponies running away. “Please! Don't panic everypony! We need to stop the fire before it spreads!”
As she called out, Twilight and the others ran up, watching the inferno above. “Mayor! We're here! How can we help?”
The Mayor looked at her, relief on her panic stricken face. “Oh thank goodness Twilight. We need all the water we can get and nopony has been listening, they're all too scared.”
Twilight nodded, looking determined. “Don't worry Mayor, I'm on it.” She turned around, horn glowing and causing a similar glow to appear around her throat. When she spoke, her voice was amplified, bouncing from building to building and throughout town. “Everypony listen up! It's not going to do you any good to run! We need to get organized! Weather ponies! You go with Rainbow and get as much rain as you can, douse the fire from above. Everypony else follow Applejack and Pinkie Pie, create a bucket chain from the river and the lake.” Ponies stopped in the street, their fear momentarily overtaken by their confusion. Twilight let out an exasperated sigh. “Let's move it ponies, time is of the essence!”
Slowly the ponies mobilized, a leader and a task pushing them from panic into action. As the others went off to douse the fire, Twilight ran over to Rose and Ink Well, taking the break to talk to them. “Come on, we need your help too. We need everypony's help at this.”
Ink Well remained locked in place, just slowly shaking his head as the rest of his body trembled in terror. Rose looked at her, shrugging. “I don't know what happened. He just froze up. I think the fire's getting to him.” She tapped him on the shoulder again, seeming to get no response.
Twilight watched him for a little while, worry showing on her face as she weighed the effort and the pony before her. She sighed. “Okay, take him somewhere else, there's not a lot I can do for him right now. When I see Nurse Redheart I'll send her your way.” A loud crack came from within the building, fire pouring from a hole that appeared in the roof. Twilight spun back around, seeing the water buckets already arriving and a few small clouds forming. She ran back over, directing the flow of water and leaving Rose and Ink Well alone again.
Slowly Rose stood Ink Well up, pushing him and guiding him through the rushing ponies with buckets and watering cans and away from the noise of the fire and the brigade springing up to stop it. As they turned the corner and headed into a guarded alleyway, a group of unicorns ran up the street past them, each levitating a garden hose that trailed and snaked behind them. Mid way through the alley Ink Well locked up, refusing to move any further despite Rose's urging and nudging. Unable to get him to go, she sat him down, brow furrowed as she thought of ways to wake him up. “Come on Ink Well, come back to me. I don't know what unhappy place you've gone to in your head, but you need to walk out of it.”
Ink Well still remained in his stupor, worrying Rose beyond belief as she heard yells coming from the Town Hall. “Umm... Um... Hey, once this is all over, we're going to go for a nice flight, alright? That storm is still swirling over the Everfree and last night was just so magical, I would love to see if we could top it tonight. But you have to snap out of it, okay?” She grabbed Ink Well's face, forcing him to look her in the eyes. Still the look was glazed, his mind not at all with the rest of him. Angrily, Rose let go, stomping down the alley. “I don't know if you think that this is your fault or you're in the building or what, but you have to snap out of it! Our fellow ponies are out their risking their flanks to keep that building standing, and you're just sitting here out of it. Come to your senses!” Even this did not work, Ink Well still trembling in whatever world he was in.
Disheartened, Rose drooped to the ground, sitting dejectedly before him. “Come on Ink Well... It isn't real. This isn't like you... It's very selfish what you're doing here, and I know you don't intend to, but we need you... I need you...” She sat there looking at him, pained that nothing she did was working, and ran over what to do next. The nurse was nowhere to be seen, and Ink Well obviously needed some sort of help, but it seemed to be out of her reach, and in the distance she could hear more voices calling out, more pegasi rushing overhead with each passing minute. Right here was safe, the alley at least still and shielded. But she couldn't just leave him here in this state... Something had to be done. She had to help out.
She made up her mind. With a sigh of resignation, Rose stood up. “I'm sorry, but the other ponies need me.” She looked at where he was, trembling and frightened and lost of his senses in an alleyway, and couldn't keep the tears from her eyes. “I know you'll be alright, I'll tell the nurse where you are, and I'll come back as soon as everything is done. Please be safe. Please come back... You can fight this. I'm waiting for you.” Before she left, she tried to set him up to be as comfortable as possible, the few things in the alley further keeping him safe from any possible intrusion or falling ash. She then stood up, flying out to join the others in stopping the flames.
Fire billowed around him, smoke clouding his vision, its dark thickness and heat burning his lungs on every inhale. He tried to move, struggling as he found his hooves bound behind him, each tug against the bonds sending pain shooting through a fresh wound in his side. Slowly the swirls in the smoke caused it to thin, allowing him to recognize his own bedroom as the conflagration spread. His mind raced, one thing on it. 'Escape.'
Slowly he repeated the process from before, rocking the chair back and forth until he could stand on his own two hooves. But the chair seemed made of lead, the rocking doing little but straining his muscles. Part of him demanded he give up, but a small voice, barely a smoky whisper in his head kept urging him on. 'Come on you coward, run. Move.' With a herculean effort, Ink Well managed to tip the chair forward, balancing on his lower hooves as the first obstacle was passed.
'Go! You must be free!' Urged the voice, Ink Well carrying the weight behind him as he trudged forward, legs buckling from the pressure. The flames slowly rose, licking at his hooves.
Rose landed at the Town Hall to find the chains working surprisingly well. Despite all the different ponies working, almost half of them not actual members of Ponyville, Twilight managed to whip them into a cohesive team. Still, she seemed to be highly stressed as she ran between groups, talking to whoever the spokespony was at the time. Rose landed behind her, the heat and the breeze from the fire drying out her magical wings. “Twilight! How can I help?”
Twilight turned around, hair a mess as she looked over a clipboard that floated in front of her. She sat down in the middle of the street, smacking her forehead with a hoof. “No! No! NO! The numbers aren't adding up! We should have almost a third more ponies here if the whole town and all the visitors helped! Where are the others?” She looked up to see Rose landing and smiled. “Oh good! One more off the list. Did Redheart ever meet you? Or Tenderheart?”
Rose shook her head. “No, nopony came, but I had to help out. What can I do?”
Twilight looked at her, assessing her in an instant before making her decision. “You need to join in with the lake chain. There's a fair bit of difficult terrain that we really need fliers to speed up.”
Rose nodded, taking to the skies and following the trail of ponies toward the lake.
Twilight looked at her clipboard, flipping over the pages and getting increasingly agitated. “That's another two ponies missing from the chain that's unaccounted for! Where are they all going? Spike! Can you and Owlow...” She looked around, only noticing that her assistant was still missing in all of the commotion. “Darn it Spike, not you too! Where are you?”
The walk from one end of the low-ceilinged room to the other had never felt this long before. Perhaps it was the weight, or the smoke, or the blood slipping from his side and splattering the chains around his waist, but Ink Well was ready to collapse, and the frame on the wall seemed no closer than it had been a hundred steps ago. Flames licked at his hooves and fur, burning deeply every time they did and slowly creeping up his legs. Despite the tears in his eyes from the smoke, he could see his off-white fur being rapidly replaced by the crimson red of burned flesh. His body quaked with wooziness and fatigue, wanting above all else to collapse and end it all.
And still inside came the little voice, a wraith-like growl now stronger than before. 'Fly! Escape! The flames are nothing for the darkness that follows them! You are a coward! Flee! Never stop!' With each yell of a whisper the voice gave him power, driving him to continue though his body wanted to give way. Under its suggestion he made it to the hole in the floor, teetering as he looked into the roiling inferno below. 'Go! Fly free!' Urged the voice.
*It isn't real.* came another, much softer voice, the sweet tones inaudible over the roar of the fire and the words of the other. Ink Well's ear flicked just for a moment, confusion touching his brow for just a second.
'Jump!' The command was yelled through his head, his hoof acting of its own accord and stepping into the pit, sending him tumbling into the fires below.
Twilight ran between the pegasi, calling up to the skies. “Can you move the water any faster? Just a little more and we could keep the roof from reigniting! Get that done and the rest will be a snap!”
Rainbow zoomed down, hovering before her. “We're going as fast as we can, but ponies keep turning up missing. I'm already running triple time trying to cover the others!”
Twilight frowned, quill ready to mark down the change on her clipboard. “Missing? Who is? Where are they going?”
Rainbow shook her head, visibly angry. “I don't know, but I'm going to kick their flank when I find out! We're only at a third our normal numbers and dropping fast. Wherever those chickens are going, they better hope I don't find them.” With that she shot back into the sky, rainbow trail evaporating behind her in the heat.
Twilight looked down at her clipboard, noting the ever increasing amount of missing ponies, now almost half the town. “This isn't good. Whatever is going on, it needs to stop and fast.”
Ink Well landed hard on the floor below, the crushing weight of the chair and chains pinning him to the ground. Through the ring of fire slowly encroaching on him he could see the front door. He feebly tried to reach out a hoof, but all was still chained, the chair intact despite the fall. His vision weakened as he sat there, smoke and heat and weight finally getting to him.
Now a roar, the burnt voice in his head urged on. 'Move! Up! Go! Escape!' it chanted, and with each word a little more energy flowed into him. Unknown sources of power unlocked within his muscles, causing him to slowly crawl himself from the pile of weight and chains. He wrenched himself free, chains slipping off and chafing, pulling at his burned body before simply falling away. As the chant reached a fever pitch he was freed, landing in a heap among the burned floorboards of his house.
*We need you.* The other voice came again, speaking steadily and ringing around him with its tone. As he heard it, Ink Well pushed himself from the floor, a soothing calm seeming to wash over him amidst the fire and fear within. He stood up, the fires seeming not to touch him as he stood within his collapsing house. *I need you.* The fatigue seemed to leave his body as he walked towards the door, the fire's roar barely a murmur in his ears. As he reached the door, he looked outside. *Just walk out of there.* A pony stood, waiting, inviting, offering him a hoof in support.
A strong updraft brightened the flames, illuminating Viper before the house, a twisted, wicked grin on her face. All at once the fire returned, burning him once more to his waist and still spreading. With it returned the dark voice, a scream in his head. 'Run! She is too strong!' Ink Well placed his hooves to his ears, trying to dampen the noise engulfing him, his head throbbing from the screams. 'Move! Escape! Run! Death!' One hoof to his head and fire catching on every hair on his body, he tried to turn back into the house.
A horrible crash, falling debris, and the house was gone.
Part of the roof collapsed on the Town Hall, causing a couple ponies to scatter from within the building. Most of the fire was gone from outside, but within there were still large problem pockets that had to be solved by the bucket chains working at double speed. “Is everypony alright? Did we all get out?” A quick head count confirmed that nopony had been trapped inside and the buckets resumed their motions. Twilight looked haggard, but was glad that it was almost over.
As she moved to check on the other side of the building, Pinkie galloped up to her. “Twilight! We've got a problem!” Seeing that Pinkie wasn't bouncing, Twilight knew it had to be important. “What? What is it?”
“We've got four ponies missing from the chain! They were here all the way through and now they're just gone! All at the same time!”
“What? Four? Were they all together?”
“No, they were all in different areas. Do you think something got them?”
“I'm starting to think so... Just try to fill in the holes as best as you can. We're almost done.” Pinkie ran back off to her group, leaving Twilight to look at her list. The numbers were starting to look dismal. She turned back to the burning building, the smoke much thinner than it had been to start, and frowned. “I've got a very bad feeling about this.”
All was fire. Everything around and including Ink Well was completely engulfed in flames. With every breath, his throat burned a little more, shortly making it impossible to even breathe. He knelt before the door, the only recognizable thing, wings outspread, seemingly unburnt by sheer force of will. Screaming in his head came the dark voice, so loud it seemed it would burst from its confines. 'DEATH! RUN YOU IDIOT! ESCAPE!' He tried to remove a hoof, reaching for the door to open it. As he did, the voice's strength redoubled, sending him back to the floor with its cries. 'DANGER! TOO WEAK! RUN!'
Ink Well's hooves squeezed his head tightly, trying to keep the voice out. As the agony built up until all he could do was scream himself.
*You can fight this* Came the other voice, resonating throughout him. As it did, the pain dulled once more, everything but him and the door disappearing. His resolve strengthened, allowing him to stand. When he did, he looked out the window to see Viper waiting once more.
His resolve failed. “I can't. She's too strong.” Everything came back, the noise deafening and the fire engulfing him completely, only the tips of his wings remaining somehow untouched. Still the fire pushed on him further, sucking the very air from him with its heat.
*Come to your senses. This is not real.* Ink Well felt the fires, felt the burning, the cut in his side, the fatigue from the chains... they all weighed on him, every sensation purely real. He shook his head, trying to focus on the soothing voice even as everything screamed at him. Just a hint, just a hope that this was fake! He collapsed to the floor, unable to take it any longer.
Lilacs. As he curled up on the ground, the soothing smell of lilacs touched his nose, completely foreign in the swirling fires. Slowly the pain dissipated, the noises fading to nothing. The fire receded, first his wings, then his body, and finally his surroundings slowly became hospitable, the charred rubble cool and dead. As the fire left, he stood, his injuries changing from the burns of his mind to the bandages of reality, and he found himself staring through a doorway once more. No longer did it lead to his old lawn, but instead it was Ponyville, with Rose outside offering a hoof, a smile on her face.
Smiling back, Ink Well accepted, walking with her into the Ponyville air. As he did, the land faded, leaving only Ink Well and Rose floating in a sea of clouds. The soothing voice returned, coming from the pony before him, its original source. “Now snap out of it. I'm waiting for you.”
Ink Well found himself laying in the alleyway, nose pressed to his hoof where the strong smell of lilacs still imbued the bandages. He pushed himself up, finding it surprisingly easy after the ordeal he'd just experienced, his body full of energy and his mind sharp. He could see the last vestiges of smoke coming from the Town Hall, so he took to the air, finally ready to do his part.
When Ink Well landed, the fire was put out, the few smoldering embers that remained being kicked aside and carefully doused. The Town Hall was scorched and charred, but most of it stood, just two large chunks missing from the ceiling. In front of the building the Mayor was avidly shaking Twilight's hoof, thanking her for her skills in getting the fire taken care of. Twilight herself looked a bit frazzled, but was otherwise happily accepting her thanks. Around them was a ring of ponies, each with small bits of ash in their fur and each glad at mostly preserving the building. Ink Well landed to the edge of the crowd next to a beautiful pair of butterfly wings. He tapped the owner on the shoulder, causing the tired Rose to turn. He smiled at her. “I hope I didn't keep you waiting too long.”
Rose smiled back, joy radiating from her eyes. “Not at all. You're right on time.”
They both turned to the front as the last ember was put out, Rainbow Dash waving down to Twilight, who pulled her hoof from the Mayor's and turned to the crowd. “Well done everypony! The town is saved! Now if you could, in an orderly fashion kindly-”
“Twi! Twi! Where's Redheart, we got an emergency!” Applejack galloped through the crowd, making her way to her friend. “Big Mac's hurt!”
Twilight's head snapped to Applejack, disbelief on her features. “What?!”
“Me 'n Big Mac were pullin' together a few more buckets a water for safety when we got jumped by some ponies with red scarves! We managed to fight 'em off, but Big Mac was hit bad. You seen Redheart?”
“No, I haven't. I haven't seen her since-”
“Is there a doctor in town?!” A silver furred unicorn ran into the crowd, panic and worry wreathing his features. A murmur ran through the crowd, with him at the center. “There are four ponies that look like they got beat up real bad in a house back there! Does anypony know where the doctor is?”
Twilight turned to face the stallion, trying to keep him calm. “She appears to be missing right now, but as soon as we find her we'll be sure to-”
“Eek!” Yelped Fluttershy as she backpedaled from the door of a nearby building. She bolted behind Twilight, putting her friend between her and the offending opening.
Twilight looked down at her hiding friend. “What happened?”
“I heard some groaning, so I looked inside the house and I... I... I think I found the nurses.” Twilight ran through the crowd, a path opening up so that she could look inside the building. A pile of ponies lay within, most of the quiet or moaning slightly, all of them showing bruises and wounds as though their heads had been struck. Laying in the center of them were the nurses Redheart and Tenderheart, completely still apart from their breathing.
Twilight turned back to see the crowd of ponies trying to peer into the house, seeing curiosity turning to fear on the more forward faces. “Uh... Applejack, why don't you-?”
“FIRE!” From the other side of the Town Hall came the cry, Lily and Daisy running away, pointing behind them. “The residential section is on fire! Help! It's going to spread!”
The crowd began to panic, a chaotic tangle of bodies as they tried to stampede in every direction at once. Twilight and her friends stood in the center, trying to calm everypony down to little effect. Fear was setting back in, and with the fatigue from their previous efforts, nopony was willing to stop or listen.
Amid the cacophony of screams and running hooves, a metallic banging went up, loud and steady and piercing over the entire crowd. Slowly it drew their attention, all eyes turning to the source of the sound. Standing at the front doors to the town hall, braced hoof banging against a metal fastener, was Ink Well. He had on a serious look, causing those who looked at him to quiet down. When the noise was low enough, he began to speak, voice projecting clearly over the amassed crowd.
“Calm down everypony and think clearly! Panicking will not solve anything, it's exactly what they want us to do. Ponyville is under attack.” He could feel the crowd getting restless, mouths opening to ask for answers, and he cut them off. “They are called the Enforcers, and all I can say for sure is they mark themselves with red kerchiefs to mask their faces. They are a highly trained force, and I know that I am the reason they are attacking.” He could feel the anger surging through the crowd and again cut them off before they could go too far. “You may do whatever you want to me after tonight. Run me out on a rail, banish me, beat me, I don't care, but right now, we need to work together or the whole town is going to be destroyed.”
“But we're not from this town!” Came an enraged call from the mob. “Why would they attack us?”
“Because you're here. They don't care who gets hurt at this point. They made that abundantly clear when they burned the Town Hall and knocked out the ponies as they worked. And I'm sure they have plans to do much worse, which is why we have to work together! Just band with me until the fighting is over, then you may all go your separate ways. Now the rules are easy. One: nopony is ever alone. A solitary pony is a target. Two: nopony panics. Panic is the enemy, it makes us not think straight and plays into their hooves. Three: nopony dies. You are to survive at all costs, you hear me, and you aren't to kill them unless you have no other option. So far they have done us the same courtesy. Everypony got that?” A grudging acceptance came from the crowd, laced with fear and a disdain targeted towards Ink Well.
He felt it wash over him, accepting the blame as well as the leadership role. He sighed. “Good. We ARE going to get through this, I swear it. Now anypony who still has water in their bucket get on that new fire. Groups of no less than three, got that? Applejack will make sure you're all safe. Anypony with medical experience, go with Fluttershy and care for the wounded. The medical tent should still be up and empty right now. All you weather ponies and any other pegasi who can help, there's a storm over the Everfree, if we move it over town then the fire is guaranteed not to spread and attacks are less likely. Nopony wants to be out in the rain. When all of this is down, get yourself to defendable houses and keep yourselves safe. Now let's go, ponies! The fire isn't going to stop itself!” The crowds began to split, ponies heading to their tasks in fearful clumps.
Before they could get too far, Ink Well called over Twilight and Rainbow Dash. “Twilight, we're going to need the Royal Guards in here. I need you to write a letter to the Princess requesting their help. It's urgent.”
Twilight shook her head. “I can't send the message. Spike's been missing since I sent him off. Oh, I never should have...”
“Twilight, no time for that. I'm sure he'll be fine. Just write the letter, we've got the fastest pony in Equestria to deliver it.” Twilight still looked worried, but got to work writing on her clipboard anyway. As she did, Ink Well turned to Rainbow. “How fast can you get to Canterlot?”
Rainbow looked over at the mountain where Canterlot stood silhouetted against the sky, far in the distance. “Ten minutes going my fastest.”
Ink Well nodded. “Okay, then we only have to hold up for about an hour before the guards get here, if everything goes well. I need you to fly there, deliver the letter, and get back as fast as you can. You'll be needed here.”
As Twilight wrote, Rose came up the steps. “Ink Well, where should I go? Who should I help?”
Ink Well pointed her towards the stormy clouds, thunder rumbling low at this distance. “Go help the weather ponies with the Everfree. You're probably the only one that will be willing to fly over it with Rainbow gone, and they're going to need a brave face.” Rose nodded, flapping her wings and taking off. As she turned to leave, Ink Well tapped her hoof. “Be safe out there. Whatever you do, don't get hurt.”
Rose smiled at him. “I won't. But don't you go ignoring your own advice.” She hurried off,, well on her way as Twilight finished the letter, rolling it up with her magic and flying it to Rainbow. She grabbed it in her mouth, saluted, and took off, a rainbow streak across the sky.
As soon as she was gone, Ink Well turned to Twilight. “You keep in charge of the others. You did a wonderful job of that before, and I don't think I can do any better than you.”
“What are you talking about? You played that crowd like a violin! How'd you do it?”
Ink Well sighed. “I just told them the truth. They hate me. They'll need a leader they can like. That will be your job.”
Twilight looked confused. “What about you? What will you be doing?”
Ink Well shook his head. “I've got a bad feeling about Rosewater right now. They knew I was there, I need to make sure it's still standing.”
Twilight stomped a hoof in front of him. “By yourself? No way. I'm coming with you. Applejack can keep in charge until I get back.”
“You said it yourself. No going off alone. Now lead the way.” Reluctantly Ink Well and Twilight moved from the Town Hall, keeping a keen eye out for movement and possible attack positions, yet nothing came during the short walk, not a hint of strife or a single sight from the corner of the eye. Ink Well spent the entire time looking around, a feeling in the back of his mind like he was being watched, but in the end the pair arrived safely at the shop door. Behind them, storm clouds rolled in, shepherded by the weather ponies into position over the town.
As Ink Well opened the door amidst a light drizzle, two pegasi descended rapidly towards them, a red gleam shining on their chests. Ink Well ducked quickly through the door, peeking out and signaling Twilight to follow. She just shook her head, laughing at him. “Don't worry, it's the Royal Guard!” As the pair of pegasi landed, pristine white coats, their gleaming gold armor with the red crystal armor latches catching the remaining sunlight, Ink Well stepped back outside, his fear dampened.
They both landed strongly, the blue tails and plumes on their helmets waving in the breeze, a stark contrast to the grim looks on their faces. They both stepped forward in unison, walking towards the two on the stairs, and the one on the right spoke. “Miss Sparkle, come with us. We need to know what you want us to do.”
Twilight quickly stepped towards them, Ink Well stopping her at the top of the steps. “Hold on, what are you two doing here? We didn't call for anypony.”
Twilight turned on him, surprised. “What are you-?” Ink Well placed a hoof on her mouth, silencing her and giving her a serious look.
The guard's face didn't move. “We were in the area and ran into Rainbow Dash as she went to Canterlot. She said that our help was needed in Ponyville. Is that not the case?”
Twilight removed Ink Well's hoof from her mouth, glaring at him before walking over the the guards. “No sirs, we do need you, Ink Well is just being paranoid. Most of the town is attending to a burning buildings right now, and if you could make sure they were safe that would be most appreciated.”
The guard nodded. “Of course madam. Could you show us the way? With the coming storm and not knowing the town we don't want to get lost.”
Twilight looked at them, then back at Ink Well. “Can you not follow the smoke?” She looked back at the town, the cloud cover and light rain cutting vision too far away. She looked nervously from Ink Well to the guards. “I could point you out the way, but I don't want to leave Ink Well alone. A lone pony is in danger right now.”
The other guard stepped forward, saluting. “I will stand guard with him, if you would like. He can then lead me in the correct direction when he is done with what he is doing.”
Twilight looked up at Ink Well, herself not seeming fully convinced with the situation. “Is this alright, Ink Well?”
Ink Well looked at the two guards, attributing his uneasy feeling to paranoia like Twilight said. “I suppose. I really don't need a guard, I'm just taking a look around. If anything happens, you'll know. I'm not sticking around for it.”
Twilight nodded. “Alright, you and he will stay here while I show the other the way.” She walked off with the guard, heading in the direction of the residential sector. As she went to turn a corner, she called back. “Be careful Ink Well! Don't go off alone!”
“I won't!” Called back Ink Well, watching her disappear as the storm kicked in, rain pouring from the sky and soaking him where he stood. He turned to the guard left with him, who remained saluting in the middle of the street and the rain, and shouted over it. “What's your name?”
The guard remained motionless under the rain as it splashed from his helmet. “Aqueous, sir.”
Ink Well nodded. “Aqueous, you're going to stand guard while I make sure everything is locked down, right?”
The pegasus saluted again. “Yes, sir.” Ink Well turned back to the door, heading inside. Aqueous stood at attention before the door, rain splashing off of him in torrents. Ink Well was about to offer that the guard come inside, but stopped. Aqueous looked like a clever pony, he didn't need to be told his job.
Ink Well shut the door behind him, the solid walls muting the sound outside to a low background rumble. He quickly scanned over the shop, glad to see it unscathed, before walking through the dim shop to the workroom door, a trail of water forming behind him.
He raised his hoof to open the door and stopped, feeling a sudden, menacing change in the air behind him. He ducked, spinning to the side as a dagger implanted itself in the door where his head had been moments before. A red aura formed around the grip, wrenching it from the door and floating it back to the figure that stood calmly before the counter.
Fear shot through his heart as he saw her, the pony that had haunted his dreams. Her dark green fur and her red eyes had not changed in the time, and neither had her perfectly coiffed mane and sharply tied scarf that accentuated everything. She had a cruel, businesslike air about her body and a sadistic look in her eyes. She smiled at him as he glared at her. “Very good Ink Well! You've learned since the last time we met.” Her smug smiled slowly turned into a sneer. “You know you've really become a thorn in my side.”
Ink Well forced a smirk of his own despite his heart jumping in his chest from the initial surprise. “I'm so sorry Viper, but the Equirer turned me into a journalist, and one thing they have to do is ensure the story gets out.”
Viper slowly turned the blade before her, examining it in the glow of her horn. “It is true that you were supposed to investigate, Ink Well, but you were supposed to have the common sense to die. Imagine my shock when I sat in my office and got a letter from the Princess herself saying you were not only alive but that you were filing a complaint! Now that was no big problem, I mobilized my team and here I am, but then to go and get her to shut down my empire using evidence that was supposed to burn in your house... now that's just low. Imagine the lengths I'd go to to get revenge on the pony responsible. Think what horrors I would be willing to commit to his friends. Just think of what I'd do once I had that pony in my clutches... Come on. You're a creative one. It shouldn't be too hard.” With a flick of her eyes, the dagger shot towards Ink Well, forcing him to roll to the side to dodge. As he moved, a glimmer at the corner of his sight caught his attention, making him jump over the counter as another knife impacted, quivering in it. Viper frowned, her horn glowing more brightly as the daggers returned to an orbit around her head. “My, you are a sharp one.”
Ink Well forced his smile to maintain despite his aching leg and the adrenaline running through his veins. He crept slowly towards the door, ready to move with all the extra space around him. “Not as sharp as those, I'm afraid. But if I were to imagine what you said, just for an instant, that would place you as far more important than just the head of the Enforcers, wouldn't it?”
Viper smiled cruelly. “Very good! Yes, that would make me the Equirer's head, the power behind the throne, as it were.” The daggers reoriented themselves, pointing towards him as they floated.
Ink Well crept closer to the door, feeling it almost in range. “I'm honored, such a powerful pony taking the time to come kill me. Shouldn't you have underlings for that?”
“Oh, I do, but if you want to be big in business you must be willing to get your hooves dirty. Besides, I find that ponies much prefer the personal touch.” The daggers sailed towards him, imbedding in the wall as jumped for the door. He turned the knob, pulling on the door to find it unmoving.
He pulled again, confirming the door's refusal to open despite the lock being visually undone. He yelled at the door as the daggers freed themselves, floating in the air once more. “Aqueous! Open this door and get in here!” The knives flew, whirling at two heights towards him. He flapped hard with his wings, pushing off the door and flying over an aisle divider. He landed hard behind it, scrambling to his hooves but keeping low as his ribs screamed at him.
Through the air of the shop rang a maniacal laugh. “Water forms to the container, Ink Well, not the other way around. I needed you all alone to truly enjoy this.” Ink Well crept between the aisles, wincing every time his brace 'tinked' lightly on the ground. He moved a few bottles from the shelving, trying to get an eye on his attacker. She was still by the counter, eyes closed and horn glowing brightly, devilish smile on her face. A bottle next to him reflected a dim red glow just briefly. Ink Well dove to the side as on dagger plunged into the shelf, smashing the glass bottles as the other knife whizzed above Ink Well's head, cutting a few hairs from his regrowing mane. He scrambled around the shelf, ducking into another aisle and slightly closer to the unicorn. “You can't hide from me Ink Well, despite how you keep trying. I have the edge.” Her words cut the air around him, followed by a knife descending on either side. He leaped into the air, vaulting over the shelving, his leg complaining strongly as he did.
His mind ran as he darted through the air, the blades quickly closing in. He circled the room, watching as Viper followed him precisely with her head, her eyes never opening and her horn glowing brightly. As he ducked a tossed knife, realization dawned. He had to level the playing field. He pulled up his legs, back flipping as the knives shot under him and into the wall. Kicking off the wall, he shot directly at Viper as the daggers freed themselves, following him. He swerved around her, skidding over the counter and through the workroom door in one fluid swoop, slamming it behind him. The blades swirled around her, placing themselves in the sheathes at Viper's side. Slowly she turned around, opening her eyes and growling at the door. “Running again Ink Well? Your tenacity is really starting to get on my nerves...”
She moved through the door, opening it slowly to the distillery. Within the room was bright, the light on and causing shadows to slice across every surface and cluster in the corners. Viper looked over the room, the mass and tangle of piping, machines, and boilers masking view of far too much of it. She listened carefully, nothing but the faintest thrumming of rain outside to be heard. Walking slowly into the center of the room, she smiled grimly. “Another game of hide and seek? I thought you were better than this. I had such high hopes for you...” She closed her eyes, horn glowing as magic spread over the room... and gleamed back at her twice as bright. The whole room lit up, readings scattered and confused. Viper's face contorted with rage. “What? What is this?”
Reverberating from every side of the room, a metallic tone to each word, came the scratchy voice of Ink Well. “Brass fixtures, a devil for magic users, but I hope it doesn't cause you too much trouble. It wouldn't be interesting then, would it?” The knives swirled around Viper angrily, futilely trying to pinpoint the speaker. Meanwhile the unicorn herself gritted her teeth, eyes afire as she peered into the many shadows. There was a dart of movement behind her, one dagger flinging that way to bounce harmlessly on some piping. Another flicker before her, a blur changing the air for a mere moment, only to be stirred again by the glowing dagger passing through it and sticking into the wood wall.
Viper's eyes glowed red, her magic loosed by her anger. “This is no time for games Ink Well! It is time for action! Come out and face me like a stallion!” She called to the room, her voice echoing off the pipes, dissipating in the dry air. She grimaced as her eyes darted around, daggers swarming above her and ready to strike. Then, suddenly, they stopped, her face breaking into a sadistic grin. “Fine. If you refuse to face me, maybe this will get a rise out of you.”
Slowly a match rose into the air, striking itself so that the flame flared. Viper's spoke again, her voice far sweeter than her smile, but the sinister tone unmistakable. “Are you aware just how flammable a distillery is, Ink Well? They are notorious for unfortunate explosions. Now, while perfume stills aren't known to be quite as volatile, I'm still sure the reaction would be quite impressive.” The door to the maceration vat opened slowly, an unmistakably alcoholic smell filling the room instantly. Then the match floated lazily towards it, bobbing nonchalantly as it slowly reached the source of the smell.
The crack of glass was matched by the 'fwip!' of dagger cutting through air, a yelp coming from where it landed. The match winked out as it was hit out of the air, tumbling towards Viper along with its assaulter, a clear beaker filled with a murky liquid, cracks running along its side. The other dagger came up to defend, shattering the glass on impact and releasing its contents, which splashed over Viper, covering her with an odor like moldy, rusted oranges. Her eyes watered immediately, irritated from the liquid that touched her fur and further from the intense scent. She covered her nose with a hoof, coughing as she tried to remove the smell covering her.
The knife was tossed back into the center of the room, dripping crimson from its tip that gleamed darkly in the the light. Then the lights shut off, the room plunging into darkness. The enraged glow from Viper's eyes and horn bathed the area around her in a dim red, while the rest of the room was completely encased in shadow, textured slightly by the dim light seeping from under the door and up the stairs. Viper blinked tears from her eyes as she scanned the room once more magically, the results equally as scattered and distorted. As her vision and coughing cleared, the scent still stuck strongly to her, but no longer blinding in its intensity, she gazed into the darkness around her. “Ink Well! That's quite the dirty trick!”
The voice floated from the darkness, seeming closer and yet still emanating from all sides. “Just being an opportunist. I thought you knew that about me. I did a lot with what your company gave me.”
Viper twirled where she stood, daggers making slow forays into the darkness, acting like makeshift torches in the lack of light. “What my empire gave you, Ink Well. Please use the proper term. Though really, that was all my doing.” One dagger sliced at a retreating shadow, connecting only with the air.
“You? You seem smarter than to leave something so damning laying about. How'd you leave such prime evidence so easily taken?” The voice seemed to come from behind her, but when the dagger flew, there was nothing but shadow.
“Hah! You say it as though it were an accident. No, that file was there on purpose for anypony brave enough to face me, meticulously updated with tender love and care.”
“But why? You seem to have some grand master plan and a belief that your company cannot be defeated. Why leave a paper trail?”
Viper smiled cruelly, the red lighting making it seem all the more sinister. “So somepony knows my genius. That file has been gone for on three separate occasions, and two of them were silenced. The first was an employee I had thoughtfully given the key, as she was in charge of the room. Of course, the curiosity was far too much for her, the forbidden filing cabinet being too tempting, and once she read it, she was so kind as to bring the discrepancy to my attention.” Her smile deepened. “I had to get a new rug after that one. A pity, the poor filly had such a lovely blue coat.” She whirled around, looking at the room from a new angle and probing the darkness once more with her daggers.
“The second was an activist, a foolish old pegasus with delusions that he could 'the corporate machine.' He barged in all on his lonesome, grabbed it, and hightailed it from the guards and immediately to his home, a squalid affair with revolutionary posters and peaceful slogans galore.” One of the daggers jabbed forward, twisting slowly in air once the motion was complete. “I thought it very ironic when he was found mysteriously impaled upon the trees below, apparently having fallen from his home, the old treehugger. And after that fall, well, one laceration looked as natural as the next, even the one cleanly through his neck.”
She turned once more, gazing into a particularly thick shadow behind a mass of pipes. “And then there's you. You planned ahead, came in with backup, went where nopony expected you to, and most importantly, left the file elsewhere.” Her tone became laced in sarcasm. “Whatever shall I do? How can my empire survive with the information out? How will I deal with this interloper?” She smiled, staring at the shadow that seemed to stare back, unmoving. “You know, it's almost like I'd planned ahead. Let Celestia investigate, she will find nothing to corroborate, nopony willing to back the story up, and her only witnesses mysteriously killed in a fire that swept through their town. It's too bad I'll have to decimate her guards to do so, some of them are really good spies, but you just had to keep dragging ponies in.”
A drop of blood splashed on the floor behind, causing her to slowly turn. The hoof flew out of the darkness, catching her on the cheek and, despite it's low impact, staggered her. Ink Well landed before her, kicking again with his newly injured right front hoof. “You leave them out of this you monster.” A knife whizzed from where it hovered, flying between the two ponies before Ink Well leaped back, disappearing into the shadows. The knife chased, nothing but blackness to pursue.
Viper straightened back up, her sadistic smile plastered to her face. “It won't end here, Ink Well. This is merely the beginning, a launching point for my empire to take the next logical step. From a company to a nation in one long motion, all sparked because of you.” The darkness clanged, metal banging metal, followed immediately by the dim glow as a knife flew, nicking the retreating form. “Don't lose your head now! I was just starting to have fun!”
Thunder rolled through the building as the storm outside picked up strength once more, the dull drilling of the water on the distant roof the only sound in the dim room. Viper's smile remained solid as she turned slowly in place, her daggers keeping their own dim watch as they circled on their own paths. Yet the pegasus did not slip up again, and so they waited, neither wanting to make the first move.
Rose landed on her empty doorstep, confused to see the door tied in place with some sort of rope. She looked back at the storming city, flinching as lighting speared down to the ground, crashing within the city and shaking the windows. She looked back at the rope, wondering why anypony would put it there. That wasn't security, it wasn't smart, it would keep nopony out, just slow them down. Whoever was using her shop as a safe base obviously wasn't thinking clearly. Though how would they have gotten in afterward?
Something wasn't right here. She quickly untied it, fluttering her gossamer wings as they drooped to the ground, waterlogged from the flight. She hurriedly pulled the door open, entering the room to find it silent and empty.
She tilted her head, listening to the air. The silence was unnatural, a weighty, expectant silence, not the quiet of an empty building. She looked down, seeing the small trail of drips leading away from the front door. Curious, she followed, adding to the water on the floor as she dripped dry. She reached the counter, seeing the front display askew, and walked around, shaking her wings one more time to remove the excess water weight. Reaching for the handle a faint whiff came from the room, the strong scent of the molding oranges seeping under the door. That was the final straw. She pulled open the door and flicked on the lights inside.
The glimmer of cold steel flying towards her greeted her entrance.
Ink Well watched in blinded horror as the knives flew, Rose flinching back and shielding herself with hoof and wing. The blades pierced the wings, pinning them to either side of the entrance and leaving Rose trembling in surprise. Viper looked around the room once for a possible assault, but Ink Well remained where he was hidden amongst the piping, trying to clear his eyes and rethink his strategy. Seeing no danger, Viper slowly walked towards the pinned butterfly wings, watching with interest as a glowing blue powder seeped from the wounds and dissipated in the air. “Hmm. Magical wings. Very beautiful. It almost pains me to damage them.” She smiled cruelly. “Almost.”
Her horn glowed, the daggers sliding down from where they'd inserted and slowly closing in on Rose's body. She kept close attention to Rose's face as they moved, seeming to become disappointed as Rose stared at her, shock keeping her from reacting. Viper frowned and stepped back. “It doesn't hurt? At all? Aww... it's no fun when the victim doesn't respond.” Her horn's glow changed shades, the daggers stopping as something made its way into the room. From the shop floated a long sheathe which traveled over Rose's head, a green and red grip sticking out and a gold snake theme running down it. It hovered slowly in front of Rose, who had regained her composure and was now watching the moving object with interest.
Seeing this, Viper lowered it before her face, causing Rose's ivy eyes to meet Viper's crimson ones. “Oh, you like this? It's a very special blade. You see, I've never used it before, and I thought that this would be the perfect time to oil it properly.” She slowly unsheathed it, the slight curve of the blade causing the light in the room to shine on it perfectly. Inch by cold inch the sword slid out, slicing the air once before settling next to Viper, the sheathe placed lightly against the wall. The sword floated just an inch off of the ground, standing up Viper's nose where it was. “This blade, you see, comes custom ordered from the greatest sword maker in Equestria. Perfectly balanced and of the strongest steel, able to cut through just about anything. And the best thing to oil a new sword, truth be told, is blood.” Rose's face dropped, curiosity turning to fear as she pulled away from the unicorn before her only to be held back by the knives. Viper smiled. “Ah, I see that got a reaction out of you.” She turned the sword with her magic, placing the grip before her mouth. “I had meant to use this for the final blow against Ink Well to really settle the deal, but since he insists on being a coward, I'll just have to kill you with it. Nothing personal, you were going to die today anyway, but you weren't on my personal list. Now just stand there and keep struggling. I want this to hurt.”
Viper grabbed the sword in mouth, glow fading completely from her horn as she analyzed Rose's form for the best point of attack. She then turned her head, preparing the strike.
She spun around, blocking Ink Well's braced hoof as it smashed down from above. She then pushed him off, slashing back at him and cutting along his cast, breaking one of its connections with the brace. “Ink Well!” Rose pulled against the doorway, kicking uselessly at Viper. “Get me out of here! I can help!” She pulled again, the knives slipping further along the wing and more of the dust floating into the air.
Ink Well moved to signal her to stop, but had to pull back his bleeding hoof as the sword swung at him once again. “I'm coming! Stay there!” He ducked back, the sword slashing over his head and pushing him into the work table. Viper's eyes stayed on him the entire time, rage, focus and enjoyment all swirling within them. She swung again, going low and making him hop over the table. As he moved, his brace shifted at the knee, abandoning some much needed support on his leg and making it cry in pain. He ignored it, ducking under a slash over the table
Viper jumped over the table, eyes streaming rage as she brought down the sword in a powerful chop. Ink Well stumbled, forced to block with his brace. The metal held, but the angle of the sword caused the tip to slide past, slicing cleanly through the cast and into his leg. He whimpered, pulling away as Viper swung again, cruel smile appearing around the grip as he scrambled away from her.
Rose saw this and took action, hooves falling on the knives pinning her wings to the walls and yanking them free. Holding them she pushed herself forward on rear legs and wings, the glowing blue dust flowed behind her, slowly draining from the wings as the edges became less substantial. She ran around the table, bringing the blades down on the distracted unicorn. Just before they connected, the red glow reappeared around them, yanking the metal from Rose's hooves and throwing her off balance. The knives then twitched, swirling around Viper as she struck at Ink Well.
He did his best to duck and dive as the trio of blades danced around him, trying to get his own hit in where he could, only to be deflected by the blades. The daggers struck forward rapidly before returning to the cyclone around the unicorn, forcing him to squeeze between blades as the sword swung wildly. A blade shot at his side and he twisted away before yelping in pain, blood suddenly rushing from his other side as the stitches tore. It flowed freely, running down his legs to join the trickles from the myriad of small nicks and long gashes along them.
Rose stood behind Viper, her own strikes riposted by the whirlwind of metal before her. Every kick of her hoof was met by a blade holding it back and another slashing towards her. These she blocked with her wings as best as she could, but even then her legs were starting to flush red, drips flying off with each motion to join the incandescent dust that seeped from her wings.
As the blade swung Ink Well pushed off of his braced leg once more, feeling it sing with pain as jagged metal from his brace not only failed to support the bones within, but jabbed into the wrecked cast. He jumped forward, wings propelling him as he tried to hit the assailant once more only to be scared off by the whirling daggers flying by. They had to be gotten rid of. Looking past the unicorn he saw Rose recoiling from her own attack. She was having the same thought, wondering how to stop the onslaught. She too looked past the unicorn, eyes locking onto Ink Well's own. For a moment they thought as one, a plan silently forming in the midst of battle. All the while both dodged and weaved from the attacks of Viper, who was unaware of the transmission of information past her. She brought down her sword, magical glow streaming from her eyes and horn as it stuck into the floor.
In unison the duo nodded, Ink Well stomping on the blade and swinging forward with a hoof. Viper didn't dodge, the daggers instead swirling from where they'd been stationed, above her head to block. During the split second when both were still, Rose jumped forward, flapping her wings once for the slight boost in height as they failed, the magic that made them swirling around her. She soared like a comet through the air, tumbling over the glowing horn. She was able to grab the red bathed knives, rolling across the floor with the flats of their blades hugged tightly to her chest.
Ink Well's punch connected, sending Viper recoiling back, her grip still solid on her sword. Ink Well pressured forward again while Viper was disoriented, hoof colliding with her cheek and making her stagger further. Viper's magic flared, coating the room in a bright red, the dagger against Rose's chest suddenly thrashing against their restraint. Rose turned over, smashing the tips of the knives in the floor and kicking them further with her hoof. Meanwhile the sword swung for Ink Well once more, forcing him to the center of the room. Viper's eyes narrowed, glaring at the pair facing her, before turning around and running up the back stairs.
Both ponies moved to follow, Rose only managing a few steps before collapsing to the ground. Ink Well heard this, hobbling next to her immediately when she fell. “Rose! Are you alright?”
Rose nodded, feebly pushing up against the floor. “I'm fine. Just... drained. I think it had to do with the spell failing.” Her hoof slipped, Ink Well catching her before she hit the floor again.
He let her down carefully, trying his best not to get blood or broken metal in her mane. “You stay here, I'm going to go take care of Viper.”
Rose struggled against him, pushing to stand once more. “No! Don't go in there alone. You won't make it.”
Ink Well looked at his hooves, smiling slightly as he could feel the blood leaving him. “Yep, I look and feel a mess, but it's time I stop running and end this.” He stood up, walking away from the pony stuck on the floor.
Rose reached out to him, fighting the fatigue in her muscles. “What if something happens to you? I don't think I could live with that... You have to let me help.”
Ink Well smiled at her. “You are helping. Keep those knives down here. I'm coming back, I can't leave you like this.”
Rose looked into his eyes, seeing both determination and confidence, though unable to share the same feeling. “You promise?”
Ink Well nodded. “I promise. Cross my heart and hope to fly.” He crossed his heart with his hoof, then turned, limping up the stairs to the final battle.
Ink Well slowly hobbled up the stairs, a thin trail of blood following him as he turned to face his assailant. Viper stood waiting, sword hovering before her and bruises forming on her cheek and side. Viper smiled, her eyes still glowing from the magic within. She looked completely out of place amidst the green and sandy interior of Rose's home, the homely paintings and the neat dining table not exactly screaming 'battle.' Still Viper managed to look menacing, sadistic smile gleaming as Ink Well made his way in. “Ink Well! You followed. Oh good. I hoped you'd realize the importance of this fight.”
Ink Well braced himself on the ground, the cold wind flying in the window from the storm cooling the blood to his fur. He nodded. “It is. I may not fully know your plan, but I know it has to be stopped.”
Viper looked disappointed. “You haven't figured it out yet? And I thought you were clever.” She smiled maniacally. “It's the end of an era, Ink Well. Equestria as we know it is at an end.”
“What are you talking about? Your magazine is shut down! Your company has fallen! It's finished.”
“No! One magazine is stopped. But I don't own one magazine, I own them all. And their readers. When the news gets out that our beloved Queen unfairly shut down their favorite magazine, when she was unable to save Ponyville, when the scandal that her student and her friends were killed by the guards to stop their insurrection, even when there was no proof, is read, what do you think the ponies will do? They will react! They will get angry! They will revolt, and I will be at the head.”
Ink Well smirked, laughing to himself. “You're mad. You're absolutely insane! Nopony's going to follow you to war! Nopony would believe you!”
“They already have, and they already do. Nothing in the these rags is truth, yet think about it.” Viper pointed a hoof to the window. “All of those ponies out there were the start, mobs flocking here just on a rumor. You've seen it first hoof, you know it's true. They'll believe everything I feed them. When Enforcers dressed as guards start attacking them, what will they report? When all they read is propaganda what will they believe?” She laughed, staring out into the rain as lightning crashed nearby, thunder rolling through the building. “I'm playing Overthrow the God Queen, Ink Well, and I have all the pieces! Who's going to stop me?”
Ink Well stared at her, slowly shaking his head. “You actually think you can do it. Build an empire on lies and get the world to follow you. You'll get us all killed!” He stared at the psychotic smile she gave him, disbelieving. “And I'm the only one that knows. You wanted to make sure I knew before we fought... You're sick.” She stood firm, staring his opponent down. “I'm going to stop you. You know that, right?”
The sword turned where it floated, sitting in the air before Viper's mouth. “Let's see you try.” She bit down on it, manic smile and crazy eyes searing into Ink Well. He held up his hooves, preparing a defensive pose. The two stood facing each other for a moment, no sound to be heard but the storm outside.
A flash of light, the crash of thunder, the two ponies surged towards each other. Ink Well vaulted the low sweeping blade, bringing down a hoof that was sidestepped with ease by Viper. She spun back around, sword pulling upwards and catching the tip of one of his wings, shortening a feather. Ink Well solidly placed his front hooves, throwing a kick that went wide as his braced leg gave out beneath him. The returning slash missed by a hair's breadth.
Ink Well hobbled away, rolling under the table as Viper's sword flew down once more. He crouched low, a red glow causing him to scramble away. The sword shot under the table, catching the back of Ink Well's back left leg before boomeranging around and replacing itself in Viper's mouth. Ink Well flapped his wings, taking to hovering as one good leg couldn't possibly give enough maneuverability if he stayed on the floor. Viper slashed up at him as he dived and rolled above her, kicking down at her and succeeding in a blow or two against her back. He skirted over one more swing, managing a kick against Viper's horn that left her disoriented, shaking her head.
As she did the fire in her eyes doubled before dieing down, forming around her horn instead. The sword flew off, piercing the air and forcing Ink Well to dodge lower to the ground. As he got lower he felt a weight clamp onto his leg, Viper pulling him down. Not expecting the weight his wings did not react in time, letting Viper toss him to the ground with ease. The air rushed from his lungs at impact, more blood oozing from his wounds. He could see his vision getting fuzzy, blood loss starting to take a toll. As he moved to get off of his back, Viper landed on his stomach, pinning him down as the sword flew itself to her outstretched hoof. She brought the sword up, her terrible eyes shining with glee as she then swung it down.
Ink Well brought up his cast at the last moment, catching the blade on the thickest part of the brace around it. Viper's joy turned immediately to anger, eyes flaring up once more as she rained blows against Ink Well's brace. He could feel it rattling and breaking up, each shock of pain going down his leg reminding him that it was only a matter of time before both shattered under the pressure. He kicked up with his rear leg, knocking Viper forward and giving him just enough time to get to his feet again. He spun around, rushing towards the dark unicorn.
Blood flew from the tip of the sword, the light furred pegasus spinning with the blade and falling to the floor, hooves splayed apart from the one that landed beneath him. From his neck a small puddle of blood formed, spreading out across the wood planks beneath him. Viper's eyes calmed down, the magic disappearing as she looked at the motionless form beneath her. She stuck her sword in the floor near his head and walked around him once, taking in her work. “Oh. It's over... Pity, it was almost getting exciting there. A real battle, for once.” When she reached his head once more she picked up the sword, tilting her own head and preparing the coup de grace to ensure her victory. The sword raised high, a flash of lightning being caught reflected in the surface of the tower of metal. Viper closed her eyes during the final moment of preparation, the sword dropping swiftly and surely, imbedding in floor. Blood splashed as it landed, staining the blade.
None of it new. Realizing the lack of resistance, Viper's eyes shot open, her head turning slowly up to the room. Thunder boomed as Ink Well's brace connected full force, a sucker punch meeting her cheek mid turn. Viper's head spun the other way, lights fading in her eyes as she dropped to the floor like a brick, sword falling useless beside her.
Heavily sucking in breath, Ink Well took a step closer, poking her with his hoof. The form didn't respond. Poking her once more, he watched her carefully for any reaction. Viper did not move, only the slow rise and fall of her chest continuing as she breathed. With a heavy sigh Ink Well walked to the stairs, looking back at the unconscious figure as he reached them. Despite his worries, motionless she remained.
Gingerly he limped down the stairs, taking as much weight from his broken leg as possible while he limped on two of his other three. Eventually though he did make it down, turning at the landing to find Rose standing shakily before him, tears in her eyes and a smile on her face. At least, he thought it was a smile. His vision wasn't cooperating too well, but he could probably pick out that pony anywhere by now. She walked forward, hugging his injured form with her own cut legs, and he just smiled. “I promised I'd come back.”
Rose nodded, hugging him tighter, tears dripping into his coat. “And you never really break your promises.”
After a moment more he pulled away, staggering through the work shop towards the shop door. Rose followed, unsteady steps of her own still keeping pace with Ink Well. “Where are you going now?”
Ink Well kept his eyes forward, all his energy going into moving. “Viper is knocked out upstairs, but there's still a battle raging on outside, if her words are anything to go by. I need to try to stop them. You make sure she doesn't get away, alright? I've got just one more job to do.”
Rose stopped where she was, the words she heard making her legs wobbly. “You're going out there? You'll-”
Ink Well shook his head, continuing on his path. “Don't. You can't stop me. Go upstairs, I'll see you soon.”
Ink Well turned at the door, looking back at her with fuzzy eyes. “I've come this far, done this much... I'm not falling here.” With that he turned back around, heading into the main shop. The door closed behind him with a solid thump, leaving Rose alone in the work room once more.
Ink Well staggered from Rosewater, the pouring rain immediately drenching him and washing the red from his fur. Through the curtain of rain he beheld a war zone, smoke rising from many buildings as ponies scattered left and right, small groups clashing in the streets as the relentless ran turned everything from the streets to the battles to a brown mush. Lightning flashed at various points around the town, pegasi rushing back and forth with clouds to bombard the forces below. He looked over the mess with determined eyes, one pony in particular his target right now.
From down the street came what he was searching for, a bright purple glow. He moved as quickly as he could, what held together of the brace sticking and sucking in the mud, more pieces falling off every time it was freed. Ponies ran every which way, one frightened chase bowling him over and sending mud and blood flying into the air. The remains of the bandages fell away, releasing a great waterlogged weight as they trailed behind him in a pink, soggy line. He pushed himself up, the last vestiges of metal around his front hoof falling away, leaving the cut and cracked cast to slip and move with each step. Still he soldiered on, the fighting purple unicorn his last destination tonight.
A small crate raised up, surrounded by a purple glow, shooting from an alley and flying towards the broken and muddied pegasus. He clenched his eyes, turning his shoulder to it as he braced for an impact that never came. “Ink Well?!” The box splashed to the ground, water hitting him in the face as the source of the magic ran over. “In Celestia's name what happened to you? Are you going to make it?”
He lifted his eyes to the unicorn, her mane glued to her head and her uninjured face radiating worry for him. He shook his head, as much to dismiss the question as to clear his rapidly dimming vision. “Not important. I need to your magic. Everypony must hear what I have to say.” Twilight started to look puzzled and Ink Well cut her off. “Now, it's urgent.”
Surprised by his tone, Twilight nodded. “Okay, hold on.” She closed her eyes, her magic focusing on the tip of her horn in a bright orb.
Behind her a yellow pegasus descended from the sky, charging straight towards them, his red bandana attached to his face from the damp. As the distance between them closed, Ink Well stepped around Twilight, putting himself between her and the attacker. At the last possible second, Ink Well sidestepped, raising his cast encased hoof to clothesline the attacker, whose legs slid past in the mud, placing him unconsciously staring up at the sky. Accompanying the attacker's fall was a horrible snap, Ink Well feeling immediately sick as his cast shattered away and his leg fell limp at a position it never should. All he could feel was pain, his vision going full black as he teetered on the edge of shock.
He was about to tip over when he felt a faint tickle focus on his throat, followed by Twilight Sparkle's voice sounding as though it were a million miles away. Using the energy now flowing through his throat he planted all four hooves solidly, the pain rocketing up and down his left front hoof just driving him to stand firm. He spoke, his voice crystal clear in his head and booming over the town. “Ponies of the Enforcers! We have your leader.” He forced his voice to be firm and direct, with no possibility that it could be wrong or disobeyed. There was a purpose behind each word, which was far more than he was feeling during the pause. Within his foggy head the sound resonated strangely, coming from all sides as well as inside and like a muffled yell from forever away, and among that clutter he was trying to find the right words.
After a moment or two of thought he continued, formulations abandoned. “The Royal Canterlot Guard will be here in less than five minutes. There is no point to continuing your attack. Instead I give you two choices: Stop now and give yourselves up peacefully. We will not hurt you and we will be lenient in your sentencing.
If that doesn't suit you, you can Leave. Run, move as fast as you can! We know who you are, you will be found, but who knows? You might get lucky and escape. The clock is ticking.” He nodded to the direction he thought Twilight was, feeling the magic leave him, its extra energy draining with every raindrop that hit him. He smirked, legs staying beneath him like lead weights. “Hopefully that'll scare them off.”
With one final touch from the breeze Ink Well collapsed to the ground, mud splashing around him when he landed. Twilight stood over him, trying to block the rain as best as she could and visibly shaken, calling to him with a voice he couldn't here. Ink Well's eye cracked open, the last of his will going into one word. “Rose...” His head dropped, unconscious even before it splashed into the mud.
Ink Well shot up in bed, immediately regretting the decision as pain lanced through his side and firmly braced leg. The soft morning light shone brightly in the familiar room, the nicks and stains from last evening's fight removed. Despite his better judgment he moved to get up, swinging his hooves from the burgundy bed to land on the floor with a soft 'clink'. His brace had been repaired, but gone was the light maneuverable frame of before. This new one was one solid cage of metal, probably for the best considering the shape it had ended up in. Carefully he pulled himself off of the bed, noting the tightness where new bandages had been administered to his side and legs. He stretched out his wings, relieved to feel them both moving and only superfluously injured.
His shoulder ached as he walked across the room, not used to taking the full brunt of the weight for his leg, and he made his way to the spot where Viper had fallen. There was a divot in the floor from her sword, but otherwise the room was unchanged, the battle a thing of the past. As he stood examining the floor, Rose walked up the stairs, stopping suddenly when she noticed he was there. “Ink Well! You're up!”
He smiled, nodding to the floor. “Yeah, only just though. I was looking at the fight scene. For some reason I thought it would be... messier.” He looked at her, noting the smile on her face despite the bandages covering her legs and shoulders.
She shrugged, taking a few steps closer. “Yeah. Downstairs was a little worse. Some collateral damage, lots of small stains here and there... and yet nothing hugely telling. It's weird, isn't it? It's like it never happened.”
“Oh, no... it happened.” He turned away, wings drooping and heart sinking to see her injured. “I'm sorry about, well, everything. I'm sure you're going to get a lot of flack for keeping me around after yesterday.”
Rose gasped, looking surprised. “Oh! That's right, I was coming to get you!” Ink Well looked confused, fear grasping at him as he worried about being kicked out or banished for the mess he caused. Rose just smiled at him, pushing him towards the stairs. “Go downstairs! There's a surprise waiting for you in the main shop.” Her smile widened as she zipped down before him, disappearing into the workshop below.
Ink Well followed, and despite his curiosity, took the stairs slowly, one leg at a time until he got used to his motions. By then he was at the bottom, walking through the silent distillery. The brass machines stood quiet, glimmering in the light. Here and there dings and scratches were apparent where blows had missed. In the corner a pipe was misaligned, one that he had perched on when Viper first entered the room. And yet, these were the only signs of any conflict. Life just kept going on.
He made his way slowly to the door, pausing a moment before swinging it open.
Within the small shop stood Princess Celestia herself, the graceful alicorn regally towering over the room and seeming to radiate light. Her pink blue and green mane flowed in an unseen wind, her gold crown and necklace with the gleaming purple gems completing the rest of the alabaster picture stunningly. Around her stood the six friends, Twilight, Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash, all looking excited and joyful. To the side of the room stood Rose, smiling hugely at the shock on Ink Well's face. Crowded into the rest of the shop behind a line of guards, their blue armor clasps apparent, were dozens of ponies of every color and variety, a rainbow clustered into one room and spilling out the door and into the streets outside where even more peered in the small windows.
Stunned momentarily by the sight, as soon as he recovered her knelt before the Princess, his front leg's stiffness making the motion awkward and the final position sub par. He heard a chuckle come in a velvety voice. “Stand, my little pony, we have a lot to discuss.”
With as much trouble as he had getting down Ink Well pulled himself up, shifting uneasily in the gaze of the Princess. “Princess Celestia, I am so sorry for everything I did. I had no clue that things were going to escalate that far or that all those ponies would get hurt or the town would be attacked. It's all my fault and I know I deserve the worst, I just-” He was stopped by a quick nudge from Applejack.
“Woah there scrawny, yer gettin' ahead of her now. Hear the Princess out.” Behind her Fluttershy giggled as Ink Well blushed, still avoiding the Princess's eyes.
Celestia spoke again, smiling gently at him. “Ink Well, you need not to blame yourself for everything. Yes, what happened was unfortunate, but you are to be commended for what you did. You resolved a potentially horrific conflict peacefully, stopped a corrupt and powerful monopoly, ended an attempt to overthrow myself before it even began, and did it all without a single pony getting seriously hurt. Even now there are guards heading to each of the monopolized magazines, getting ready to shut them down for good, and there are ponies standing in this room that, without you, could have perished last night.”
Ink Well looked up at her, brow furrowed and head slightly tilted. “I did all of that?”
Twilight stepped forward, standing next to him as she explained. “After you announcement, most of the Enforcers either fled or gave up, allowing themselves to be captured. When the guards actually showed up twenty minutes later with Rainbow at the head, it was just a matter of rounding up who remained and turning them over. Some of them even started incriminating other ponies that had fled and jobs the Enforcers had done before. The loudest of them all was Viper as she screamed and hollered about how Equestria would be hers and her empire could not fall.” She hovered over a scroll, unfurling it before him. “Here is a list of all of the ponies captured, what they are charged with, and the likely punishment.”
As Ink Well went over the list, Fluttershy piped up from where she stood, her soft voice happy as she talked. “Once the Enforcers gave up, the ponies who helped me on the medical team searched all of Ponyville for injured ponies. Once everypony followed your plan and found a fortified position, only a few of them got injured, most of them able to hold off attack until help arrived. A few are still in treatment at the medical tent, but everypony should make a full recovery.”
Ink Well looked from the list to the ponies around him, words not coming to his mouth as thoughts struggled in his head. Eventually he looked to the Princess, whose warm smile still fell upon him. “That was all me? It can't be.”
The Princess nodded. “Indeed it was Ink Well. And as lead investigator for this case and the savior of this town, I have a question for you. Is there a punishment you wish to see set upon the attackers or their companies? I could take it into consideration, if you so choose.”
Ink Well stared at the serious face of the Princess, mind reeling from the implications. He could get back at all of those Equirer ponies, banish every one of the minions who dared attack his friends. He could get his own company, or demand payment, or request that the head of it all was sent to the moon for her crimes... A dark smile spread across his face. Oh if he were an evil pony, just think of what he could do...
He shook his head, smile waning to a smirk. “Just go easy on them. To most of them it was just a job, they just got into the wrong line of work. And I'm pretty sure most of the ponies in the companies were in the dark about the whole monopoly thing. Anypony in that first file and anypony who might know should be taken in, but the companies shouldn't be closed down, not even the Equirer. Let the magazines run, each under a new leader.”
Celestia's face didn't change. “Are you sure that is all you want?”
Ink Well nodded. “Of course. I can't take away all those ponies' jobs, they were just writing for a magazine. And I can't take away what all these ponies outside read every month. That would just be cruel. I just want the magazines to run clean and honest, making sure to get the facts first even if they still want to just print gossip. However, I do have one request.”
“And that is?”
“I would like the magazines, all of the ones under Viper's hold, to print a story that I write for them in two weeks on their next printing. It will contain the details of last night, the nature of what they were before the switch, and corrections on a few lies printed beforehoof. I also want them each to print an apology to their readers and a vow not to return to the slanderous mudslinging of old.” He looked around the semicircle of friends, each of them beaming as he detailed it. As his gaze returned to the Princess, he spotted Rose out of the corner of his eye. “Oh, and I want them to pay me like they would a writer on their team for the story. I have a few favors I need to pay back.”
Princess Celestia smiled at Ink Well, nodding to him. “Very well, I'm sure they would be willing to agree to that.” She took a step forward, leaning in close to whisper in his ear. “From how you wrote your book, I expected nothing less from you. Though I would like to see another from you, with all this experience, your style can only have been improved since then.” She stepped back, leaving Ink Well's mouth agape as his mind registered what she said. She smiled at him, closing his jaw gently with her hoof. “Now that I have your input on the matter, I am afraid there is much that awaits me in Canterlot. But before I go, I wish to remind you that we are all grateful for your efforts Ink Well.”
Ink Well rubbed his mane with his hoof, cheeks flushing with embarrassment. “I couldn't have done it without everypony else. I'm just one pony.”
Princess Celestia turned away, facing her guards. “All it takes is one pony in the right place at the right time to change the world.” She looked back, smiling warmly again. “Farewell everypony.” With that she left, her retinue on either side leading her to the carriage before hooking themselves up to it, pulling it into the air, their destination gleaming far in the distance.
Back in the shop Ink Well was beset upon by the crowds, thanks and questions and congratulations coming from all sides. Despite feeling the affections of the crowd, Ink Well slowly backed away, slipping into the work room when the first possibility presented himself. Already in the room was Fluttershy, having hidden as soon as the crowd had gotten too rowdy again. When she saw him, her face perked up. “Ink Well, is what you said true? Are you really going to write the corrections?”
Ink Well nodded. “That I am.”
Fluttershy ran up to him, hugging him. “Oh thank you! But why the change of heart?”
Ink Well hugged her back. “I promised. I can't give up on a Pinkie Pie Swear, it's unbreakable, and deep down I am a colt of my word.” He pulled away from her, looking into her shining eyes and smiling sincerely. “Think of everything I said a few days ago as just a dip in the road. My pen might destroy, but it can create too, works that even royalty enjoys. If it's able to do that... well, why should I keep it locked away?”
He walked to the work table, pulling out a pencil and a sheet of paper. As he did, Fluttershy looked over his shoulder. “Getting started already? This early in the morning?”
Ink Well shrugged. “Uh huh. I've got an article to write, and this time it is going to be perfect. Just you wait.”
Two weeks later there was a party held at Sugar Cube Corner celebrating the printing of the under-new-management magazines. The celebrations started in the evening and continued late into the night. Every single magazine had agreed to the terms set forth by Ink Well, ten identical copies of his article sat in ten different magazines on the table. It was a twelve page story, almost half the magazine in these rags, complete with corrections on old stories, the details of the Equirer's empire, an account of what was being called the 'Battle of Ponyville,' and, most notably, almost no mention of the author's involvement in any of it.
When Twilight finished reading aloud the article to the partygoers, consisting of her friends, Ink Well, and Rose, Applejack walked over to Ink Well, pushing his shoulder playfully. “Why'd you write yer piece like that, scrawny? It's almost like you didn't do anything!”
Ink Well was knocked off balance, the strong metal brace still locked on his leg, though the other bandages had disappeared. Around the base of his hooves the fur was slightly darker than the rest, the only remaining tell of the terrible fire a month ago and the trials he'd gone though since. It gave his parchment colored fur the look of an old map, time wearing the edges but the center unchanged. Catching his balance again he shook his head. “I didn't. Most of it was you. I took down one pony and gave a speech, both of which with the help of somepony else. Why should I take credit for it?”
Pinkie popped up in front of him, grabbing him by the shoulders. “Because you're a hero! And you could have been a super hero!” She moved around, posing and running in time with what she said. “Fighting crimes and zipping off to other places like whooooosh! Zoom! And everypony would recognize the Inky Avenger as the colt that won the Battle of Ponyville!” She struck a heroic pose, tail waving in the air behind her like a cape catching a breeze.
Ink Well just laughed. “No way. Not a hero, I'm not doing the fame thing. I just want to tell a good story.”
Rarity laughed at him, pulling a large beautifully wrapped gift from somewhere. “Oh are you sure you don't want to be a hero? It will make this present mean so much less.”
“A present? For me? You shouldn't have!”
Rarity waved away the comment. “Nonsense! You have done so much for us, especially with this article, so we decided to show our appreciation. It's from all of us.” The pristine rainbow-wrapped package did indeed have a small tag proclaiming it from the group, and after some encouragement Ink Well was made to open it. Within was a brown fedora and messenger bag like the ones he'd had when he first came to town, though upgraded with cutie mark latches and an overall more stylish design. Rarity saw the look on his face and smiled at him. “Oh I just knew you'd love it! A proper hero's costume. I made them myself in the boutique, though Fluttershy insisted I didn't decorate them too heavily. But your look needed an upgrade, don't you think? And Twilight even suggested just the most darling addition to the side!” She magicked open a small pouch on the side of the bag. “It's a holster for your pen and ink, and it can be closed or capped or open as the need arises!”
Ink Well put on the gifts, the bag fitting superbly and the hat perfectly tailored. Standing again in his outfit his old habits came back instantly, tipping his hat with his hoof to the girls with a smirk on his face. “Oh this is fantastic! I had missed these so much after the fire... I just didn't feel right without them. Although... there is one thing missing.”
“I think I might have that covered.” Rose produced a much smaller box of her own, wrapped plainly in some clear cellophane. “I'm not nearly as good at the presentation as Rarity, but I tried my best with what Daisy and Lily had at hoof.”
Ink Well slowly opened the plastic wrapping, opening the box with curiosity as to what could be inside. As soon as caught a glimpse, his jaw dropped. “No way...” From within the small box he pulled out a small writing set, a wooden piece carved with an indent for an ink pot and a small golden holster for a pen. Within both of these receptacles sat what caught Ink Well's eyes. His blue metallic fountain pen shined in the light of the shop, revealing once unsheathed a golden nib free of dents or flaws. The body of the pen had no ash, no scratches, not a hint of the turmoil it went through. Sitting next to it was his golden ink pot, returned to its perfectly round shape and gleaming brighter than it ever had before. This he turned over and over in his hooves, examining every inch from the stopper in the top to the tiniest curve at the bottom. The engraving even survived on the bottom, not changing in script or content: 'One source, endless possibilities.' Ink Well looked from the pot to Rose, stunned by the wonderful gift. “How did you...? When did you...?”
“I thought about it when I saw you having so much trouble writing, but with everything going on I was only able to get them repaired over the last two weeks. Sorry it took so long to get to you.” Ink Well looked up at Rose, whose head was actually lowered with remorse from her gift.
He shook his head. “No... These are perfect. I just...” He stopped, shaking the ink pot slightly where he held it. “Is there something in it?”
Rose perked up. “Yep! While you were working on the article I tried a little experiment with scented inks, thinking I could capture the memory from a page with the memory of a smell. Unfortunately the scents don't last very long, but I figured I'd try something new anyway. I call it Rose Ink. You'll never guess what scent the first batch is in...” Ink Well unstoppered the ink pot, the gentle scent of lilacs rising in the air, completely masking the smell of the ink underneath. Everypony smiled as the scent reached them, the entire room enjoying the smell of fresh flowers.
He returned the stopper, placing both the ink pot and the pen in the holster on his bag. “You ponies are so amazing. All of you. You deserve so much more than my thanks and a dinky little story in a magazine.” Everypony in the room politely declined the compliment in their own way, apart from Rainbow Dash who reveled in it. As their reactions ended, Ink Well spoke again. “So, I have a question. During my time in Ponyville I heard an amazing story about you six and Nightmare Moon... Would it be alright if I wrote something about it? I think it has the makings of a play.”
Twilight's eyebrow raised. “Nightmare Moon? Isn't that story already a legend even though it was less than a year ago?”
Ink Well nodded. “Exactly. It's a legend. It already has the status of an old mare's tale. I want ponies to know what happened, who did it, to maybe learn something from all of it. To me that just screams a play.”
Rainbow looked unconvinced. “You mean like on a stage? Are you crazy? Who'd want to watch that?”
“I don't know, making ponies want to watch it would be my job. But the material is there, if you just want to...” He could tell that none of the six were particularly enthused with the idea of a story of them getting out, and so he backed off. “Never mind. It's not important. Just give it a good think over and a yes or no. It was just a silly idea.”
An awkward silence filled the room for a few seconds before Pinkie piped up. “Why are we all sitting here quiet? Silly ideas deserve laughter, and if they won't get them, I know what will! It's time to paaaartay!” She bumped the needle on the record player, music instantly filling the void. Everypony loosened up, slowly starting to dance and talk amongst each other. Eventually even Ink Well got into it, finding himself in another game of Twister with Rainbow Dash. He lost hooves down, but with that the party officially kicked into high gear.
As the party continued late into the night Ink Well gravitated towards the edge, watching the others having fun dancing and talking and playing games, all of them looking so happy. Scanning the scene he happened to catch a glimpse of red going out the door, the bell ringing quietly and unheard over the music and the laughter. Concerned, Ink Well followed, walking around the room so as not to make a scene before exiting.
Outside Rose stood alone, staring up at the night sky. The moon was big and bright with few clouds blocking it, allowing it to cast a steely glow over the dark landscape. An out-of-place mist hung near the ground, little swirls and eddies in its flow making it seem like she was standing on a cloud. Ink Well's heart dropped when he looked at her, remembering the night he shared with her soaring over the stormy skies. Slowly he walked up next to her, his brace clinking with the final step as he joined her in looking at the heavens.
After a few moments in silence, Rose spoke. “I always find the night sky so calming. Just the thought of the world sleeping soundly putting my mind at ease.”
Ink Well smiled to himself, nodding. “Yeah... Sometimes I wonder when I write if I'm somehow tapping into the dreams of a thousand sleeping ponies or if all the words on the paper are truly my own...”
Rose smirked at him sidelong. “Are you kidding? Stealing their dreams? Oh no, those words are you. Only you can be that sappy and sincere.”
“Well, guess that solves that conundrum, doesn't it?” The two ponies looked at each other, breaking into laughter as theirs eyes caught the others. When the moment had passed, Ink Well took a step closer. “So why'd you leave the party?”
Rose sighed, shrugging. “I don't know. Despite how friendly they all are, I just don't think I fit in with their group, you know? Like I'm an outsider barging into their space. I was never exactly a huge fan of parties anyway...” She took a step towards him, eyebrow raised. “So why did you follow me? Isn't this party for you?”
Ink Well tipped his hat down, looking into the mist around his hooves. “I don't exactly like parties either. I'm sure you've realized, but I don't like to be the center of attention.” He looked back into the gingerbread house holding the party, the six within oblivious to the talk outside. “I know what you mean though. They just work so well together, that group. It'd be a crime to split them up or muscle in on it. It'd probably be best if I left quietly.” He looked at Rose, sadness on his face. “And not just the party. I really should be moving on...”
Rose looked concerned, but there was a playful edge to her face. “And where will you go Mr. Famous Journalist? Do you have a plan?”
Ink Well kicked a hoof against the dirt, the mist swirling around to conceal it once more. “Well there's that play idea I pitched inside that I still think could be interesting, but with no house, no back up, and currently no income I'm going to have to get a job again. Find an apartment with the money I have, hope that some sort of offer comes in after all of this. If I ever write that second novel I promised myself I might be able to afford another house one day.” Despite what he said, he smiled at her. “Eh, I'm not to worried. Everything will be fine, whatever happens.”
Rose nodded, turning to look back to the sky. “Oh, I believe you. But that doesn't sound like a very solid plan...” She looked at him as if in passing. “If you would like, I'm sure I could let you stay at my house a few nights more, until your hooves are on the ground.”
Ink Well shook his head, waving his unbraced hoof before him. “Oh no. You've already done too much for me. Taking care of me when I was injured, reminding me to eat the entire time I was writing, multiple instances of waking up at the work table with the blanket around my shoulders, all the pain I caused you, the running around town, the injuries...”
Rose picked up the list as he petered out. “... the joys, the sky, a new way of thinking, a new me, that reassuring smile, the great conversations, the moments of laughter...”
Ink Well kept going, less sure in his argument than he was before. “I've far outstayed my welcome, no matter how much I wish I hadn't.” His hoof shot to his mouth, the words slipping out before he could stop himself.
Rose didn't even respond, still looking up at the sky. “You keep talking about it like it's a burden. Even after your victories against the Equirer and the end of the slump in your career, you still talk as though you're just this huge weight everypony has to carry around. You have GOT to work on that self esteem problem.” She turned around, ivy eyes shining in the moonlight. “It would be a pleasure, Ink Well, if you were to stay here with me.”
Ink Well looked excited, eager for this to be true but apprehensive that he might jinx it. “Are you sure? Because I really don't want you to dislike me for staying too-” His stammering was broken off by Rose's kiss, his wings extending in shock before he slowly melted into it, eyes closing and savoring the moment. He even leaned forward after her as she pulled back, both of them blushing as they looked at each other.
“I'm sure. Let's head home.” Inside the party continued, ponies laughing and playing in the warm electric lights. But out in the cool night air the couple moved, skipping across the cloud tops and soaring of their own accord, all the joy they needed in each other's company.