Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

Trust Where None Have Tread

Point Crowne was much like Ponyville, a satellite town of Canterlot. Many of the not-super-wealthy ponies who worked in the capital lived in these villages and commuted into the city. This one was closer and thus, wealthier, than most of the others. One little café in particular — The Velvet Room — had nearly the same level of fame as some of the shops in Canterlot itself.
It was this café that Twilight found herself in, yawning as she followed a waiter to a private VIP booth in a little tower. At the table was a pegasus who was dressed very much like any noble from the area. Her blouse was white and kinda poofy, with the formal, business-like outer jacket a light green. She had a collar with a bright red gem in it, and the dress had dark green on the fringes. She also wore a very large white hat with long green feathers stuck in one side.
Twilight sat on the cushion opposite the mare, with Spike standing and facing the door. They both kept silent until the waiter finally left and Twilight could put up a privacy field to scramble their speech to any potential eavesdroppers. “I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t quite this.”
“Oh?” The mare took a sip of tea. “You didn’t expect me in my work clothes, did you?”
“I suppose not, but I also didn’t expect to see the Phantasm to be dressed as a noble. Although I definitely anticipated the hat. After all, a winged unicorn would naturally draw attention.” 

Phantasm froze for a second. “Ah. Of course. I was wondering if I would be able to keep that under wraps if I met you. But it was worth it to save the foals’ lives.”

Twilight poured herself a cup of tea, though she made sure to use magic to test it for contamination. 

“Don’t trust me?”

“No. Though I would imagine you could understand that. Grand Mages grow enemies like weeds.”

“I suppose that’s fair.”

“So,” Twilight said, taking a sip. “Were you an orphan? Was that why a thief felt so compelled to bring the orphanage to my attention?”

“If you must know, yes.” Phantasm nibbled on a tiny cake. “Though my backstory isn’t why I asked to meet you here. It’s been some time, Twilight. Last we met, I gave you a list of names. I want to see if you passed the test.” 

“Let’s get one thing straight. Much as I don’t put too much stock in noble ranks, I also don’t put myself under anypony that doesn’t have the title of ‘Princess.’ I am not subject to your approval. I do not take orders from you. I personally didn’t even do anything to investigate the ponies you mentioned. I gave it to RGIS, who gave it to the Crown Police.

“As for the results, Spike, if you would?”

Spike pulled a large binder out from his bag, and flipped to page three. “Of the twenty names you gave us, ten could not be found to have done anything criminal. They simply didn’t trust you. They’ve been disciplined to always launch investigations on such accusations, and many local- to Duchy-level organizations have put in new procedures to make sure such investigations will happen when somepony makes that kind of complaint.

“A further five were found to be generally incompetent for multiple reasons. Four were terminated, one demoted. 

“Four more were found to be taking bribes and kickbacks. They’re either already in prison or are being tried for their crimes.”

“Hmm.” Phantasm’s gaze was colder than the incoming breeze, and she ignored the snowflake falling into her tea. “And the last? That’s only nineteen.”

Spike grimaced. “Marinara Spice. Minor noble. Dead before the investigation launched. Heart attack.”

Phantasm blinked. “Oh. Well, yes, I do suppose that’s a good excuse for not being prosecuted.”

Twilight motioned to Spike. “That’s the end result, at least as far as those twenty are concerned. I’ve also talked with Cadence, and she’s put in place a process to ensure all future buildings meant to house orphans are given a once-over by her own inspectors before being cleared.”

“And ten go basically unpunished.” Phantasm sighed. “You vex me so, Lady Sparkle. I had fully expected you to either do nothing, or crush them all underhoof. That’s all the nobility ever seems good for.

“Lo and behold, you do neither and both, at the same time. I’ve run through what I thought this conversation would be so many times, and this… this was not like anything I had feared. Or hoped.”

Twilight sipped tea through a smile. “And that’s surprising to me. The greatest thief in the world, vexed because something is unexpected?”  

“Oof.” The thief flinched as if struck. “And the knife gets twisted with a kiss. How to respond to that? It defies my experience. I suppose it’s enough that I’ll ignore the fact that you’ve almost certainly brought half of Canterlot PD here with you.”

“Ha!” Twilight covered her mouth with her hoof to not spray her tea guest with spittle. “What good would they be against you? No, I didn’t call on the Canterlot Police.”

Phantasm tipped her hat. “Then who did you call?”

Just like that, a shadow loomed over the thief. A stallion with a burning indigo mane and horn sharp as a spear all but growled in Phantasm’s ear. “Me.”

In the very next instant, the greatest thief in the world plowed nose-first into an invisible barrier put up by Obsidian Armor.

Twilight sipped more tea. “I knew Canterlot PD wouldn’t be up to the task. Not even most of the Night Guard could catch you. So I called on my brother. By the time I had asked Spike to give you the report, there were already fifteen layers of barriers around us. At this point, the Bellerophon could start shooting us, and we would have time for another cup of tea before they got through.”

Armor chuckled. “Teleportation also isn’t an option. I included spatial and temporal anchors in the layers.”

Phantasm all but oozed down the side of the barrier, some very un-ladylike drool left in place where her face met the hard light. After a moment, she wobbled to her hooves, rubbing her nose and holding her head. “You couldn't have made it a bit softer?”

Twilight smirked. “You didn't have to try to Passage into it! Though, this was just a demonstration. If I really wanted to go after you, I could catch you. The monsters I've been after lately are way scarier than anything you've ever been.

“Now that I've accomplished that, I have a proposal for you.” She motioned to her brother, who gave her an exasperated look asking for confirmation. After an additional nod, he dropped the barriers. 

Phantasm pulled out a hankie and wiped her face. “I wish you'd have just asked me or made a few threats.”

Twilight shook her head. “Needed to do this. Even if it's outside my normal purview, if I'm ever asked about this, I'll need a good reason why I didn't just slap hobbles on you. Now: I want your help.”

“What do you need me for?” Phantasm adjusted her clothes, straightening them from the close encounter with physics. “I'm a thief, Lady Sparkle. You don't need to steal anything. Just confiscate it.”

“‘It’ has already been stolen. From the single most secure vault in the world. Something that should have been impossible to steal.” Twilight put her glare straight through Phantasm’s head. “I need to know how they did it, and I'm confident you're the only one who can figure this out.”

Phantasm licked her lips.”Impossible to steal? Nothing’s impossible to steal. But I have to admit, you've piqued my interest.”

“One more thing before we proceed.” Twilight leaned back and crossed her forelegs. “This is classified and confidential. You tell anypony, anyone, anything about what you're about to see, and you'll be dealing with me, my brother, and Luna herself after you. Clear?”

“Quit teasing, you've already got my attention.” The thief was all but squirming in her seat. “If it means that much to you, I promise to keep the secret. I can already taste the challenge!”

So she's motivated more by challenges than wealth? Interesting. “Okay then. Follow me. And remember, tell no one.” 

Twilight hopped up after leaving a few bits on the table, paying for them both and then some. Phantasm was close behind her. Obsidian, meanwhile, followed them both, no doubt keeping a watchful eye on their thief. If she tried anything, the wrath of the Night Guard would be on her before she could blink.

They entered her borrowed chariot in silence, and Phantasm suddenly had the entire Evening Guard watching her. Spike tried to strike up a conversation with Obsidian, but the High Cardinal’s response had more than enough of a hint that he was busy that the entire rest of the ride was in silence.

They docked at a high balcony of Canterlot Castle, away from the usual chariot bay. It wasn't the closest spot to their destination, but under no circumstances was Twilight about to let a legendary thief inside her quarters or in the other sensitive areas that would be closer.

Not that their destination could be considered “insensitive.” The six sets of guards and the police tape blocking it off was proof of that.

“This is…” Phantasm gasped.

Twilight nodded. “The Vault of the Elements, the near-sacred place where the Elements of Harmony are stored. Or, where they were stored.”

The Vault had been broken since the coup attempt from General Towers and the Majestics, and ever since, color had been leaking from it in a slow drip. The whole hall had barely been touched since the incident, save for some extremely careful investigators collecting evidence. Yet, from the brilliance of the stained glass to the very coats of hair the ponies around her possessed, grey was taking over in her mind’s eye. 

Perhaps a part of that could be explained away by the dust now collecting on every surface. The maids of the castle weren’t allowed in after the coup attempt. It couldn't be so simple, however. The desecrated remains of the Vault were scattered around the ground, and without the Elements themselves, the heart had been ripped from the place.

Phantasm almost had tears in her eyes. “Somepony stole the Elements…”

“Yes,” Twilight sighed. “During the coup. We believe this to have been their true objective. The attempt to seize power would have almost certainly failed. But this? We didn't even know what happened until after the fighting was over.”

Phantasm swallowed. “That's… quite the distraction, I will admit. Not my style, however. Ponies died.”

Twilight shivered as the memories of Discord and the battle in the gardens played out in her memories. “The thing we don't understand is how the Vault was breached. The wards here were without compromise or care of expense. The stone itself was infused with powerful magic capable of withstanding direct attacks from airship-grade weaponry. And yet…”

Twilight put a hoof over one of the crumbled pieces of the Vault on the floor, and pressed down. It crumbled like it was made of sugar.

Anger burned in Phantasm’s eyes. “Balefire. I never thought I'd see that again.”

Twilight’s ear twitched. “‘Again’? And more importantly, what is ‘balefire’?”

The thief picked up a chunk of the Vault, and it turned to dust in her magic. “Ever hear of Faerie Fire?”

Twilight nodded.

“It's that, but worse. I don't know how it's made, exactly, but I do have a few thoughts on how it works. From what I can tell? It's liquid entropy. Anything that touches it is aged thousands of years or more in a heartbeat. 

“I first encountered it six years ago I took a job to steal the Tenth Wave by Iron Aviary, and—”

“Hold up.” Obsidian rose, putting himself between the two mares. “I saw that painting last year with my own eyes in a museum in Germaney. It's been there for decades. Are you telling me that—”

“A fake.” Phantasm’s tail swooshed with pride. “A very good fake, no doubt, but still a fake. The real deal has been in the private collections of various rich ponies for ages. In fact, you'd be shocked at how many museum paintings are phonies. No museum wants to report a theft, as no one would loan them any more pieces if they couldn't be kept safe.”

Twilight held out a hoof, silencing her brother for the moment. “But you stole the real one, is that right?” 

Phantasm nodded. “I don't normally take jobs for hire, especially when the contractor makes me take another pony along, but the challenge was just too good, especially given that I would be streaking from some pretentious Prench pony. Baroness Orn-something. 

“Now, getting into a basement underneath an underground nightclub filled with security was almost like drinking ambrosia, and that wasn't even the hard part. Booby-trapped tunnels, guards, wards, and a thirtyton door. The safe was almost as good as this place. Better, even, in one respect: it had a self-destruct mechanism.”

Obsidian groaned and rubbed his temple. “If they can't have it, nopony can.”

“Exactly.” Phantasm stepped towards the Vault, gingerly avoiding the burned rubble and coming to rest in between two of the stained glass windows. “I did the job. Smooth as silk, too, except for one hitch. To get through the safe, my contact gave me this magic bottle. I only later found out what the hell it was. Ate through the door like water splashed on cotton candy. That tripped the alarm, but we had a backup plan and still managed to succeed.

“But when I make the delivery? The contract agent handling it shot my forced partner and hit her with another bottle of that stuff. She was ash in an instant. If I hadn't run, hadn't known how to use Passage? I'd be ash, too.”

A bell rang in Twilight's mind. “Your randomness… I couldn't find much of a pattern in where you would strike. That was deliberate, wasn't it? You used dice or something to dictate where to go, leaving your would-be murderers guessing, just in case they were still after you.”

Phantasm reached into her pocket, pulling out a map of Equestria and a little bag filled with dice. “Yeah, I did. I don't even know if they're still after me, but I didn't want to take that chance. But now… Now I don't have a choice, do I?”

Twilight tilted her head. “Um, what? I'm not asking you to fight them. I just needed a lead, and I have one now. We can take the rest from here.”

The thief roared with laughter that struggled through tears. “Are you high? Do you suffer from delusions? Soon as the Crown starts looking, they'll know, and then you'll never find them.”

Obsidian stood up straight. “Don't underestimate the Night Guard.”

Phantasm pulled out a wallet — Obsidian's wallet — and tossed it at him. While he sputtered, she backed up, rump against the wall, between the windows. Phantom's sniffles punctuated her words, along with coughs from breathing in dust. “There's only one pony that can get this job done: me. It could well be a death sentence. As soon as I start looking, they'll see the change in my movements. They'll know I'm coming. And they'll try to kill me.”

“Which is why you should leave this to us.” Twilight deployed her armor, telling Aurora to let her runes glow. “Risk is our business.”

Phantasm shook her head. “Not doing this myself makes this everypony's risk. Look!” She pointed at the Vault. “The Elements of Harmony are gone. They have been for, what, a year and a half, at least? At any moment, that monster you morons keep in a bucking garden could break loose, and without the Elements, we're all going to go mad and die. And what if some other alicorn or demon out there still exists and the Princesses can't stop them? Who will then, you? You and what army? We're all going to die, and it will be because I was too afraid.”

Through a quivering lip, she stood and wiped her tears. After a few steps towards the Vault, she stood in the sun’s light. “I refuse to be written in whatever history is left that it was my cowardice that doomed us all. I will fight. I will sneak. I will do whatever, go wherever, scam whoever I need to in order to get the Elements of Harmony back. 

“This isn't just about the challenge anymore, and it isn't about my fame or fortune. Isn't even about taking some bauble because I think it's neat. This is about the future survival of ponykind, full stop. I won't be able to sleep at night until all of the Elements are back in the possession of their Bearers. So, congratulations, Lady Sparkle. You just hired yourself a thief, whether you like it or not.”

Twilight smiled, giving her a small bow. “How can I say no to an offer like that? Alright, we'll play it your way. Two rules, though. First, if you find them, you let us know who took them. 

“Second, I want you to touch base with me from time to time. You needn't give details. Like you said, we still have leaks we haven't plugged. But I need to know that you're still alive, and if you've made any progress. My brother will set you up with the telegraph address details, provided you don't steal his stuff again.”

“Agreed. I will refrain from stealing anything from you or your allies, unless it's absolutely necessary for this mission.”

Twilight chuckled. “If you really need something from us, you could, you know, just ask.”

Phantasm tipped her hat. “Where's the fun in that? But I suppose I could play by those rules for now. And, if you like, you can call me Prim. It's my real name. Prim Petal.”

“And you can call me Twilight.” She held out a hoof for her to shake. “Welcome to the team, Prim. I'm eager to see what the Phantasm can really do.”

Prim licked her lips.”Oh, if I do it right, nopony will see it.”

Dawn shivered in the winter cold blowing in from the chariot bay opening. This far up, the wind might as well have been made out of ice. Worse, while the illusion medallion the ponies had given her did make her look like a pegasus, it didn't give her the coat that her lost shapeshifting ability would have granted her. She was left with only chitin, which just wasn't up to the task.

Thus, it was all the better when a heated blanket was wrapped around her shoulders by the butter-yellow pegasus who had helped tend to her these last few months.

“Poor thing. I can't imagine what you're feeling right now. Are you shivering from the cold or just nervous about going to live with us ponies?” Fluttershy tucked in the blanket around Dawn, trying to minimize drafts.

“Both.” The heat of the blanket was melting the ice crystals Dawn was sure had formed in her blood, but she couldn't stop her body from shaking. “And, Chrysalis is going to kill me if she finds me.”

“Maybe,” a voice drenched in darkness grumbled. 

To Dawn, Obsidian Armor was a dark cloud of fire wherever he went. Even being near him felt like she was in danger of being drenched in napalm. His power may not have been as great as that of Chrysalis — as far as the Hive knew — but he struck blind terror in the hearts of every ‘ling other than the Queen. So great was their trepidation that twice now the Hive had somehow managed to refuse Her order to attack him. 

Granted, it did so by pleading and persuasion, but it was still unprecedented. They didn't even refuse orders to make assassination attempts on the alicorn Princesses. The plans were thought to be almost certainly doomed to failure — and indeed, they failed spectacularly. Yet the orders were carried out. For Armor, however? No changeling wanted to even be near him, let alone try to best him in combat.

And here he was, the pony supposedly escorting her to her new home. Instead of, as her heart thought, murdering her outright. Logic told her that he wouldn't just kill her after his own sister gave her this chance. It didn't stop her from shaking like a twig in a tornado. 

“We don't know how Chrysalis will react to you.” Obsidian loomed over her, signalling to various charioteers to get ready. “We're hoping she'll ignore you, based on past experience. If not, we have backup plans. Significant numbers of soldiers now reside in Ponyville, after all. And if—”

“Why?” Dawn all but punched herself in the mouth to stop the question, but it had already come out. 

Obsidian did something Dawn never thought she'd see: he looked confused. “Why wouldn't we put operatives where Bearers live? And the fort is for—”

“No!” Dawn's tears couldn't be stopped, and neither could the words. “Why are they going to protect me? Why are you protecting me? You hate me! I can feel it from across the room!”

Obsidian grunted and lowered his eyelids. “You're right. I do hate you. I hate you, Chrysalis, and every changeling in existence. Every once of my instinct is telling me to crush your head right now to stop you from betraying us.”

Dawn's heart stopped as he stepped towards her, bearing down on her with sheer presence. 

Obsidian continued, “But you know what? I'm more than my instincts. You can't become a captain relying on nothing but your gut. You can't just dismiss it, but a good captain must be aware of their own biases and act with honour. 

“So as long as you behave, you have nothing to fear from me. If you don't, well…” Obsidian smiled. “I am sticking you in the middle of a town filled with soldiers.”

Dawn made a little peep. That she was able to respond at all was a minor miracle.

“That's enough, mister!” Fluttershy fluttered above and between them. “You shouldn't say such mean things, or try to scare a pony who's clearly already terrified.”

Obsidian's visage softened, which was the first time Dawn had seen him be anything outside the spectrum between “stern” and “terrifying.” “Very well, Bearer. Let’s make our way to Ponyville.”

The rest of the trip was basically small talk, and almost all of it from Fluttershy of all ponies. Yet Dawn couldn't help but be grateful. The kindness from her was a bubble of peace and safety inside that chariot. Without that, and without the enchanted blanket, she probably would have frozen to death in the ride to the small town.

When they landed, Dawn’s lip was already quivering. “Is… is that...?”

“Your new home!” Fluttershy answered with a smile. “Welcome!”

A house. She was being given a house. Not an apartment, not a shack, but a brand new two-story house. It wasn't very big, and was narrow to accommodate the town's growing density, but still. Her own house, private and (hopefully) secure.

It was everything being a changeling wasn't. However, there was one thing very challenging about what was also before her: a crowd. It looked like half the town had shown up to welcome her. Near her new home were even a few cannons with confetti streamers hanging off them, and against all logic, given the way they were aimed, it looked like they were where the decorations came from.

More telling than that, though, were the signs. They said they would welcome her. That they would help her. That they accepted her.

In spite of being a changeling. They knew. They all knew. Half of Dawn wanted to run screaming, while the other wanted to melt into a puddle. “Why?” she asked.

“Because Ponyville is a welcoming place,” Fluttershy said as the chariot landed. “And if there's ever going to be peace, it should start here… or, so said Pinkie Pie. She also said she's sorry she can't be here but will visit later.”

Obsidian’s chuckle felt like it could break Dawn's spine. “She also added ‘when you least expect it,’ though knowing her, that's probably supposed to be a good thing.”

Dawn sniffled. “You think there could be peace?”

“Not in the slightest.” Obsidian grabbed hold of the chariot handle. “But against all odds, you chose our side. If the others want to try it by welcoming you, I have no justification to stop them. Now, go on and say hello.”

The door opened, and she was almost deafened by the cheers from the crowd. Some otherworldly flow had led her through the crowd which swarmed around her, greeting her, giving her gifts, and asking her questions. She didn’t even really get to appreciate her new house, as there were already ponies inside, ready for a party. Many had told her of what they did to get the place ready, and that they were there to help her if she needed it. 

Even more had volunteered to look out for her well-being in case the anypony gave her problems. It was like being in the Hive again, only without the iron-clad directives. Kindness might not have been as potent a source of nutrition as actual love, but after so much of it, she was utterly stuffed. Every ‘ling had a maximum amount of emotional energy they could carry in them, and she hit her limit after just thirty minutes.

Several hours later, the party died down, and she was finally alone. Though she had seen them walk out the door, it still felt like the crowd had just evaporated when she wasn't looking. It was late at night, and she was finally by herself. 

The voices didn't quite stop, though. They weren't the drone of the Hive, at least, but of memories. The events of the last few hours were playing all at once in her head, without the good decency to stay in chronological order. It was all just as jumbled as her body felt as she crawled into bed. 

Though her new clock said she'd been asleep for two hours, she couldn't trust it. The buzzing sound at her window came right when she put her head on the pillow. They found me already? What do I do?

She zipped underneath the bed, shaking but silent. For minutes, all that she heard was deadly silence and the sound of her chitin rubbing on the underside of the bed. Her shaking slowed a tiny bit in a prayer that it was over. The answer came in the form of a shattering window.

She scrambled out of her hiding spot and plowed through the surprised changelings in her room, knocking them over. Her bedroom door was closed. She opened it with a shoulder and a crash, then tumbled down the stairs. Three more changelings were waiting for her on the ground level, and only the adrenaline-fueled strength in her muscles let her dash through the room fast enough to avoid them. 

In one swift motion, she threw open the door and ran outside into the cold, snowy air. As she spread her wings, her hoof cried out in pain as it ran into a solid lump in the snow. The world twisted around and upside down as she fell, doing a forward flip and landing on her back in the cold. The sky above was a black void, bereft of stars or even clouds. What few twinkles of light that existed were just snowflakes drifting down and reflecting the street lights. 

Buzzing and hisses surrounded her as her mind cleared back up. She gasped in a lump of iced air and scrambled to run back inside, but stopped in a skid when she saw the door closed and sealed with changeling goo. So this is it… 

She turned to face the swarm, tears in her eyes. At least a couple dozen drones had surrounded her, some in the air, some in the ground, all pushing her back to her house. “You couldn't just leave me alone?”

The center changeling spoke in their native chittering. <<Traitor, your Queen is magnanimous. Your life will be spared, if you return with us.>>

“Like hell!” The words came out before she could even process what the changeling had said. However, she agreed with her instincts. “She kills us the moment she thinks we'll be captured!”

<<It is for the greater good of the—>>

Clop off, Chrysalis! I know you're in there, listening! You want to kill me? Fine, then do it right here in front of the whole town! Show them who you really are! Make them want to end you even more than they already do! But these ponies have already welcomed me, and I'll be damned to Tartarus if I'm going to go back with you just to be killed and dumped in the wastes!”

A small chuckle froze Dawn in her tracks. What she didn't expect was that the changelings froze as well.

A tall, slender unicorn stepped out from the shadows. She wore the armour of the Night Guard, and carried a large longbow on her back. Most prominent, though, was the black blindfold over her eyes. This was Acolyte Sable Seer, the right hoof of the feared Obsidian Armor. “That was well said, Dawn, if a bit crude.”

The changelings leapt up, diving into action. A split second later, barriers of black and light blue sprang to life, stretching into the void above. Every single one of the changelings surrounding Dawn was intercepted by a barrier. How they weren't cut in two already was beyond her. Instead, they were all trapped in place.

Bolts of green rained down from the horns of the few ‘lings close to the Night Guard. Each plinked harmlessly off her personal shields.

“What, did somepony shut down the Hive? Oh, I see. That's just individual instinct. There's no way the collective would assume that I would neglect my defenses after going through all the trouble to lay down this trap. Right?”

The lead changeling hissed in reply. Dawn thought it best to not translate.

Sable cut through the noise with a piercing whistle. “Okay, everybug! Listen up! This little darling is under the protection of the Princess of the Night! She'd be here herself to tell you, but she's been very busy lately.

“And you know the thing about being busy? She's not had much time to dedicate to making the Hive’s collective heinies miserable. You're just not the priority.” Sable bared her fangs like a wolf. “But if you go hurting this one any further, you're going to go up several notches on the naughty list, got it? Buck off, or what we'll do to you will make what we did to the Zebras look like a mercy.”

The changelings spoke as one. “We will ta—”

Rending Tempest!” 

Sable’s movements were less a blur and more written directly into history. A violet arrow of energy two meters long sped through the first changeling, passing through it before splitting in two and hitting a  pair behind it. Upon each hit, the arrow split again, cascading through the group and executing every single one of them.

Dawn stood, mouth open and silent as the shields shut down and the bodies fell. 

Sable put away her bow. “You can come out now.”

Dawn wanted to ask what she meant by coming out. She wanted to say anything, do anything. Nothing in her body would listen to her.

The front door to the next house unlocked, and a half dozen ponies in construction gear filed out. 

“Jeepers,” the first one said. “How? Why’d you kill them like that?”

“They were attempting to charge energy for a self-destruct.” Sable walked to Dawn's door, and almost seemed to examine it despite having a blindfold. She shot energy into the goo holding it shut, cutting it like a knife. “I wasn't about to let them threaten me or Dawn like that.”

Sable gave the door a kick, knocking it open. “Gentlecolts? I believe our intruders did some damage, and our friend deserves a warm place to sleep.”

One of the ponies lifted a hammer. “Give us fifteen minutes. Let's get it done, boys!”

A couple of them yee-hawed as they ran in and got to work.

“Ma’am?” Dawn finally asked. “What's happening?”

Sable smiled at her. “I do apologize for not informing you. We didn't know if the Hive could still obtain a psychic imprint from you and learn of our plans. So we deliberately kept you in the dark and set the trap.”

“Trap…” Dawn said through a sneeze.

Sable nudged Dawn to move inside, and there was tea before the former changeling could really process things.

“We set up a trap to see if Chrysalis would attempt to bring harm to you. Sadly, we were correct in guessing that she would. I did not expect them to go directly for self destruction, but was prepared for the eventuality.”

Dawn sipped the tea, feeling the warmth in her belly grow. “How did you know that's what they were doing?”

Sable tapped her blindfold. “For punishment of my failure, I have given up my sight. To work toward redemption, I have taken an Oath. Not a mere promise of words, but a binding to my soul. As long as I keep true to this, the spirits tell me what to see.”

Dawn blinked. “Um…”

Sable sighed, sinking into her seat. “It matters not if you believe in spirits. Believe in my bow. You've seen that with your own eyes.”

Dawn gulped down a bunch of tea. “What failure did you mean?”

“Hmm? Oh!” Sable’s ears perked up, then fell even lower. “It was before this life. Before I became Sable Seer, during the changeling invasion. Do you remember that day?”

“Yes… sorta?” A ripple of discomfort rocked her. “I wasn't born yet, but in the Hive, memories are shared, so…”

“Understood. Well, during the invasion, I was a Royal Guard on lookout at an outpost. One in the forests around the capitol. I saw the changelings coming, but they were disguised as pegasi. So I didn't fire my flare.” Sable winced at a sour taste in her mouth. “Even if they were pegasi, I should have fired it. That number of pegasi was clearly out of the ordinary, and the wedding was going on. It was due to my failure that the city was caught so totally by surprise.”

Dawn leaned back in her chair. “Actually, I don't think the Hive saw you. But I'm pretty sure they would have killed you if you did shoot a flare.”

“Irrelevant. I was a member of the Royal Guard. If I had to die to fulfil my duty, so be it. Yet I failed, and deserved my court-martial. I pled guilty, and on the evening before I was to be sentenced, threw myself off the capitol city I had failed.”

Dawn sipped her tea, running through a million things to say on her mind and liking none of them. If there was still a residual link to the Hive, it definitely wasn't helping her.

“My Sovereign, Her Highness Princess Luna, saved me. She helped me, eased my pain, and gave me a second chance, even though I deserved none.

“I learned that such was normal for us. The Night Guard, I mean. We're all on a second chance from a failed past. She finds us, somehow. She soothes our hearts, and trusts us with everything despite the fact that we should never be trusted for anything.

“We follow her because she's just like us. We're all walking along an ocean path to a sunset, a redemption, that we can never reach. But she shows us that despite that, we're still together, and stronger for it. That's why every one of us believes in her and follows her with every fibre of our being. It's the only way we can ever believe in ourselves.”

Dawn wanted to curl into a ball and cry. “I didn't know that.”

“Most don't.”


Dawn's first instinct was to duck under the table, but she couldn't do that because she was somehow already there.

“It sounds as if they managed to remove your broken window. We already have spares available. The new one should be installed in moments, and you can get back to sleep.

“Rest well. The Night is watching over you.”

Dawn poked her head out and slowly crawled back into the chair. She craned her head around the corner to see Sable about to leave. Somewhere deep in her, she pulled up what courage she had left, pushing through the shivers from the cold. “Um, thank you. For everything. I don't know why you did it. I mean, Obsidian obviously hates my guts, but you still helped me. So, yeah, thanks.”

“I should think the ‘why’ would be obvious,” Sable replied just before closing the door on her way out. “You're on a second chance, too.”