The Golden Age of Apocalypse - Book I

by BlueBastard

Chapter 10 - "…36 Degrees and Counting"

Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 10: …36 Degrees and Counting

“Th-th-thank y-you!” stuttered the frozen earth pony fashionista as she took the steaming mug of hot chocolate into her violently shaky hooves, prompting Rarity to hold them in her magic lest the hot, brown goodness end up everywhere except in Coco’s mouth.

As it was, there had been a very real chance of Coco having perished or at least gone into hypothermia had her rescuers not come in time to free her. Draped in several blankets scavenged from a nearby supply closet, it had been a no-brainer to utilize the still-functional galley implements to quickly get something warm to go down the poor pony’s gullet. Coco now barely existed, cocooned within layers of insulation such that only her forelegs, eyes, and her super-red muzzle were at all visible at the moment, but she would still need time to safely warm up before the idea of moving her could even be considered.

Rarity looked at the little mare that was her colleague and friend, worrying at her lower lip. Guilt threatened to eat her up from the inside out at the thought of what Coco’s fate might have been if she and the others had been any later freeing her.

“Oh, I can not apologize enough, Coco!” she apologized for the umpteenth time. “If we’d only known you were stuck in there, why, we would have been here hours earlier!”

“Oh, it’s alright, Miss Rarity!” Coco exclaimed through chattering teeth. “To be honest, I’m just glad to see you again.” A somewhat more troubled look crossed the little mare’s face as she took a sip from her cocoa. “I only wish there was more I could do to repay you. A simple ‘thank you’ seems pretty meager in comparison to all you’ve done for me.”

Rarity smiled. “Trust me, knowing you’re well is enough of a reward.”

“Hate to rain on the reunion here, but what exactly were you doin’ on this airship, Coco?” interjected Applejack. “Last time we saw you, didn’t you take that costume makin’ job fer Rarity’s friend who does Bridleway productions?”

Coco seemed to shrink farther back into her wrappings with an embarrassed blush. “Well, I….”  She quieted herself via the mug of hot cocoa in lieu of saying anything else.

Knowing exactly what Coco was doing, Rarity intervened for her friend’s sake. “It’s okay, I understand exactly what you went through, Coco. I once dreamed that it was my calling to be a Bridleway dressmaker myself—after all, my cutie mark came to me by way of wanting to make the best school play costumes I could for the production of The Great Food Pyramid Adventure in my learning years.” The elder fashionista sighed dramatically before continuing, “But during an internship—that’s where I met my friend who would go on to be a big Bridleway director—I found I preferred letting my creativity flow freely instead of having to make variations on tried and true costume patterns. Of course, the job is also extremely stressful, so it’s not for everypony.”

To Rarity’s surprise, Coco only gave her a look of mild confusion. “Oh… I haven’t left Bridleway. Not permanently anyway. I received a summons to Canterlot from the Crown for some important project.”

“And that would be?” asked Razz, curious.

The rustling of blankets signified Coco’s attempt to shrug. “I dunno, the letter didn’t say but it was signed by both Princess Celestia and your friend, Princess Twilight.”

“What?!” gasped Rarity, feeling an instinctive urge to find the nearest fainting couch. “Please, don’t take this the wrong way, Coco, but…Twilight signed off on some big, important project requiring a fashionista and didn’t ask me?!

“Rarity!” shouted Rainbow, cutting the hysterical unicorn off before she went full-auto into drama queen mode. “Now is not the time for that! I’m sure there’s a rational explanation,” she said, and Rarity chose not to point out the irony of Rainbow being the rational one of the situation. “But the point is we still don’t have any idea of what’s going on here! First of all, we still need to find the black box….”

“Don’t worry, I got it!” called out Sandalwood, who promptly emerged from the freezer with an ice covered—but most importantly fully-intact—black box.

“Okay, we got that,” Rainbow said, and her look suddenly darkened, “but we still have to worry about Nightshade, since the mayor flat out either is the most oblivious pony ever or explicitly lied to us!”

The rest of the gathered ponies regarded Rainbow with silent uncertainty. Silent, that is, until Rarity saw fit to give it a voice. “Um… how do you figure, darling?”

“Remember what he told us when we arrived? He assured us this place was already crawling with military personnel.” Rainbow looked at each of them with almost uncharacteristic seriousness. “Tell me, how many guards or soldiers have you all seen since we got here?”

“Wait, but wouldn’t that mean Skyracer is the one lying to us?” Sandalwood asked. “He’s the one in charge of the military forces here.”

Although it was possible, one more detail occurred to Razz that changed things considerably. “Except Skyracer hasn’t been in direct contact with the military personnel that are supposed to be here. The town militia had been responsible for relaying information between the crash site and him… and they report directly to Twin Peaks,” Razz said darkly. “He could have told the Lieutenant anything he wanted about what was going on here.”

This time, the silence that followed needed no voice.

“Huh. Now that you mention it, it did seem like the feller was actively trying to keep us away from the crash site,” Applejack said, putting a hoof to her chin as a distasteful frown formed above it.

With a vindicated nod, Rainbow continued. “If all that’s true, it means he was intentionally obstructing a Crown investigation.”

“You thinking of putting him under arrest?” Razz asked with all seriousness.

“The thought crossed my mind,” Rainbow said, “but I’d rather scare the answer out of him.  All putting him in the pokey’s going to do is just agitate the rest of Nightshade needlessly.”

“Wait, we’re near Nightshade?!” exclaimed Coco, who somehow managed to launch into the air and promptly make her cocoon of blankets explode all over the place. Fortunately, she herself appeared to no longer have dangerously low body temperature. “Look, we need to get out of here as soon as possible!”  She turned and looked at Rainbow. “Do you have a second airship on standby?” She would’ve spilled the remainder of her cocoa in her attempt to get up had she not just finished it a second prior. “We need to get out of here, Miss Rarity!”

“Coco, please, calm down,” Rarity said placatingly. “If you’re worried about timberwolves or the like, I assure you we haven’t seen any evidence of danger as long as we’ve been here.”

“My brother and I have been lost in the forest since the crash,” Thistle said. The twins they’d picked up in the forest had been so quiet throughout the conversation Rarity had almost forgotten they were there. “If something dangerous was really out there, we might not be standing here.”

That did not pacify the increasingly worried-looking Coco. “Exactly! The danger isn’t outside Nightshade, it’s….” Coco’s wild, panicked eyes traveled from pony to pony. “Seriously, don’t any of you ponies know the rumors?”

Razz let out an exasperated sigh. “What rumors?”

Pointlessly looking around to see if there was anypony else listening in that she didn’t know about, Coco barely seemed able to say what she was so afraid of. “They say that Nightshade…”  She trailed off in an attempt to calm down before she continued: “That...that it’s a town full of nothing but were….” The immediate feeling of Applejack and Sandalwood glaring jagged edge daggers wrapped in barbed wire and also set on fire made the already frightened Coco almost not finish saying, “Werewolves!”

“Oh, you kidder!” laughed Thorn, his sister Thistle laughing alongside him. That soon stopped when they realized nopony else was laughing. “Really? You ponies actually think all that nonsense about werewolves is real?”

“Quite,” Thistle guffawed.  “I’d be more inclined to believe that one of you is a changeling.”  Her words made a few ponies flinch, and that just made her and her brother laugh all the harder.

“We’ve all had encounters with them of a too-close-for-comfort nature,” coldly answered Applejack. “Let’s all just leave it at that.”

“But that’s impossible!” stammered Thorn, looking at the earth mare as if she was a madpony.  “Sure, there was a case a couple of years ago where a few oversized natural wolves were causing problems in the countryside, but didn’t the Princesses hire a bounty hunter to deal with that?”

“It’s unfortunately not out of the question that the werewolf that Iron Will killed a few years back wasn’t the last one alive,” said Razz, looking directly at Thorn. The implication of her words, along with the dark stare in her eyes, suddenly made him blanche.

“OhmiCadence!” cried Thistle. “Are you seriously saying that it wasn’t just a normal wolf that minotaur killed? I’m having a hard time believing this, and you’re saying it’s Luna’s own truth?”

“I was there,” said Sandalwood, carefully choosing her words. “Iron Will was braver than anypony could have imagined for what he did that day—even some of the bravest of Equestria’s strongest soldiers might not have been able to pull it off!”

“Maybe this isn’t a good time to mention this, but…” cautiously piped up Coco, “there might be other things besides werewolves out there.”

"Okay, so anything else we need to be aware of that the average pony with much more common sense than we have might be afraid of?” asked an exasperated Sandy. “ Lions, tigers, and bears? Lawyers?  Lousy writers? Mary Sue cameos? Bad manecuts? Space bees that live in volcanoes on some other planet’s moon, even?"

“Space bees?” Applejack asked.

“Blame Lyra’s reading habits,” Sandalwood said. “She’s got a thing for the Ranger Danger and the Danger Rangers series.”

“Girls, please,” Rarity interjected. “Speculation isn’t getting us anywhere. Let Coco speak.”

“Thanks, Miss Rarity,” said Coco. “Anyway, I just know there was something prowling around the ship when I woke up, but I couldn’t find anypony else—the ship was deserted already. This was also hours ago—the sun might even have still been up, I can’t say for sure.”

“That seems awfully suspicious,” intoned Thorn. “That the only pony left on this shipwreck has no idea why there isn’t another soul aboard with them. Especially considering I highly doubt you woke up in that freezer.”

“Are you saying that somepony put her in there?” Rarity gasped.

“It’s possible,” Sandy replied.  “If somepony wanted to kill her—and I’m not saying that’s definitely the case, so please, calm down,” she said as she saw Thorn and Thistle flinch slightly. “But let’s suppose that some madpony thought she was a monster and tossed her in there? Freezing to death is a fairly clean way to go and an effective method of getting rid of a potential problem.”

“I know how it looks, but you have to trust me!” pleaded Coco, who instinctively looked over to Rarity for support. Rarity nodded slightly to indicate she believed Coco was being honest, but internally hoped this wasn’t a sign of Coco becoming totally dependent on her. That was how Coco got mixed up with Suri in the first place and Rarity did not want to become the new Suri, even if Rarity would treat her friend far better than Coco’s previous employer did.

Oblivious to Rarity’s inner thoughts, Coco took a deep breath before continuing. “All I know is that I wasn’t awake for long before something attacked me.”

“I’m guessing you didn’t get a good look at this thing?” inquired Thistle.

“No, I was too busy running for my life—I know it was chasing me, that much nopony would be able to mistake in that situation—and I ended up accidentally locking myself in the freezer.”

“How do you lock yourself in a freezer?” asked Thorn incredulously.

“She probably slammed it behind her hard enough to jostle the lock,” answered Razz, who was now levitating the destroyed lock in front of her face. From the twisted remains, it appeared to have been a simple sliding bar—like those on the inside of the rented room doors back at the Retreat, maybe even made by the same company—that hadn’t been fully slid into the “open” position, the slamming door causing the bar to slide back into the “closed” position. But as the other ponies kept talking, Razz glanced over at the door and magically shut it again to look at the outside face. Other than the hole where the lock had previously resided, the door had no signs of something trying to claw its way in there. Strange, why would something trying to get to Coco just up and leave their prey to die behind a simple door lock? Unless it knew it was a freezer….

“…and from the inside,” continued Coco, “all I saw were those golden eyes just staring at me for like, fifteen minutes, before it just slunk off.”

“Whoa, did you just say golden eyes, Coco?” Of all the details Coco could had described, that was one of the most worrying.

“Well, they looked golden, but now that I think about it, there might have been some traces of blue or something, like they’d originally been blue but had turned mostly gold—"

“SHIT!” shouted Razz, before recomposing herself. “Uh, sorry, didn’t mean to do that, but…I can say I am certain of one piece of good news, and one piece of…not so good news.

Sandy sighed. “Just give us the former, then the latter, Razz.”

“Well, I can say for certain I know what was after Coco,” the unicorn replied, before breathing deep and letting the hammer fall: “the not so good news is that it almost certainly confirms that we’re deep in werewolf country.”

“I’ll be right back,” Rainbow told them, heading back the way they came. “I’m going to get some extra escorts for us. Do not move.  In fact, one of our resident unicorns should put up a shield until I return.”  As she rushed off, the others looked at each other with worry as Razz immediately charged up her horn.

“Werewolves? I can’t imagine such a thing is real, am I right, brother?” Thistle said in a strangely calm tone.

“Indeed, sister mine, indeed.”

It was already mid-morning by the time the weary travelers dragged themselves into Nightshade, having not allowed themselves a wink of sleep on their journey lest they encounter some kind of ambush. Even then, Sandalwood, Applejack, and Thistle were carrying the worn-out Rarity and Coco, while Rainbow was barely able to remain upright due to their new escorts ensuring she remained upright. Even Heliodor had succumbed to weariness and was softly snoozing on Raspberry’s horn. For the ponies of Nightshade, seeing the exhausted, sleep-deprived group trudge through town toward Blackhoof Lodge was truly a sight, but at the lead of the sleepless assembly was a unicorn to whom sleep did not seem to matter. To Raspberry herself, however, it was just another Tuesday.

“Where the buck have you been?" demanded Skyracer, who upon hearing word that the missing party had returned to the town had wasted no time in confronting them. Razz, in turn, wasted no time in cutting him off by grabbing the side of his head and bringing his muzzle close to hers while burning eyes of determination told him she was in no mood to take whatever he had to say.

Nopony was at the Arno, Lieutenant,” she whispered in a tone that indicated that the situation was very, very bad for all of them.

Nopony?” he asked back in hushed tones.

“We are so up shit creek right now you don’t even know!” she spat, before she let go of his face. She was finally succumbing to the lack of sleep and needed all four limbs just to stay upright. “We need to talk in private. Lt. Dash, please accompany us.”  The fact that she’d addressed Rainbow by rank instead of calling her friend by name made it clear this was not going to be an ordinary conversation by any means.

“Sure,” she yawned, turning to her escorts.  “Quickstep, Blastoff, get Sgts. Lightfighter and Daffodil and have them report to us soonest. Where we gonna be, Razz?”

“We’ll be in my room,” the mulberry unicorn replied.

“And you’re sure this Coco Pommel can be trusted?” asked Daffodil, a few hours later. By the time she’d been made aware that Raspberry and friends—as well as three ponies who claimed to be survivors of the wreck—had returned with the recovered backup black box from the Seabiscuit Arno, the meeting between the officers present was already underway, and that didn’t make things clearer.  Now, the exhausted ponies had already crashed in their beds and were dead to the world for possibly the rest of the day and well into tomorrow. That left Daffodil, Lightfighter and that jerkass Army lieutenant neither of them liked to put together the pieces.

“I don’t know who can be trusted at this point,” admitted Lightfighter, running a hoof through her mane. The trio were seated in a private dining room within the lodge that had been turned into a makeshift command center for the duration of the operation. Lightfighter knew when she’d read the internal memo back in Canterlot about how it was expected airship protocols in general—as relevant to when they inevitably crashed back down—would undergo significant revisions in the emerging commercialization of what was formerly a purely Navy-only feature. In short: Whoever had to deal with this rapidly-growing pile of shit was going to have massive headaches because the protocols meant to deal with situations like this weren’t actually made yet. She just wished she hadn’t been unlucky enough to be the first in line for this stuff.

As it was, the stipulations that were covered had been filled—as much as she hated to admit it, Razz and all the others running off in the middle of the night, purely by luck of Amber Shine getting drunk somehow, had done the work that supposedly had been already underway when they’d arrived the previous day. But as she had no reason to doubt Razz would lie about anything, especially when the Element of Honesty herself backed up the story, the wreck of the Arno had been virtually abandoned save for Thorn and Thistle having somehow safely leapt from the airship before it crashed, as well as Coco Pommel managing to nearly freeze herself to death…while running from death. The main black box was shot beyond repair, but the backup sitting before her had been untouched…also in the freezer due to some stupid oversight in the Arno’s plans. But only three of about 200 ponies from the ship were accounted for; and there was an awful lot of creepy shit going on as well, not the least of which was this Army lieutenant who had stayed involved in the investigation far longer than was needed.

And she was only finding out now because the mayor Twin Peaks had apparently lied about the whole thing.

“Seriously, Daffodil, was yesterday just one giant lie?” Lightfighter asked her fellow guardspony morosely. “I can’t even assume the rain was natural—we’re ponies, we basically control the Celestiadamn natural world!”

Skyracer laughed.  “Are you that stupid? Those are oceanic rain patterns—that’s naturally developing weather phenomena, not anything from the Weather Factory. Of course it felt unnatural—because it was truly nature-made!”

“Oh, shut the hell up, Lieutenant,” Lightfighter growled.  “You can suck a big one.”

“Your big what? You’re a mare!”

“I meant the big tubesteak I’m going to shove down your throat if you don’t shut up!”

“Again, you’re a mare!” came the reply.

Lightfighter fumed.  “I was referring to my hoof, you moron – and that I’m going to shove that so far down your throat that you’ll find out what my withers taste like from the inside!” she snarled.

“Light, not now, okay?” retorted Daffodil. “Look, calm down you two. Let’s be honest: The only things we know for sure is that there are a lot of ponies missing right now, this town is far from secure given what the archmagus and Lt. Dash say, and that we’re stuck with a stupid box nopony except the local blacksmith can open just to tell us Changelings attacked the damn ship. Right now I’m more concerned about why all the ponies involved are missing, and need I mention that we’re so close to the border with the griffinlands that we haven’t really taken the time to consider that this was a false flag operation?”

“How so?” Skyracer asked.

Now who’s the stupid one?” Lightfighter retorted.  “A false flag operation would let the griffins do whatever they wanted, and blame it on the bugs.  And there’s a historical precedent for it, too: during the war between Inari and Zhonguo about 100 years ago, the pandas tried to wreck the alliance between Equestria and Inari by slaughtering the kitsune and blaming it on batponies. If it wasn’t for Col. Moonshot nearly dying to bring proof of Equestria’s innocence to the kitsune emperor, it would’ve succeeded.”

“Look, I don’t care about that,” added Skyracer, now rubbing his temples with his hooves. “My only concern is getting this investigation over and getting back to keeping an eye on those Celestiadamned featherdusters with spears.” He groaned. “You wouldn’t happen to know if Amber still had a can of that bubblegum liquor crap, do you?”

“Trust me, she drank enough that we could’ve thrown a kegger for the whole town.”

LIghtfighter sighed. “And the train just had to leave, too! Razz was right, we are so up shit creek right now we’re at the headwaters of the toilet it’s connected to.”

“Then we need to make ‘we’ be referring to as few ponies as possible,” stated Daffodil. “Razz and the others? That train gets here and we send them back home on it as soon as possible—they’ll protest but they’re still far too important to get caught up in this clusterbuck—because they’re the only ones we know of who have seen the Arno at this point. Send this stupid box with them, too, for whatever it’s worth. If nothing else we can complete one objective we came to do in the first place. We can ask the lieutenant to push on them a little to get them to go. However, we’re going to need her around for the short term.”

“Agreed, but we’re probably going to need to ask for some naval support, as well as a battalion of troops, too.” Lightfighter laughed. “Maybe if we’re lucky, we can get somepony to cough up some of those ‘Princess’ Hooves’ I’ve heard about.”

“You don’t really believe the rumors, do you, Light?”

“I don’t know what to believe, but you know as well as I do that the Solar Guard really isn’t in charge of protecting Princess Celestia.  For buck’s sake, they’re all a bunch of glorified statues with pulses,” was the reply. “But that means there’s somepony who is, and my guess is that whoever that is?  They’re the kind of ponies you don’t buck with. At all.”

An earth mare with a beige coat, gray eyes and a short mane of brown-and-black that somehow looked reminiscent of fake wood paneling poked her head in the door. “Mr. Peaks, sir?” she spoke, getting his attention. “She’s here.”

“Ah, please, send her in soonest,” he told her, a jovial look on his face. Shortly after, Lockbox walked into the small mayor’s office in Nightshade Town Hall. “Well, Locks…”

“Shut it.  You want me out of here as soon as possible so you can start making out with your secretary again, right?” Lockbox said evenly. “Your wife know about her?”

“Crass as always, I see,” Peaks said as the smile fell from his muzzle.  “Remind me why we keep you in town?”

“Because otherwise you’d have to hire somepony to actually come live in this one-mule town,” she responded, then inhaled deeply. “Listen, we knew it was going to happen someday, but you and I both know nopony was prepared for it to go down the shitter as fast as it did, okay? Changelings to the left of me, military to the right and here I am, stuck in the middle with you. And believe me, it’s the last place I want to be.”

“You’re just upset about your friend, the pet bug––”

“Finish that sentence, and you will be a gelding, got that?” Lockbox said angrily. “Versa can’t be blamed for what he is, no more than anypony else...well, maybe except for you, given that you’re a specist, cheating bastard who’s only here because you’re not good enough to land a political position somewhere big.”

“You would know—you’re the black-hearted bitch here,” he responded.

“You wouldn’t know what a heart was if you parked right outside the center of the Crystal Empire,” Lockbox spat. It was conversations like this one that reminded her how much she hated living here sometimes. “Versatile is the only one I know with a genuinely good heart, and I also know that whatever’s happening has nothing to do with him. The Changelings never made a move to reclaim him from Midnight Marigold and Polar Breeze when they found him all those years ago, nor when they went straight for the capital.”

“Then why even go to the trouble of attacking some random airship unprovoked?” he asked, giving her that patronizing stare he always did when he was certain he was right.

Lockbox let out a long sigh through her nose. “Look, I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this: Something about this whole situation smells and you’re too blind to see it!”

With his patented shit eating grin, Twin Peaks replied, “Last I checked, I don’t smell with my eyes.”

Lockbox responded with a roll of her own. “You know damn well what I mean, Peaks! You think those ponies the outsiders ‘found’ on board the Arno were just ordinary passengers?”

“I see no reason to believe otherwise,” Peaks said with a noncommittal shrug.

“Then you’re both blind and stupid, and it’s going to be the end of us!”

“There’s no need to be melodramatic,” Peaks said, his carefully engineered demeanor of indifference giving way to annoyance.

“Putting aside for a moment what could happen if the military finds out you lied to them, what do you think will happen to Nightshade if they realize what I suspect? If one or all of the three survivors found turn out to be changeling spies?” When Peaks didn’t answer her, Lockbox continued. “At best they’ll detain all of us until they’re sure we’re not changelings or changeling collaborators. At worst, it’ll spark a damn war, and we’ll be right in the middle of it!”

“And would they be so wrong to suspect changeling sympathizers in Nightshade? Considering the company you keep….” Peaks then put a hoof to his chin in mock thought. “Come to think of it, we haven’t exactly heard from young Versatile in a while, have we? Maybe the military found him? Perhaps he’s the real reason why they’re here now.”

Although she didn’t show it outwardly, the thought sent a tremor of fear through the unicorn. Taking a deep breath, Lockbox did her best to collect herself. Ranting and raving wasn’t going to convince the idiot sitting across from her, as the unimpressed stare he was giving her made that perfectly clear. Instead, Lockbox stood and paced across the office, finding herself looking at a very old painting that depicted a fledgling town. Something about it always seemed to make her feel weighed down, and she felt that now more than ever.

“My family founded Nightshade one thousand years ago as a refuge from war.” Lockbox turned to face Twin Peaks, still seated impassively behind his desk. “This town is my family’s legacy. And I will not let it be destroyed by a moron who only cares for his pitiful excuse for a political career!”

“Locks, that’s enough,” Peaks growled, fixing a stare at the younger unicorn. “You claim I’m the one risking Nightshade?  How do you know this isn’t all your fault?”

“Please, tell me how I’m at fault for all this,” Locks taunted as she crossed her forelegs. “I could use the laugh.”

Twin Peaks laughed sardonically. “And you say I’m blind! You call me a moron, and you haven’t even figured out why Raspberry Beryl is here.”  He leaned against his desk. “Tell me, do you know what a witch hunter is?”

“A what?”

He rolled his eyes.  “Typical.” He walked over to his bookshelf and picked up a book, throwing it at her.  “There’s an ancient term for black magic users—they used to be called witches or warlocks.  A witch hunter is somepony trained in the black arts and specifically sent to hunt down other black magic users.  Witch hunters were from centuries ago, but now and then the Crown probably trains somepony for the position.  Somepony trained, oh, I’d say, like an archmagus?”

Lock’s eyes widened.  “What are you talking about?”

“You’re an idiot.  This place stinks of black magic, and you know why—everypony in town does!  So while you’re here, accusing me of letting the fox come into the proverbial henhouse, it’s clear you and the rest of the town didn’t really think your little defensive strategy through.  Mark my words, that archmagus is here for the town’s secret—the one you’re supposed to protect.”  He laughed. “I’ll even bet that news from a while back about her nearly killing the princesses was faked, just to make her sound that much more of a badflank.”

Lockbox knew that he was goading her. Possibly even setting her up to take the fall for his own idiocy. But in spite of that idiocy, the stallion had a point, and Lockbox hated him even more for it. She had taken advantage of Nightshade’s relative obscurity and isolation to try some… unconventional magical defenses for the town she loved so much. And now that the archmagus—Raspberry Beryl—was here, Lockbox had a bad feeling it was all going to come crashing down.

No, I will not see my family’s legacy destroyed, she thought as she turned to leave Twin Peaks’ office. Even if it means dealing with that witch hunter… permanently.


Twin Peaks just told us they might have found the rest of the survivors, but since you and the rest of the girls need your rest after that stunt you all pulled last night, Sgt. Daffodil, Sgt. Lightfighter and I are the only ponies who are going with him—the rest of the remaining Guard are going to stay here with you for protection and prep for any injured or such.

I’ve heard about the timberwolf incursions, and I’ll say this much: between two guardsponies and myself, I think we should be covered.  If we get into any trouble, I have left a tracking charm with the corporal remaining behind so that he can deploy forces if need be.

I will report anything new once we return.


Razz read over the letter that Skyracer had left for her and Rainbow.  There was something about it that felt off, something she couldn’t pin, but that was probably because she needed sleep.  As it was, she knew that Skyracer was an asshole, so maybe that was what was setting her off and she was just too tired to think about it.

But she needed to sleep, yet at the same time, she needed to read that book that Twilight had sent her, the one that Razz herself had asked for an hour ago—the most recent survey on the lands around Nightshade.  She knew she should’ve asked for the last town census as well, but that was getting a little too paranoid. As it was, she knew she could explain away the “werewolf” rumors simply by reading through this book’s survey reports, and just prove that there was just a larger than normal timber– or natural wolf population in the nearby woods.

Unfortunately for her, there was more than one book on the nightstand, and she was tired enough that she didn’t quite see which one she’d grabbed.

DAY 95:

At last a stroke of good news this week!  My forces have finally captured the main queen of that damnable hive.  Though they ended up having to kill both her and any of the immature queens, the treasure I so dearly sought is now within my grasp.  Granted, she did slay most of the troops that I sent in, but those are resources that can easily be recouped once I gain possession of the queen’s cadaver.

I shall have to make it a point to reward the surviving soldiers for their efforts.  For a legion of troops torn down to less than a score, it is clear that these soldiers fought valiantly, and I shall give them their due.

This puts a laurelous sobriquet upon what has been a dismal week otherwise.  It started off with my ambassador to Equestria – my representative, the one I placed there to do my bidding! – seeking refuge in Equestria, requesting asylum from the Royal sisters!  The gall! I chose her to serve this realm, not to cow before the alicorns as if they are “allowing” me to continue ruling my Empire!

Well, I hope Ageless Wisdom has settled upon her choice, as there will be nothing for her to come back to.  As of now, any family she has left is rotting in my dungeons until I decide what to do with them, and admittedly, I do have various creatures in my menagerie that require feeding….

The other point of contention is the disappearance of that strumpet, Musica Allegra.  She vanished three days ago and has not been seen since. Moreover, she and her friend Raspberry Sorbet attempted to abscond with my Broken Rose!  Unfortunately for them, however, my forces, led by my most trustworthy of lieutenants, caught them just within the outer reaches of the city. However we only captured two of them, with Musica nowhere near to be found.

Upon interrogation, Sorbet claimed that they were trying to make it to a safehouse and that Musica would return shortly, but I know better; I am no fool.  Furthermore, I had both Lt. Sharpsar and Sable scour the town for her. Given that none of the magical wards in one of my secret laboratories or chambers went off – that would have been…ill-advised…for her, it was clear.  She used her so-called “friends” as scapegoats to cover her escape, a dastardly, devious plan that I never would have thought her capable of.

Perhaps she has learned a few things from her time in my care.

I inform the two of this little epiphany, and the reactions of both of them is…illuminating.  The Rose refused to believe it.  She looked at me with eyes full of rage, teal stones of anger – weren’t her eyes brown originally?  Or am I misremembering? In any case, she swears that I killed Musica and that I will pay for that. I tell her that Musica used her and Sorbet to escape, and she refuses to believe me.  The look of impotent rage on her face is such that for a change, I choose not to have my entertainments with her. The look of aimless fury is more than a delight enough for me.

But it is Sorbet’s response that is all the more surprising.  She admits that she would have done the same thing, that she finds the “freakish creature” she was saddled with as a burden, but that Musica gave her little choice but to bring her along.  She admits that she would have killed the Rose to be free of her and Musica after she realized her betrayal, but she made a foolish choice.

Ah, yes.  Choices. Sometimes they can be kingly, and others…decidedly not so.  But she has admitted her fault, so I must be a forgiving king. Tomorrow she will start work in the salt mines.  If she lives through her sentence, I will pardon her. Though, alas, nopony has ever returned alive from working in the salt mines, but she may yet surprise me.  We shall see.

However, there is the matter of the guard that the three slipped past.  I order Rusty Arrow to come to the Rose’s chambers, where her two new caretakers are, along with a chirurgeon, so that my pet may have the finest of care.  Once that is done, I order the simple to depart while I look at Rose, Seaside Pearl and the third mare, whose name I cannot recall – it is hardly important, in any case.

I tell them that the price of failure must be paid, and that a king demands his due.  And with that I dispatch Rusty Arrow personally before them – and I do mean personally.  It was days ago and I think I can still smell some of his offal on my hooves and his lifeblood on my horn.  But as I ground that worthless fool’s body into nothing but a bloody stain on the ground, I see the looks of horror on the faces of Pearl and – Vanilla Crème, yes, that was the other mare’s name – yet the Rose looks uninterested.

That moment, I demand they reswear their fealty before me, right where I stand, and they do so gladly.  As a reward, I offer them time in my bedchambers tonight, a moment to show their king how grateful they are.  As I depart, they go to speak to Rose; I suppose they plan to convince her to capitulate before me as well.

Later that night, they do not show up as planned.  Incensed, I order them to be found and put to death before a courier arrives with the news: they had crept into the royal kitchens like sneakthieves and slit each other’s throats.  Moreover, they died with oddly satisfied smiles on their faces. I don’t know why, but somehow I suspect the Rose is responsible.

When I asked her about it, she told me that she said to them “exactly what they needed to do to be free” of me.


It makes me wonder whether Baldassare really knew what he had on his hooves.

For the first time, I realize this broken, tattered, ruined Rose…

still has thorns.

Razz set down the book, in tears.  Crisalide had found a way to fight back against Sombra, but it had also led to the deaths of at least two ponies.  And now there was practically no doubt: Octavia Melody—the human Octavia, no less!—had a pony as an ancestor.  Musica Allegra had to all but be the same one that had witnessed the brutality of Sombra.  She hadn’t known Tavi very long, but like Sunny, Raspberry had somehow felt there was an...equine...quality about the teenage musician.  Even though she seemed to be nothing more than a typical human girl, there was something else about her, something otherworldly, and now Razz had put the puzzle pieces together.

But regardless of that, it painted a bleak picture for the Rose from that point on.  The only friend Crisalide had was apparently gone, and it left her alone and at the anything-but-mercy of Sombra’s brutal hooves.  And there was, of course, on the other end, if Sunny had told her cousin the truth. Now that they knew her famous ancestor was not originally human, it could be something that the new alicorn could speak about to her adopted family, but….

I’m getting ahead of myself, here.  I’ll have Heelee flamefax a letter for me in the morning so they can dragoncandle it to Sunny.  She might want to know about this.  Razz looked at the book she accidentally picked up.  Though there’s no way I’m going to show her this book—enough ponies have suffered because of it already.

It was then that she felt a sensation that was unlike anything she’d felt before—which given she’d been subjected to pain and torture that would have killed normal ponies hundreds of times over and all she had to show for it was a wounded limb she could still use with her brace was alarming—and the closest thing she could feel was like her body was itchy all over. That’s what Applejack, Apple Bloom, and all the others who became werewolves said the first transformation was like, Razz thought to herself, but I can’t become a werewolf. I’ve only ever been bitten by Fair Vista and the legitimacy of that doesn’t count  given she wasn’t even really alive when I fought her. Plus my blood’s the same as Sombra’s so that wouldn’t work that way either. So…what am I feeling?

As her mind began to wander, she recalled a line from the scripture that had been carved into the back of Sombra’s mirror: blood calls to blood. It filled her with dread, as the presence of werewolves (even though supposedly she’d killed the last of the curse off back in Ponyville months prior) would only be possible through somebody of her own caliber, to handle something requiring Sombra-grade dark magic. Was all of this business in Nightshade…related to one of those Scions? Was her blood calling out to her?

A knock on the door caught her out of her reverie, bringing her back to the present.  “One second!” Razz called out, pleased at the distraction. But after hauling herself out of bed and donning her brace, she immediately had second thoughts as a chance glance out the window revealed that it was a full moon. Can’t take any chances.

The door opened up with Raspberry Beryl behind it. “Good evening, how can I—"

Acting quickly, the werewolf immediately slammed into the pony and pinned Razz to the ground…or it thought it had, as where Razz had just been to its knowledge was now a pile of tiny dark, black crystals.

“Celestiadamnit, I hate it when I’m right in these situations!” exclaimed the real Raspberry Beryl, who as the werewolf looked behind the wall obscured from the doorway, was looking somewhat different from the one that had somehow melted into dark-

Oh, shit, thought the werewolf as it promptly found itself in the grasp of dark magic…and then defenestrated right out the window.

Razz could hear more sounds of violence down the hall, accompanied by feral snarls. She turned to where her companion was perched.

“Heelee, c’mon!” shouted Razz, quickly grabbing her saddlebags and throwing them on her back, pausing only for a moment to give Heliodor time to register that they were in trouble. Together, bird and unicorn rushed out of the room. They needed to save the others…lest Applejack get turned into a werewolf again. “Can’t let that happen; that shit’s just getting old at this point!”