Let’s talk about hydras.
Hydras are strange. They’re terrifying, but not as terrifying as dragons. They’re strong, but not as strong as dragons. They’re good at killing things—but they’re not as good at it as dragons are.
They are, in other words, the red-headed stepchild of the universe. They’re eternal runner-ups, living under the shadow of the most perfect beasts Mother Nature ever created. They have multiple heads and eight times more teeth, but they can’t spit flames. They are bigger, but they can’t fly.
Here’s the thing, though: they have always killed more ponies on average than dragons.
This is because dragons are a no-win scenario. You don’t face a dragon, plain and simple—you lay down, close your eyes, and say your prayers. There is no survival instinct when you face a dragon. You just give up.
But hydras? Hydras only got a silver medal at the death race. You have a chance against a hydra. You can at least stand tall, grit your teeth, and face the monster. You can hope, you may make it home.
And then you don’t. Because the hydra tears you to pieces. Because a silver medal just means that you’re better than ninety-nine point nine percent of the population.
“And you’re telling me this, because…?”
Bon Bon frowned from behind her sunglasses, and glared down at Lyra. “I’m telling you this,” she said, “so you understand that what we’re doing right now is important.”
Lyra looked around.
Hot sun, muddy road, green water, lots of mosquitoes.
It smelled foul.
“Bon Bon.” Lyra stopped looking around. “We’re guarding a swamp.”
“We’re guarding the swamp the hydras would cross if they dared come to Canterlot,” Bon Bon said. She was wearing her full gear—top of the line black suit, expensive sunglasses, no body armor whatsoever—and standing at attention. “With the dragons out of their territory, they might very well do a straight bee-line towards the city and attack it.”
“Isn’t the city literally full of dragons as we speak.”
“Yes. But if anything, that makes it worse.” Bon Bon shook her head. “We don’t want that kind of conflict at our door.”
Two minutes passed.
Lyra looked at Bon Bon again. “Bon?” she asked.
“Why am I here?”
“Because this is a mission of utmost importance, Lyra. Canterlot is already full of monsters at the moment. If by any chance the hydras decide to join—”
“No, that’s why you are here,” Lyra said. “I’m asking why I am here.”
This made Bon Bon stop. She didn’t exactly lose her cool, but she did relax a little, and took off her glasses. “Because,” she said, matter-of-factly, “this is really boring. There is no way the hydras are attacking, and if I’m going to waste my entire day patrolling a completely empty place, I’d rather keep you by my side.” Then she arched an eyebrow. “There. I just like you a lot. Happy?”
Lyra heard this, and smiled. “Aaaw,” she said. “You’re so full of it, aren’t you.”
“No clue what you’re talking about.”
“You’re seriously trying to tell me that’s why you brought me to the dumbest swamp in Equestria? Because you’re in love with me or something? Please. You’re cute when you’re dumb, but this is pushing it.”
“Aren’t we dating, though?”
“You’re cute when you’re dumb, but this is pushing it,” Lyra repeated, although she did elbow Bon Bon in a rather suggestive manner. “Seriously, I get that you’re trying to flatter me, but I’ve known you for years, Bon. You’re a workaholic. You’re not going to drag me to your workplace without a real reason.”
Bon Bon had to smile at this, because Lyra was—obviously—right, but also because she kind of wanted to talk about this from the get-go. “Right. Well.” She sighed. “It’s about Vinyl.”
Lyra Heartstrings nodded. “Oh, now we’re talking. Come on, lay it on me. What did good ol’ Vinyl do this time?”
Lyra blinked. “Nothing?”
“Yeah. Nothing. It was me who—uh.” Bon Bon frowned and looked ahead, suddenly alert, business face on. Almost absent-mindedly, she put her sunglasses back on, and suddenly she was a secret agent from head to toe. “Did you hear that?” she asked.
Lyra’s ears perked up. She had seen her girlfriend go full government worker mode enough times to recognize that tone anywhere. “No,” she said, hiding behind Bon. “I—I heard nothing.”
“Sounded like a roar.”
“Right.” Lyra shrunk her shoulders, clinged to Bon’s leg a little. “Are we in danger?”
Bon nodded. “Probably.”
“I AM GETTING OUT OF HERE! SOMEONE OPEN THAT WINDOW SO I CAN JUMP OUT!”
Vinyl tried to run. Octavia held her in place, close enough to stay alive. Between them, there was a bomb.
The idea, as they’d been told, was simple—it had this straightforward logic that serial killers absolutely adore. The bomb was a thin metallic rectangle of golden hue; it had felt cold to the touch at first, but after some minutes of severe body contact, it’d warmed up quite quickly.
Octavia and Vinyl were, to put it simply, laying on each other’s arms. Vinyl’s head was resting on the crook of Octavia’s neck. Octavia’s front legs were wrapped around Vinyl’s back. Their back legs were kind of a mess; now and then Octavia would wrap them around Vinyl too to get a better grip, and other times she would let her go and kick around freely.
And she was doing this, of course, because the moment they stopped hugging the bomb would go off, and blow up the entire building.
“Which is why I think you should stop!” Octavia was toeing the line between hugging and wrestling, laying on top of Vinyl and keeping her in place, but her voice still sounded elegant, chipper, perfectly rational. “I would very much like to keep the Castle intact, yes? It’s got sentimental value. Plus, that would probably kill us all, too!” Octavia looked at Mister Labcoat. “Would it kill us all, too, by any chance?”
“I see! Good.” Octavia looked at Vinyl again, and hugged her harder. “See, Vinyl? We’re all on the same boat! You should probably stop trying to kill us all.”
Vinyl was rolling around, trying to crawl towards the window, utterly failing because Octavia was there. “I REFUSE!”
“To kill us all?”
“Ah.” Octavia frowned. “You refuse to stop killing us all.”
“YES! YES, THAT EXACTLY!”
“Well! That is just not nice in the slightest.”
“Hmm.” Labcoat was looking at the two mares—wiggling and wobbling and wrestling—with a slightly disappointed look in his face. He made absolutely no effort to move them, to go away, or to stop Vinyl from blowing up the entirety of the Castle. He instead looked at Luna after writing something in his notebook. “I do not think this is working.”
Luna seemed unaffected. “Not enough time has passed,” she said, and then she smiled at Labcoat, confidence all over her face. “I am sure this will work out in the end! Friendship works in mysterious ways, you see?”
“They are saying they want to murder us all. That is the literal opposite of what we want.”
“Mysterious ways, I said.”
“FRIENDSHIP MY BOOT. KILLING YOU ALL NOW.”
“Vinyl, no. No.” Octavia frowned, and smacked Vinyl on the back of her neck lightly. “Stop threatening our lives. And, Mister Labcoat?” Octavia looked at Labcoat again, still struggling to keep Vinyl in place. “I don’t want to murder us all! The opposite, rather. Right, Vinyl?”
“She means yes.”
“It is futile to struggle, Vinyl Scratch!” Luna said, raising her voice to be heard above Vinyl’s screeches. “I have personally closed the window so that you cannot get out! And you cannot break it, because I specifically asked for a very sturdy window in here!” Then she winked at Labcoat. “I saw this coming,” she said. “I am very good at planning.”
“I see. That is good.”
Vinyl stopped struggling, and Octavia could breathe a sigh of relief. It did not last long, however, because Vinyl immediately glared at Princess Luna—she rose her shades and everything to stare better—and muttered:
“Get me out of here or I’m blowing this whole place up.”
Princess Luna cocked her head to the side. “Have you not been trying to do that for the last ten minutes?”
“She has!” Octavia said.
“I have not.”
“Yeah! Wait, what.”
“Trust me, if I wanted to get Octavia off me, I would’ve done it already. She’s not exactly strong.” Vinyl rolled around so she would be laying on top, and held Octavia against her chest, too, shooting her a quick look. “Also, sorry for that. Was trying to bluff back there.”
“You mean, I have been struggling for the last ten minutes for nothing?”
“Kinda? You have the strength of a puppy. Kinda cute, actually.”
“Oh.” Octavia pouted. It honestly looked kind of good. “Well! I am cute. So I take that as a compliment!”
“Yeah! It was! Kind of? Atta girl anyway.” Vinyl looked at Princess Luna. Her expression was intense. She said: “Let me go, or this good girl dies.” Then she looked at Octavia and added: “Sorry again for that, by the way.” Back at Luna: “She dies a horrible death, Princess, extremely painful, and it will all be your fault.” Back at Octavia: “Really can’t stress enough how much I’m apologizing here.”
Octavia was still pouting, although now she was squinting too, and it didn’t look as good. “It’s fine! It’s fine. As long as you don’t kill me. Which I hope you don’t!”
“Desperate times, desperate measures, I’m sure you’ll forgive me in time.” Back at Luna: “I’m already a criminal, Princess. I don’t care if I’m making things worse. Consider Octavia a hostage.” To Octavia: “Like, I’ll buy you a coffee later or—”
“I get it!”
“Neat, thanks.” Glaring at Luna: “Princess. If Octavia dies, your Castle and you two go out with it.”
Luna nodded. She looked serious now. “That is not a very good threat,” she said, softly. She unfolded her wings slightly, and in that moment she looked bigger than ever. Stronger than ever. “I do believe that you will die in the explosion, Vinyl Scratch, but you would be foolish to think,” and she did not quite snarl, but she did show her teeth more than necessary when talking, and a fang showed, “that a mere bomb could hurt me.”
“It could, actually.”
Luna blinked, all the might vanishing from her face, and she looked at Labcoat. “It could?”
“Oh, yes. I filled it with dragonfire myself. It would absolutely kill us all.” And Labcoat stuck his chest out, smug grin in his face. “It would even kill me. Very destructive. Really good bomb.”
“Oh. I see.” Luna frowned. “I do believe I am immortal, though?”
“Severely maim you, then.”
“I am very good at murder.”
“It shows! It really shows. That is not a good thing at all actually.” Luna smiled at him, and then went back to Vinyl. “Okay. I was wrong. That was a very good threat.”
Vinyl nodded. “Thank you. Now, let me go.”
“I will not.” Luna took a step forward, looking as perfectly calm as ever. Vinyl tensed up—and, in her arms, Octavia tensed up too. Both their pulses quickened. Both could feel the other’s heartbeat. “I will not, Vinyl Scratch. I apologize for underestimating your threat, but I will still not listen to it.”
Quick breaths. Octavia held to Vinyl as tightly as possible. Vinyl let her go slightly, and got ready to jump away. She was still not wearing her glasses; her eyes were bare.
“Because,” Luna said once she was right next to them, lowering her head so she could whisper into Vinyl’s ears, “I can recognize a bluff when I see one. I am not a fool, Vinyl Scratch. You should do well in remembering that.”
Vinyl relaxed, and gripped Octavia a little better. Octavia let out another sigh of relief. “I thought you were going to murder me!” she whispered, accusatory, pouting again.
Vinyl cast her a last glance, insecure smile on. “An extra large cup of coffee?”
“Vinyl, I am ridiculously aristocratic! I own more money than you’ll ever see in your life! Do not think that just buying me an extra large cup of coffee will earn you my forgiv—”
“Two cups of coffee.”
“Oh. That’s a pretty good deal!”
“That is a pretty good deal,” Luna said, nodding. She was still at whisper distance, looking at Vinyl with approving eyes. “Vinyl Scratch is a good pony, Octavia. Which is why I knew she was not going to murder us all.”
“Also you’re immortal.”
“Also, I am immortal.”
“It sounds very convenient for when others threaten you.”
“It is!” Luna said, taking a step backwards to give the two ponies some privacy. “Now! I am sure you two want to know why we are doing this!”
“We do!” Octavia said.
“We don’t,” Vinyl said. “If you tell us, we’ll get involved. If we run away now, there’s still hope.”
“Good!” Luna said. “I am ignoring you again, Vinyl Scratch.”
“The reason why we are doing this is…” And then Luna frowned, and took a step to the side. “Mister Labcoat?” she said, in the tone of a schoolteacher who just remembered there’s some homework due from the day prior. “I believe you should be the one saying it?”
Labcoat blinked once he realized he was in the spotlight. Despite Vinyl’s complaints, she didn’t say anything as she saw the dragon step up, cough, and produce the notebook from his breast pocket again. She just stared, flashing her horn to cover her eyes with her shades once again, and rolling to the side so Octavia wasn’t under her at all times.
Mister Labcoat started reading from the notebook. “I am currently researching,” he said before turning the page, squinting, and bringing the notebook closer to his eyes. “Hugs. And body contact. It is good for creating affectionate bonds.”
Princess Luna gave him an encouraging look. “Good,” she said.
Labcoat seemed to like that. His squint became more confident. “Pony bonding,” he specified. “It is not the same as dragon bonding. You do not partake in the buying and selling of mortal souls.”
Luna waved a hoof in the air. “We do not, we do not. And you were saying…”
“Right. Yes.” Labcoat cleared his throat with a cough again, went back to the notebook, and faced Vinyl and Octavia. “We do not tamper with the Realms Beyond. But we do hug. That is how pony bonding works.”
“That is all.”
Vinyl couldn’t help the sudden scream again. “WHAT.”
“Um.” Octavia blinked, and then looked at Labcoat with genuine confusion. “Excuse me, but—did you just say the buying and selling of souls?”
“THAT EXPLAINS NOTHING.”
“I was not aware dragons bought souls? I was not aware souls existed. Should I be concerned?”
“WHY ARE WE HUGGING A BOMB.”
“I feel like I should be concerned.”
“You should not be concerned, Octavia Pianissimo!” Princess Luna said, waving a hoof dismissively in the air. “The matter of souls is not what we are discussing at the moment. It is completely inconsequential.” Pause. “That said! Souls do exist, there is an afterlife, and you will be judged upon death. It is a very complicated thing.” She looked at Labcoat. “Also, ponies can partake in the buying and selling of souls!”
“Yes! But it is a great secret. We need to drink the blood of an innocent first, it is a hassle.”
“Oh. I like that a lot.”
“Yes, that is pretty bad actually.”
“WHY ARE WE HUGGING A BOMB.”
“I… Well?” Octavia frowned harder. “That is even more concerning, actually! What with you drinking blood to do it in the first place I mean—is this common knowledge? Afterlife? Souls? What even is a soul? I—”
Octavia looked at her hug companion. “Vinyl?”
“CAN WE PLEASE FOCUS.”
“I don’t know! It’s just, there is a whole system out there that I was not aware of! So what is a soul really? How will we be judged after death?”
“WHY ARE YOU PONDERING ON SPIRITUAL QUESTIONS WHEN WE ARE CURRENTLY HUGGING A BOMB.”
Octavia thought about this. Her ears went down, and as she couldn’t rub her chin—her hooves were busy hugging—she simply rubbed her face against Vinyl in a pensive fashion. “Hmmm. Good point, actually.” She glanced at Luna. “Princess?”
“Why are we hugging a bomb?”
Princess Luna arched an eyebrow. “I believe I have explained it already, at least in part,” she said. “I am teaching Mister Labcoat how to understand friendship without using murder or wanton violence.”
“So I designed the bomb,” Labcoat added. “I wanted to see how hugs react to murder and wanton violence.”
“He is a bit of a slow learner.”
“I am trying my best.”
Octavia blinked and looked at Luna. “Well. I see! That is—.”
“WHAT DOES ANY OF THAT EVEN MEAN.”
“—not a great explanation! That is not a great explanation at all. I agree with Vinyl!” Octavia looked at Vinyl, eyes shining. “See? We’re agreeing now! Isn’t that nice? It’s like a silver lining.”
“DIDN’T I LITERALLY JUST ASK YOU TO FOCUS.”
“You did! You sure did, yes.”
“Hugs seem to be an effective tool to show affection,” Labcoat said. “I wish to research their exact effects. If we take two ponies who will never get along and they hug. What will happen?” He nodded to himself, and closed the notebook. “Also, there is a bomb.”
“It was my idea!” Luna said, grinning. “Well. Not really. It was my sister’s idea first—but I thought about bringing Mister Labcoat! Because I believed this would be a great opportunity to study hugs under extreme circumstances.”
“I am also very good at murder.”
“He is also very good at murder, yes. Which is bad, but also means his bomb would suffice. He is a very resourceful dragon.” Then Luna started pacing around the room, looking around. At the pictures in the walls, at the fireplace, at the cozy carpet that Vinyl and Octavia were laying on. “My sister herself decided it had to be you two, however. I did not choose that.”
At this point, Octavia and Vinyl had been laying on their side for what felt like at least twenty minutes, and Octavia’s neck hurt from all the turning around to look at whoever was talking. So she tugged from Vinyl and rolled over until she was on top. Vinyl moaned a complaint, but Octavia gracefully chose not to hear it. “Princess Celestia said we had to be the ones to teach friendship to Mister Labcoat?”
“Pfft.” Vinyl felt something cold drop in her stomach at the mention of Princess Celestia—but she tried her best to ignore it, and sound dismissive instead of absolutely terrified, when she talked. “Good luck then. No offense, but Octavia and I aren’t really going to become buddies just for this.”
“Oh, yes! That’s unfortunately true.” Octavia nodded, and her ears perked up when she spoke, because she sounded legitimately happy while saying this: “I’m afraid nobility doesn’t really do friendship! We consider it a form of labor.”
Vinyl frowned. “You what now.”
“It can technically slay dragons, right?”
“Yes,” Princess Luna said.
“Yes,” Labcoat said.
“Yes!” Octavia repeated. “So it counts as a tool! And using a tool counts as labor. We don’t really like that—it’s why we created social strata to begin with! Commoners work, and we just lavish in our own decadence.”
“Charming,” Vinyl said. “Say, how come you’re all still so evil if you’re self-aware enough to realize this?”
Octavia fluttered her eyelashes. “Oh, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Like, you used the word ‘decadence’ yourself.”
Luna was still pacing around. Now she was toying with some files on her desk. “Ah, yes. Politics are a wonderful thing. However…” One of the files seemed to get her attention, and she grabbed it with her magic before looking back at Octavia. “No friendship. But you can do pleasant acquaintanceship, right?”
Octavia beamed. “Absolutely!”
“Perfect, then. Mister Labcoat?” Luna flashed her horn and the document—a series of miscellaneous documents all haphazardly thrown together in one thick brown folder—came floating behind her when she approached the group once again. “Slight change of plans! You are to learn pleasant acquaintanceship from these two ponies.”
“I see.” Labcoat didn’t produce his notebook again, but he did pat his breast pocket, maybe to reassure himself before talking. “I do not have notes on that.”
“It is similar to friendship but far less fulfilling.” Luna then faced the two mares, brandishing the file. “And—ah-hah! Here it is! My sister’s plan, with all the details that I need. You are not merely a tool for friendship—”
“Casual acquaintanceship,” Octavia said.
“—or casual acquaintanceship. I must send you two on a quest!”
Vinyl’s eyes went wide. Her pupils turned the size of peas. “No. No, no, no.”
“Yes!” Luna said, opening the binder and paging through it. “Yes, yes, yes. See? It is all in here! It is a matter of—”
“—Destiny,” Luna finished. “You two are set to—save the world? Or die trying, but that will be a horrible death. Huh.” Luna looked at Labcoat. “Mister Labcoat, did you know anything about this?”
“I was not informed of Princess Celestia’s plans for the evening.”
“Well, they apparently involve saving the world. That seems to be the reason why my sister wanted them hugging a bomb too. I like that! It is elegant. Two birds with one stone.” Luna closed the binder, and then looked at Vinyl. “Is that enough to answer your questions?”
Octavia was the one who answered, however. “We’re saving the world?” she asked, blinking. “How quaint. It sounds interesting!”
“You might also die a horrible death,” Luna added, waving the file in the air. “But that does sound interesting!”
“No,” Vinyl whispered. “No, we’re not saving anything. We’re absolutely not saving anything. We’re out of here.”
And something about that last line made Octavia look at Vinyl again, really look at her, because she was the only one who heard it. It’d been something in the tone in which Vinyl had spoken—but also something in the words she had said. Because, true, Vinyl had been talking about getting out of there for a while now?
But that had been the first time she had used the plural ‘we’ when talking about it.
“I do not know if you can choose not to save the world?” Luna, completely oblivious to the fascinating shifts in Octavia’s mind, was still showing her brown file around, right before opening it again, and grabbing a very small yellow note from it. “You two live in it, do you not? It would seem counterproductive!”
“Somepony else can do it,” Vinyl said, whispering again—but slightly louder this time.
So Princess Luna heard it. And she did something funny with her face: she looked understanding, but also kind of uncomfortable. “Ah, well. Yes. I understand your plight, Vinyl Scratch. But I swore I would protect my sister at all costs when I came back. I simply do not care to risk her wellbeing, unfair as the situation must be.”
Vinyl plainly looked horrible by this point, what with the whispering, and her shoulders being so tense, and her being honestly kind of pale—a feat, seeing how she had white fur. So Octavia rubbed her back reassuringly and poked her cheek with her forehead. Just a little bit of affection to show support in one way or the other.
Vinyl seemed startled by this, and then looked at Octavia with confused eyes. Counting it as a victory, Octavia looked at Princess Luna. “Princess Celestia?” she asked. “Princess Celestia may suffer if we don’t save the world?”
“Uh. Even I think that’s kind of obvious. And I’m me.”
“Octavia.” Vinyl back at it with the whisper. She wasn’t looking at Octavia when talking—she simply looked to the ceiling, her eyes hidden behind her glasses. “On the count of three, we break that window and get out.”
“I’m serious. Somepony else can be the hero; I couldn’t care less. And neither could you.” Vinyl frowned, glanced at Labcoat. “And honestly, I think neither could him?”
“I am here to study friendship.”
“The fact that all the living things in Equestria may die isn’t really changing your outlook in life, huh?”
“I do not know. Does it count as murder?”
Octavia’s mouth became a thin hard line. “I think I know what you mean,” she said. “But—I don’t follow. Are we advocating for the end of the world now?” She had to think about this a little bit. “I don’t know if I’m aristocratic enough to reach that level of nihilism yet, to be absolutely honest.”
“Right. To make things clear.” Vinyl finally looked at Octavia. “I want the world to be saved, I just don’t want to be the one doing it. That clear enough?”
“Absolutely not! But please keep talking.”
“Sure. On three.” Vinyl nodded towards the wall. “Window. One.”
“You cannot escape like that,” Luna mused, still reading the yellow note she’d gotten from the file.
“Princess. She is counting very seriously.”
“She is! But I do not believe you can run from this kind of thing so easily. I still have some things to tell them, apparently.” Luna finally put the yellow note down and looked at the two mares with a smile on her face. “Also, I already told you! They cannot jump out of that window. It is very sturdy! Very, very sturdy. I got it installed myself!”
Vinyl never got to finish her countdown. They never got to jump out of the window.
The outer wall of Luna’s study exploded in sudden burst of dust, glass, and rubble.
If you’re close enough to the source, you don’t really hear an explosion as much as you feel it. That’s what happened here; they all felt the explosion in the rattling of their teeth, in the way their stomach turned upside down, and so all of them flinched and moved away from the flying rubble on instinct.
All of them, except Luna.
Luna just stood there, impervious, and when one particularly nasty piece of wall went by so close to her face that her mane got ruffled, she didn’t even blink. She simply stared at the wall and waited for the dust to settle to see what had caused it.
Then it did. And Luna saw:
At the other side, peeking through and perched on the outer wall of the Castle, there was a hydra. A giant, drake-like monster with big stompy legs, slimy scales, and terrible breath. It had four heads, but the hole was only big enough for one of them, which was staring at the inside of the room with a viciously yellow eye and too many teeth to count.
The hydra then roared, and it sounded like this:
But a million times louder.
Vinyl and Octavia flinched again—but not Luna. She still stood there, unmoving, looking at the monster. Then she looked down at the broken glass by her hooves, and pawed at it a little.
“It was a very sturdy window,” she mused. “I quite liked it.” Then she put on a smile, and looked at the hydra. “You should not have done that! It is going to be very bothersome to fix it all. Mister Labcoat?”
Labcoat was snarling, now, showing his teeth at the hydra—but still standing on his hind legs, still looking somewhat civilized with that labcoat of his. When he spoke, his voice sounded normal. “Yes?”
“Would you say we are under attack?”
The room shook again.
Luna nodded. “Yes, that sounds like we are under attack indeed! Mister Labcoat?”
Labcoat snarled a bit harder. “Yes?”
“Do you mind taking care of it?”
“I do not mind.”
Labcoat took care of it.
Octavia and Vinyl stiffened—easy to tell, when they were hugging like that—and while in the background Labcoat breathed a fire that was completely black and hotter than the sun, Luna approached the two huggers with a tiny smile on her lips.
“Ah-hah!” she said once she was close enough, crouching a little so they could hear her. She was still carrying that file, that yellow note. “It is a secret, you see? Why it was you two in particular. You are not supposed to know! It is all part of the quest.”
The blast of black fire was so strong, the shockwave almost sent Vinyl and Octavia flying. The only reason they stood there was because Luna held them with her magic. Luna herself didn’t seem to notice the show behind her.
“I took care of it.”
“That is good!” There was smoke everywhere, and half the roof was in flames. Luna turned around and gave Labcoat a wink. “Now take care of it again a couple times, I am doing something.”
“Okay. That sounds reasonable.”
Labcoat breathed more black fire.
“I like it when he listens to me. I am such a good teacher.” Then Luna looked at Vinyl and Octavia again, who by this point were just staring at everything, eyes wide, utterly lost. “Do not mind the hydra! I am sure it is not relevant to our current discussion. We were expecting them anyway. What matters now,” and here Luna poked Octavia’s side, causing her to go eep! a little, “is the bomb. I apologize for the trouble, but I did this for my sister. I hope you understand.”
“Well! Um.” Octavia looked at Vinyl—frozen—and then at Luna (she was smiling) and then she swallowed. “That is actually really confusing? I have no idea why we are suddenly saving the world for no reason.”
“We are not,” Vinyl said.
“Or why we are not. I also don’t understand that! I don’t understand many things. It is getting very annoying.” Octavia frowned at Vinyl. “Very annoying. It would help if somepony please explained why she has such a strong opinion in the matter!”
Vinyl nodded. “Three coffees if you shut up.”
“I’m shutting up.”
“Good!” Luna nodded. “It is good that you shut up. I have much to tell you.” Then she rubbed her chin with a hoof, pensive, and looked at Octavia. “I am going to poke you again now.”
“Ah-hah! You are soft! Very pleasant to poke.”
“Good! I am taking that as a compliment. Also, please never do that again?”
“I cannot make any promises.”
“Princess Luna. Your Highness.” Vinyl finally spoke, through gritted teeth. “Why did you strap us to a bomb, and why are you asking us to save the world.”
“Hmm.” Luna smiled that little smile of hers, and waved the yellow paper in the air some more. “Some of the details I cannot tell. Sister was clear about it, you see? Discovery is part of your journey. But, at least some of it should be obvious to you, I think?” Pause. “Also, a factor is obviously that you are to show what friendship looks like to Mister Labc—”
Luna stopped poking Octavia. “To show what casual acquaintanceship looks like to Mister Labcoat,” she said. “I find it strange that you are this surprised, Vinyl Scratch. Did your friend not talk to you about this party? About the threat of the hydras, which we were already expecting?”
“I—uh.” Vinyl blinked, squinted. Her face relaxed, but just a bit. “She… might have.”
“Then I do not see why you are confused. Surely it all makes perfect sense to you?” Pause. Luna arched an eyebrow. “Your very presence here? It is a matter of Destiny, I believe, and it has to be yours.”
Vinyl sucked air through her teeth. “Destiny? What do you mean—”
“—it has to be—okay, can you stop poking Octavia like that?”
“Thank you!” Octavia whined.
“I cannot! She is very plump!” Luna said, with a smile, getting up. She put the yellow note away in the file and then closed it. “Which is good! Really good! I am so good at picking chosen ones. I should do this more often.”
Vinyl gawked. “Chosen ones?”
Octavia frowned. “Plump?”
Mister Labcoat whispered. “Princess.”
And something in his voice made them all immediately forget what was going on; the whiplash of the sudden mood in the room was almost physical in nature. Suddenly, they could hear something in the distance, coming from outside the Castle, in the city of Canterlot.
The sound of something burning.
Stone splitting, and a hundred beasts roaring in unison.
“We have a problem.”
The black fire had produced smoke—the kind of smoke that gets in your lungs and stays there—but it was fading, now. The little flames that had been licking at random parts of the room were dying out one by one.
The giant hydra was still there, perched at the wall. Untouched by the fire.
What happened next, neither Vinyl nor Octavia would ever forget. What happened next was, in their eyes, the picture perfect definition of fear, in one very simple scene:
Princess Luna turned around, looked at the hydra, and her pupils shrank, and she said: “Oh. Oh, no.”
The hydra roared again and her one free head lounged inside the study, quick like a viper. Labcoat was faster—he crouched and jumped, just in time to—
—be swatted away like a fly.
“Mister Labcoat!” Luna whipped her head to the side, and her horn glimmered—a flash, and Labcoat was back on his feet, the hydra was retreating. “Careful!”
But Labcoat wasn’t having it. “You!” His voice had changed. It was deeper now, darker. Something primal shining in his eyes. He fell to all fours, black flames coming off his nostrils. “I WILL SKIN YOU FOR THIS!”
“Mister Labcoat!” The hydra attacked again, Luna flashed her horn—there was a clash and Luna grunted, took a step backwards. “Careful! It is not what it seems!”
The hydra was observing them again, not moving. Mister Labcoat looked at Luna and made a guttural sound. “Careful?” he then asked. “Since when do WE need care?! I will not let this insult pass! Not from a hydra!”
“But it is not a hydra, that thing.” Luna was panting. Sweat ran down her neck. Whatever magic she had cast—twice—was taking a toll on her. “Not on the inside. Not where it counts. It is a half-breed!”
This calmed Labcoat, somehow. His voice went back to normal. A spark of curiosity came to his eyes, making him look much more sentient, much less like an ancient demon aching for some reaping. “What? A half-breed? How come? What of?”
And Luna swallowed, and glimmered her horn once again.
Octavia and Vinyl had rolled away as soon as they had seen a chance, and were currently hiding under the table—but they could see the hydra. And what they saw was this: the hydra was smiling. There was intelligence in its eyes.
“What else of?” Luna took a step backwards. Labcoat imitated her, seemingly on instinct alone. The hydra hissed. “To be this strong, it can only be one thing. The only beast who can fight a dragon.”
And then the hydra hissed again, but it wasn’t a hiss, it was a word. A word full of poison, and the hydra’s nostrils flared with blue flames.
Then it sniffed around, as if looking for something, and its smile got even wider, more full of teeth than ever. The other three heads were out of sight, but one could tell—they were smiling too.
It was then that Octavia felt the urge to whisper. “Vinyl?” she asked, and her voice sounded delicate, fragile.
Vinyl didn’t reply with words. She just tightened the hug, reassuringly, around Octavia’s shoulder.
Octavia acknowledged this by pressing herself against Vinyl a little. But then, she continued. She said: “Is it me, or is that thing… Sniffing…?”
And Vinyl finished her sentence:
“…in this direction?”
As on cue, the hydragon started drooling, just a little. A single drop of saliva fell from its mouth to the carpet—and there it hissed and produced bubbles and steam, until there was nothing left in there but a dark circle of burned fabric.
The hydragon roared again:
Then, chaos. The hydragon moved all of a sudden—not with its neck, but with its whole body. It moved backwards, then forwards, and then it hit the Study, and the entire tower, with all the strength it could muster.
The tower collapsed.
What followed was too messy to remember, Octavia would explain later. A lot of noise, a lot of screaming. Rubble hitting them, and then suddenly, the floor gave up under them.
And they fell.
The hydragon roared above, Mister Labcoat roared back, black fire and blue flames colluding. More heat than the body can withstand, confusion, the sound of something boney snapping in half, and then—a flash of blue magic, and Luna’s voice, clear as day:
“Look for my sister,” it said. “That is your quest! Do not let go! You are the chosen ones! Discovery is part of the journey! You must remember that!”
Octavia tried to reply, but failed. She couldn’t hear her own voice through the howling of the wind against her ears as she fell. So she just hugged Vinyl, and Vinyl hugged her back.
Then the noise stopped, and everything went white.