Howard sat on a bench out in the cemetery, his face only showing the slightest signs of barely suppressed anger from behind the bloody handkerchief he was holding over his nose. He had a black eye on the right side of his face, and as he pulled the handkerchief away, he tilted his head back so that he didn't drip blood over himself.
"Dad, are you okay?"
Howard looked to the side to see his twelve year old son, Anthony approaching. He sat down on the bench next to his father and looked at him with concern.
"He hit you pretty hard, huh?"
"Well, what do you think?" Howard replied as he put the handkerchief over his nose again.
"Are you okay?"
"Never better. I've been wanting to punch my brother for years. I hope you see now why we don't get along?"
"This was always what it was like when I was your age. Me and your uncles fighting over every little thing. Of course, at least back then, those two went easy on me because I was little. Brian is a lazy, redneck cunt, and he never did anything in his whole life. He's been perfectly content living here and leaching off our father literally until the day he died. And then that greasy fuck has the nerve to start a fight at his funeral, because he's jealous that I went out and actually did something with my life. Left Texas, left it all behind, and I left it precisely because of people like him."
The man shook his head and pulled the handkerchief away when it was apparent the bleeding had stopped. He felt his face and made sure it was okay.
"And to think he has the nerve to say I never cared for my father! I did! I loved him like any son loves his father, even if we didn't speak often. But I always came up on his birthday to see him! I always lent him money when he was in trouble. And that's more than can be said for Brian! He's done nothing for the past thirty years but hang around dad's house, run up his bills and eat his food, and I know because dad told me as such!
"I didn't though! I made him proud! I went to university! I got a job! I got a family of my own and a nice house...Maybe my life didn't turn out exactly how I wanted, but at least I did something with it! What right does he have to talk about me like that?!"
Anthony cringed as he shouted.
"Dad, you're shouting..."
"I'm sorry. I'm just venting. I shouldn't be unloading all this on you. It isn't fair."
"No it isn't. I'm being immature. You're only a boy. You don't need to hear me complain about my life."
He looked across from the bench. Conveniently, he was sitting almost exactly opposite the plot where his father was buried. It was a very simple grave, with a brand new tombstone at the head of it. On grey stone, bold black letters read;
Gone but not forgotten
"I always thought your dad's last name was Carson and your mom was Summers. I didn't think he was called Carson-Summers too."
"Nah. The name's way older than that. My mom's maiden name was Cooke, with an 'E'."
"...What was she like?"
"I don't know. She died when I was eight. I barely remember her. Do you by any chance remember your uncle Tony? He died when you were about that age. I don't suppose you can remember him very well?"
"Eh...a little bit. I remember his name, but not what he looked like. He used to invite us to barbecues, didn't he?"
"Yeah, that's him."
The two sat in awkward silence for a few minutes, as that line of conversation seemed to trail off and go nowhere. Howard rubbed his face where the blood had dried around his nose and nursed his black eye.
"So what now?" asked Anthony.
"Well...I don't know. I guess I'll go apologise for causing a such a stir."
"But he hit you first!" Anthony complained, "Why should you have to apologise to him?!"
Howard sat back and stretched his arms.
"My dear old dad taught me a valuable lesson when I was your age," he explained, "I think it's about time you learned that same lesson, and remember this well, because it'll help you through your whole life."
"My daddy always told me, 'If you're polite to cunts, that makes you less cunty than they are, and therefore you can kick their ass from the moral high ground.'"
"It's sound advice, boy. Remember it, and one day you can teach it to your kids too."
He climbed to his feet and groaned as he stood up straight.
"Ohhhhh...come on...I need a drink..."
"...Why did I ever agree to this?"
Celestia never thought of herself as arrogant. She tried to be a fair ruler, to keep in touch with the needs and feelings of the public, to be down-to-earth and grounded in reality, so that she never let the class barrier that existed between her and her subjects distort her judgement. She liked to think of herself as one of them, just with extra responsibilities, and who was respected a lot for it. She never really felt like she was entitled to anything.
That said, she had become accustomed to some degree of respect and dignity being afforded to her. Though they were comparatively rare in Equestria, there were a few ponies and a lot more individuals among other races who didn't like Celestia very much. Despite that, however, they still begrudgingly respected her authority and treated her like an equal at the very least.
Lord Second was probably the only creature she had ever met that seemed to regard her as beneath him.
And he was making that very clear now as he sat in her throne, sipping fine wine from her cellars out of a glass taken from her dining table, dressed in yet another new coat conjured from the aethers, and with her sat on the steps at the base of the throne, chained up to it like some kind of exotic pet. Her right eye was twitching in irritation, and she was grinding her teeth, trying to stop herself from breaking the chains like dental floss and impaling him with her horn.
It was a surreal feeling to actually want to kill somepony. She had never felt like that before, and she didn't like it.
"You agreed, princess, because I'm the man who has the master plan, while you are just another of my many pawns who are forced to take part in it."
She looked back and scowled at him.
"Why is this necessary?!" she demanded, "Faking defeat was undignified, but I could at least see the point in it! Fool the Elements into thinking you had won so as to draw them out and begin the finale. That was great, I get that. But they aren't coming! At least not for a while. Why do I need to pretend to be captured too?!"
"So that you can escape!" Second explained, talking as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, "When you reunite with the Elements and your sister, it needs to be explained how you went from being defeated by me to meeting them. So I captured you, and then you broke out. That's a great explanation!"
"But WHY do I need to be chained up to my throne like this?!"
"Oh, you don't. That was just my idea of a good laugh."
"Second, so help me, if I didn't need you for this plan-"
"You'd what?" the human challenged, "What more can you do to me? Have you fucking seen me? Most of my skin is already burnt to nothing thanks to that fucking healing factor deciding to be finicky, I've already lost everything else I care about with no hope of recovering any of it, and to top it off I can't even die until the very end of this story at the soonest. Any punishment you inflict upon me would just be so much white noise."
"Are you fishing for sympathy or something?" Celestia asked, "Because I'm the only pony here to listen to your self-pitying whining, and you're not going to get me to feel bad for you after you shot me in the face."
"And your sister too," Second pointed out.
"And my sister too."
"I also wiped out the population of your capital city."
"...And you wiped out Canterlot, yes."
"Almost caused your friend Spike to get possessed by Sliske."
"Destroyed multiple buildings. Mostly houses in Canterlot, but I did smash the tower where Luna's room used to be the first time I fought Spike."
"Created a pony who was a living bomb and sent him to kill you and demolish your castle."
"Don't forget that one time I sunk your yacht."
Celestia narrowed her eyes at him.
"While singing a Lonely Island song no less," Second recalled fondly, "Sweet times..."
He sipped from the wine glass. The princess felt her eye begin to twitch again.
"Second, I don't get you!" she screamed, "I just don't understand! How can you be this callously destructive?! I've met some monsters in my time, but I've never seen an intelligent being so determined to hurt so many ponies for no reason! And I've never seen anypony show as little remorse as you have! Why?! Why are you like this?!"
Second swirled the wine in his glass for a moment and placed a finger on his chin as he pondered the question.
"Hmm...That is a good one," he admitted, "Honestly...I dunno. I ain't a psychologist. But if I had to guess Celestia, let me ask you a question; What's the difference between a nice pony like you, and a cold, hard bastard like me?"
Celestia raised an eyebrow.
"Basically everything except our language for some reason?" she suggested.
"Close, but not quite. The answer you're looking for, is that you grew up in a world where friendship and love is literally the most powerful force around, so that only good can ever prevail by nature. I, on the other hand, am a human. And while it would be incredibly misanthropic, not to mention naive of me to say that we're a race of complete assholes, I think it's fair to say that we're darker by nature, and in the right conditions, that dark side can be allowed to fester and run rampant.
"Don't get me wrong; I'm far from an accurate representation of my people. Maybe I'm just a special case. Whatever the way you look at it though, entities like Discord, or Nightmare Moon, they're long lived creatures. A thousand years of imprisonment is annoying, but they can take it, because that fits comfortably within their normal lifespan. They don't go mad, in the same way that humans who spend most of their lives in prison don't.
"Thing is though, us humans? We're not these larger than life beings like you, to whom imprisonment forever is a survivable thing. Unlike every other poor sap you ever put a life sentence on, us little humans have fragile minds only made for about ninety years of life at best. And then you make us live forever. And in the worst conditions possible. When you put us under pressure like that, sometimes we just...snap... "
Second certainly looked like he had snapped. Even now he was grinning that psychotic slasher smile, staring at Celestia in the same way a starving hobo would look at a free buffet table at a public event. It was hard not to feel unnerved just looking at him.
"So what then? That's just what this is? You've lived too long and gone crazy? Is that your only explanation for your behaviour?"
Second jumped out of the throne and grabbed Celestia by the horn. Against her will, he dragged her up, pressed his forehead against hers, and stared directly into her eyes.
"Tia...At this very second, there is a little man on my right shoulder reading erotic fiction aloud and making all the appropriate sound effects in a plea for attention. On my other shoulder, there is a goblin, who is suggesting to me that I should try acting out a scenario I thought of earlier, about tossing a grenade into a barrel of live fish. I have plans for starting a football league with all my zombie minions, using a foal as the ball, because it was just so damn fun the last time I did it, and next time I see that fuckstick Dr. Apocalypse, who was supposed to arrive here in an airship hours ago, I plan to eat him, just because I've never eaten pony before and I hate him. Yeah, I think I'm pretty fucking crazy."
Even one of those revelations would have made Celestia cringe slightly, and here were all these at once, and she found herself unable to move because he still had her by the horn.
"...Let me go," she said quietly.
The human did so, and she backed away from him, almost looking ill.
"Alright, fuck this. I'm going to go find Silver. Your misery has stopped being entertaining to me."
Second jumped from the throne all the way to the other side of the room in a single bound. He kicked the large double doors open and stormed through them, every footstep echoing through the hall as he deliberately stomped out. He grabbed the ends of both doors and turned to look at her.
He slammed the doors loudly.
"He's Discord all over again," the princess thought grimly, "I had so hoped that Equestria would never suffer another disaster like this...I worked so hard..."
Lord First patted her on the shoulder and sat down on the steps next to her.
"All personnel to combat positions!" the speakers ordered, "The Prometheus is under attack! Repeat, we are under attack!"
"Damn!" Tome screamed as the entire airship shook, "What was that?!"
"I don't know!" Iron Hoof replied as he drew his sword, "But whatever it was, it was big. Scarily big. I think it might be the dragons!"
"The dragons wouldn't dare attack while there are innocents on board!" Tome shouted, "There's something going on here. Night Shroud, Zezzy, the engineers, the riot, the blue thing, and now this Vader One as well. Something's going on here, and I suspect we're under attack by more than one faction. One from within and one from without."
"Iron, you stay here on the bridge. If Vader One makes further contact or comes near us, get what information you can. I'll leave what to do with him to your discretion. I'm going down below to see what the fuck's happening."
Ancient Tome grabbed nearby a rifle with his magic; the ship was practically littered with them. This was both a good and bad thing, as it meant that he could easily procure new weapons and ammunition should he need it, but so could his potential enemies.
The old unicorn nodded to Iron, who returned a salute. With that, he opened the door to the lower levels of the Prometheus and charged down.
The corridor was still bloody and full of bodies from when the trio had fought their way up to the bridge on their quest to take the Prometheus in the first place. It was unnerving, but Tome didn't dwell on it, instead rushing past and trying not to pay any mind to them. He passed through several similar looking corridors before coming to a stairwell that led both up and down.
There were hoofsteps above him. Ancient Tome backed away and hid in a side room as he heard them coming. They were most likely the crew of the Prometheus. After the Brotherhood's hostile takeover and the death of all the Knights of Man onboard, the rest of the crew surrendered peacefully and agreed to follow orders.
They weren't combatants as far as he knew, so he didn't particularly fear them, but there were a lot of variables to consider. The strange reports from down below could easily be a mutiny. These ponies were created by Lord Second after all. It was a very real possibility that the civilian crew were just biding their time and plotting to take back the ship from behind the scenes.
That would give a decent explanation for the riot; they may have tried to stir up trouble to better their chances of revolution. Given the public opinion of the Brotherhood, they wouldn't have been short for volunteers. Whether they saved them all or not, he had not a doubt in his mind that the ponies in the cargo hold wanted him and his fellows dead.
"It is simple!" said one of the ponies above, giggling maniacally, "First we take the ship, then we slaughter the undesirables!"
"Yes! Hahahaha!" his companion agreed, sounding equally psychotic, "But this is not what I meant! I asked...who do we kill...and who do we take?"
"We take those we have taken already!" the first pony shouted, "No more taking! We kill everything! All must die! The master says it must be so!"
Tome had heard enough. Whoever they were, these were definitely the ponies he was looking for. He left the side room and charged up the stairs. Just a single flight above, he saw the ponies who were conversing before. They were crew alright. Both of them were wearing dirty blue jumpsuits, indicating that they worked in maintenance. That explained where those missing ponies went.
They were surprised by his sudden appearance and turned to look at him. For a brief moment, Ancient Tome stared into their eyes. The irises were glowing fiery red, and looked almost alien. The two engineers were startled by his sudden appearance and didn't have time to attack before Tome did. The unicorn raised his rifle and fired it.
It was the first time he ever did use a gun, though he had threatened ponies with them often enough. Even though he held it telekinetically, he could feel the recoil as it fired. He gave a satisfied smile as his shots hit home and perforated the rogue engineers, who crumpled dead before him.
"You won't be taking anypony today, I'm afraid," he said smugly.
Damn, that was so suave. If they had still been alive, that would have finished them. I should be an action star!
"MORTAL. YOU HAVE MADE A GRAVE MISTAKE IN CHALLENGING ME."
The hell was that?!
"YOU KNOW NOT WHAT YOU FACE. YOUR DEFIANCE SHALL BE PUNISHED."
"KNOW THIS, FOOLISH PONY. THOSE WHO SEEK TO DEFY THEIR GODS FOR THE SAKE OF MORTALS WILL KNOW ONLY PAIN IN RETURN FOR THEIR SINS. THIS SHIP IS NAMED FOR ONE SUCH FOOL. YOU ARE MARKED, ANCIENT TOME."
Tome raised his rifle and looked around him nervously. Then, before his eyes, the bodies of the two engineers burst into flames. An evil cackling could be heard, and pillars of fire rose up from where the corpses lied. Eventually, it dissipated again, leaving only piles of ash.
"...I've got to warn the others."
The windows shattered with the explosion. Iron Hoof covered his eyes to protect himself from the wave of broken glass that washed over the bridge of the Prometheus. Down below, the ponies at the controls all took cover beneath their desks, and Iron raised his sword as two metal pegasi swooped in through the frame of the broken windows.
They landed just in front of him, armoured hooves clanking loudly on the metal floor. One of them was wearing cyan coloured armour with a six emblazoned on the flank, relatively normal shaped wings, and his white mane and tail were free from the suit. The other pony's armour was all black with a number one on the flank, armour plating covering his tail as well, and his wings were razor sharp and deadly looking.
He knew who it was.
"Captain Chain Mail!" Iron shouted, "I should have known you'd be behind this treachery! You shall not-"
The grey earth pony hit the ground hard, the side of his face going numb from where Chain Mail's hoof connected. He raised his head slightly and spat out a tooth. The captain meanwhile pulled his helmet off and held it at his side as he stood over the former guard's beaten form.
"Sorry," he said, "I just had to get that out of my system. I really don't like you."
"Yeah...That's obvious..." Iron groaned.
He tried to get up again, but then Chain Mail stamped a hoof on his throat. He let out a cry of pain.
"I should clarify. I'm sorry I hit you the first time, but that's not an invitation to get up again. You stay down there, where you belong."
Iron Hoof glared at his fellow cyberpony.
"...Yes sir," he replied sarcastically.
"Glad we understand each other, private. Now, here's how this is going to work. You are going to stay there and do nothing. Your friends in the Brotherhood are going to surrender without question. Your ponies here are going to turn this ship towards Ponyville right away and let everypony have their freedom, and me and my friends are going to look for a Dr. Heart Beat on board here, who we have to discuss some matters with."
"Why are you telling me this if I'm just a prisoner?"
"Because you're going to tell the rest of the Brotherhood to surrender, and tell the passengers and crew what's happening, using that loudspeaker you used back at the palace."
"Fine. You'll need to let me up first though, and take your hoof off my throat."
"I'm not letting you up. You can crawl."
Celestia blinked disbelievingly as the human sat down on the steps next to her. He seemed remarkably casual given the situation. Almost resigned in fact. Unlike the last time she saw him, he had foregone his casual clothes in favour of a coat like his father normally wore, and a trilby hat that seemed to serve no other purpose than to make him look weird.
Ancient cosmic being or not, he still looked sixteen years old, and no sixteen year old ever pulled off wearing a trilby hat. This was true of all races of creatures, without exception.
"How are you here?" she asked.
First cocked an eyebrow, and pulled the hat off his head to lay it down next to him.
"Just came down. Travel between the afterlife and the mortal world is easy. At least for me anyway. You lot need your bodies to be intact, but I can subsist in a ghost form."
Celestia reached out and poked his arm with a hoof. He felt solid enough.
"I...If you could come down here at any time, why didn't you just appear to your father and-"
"Dramatic Convenience," First interrupted, "Do you really think I haven't tried? I spent the first thirty years of my death trying to find a way to get back down here so I could see dad's statue. I've spent every waking moment since his return trying to see him as well. I can't though. Travel to the mortal world is easily accomplished, but I can only do it if my appearance won't derail the story.
"If me and my dad met, he'd give up immediately, and this whole thing would be over. No more ponies would suffer. And then we'd have no story. That's what DC is; a force to subvert the laws of common sense and what would realistically happen for the sake of drama. DC has to step in and prevent me from seeing him, because in any realistic situation this whole sorry business would have been resolved ages ago. It's had an effect on you too, hasn't it? You haven't told him about my situation, have you?"
The princess bowed her head shamefully.
"I tried to."
"I know you did. I don't blame you for failing. Nopony can resist DC in action. Not even me."
"What are you here for, First?"
The human's expression darkened.
"I'm here because you reneged on our deal. I thought I made it clear that he had to die?"
"Didn't you hear him though?" Celestia asked, "You must know what he offered?"
"This Pantheon...If they're responsible for everything that happened to my world-"
"Then you ignore them," First said coldly, "They are not a force that you should concern yourself with. They created your world, they looked after it, and they're what's ensured your continued survival and your victory over the forces of evil. You have no reason to side against them."
Celestia stomped her hoof angrily.
"They're the reason we suffered so dearly! Everypony who ever died in tragedy...The many wars with changelings and the Spider Legion and the Atlanteans...Discord, windigoes, humans, the Nameless One, the Time Worm, Tirac, Sliske, my sister's corruption...They did it all! Didn't they?!"
First kept a neutral expression.
"Then I have plenty of reason to side against them! Second may be evil, but this Pantheon is made of dozens of humans just like him, and they've done more to harm Equestria than he ever did! I'm not proud of my decision, but evil like that needs to be put down, for the sake of the majority!"
She turned away from him.
"Princess, how do you justify killing my father? In your sense of morality, why were you okay with the idea of killing him up until you decided to switch sides?"
Celestia looked back over her shoulder.
"...Because you told me to. And he would come to no real harm. He'd just end up in your afterlife, wouldn't he?"
"Exactly. Here's a thought though. The Pantheon doesn't exist in Equestria. They live in the human world. And in the human world, I have no idea if there exists any kind of afterlife at all. What if there isn't an equivalent to me back in my universe? For all I know, in the human world, death is death, and you just cease to exist. Knowing that, Celestia, could you still kill the Pantheon?"
"And what for? I don't doubt you believe Second deserves to die, because of all the evil he has committed. What about them though? They're not even evil."
"How can they not be evil?!" Celestia demanded, "After all the lives they've ruined?! All the disasters and monsters they've inflicted on this world?!"
"They're no more evil than any author writing a book!" First snapped, "Understand what I'm saying here. The Pantheon is not evil. It just doesn't care."
"Doesn't care about all the lives it is ruining?!"
"No. Not because they're sociopaths or whatever, but because you're simply meaningless to them. Try to think of it this way. Before I told you everything, did you consider characters in books to be real living creatures?"
"No. And neither do they. You're not real to them. They can't come here, and we can't go up there, so they'll always believe that. Even if they are doing an experiment in meta storytelling about fictional characters realising what they are, those humans back in the human world still won't actually believe that fictional characters are real, they never will, and they can never be convinced.
"They're not just a bunch of all-powerful deities who don't care about the mortals. They simply don't understand that they're causing pain and suffering, because as far as they're concerned, you don't exist. In their eyes, you are not a real being. You are words on paper and digital drawings on a computer. You are so much less than an actual living being in their eyes, so far below them on a cosmic scale, that they barely recognise your existence, and even then only as a pony would regard an insect, if that.
"They could destroy you and this entire universe and think nothing of it, or feel nothing about it, because the idea of thinking of fictional characters as real is bizarre and alien to them. In their eyes you, your sister, your little ponies, and even me and my father are all just that insignificant."
Celestia stared at him in horror.
"Maybe now you see why I use so many Lovecraft comparisons? I don't refer to us as Elder Gods for nothing."
Second strolled into the infirmary and looked around at all the destruction. Beds were overturned, sheets were on the floor, medical equipment had been dropped in places, paperwork littered the room, and one or two zombies shuffled about lifelessly. There was a corpse at the foot of a nearby bed, and just behind it was yet another zombie, still ripping chunks out of the stomach of a royal guard laying in the bed, who may have been a patient at some point.
By one of the beds nearest to the medical storage area of the clinic, Silver Vein was sitting in place and treating her injuries. She had wrapped a few bandages around her midsection and was rubbing something on a light chest wound. Her armour lay next to the bed.
"Came to check up on you," Second explained as he walked past, "You're the very last power armour trooper left alive. That's quite an accomplishment, if I do say so."
"Thank you sir," Silver replied as she finished with the cut, "Ahh...I think I'm done."
"Good. None of the zombies give you any trouble? Authority is holding up?"
"No sir. They've ignored me for the most part."
"At least that hack is doing something right. Dr. Apocalypse has disappointed me one too many times. The Prometheus still hasn't arrived, and I'm getting more than a little pissed off. The moment he gets here, I'm giving him a formal execution."
"Who would that leave in charge of Mages' Guild, sir?" Silver asked.
"Probably the Four Horses. I don't quite know what to expect of them, because Apocalypse chose them himself, but if they're all sharing the position then at least I know they'd put a lot of thought into their decisions. And while I'm at it, Commander Bullseye is a useless waste of space too. He's also got to die."
Being one of the Knights of Man herself, the revelation of Bullseye's impending death caught Silver's interest.
"Commander Bullseye, sir? But...who would replace him?"
"You're obviously competent. You want the job?"
"Yes or no?"
Second narrowed his eyes.
"You don't sound very certain."
"I am certain!" Silver insisted, "I'm just...surprised is all! I've only had this job a few days...Seems a bit early for a promotion..."
"You can keep the power armour if you want. You don't need to downgrade to Bullseye's equipment if that's what you're worried about."
"That's not what I meant, sir."
"Well then what-"
Second stopped. He twisted his head around and looked about the infirmary.
"What was that?"
"What sir?" Silver asked in concern.
"Something...It's not quite there, but I can..."
He sniffed at the air.
"For just a minute there, I thought..."
He didn't say another word. He just turned away and walked off.
"ATTENTION, PONIES OF THE PROMETHEUS!" the speakers blared, "THIS SHIP IS BEING COMMANDEERED BY A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE EQUESTRIAN ROYAL GUARD. THE PROMETHEUS WILL MAKE AN IMMEDIATE STOP IN PONYVILLE, WHERE YOU WILL ALL BE FREE TO LEAVE. ALL REPRESENTATIVES OF THE BROTHERHOOD OF MAN ARE ADVISED TO SURRENDER IMMEDIATELY AND NOT RESIST. ALL CREW SHOULD GO ABOUT THEIR USUAL BUSINESS UNIMPEDED, AND ALL CITIZENS AND REFUGEES SHOULD NOT PANIC. THE ROYAL GUARD ALSO REQUESTS THE PRESENCE OF DR. HEART BEAT ON THE BRIDGE IMMEDIATELY. THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME."
"What?!" Tome thought to himself, "A representative of...But all the guards boarded the Prometheus! They're in the cargo hold with...Chain Mail!"
The old unicorn shook his head.
Chain Mail was left back at Canterlot...No! That must mean...the Elements of Harmony! And Princess Luna! They're the ones behind this. They were attacking the ship...from outside. The inside attack though...I was right. We're under attack from two different groups at once. The Elements want to take the Prometheus by force, free the ponies on board and find this Dr. Heart Beat fellow. And this other group is lead by some kind of supernatural force that is possessing the engineers. Possibly Lord Second?
Tome stroked his beard as he pondered the possibilities.
Could it be Lord Second? Is he capable of this? What if...
"Well, well, well...Look who it is..."
Tome turned around, and his mouth hung open in shock when he saw that he was being confronted by Sun Rise.
The cyborg pegasus glared at him angrily. His back legs, right fore hoof, parts of his chest and his flank on the right side were all still covered in metal, now polished back to its shiny chrome look after the last time Tome had seen him, where it looked more like iron from how dirty it had gotten. He seemed to have been groomed recently and no longer looked greasy and filthy, back to his clean orange coat, at least where he still had a coat.
And the places where he still was an actual pony were very rare. He was mostly machine now, with the mechanical parts having robbed him of right eye as well, which was now just a burning red light inside a ring of metal, and even his cutie mark on the right side. Whereas his left flank still proudly displayed the pair of flaming wings, the right side held the insignia of the Brotherhood of Man; a human fist raised to the sky.
"Ancient Tome..." he snarled, "I've been waiting to find you again..."
"Sun Rise..." the old unicorn said nervously, "You're looking much better than last time I saw you! Hehe...Uh...Are you...feeling better?"
"I'm on top of the world," Sun Rise replied in monotone, never changing his expression, "My eyes have been opened to the full majesty of Creation. I understand the world now, and I appreciate it for what it is. We live in a flawed world, but those flaws exist for a reason. I was always meant to be, because I am special. I have a destiny. And I would see it fulfilled, for the sake of the greater good."
Tome smiled awkwardly.
"That's uh...wonderful! I'm glad you're over your...little problem. Second said it was demons. Haha! Imagine that! Demons!"
Sun Rise broke into a huge smile.
"Yes...What a silly notion..."
Tome had only just noticed that Sun Rise's organic eye had a glowing red iris just like the engineers. He hadn't picked up on it before because Sun Rise normally had red eyes anyway, but unlike before, they were burning brightly, like fire. Not like any real pony's eyes.
"...What are you?"
"I am Sun Rise. I always have been. I'm just...better now..."
The cyborg eye began to glow brightly as well, but not in the same way as his organic eye. Ancient Tome knew what was about to happen. He leapt to the side and into a storage room, just in time to avoid a red laser blast that tore down the corridor where he had been standing and left a glowing orange scar of melted metal in its wake.
Explodey coughed loudly.
"Guys..." he gasped, "I think it's catching up to me...I can't fight this infection much longer...I just don't want to end up like that! I don't want to be one of them! "
The group still stood atop Spike's back, who had since landed on the top of the Prometheus's balloon. A few more of the dragons from Canterlot were missing. Most had left after Spike got clear of the city and headed back home, while three others insisted on following him. Of those three, Nonvulvahlok was one. He and the other dragons had landed on top of the balloon as well, and were awaiting orders.
Given how massive the Prometheus was, the balloon seemed to actually be able to hold their weight, but it was still relatively fragile. Though they had landed, the dragons still flapped their wings to ease the weight off the airship and avoid damaging it. The last thing they needed was to crash it while the ponies of Canterlot were still on board.
"It's okay, Explodey," Gold Coin said soothingly, "It's all going to be alright."
"No it's not!" the unicorn cried, "It's not going to be alright, because if I die then I just come back, and every moment I'm alive it keeps getting stronger! I'm going to be like that forever! I'm scared, guys! I am so scared!"
"You'll be fine! Really!" the earth pony replied, "Softy and Chains are on it right now! They're going to find Dr. Heart Beat and they'll find a cure! We can still save you!"
Explodey held up his left hoof to find it had gone completely grey.
"I need to eat something right now!" he shouted.
Sliske stepped forward and cast a spell on Explodey. His cries of pain became softer and finally died out as he stabilised again.
"Thisssss isssn't going to work forever. The painkiller sssspell losesssss itssssss effectivenesssss the more it issss usssssed."
"We'll only need to use it a few more times," Gold Coin answered, "Explodey will be cured soon, and everything will be back to normal!"
Gold Coin glared at him.
"Guys...?" Explodey moaned.
The yellow earth pony trotted over to his side.
He sat down right next to him.
"What is it?"
Explodey whispered in a hushed voice, that even sitting right next to him Gold Coin could barely hear.
"...Where do zombies go swimming?"
"The Dead Sea."
Gold Coin raised an eyebrow in confusion, while Explodey broke out into a huge grin. It was only then he got it.
"...That was fucking stupid."
First climbed to his feet and walked around a bit, taking in the scenery of the throne room. Celestia remained sitting down on the steps next to her throne.
"So what then?" she asked, "Am I just supposed to ignore this Pantheon? Ignore everything they ever did and betray Second after the deal I made with him?"
"You betrayed me after we struck a deal," First replied, "I am not happy about that."
"Second said that Canterlot was a fake climax though!" Celestia argued, "And he said that it still had to be the Elements of Harmony to finish him anyway! Dramatic Convenience would have stopped me from doing anything either way!"
"No! It doesn't work like that! DC is an influence, but it does NOT control everything! The writers may have total control over your words and actions, but that doesn't mean you have no free will at all. It's not like you're being controlled and forced to do things you don't want to do. You choose what to do by yourself, and the writers are just the influence behind your choice. You chose to join him, and that's not something you can blame on DC.
"If you had tried to kill him, like I told you to, there is every possibility that you could have done. Maybe the writers would be feeling avant-garde, and subvert the usual rules of story telling by having our heroes fail their task and you killing the main villain instead. I read a book that did something like that once. It was called the Hobbit, and most of the book was building up to a confrontation with this dragon, but then towards the end some other guy kills it instead. Caught me by surprise, let me tell you."
"I still can't ignore what the Pantheon has done, First."
The human sighed.
"Celestia, ponies may die, but there is always an afterlife. Monsters may attack, but they will always be defeated. Old enemies may return, but there will always be a chance for their redemption or a more final defeat. And take solace in the fact that all TV series end eventually, so the reign of the Pantheon and that accursed DC is not forever.
"What I'm saying is, what they've done is bad, true. However, they don't know they've done such wrong in the first place, and whatever my father has planned for them, I can assure you that they do not deserve it. Even if you do go through with it, it won't undo what they've done. Revenge this late into the game is pointless. They're a problem, but they're a manageable problem. Second, is not."
"Listen to me. I like you, Celestia. I respect you. I want to believe that we're on the same side, and I do not want to make an enemy of you. More importantly, you do not want to make an enemy of me. You can side with me, or you can side with my father, but be warned that if you choose not to help me after all I've done for you, then you'll get no further support from me when he inevitably betrays you too. And he will. I know he will."
First held out a hand and the trilby hat flew across the room and into his grasp. He placed it on his head and looked over his shoulder at her.
He walked away, and vanished into thin air.
Second stopped in the middle of the corridor. Something was definitely off. He felt a presence in the air. There was no overt signs of any kind of foreign entity in the palace. It was just a general feeling of uncomfortableness, like he was being watched. He shifted and looked around him.
"I'm going mad," he sighed, "Well and truly mad..."
He strolled over to the wall and leaned back on it, collapsing to the floor and crouching in place while he buried his face in his hands. Rogue thoughts kept tormenting him. He felt paranoid.
"Howard? Are you alright?"
He moved a thumb out of the way so he could look to his right at a man dressed entirely in white crouching down next to him, smiling sympathetically. Conscience was now the same size as he was, unlike every other time he appeared in which he had been a miniature figure that stood on his shoulders.
"Do you want to tell me what's wrong?"
Second dropped his hands and stared at his hallucination.
"Who do you work for?" he asked.
Conscience seemed surprised.
"I said, who do you work for?"
The man in white began to splutter.
"Wha- I- Of all the- I'm your conscience! I work for you!"
Second got up and turned around so he stood in front of the crouching man. He looked down at him, as Conscience remained on the floor and smiled up at him nervously. Second reached down and grabbed him by the collar, hauling him to his feet.
"BULLSHIT. You're way too big an element in this! Why do you show up so prominently?! Why do you have so much to say about the plot?! Why do you argue with Ambition like you're supposed to be mortal enemies sometimes, but other times you're both in complete agreement and act like old friends?! And most of all, whose fucking side are you on?!"
"I swear, I'm on no-one's side but yours!" Conscience screamed, "I'm just a manifestation of your own psyche trying to make a living! Don't kill me! Please!"
"Ahaaaaaa!" Second crowed triumphantly, "So you can be killed...Well, let's see if some shotgun mouthwash does the trick..."
He let go of Conscience with one hand and reached into his coat, using it to draw out the Reaper's Horn and stick the end of it between his victim's teeth.
"Now, there's an easy way and a hard way we can go about this...Option one, you can keep silent, your head becomes a liquid, and I repeat this process with all the other hallucinations until I finally either have some answers or have some inner peace, or option two, you start spilling and I'll settle for banishment forever."
"Pantheon," Conscience whimpered, "I'm with the Pantheon. They're going into meta storytelling. Me and the other hallucinations are there as a device to steer your actions and drive the plot. Please don't kill me!"
Second's eyes bulged and he bared his teeth as he pushed the shotgun almost completely down Conscience's throat.
"You..." he seethed, "They're anticipating my attack, aren't they?"
The man in white nodded. Second sighed.
"Then my course of action is clear."
"We're approaching Ponyville now!" one of the pilots called.
"Good," Soft Spoken replied, "Keep on course."
Behind them, the door to the bridge opened up to admit entrance to Dr. Heart Beat. At first he seemed tense and worried, but he eased up when he recognised Captain Chain Mail.
"It's you, captain," he said as he trotted over, "I was wondering what I was needed for."
"You left with the rest of the citizens on the Prometheus," Chain Mail explained, "Unfortunately we still need you, because you haven't yet cracked the formula for the drugs I need, and we need somepony with medical experience who can help Explodey."
"What the fuck is an Explodey, and what's wrong with it?"
The doctor looked down at the source of the voice, and found a grey earth pony laying on the floor, with his face held under Chain Mail's hoof.
"One of my dear friends," the captain answered, "And he got bitten by a zombie."
"Ha!" Iron laughed, "And you're still carrying him around?! Most other ponies by now left those feral monsters behind! It takes a special kind of stupid to actually keep a zombie with you and give it a chance to infect the rest of you!"
"He's not a zombie, he's just been bitten. We need to do something to help him before he succumbs."
The earth pony frowned.
"You mean he hasn't turned yet?"
"How long ago was he bitten?"
"A few hours."
"And he still hasn't turned?! Are you sure he was even bitten at all?!"
Dr. Heart Beat interrupted to explain to the former guard.
"Explodey McGee is a...special case. He possesses some kind of innate healing abilities that seem to counteract the virus, but it hasn't been able to fully halt its progress. Or at least, it hadn't last time I saw him when I was with you lot."
Iron's eyes went wide.
"No wait! I heard about him! Isn't he the one who can't die?"
"Well..." Chain Mail muttered, "As it turns out, he can die. It just doesn't stick."
The earth pony blinked.
"Are you serious?! A functionally immortal zombie?! What the fuck are we supposed to do against that?!"
"Cure it," Chain Mail answered, "Hence our presence here. Now, if you don't mind, I was talking to the doctor."
"Wait!" Iron interrupted, "Look, I didn't want to mention this because he's associated with you, and we're enemies and everything, but I can't have an un-killable zombie running around. I just can't. So..."
"...There's a clinic on board the Prometheus a few levels down from here. It was used by Dr. Apocalypse, head of the Mages' Guild in Secopolis. Me and the rest of the Brotherhood killed him just before we staged our coup and took the ship.
"Before we killed him, he gave us an inoculation. There's this chemical, called Authority, which is designed to act as a zombie repellent when injected into the living and to allow a pony to keep their conscious mind should they get infected. That's why Second is undead too, but still intelligent. If you give some of that to your friend..."
Dr. Heart Beat and Chain Mail exchanged a look.
"Softy!" the captain called.
"Could you come over here and step on Private Iron Hoof's face for me? It seems I have a need to visit the lower levels."
Sun Rise jumped through the doorway into the side room where Ancient Tome had fled. The unicorn had hidden just next to the door, out of sight, and he ambushed Sun Rise as he came in. Tome levitated up the rifle he had obtained earlier and fired a few shots at him, but the bullets just struck the many metal plates covering Sun Rise's torso and glanced off them, leaving only dents and scratches.
The element of surprise was now lost, and his sneak attack had failed. Rather than waste time reloading, Tome backed away and used his telekinesis to grab another of the many guns kept in the store room. His grip found a sniper rifle of some kind, mercifully not a SEC Mk. III, but it was little help anyway.
Tome stupidly tried to use the scope on the thing at close range, and in the time he was fumbling with the weapon, Sun Rise rushed forward and brought a heavy metal hoof down on his face. The bearded stallion dropped onto the floor, and Sun Rise used his normal hoof to stamp on his beard and use it to hold him down.
"Gah! Get off!"
The unicorn wrapped Sun Rise in a field of magic, but he was too slow to act. Sun Rise raised his metal hoof again and struck Ancient Tome's horn, which killed his magic instantly and left him in immense pain.
The pegasus lent down and bit Tome in the throat, adding to his agony. It wasn't an attack though. He was just pulling him back to standing position so he could turn around and buck him into the wall.
"Ugh..." Tome groaned, "Stop spinning..."
The former Wonderbolt stood over his enemy's beaten form, a smug grin of victory on his face.
"Don't you just feel young again?" he taunted, "I haven't had this much fun since I was still performing."
Tome looked up at the orange pegasus. His eyes were watering from the pain and blurring his vision.
"Shouldn't have retired then."
"Couldn't help it. Needed to get out of the game. After the accident and everything after that...Well...You were there. You know what I'm talking about."
The old pony sighed in resignation.
"If you're going to kill me, then kill me."
Tome looked up in surprise.
"Kill you?! I don't want to kill you! Imagine how bored I'd get! I need a nemesis, Ancient Tome! I need some heroic fool who would always fail to see the bigger picture! I need a pony like you! A challenge! A competitor! A worthy rival, the kind I haven't had since me and Lightning raced side by side! You...you see...you...complete me...in so many ways..."
He grabbed Tome and pulled him up again, using his hooves this time.
"Don't you see that?" he asked, staring directly into his eyes.
"...Well, this is extremely homoerotic."
Both the ponies turned around to see Night Shroud standing in the doorway.
"Night Shroud! Help me out here! This pony is crazy!" Tome shouted, "I fear for my safety!"
"No need for that!" Sun Rise shouted, dropping Tome casually, "Me and my compatriots shall be leaving now."
He walked over to the doorway, passing by a confused looking Night Shroud.
"Why?" he asked the other pegasus, "Why are you leaving already? Didn't you come to...take over the ship, or take ponies, or kill ponies...or whatever it was you were trying to achieve?"
Sun Rise smiled at Night Shroud.
"You silly thing. We have what we came for. Besides, everypony's already dead."
He turned around and went on his way. Night Shroud and Tome exchanged a look of confusion.
"Already dead...?" Tome repeated, "But how can...?"
The speakers blared again, and their message rang throughout the ship.
"ATTENTION EVERYPONY, THE PROMETHEUS HAS LANDED IN PONYVILLE. THE DOORS WILL OPEN MOMENTARILY, AND YOU WILL BE FREE TO GO."
The old unicorn's expression gradually changed from neutral, to confused, to thoughtful, to horrified.
"The ponies in the cargo hold...there was a riot...and they're...'already dead'..."
Night Shroud shared his look of dread.
Celestia passed through a pair of doors and moved into the corridor beyond. She stopped in surprise when she saw Lord Second leaning against a nearby wall with one hand and clutching the Reaper's Horn in another. He was panting, and mysteriously covered in blood stains. There was no indication of who or what he killed to get them, and no bodies anywhere. She wondered who it was.
He looked up and saw her.
"Ah, making your escape I see," he commented, "Good timing. A new distraction just showed up. I'm dealing with it now. Some...thing...is wandering the palace, and I need to hunt it down."
"What is it?" asked Celestia.
"Nothing for you to worry about. It's a human matter."
Second bit his nails and paced back and forth.
"Listen, Second, I have to go. My sister needs me. The Elements of Harmony need me. I can't stay around here any longer. I have a lot of hard decisions to make."
"Of course. Completely understandable. Just go. Be on your way."
The princess was about to leave, but instead she just turned around to face Second instead.
"Are all humans capable of what you are? You said you...go mad...if you live too long. Is that true for all of you?"
"Everyone has a breaking point. I reached mine, but not everyone does. Why?"
"It makes me wonder what other humans are like, inside that is. Or what they'd become if they lived as long as you have."
Second shook his head.
"You can't even grasp our physical appearance. If you tried to understand human psychology, it would destroy you. Believe me, generations of people have tried and still ended up as mystified as when they began."
"'Can't grasp our physical appearance'? What is that supposed to mean?"
Second held up his hand.
"What colour is my skin, princess?"
"It's sort of-"
"Is it a single colour?"
"Is my hand a single colour?"
"To you. That's because I look like a fucking drawing in your world. That's how you perceive me, because how I look in the real world is a blend of thousands of different colours that coalesce into an image more real than can be represented by the sketches and doodles that your world is made from. Humans are more complex, and perfect and terrible than you can ever imagine, and if you saw me in my true form, you would just despair."
Second stopped leaning on the wall and walked past her into the corridor she just came from, heading in the direction of the throne room. As he went, he reloaded his shotgun. Once Second was gone, Celestia shuddered.
I don't refer to us as Elder Gods for nothing.
"...I hope you know that unlike Chain Mail, I derive no pleasure from this."
"Yeah. I know," a tired voice replied from underneath Softy's armoured hoof.
"I'm just doing this because I have to, you understand."
"...I'm not a sadist or anything. Really. I've never had to fight anypony in my life."
"I...didn't say you were?"
"Not that Chain Mail is! I never said he was a sadist or anything. I think he just really doesn't like you. You know, because you betrayed the royal guards and tried to kill him twice?"
"Yes, thank you, I know."
"...I mean, I know I'd be upset if you killed ponies I knew."
Iron Hoof stopped bothering to respond.
"Do you kill a lot of ponies?"
"Are you always this talkative?"
The door smashed open. Dr. Heart Beat jumped in surprise, and Softy looked up to see Ancient Tome, and armed the Rainbow Six's tranquiliser gun.
"Wait!" Tome shouted, "Everypony stop! Stop everything right now!"
A batpony flew in after him and landed right in front of Soft Spoken. He looked just as panicky and frightened as Tome did.
"He's right! Everypony cease your actions! We've got an emergency!"
"What kind of emergency?" asked Softy.
"There was a riot going on in the cargo hold before you boarded us," Tome explained, "We've just found out what caused it. There was an infected pony among the crowd, and the chaos down below was the infection spreading. The cargo hold is full of zombies! If you open the main doors and let them out now, Ponyville is going to get swarmed by the undead!"
Soft Spoken blinked and looked over at Dr. Heart Beat.
"Is this true?" he asked.
"I don't know! They certainly weren't all zombies when I left the hold, but there was a lot of fighting and screaming going on. I didn't pay much attention to it. I assumed they were scared because we thought we were all being kidnapped by the Brotherhood. I was just trying to make sure I didn't get trampled."
"Wait..." said Night Shroud, "You left the cargo hold? How? We sealed all the exits to the cargo hold when we finished picking everypony up! How did you get here?!"
"We remotely unlocked a side door," Soft Spoken answered.
"...Did you lock it again afterwards?"
"Captain Chain Mail is still down below!" Dr. Heart Beat shouted, "He went looking for Dr. Apocalypse's clinic, so he could get a sample of Authority! He could be in danger!"
Night Shroud fluttered above the main terminal where Commander Bullseye once sat and watched the bridge of the ship. He addressed the many ponies below him who were all operating the controls.
"Everypony! Seal off all the entrances and exits to the cargo hold!" he ordered, "We can't do anything for the zombies that already got out into the rest of the ship, but we can prevent any more from escaping! And while you're at it, I want to get us in the air again! Those zombies cannot find their way onto the ground by any means! We have to protect Ponyville!"
"What's our plan?" Softy asked, "How are we going to stop this?"
"The only way I can see," Tome replied, "Is that we get the Prometheus as high up as possible with the zombies still on it, all of us living folk bail out with the help of your dragon friend, and we use whatever weapons we have on board to set this thing to explode. We'll get clear, and the Prometheus goes up in a giant fireball and takes all the infected with it."
The ponies all turned around to see the crew that had been previously maintaining the controls all standing in a line behind them, all with glowing, fiery red eyes. The speaker was a unicorn levitating a small black gun of a make they had not seen before.
"...We could open the main cargo doors, and Ponyville can die screaming."
Spike glided down from the top of the Prometheus and landed in a small Ponyville square right next to where the cargo doors would open up onto the town. Nonvulvahlok landed next to Spike on top of a thatched cottage, while the other dragons all kept their position on top of the airship.
He laid still as his passengers slid down his wings and onto solid ground again. Luna, Blueblood and the Elements all trotted out towards the middle of the square together.
"Not much time left," said Luna, "I hope that Captain Chain Mail and Mr. Spoken found Dr. Heart Beat. I don't know how long it could take him to create a cure, but if anypony can, it is him. He's the very best, you know."
"Wonderful," Explodey coughed.
"Are you going to last?" asked Gold Coin, "How much longer do you think you can stay lucid?"
"Probably longer if I die again. The infection didn't spread much through me when I was dead. That doesn't make much sense since it's meant to work on the dead specifically, but I'm not going to question a good thing."
"Would it help if I suffocated you to death?"
"It might just."
"I was joking."
"Oh. See, I didn't get that. I thought you were genuinely offering."
"...Can't detect a joke, and surprisingly morbid. You're some Element of Laughter, Explodey."
"It's not my fault you're normally so humourless."
Gold Coin looked offended.
"Why does everypony keep saying that?! I'm always joking around!"
That must have been the first time they had heard Sliske laugh...ever. It seemed very deep and pronounced considering he usually spoke in a constant hiss.
"Good one, missssssery gutsssss!"
Soft Spoken brought his guns to bear. The older stallion aimed the tranquiliser at the lead pony and activated the auto targeting system. The whole world stopped, frozen in time, and for a moment it was just him and the strange symbols across his vision. An interface popped up in front of him.
Welcome to T.W.A.T.S.
Wait, I have to read the instructions first? There's a scrolling function as well. It's in my vision. How do I scroll down?
He moved his eyes slightly.
What was that? Oh wait, that's how you move it. And...that text is small. And everywhere! Luna's mane! So much text! So much text! How am I supposed to read all this?!
Well, this was hopeless. Softy pulled out of T.W.A.T.S. and re-entered real time. He was immediately shot for his troubles.
The ponies with the guns had somehow obtained armour-piercing rounds. The bullets penetrated the power armour and he felt the sting as one found a home in his chest.
Not normally one for combat situations, this single injury immediately crippled Soft Spoken, who fell over onto his side with a loud clank and tried to nurse his wounds, which was a futile effort when both his chest and hooves were still stuck inside the metal shell.
Ancient Tome, Night Shroud and Iron Hoof however were all ponies of a military background, even if Tome had only served a short while for the sake of his title. As the fire fight started, they all leapt behind cover at different points around the room, just in time for the lead unicorn's entourage to draw their own concealed weapons and join the fight.
Tome had a ranged weapon, but he was the only one who did. Iron and Night Shroud both had swords, but they were no good in a gun fight. Fortunately, telekinesis leant itself well to these conditions. Using his magic, he raised his rifle out from behind its cover and sprayed gunfire all over the bridge. He couldn't see anything, but even if he hit nothing, its primary purpose was still to provide suppressing fire.
The remaining demon crew also ran for cover, and at this moment the Brotherhood withdrew from theirs and went on the offensive. A pony laid dead just by the stairs leading into the lower levels. Demonic powers or not, a jumpsuit was still terrible protection. Soft Spoken still laid on his side just next to the other body. Through the armour and the way he wasn't moving, they couldn't tell if he was alive or dead.
"Both of you go down both sides!" Tome ordered.
There were two sets of steps leading into the slightly lower levels below the raised platform, on either side of the outstretched part where Bullseye's terminal and chair were placed. The crew had all fled into the lower levels to hide behind all the sensitive equipment, but there were only a few of them left, and they were scattered now.
Night Shroud took the stairs to the left while Iron went right. Both ponies ran down to the lower levels and took the demon crew by surprise, rushing behind their cover and carving them up. Tome meanwhile ran up to the end of the outstretched platform and jumped up onto Bullseye's chair. From above, he got a good view of the entire lower level. He exposed himself as well, but with attackers coming from all three directions, the remaining enemies stood no chance.
Tome picked off the only two that immediately saw him, and then shot another who was about to get a drop on Iron. By the time he did, Iron had already taken out another and Night Shroud had killed three on his side with deadly efficiency. The unicorn couldn't see any more at that precise moment, but suspected that they were just better hidden. He teleported down next to Iron Hoof and reloaded the rifle.
"How many crew were there on the bridge?" he asked.
"Eleven," Iron replied, "I think we've taken out-"
"Eight, including the one up there. That still leaves three more, but there's nowhere else down here to hide. This is only a small area."
Night Shroud trotted over to them as well.
"No more here," he reported, "Some of them were unicorns. Do you think they might have invisibility spells?"
"They might. Let me-"
The sound came from above. The Brotherhood of Man ran up the stairs to the raised platform again, weapons readied, but relaxed when they saw that it was just Captain Chain Mail. His armour had some blood splatters where he had just killed one of the demon crew, and he was crouched down next to Soft Spoken. On the floor at his side was a vial of clear liquid.
"Agggghhh..." Soft Spoken moaned, "I'm hit, Chains...I don't think I'm going to make it..."
"Nonsense," the captain replied, "The suit's medical systems will keep you stable for now, and Dr. Heart Beat can easily- Oh."
Dr. Heart Beat was laying dead on the floor with a neat round hole in his forehead.
"...Well, this mission was a waste of time."
The Brotherhood lowered their weapons and approached Chain Mail.
"They're demons," Tome explained, "The crew of the Prometheus have all been possessed by them. Sun Rise, formerly one of us, appears to be their leader. We received reports from below, around about the time you began your attack, that there was a riot in the cargo hold, and that Z and a number of engineers down in the maintenance areas had vanished."
"Z?" Chain Mail repeated, "Do you mean the zebra? Ze!zar?"
"What happened to him?"
"We're not sure," Night Shroud answered, "I was looking for him after I went to the clinic and found him missing. I came across a bunch of the crew while out there, and overheard them talking about 'taking' ponies or some such. They tried to kill me."
"Not good," said Chain Mail.
"CARGO DOORS NOW OPENING."
"WHAT?!" Softy shouted, trying to stand up again, "No! They can't open! Where's the controls for the doors?!"
"Oh, damn..." Iron muttered, "The cargo door controls aren't up there! The bridge is just for piloting the ship! Back in Canterlot, we ordered somepony to go to the lower levels and open the door with the controls down there. But we've all been fighting the demons here!
Night Shroud blinked.
"We've been played. While the rest of them were attacking us, the two missing demons must have slipped away and gone to the lower levels to open the doors. These guys are organised!"
Chain Mail pushed the vial of Authority over to the Brotherhood.
"Guard this with your life, and look after Softy. I've got to warn the others."
Celestia galloped through the palace as quickly as she could. She had to find her sister and the Elements of Harmony as soon as possible. They needed her. She had to help them prepare for the final fight. She knew exactly what they needed, and who could help them. If she could point them in the right direction, maybe things would turn out alright after all.
The princess ran past a small door. She stopped and looked at it. The door was only built for regular ponies, not made with alicorns in mind. That's because it was the door to the staff bathroom. This was the mares'. The stallion's was at the other end of the corridor.
I think you have something on your face.
A chill ran down her spine as she recalled Lord Second's words. She vividly remembered that when he...killed her... it had been by shooting her in...
Celestia raised a hoof to look closely at it. Her normally pristine white coat was definitely much duller than she remembered it. Was that because she was dirtier now from all the fighting? The princess placed the hoof on her chest and felt for her heartbeat. She couldn't feel it. Frantically, she thumped her chest and felt again. Still nothing.
No! I can't be...
She didn't want to be. She kept denying it. She had been subconsciously ignoring it, but that would do her no good anymore.
Celestia ducked her head low to get into the door frame and edged her way into the staff bathroom. There were a line of stalls on one wall, and a line of sinks on the other. A row of mirrors were positioned above every sink, and between them were soap dispensers.
The princess was tall enough that her horn nearly touched the ceiling, so her face was above most of the mirrors' level. She saw her dulled grey lower body in the mirror though. When she was facing the nearest one, she crouched down slightly to get a better look at herself, and stepped back in surprise.
Well...give them credit; whoever they were, the ponies who were tasked at making her look presentable for her funeral did a damn fine job considering that her head had been so much red paste after what Second did to it. Still though, there was no disguising the worst of it. Obvious stitches all over, make-up over the small stuff, and cosmetic magic which was already fading. She still looked like a broken vase that had been hastily glued back together.
Celestia didn't let her despair get the better of her. After years of having suffered far worse than just looking ugly, she knew that there were worse tragedies to get upset over. She had no right to cry for her looks when ponies had died needlessly by the thousands today, and she proudly kept her composure as she took in the reality of what had been done to her.
Still though, looking at her reflection, there was still a slight pang of sadness.
I'm an undead wretch...
The ponies and dragons looked up to see Chain Mail gliding down towards them. He had just jumped out through one of the broken windows on the bridge of the Prometheus. He was missing his helmet, and wasn't carrying it with him.
"What happened?!" the princess demanded.
"The crew turned on us, me, Softy, and the Brotherhood," the captain gasped, "It was a set up. They were waiting for the right moment! They even had concealed guns, with armour-piercing rounds!"
"Armour-what rounds?!" shouted Gold Coin.
"It's worse than that though!" Chain Mail tried to explain.
"What could be worse than that?! We've already experienced the fucking apocalypse today, don't you dare tell me that there's anything worse than that on board that ship!"
"Demon. Zombies. With guns."
Explodey sat up again suddenly.
"Please tell me you're kidding."
"Nope. The entire cargo hold is infected, there are demons on board, they're lead by some weirdo cyberpony apparently, the crew are working with them, Dr. Heart Beat is dead, Softy got shot and is dying, and the door is already in the process of opening. And when it does, Ponyville is going to get swarmed."
There was a whir of machinery and groaning metal. The ponies all turned around to see the cargo door beginning to open.
"OKAY! THAT IS ENOUGH!"
The group were all surprised by the sudden outburst, which came from Explodey of all ponies, who immediately seemed to forget about his sickness and climb back onto his hooves again. The cargo door continued lower, and was halfway open already.
"I HAVE HAD IT UP TO HERE WITH THE WORLD SUCKING! THIS IS EQUESTRIA, GODDAMNIT! LAND OF SUNSHINE AND RAINBOWS!"
The two dragons perched on the Prometheus stared down as he marched angrily across the square towards the slowly opening cargo door.
"ZOMBIES SHOULD NOT EXIST. HUMANS HAVE NO PLACE IN THIS WORLD. AND PONIES SHOULD NOT DIE IN SUCH NUMBERS! ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO ME, ZOMBIES?!"
The cargo door opened enough that the infected horde of ponies from Canterlot began to rush out towards the exit. Those closest to the door as it opened already fell out and began spreading.
"FINE! BE LIKE THAT! YOU'RE ALL MEAN! YOU GET TO GO TO THE BAD PLACE!"
Explodey's horn lit up, and then he detonated.
Second sat up in his throne.
"What was that?!"
The dust began to settle.
In a fit of hacking coughs, the Elements dared to open their eyes again. Strewn all over the square were stunned and dazed zombies. And only stunned and dazed. They were still very much alive and still infected, and some were already getting back up again. On the one hoof, they were all glad that Explodey was somehow able to cause an explosion in a public area without killing anypony. Then again, his final attack seemed to have done nothing to the zombies but just spread them all over the area.
And speaking of spreading, there was green stuff everywhere!
A thick, scummy green paste like the kind that usually reformed into their unicorn friend had been sprayed over almost all of Ponyville. There was way too much of it to have come just from Explodey. The goop was everywhere though. It was sprayed across walls, dripped off of sign posts and street lamps, slid down rooftops and into gutters, and it sat in puddles all across the cobblestone roads.
"Wha...?" Soft Spoken whispered, "What did he do?"
"Ow! Owowowowow! What is that?!"
Spike felt a glob of the green stuff that had landed on his back. It was sizzling and giving off steam, and making a strange hissing sound. The disgusting slime began to move, and it flowed across Spike's back, dropped off onto the ground, and slithered past the ponies.
Looking around the square, they could see that the rest of it was doing something quite similar.
As the green mass passed by a zombie near them, it reached out and grabbed it by the legs. The zombie was already crippled by the explosion earlier, but the sludge restrained it with a mass of tendrils which it formed spontaneously, and began to drag the zombie along the street with it.
The zombie thrashed and kicked, but to no avail. The rest of the goo was following suit, reaching out and grabbing nearby undead, though seemingly avoiding the living ponies still around it. As they came together in the square, globs began to merge into larger globs, and as larger and larger globs formed, they engulfed their prisoners completely.
The slime all congregated in the exact spot Explodey had stood before he detonated, and the larger globs seemed to vanish as they merged into each other in that spot, almost as if the separate larger masses of the strange substance were somehow being compressed into a substantially smaller whole.
The ponies all stood staring with their jaws slack and their eyes wide. The green sludge finally all came together and shrank until it was about as big as a single pony. Then it began to take pony shape, sprouting legs and a head, lifting itself into a standing position, and then finally changing colour and sprouting additional features until it left behind only a white unicorn, staring into space. The last things to appear were his eyes.
Explodey McGee had just turned into a giant, living sludge monster and absorbed half the former population of Canterlot into his body.
I told you already! He's the spawn of an Elder God!
He turned to look at them. His expression was blank and emotionless.
"...I don't like the way he's looking at us," Gold Coin commented.
Everyone in Ponyville then trembled as they felt a foreign presence; a thousand voices in their head all speaking in unison, echoing each other.
"We Have Become Legion. All Are Welcome In The Mental Plains. Paradise Forever Awaits All. We Shall Consume All, And All Shall Be Grateful, For We Shall Be All. Exploding. Forever. Like The Heart Of A Sun."
The ponies all shared worried looks.
"Why do I get the feeling we just exchanged one Explodey-related problem for another?"
Tendrils grew out of Explodey's back, and he walked calmly towards them, his expression still unreadable. They were white this time, like his coat, but still had the same consistency of the sludge. His friends backed away fearfully. Luna, Blueblood and Spike were all equally disturbed.
The unicorn turned to look behind him, and the group saw Soft Spoken standing there. The cyan armour of the Rainbow Six laid in pieces behind him. Now, he was just another plain brown earth pony. He limped forward while holding his chest, where he was still bleeding from the bullet wound.
"...Don't do this," he pleaded, "We're your friends. We can help you. Don't let this overcome you!"
"You Are Wounded," the pony shaped creature observed.
The tendrils shot forward and grabbed the old stallion around the middle, and lifted him into the air.
"There Is No Pain In Unity."
"SOFTY!" Mystic Chant cried.
The tendrils reached out and grabbed the young colt too.
"NO!" he cried, "LET ME GO, EXPLODEY! PLEASE!"
Gold Coin and Chain Mail also cried out in protest as they felt yet more tendrils wrap around their legs and pull them into the air.
"All Will Join Us. Prepare To Be Assimilated."
"CEASE THIS IMMEDIATELY!" Luna ordered.
"STOP NOW!" Spike shouted.
"There Is Room For Everyone."
A new mass of the tendrils burst out of Explodey's chest and all wrapped around Spike's neck.
All the victims wriggled about and tried to escape, but once all the protesters were in his grasp, the unicorn began to draw them in. Soon, the bodies of all six ponies and Spike's head were all held to Explodey's side, as if he were giving them all a giant hug with his many gooey appendages. Then they began to feel his flesh give way as if it were liquid, and they were being pulled inside.
They all collectively screamed as they were assimilated into Explodey McGee.
"Arrghh...I just had the weirdest nightmare..."
Soft Spoken sat up at his desk and looked around the cabin. Everything was finally back to normal. No more weirdness. Just him and his ship once again. The old trophies and models strewn about the place, paintings and pictures, a sword hung up on the wall, and in the corner of the room a locked safe, where he kept his personal share of all their plunder.
"...Must be the rum. We've been sailing fer too long, and it's starting ta get the best o' me," he reasoned.
There was a distant shout.
The door burst down and a colt who couldn't be any older than sixteen burst in. He was wearing an eye patch and a ratty vest, and clutching a cutlass in his teeth. Pegasus, of course. They made for the best lookouts, because they could easily fly between the deck and crows nest. The earth ponies would have had to climb the rigging instead.
"ARGH!" Softy shouted angrily, "What ye be disturbin' me for, ye stinkin' bilge rat?!"
"Thar's an Equestrian royal navy ship on tha' horizon, cap'n! Looks like they might be transportin' some valuables! They've come with quite a lot o' protection though. Heavy guns and lots o' soldiers, but all earth ponies. Nought in the way of magic users."
Soft Spoken stood up and put on his tricorn hat.
"Right. Fetch me our shaman, go wake the crew and tell them to load the cannons! It's been weeks since we did some good, honest pirating!"
The colt rushed out of the cabin enthusiastically. Softy grinned slyly and opened the top draw of his desk, from within which he drew a loaded flintlock.
"Ye be mine now, Commodore Cider," he said to himself, "I know ye be on that ship. And I'll send ye back to Davy Jones' locker..."
Not much to say this time. If you didn't get your fix of Second being a bastard this chapter, some guy made this thing, in which Second kills a puppy. I linked it in my blog entry a while ago, but not all of you follow me, so it's here too. I have no idea who this guy is or what he was thinking, but this is far from the weirdest thing I've ever seen on the internet. It's there if you want to read it.
Also, I'm planning to revise the earlier chapters at some point to bring them all up to code with the newer ones. If I do, rest assured that there will be no need for you to do any re-reading. I'm one of the first to oppose massive revisions to a story, on the basis that I believe it is unreasonable to expect your readers to go through your story a second time. So I promise you, I won't be changing any major story elements. It'll just be to make it all look more grammatically correct and presentable for new first time readers. You'd hardly notice any differences.
Next Chapter: A psychedelic psychological journey.