The Unraveled Thread

by Bender Alpha

Chapter 13 - An Unchecked Aggression

Sam stared at the Carousel Boutique, not entirely sure of what to make of it. It wasn’t that the decor was almost overwhelmingly feminine; that was to be expected of a shop with “boutique” in the title. It was the “carousel” part that threw him off the most.

Like… what are carousels to ponies? Are they something entirely different in Equestria? I mean, it’s not like humans have rides that are shaped like other humans. Not publicly, at least.

“Sam? What’s going on? Why did you stop?” Twilight asked, doubling back for him, wearing her increasingly customary concerned face.

“Oh, nothing,” he mumbled. “Nothing important, anyway. Just a bit of culture shock.”

Twilight followed his gaze, and her brows knitted into a confused frown. She opened her mouth to speak, but then reconsidered and bit her tongue. Sam could tell she was dying to ask what had shocked him, but he decided he would rather not kick that particular hornet’s nest of awkward conversation at the moment.

Instead, he strode up to the front door, pushed it open, and was greeted by the jingle of shop bells. Immediately after, he heard a familiar voice call out a practiced introduction from somewhere in the back of the store, growing in volume as she approached the front.

“Welcome to Carousel Boutique, where everything is chic, unique, and magnifique! How can I hel- Oh, Sam! Wonderful. I had hoped you would arrive soon,” Rarity interrupted herself, as she appeared from behind a floral print partition. She adjusted a pair of bright red, horn-rimmed glasses Sam hadn’t seen before and gave him her most charming smile. “Come, come! I have much to show you.”

Rarity tittered to herself, all but prancing back towards her workroom. Sam glanced hesitantly to the three Princesses standing behind him, and received encouraging smiles and steps forward in response. Sam followed their example and ducked through the doorway into Rarity’s workspace.

The workroom was much like any good artist’s: a chaotic mess of materials and instruments. Bolts and sheets of fabric lay scattered about the room in a seemingly haphazard fashion, alongside boxes of decorative accents that ran the gambit from lace to velvet to sequins. Sketches were pinned to nearly every surface, surrounded by dresses and coats in various states of completion. Thankfully, she had had the presence of mind to put all of her scissors and pincushions up on nearby tables and counters. Everything seemed as it should be; except for the scene before him.

Sam froze when he saw Rarity standing in the center of the room, surrounded by a structureless mobile of floating papers. They shone with the same luminescent blue aura that surrounded her horn. Rarity herself was calmly examining each floating page as it passed, as if the scene around her was the most normal thing in the world. Sam could do little more than stand and stare, entranced by the sight.

“I had started a few designs while you were still, ah… indisposed. However, now that you have regained your senses, I would love to get your input. I don’t know much about human fashion, other than what I could glean from your previous attire, but I think you will be pleased with the results!” She turned to face him with a grin, but the smile dropped to a worried frown as soon as she caught his gaze. “Sam? Are you- Oh!”

The aura around her horn blinked out, leaving her in the eye of a blizzard of suddenly loose pages.

“Sam, I am so sorry! I completely forgot! Are you alright?”

Sam shook himself free of his stupor. “What? I- Yes, I’m fine. Why?”

“Well, I- I thought magic made you nervous.”

Sam tilted his head in confusion, until a moment later, when he realized she was probably referring to the spa. A single laugh slipped out before he could stop it. “Rarity, it’s alright,” he backpedalled, hoping to save face. “I only reacted poorly back then because I was disoriented and on edge. I’m not really afraid of magic, just wary. Actually, what you were just doing was amazing! You can actually levitate and control that many objects at once?”

Rarity relaxed and giggled abashedly, simultaneously relieved she hadn’t made a faux pas and embarrassed by his praise.

“Ah, well, yes. I practiced quite a lot to be able to multitask with my levitation. It helps make the creative process more… efficient, I suppose.”

Twilight nodded proudly. “Indeed. Partitioned levitation is a very useful skill to have, and difficult to master, even for unicorns whose special talent is magic. Being able to do so without is all the more impressive.”

“Oh, you flatterers!” Rarity chided playfully. “Anyway, that’s not really what we’re here for, is it?”

The papers floated upward once more, enveloped in the same light blue aura as before. Rarity took a moment to give a few closer consideration.

“Now, these are all just simple drafts. The final products may look quite different, depending on your measurements and opinions, but they’re good reference points. So, to start with, how about… ah, this one!”

Sam examined the drawing she floated over to him and was pleasantly surprised. It was an expertly drawn sketch of a featureless human model, dressed in a simple button up shirt and tie, and a pair of slacks.

“Wow. This is spot-on for what working professionals wear basically all the time.”

“Excellent! And this one?”

This time, she passed him a sketch of a sharp, black, two-button suit, decorated with shining diamond cufflinks and buttons.

“A bit fancy for everyday wear,” – Not to mention expensive-looking! Jesus, just how big are those gems supposed to be? – “but definitely dashing.”

“How about these?”

They carried on like this for some time, Rarity presenting her designs, from formal to casual, and Sam giving his opinion. Sam was shocked to find that the majority of her designs were familiar to him. A few of the designs were too impractical, fit more for high-fashion runways and photo shoots, but he quickly found that she had an eye for fashionable everyday clothing as well. After seeing so many strangely familiar designs, Sam couldn’t contain a bit of skepticism. He smirked, looking over the latest sketch he’d been handed.

“You know, Rarity, if I didn’t know any better, I might suspect you of having already made contact with humanity.”

“Really?” Rarity playfully exaggerated her shock. “How do you mean?”

“Pretty much all of these sketches look like they came straight out of a human fashion catalogue. How in the world did you come up with such appropriate designs?”

“Trade secret, darling,” Rarity deflected with a wink. “Although, it may be said that you share quite a few of the minotaurs’ physical traits.”

Sam raised a mischievous eyebrow. Minotaurs, huh? Why does that not surprise me? “So these are all minotaur designs, then?”

Rarity fixed him with an unamused stare. “Sam, I am a fashionista, not just a seamstress. I assure you that every one of my designs is entirely original.”

Sam relented, putting his hands up defensively. “Sorry, sorry. I was just teasing. Honestly, these are all wonderful and amazingly accurate designs, even if I can’t really wear a few of them.”

Rarity gave him an easy smile. “Well, thank you. Now, how about we get your measurements?”

A fissure of unease suddenly cracked open in Sam’s gut. He had half hoped she had already taken his measurements while he had been acting like a caveman. Well, I guess it’s “weathering a few minutes of discomfort” versus “no clothes.” He swallowed dryly.

“O- okay then. What, uh… what do you need me to do?”

She walked over to a small circular modelling platform surrounded by mirrors and patted it with a hoof. “Come stand up here, if you please.”

Sam awkwardly shuffled up onto the mini-stage, hesitantly clutching at the edges of his toga. “Should I take this off?”

“It would make my job a little easier, yes,” she said, smiling reassuringly.

Sam nodded and began unwrapping the bedsheet. As more of his flesh was laid bare, his grimace became more pronounced. He hadn’t really taken a close look at himself since the initial reawakening, but it seemed even ghastlier than he remembered. Of course, nothing much had changed; he could still see the outline of his ribs, though his stomach was no longer distended from hunger. That was probably a good sign, given that it had only been a few days. His skin still looked pasty and loose, though, and he certainly hadn’t regained the muscle he had lost.

Twilight seemed to have caught his expression, because she spoke up a moment later.

“It’ll be alright, Sam. You’ll be back to one hundred percent before you know it. Dr. Green Bean said he’d be able to send me nutritional supplements for you before the end of the day.”

Sam chuckled, still amused by pony naming conventions. “Thanks, Twilight.”

“But in the meantime,” Rarity ventured, “how about you step out of your, ah, jeans, and we’ll get down to business.”

Sam felt the heat crawling up his face.

“Uh, if it’s all the same to you, Rarity, I’d rather keep them on.”

“Darling,” Rarity insisted, “you have a garment beneath that. Those are much too thick for me to be able to measure you properly.”

“But, I-”

“No buts! Those simply must come off!”

Sam’s heart rocketed into his throat as he felt a disembodied tug on his belt, and saw the glow around rarity’s horn. Reflexively, he slapped his hands onto his thighs, trying to keep his pants on by force.

“Rarity, wait-!”

But Sam barely had time to cover himself, before Rarity overpowered his grip with her telekinesis. There was a sudden, sharp intake of breath around the room, and although his loaner glasses had slipped down to the tip of his nose, he could see that every face had turned the shade of ripe tomatoes. Sam felt the heat spread across the rest of his own face and continue down his neck, and he was pretty sure his ears had caught fire. The ensuing silence was deafening. Sam cleared his throat.

“A- as I was trying to say, I got rid of my boxers this morning, having realized I’d been wearing them for a few months.”

Sam received only dumb stares in response. Celestia was the first to snap out of her shock.

“Ah! Right! Of course. That makes perfect sense. They must have been quite… heinous to the senses.”

“Yeeeah… so, uh… Rarity? Could you-?”

Rarity yelped, yanked his shorts back up over his hands, and galloped out of the room, blushing like mad.

“We would not have minded a continued presentation,” Luna mumbled, not quite quiet enough to keep it to herself.

“Luna!” Celestia rebuked.

“We shall go attempt to calm Rarity down!” Luna shouted, hastily making her exit.

Sam turned away from the remaining ponies, a fresh blush burning through his cheeks, and fumbled the loose button back into place with one hand. Freakin’ perverted pony princesses, he mused in his mortification, pulling his belt tight. Although, I guess I am slightly flattered?

Sam cleared his throat loudly, hoping it might physically expel his discomfort, and pushed the oddly-shaped glasses back up to the bridge of his nose.

“S- so, um… let’s just… try to forget that ever happened, huh?”

Celestia chuckled a bit giddily, still regaining her composure. “Of course.”

Twilight just nodded, her face still a pretty shade of magenta.

After a few awkward moments, Celestia proposed, “I’ll just go see how Luna’s doing.” Although, it sounded more like a decree than a offer.

As the elder Princess left the room, Sam realized too late that he would be left alone with Twilight, and that neither of them had a convenient excuse to be elsewhere. He glanced over and noticed the horror slowly dawning on her as she came to the same realization. She froze up and locked her eyes on the ground, pupils shaking, trying to think of anything she could say to dispel the awkward atmosphere. He could see her panic building in her posture, until it came bursting out of her mouth.

“Why were you staring at the boutique?!”

Stunned, Sam voiced the only thought in his mind.


Twilight shifted nervously on her hooves, mentally clutching at this last straw.

“E- earlier, when we got here, you looked confused when you saw the Carousel Boutique. Why is that?”

Sam relaxed, immensely relieved to have an avenue of conversation away from his unintentional exposure.

“Oh, right! Um… well, you see, in my world, a carousel is a form of entertainment. It’s this round, rotating platform with little horses moving up and down on poles, and people will get up on the platform and ride them. It’s usually pretty slow-paced, I think partly so that people can take pictures, but mostly because it’s meant… for… little…”

Sam trailed off, noticing the expression on Twilight’s face. Her eyes were wide and glazed over, and her mouth hung slightly open. She had almost achieved a full-body blush, and she was breathing through her nose at a rate just short of hyperventilation. Both of her wings strained outward so completely that they appeared to be trying to pull free of her back. He could almost hear the steam whistling out of her ears. Sam frowned, failing to comprehend what had happened. Then he played back the last thing he said in his mind.

“Oh! Oh no! No, I didn’t mean ‘ride’ like as in-”

But it was too late. Twilight’s horn lit up and she disappeared in a flash, momentarily blinding him. It took a moment for his vision to clear, but the room was silent in the meantime. When he could finally open his eyes, Twilight was nowhere to be seen.

She can teleport. Of course she can. The other Princesses can, why wouldn’t she be able to?

“Twilight, come back! I didn’t mean it like that! Twilight?”

But no answer came. Sam removed the coke-bottle glasses and dragged a hand down his face. Nothing that happens here is ever going to be simple, is it?

After a minute of ruminating on his mistakes, Sam heard voices in the other room. He stiffened, straining to make out the words. Moments later, Luna peeked back into the front of the store, followed by a mostly collected Rarity making her way around the Princess.

“Sam, Twilight appears to be ‘broken,’ as modern parlance has it. What did you do?”

Sam bit his lip, wracking his brain for the most diplomatic phrasing he could muster. “I… may have responded to a question in a way that, given the current… state of affairs, could be taken entirely out of context.”

Rarity tilted her head a few degrees. “You what?”

“I said something that sounded dirty!” Sam admitted loudly, now thoroughly embarrassed. “I didn’t mean it that way, it just sorta… happened.”

Comprehension dawned on Luna’s face. “Ah. That would explain why she keeps repeating the words ‘don’t think about it’ to herself. I will relay this to Celestia, and we will work on calming Twilight Sparkle next.” With that, she ducked back into the back room.

Rarity cleared her throat, deliberately training her gaze on Sam’s eyes. “Meanwhile, you and I will conduct ourselves like reasonable, rational adults, put this accident behind us, and continue our business.”

Despite his embarrassment, Sam could feel a rising urge to laugh at her sudden change in attitude. He desperately tried to hold the encroaching snickers at bay, but one slipped through his defenses. He immediately trapped it in the corner of his mouth, where the worst it could do was twitch his lips into a smirk.

“R- right. Of course.” I am definitely not stockpiling ammunition for later teasing. Not at all.

“Good,” she concluded, picking the measuring tape up off the floor with her aura. “Now then, raise your arms, if you please.”

Sam followed her instruction without comment. He would save the teasing for later, when it might be used to greater effect. For now, it was better to stay in his clothier’s good graces.

But then, it struck him that he was in a perfect position to ask Rarity the question that had been bugging him since he’d arrived at the Boutique.

“Um… hey, Rarity?”

“Hm?” She hummed inquisitively, already deep in concentration. That, or she didn’t trust her voice not to make a fool of herself further.

“Why’d you name this place the ‘Carousel Boutique’?”

“Oh, well, I named it after an absolutely amazing Prench invention. As the story goes, the husband of a Prench dressmaker wanted to help his wife, who lamented that she could find nopony willing to model her dresses. They had neither the money to hire models, nor the renown needed to get into the Prench fashion shows. So, being an earth pony clockmaker, he did the only thing he could think of. Using the spare parts and lumber he had from his business, he built her a mechanically rotating platform to put her ponnequins on. He built in stands that would move the ponnequins up and down with the turning of the platform, to imitate ponies in motion. Then, he added lights to the stage, to better highlight the beauty of her dresses. Of course, she was overjoyed, and wanted to try it out immediately.

“They brought it to a local festival to display her dresses, and it was an instant success. Her dresses sold like hotcakes. When asked why he had bolted floor tiles on top of short wooden posts between the ponnequin stands, he told reporters they were carreaux selle, or saddle tiles; makeshift displays for saddles that weren’t part of an ensemble. A visiting fashion mogul from Equestria misheard him, thinking that was the invention’s name, and he excitedly reported this back to his company. It has been Equestrianized as ‘carousel’ ever since.

“I thought it a darling little story, and I admired the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the dressmaker’s husband. I wanted to capture a little bit of the elegant nature of the carousel, since I couldn’t afford one when I started out. Thus, I did what I could to emulate the aesthetic of the Prench design. Perhaps someday soon I’ll be able to afford an authentic Prench carousel for my shop!”

Sam chuckled in amusement. It was an intriguing explanation, and certainly not something he’d expected. But it was a sweet story, nonetheless.

“Fingers crossed,” he offered tensely, as Rarity chose that moment to measure his inseam.

“Fingers crossed?” She asked curiously.

“Ah, it’s an expression. It means ‘I hope so’ or ‘I wish you luck.’”

“Oh! Well, thank you, darling. Now then, how do you feel about ruffled collars?”

Captain Balken strode briskly through the main corridor, Lieutenant Hawthorne following in step. A handful of PFCs and their Corporal trailed behind him, pushing a large, tarp-covered cart. Hovering around the soldiers were a pair of Magi: Jacobs – a lean human with dull black hair and an abnormally greasy nose – was busy berating the soldiers for every slight bump of the equipment, while his vrael partner, Sless – a snake-headed being with a scaly humanoid torso – slithered along behind the group on his powerful serpentine lower half. Sless’ forked tongue flicked out of his mouth agitatedly, his slit pupils scanning the checklist clipboard he held for the third time that hour.

Balken grimaced. He would rather have left the Order of the Tome out of this, but he would need magic-users to operate the equipment. These two Magi were the absolute lowest ranking spellslingers still qualified to operate void manipulators, and they were on the same pay-grade as Hawthorne. He had needed to call a few favors to enlist their help. But if this turned out to be as serious as he suspected, then it would be worth it.

The Stillness… even their name feels like a bad omen.

Balken was shaken from his ruminations when, at last, they marched through the large archway into the gate terminal proper. It was an astonishing feat of architecture: an underground room nearly five-hundred yards cubed. The southern wall almost completely opened up into an even more massive multi-level hangar, built from a natural subterranean chasm. The northern wall held several warehouses sealed with reinforced shutters. But the main attractions were the gate platforms in the center.

Three grand metal structures were set into the floor of the cavernous room: giant sets of concentric rings like depictions of solar systems, complete with planets, each approximately two hundred yards in diameter. Each structure consisted of six rings around a circular central platform – itself more than fifty yards across – and all made of the same coppery metal. The “planets” in each ring were actually subgates: smaller replicas of the larger design. They were fifteen yards wide, with crystalline structures for their planets. The space between the rings was made of the same metal, diagonally segmented and engraved with intricate arcane designs. They were all quite beautiful, Balken had to admit, even before one saw them in action.

Each of the structures were actually floating platforms, held in place by clamps set in the floor. When the clamps were released, the rings would begin to drift, and could then rotate and spin in whatever patterns, orientations, and speeds necessary to achieve a stable “wyrmhole” – named in homage of the dragons who first utilized the phenomena. The small gates could easily transport personnel and single vehicles. Anything larger required use of the Composite Gates. When each of a gate platform’s six subgates was attuned to the same plane, the subgate rings would detach and rotate just like their smaller replicas. The subgates would then become the foci, and the entire structure would generate a single massive gate capable of transporting entire air squadrons.

And these aren’t even the largest gates the Planejumpers have access to, Balken boasted to himself. Honestly, it was impossible to be humble when you belonged to an organization that had been around for hundreds of thousands of years – or cycles, as the multiversal equivalent went – and claimed jurisdiction over at least as many universes, with bases in over thirty thousand of them.

But even so, the multiverse was vast. So vast that it made even a organization the size of the Planejumpers feel stretched thin. If the Stillness had only half the power he expected, they would be able to deal crippling damage to any who stood in their path, himself included. If they were to focus on gathering followers rather than staying hidden, he shuddered to think what might befall the rest of existence.

Only a minute after arriving, a small, green-skinned man wearing an engineer’s uniform ran up to Balken, snapping a spindly hand to his horned brow in a sharp salute. Out of habit, Balken quickly took note of the engineer’s nameplate and rank insignia, identifying him as Master Specialist Dorokhov of the Technician Branch.

“Captain Balken, sir,” he addressed Balken with a surprisingly deep voice, “we have Subgate 15 prepped and ready for your departure.”

“Thank you, Dorokhov. Have Control spin it up as soon as we get there.”

“Yes, sir!”

Dorokhov scurried off to the southeastern control room, while Balken led his group towards the corresponding platform. As he approached, he almost let himself believe that he might be able disembark without incident. But he knew better. Just as he passed a palette of import crates, he heard a smooth, languid voice call out from above him.

“My, my, Balken. Quite the little procession you have there.”

The captain ground to a halt, clenching his jaw. He knew that voice anywhere. With no small amount of dread, he looked up and caught sight of the last person he wanted to see.

Atop the crates lay a dark, lithe feline the size of a man, leering down at him with her cheshire grin. At first glance, one might have mistaken her for a panther. However the illusion was shattered the moment she revealed her six powerful legs, or the pair of squid-like tentacles that extended from her shoulders down past the tip of her twitching tail. The corner of Balken’s upper lip curled imperceptibly, betraying only the hint of an aggravated sneer. She was a displacer beast; a magical creature that, by all rights, should not be allowed anywhere near a Planejumper installation. And yet, this particular displacer beast had not only managed to find her way into their base, but was then offered a position in the Order of the Tome’s Recon Branch. Granted, she was much more intelligent and seemingly more benign than her brethren, but Balken couldn’t, in good conscience, allow her to walk free without suspicion. Especially since she seemed to make friends in high places far too quickly.

“Lieutenant Bast,” he greeted curtly. Bast may have been a lieutenant, but that was the Recon Branch equivalent of his own rank. Meaning she was under no obligation to address him as anything other than her equal.

“Oh, come now, Connie-boy. Is that any way to greet a friend?”

“What do you want, Bast? I’m busy.”

“I just wanted to drop in and see what my favorite Infantry captain was up to. After all, it’s not often anyone outside the Arcane Branch requisitions a set of void manipulators.”

Balken was almost surprised, but then he remembered to whom he was speaking.

“A fact you undoubtedly learned from one of your many informants,” Balken observed with a sigh. “Did Gull put you up to this?”

“That old wyrm? Hardly. A High Wizard has much bigger fish to fry than an Infantry captain with peculiar rental habits. No, this is just a friendly visit.”

“Is that so? Well, while I would love to sit here and chat all day, I have business to attend to. So, if you’ll excuse me…”

But before he could so much as take one step, Dorokhov came running up to him. Upon seeing Bast, his bony brow shot up in recognition.

“Ah, Captain Balken, I see you’ve met Lieutenant Bast. That will make this simpler. The lieutenant also requested a gate to Tartarus branch at the same timeslot as yours, so our Supervisor merged the two. I hope that won’t be a problem.”

“How fortuitous!” Bast remarked teasingly. “As long as we’re headed the same way, I may as well join you.”

Balken didn’t get a chance to object before the engineer jogged off and Bast hopped down from her perch, landing on silent paws. She sauntered of towards the subgate, tentacles rippling smugly along her back. Balken let go of an ineffectual growl, turning to follow Bast while he gnawed on his middle fingernail. Oh, this definitely smacks of Gull’s interference. But the hell does that underachiever care if I checked out some manipulators? What is his game…?

A quietly cleared throat behind him drew his attention. Hawthorne stood behind him, giving him a skeptical eyebrow. He released his fingernail and turned back forward with a frustrated huff.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Use this opportunity to find out what Gull wants badly enough to send Bast to do his dirty work for him. Honestly, can’t I have even just a moment to wallow in self-pity?

But it appeared his questions would have to wait. The group caught up with Bast at Subgate 15, which had already begun its startup sequence. Her entire attention was focused on gate, so Balken took a moment to appreciate its complex gyration. The crystal foci carved brightly glowing lines out of the air as the rings whirled around the central platform. A high pitched cacophony of whistling and whines, undercut by a low, bassy hum, emanated from the center of the dancing rings. Then, as quickly as it started, the feverish display reached its crescendo with a thunderclap, blasting the group with a wave of hot air. The rings drifted to a stop, creating perpendicular arches over a hole in space.

“Standby for connection to the receiving gate,” called a control room technician through a nearby intercom. Balken rolled his eyes. He’d known better than to rush the gate for a long time. Then again, there was always that one overeager rookie that would ruin everyone’s day by charging in and getting himself ripped apart, so he supposed the warnings were necessary.

The wyrmhole was truly a sight to behold. It floated motionless just below the apex of the arches, a perfect bubble. It was not translucent, but neither was it entirely opaque. The edges of reality squashed and stretched on its surface, giving it a mirror-like quality. Like two mirrors facing each other, the reflections faded into darkness as they drifted closer to the center of the bubble, as this reality drifted into the next. Balken could feel the hot, stale wind flowing from inside the wyrmhole, giving them a taste of what lay beyond.

“Connection established, and… stable. Subgate one-five is cleared for departure.”

As control announced this, the light of a nearby status pylon turned green, and Balken felt more than heard the accompanying F-sharp tone. Upon hearing the tone, Bast leapt headlong into the wyrmhole, her body completely disappearing as it passed the borders of their universe and into the next. Without a second thought, Balken strode past the subgate’s threshold and was instantly swallowed up, his company not far behind.

Sam stood as motionless as his tired muscles would allow, afraid he might stab himself with a pin if he shifted the wrong way. Luckily, he had been allowed to take breaks, otherwise he would have thrown in the towel long ago. Rarity used her magic to tug at the fabric of his soon-to-be pants here and there, humming to herself and making marks with tailor’s chalk as she examined the results.

“Almost done…” She remarked, more to herself than anyone else. Sam let out a relieved groan.

“And you’re sure you don’t have any denim?” He pleaded.

“Yes, Sam, I am. Denim is for coveralls, and I don’t make work attire. I create pieces to help mares bring out their inner beauty! Denim rarely does.”

Sam grumbled, but conceded her point. His Grandma Jo had bought him a jean jacket once. It was absolutely hideous. Granted, it had been a department store brand, but he was willing to bet that he would make even the most fashionable of denim jackets look disastrous.

“Fair enough. I just…”

Sam knew he probably shouldn’t continue, in the interest of courtesy, but his mouth moved faster than his brain.

“I really liked my old jeans.”

Thankfully, Rarity seemed not to take offense.

“I understand, my dear, truly I do. It is almost impossible for me to let go of a treasured outfit. Unfortunately, your jeans have most certainly reached their end of days…” She paused a minute to contemplate. “However… if it really means that much to you, I would be willing order a bolt of denim.”

Sam shook his head, trying to remind himself to feel grateful that he was receiving any new clothes at all. After all, it had taken a great deal of cajoling just to get her to ease up on the frills and other assorted foppery.

“Thanks, really, but you don’t need to do that. I have more jeans back home. You’re already doing more for me than I could possibly ask for.”

Rarity smiled graciously. “Well, on the off chance you have to stay here longer than expected, I would be happy to make you some.”

“... Thank you, Rarity. But – and I mean no offense – I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“You’re welcome, Sam. And, for the record,” she added, placing a comforting hoof on his thigh, “I hope so too.” She gave him one more reassuring pat, then hopped down off of the platform

“Now then, I think I’m just about finished with your clothes! I just need to finalize these adjustments and they’ll be ready. I left the screen up, if you still wish for privacy.”

“Yes, please.”

Sam stepped down from the modelling platform and skirted around the mirrors, making his way towards the changing screen on the far side of the shop, Rarity in tow.

A comfortable pair of boxer briefs had been the first thing she made him, which he now wore with much relief. Still, even with something to cover his naughty bits, the idea of stripping in front of a bunch of people – and they were people, even though they weren’t human – that he had known for all of three days was not a trivial consideration. Thankfully, it seemed these ponies weren’t completely unabashed nudists; the need for privacy while changing into and out of clothes was something their cultures shared.

Sam moved behind the screen, unbuttoned his new dress shirt, and slipped out of his pants. Thankfully, the screen was large enough for him to change, although his head cleared the top of it, as it was his only real choice for privacy. He had only needed one look at the changing booth behind the mirrors to see that he would not fit, not to mention the fact that the beautified saloon doors that served as a barrier only came up to the tops of his thighs.

“There you go,” he said, handing the bundled outfit over the screen. A moment later, he felt the tingling warmth of Rarity’s magic on his hand. It was so… comforting. Like feather-light caresses on his skin. But then, he remembered that he was supposed to let go. When he relinquished the clothes, Sam was gratified to find that the fact that he didn’t hear them hit the floor still mystified him.

“Thank you, my dear. Sit tight. I won’t be but a moment.”

With that, Rarity trotted back to her workshop, leaving Sam alone with the Princesses.

“So, Sam,” Luna began, speaking loud enough for him to hear fro the other side of the room., “how are you finding the clothes-making experience thus far?”

Sam huffed in amusement and cracked his back, finally able to properly stretch.

“I know this much for certain: I would not want to be a model for a living. I don’t have nearly enough endurance”

Twilight giggled, while the elder Princesses gave him a good-natured chuckle.

“Well, I’m glad you’ve gained a little insight in addition to your wonderful new clothes,” Celestia quipped.

Sam crossed his arms over the screen’s frame, resting his head atop them with a dopey grin.

“They are, aren’t they? Heck, I don’t think I’ve ever owned clothes as nice as these ones are turning out to be. Shame I don’t have the shoes to go with them.”

They all glanced at the small lump that was his discarded old rags, and the heavily worn cross-trainers sagging inwardly atop the pile. They had seen better days, for certain. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to retire them now, while they still have some dignity, Sam contemplated.

“I’m sure Rarity would be more than willing to help you out with that, as well,” Twilight assured.

Sam’s eyebrows shot up.

“She’s a cobbler, too?” He asked incredulously.

“No, no. What I mean is, I’m sure she either knows or can find somepony who can make shoes for you.”

“Ah,” Sam said, secretly relieved. No one mare should have all that talent. “Well, in the meantime, I suppose I’ll just have to wear those ones down until they become more of a hindrance than a help.”

“Speaking of helping,” Celestia interjected, “what do you have next on your agenda, Sam?”

Sam paused to think for a moment.

“Well… I would really like to find out if it’s possible for a human like me to use magic, since I apparently have a magical aura. Other than that, I want- No, I need to go see the, uh… the Cakes, right? The ones whose basement I hid in and am partially responsible for destroying. I need to apologize for the trouble I’ve caused, and to offer help, if they need it.”

Celestia nodded sagely. “An upstanding and responsible attitude to have. I’m sure that-”

The Princess was cut off by the front door bursting open. “Princess Celestia! Princess Luna!”

A white unicorn stallion in full dress armor ran up to the elder Princesses, giving Twilight only a courtesy glance.

“Forgive me for barging in, Your Highnesses, but I bring urgent news from Canterlot. Ambassador Bacchus has just arrived, unannounced and demanding an audience. He seems quite furious.”

Princess Celestia’s brows knitted together, concern welling up in her expression.

“Oh, dear. Did he say why he was upset?”

“No, Princess. Only that, in his own words, ‘the Equestrian diarchy must meet with him, or suffer the displeasure of the Taurusian Archipelago.’”

Princess Celestia sighed in resignation, and shared a meaningful glance with her sister. She then turned to Twilight, regret etched in her features.

“I am sorry, Twilight, but Luna and I must go take care of this. I trust you will be able to handle things while we are gone?”

“Of course!” Twilight assured her with an eager salute.

“Then I leave it to you. We’ll send you updates through Spike.”

“Thank you, Princess.”

Luna stepped forward and put a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “Take care, Twilight Sparkle. We will be back before long, we hope.”

“Don’t worry, Princess Luna, my friends and I have everything handled.”

“Just remember what we spoke of. Whatever happens, we will support you.”

“Thank you, Princess. I won’t let you down.”

Celestia and Luna turned to Sam with reassuring smiles, but he could read more than a hint of unease behind them.

“We’re sorry we must leave you so soon, Sam, but you are in good hooves,” Celestia reassured in her motherly tone. Sam nodded, still confused as to what exactly was going on.

“We’ll see you again soon,” Celestia said, both to Twilight and himself.

She and Luna followed the guard out of the boutique, and stepped onto a large chariot waiting for them in the lane just outside the door. In a moment, they were off, taking to the sky like that was most natural thing for a chariot to do. Sam only boggled at the sight for a moment, before chalking up another tally on his “magic fucking with physics” count.

*Are they gone? Oh thank Grim.*

The suddenness of Bob’s voice appearing in his thoughts nearly made Sam jump out of his skin.

Jesus, Bob! A little warning, maybe? And what the hell happened? You’ve been silent this whole time.

*Yes, I was. Are you really going to tell me you don’t understand why?*

Sam clammed up. Of course he knew why. With beings as powerful as the Princesses around, Bob didn’t want to chance being caught. That didn’t mean Sam was any less miffed about getting yelled at that morning, or being startled just now.

Yeah, well, I still have a lot of questions.

*I’m sure. For now, though, you have other things to worry about. Such as the pretty purple pony princess attempting to get your attention.*

Sam glanced up to see Twilight staring at him, concern once again darkening her face.

“Sam, are you sure you’re okay? You seem kind of… distracted.”

He stifled his frustration, waved a dismissive hand in the air, and smiled.

“I’m fine, Twilight. There’s just a lot on my mind, you know?”

“Alright, well… if you ever want to talk about it, we’re all here for you.”

Sam smiled warmly. “You know, you don’t act much like any princess I’ve ever heard of.”

Twilight blushed and stammered. “Well, of course not! I only ascended to Princessdom a little over a week ago now.”

Sam guffawed. “‘Ascended?’ My my, aren’t we just as humble as can be?”

“Well, it’s true!” She asserted indignantly. “What else would you call becoming an alicorn?”

“Wait, becoming?”

“Yes, becoming. I was a unicorn before I became a Princess. I’m still not sure what I’m the Princess of, really, but… haven’t I told you all this already?”

“No, it never came up. I thought it was genetic, like any pony born of alicorn blood is considered royalty.”

“Of course not. I mean, blood relations are still technically considered royalty, but being an alicorn is something that is earned, not passed down. And Equestria can only be run by alicorn princesses.”

“Huh… So Equestria is kind of a meritocracy, in a sense.”

“I suppose so, yes.”

“But who determines who gets to be an alicorn?”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but then paused. As she sat in contemplation, Sam took an educated guess.

“You don’t know, do you?”

“I sort of do, but I’m not sure. Princess Celestia told me I became an alicorn when I created new magic, but that can’t be the whole story. Starswirl the Bearded was constantly creating new spells during his time, and he didn’t ascend.”

“Hmph, sounds sketchy to me. Maybe there’s something the good Princess doesn’t want you to know.”

“What?! What could she possibly gain from lying to me like that?”

“She could be keeping the selection process secret, so that only she knows how it works. So that you and others like you can’t replicate it. Maybe there’s some dark destiny in store for you that she doesn’t want you to know about. Maybe-”

“Sam, that’s enough!”

Sam was taken aback by the forcefulness of Twilight’s demand. When next she locked eyes with him, it pained him to see that her eyes glistened with angry, unshed tears. He had gotten under her skin something fierce. She exhaled sharply.

“I know you’re still having trouble trusting Princess Celestia, but I’ll ask you to please refrain from making such wild and baseless accusations.”

“R- right,” he capitulated, averting his eyes from her glare. “Sorry.”

Doesn’t mean I won’t be keeping my eye on her Majesty.

Rarity chose that moment to pop back out of her workshop, Sam’s new outfit in tow.

“It’s finished,” she sing-songed. However, her jubilation ended quickly when she felt the tension between Sam and Twilight.

“What’s going on? Where are Princess Celestia and Luna?”

“They were called back to Canterlot. Official ambassadorial business,” Twilight explained. “As for what’s going on…”

She continued to stare at Sam for a second or two, then let go of her frustration with a sigh.

“It’s nothing. Just a bit of a disagreement. We worked it out.”

Rarity looked between the two uncertainly. When Sam didn’t say anything, or even look at her, annoyance crept into Rarity’s posture. She marched up to Twilight.

“Twilight Sparkle,” she scolded, “what happened?”

Twilight’s looked up, only to recoil when she saw Rarity’s stern gaze just inches from her face.

“Rarity, it’s fine,” Sam cut in, realizing that she wasn’t likely to drop it if he remained silent. “Can I just have my clothes, please?”

“The looks on both of your faces certainly say otherwise. Now, if you would be so kind, I would like an explanation.” Rarity’s tone brooked no argument. Sam glanced at Twilight, before turning his attention back to Rarity.

“It’s mostly my fault, Rarity. Twilight was telling me about alicorns, and I… may have said some unflattering things about your Princess Celestia.”

That’s an understatement,” Twilight bristled. “You accused her of despotism and luring me into a sacrificial role!”

“I wasn’t accusing, I was hypothesizing,” Sam snapped, finally fed up with her naivete. “In my world we have a saying: ‘when something seems too good to be true, it usually is.’ I can attest to that; I’ve been scammed by people claiming to be down on their luck on three separate occasions because my heart was too damn soft. So yes, I have every right to be suspicious of a being who claims to be a benevolent, thousand-year-old demigod with dominion over the sun, even if she can use magic! And especially because said ‘demigod’ wanted to scoop my brains out with a rusty spoon not two days ago! Let’s not forget that I was forcibly abducted from my home planet by some alien entity, who also tried to take over my mind! And while we’re at it, throw in the fact that I haven’t seen my family for god knows how many months, and that I’m probably considered dead by now! So forgive me if I’m not in the most forgiving or cooperative of moods!”

Sam stood before them, lungs heaving for breath after his one-sided shouting match. Suddenly, a wave of dizziness washed over him, the rush of fury-borne adrenaline depleted. Reeling, Sam sat down before his legs could give out and made the choice for him. Of course, this was all done without looking at either of the room’s other occupants, but he didn’t need to. He remembered the nervousness growing in their faces as he ranted. He just couldn’t bring himself to look at them, for fear of what he might find now that he had ceased. But he also couldn’t just stay silent, staring at his hands all day. He fiddled with the knuckles of his fingers, trying to think of what he should say, how to apologize. After an eternity of agonizing, Sam sighed, deciding to just go with the first thing that came to mind.

“I… I’m sorry. Again. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I guess I’m not as… acclimated to the situation as I thought.”

Wordlessly, gentle white and lavender filled his vision, and he felt two pairs of warm limbs embrace him from both sides. They were hugging him.

Good God, Sam swore melancholically to himself, do these ponies even know how to hold a grudge?

A thrill of startled electricity shot down his spine as another pair of forelegs wrapped around him from behind. The stranger nuzzled the top of his head with their chin, apparently wanting in on the cuddle puddle. When she spoke, however, Sam instantly recognized the bubbly mare.

“Ooh, poor Sammy. It’s alright, everypony gets homesick, and you’ve been away for a looong time. No wonder you’re feeling crummy.”

“Jesus, Pinkie! When did you get here?”

“A few minutes ago. I was going to bring cupcakes, but the Cakes’ kitchen was blown all to smithereens when the Elements of Harmony came crashing through the ceiling.”

He wasn’t sure what these Elements were, but the twisting in his gut told him it probably had something to do with his rampage. Before he could say anything, however, Twilight spoke first.

“Sam, I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. It’s just…” She paused to think of how best to say what was on her mind, and Sam took advantage of it.

“Don’t be. You have every right to be mad, especially when I’m being an insensitive jackass.”

To his great surprise, every pony currently hugging him suddenly distanced themselves with a shocked gasp.

“Sam! I was trying to be polite by not saying anything in front of the Princesses. It might just be a cultural difference, after all. But while I might tolerate your use of expletives, I will not allow racial slurs to slide by! Do you understand?”

Sam stared slack-jawed at her fiery indignation. For a moment, he couldn’t understand what she was getting at. He mouthed the accusation, trying to find a way to fit it through the cogs. Eventually, it clicked, and Sam burst out laughing.

Rarity sputtered furiously. Sam put out a hand to ward off the incoming righteous tirade. Luckily, it was enough to buy him a few seconds to gather himself.

“I’m s… I’m sorry. I di-” He choked back a chuckle. “I’m not laughing at y- you. I jus… just didn’t expect… I mean, w- why shouldn’t they b- be? This is a world of talking ponies.”

Sam struggled not to devolve into another giggle fit.

“What are you talking about?” Twilight demanded, glaring him in the eye.

Sam took a deep breath, steadying his voice. “It just… never occurred to me that donkeys might also be sapient here. You told me about griffons and minotaurs and dragons, and even how cows and pigs have tribes. I learned about so many races that, somehow, I didn’t think to ask if there were more. And, once again, my lack of knowledge has come back to bite me in the… butt.”

Rarity and Twilight visibly relaxed.

“Be that as it may,” Rarity said, “racism is still unacceptable in this day and age. We are civil people, and we will conduct ourselves as such. Is that clear?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Sam placated. “I assure you, it was never my intention to slander donkeys. It was just an unhappy coincidence. I promise I will try to better watch the words that come out of my mouth.”

Rarity let out a terse sigh. “Well, as long we have an understanding. I will be expecting better from you, from now on.”

Sam just nodded, letting her have the last word.Twilight sighed in relief.

“Well, now that that’s settled: Sam, I will accept your apology if you accept mine.”

“Done. I’ve definitely had more than enough drama for one day.”

Pinkie Pie giggled and bounced around them. “Hooray! We got all the frownies out! Now we can get back to the really important stuff!”

“And what would that be, Pinkie?”

“Showing you around Ponyville and gathering party intel, of course!”

“Of course,” Sam sighed with a smirk, and then shivered. A cool breeze blew across his back, now that he was no longer being smothered with warm pony hugs. It was an apt reminder of why he had come here in the first place.

“But before that: Rarity, could I have some clothes now, please?”

Rarity smiled cheekily, apparently satisfied that he wasn’t actually racist.

“Oh, I suppose, since you asked nicely and all.”

The neatly folded stack of garments glowed light blue, levitating over to Sam from their resting place on a nearby counter. Sam accepted the bundle with a giddy smile.

Fresh clothes for the first time in months.

“Don’t move,” he requested excitedly, “I’ll be right back.”

But rather than a coherent response, Sam heard the screeching of tires. Bewildered, Sam looked around. Nothing around them had rubber wheels. Then his brain caught up with his eyes, and he found what exactly was out of place.


Before them, Pinkie was frozen mid-hop. She hung in the air, suspended by nothing. He couldn’t even see any sort of magic aura holding her in place.

“Pinkie? I, uh… I didn’t mean that literally.”

Pinkie immediately dropped to the ground with a relieved sigh.

“Oh good. Gravity gets a bit grumpy if I hold poses like that for too long.”

Sam frowned in disbelief, mouth hanging open. No words could describe what was going through his mind, however, because even he didn’t know. Magic could do some strange things, but at least there seemed to be some sort of logic to it. With Pinkie, he just couldn’t tell.

*Best not think about it too hard, Sam.*

Bob’s remark broke him from his stupor, and he shook himself.

“Right, well… Be right back.”

Sam retreated back behind the changing screen, trying his best to put Pinkie’s antics out of mind. It became much easier when he turned his attention to the pile of clothes.

He held some of the finest clothes he’d ever gotten his hands on. They were quite simple: a burgundy button-up shirt, a pair of khaki slacks, and black socks. But they were made from the highest quality fabric Sam had ever held, soft and light, but sturdy. The stitchwork was strong, but aesthetically pleasing, and as he put them on, the fit nearly brought him to tears. He’d never worn anything more comfortable. Perhaps it was just a result of his time in the Everfree, but Sam honestly believed these were the finest clothes he’d ever worn.

He emerged from behind the screen slowly, looking down at himself with emotion swirling in his gut. Since coming to this world, he’d never felt more human. He looked up to see the girls watching him with worry. This hadn’t been the reaction they were expecting.

“So… Sam,” Rarity ventured hesitantly, “what do you think?”


“Yes, dear?”

“Can I hug you?”

Rarity sighed in relief, then sat back on her haunches, her forelegs wide open. Sam wasted no time in kneeling down and wrapping her in as tight a bear hug as he dared.

“Thank you, Rarity. These are, by far, the nicest clothes I have ever worn.”

“Oh, pfft! You’re just saying that because you haven’t had anything decent to wear for a while.”

Sam broke off the hug to hold her out before him.

“It’s true! I have no doubt that, were I to buy an outfit this finely crafted in my world, it would cost nearly a week’s salary. In fact… hold on a minute.”

Sam got up and strode over to the modelling platform, where the bag of his allowance sat waiting for him. He fished out a handful to put in his pockets, then returned to Rarity with the rest.

“I don’t know how much you would normally charge for an outfit like this. I just hope I have enough in here.”

“No, no. They are for you, I insist. Think of it as my ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ gift.”

“Rarity, I can’t accept a gift like this.”

“Well, I won’t accept a single cent. I’m sorry Sam, but you’re just going to have to live with it.”

Sam looked uneasily between her and the bag of bits. Then, an idea occurred to him, and he held out the bag once more.

“Fine, I’ll accept your gift, as long as you accept this as a down payment on the next outfit.”

Rarity initial surprise quickly morphed into a shrewd smile. She levitated the bag, emptying it out into her aura. The coins arranged themselves into stacks of five, floating in neat rows. Rarity counted them, pointing at each stack as she tallied. Finally, she nodded and returned all but seven coins to the bag. The bag floated over to her register, while the spares found their way back into Sam’s new pockets. She gave him a smug grin.

“Very well, we have a deal. I should be able to make three or four more outfits with that.”

Sam huffed in exasperated amusement. “Why do I get the feeling that you’re still giving me a steep discount?”

“What?” She gasped with exaggerated shock. “Moi, the Bearer of the Element of Generosity, give you – a lone human, stranded in our world, with nary a bit to your name before today – a discount on your sorely lacking wardrobe? Perish the thought.”

“Alright, alright, I get it,” he relented. “But seriously, thank you. This means the world to me.”

“Well, with thanks like that, I almost don’t need payment.”

“Rarity,” Sam warned light-heartedly.

“Joking. Only joking. For the most part. Anyway, by the end of this week, I promise you will have a wardrobe fit for a king!”

“In the meantime,” Twilight interjected before Sam could argue further, “we still have a few more appointments to keep today. The mayor wishes to speak with you. I also set up appointments with the dentist, the optometrist, and, if you so desire, the barber.”

“Oh! Oh! And don’t forget the Cakes!” Pinkie blurted out.

“Right, that too.”

Sam smiled wearily. So much to do in a day.

“Right, well then,” he began, “let’s try to go to the barber too. I think I could use a more professional trim anyway. Thanks again, Rarity. I’ll see you around town?”

“I’m certain you will. Ta ta, darlings! Oh, and Twilight? Tell Spikey-poo I’ll require his assistance sometime this week. I’m running low on gems.”

“Alright, I’ll let him know.”

Rarity then levitated Sam’s thoroughly used sneakers back over to him with a grimace.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to replace… these, but I’ll look into it. Do try not to let the hem of your pants touch them too much. Or at all, preferably.”

Sam complied, rolling the hems of his pant legs back until they were just barely above the mouth of his unfortunate footwear. Wearing a complete, mostly brand-new outfit, Sam’s heart soared. He felt as though he had found one of the pieces of himself that he had been missing.

“Really, I can’t thank you enough, Rarity. This means more than you know.”

Rarity giggled and blushed. “I think you’ve given me some idea. Now go on. You have appointments to keep.”

Sam nodded, and then followed Twilight and Pinkie out of the Boutique, smiling contentedly. Overall, the visit hadn’t been a total disaster. Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep from making any more inappropriate remarks for the rest of the day.

Captain Balken stepped out of the far end of the wyrmhole without missing a beat. The grand, featureless chamber he found himself in echoed with the sound of rushing wind, as the warm air flowed through the wyrmhole and into the lower pressure environment behind them. While looking around, he noticed Bast waiting at the far end of the room. He stalked over to her, the sounds of his squad arriving close behind him.

“Well, Captain? Are we going to stand around all day, or are we moving forward?” Bast quipped, beating Balken to the punch.

Balken snorted and muttered under his breath. “Hypocrite.”

Bast may be a pain in the neck, but he would not let her distract him from the post-arrival status check. He turned and did a headcount, ensuring that everyone was present and accounted for, and the wyrmhole shrinking and disappearing settled the matter. His astral shard pendant came out next, pulled from inside his shirt by its chain. Directing a pulse of mana into the milky crystal, it began its environmental diagnostics program. Air quality, barometric pressure, gravity; all checks came back green, reaffirming Control’s numbers.

Balken oriented himself to Astral north, and turned back east, to the chamber’s only exit. He strode towards a pair of double doors, easily thirty feet tall. With a single push, they swung open as smoothly as if they were made of papier-mache and balsa wood on oiled hinges. However, the unyielding solidity beneath his palms made it clear they were solid stone.

The reception area was larger even than the gate chamber, similar in shape and size to one of the Planejumpers’ hangars, but ever so slightly ovular. It, too, was empty of all but a single half-circle desk set against the northern wall. Sitting at the desk was one of the more grotesque creatures Balken had ever seen.

The ongkhuri were the only intelligent beings native to Tartarus. They were the kind of creatures that looked like an evolutionary dead-end had been bulldozed through the divine planning department by some sort of fetishistic zealot. The average ongkhurian stood no taller than five feet, half of which was their odd, hairless, almost funnel-shaped bodies. A great, bulbous head housed five pairs of eyes set at even intervals around its circumference, above four similarly spaced, large mouths, full of chisel-like teeth, but lacking any sort of nose. Neckless and squat, the ongkhurian body almost looked like an extremely dumpy ice cream cone, though the pallor of their pale grey flesh made them look anything but appetizing. Spindly arms encircled their torsos, six at shoulder height and four upon which they lumbered about, like grotesque crabs. Ongkhurian fashion was singular; they wore only odd tabard-like garments that consisted of rings of cloth strips hanging down between their upper shoulders. No ongkhurian ever truly smiled. The most anyone had ever managed to get from them was a contemptuous smirk.

The ongkhurian at the desk watched them approach with barely contained disdain, clasping two of its hands together on the desk before it. The other eight hands were preoccupied with a dozen sheafs of paper being reviewed by the four sets of eyes not currently trained on the approaching party.

“Name,” the closest mouth didn’t so much ask as command.

“Captain Conrad Balken.”


“Planejumpers, Order of the Blade, Ground Division.”

“Reason for your… visit?” Somehow, he – Balken thought it was a he, anyway – made even that simple question sound like a threat. Balken exhaled angrily.

“Did you not receive a communique with the details of our vis-?”

“Oh, I got it alright,” the ongkhurian interrupted. “Thing is, I could give less than a fleck of shit off a gnat’s ass who you are. You could come waltzing in here with commendations from all three of the Ekat-Ongkhuri, and I’d still run you through the ringer. Because nobody comes through this checkpoint without my say-so. So, reason… for… visit?”

Balken’s eye twitched. Why did it have to be today that the multiverse decided to use him as its personal commode? He was just about fed up. He prepared to tear into the jailer like a particularly mouthy new recruit, but then Bast decided to step in.

“We are here to interrogate prisoner Kappa-4-07298, Marwell Tint.”

The ongkhurian grunted and looked at Bast with one of the pairs of eyes not currently locked on the fuming Captain Balken.

“Name and affiliation?”

“Lieutenant Bast, Planejumpers, Order of the Tome, Recon Division.”

The ongkhurian stared at her appraisingly, then let out a haughty huff. He thrust out three of his hands, palms up.

“Shards,” he demanded, in a tone that brooked no argument.

Bast’s tentacles reared up, revealing the wickedly barbed pads on their ends. Balken tensed, preparing for a fight, but it did not come. Instead, Bast used the claws to reach behind her neck and fiddle with something. There was the sound of a catch unlocking, and Bast lifted a choker away from her neck, her astral shard attached to it as the display piece. She breathed mana into it until it glowed softly, then dropped it from her pad into one of his outstretched palms.

“There you are, Gregor. Don’t want to hold you up all day, do we?” She offered, giving Balken a very pointed look.

Balken growled, pulled the shard out of his shirt, charged it between his fingers, and all but slapped it into one of the ongkhurian’s other hands. Gregor didn’t seem to have noticed, too focused on the squat, hexagonal console he was slotting the shards into. Lieutenant Hawthorne placed hers in his remaining free hand and the soldiers and the Magi stepped forward to do likewise, handing their shards to Gregor as slots in the desktop identification scanner became available. With the jailer’s attention otherwise occupied, Balken shot Bast a withering look, which she completely ignored.

Gregor finished the check swiftly, despite his previous antagonistic behavior. With a disappointed click of his tongue, he handed the last shard back to its owner.

“Very well, your IDs check out. Relinquish all personal belongings and equipment, place them in one of the drawers here,” he said with a offhanded wave to a row of drawers that slid silently out of the wall to his right, “and stand on the red squares to submit to a full body scan. If you wish to bring in equipment, you must declare it here.”

“We are bringing in one void manipulator rig, class-3, biological configuration,” Balken announced, trying to regain some semblance of authority.

Gregor raised one hairless eyebrow and watched Balken for any tells, glancing at the tarp covered equipment behind them. An evil smirk grew on each of his mouths.

“Ah, so that’s that bugger’s little secret. Good to know.”

The rest of the check went by smoothly, of course. But the thing that really tweaked Balken’s nose was that, whenever it seemed like Gregor was about to give them grief, the jailer would take one look at Bast and school his expression. She was even paying attention to the ongkhurian, he just refused to resume being a power-hungry asshole around her. It wasn’t fear Balken saw in his eyes, either. Gregor respected the displacer beast. The frustration made Balken want to rip his own hair out. He’d been deprived of a target for his ire at being forced to let Bast tag along, and he could only grit his teeth and bear it.

Eventually, they finished their scans and Gregor’s inspection of the void manipulators. The jailer led the group to the far end of the hangar-like reception area. Gregor moved to a specific point by the gargantuan rolling doors. At his approach, a small circular pedestal shot out of the floor, stopping at elbow level to the ongkhurian. He placed a hand atop the pedestal and began tapping out what appeared to be a rapid fire combination into an imaginary keypad. But then Gregor paused, his nearest mouth gave a derisive smirk, and three of his eyes trained on the PFCs standing stiffly by their assignment.

“For those of you new to this plane… welcome to the Prison Plane, Tartarus.”

Gregor tapped one last hidden key, and there was a nearly deafening metallic clunk, as the locking mechanism began to disengage. The massive slab of steel began its arduous journey along the tracks, causing the ground to quake at its passing. Hot, dry air blasted in through the widening gap, clamoring to fill the reception with its oppressive heat. Balken’s lip curled into a snarl, as though he wished to challenge to wind itself.

Gregor led them through the opening before the door had finished its motion, out onto a vast red desert under a ceiling of thunderclouds. The landscape was flat and featureless, devoid even of rocks, but for a great grey spire on the horizon.

The trek to the spire was arduous, to say the least. Hot, dusty winds whipped at the group, scraping against exposed flesh until the entire group was rubbed raw. The howling nearly deafened those unfortunate enough to be unable to cover their ears. The only ones seemingly unaffected were Gregor and Magi Sless, the former being native and the latter seeming to feel almost as at-home in the environment as the ongkhurian. After what seemed like countless parching hours of walking through the blistering dust storm, they arrived at the base of the tower.

The Ashen Pile, like so many of the ancient buildings of the multiverse, was built large, and only grew larger with time. As it stood, just one side of the octagonal building was almost a mile wide. A flight of great wyrms would look like mice by comparison. The tower rose up past the cloud cover, leaving observers to wonder just how far above the storm it reached, and, by extension, how far below ground.

Gregor stopped a stone’s throw from the massive spire, and held a hand up to the tower, as if in greeting. Something in or on his palm began to glow, though Balken could not see what. Shortly thereafter, a section of the wall split and spread outward, revealing doors that were each the size of a football field. As soon as the doors were open wide enough, the group shuffled inside, eager to be out of the dust.

Gregor plodded past the antechamber into an insanely tall room, his lower hands slapping against the grated floor. The ceiling was nowhere to be seen, obscured as it was by a maze of pipes and ducts.

“Uncover your equipment and place it in the alcove to the right,” Gregor drawled boredly, “then take a spot on the grate and hold your breath and your pants. Or don’t. I couldn’t care less.”

Thankfully, Balken already knew what he was in for. He directing the PFCs to the alcove, where the manipulator rig would be put through a chemical bath, blow dried, and pulsed with UV light. The rest of them would receive no kinder treatment.

Balken went first, to give his men a preview of the sterilization process, dignity be damned. He would not let the ongkhurians make a fool of him by catching his men by surprise.

“Just do as I do,” he commanded tersely.

Taking a hold of his belt, Balken stepped out into the grated hall and picked a spot near the wall. He got into a wide stance, taking a great lungful of air as he did. No sooner had he closed his mouth than a veritable pillar of liquid slammed down on him.

The first thing he felt was the heat, the chemically treated water held at just under scalding temperature, right on the threshold of discomfort and pain. Once he had gotten used to the heat, however, he noticed the most unique sensation; one that he had missed the first time he had gone through the Tartarus prison sterilizer.

The water dumping down on him writhed like snakes, actively pushing into his collar. It scoured every inch of his skin, ensuring nothing escaped its attention. Balken would have shuddered, had he not been so focused on keeping his feet. After what seemed like an eternity, the deluge simply ceased altogether, leaving him dripping wet and red-skinned, like a boiled lobster. A moment later, the same pipe that dumped water on him began blasting him with hot air, blow-drying him within seconds.

The rest of his crew subjected themselves to the same treatment. Nobody was particularly happy about it, and Hawthorne looked especially perturbed. However, Balken was quite gratified by the miserable expression on Bast after the ‘shower’ was done with her. He would hold that image in his mind for years to come.

Once everyone had been nice and sterilized, Gregor led them to the side of the main hallway, up to what appeared to be a solid wall. However, Balken was not surprised to find that it held a secret, magically sealed doorway, much like the front entrance had been. They quickly came to a T-intersection, which housed a large bay of service elevators, their gated doors offering terrifying glimpses of the endless shafts beyond. After a few more palmed security panels, they were aboard an elevator car as it jolted to life, ferrying them up the shaft at dizzying speeds.

After nearly a minute of tense silence, the elevator lurched to a halt, revealing a sterile white room beyond the gate. The gate creaked open, and they shuffled out into the reception of the Secure Holding and Intensive Care Unit.

“I will be back for you in two hours. If you are not here at that time… well… Tartarus is always accepting of new residents.”

With a wicked grin, Gregor closed the gate and the car disappeared back down the elevator shaft. Bast gave an unconvincing chuckle.

“He’s… quite the charmer, isn’t he?”

Balken rounded on the displacer beast, unamused.

“So, you just happened to know the exact ID number of the prisoner we’re here for, did you?”

“What can I say?” Bast nearly purred. “I like to be in the know.”

“Cut the crap, Bast. What does Gull want with Marwell Tint?”

Bast let out a disappointed sigh. “Did you honestly think you were the first to notice the activities of the Stillness, Conrad?”

Balken was stunned silent by Bast’s sudden candor. A glance at Hawthorne told him she had expected the run around just as much. His attention returned to Bast as she started speaking once more.

“Gull has known about the Stillness for years, but until now, he’s not had any physical evidence of their existence. They’re usually much more careful to keep their activities hidden, and to clean up after themselves. This is the first time in nearly thirty years that the Stillness has slipped up, and we cannot allow this opportunity to slip through our claws.”

Bast sauntered off towards the front desk, but not before shooting one last remark over her shoulder.

“If you are going to continue after the Stillness, you had best get used to working with me, Connie-boy. Otherwise, I’ll always be two steps ahead of you.”

He heard Lt. Hawthorne sigh in resignation behind him.

“Well, at least we know what she’s here for, now.”

But Balken didn’t respond. He couldn’t. He was too busy grinding his teeth.

“Captain?” Hawthorne probed.

With that single innocuous question, all the little annoyances were suddenly too much to handle. Balken’s fist lashed out at the wall, slamming into it with a sickening crack. He heard a few gasps behind him, but he hardly cared. All he needed was the satisfying feel of rock flaking and crumbling beneath his fist. Even so, it was a bitter sort of satisfaction.

“She played me,” he growled under his breath.


“It’s happening again! She’s going to take credit for another goddamn bust! Well that bitch is going to find out just what the Blade is capable of.”

Balken took a deep breath, and calmed his rage into something far icier. He strode over to the front desk, where Bast was already leaning against the edge, speaking to the receptionist.

“Captain Balken, Planejumpers,” he barged into the conversation, holding up his astral shard like a badge, and effectively interrupting whatever underhanded dealings Bast may have been engaged in. “Take us to Marwell Tint. Our arrival should be expected.”

“R- right,” the receptionist – a pretty, young, human girl, obviously a transplant from HQ – stammered. “I’ll just… buzz you in.”

She pressed something under the counter and the nearby double doors buzzed. Balken strode over and pushed them open, pointedly ignoring the strange look Bast was giving him. If he had bothered to look, he would have found a strange expression that was equal parts frustration, disappointment, and pity.

But Balken was too busy being outraged to notice Bast’s internal conflict. Orderlies and nurses scattered before him like rodents, trying to simultaneously appease his temper while remaining out of reach. To their credit, they did seem to be leading him towards his objective, even if it was unwittingly. It didn’t much matter either way. He would not allow Bast to hog all the glory.

“Sir, please, you need to allow us to escort you to the interrogation room,” one of the orderlies – a bald thirty-something man – pleaded.

“Then escort me, but I’m not stopping for you. I’ve been before, I can get there myself.”

The orderly looked between him and the direction he was heading quickly, apparently debating internally. Then, he simply nodded, and took up a position ahead of Balken, doing his best to appear in control of the situation. Balken snorted.

Whatever helps you sleep at night.

In short order, he came upon a nondescript, unlabeled door. He remembered this door. Many a fruitless night had been spent behind this door, attempting to extract confessions from the multiverse’s most unstable and dangerous criminals. This night, however, would not be fruitless.

With a mighty shove, the door slammed open before Balken. The room inside looked exactly as he remembered it, spotless and almost unnecessarily large. The wide stone walls were still deceptively white, the lingering scent of bleach and disinfectant burning his nose. A comparatively small, stainless steel table sat in the center, solid and immobile, tarnished by years of heavy use. And in a matching chair opposite him sat Marwell Tint, cuffed to the corners of the table.

The man had seen better days, that much was certain. He had the hints of a laborer’s face, weathered and bronzed, but his skin had become sallow and clammy. Dull eyes stared listlessly at the tabletop from bruised and puffy sockets, unwilling or unable to lift his gaze. His gaunt face was framed by a greasy, matted tangle of black hair. He hadn’t so much as flinched when Balken burst into the room. Were it not for the almost imperceptible rise and fall of his chest, Balken might have mistaken Tint for dead.

“Marwell Tint?” He greeted.

Tint did not respond. Balken grimaced. The clattering sound of the manipulator rigging being wheeled into the room reached his ears.

“Fine,” he sighed knowingly. “Can’t say I didn’t try.”

He snapped his fingers and the PFCS rolled the tarp-covered rig around the table. Once they were in position behind Tint, they threw the tarp aside, revealing the machinery they had been carting around all this time.

The void manipulator rig was a simple looking piece of machinery in its undeployed state; utilitarian, and yet dangerous. Like a military trench shovel. It was a matte black box, tall, thin, and long, with a seam around one of the ends. Two pairs of thick, segmented arms – all pistons and servos – hung from either side of the seam, folded in on themselves. And at the end of each arm, a four-pronged claw capped the assembly. The claws were situated at ninety degree increments, like the arcade prize machines. Unlike the games, however, they were not just flimsy aluminum tongs.

The claws were what made the machine. Each prong was harshly curved and made of a smoky quartz-like material with a triangular cross-section. The edges were as sharp as cut glass, and yet they would never be able to physically harm anything.

It was dark astral fulgurite. One of the R&D eggheads had once spouted off the specs at him, how the material formed on the border between the Astral Plane and the Void, and how the only things it could exert force on were astral shards – pieces of astral quintessence that had crystallized – and Void energy. He said something about how Void energy caused the vitrification of astral quintessence into dark astral fulgurite or something like that, Balken wasn’t sure. But the gist of it was that the strange, nigh incorporeal mineral could be used to manipulate Void energy.

A fact that, apparently, did not escape Marwell Tint. Tint visibly flinched when the tarp was flung back. He began shuddering violently and murmuring to himself. Balken grinned with all of his teeth.

“Ah, Mr. Tint. Back with us in the land of the living, I see. Feeling any more talkative?”

Tint still did not respond, but his muttering became loud enough for Balken to hear. Every second, Tint unerringly repeated the same two words noted in his file.

“They’re watching…”

Balken’s grin fell.

“I guess not. Oh well, no skin off my back. And, technically, I suppose there won’t be any off yours, either.”

He snapped his fingers at Jacobs and Sless, and they went silently to work, unwilling to risk his wrath by questioning orders, even if they were unspoken.

The Magi each put a hand on the panel opposite the arms and channelled their mana into the machine. There was a hiss as a seal broke, and the panel slid outwards like the drawer of a filing cabinet, status screens and omnidirectional control stations unfolding out of it like the pages of a pop-up book.

“Standard half-pillar configuration, sir?” Jacobs asked, the crack in his voice undermining the calm, professional demeanor he was trying to exude.

“Proceed,” Balken affirmed dismissively.

When Jacobs and Sless began typing into the touchpads before them, the manipulator’s arms snapped forward, unfolding into menacing arcs of steel. The seam beneath the arms cracked open slightly a moment before the panel shot out with a pop, stopping abruptly after only a foot. Out of the gap spilled a deluge of sections of metal pipe, flipping, clattering, and snapping into place like a Jacob’s ladder. In seconds, the front end of the machine had turned into a semicircular alcove of grid-patterned metal scaffolding.

The arms whirred along the scaffolds, maneuvering into position around Tint, who seemed to be trying to slide down into his chair. The two arms above his shoulders suddenly shot down and clamped around his upper arms, digging into his flesh with nary a trace of their passage. Despite this, Tint still cried out in pain, as though they physically hurt him. Slowly, the arms raised, phasing through his flesh. As they did, the skin along the tops of his upper arms blackened, as though frostbitten. The motion forced Tint to his feet, to avoid further agony.

“Secure his arms and legs,” Balken ordered.

His soldiers rushed over to the prisoner, wielding pairs of grav-cuffs. In short order, Tint was suspended in midair between the far edges of the scaffolding, anchored by the cuffs attached to the four corners of the grid. The claws released him, but remained poised to strike at the first sign of hostility. As soon as they had loosened, Tint’s skin returned to its pallid tone.

“Now then, Mr. Tint,” Balken cooed, “let’s start with something simple. Why did you attack the Market Square?”

Tint groaned, head lolling back and forth. Balken sneered.

“Magus Sless, remind him why he’s here,” he intoned menacingly. Sless only hesitated a moment before following the implicit order.

The claw over Tint’s left arm descended on him. Its tips slowly slid through the flesh of his upper arm. Though Tint screamed in agony, Balken remained impassive, even as the soldiers behind him – Hawthorne and Bast included – blanched at the brutal treatment. Sless pushed the mechanical arm forward, finally drawing out the reason for their visit.

A crude mockery of a human arm was drawn from beneath Tint’s flesh, writhing desperately against its impalement, like a fat black earthworm on a bird’s talons. But to call the limb black would only be a half-truth. It was made of a darkness so deep as to be imperceptible, as though it sucked the light out of the space around it. It crackled with an eerie kind of static energy that chilled the flesh as easily as an arctic wind, and filled the room with the smell of frozen blood. Just being near it gave everyone the feeling that, were they to come into contact with the limb, they might be erased from existence. Everything they were, everything they wanted to be, every interaction they’d ever had with another being, gone, without even a trace of a memory.

“Let’s try this again. Who gave you this power?”

“Th- the eyes…”

“Whose eyes?”

“His eyes… in the weave… and beneath…”

As Tint trailed off, Balken’s face suddenly morphed in a paroxysm of rage.

“Whose eyes?! Who do you work for?!” Balken bellowed hands grasping murderously at the air. When Tint remained silent, he fixed the Magi at the controls with an icy glare.

“Put the screws to him.”

Neither of them moved an inch, paralyzed with fear. Jacobs somehow found the nerve to speak up.

“B- but sir! Th- that’s not-”

“Then get out of my way!” Balken roared, chasing Jacobs and Sless away from the control stations in barely contained fury.

He gripped the control orbs with whitening knuckles and jammed them forward. The lower claws shot up and plunged into Tint’s ribcage, just below his shoulder blades. Tint’s head fell back, eyes bulging and lips peeled back in a soundless scream.

“Talk, damn you!”

Balken yanked back on the controls, and the claw arms followed suit. The claws wrenched a ghastly black shadow from Tint’s back, completing the humanoid upper torso implied by the arm-like appendage in the upper claw’s grip. The voidling’s head was featureless and cold, much like the rest of it, but it still gave the impression of a set of eyes staring at them from somewhere out of sight.

Balken moved to the other console, taking control of the upper claws. The unused claw struck at the voidling’s free elbow, piercing through the incorporeal flesh. At this, it emitted an unearthly, hollow screech, like the death throes of some unseen creature, heard from the mouth of an abandoned mineshaft. Balken pulled its arms upwards until the voidling was locked in a similar pose to its host. Grinning maliciously, he circled back to the first control console.

“Maybe this will loosen your lips!”

Balken gripped the control orbs and began to twist, causing the claws to do the same. Tint’s agonized screams only stoked the mad gleam in Balken’s eyes.

“Augh! He follows our hands!” Tint shouted desperately. “His one great eye, the- gah! ...the spherical motion… of a ring… tumbling into the river. W- what does it mmmatter which side lands up… when there is nothing in between?”

“Captain, please,” Lieutenant Hawthorne pleaded, “I don’t think he’s in his right mind! Just calm down and we can try-”

“I am calm!” Balken shouted, eyes never leaving the writhing form in the clutches of the machine. “This fucker will talk, and he will talk plainly!

Tint screamed again after a particularly hard twist. “The eyes thirst! Th- thirst for our hours and minutes and ssseconds! He laps at the frayed edges, drawing - ghk! - drawing in the curves and lines! None may deny his s- subsumption!”

“Conrad, that is enough,” Bast admonished quietly but firmly, and from a point unexpectedly behind him and to his right.

Balken’s eye twitched. Now she had the nerve to talk to him like he was a child? He felt a familiar boiling in his blood. The hairs all over his body stood on end, his skin tingling. Muscles twitched and burned as his body readied itself for the oncoming transformation. He turned his head towards Bast.

“Bast, disrespect me one more time, and I-”

But that was as far as he got. A sudden sharp pain blossomed from the base of his skull and the world went dark.


With a disappointed sigh, Bast watched Balken’s unconscious form slump to the ground like a marionette whose strings had been cut. Her tentacle pulled away from the nape of his neck, removing the single claw that had pierced his flesh. Hawthorne gasped and scurried over to her captain, to check his vitals. Bast rolled her eyes.

“He’s just asleep, dear, there’s no need for a fuss.”

“But you assaulted him!” Hawthorne protested indignantly.

“Are you saying I shouldn’t have?” Bast questioned, arching an eyebrow. Hawthorne opened her mouth to respond, but then closed it again. Bast took that as an admission that she held the higher ground, so she continued.

“The Planejumpers have very explicit laws against torture. Unfortunately, it seems Conrad has allowed his personal grudges to influence his decision making. However, I think we can look the other way just this once. The good captain is under a great deal of pressure, and had an emotional breakdown. As long as he agrees to submit himself to some… informal therapy sessions, I think we can all find it in us to forget the last few minutes. Agreed?”

She looked to each of the soldiers present, then the Magi. It only took a glance in the eyes for Jacobs to capitulate, but Sless stood fast.

“And what of the Tint man?” He hissed, slurring his H’s and S’s. “What will he have to say about this?”

Bast sighed. “I believe I may be able to salvage the situation. Give me a moment.”

With that, she turned and prowled around the machine. She sat on her haunches, staring up at the sickly man, ragged of breath and sweating profusely. Bast looked to the Magi.

“Magus Jacobs, Magus Sless, would you come move the manipulator arms into a more comfortable but secure position for Mr. Tint?”

The Magi rushed to follow her orders without hesitation. Hawthorne watched them operate with more than a little awe. It was almost unbelievable to see how much more respect Bast commanded from the Magi than her captain. She was tempted to explain it away as following the lesser of two evils – there was no denying how badly Cpt. Balken had screwed up, after all – but their body language made it clear that the Magi were not just relieved. They wanted to do well by Bast.

Soon, the exposed voidling was restrained by claws clamped around its limbs, rather than pierced through them. The two lower manipulators clutched the voidling’s chest and head, to discourage it from acting up. Tint had winced when the claws retracted from the voidling’s silhouette, but sagged in relief as soon as they were removed completely.

“Mr. Tint? Are you still with us?” Bast prompted. Tint merely groaned in response.

“Good. Mr. Tint, I’m going to try something. It will likely be quite painful, but I think you’ll appreciate the result.”

Bast began muttering an incantation under her breath, waving her tentacles about in geometric patterns. A glowing spell circle formed before her tentacles, and she plunged them through it. As she did so, her tentacles split, the flesh falling away from a ghostly afterimage. She shuddered as the spell completed, leaving her with two extra ethereal limbs and two corporeal ones, limp and useless. She groaned, shifting the lifeless tentacles with her paws so that they lay crossed on her back.

“I’m never going to get used to that,” she complained, then turned back to the man strung up before her.

“Alright, Tint, this is going to burn. Brace yourself.”

The ghostly tentacles swaying above her reached out, reaching around Tint’s head as he leaned back trying futilely to retreat. There was a flash of movement, and the clawed pads latched onto the back of his head like a lover’s hands. Tint’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. Then, a pale, translucent copy of Tint’s face emerged from his own, as Bast pulled his soul away from its vessel.

Tint’s ghost moaned loudly, panting and hissing at the pain of being ripped from his body.

“Agh! Oh… I- I can…Ah… Analise! Wh- where is my Analise?”

Bast grimaced sadly. “Marwell Tint, can you understand me?”

“Ah- I… y- yes, I can. Who… where are you? I cannot see. All is dark,” Tint cried, immaterial eyes searching blindly for a speaker he could not find.

“I need you to focus, Mr. Tint. What is the last thing you remember?”

“The… The last… I- Agh! Oh, gods! It burns!”

“I’m sorry, Tint, but it’s the only way I can keep you lucid. Now please, what do you remember?”

“I… I was in the market… with Analise. A man called my name… from a shadowed alley. He… he offered such riches. Enough to feed my family for years! I asked him: ‘What must I do?” He smiled, and handed me a black seed. Told me to swallow it. I… oh cruel fates… what have I done?”

“It’s not your fault, Tint. But what next? Do you remember anything else?”

Tint expression grew agonized. “P- pain. So much pain! And hunger. And his voice in my ear, saying:

“‘Make it interesting.’”

Bast bit back a snarl. Of course the Stillness would employ psychopaths. Why wouldn’t they?

“Did they mention anything about their plans? Names, places, times? Anything?”

“I think… I was a distraction. I heard another in my head. Heard them speak of an acquisition. They were using me to… to collect a shipment of metal. They called it… burgeonite? That it was the last material they needed for their plan. And that the destination was…” Tint trailed off, apparently wracking his memory for the information.

“Was what?” Bast begged.

“T- Tellurian… on the far edge of the… the third… ring.”

Bast clenched her jaw, eyes darting back and forth between thoughts. When she realized no epiphany was coming, she sighed and looked back to Tint.

“Thank you, Mr. Tint. You have been a great help. I will be leaving the manipulator here, so you can remain separated from the voidling. If all goes well, you may regain some lucidity without having to resort to all this.”

“Ah, m- my wife. What of my Analise? And my children?”

Bast remained silent for a moment.

“If I hear anything new, I will let you know.”

It wasn’t technically a lie. She already knew that his family was dead, killed by his own hand. Recon had told her as much. But she couldn’t bear to bring a man in so piteous a state bad news.

“Tha… thank you.”

Bast eased the spectral Tint back into his body, then disengaged her claws. The ethereal tentacles laid themselves back into their fleshy counterparts, and a moment later they twitched back to life. Bast rolled her shoulders and turned back to the assembled soldiers.

“Alright, gather up your captain. We’re leaving.”

“B- but what about the rigging?” Jacobs protested.

“As I said, we will be leaving it behind. Marwell Tint has been nothing but helpful, and he may be of further use if we can help him regain his senses. Besides that, I’d say we owe him at least a few reparations by now, wouldn’t you?”

Jacobs bowed his head, nodding in shame.

“Just remember,” Bast continued, “you are not responsible for Cpt. Balken’s poor judgement, but we all share the blame for not stopping him sooner, myself included. We must do our best to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Now let’s move out.”

Bast felt Hawthorne’s watchful eyes follow her out of the room. She wasn’t quite sure what the Blades lieutenant thought of her, but she suspected that neither did Hawthorne herself. It would be interesting to see what her opinion became after this, but Bast had more important things to worry about. There was research to be done, and done quickly. She had no idea what burgeonite was, its applications, or where Tellurian might be, but she had no doubt that she would not like the answers.

“No no, that’s quite alright, dearie! We’ve got things well handled around here.”

“Yeah, uh… The Equestrian Disaster Relief fund issued our indemnity already. We’ll just let the builder ponies do their thing and we’ll be back in business in no time. Ha ha.”

Sam frowned, distress etching lines into his forehead. It didn’t take a genius to deduce that Mr. and Mrs. Cake were accepting his apology so readily because they hoped he would leave sooner.

“Oh. Well, if you need anything else, please, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“There’s really no need. You just enjoy your stay in Equestria. We’ll be just fine,” Mrs. Cake asserted, beginning to close the door on him. Sam hurried to finish his thoughts.

“Okay, well, if you change your mind, just-”

The door slammed shut.

“-let… me… know.”

Sam sighed, turning away from the door. The four girls that were able to make it – Twilight, Pinkie, Rainbow, and Fluttershy – gave him reassuring smiles. But they were vastly overshadowed by the distrustful, frightened, and even accusatory stares directed at him. Although never to his face; he always saw them out of the corner of his eye, and whenever he turned his head, they quickly looked away. Plus, there never seemed to be any ponies near them, even though he could always see activity only a single street away.

Everywhere he went today, it had been the same thing. The mayor was exceedingly polite, despite the scathingly passive-aggressive “don’t make trouble” speech. But when they visited the optometrist, the poor old stallion was so jittery that the lenses nearly popped out of his frames. And the barber outright refused to see him until Princess Celestia stepped in. The dentist had been the only one remotely excited to see him, but she had a strange, almost unsettling fascination with his canines. Without a doubt, Sam knew everyone in town had already heard about what happened in the basement of the Cakes’ home.

I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. Word travels fast in small towns like this.

“It’s okay, Sam,” Pinkie tried comforting him, “I’m sure they’ll ask for your help once Sugarcube Corner is fixed up.”

“Or they’re being exactly as careful as they should be,” a familiar, feminine voice responded, piercing through the air above them.

Sam looked up to see the darkened silhouette of a pegasus circling above them. She glided down to their level, and Sam felt his heart fall into his stomach. Cloudchaser’s eyes bored into him with the pinnacle of disappointment and betrayal.

“So… here we are,” she observed ominously.

“Y- yeah…” Sam stammered. “Uh… Hey, Cloudchaser. What’s up?”

“I think you know exactly what’s up,” she spat, eyes narrowing.

“Cloudchaser, stop it!” Twilight demanded. “You don’t know what’s going on.”

“Don’t I? Not even a full day passed after we spoke before he broke his promise and got into a fight. With the Princesses!

“Yeah, because he was being controlled,” Rainbow cut in, swooping up into Cloudchaser’s face. “Look, I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s the truth. He was being possessed by a Nightmare. We even blasted him with the Elements of Harmony, for crying out loud! If he’s still around after that, I think we can trust that he’s gotten all the bad mojo out of his system.”

Cloudchaser peered around Rainbow, fixing Sam with a piercing stare. Sam swallowed. Now was the time to say something, if ever.

“I… I know it looks bad. Really I do. But do you honestly think I want to cause problems? I’m stranded here, alone, in an alien land, for who knows how long. The worst thing I can do is make enemies. I just got dealt a shi… shifty hand is all.” Jeez, not swearing is going to be harder than I thought.

Cloudchaser examined him for a few more seconds before sighing explosively.

“Ugh, fine, I get it. But I’d be walking on eggshells from here on, if I were you. If you can’t find a way to keep your promises and stay out of trouble, then I can’t guarantee you won’t have an angry mob knocking down your door.”

With that parting shot, she sped off angrily. Rainbow Dash looked like she wanted to chase her down, but thought better of it.

“It’ll be alright, Sam,” Fluttershy comforted. “Ponyville will warm up to you. It might just… take time.”

Sam sighed, disappointment sticking in his throat. “Yeah. Sure… Hey, can we just… I don’t know, call it a day? I think I just want to go to sleep right now.”

The girls exchanged concerned looks. Then, after a quick glance at the sun, steadily approaching the horizon, Twilight spoke up.

“Actually, I think that might be a good idea. It’s getting late and I do have important business to take care of tomorrow.”

“Oh?” Sam queried, trying to wade through the mire of his depressing thoughts.

“Zecora is scheduled to return from her research trip to the Poison Joke meadow. Hopefully, she’ll be able to shed some light on the fruit you were eating.”

“Ah. Yeah, that would be nice. As things are, anything I can do to avoid a relapse and stay under the radar will be paramount.”

“Well, I don’t know what a ‘radar’ is, but you shouldn’t worry about it so much,” Rainbow said, dismissively waving her hoof. “I break plenty of stuff around Ponyville, and I’m still here. Now, we just need to figure out where you’re crashing for the night.”

Still not exactly brimming with confidence, Sam nevertheless turned to face the group, waiting for their judgement. Twilight frowned and stared at the ground rubbing her chin.

“Well, for reasons I think we all understand – even if we don’t agree with them – I don’t think we’ll be able to find an inn that will take him at the moment. So one of us will have to host him.”

“I would, but my place is no good; I live in a cloud home,” Rainbow said, shooting Sam an apologetic look.

“And I don’t think I have enough room in the library. The boutique might, but I doubt Rarity has a bed in your size.”

“Can’t she just make, like, a big ol’ nest outta her fabrics?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at Rainbow. “Do you honestly believe she would allow her fabric anywhere near the floor?”

“Okay, you have a point.”

Sam noticed Fluttershy raising her hoof just up to shoulder height, peeking out at her friends from behind her bangs, but she went entirely overlooked.

“Oh, oh! He could stay with me to Sugarcube Corner!” Pinkie shouted excitedly. “Then we can have a sleepover, and we can show the Cakes how much of a softie he is, and-”

“Pinkie, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Twilight advised.


Again, Fluttershy tried to attract her friends’ attention, but was just too quiet to be noticed. Even he barely heard her speak, and he had been listening for her.

“But why not?”

“I think they need some time to… come to terms with Sam.” Twilight noticed his face screwing up in distress and quickly backpedaled. “It’s not a reflection on you personally, Sam. It’s just… their house was damaged only a couple days ago.”

“Oh. Okay…” Pinkie conceded sadly, her mane inexplicably deflating.

“I- I could-”

“Well, what about AJ?” Rainbow offered. “Her barn’s plenty big, and she has bales and bales of hay he could sleep on.”

“I guess that could work. Sam, what are your thoughts on hay as bedding?”

Sam flattened his lips, not wanting to immediately shoot down their offer. But there was no way he was going to sleep on dried vegetation. Waking up so itchy that it burned was quite low on his bucket list. He really only had one other hope.

“I, uh… I think Fluttershy had an idea.”

Fluttershy, who had been scuffing the ground with her hoof in defeat, jumped at the sudden mention of her name.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Fluttershy. I must have missed it. You really should speak up if you have something to say. So what was your idea?”

Fluttershy looked annoyed for the briefest of moments before she swallowed her nervousness.

“Um, well, I was going to say that you could continue staying at my cottage, if you wanted to,” she mumbled, speaking directly to Sam.

“Are you sure, Fluttershy?” Twilight questioned. “I mean you already care for so many animals, will you be able to find room for a guest too?”

“Yes, of course,” Fluttershy asserted, beaming proudly. “Sam may have fallen asleep on the couch before I could lead him to it, but I have a bear-sized bed in a side room of the cottage. I use it whenever I take care of very large, sick animals. Oh, but it’s entirely sanitary, I assure you. I wash it very thoroughly afterwards.”

“Great!” Sam exclaimed, a bit too quickly. “No offense to Applejack and her barn, but I’d rather sleep in a bed than on hay.”

“Eh, suit yourself,” Rainbow said with a shrug. “Those hay bales are actually pretty soft.”

“Well, if that’s all taken care of, I’d suggest we call it a day. I have a feeling tomorrow’s going to be a busy day for all of us.”

In short order, everyone had said their goodnights and was headed for home. Sam trailed after Fluttershy, letting her guide the way towards her cottage.

“Thanks again, Fluttershy. I’m in your debt. If you need any help around the house, I’d be happy to lend a hand.”

“Oh, that’s okay. You’re a guest, and still recovering from malnutrition, no less.”

“Still, I’d like to do something to help out.”

Fluttershy hummed apprehensively. “You really should be resting, especially after all the recent excitement… I’ll think about it. For now, let’s just get you to bed, so you can get your strength back.”

Sam clammed up, letting the subject drop. To be honest, he was starting to get a little frustrated. First, the townsponies all ostracized him, and now the girls were treating him like he was made of glass. He knew he wasn’t exactly projecting an air of strength, but they didn’t have to coddle him.

Whatever. Tomorrow, I’ll show them just how helpful I can be./i]

Brother Aaron was discovering just how helpful Hounds of Tindalos could be. Without their help, he realized he would only have gotten half as far as he was now. He tried not to give them too much credit, though. After all, he was the one holding the leash.

He floated weightlessly along behind a sled team of cosmic horror. Ugly and Fuck took places behind The Hound Formerly Known As Fugly in his new position as lead dog, swimming with the extended wing membranes of their forelimbs. They pulled Aaron through the aether by their energy tethers, following an undetectable trail. Aaron couldn’t tell how long they’d been drifting through the Astral Plane, but, to be fair, he’d given up on keeping track of time long before now. Not that he’d be able to keep track of time in a timeless realm. So, when they finally came upon something, it only felt like it had been a few hours since he’d set out.

Out of the aetheric fog, a wall of shimmering color loomed up before them. The Hounds shuddered, panting excitedly, and began to prowl along the border, searching for a way in. Aaron yanked on their leashes, pulling them up short before they could tunnel through the Veil. It seemed they had found their quarry. Aaron sneered.

Fucking hell, look at this place. It’s so damn… bright.

Despite his disgust with the childish feel of the plane, Aaron couldn’t help but feel some excitement bubbling up to the surface. His first real look at a different plane of existence, and already he was being allowed on a hunt. This organization was already turning out to be way better than the brief trials he’d spent in other groups in his previous life.

Fuck you, Boy Scouts of America. Nobody in the Stillness will tell me I can’t go on hunting trips.

Unless, of course, he screwed this one up, so he would have to be smart about this.

Which means I can’t just go breaking through the Veil. I do, whoever’s in there that knows magic will be able to sense it. And I can’t have the asshole knowing I’m coming. So… I need to find a wormhole in – or wyrmhole, or however the hell that’s spelled and pronounced – through another plane. A couple planes out would be even better. But for that, I need to know where to go.

A plan in mind, he cleared away the rest of his thoughts, preparing for commune. Whatever knowledge he lacked, the Watcher in the Weave would provide. So much more helpful than any of the old, human gods. The errant thought brought a smirk to his face before he could marshal it away. Finally, with his thoughts in order, he opened his mind to his god.

The slippery, icy presence of the Watcher immediately filled his consciousness, settling in like a metric ton of dead fish, and smothering all but the strongest of his thoughts. The edges of his vision darkened, the aetheric winds became muffled, and the scent of frozen flesh filled his nostrils. Aaron felt the Watcher sift through his mind, plucking at details, searching for the reason for its summons. He offered up his recent memories, hoping it would be enough for the void dwelling entity to piece together his plight.

In moments, understanding flooded the empty spaces of Aaron’s mind. His location in the multidimensional realm, the connections into the target plane, and the chain of planes beyond that; everything was unceremoniously crammed into his brain. Aaron could hardly move for fear of his skull bursting from the inside out. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, the Watcher withdrew, leaving Aaron’s mind with one last clammy, lingering caress.

Aaron shuddered. Helpful, yes. Unpleasant, most definitely. Nothing would ever be able to prepare him for contact with the Watcher. At least it left his sanity mostly intact, apart from a lingering sensation of the thinnest sheen of mucus on his skin, though repeated pat downs revealed nothing left behind.

Well, at least I know where to go now.

Aaron steered the Hounds away from the Veil, and the idyllic looking plane beyond. His hand itched, and he had to squeeze the handle of his blade until he could feel the inlay digging into his skin. It wouldn’t do to lose control now, especially when he was so close.

The first guy to block my path. Just remember that… I’ll cut down the first guy to block my path.

His temper steeled, Aaron let go of the dagger and returned his attention to his Hounds. With a flick of the arm, he pulled them away from the Veil, and set them on course for the plane that would mark his entry point.

I’ll see you soon, you fuckin’ cock-a-roach, Aaron thought, settling for amusing himself with his best Tony Montana.