Pushing open the door revealed a spacious main hall that housed several tables in the center, as well as a multitude of small booths across the left wall. A crackling fireplace sat off to the right, warming the few ponies who were enjoying the relative silence of the inn. The inn's bar stood at the end of the hall, stacked full of alcohol in all sorts of colored bottles, next to which a set of stairs led up onto the upper level.
The windows which looked out into the main street were closed with wooden shutters, allowing the fireplace to gently light the hall in its soft glow that masked some of the ponies sitting further away.
Taking it slow, the trio moved inside and closed the door as they took in the atmosphere of the inn.
"Okay," Twilight said, turning to the others. "I'll go up and ask about a room and try to haggle the price down. I really shouldn't, but I know a few spells which can help."
Luna looked a little unsure but nodded. "If you think it's the best thing. We can find a table to sit at and figure out what we should do."
Nodding, Twilight turned and trotted around the tables. As she did so, she noticed eyes staring at her lack of a wing. Instinctively, Twilight kept her distance from them and quickened her steps towards the bar.
A rather stout and plump looking unicorn stallion stood behind the counter, a mug and a washcloth levitating beside him in his magic. Seeing Twilight near the bar, he stopped his cleaning and placed the mug down before properly focusing on the mare.
"Haven't seen you around here before," he said, catching Twilight slightly off guard with a heavy Manehatten accent.
Catching herself, she shook her head. "We," she said, gesturing to the sisters who had found a table and were glancing at her, "just arrived in town and were wondering how much a room for the night is."
The barkeep looked over to the sisters, then back to Twilight, with a raised brow. "You related or something?" he asked, slightly confused.
Twilight blinked, then realized what he meant. "Or something," she replied, staring at him with a neutral expression.
"Fair enough. A single room is one gold a night. Food is three silver extra."
Twilight looked surprised at how cheap it seemed but wasn't one to complain. "Perfect," she muttered while levitating two gold coins onto the counter. "Two days then, just in case."
"Just in case? You planning on leaving?"
"Oh, yeah. Not for long though," she answered, smiling. "It's a lovely town."
"Glad to hear it," the barkeep replied, placing a key down on the bar and pointing over to some stairs which led up to the second level. "You're in room four."
"Thank you," Twilight said, levitating the key into her pack and turning, but was stopped when she heard the stallion cough. Turning back, she saw him eyeing up the other Alicorns.
"If you're heading out of town, towards the deer, I'd suggest finding a guide. It can be dangerous around these parts if you're lost."
"Would you know where we could find one?"
Glancing around, the barkeep taped on the wood then nodded. "There's some deer which have been allowed to stay in the slums, near to the southern entrance."
Twilight's horn lit up and another gold piece levitated out of her saddlebag and onto the counter. "Thanks," she muttered, turning and walking back over to the laughing sisters.
"What's so funny?" she asked, raising a brow at them and placing her bag onto the table.
"Oh, nothing really," Celestia replied, stifling a chuckle. "It's just that we noticed that your tail twitches every time you use your magic."
Twilight glanced between the pair, then sat herself down. "You could have just said you wanted to look at my rump," she muttered, the hint of a smile appearing.
Celestia turned to Luna and frowned. "See, I told you that she wouldn't mind!" she huffed, causing her sister to pout.
"It's better when the pony doesn't know!" Luna retorted, frowning over at her sister.
Celestia rolled her eyes and looked over to Twilight, who was sitting there smiling at the pair. "I assume you managed to procure a room?"
"Indeed," Twilight replied, levitating the key out. "It was only one gold, so I reserved it for two nights. The barkeep also mentioned that we could find some deer to guide us to the border near the southern entrance."
With that, Luna nodded and tapped her hoof on the table. "Perfect! We can get situated and make sure that we restock. Grenda gave us enough to last a few days, mostly to get here in case something happened but we'll really have to get sorted, especially since we have to go out in the wilderness again."
"Luna is right. We'll be completely unprepared and I refuse to be caught unawares like before," Celestia added, trying not to look over at Twilight's stub.
"It's okay, 'Tia," Twilight began, scrunching her face up slightly as a few stallions wandered into the building. "I've learned from my mistakes. I won't be so reckless anymore."
Luna and Celestia glanced over to each other for a second, then to Twilight. They didn't look reassured.
Celestia and Luna placed their bags in the room and met Twilight outside, who was quietly studying the locals. Most of the ponies looked tired already, despite it barely moving past midday, and Twilight couldn't help but tap her hoof in anticipation.
The door squeaked open and the sisters made their way outside. Scanning the scene, they found very much the same situation and hummed.
"Is it just me or did everyone eat a lemon?" Luna asked, receiving a nudge from her sister.
"Hush you. I'm sure there's a good reason why everyone looks so... dour," Celestia mumbled, tapping her hoof on the worn cobble and smiling subtly over to Luna.
"Yeah, because everything is apparently worse in the past," Twilight grumbled, looking back at them with a shake of her head and finding the pair staring at her with deadpan looks. "Oh, right, sorry."
"It's fine, Moon," Luna replied, moving closer and brushing against her. "It's not been the best since you came back, but I have a feeling that it'll get better. Just you wait and see," she giggled, leaning in and kissing Twilight's cheek.
Celestia nodded. "Luna's right. Things will only get better from here, but first, we should find those deer to take us to the border."
"Yeah," Twilight sighed, a smile appearing. "One thing at a time and we'll get through all of the artifacts in no time at all. Pun intended, of course," she said, giggling.
The sister rolled her eyes as they all set off into the town to try and find the deer which would lead them to the border region. While not overly sprawling, Eternity was packed together more than Twilight was used to, leading to then getting hung up on the twists and turns which slowed them down.
"The barkeep said they were on this side of town, " Twilight mumbled, mostly to herself as the group squeezed through a crowd. "Aha!" she excitedly exclaimed, grinning back to the sisters who were brushing her matted coats down.
The pair looked over to Twilight who was gesturing to a run-down slum where several Deer could be found milling about, with plenty more inside, no doubt.
Many of the deer were tall and slender, with a pair of flared horns on their heads making them seem taller than they actually were. Their coats were rather muted compared to the ponies, but a few deer had some splotches of bright colors, most notably blues, and reds, but were confined to their flanks and legs.
"I'm thinking that we split up and ask around. What do you two think?" Twilight asked, finding the pair grimace over at the slums. "Oh, girls," she huffed, stomping the now mud-covered cobble and splashing it up her breast.
With a sigh, she looked down at her breast, then back over to the sisters. "It won't be too bad. If anything goes wrong, unload a bunch of magic into the air and I'll be able to see it and make our way back here, okay?"
Celestia seemed unimpressed but shrugged. "Fine, but you know I don't want to leave you. You know bad things happen when I leave your side!"
"Celestia's right, Moon. It is rather strange and I don't want something to happen to you while we're off somewhere else."
"Relax you two," Twilight said, gazing over with an exasperated look. "I'll be fine. Yes, things do tend to explode when I'm alone but I'd like to think I've gotten better at it. So, just relax and find someone to take us out of here, okay?"
The sisters glanced at each other, then back at Twilight. "As you wish."
Celestia and Luna wandered around the slums, catching the eye of everyone around them. Most of the deer kept their distance, but a few did stay close and watch, distrust in their eyes.
"I don't think they like us," Luna whispered over to her sister, a hint of hesitation on her face.
"What makes you say that?" a rather low, but unmistakably female voice asked from behind them.
Turning around, the sisters found themselves face to face with seven ponies, each of which were equipped with padded leather armor. While none of them held weapons, several were unicorns that held themselves at attention with their horns ready and fizzling.
In the center stood a brown-coated mare that was a hoof taller than the sisters. The first thing the sisters noticed were the twin, fractal horns that sat on her head. They looked similar to the deer around them, who had begun to pack their belongings and move away from the scene but split several times to curve over the mare's head, not unlike a helmet.
She smirked, glancing between the pair with a single pale green eye, the other covered by her mane that cascaded down her face. "So, you are the pair I've been ordered to capture," she said, letting out a small chuckle. "I was told you two were bigger?"
The sisters glanced at each other, quickly feeling their adrenaline spike, then turned to the unknown ponies. "Who are you?" Celestia questioned, her wings ruffling up to get ready for a flight.
"I wouldn't bother flying out. My stallions have placed a barrier around this dreadful place," the mare said, levitating a pebble out of the mud and launching it up where it suddenly and explosively shattered against a translucent barrier. "I would rather not take you to my employer in a body bag."
"Who are you?" Celestia asked again, lowering herself for a fight.
The mare raised a brow, not at Celestia but at Luna who was more passive; tensing up when she looked over. "Tempered Steel. My employer would like to see you. I've been told it is..." she began, pausing to think of the right word, "important."
Luna took a quick look at the stallions behind Steel and then to Celestia. "'Tia..." she said, before nuzzling against her neck. "Stop."
It took a few seconds, but Celestia pulled herself up and tore her gaze from the others. "Luna, what are you doing?" she asked, slightly confused.
"I'm tired of fighting. I don't want anyone to get hurt anymore and we don't have the means of healing our Moon."
"Speaking of which, where is your third?" Tempered asked, interrupting. "She won't be harmed. You have my word," she added, staring them down.
"We don't know," Luna replied, venom dripping from her words. "We split up."
"Fine," Steel huffed, "It's not a big place, we'll find her. You three," she continued, turning to the three stallions on her left which consisted of two unicorns and an earth pony. "Go out and find her." She turned to the other three and gestured to the sisters. "Put inhibitors on them and take them to the boss. I'll stay here and make sure the mare doesn't get away," she stated, looking around with an annoyed huff.
Twilight made her way along the slums’ muddy path, occasionally kicking a loose stone while quickly scanning the area. The majority of the deer were simply loitering or talking to one another outside their makeshift homes.
The air felt tense as Twilight passed families, many of whom sent their children inside and those that didn't, kept them within leg distance.
"What do you want, pony?" a buck asked from behind her, causing Twilight to turn around.
Three bucks stood there, glaring over at Twilight as she looked them over. The center buck, also the tallest, had a darkened coat with a short, off white mane that did nothing to hide his horns.
The bucks either side of him both had muted brown coats, one with a mane of dark grey and the other black.
"We asked you a question, mare!" the center deer spat as he took a step forward.
Twilight watched him as he stood there, already rather agitated. "I have come to find someone to take my friends and me to the border," she replied, calm and collected on the outside, but felt ever so tired. "Is there something you need?"
The deer looked between themselves, slightly confused, then back to Twilight. "You must be a little slow. Ponies don't come into our part of town," he stated as he flicked his tail, irritated.
Twilight took a deep breath. "Unfortunately I doubt anyone else in this backward little town will be able to take us to the border," she hissed. "If you couldn't tell, one of my wings is missing and I haven't been able to stop the burning pain since this morning and I'm getting a little irritated by the fact that everywhere we go someone is trying to kill us, kidnap us or assault us!" she shouted while her eye twitched.
The deer stood there, eyes wide at the pony. "I... okay, I guess," he mumbled, looking around. "Just, uh, don't worry about it," he added, backing off with the others and glancing back after a few seconds with worry.
Twilight herself looked around to find most of the deer were staring at her from within their homes, all worried about her outburst. "I'm sorry," she stammered, shrinking a little from the attention.
"Well, I certainly didn't expect that. Bet it felt good to let it all out? " Tempered asked, coming around the corner with a smirk. "You know, you make it so easy to do my job that I should be thanking you. Without that outburst, I would have wandered around this cesspit for a few minutes longer."
"Who are you?" Twilight asked, frowning over at her.
"I just said a few things and you're already frowning so quickly! That's not a good sign you know," Tempered teased, shrugging when Twilight glared at her. "Oh fine. I'm Tempered Steel. My employer wants to see you."
Sighing, Twilight had to consciously stop frowning, something which she knew was a bad sign, and stood up straighter. "Your employer? Who might that be?" she asked, moving slightly closer.
"The fine Mayor of this town, Checkered Past," Tempered replied as the three ponies she ordered to find Twilight stepped out behind the mare. "Ah, you took your time!"
Twilight looked back to find the three moving closer. "And I suppose they're here in case I say no?"
"Well, nobody really says no to Checkered," Tempered said, leaning up against a corner of a hovel. "But by all means, go ahead. Win or lose, this will be a pleasure to watch."
Twilight turned around to see the three ponies move on up the path to block her from passing. They spread out to cover the whole path, then inched forwards towards her.
The light grey unicorn narrowed his eyes and lowered himself down as his horn crackled with arcs of electricity.
Twilight, seeing the energy dropped and dashed to the side, off-balance by the loss of her wing. She tried to dodge but quickly found herself face first in the mud. Thankfully she was quick enough as a pulse of energy bolted out towards the mare, impacting the ground where she had stood and kicked up a plume of mud and dirt.
As dirt scattered around, the nearest earth pony took his chances and made for Twilight, deciding that tackling her would be the best choice, considering she was already in the ground.
With a grunt, Twilight felt the stallion hit into her with the force of a freighter and she was rolled onto her back. The stallion landed on top of her and proceeded to grab at her wing, trying to pin her.
With a grunt, Twilight pulled a hoof back and began to punch the stallion in the ribs using all of her strength while the other earth pony circled the pair.
Meanwhile, Tempered stood there, watching with interest and a slight smile on her face as the earth pony struggled to pin the lone mare. "Why don't you all go in at once!" she called out, rolling her eyes after.
Twilight clenched her eyes shut and with an almighty cry teleported herself out from the grip of the earth pony and across the road. She deposited herself in a home several buildings away, leaving three perplexed ponies and one very surprised mare.
The inside of the home was rather spartan. A single homemade rug sat on across the floor, a table and chairs pushed up to the side of the hovel as well as a firepit and a couple of beds spaced out.
As soon as she regained her bearings, Twilight fell to her knees and began to whimper, her stump feeling as if scorching coals had been rubbed into the wound. "D-Dear Celestia!" she groaned.
Rising and stumbling over to the window, she peeked outside to see the ponies looking around for her. With a hiss she reached up and used her hoof to pull the curtains closed, knowing any magic could give her away.
"Damn it, Twilight. Shouldn't have split up. It was a stupid idea from a stupid mare!" she muttered, scrunching her muzzle up in annoyance. "If that mare's after me, then they must have taken the others. I just need to find the mayor and sort this out," she continued, smoothing her mane down and brushing some of it back.
Celestia grunted as the rope that was spun around her body was tightened just a little more. "Ugh, I feel like you've never tied a mare up before," she groaned, having glanced back at one of the many nameless stallions which Checkered Past employed.
"Leave him, sister. I'm sure he doesn't get much practice," Luna giggled, smirking over to her.
With a roll of his eyes, he tightened the rope before backing away as Checkered skipped into the ballroom.
The large, rectangular room is a far contrast to the town which Checkered's manor overlooks. Paintings of all sorts sit on the walls all imported from various countries. A grand piano stationed in the corner, as well a trio of chandeliers that illuminated the room. The floor looked like one solid piece of smoothed marble, along with an array of tables sat just behind the ponies for guests to relax on.
"What's got you all excited?" Luna asked, following him as he made his way over and poured himself some bubbling concoction into a crystal glass.
"Oh, nothing much. Just the fact that you have made my employer so very happy and that means that they're holding their end of the bargain," Checkered replied, swishing the glass under his muzzle before inhaling the fumes. "Mmm, sanctified Mollygrass." Sighing, he wandered over as a henchpony pulled a chair up in front of the sisters for him to sit down on. "Would you two like to know what's going to happen to you?" he asked, a smile plastered on his face.
Celestia raised her brow. "Oh? I get the feeling that you're going to tell us anyway, right?"
"Sister," Luna hissed, a hint of worry on her face.
"Why yes, I'm going to tell you everything," Checked laughed, leaning in to brush a strand of Luna's mane away from her face.
"Don't you dare!" Celestia growled, struggling against her bonds as Luna leaned away.
Pulling away, Checkered leaned back on his chair and sipped from his glass. "First, I'll be moving you from here into a more secure area. Then strap you down. My employer wants you to feel every bit of pain you caused them," he explained, beginning to smirk. "I have a pair of very talented unicorns who will keep you awake, even as my best ponies work on you. You will not get the satisfaction of even a single second away from the unending pain.
My employer has explained to me exactly how your bodies work and I'll take great satisfaction in seeing it in action."
All throughout, Checkered's eyes widened with glee, causing Luna to grimace and try to lean back. Celestia tried her best to flare her magic, only for her to cry out in pain once again as the fur and skin around the base of her horn fizzled with uncontrolled magical buildup.
"Sister, stop," Luna pleaded, "Our moon will come for us..."
Checkered reached out and grabbed Luna's face to turn her towards him. "Ah yes. Let's talk about Twilight, shall we," he said, his glee fading. "I was told of her from my employer-"
"And just who is this-" Celestia interrupted, before Checkered reacted.
With a crack, Checkered took his glass and smashed it against Celestia's face, slicing deep into her flesh. She let out a shriek of pain and slumped forwards, blood dripping down onto her lap.
Panting, he sat back down in his chair, brushed his mane back, and let out a sigh. "I don't like interruptions... it ruins the moment," he said over the whimpers of the alicorn.
"Okay, where were we... ah yes," he continued, turning to Luna. "When Twilight gets here, I'll make sure to have several of my best ponies waiting for her. I've been assured that she'll come right here and give herself right over to me."
"Twilight isn't that stupid!" Luna hissed, now struggling. "We’re going to kill you when we get free!"
"Struggle all you like, my dear," Checkered laughed, pulling away. "Your precious mare won't ever find- ah, there she is."
Checkered looked over to the double doors and smiled as Twilight was dragged in; a magical inhibitor ring was firmly lodged over her horn. A pair of stallions levitated the mare by her hooves, allowing a small gash across her side to drip blood across the marble until she was dumped unceremoniously in front of the sisters.
"Moon!" they gasped, thrashing against their bonds to try and get to her.
"We found her trying to break in, sir," one of the guards explained. "We had to rough her up a little to actually capture her."
Checkered chuckled and waved the guard away. "That's fine. That won't matter for what I have planned for her."
"Don't you dare!" Luna hissed, managing to pull a leg out and swipe it at Checkered, who hastily pulled back.
The guards rushed over, struck her across the face before forcing her leg back in and tightening the rope enough to make it hard for her to breathe.
"We'll kill you," Luna choked, turning to Celestia who was staring down at Twilight, in shock at the amount of blood pooling around her body.
"Don't worry about her, she'll be dead in a minute," Checkered stated, pulling his chair over and sitting back down. "You ever get the feeling that we're all moving towards our fate? Like, I had planned for everything... But someone came along and nudged it off course," he muttered, tapping his hoof on the floor while looking off to the side.
"I was told this was how it was meant to go. Except you," he grumbled, leaning down to address Twilight, "Were meant to be here earlier with Tempered. Speaking of, where is she?"
"Were not sure, sir. She did return back from the slums earlier though," one of the guards answered.
Frowning, Checkered looked back down at Twilight who was slowly growing paler and paler. "Probably annoyed with herself that she couldn't capture you. She prides herself on doing a good job. It's a noble sentiment for someone who's impure."
"Mo- Twilight, please!" Celestia pleaded, letting herself lean over and let out a soft sob. "You can't die here!"
"Our moon. Everything you worked so hard for," Luna stammered, sniffling.
Checkered's lips curled into a smug grin as he gestured for the guards to take hold of the chairs. "Bring them with me. We're going to Bone Setter's lab," he ordered, rising up and walking towards the exit. Stopping short of the doors, he turned around towards Twilight and smirked. "Leave the mare for later. We can let Bone have her for her experiments once she’s done with these two."
“Tell me everything you heard!” Tempered growled, slamming a crimson coated, blue maned stallion up against the wall. Her magical aura tightened around his neck. “What do you know about this Twilight!”
The stallion winced as the mare’s magic began to close in around him. “Okay, Okay!” he coughed, looking away and clutching at her hoof which pressed against his chest. “I was on duty outside the mayor’s office last week and I heard some strange buzzing,” he said, feeling her magic ease off. “No pony was with me, so I decided to listen in. I had been standing there for a few hours and I was bored!”
Rolling her eyes, Tempered backed off but held the stallion against the wall with her magic. “Okay. What was so strange about it?”
“Well, it didn’t last long, maybe ten seconds or so. Once it stopped I heard another voice, a mare’s.”
“Are you sure the mare didn’t enter before that?”
“I’m certain! No pony entered or left while I was on duty,” the stallion answered, still looking worried, but slowly realizing that he wasn’t going to get hurt.
“What did they talk about?” Tempered asked, more intrigued than anything now. “I assume Twilight’s name came up?”
“Yeah,” he answered, nodding. “It was strange. They talked about where the mare would be as well as those other two being needed for something. All that construction out past the orchard is for some kind of holding cell.”
Tempered’s magic faded and the stallion slumped to the ground, a light cough leaving him. “Go. If you tell anyone I’ll find out,” she said, narrowing her eyes.
“Of course!” The stallion rushed off down the hallway, leaving Tempered Steel alone with her thoughts.
How could they know where that mare would be if she hadn’t arrived in town yet? Tempered wondered, tapping her hoof on the floor. “There’s something they’re not telling me,” she mumbled, moving down the hall towards Checkered’s office.
Turning the corner, she saw two guards standing outside of the office, which only raised Tempered’s suspicions. Stepping out from behind the corner, she moved up and went to open the door, but was stopped when a pair of swords swung out and clattered in front of her.
“Checkered has issued that no one is to enter his office until he returns,” the mare on the left stated, glancing over towards Tempered.
“Checkered just ordered me to collect some important documents,” she lied, moving her attention over to the mare.
While a head shorter than her, the guard appeared to be in peak shape. Her light green coat standing out against the tan-painted walls.
Staring at her, Tempered felt her pulse quicken as she could practically feel the other guard’s eyes bore into the back of her head, and the tension rise.
“Mint, let her in. I’d rather not go and get the all-clear from the boss,” the other guard, an aqua-coated stallion, said.
Mint looked Tempered up and down, before pulling her sword back. “Fine,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Lazy prick...”
Tempered pushed the door open with her magic and entered the office. As soon as the door closed, she let out a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding and brushed her mane back. Normally she would be up for a fight, but she’d rather not start one in the middle of the mansion, where other guards could join in.
Looking around, she began to walk over towards a thick, heavy oak desk that sat at the back center of the room. The left-hand wall was lined with several bookcases that were practically overfilled with tomes and books of all sorts that threatened to cascade onto the floor.
The right-hand side was one long floor to ceiling window that overlooked the generous apple orchard which ran along the outer palisade of the town, barely visible under the cloud-covered sky.
Steel made her way around the desk, of which was covered almost completely with parchment and scrolls. She took a few minutes to rummage through the pile, then let out a huff and hit the desk with her hoof.
Her brow shot up upon hearing the tell-tale sound of a metallic lock from under the desk.
"What have we here?" Steel muttered, lowering herself down. Almost instantly, she rolled her eyes when she spotted a 'secret' compartment attached to the underside of the desk.
Flaring her horn, the mare grunted and snapped the entire lock straight off the compartment, then levitated the drawer out, dumping its contents upon the desk.
"Right, what secrets are you keeping?" she said, frowning.
Picking up a worn, leather-bound journal in her mafic, she opened it to the newest entry and scanned the page, finding an only chicken-scratch copy of Starswirl's Hourglass.
Shaking her head, she flipped the page back and smirked when she found the times and dates of his meetings. "Gotcha," she said, chuckling.
"Talked about Twilight and the... Princesses arriving?" she mumbled, reading through the entries. "Copied down designers for a laboratory? The heck is tha- hold on..." she stopped herself instantly as soon as her eyes scanned the word 'torture' underlined.
The mare felt a cold chill down her spine and closed the book. "That snake," she growled, beginning to grow angry and betrayed.
With a huff, she stormed over to the door and left, needing to have a few words with Checkered.
Twilight's vision suddenly burst into clarity as her eyes shot open. It was something she wished wouldn't happen as much as it did due to it also bringing a head-splitting amount of pain to go along with it. Letting out a long and deep groan, Twilight used a herculean amount of energy and pulled herself up off the smooth marble floor.
The guards, Checkered Past and the sisters were gone, leaving the room decidedly colder, if not for the throbbing that pulsed through Twilight's head reminding her of her screw-up.
"Stupid Twilight..." she grunted, hitting her hoof against the marble and scowling. Rising up, Twilight slowly reoriented herself as the room spun a little. "I fucked it up again."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Tempered Steel muttered from behind.
Twilight flared her wing out in surprise. "You!" she groaned, slowly backing off.
Tempered was sitting casually at the nearest table, a glass of whiskey levitating next to her along with Twilight's inhibitor ring. "Yes, me," she replied. Staring over at Twilight. "I'm actually curious about you, Twilight," she said, gesturing towards the Alicorn. "Checkered was always scheming with this town. Always had something up his sleeve; a backup plan in case things go wrong," she added, pausing for a second to take a sip. "Except when you came along. He knew exactly what to do and how to do it. It got me curious. So I asked around and some of the guards heard him talk about you three."
Hearing this caused Twilight to frown in slight confusion. "Talk about me?" she asked, hesitantly pulling herself up and steadying herself as her head exploded with pain.
"Oh, don't worry. I'm not here to fight," Tempered said, holding her hooves up then gesturing to the seat opposite to her at the table. "Please, sit. Checkered is one for theatrics anyway. We'll have plenty of time before he does anything with the others."
Twilight did indeed inch around, pull the chair out and sit. She was still rather cautious, but the tone of the situation was rather surprising to her. "Okay," she muttered, "go on?"
"So it's no surprise that Checkered is a bad pony," Tempered said sarcastically, gesturing to a scar, that ran down the right side of her face from the bottom of her ear to her cheek, which was normally covered by her mane. "What I didn't think is that he'd be involved in torture." Placing the glass down, she opened her mouth to speak but paused, then sighed. "Some guards heard him describe you and your friends exactly before you even arrived in town. So, I did a little snooping. Hoping he'd actually be stupid enough to record everything."
Twilight's brow raised as Steel's lips curled.
"I was right. He wrote down some orders he was given. I don't know who with, as the name is in some kind of foreign script but he was told stuff about you three, like when you'd arrive and what to do with the others. I don't know what you did, but it said he was ordered to kill you then torture the others..."
Twilight's eyes widened as she moved her gaze down to the drink for a second then back to Tempered's eyes. "Can you copy down the name of who contacted him?" she asked, a cold wave washing over her.
"I can try, but I doubt it'll be perfect," Steel replied, rising up and wandering over to one of the side tables to take a quill and inkpot. Pulling a napkin over, she began to repeat what she had seen causing Twilight to move out of her seat and around to Steel's side.
Twilight frowned. "Sun Dial... I don't recognize the name," she muttered, trying to think back through anyone who might still have a grudge with her, let alone anyone in this time period.
"Wait, you can read that?" Steel asked, suddenly confused.
"Oh, yeah. It's the standard language from where I'm from."
"Uh, okay. Well, either way, we should probably try to save your friends. I doubt they'd want to be tortured," Steel suggested, gesturing to the exit and rolling her eyes.
"Wait, why are you helping us? The last time we met you tried to kill me."
Steel pulled herself away from the table and took a breath. "Because, believe it or not, torture isn't what I signed up for. I had nothing when I joined Checkered's employment except my dignity and even that's been stolen from me with what he's doing now. I refuse to let another pony treat me like a fool and get away with it."
Twilight tilted her head slightly and a small smile appeared on her face. "Should I assume you know where he is?"
Tempered nodded. "Of course. I," she paused turning and walking towards the exit with Twilight following, "had free reign of this place and I made sure to learn its layout. It's only a matter of time until a pony like Checkered Past is ousted."
Sliding up beside Steel, Twilight looked her over, then asked. "I'm surprised I've never heard of you."
"Out here at the edge of the world?," Steel chuckled, giving her an incredulous look. "Only ponies get famous nowadays," she continued, gesturing to her fractal horns with her eyes, "Impure only get recognized for bad reasons."
Twilight scrunched her muzzle up slightly and looked away. "I don't like that word," she muttered quietly to herself. "I'm sorry for throwing magic at you last time," she said, glancing over for a second then letting out a soft chuckle. "You know, you're pretty good at fighting."
Turning to Twilight, Steel smiled a little. "Thanks. I needed to learn to survive. Cervidas is a pretty brutal place."
"Yeah, I heard that the deer can be," Twilight replied, giving her a sympathetic look.
"The deer's intolerance is a symptom. There's something wrong with this continent," Steel said, shaking her head and turning a corner to begin down another corridor that ended with a pair of glass double doors which opened out into the gardens. "Never mind that. It's more pressing that we find your friends."
A pair of guards stood on the other side of the doors, one on each side and looking away from the hallway.
"We, uh, should slow down!" Twilight squeaked, watching as Tempered quickened her pace, her eyes flicking between the mare and the door. "S-Stop!"
The pair galloped down the hallway and as they neared the end, Twilight began to slow. Despite this, Tempered turned her shoulder and leaned forward to smash through the double doors. With a loud crash, she fell on her side and rolled, before pulling herself up and flaring her horn towards the pair of stunned guards standing on the other side.
The pair clutched their head and with a thud, they fell to the ground, snoring away.
"Where did you learn that?!" Twilight gasped, tip-hoofing over the shards of glass, then the guards, her eyes wide.
Taking a breath to calm herself, Steel looked around. "Deer magic is infinitely more sensitive than pony magic. It's like a knife compared to a hammer," she huffed, then turned to Twilight with a smirk, only to receive a roll of the eyes. "They'll have a headache, but it's better than dying."
"True, but you could have told me what you were doing," Twilight mumbled, walking past her with a frown.
Watching Twilight slowly made her way towards the gardens, Steel called out, "Twilight. It's this way!" causing the mare to turn around. "Might need to know where we're going," she chuckled, pointing down the opposite path.
"Lead the way," Twilight mumbled, gesturing down the path. She might not particularly like this mare, after their tussle, but if she'd help, then she'd learn to trust her.
As the pair continued on down towards where the sisters were kept, the gardens opened up into the start of an apple orchard with the wall of Eternity slowly creeping up ahead of them. With the sunset, the only light was from Twilight and Tempered's horns which illuminated a fair distance but didn't help when the shadows decided to jump between the trees.
"Giggle at the ghosties," Twilight whispered to herself as she imagined Pinkie and the rest of her friends that very first time. By Celestia I'll have to make it up to them. I've been exactly like I was back then, cold and uncaring...
Sighing, Twilight turned to Tempered and asked, "How long have you been here?"
Glancing quickly at Twilight, Tempered rolled her eyes. "A good ten years or so. I was dropped off as a foal and I guess my parents saw me as a symbol of bad luck or something. Spent a few years in that cesspit of a slum; that's when Checkered found me," Tempered replied, keeping an eye out for anyone foolish enough to try and attack them in the middle of the open.
"And in all that time you didn't know he was torturing others?" Twilight asked, unconvinced.
"You can either believe my side of things or not, it doesn't change anything. He's the mayor and if he wanted problems sorted, they were. I didn't get too deep into it and he never forced me to do anything like that," Steel muttered, slowing slightly. "Look, if someone is helping you. The least you could do is not be a bitch about it," she huffed, shaking her head as she wandered past.
Twilight stood there for a few seconds, surprised by the honesty and bluntness of the mare, but quickly made up ground and was once again walking next to her. "Yeah, I have been kind of a bitch lately, sorry."
Tempered took a side-eye glance at Twilight and sighed. "Whatever. Let's just go."
The pair make it to what looks to be a concrete bunker dug into the side of a hill. The front of the bunker inched itself out of the earth and was equipped with state of the art security, as well as retinal scanners. The front sliding door held a tiny hole for Twilight to peek through, only to see hazmat suits hanging up inside of a decontamination room.
"This is where your friends are being held. I would wager my gold that Checkered is down there as well. He makes sure almost everything is to his liking, I could assume that includes, well, you know," Tempered said, hitting the door with her hoof. "Though, last time I was here it wasn't so strange looking," she added, looking rather confused by the cameras and scanners.
Twilight, on the other hand, was more confused as to why a concrete bunker was here in this timezone. There was no realistic way that these ponies could have this level of technology without her hearing about it in the future, which meant... Turning to Tempered, Twilight asked, "Did you see how many meetings this 'Sun Dial' had with Checkered?"
Tearing her eyes from the flashy monitor, Tempered thought back. "Uh, yeah... there were quite a lot. Not a lot was written down though. Just some orders. Wait, you think this is from their meetings?"
"I'm not sure, but I'm willing to guess so. There's no way a mayor is able to build something like this without help, especially here," Twilight stated, tapping her hoof on the dirt path. "First thing's first," she groaned, waving a hoof for Tempered to back away. "I need to get inside."
"The door is several inches thick. No one could bust that thing down!"
Twilight looked over with a smirk. "Who says I'm going to bust it down?" she said, moving around to the side of the bunker and pressing her horn against the concrete. The concrete began to shimmer as a portal appeared showcasing the same area, but a few hours later. "Be right back!" she shouted, jumping in and leaving a shocked Tempered standing there, unwilling to move.
Twilight pushed herself out of the other side and scanned the surroundings. As she expected, Tempered wasn't there and the Manor was under guard lockdown. She wasn't entirely sure if she had gone on to kill Checkered, but the thought sent a shiver up her spine. That had to be a good sign, right?
Taking a peek around the corner, she found the door to the bunker unlocked and open. While there was no power, there was a straight shot directly in.
"Alright, Twilight," she muttered as she entered the facility.
She couldn't help but feel her coat stand up from the deathly silence, or from the pitch-black hallway that inclined ever so slightly downwards into the earth.
As she suspected, this layout and architecture were modern, at least military-grade, and would have been hard to make, even with her own resources, let alone this far back.
'Going to have to look up this Sun Dial when I get back,' she thought, noting it down mentally for later as she continued to move further into the base.
Twilight knew she'd have to go back and open the door for herself, but she wanted to see the future for herself.
Swallowing her nerves, the mare brightened her horn and fired out a mote of sunlight down the corridor which bounced off of the slanted wall and continued down a path to the right.
Moving up to the corner, she peeked around and saw the corridor full of frost and scorch marks, along with blood splatters, and long gouges were taken out of the walls.
There was no doubt that whatever they did wasn't good, even if it was necessary. At the end of the corridor sat what appeared to be the two, semi-melted halves of the bulkhead that separated the corridor from where Checkered kept the sisters.
Hesitantly moving up and stepping over the door, she moved in and found Checkered laying on one of the beds, pale and unmoving. The surrounding tiles covered in deep crimson blood, even those under her hooves were slick.
"What the fuck did we do..." she whispered to herself, her heart thumping heavily in her chest at the prospect that anyone of them could have done such a thing.
Taking a step back, she turned and made for the exit. Just inside of the decontamination room, she pressed her horn to the inner wall and formed a portal. With a snap-crack, the connection was made and the other side showed what she had seen earlier, what with several hazmat suits hanging up inside the lit room.
Stepping back through, she noticed Tempered standing there, glancing back and forth from where she had been to where she was. With a grunt, she gripped the inner lever with her magic and forced the door open with a sharp hiss.
Swinging open, Tempered stood there, her eyes wide as she stared at Twilight. "But- you were..."
"I'll explain later, come on. We have to go before something horrible happens!" Twilight urged, causing Tempered to snap out of her confusion and rush past into the bunker. With the door unlocked, Twilight left it open and rushed in, following Tempered down and up to the door separating them from the sisters.
"Can you do what you did before for this door?" Tempered asked, looking all over, still rather confused.
"Unfortunately not. If I do it, there'll no doubt be ponies in there. This will need something different," Twilight hummed, tapping her chin. "Right, that’ll drain me for a bit, so keep an eye out and get ready once the door comes apart."
"Right. Wait, did you say apart?!" Tempered asked, before quickly squeaking at the cracking magic being condensed into a single stream to burn through the inch thick metal. "What the fuck?!" she grunted, moving back and keeping an eye on the entrance.
It wasn't long before Twilight managed to burn through a quarter before Tempered turned back and shouted. "We have company!" she alerted as three guards rushed in, each carrying short swords in their magic and equipped with plate armor.
"Why did I have to make him buy new armor," Steel groaned, pulling back a few steps and flaring her horn in preparation.
The mare waited until one of the ponies crossed the corner and sprung thrust herself forwards as she unleashed a blast of magic. The pony was thrown against the wall and slumped down as a sickening crunch echoed through the corridor.
The other two ponies yelped and looked at their friend, before turning their attention to Tempered, who was now out in the open.
"Uh, hey guys," she said, jumping back as the pair arced their swords, barely a hair's breadth from slicing into her.
She landed and begun charging her magic once again, her horns cracking with energy.
Twilight could hear the swords slicing through the air as well as Tempered jumping around, even over the sparks from her horn. "Hurry up, Steel!" she ordered, gradually making her way down the door. "Nearly there!"
Luna's eyes fluttered open slowly, revealing the inside of the observation room. A thick glass window separated her and her sister from Checkered. A flick of her ear told her that a couple of ponies were standing behind the long examination tables they were clamped to.
"Should I be afraid?" Luna asked, staring over at Checkered. "My beloved will save us."
Checkered let out a snort. "Your 'beloved' is being fed to some pigs, my dear. Besides, she'd never get into this facility," he continued, waving a nearby mare to wander over.
The light-blue coated scientist placed down a tray of tools, in between the sisters, which she carried in her magical aura and glanced between them. "To get accurate test results, you'll be kept awake," she stated, gesturing to the two unicorns behind the mares to take a step closer.
Their horns lit up, causing a faint magical aura to envelop the Alicorn' heads. At this point, Celestia shot awake with a cry of pain and thrashed about against her bonds.
"Easy now, Celestia. That table was made for you. You won't get out of it, so don't bother!" Checkered said, rolling her hoof.
"First we'll start the incision here," the mare stated, levitating a scalpel off the tray and gently pressing it against Luna's check, just beneath her neck. "Then we'll open her up down to here," she continued, moving the scalpel down to just above Luna's navel.
"Why are you telling us this?!" Celestia hissed, still trying to break out.
Glancing over to the Celestia, the scientist smiled. "It helps me relax. I've never thought I'd ever work on the Princesses!" she explained, sighing blissfully. "I can't wait to see you regrow your internal organs."
Celestia stared at the mare in part horror and part confusion. "B-But we're not..."
"Oh, you're not. But you will be. You two were so pretty at Twili-"
"Bone Setter, shut up and do your job!" Checkered shouted, causing the mare to squeak.
"Of course, Checkered!" she replied, sighing. "Nothing personal, Princesses..." she muttered, just as the bulkhead began to crackle and spark.
"What the-" Checkered muttered, moving over to a panel on the wall and tapping it. A view from a camera outside the door showed him Twilight burning down the door next to him while Tempered cracked one of his stallion's heads against a pipe.
"That scum!" he screamed, cracking the screen with a hoof. "Well, it looks like your mare-friend somehow survived and my best employee is helping her. Who'd have thought it!" he shouted, cracking the screen again.
"Sir, there isn't another way out," Bone said, glancing to the two ponies behind the Princesses, then over to Checkered. "This facility shouldn't be able to be accessed by anyone else than us."
"Well, how did they get in!" Checkered growled, moving around the glass and gripping Bone's neck with a hoof. "Now, open them up before they get through the door!" he threatened, throwing the quivering mare to the ground with a sneer.
"Yes, sir..." Bone panted, looking up and over to him, then back to the guards who were starting to look a little uneasy from all the screams echoing in from the corridor. The scalpel levitated off the metal and inched its way over to Luna, where it brushed up and over her stomach. It tickled over her breast and neck before it flicked Luna's magic inhibitor off her horn.
Bone gave her a half-hearted smile and slid up against the glass as the ring hit the floor and rolled over towards Checkered's hoof.
The guard’s eyes widened upon seeing the ring flick off and began to flare their horns up to stun and knock Luna out. Yet, the Alicorn's own horn crackled, then fired out a bolt of lightning, striking her guard in the chest and chaining to the other.
The lightning coursed through their flesh, cooking them from the inside out and before long they dropped to the ground, two smoking corpses.
"Bone, what have you done!" Checkered screamed, reaching over to grab the ring to put back in the Alicorn, but stumbling over his hooves.
A metallic screech echoed through the room as the steel around the Sisters tore off, freeing them.
Celestia slid her ring off and crushed it under her magic into a fine powder before moving over to Checkered and knocking him out with a single strike. His body hit the grates like a wet sack of potatoes.
Luna knelt down and held a hoof out to Bone Setter, who took it hesitantly. She pulled her up and smiled. "Thank you. That took courage," she said, placing a hoof on her shoulder.
"I... I didn't want to do it, ma'am," Bone started, looking down and away. "He said he'd leave me in this town, in this time, if I didn't."
At that moment, the exit let out a creak, then a thump as Twilight kicked the two halves of the bulkhead in with a heavy scrape.