“Dashy! Wait for me!”
It wasn’t easy, but somehow Rainbow Dash managed to ignore Pinkie Pie. Instead, she forced herself to focus on her flying. The feel of the wind in her mane, the way her feathers dipped as she took a hair-pin turn, the familiar blur of the streets of Canterlot passing below…
It’s almost like home.
Her uplifting thought soured quickly as she whipped passed another banner. One that, like all the others before it, featured her former crush glaring at the viewer.
With a hard pump of her wings, Rainbow Dash banked upward. In a second she was flying over the rooftops. Her rosy eyes narrowed on her goal as she raced toward it.
Her gut twisted with guilt as she ignored Pinkie’s voice again.
“-Wait a second--”
Dash’s wings pumped harder as she skimmed over the buildings.
“Wait. What?” Rainbow Dash muttered to herself.
She could almost hear a skreech as she braked in mid-air. A glance back turned into a confused stare at the three different rooftops she’d flown over. She was positive it hadn’t just been her imagination. Pinkie Pie had shouted from each roof as she’d flown over it, she was sure. But now there was no sign--
“-Dash!” Suddenly a massive poof of pink sprang up in front of her vision.
“GAH!” Rainbow Dash’s wings immediately snapped to a halt.
Fortunately, she was only a short hop above the department store (or what she remembered as a department store). The blue mare still winced as she landed on the roof with a painful thud.
“Oh hey, you stopped!” Pinkie Pie was already at Dash’s side the second she hit the ground, helping her back up. “You were going so fast I thought you couldn’t hear me for a second!”
“Well… I kinda did and… wait.” Dash took a deep breath, struggling to get her words in order before opening her mouth again. “How did you get up here so fast?”
“I took the stairs, of course!” Pinkie answered with a bubbly giggle.
Rainbow Dash just stared at the pink earth pony in front of her for a few seconds. Finally, she looked back over her shoulder again. She could, indeed, see the access stairs Pinkie had probably used. Along with the ones on the other three, multi-story buildings.
“But how did you get between them so…” Rainbow Dash let her voice fade out before finally shaking her head. “You know what? Never mind.”
“Okey-dokey-lokey!” Pinkie chirped as she bounced in place a bit. “In that case, can I ask you something now?”
Rainbow Dash had to stifle a pained sigh. Her head was already starting to ache from trying to contemplate “Pinkie Pie Physics” even for just a few seconds. Rubbing at her temples, the pegasus pony just waved for Pinkie to talk.
“Why haven’t we stopped to talk to any of the guards yet?” Pinkie asked.
“Guards?” For some reason, the word made Dash arch an eyebrow.
“Don’t you remember? We’re supposed to be asking them about Shining Armor!” The pink mare giggled as she ruffled Rainbow Dash’s mane. “Guess you can be just as silly as my Dashy, huh?”
The pegasus let out a half-hearted chuckle in response. It wasn’t as though she could forget the task she and Pinkie had been assigned. Dash’s mind, and her eyes, however, both just kept drifting away from her partner. Not too far in the distance, she could make out her real goal--
“Lucky thing those two were able to keep up!” Pinkie’s voice suddenly cracked through Dash’s thoughts.
“Those two?” Dash asked, turning to find Pinkie Pie had somehow moved behind her. “Who are you talking about?”
“Those guards that have been trying to follow us, of course!” Pinkie explained, pointing back the way they had come from. “Man, they must train really hard to keep up with you!”
Rainbow’s eyes widened. Following Pinkie’s hoof, she could indeed see a pair of pegasus ponies flying toward them. Both with stark-white coats, golden armor…
And some all-too-familiar glares in their eyes. Dash swallowed hard, suddenly recalling some moments from her own life in Canterlot Castle. Specifically the frustrated looks of the guards whenever she’d felt like causing them some grief. That, combined with the rather intimidating posters plastered everywhere, had her springing to her hooves in an instant.
“Hang tight!” Dash ordered as she grabbed Pinkie’s tail in her mouth.
Pinkie didn’t have time to response. In less than a second, Dash was hurtling over the side of the building.
The sound of the pink mare nearly made Steelwing pause in mid-flap. He had to admit, it was the first time he’d ever heard somepony cheering as they ran away.
The royal guard quickly forced the observation to the back of his mind and pumped his wings harder. The armor he wore had never felt as heavy as it did at that moment. Then again, he’d never been after a target that was so fast. Practically before he could blink, the cyan pegasus and her partner were gone, leaving nothing but a rapidly fading rainbow contrail.
Still, he smirked as he noticed a glint of armor out of the corner of his eye. His partner, Silver Lining, was already heading for one end of the alley below. Banking to the right, he headed for the other. As he dove to follow the rainbow pony over the edge he already knew the plan. A standard approach from either side, trapping the perpetrator in between them.
Steelwing’s eyes went wide as he began to frantically back-flap. He and his armor clanked to a halt just in time to avoid colliding with Silver Lining. The other pegasus pony’s face was a mirror of his own, staring at the empty air-space around them in shock.
“I… what?!” Steelwing gasped a bit for breath as the words left his mouth. “Where’d she go?”
“She didn’t slip by on your end?” Silver Lining responded.
Steelwing shot his partner a withering glare before looking around the alley again. Nothing but shuttered windows on one building; another massive tapestry with Shining Armor’s face on the other. His mouth twisted into a sneer as he looked back and forth between the streets at either end of the alley, searching for any sign of the rainbow mare.
“I can’t believe this. We pulled that maneuver off perfectly!”
Steelwing growled a bit, his ears flattening against his helmet as he tried to shut out Silver Lining’s voice. Unfortunately, the other guard was flying in a tight orbit around him, frantically staring up and down the alley.
“There’s no way we should have missed her!” Silver continued, removing his helmet to rub his head in confusion. “But… well I’ve never seen anypony move so fast…”
“I get it, really,” Steelwing grumbled, silently willing for his partner to shut-up.
“Ugh, with that speed she could be anywhere in the city by now!” Silver Lining rolled his helmet between his hooves, a fine sweat appearing on his brow. “And when the commander finds out about this--”
In one swift motion, Steelwing had snatched the helmet away and shoved it back over his partner’s head.
“Well the commander doesn’t need to find out as long as we find her first, got it?!” Steelwing snorted as the other pegasus simply gave a mute nod. “Good, then let’s move! She may be fast, but somepony would have to notice a mane that gaudy!”
In a glint of polished armor, Steelwing shot off out of the alley. After taking a moment to readjust his helmet, Silver Lining followed.
As such, neither of them noticed as the banner of Shining Armor rippled slightly. A rainbow-maned head carefully poking out from behind it and looking around.
“Hmmph, who’s he calling gaudy?” Dash grumbled as she emerged from her hiding spot.
“Mm thkk mm mmmk kmml!” Pinkie’s muffled voice responded.
“Uh… thanks, Pinkie,” Dash said, looking down to her passenger.
Even awkwardly hooked in the pegasus pony’s forelegs with a blue hoof over her muzzle, Pinkie Pie still had a huge smile on her face. Somehow, Rainbow Dash couldn’t help smiling back as she swiftly lowered the both of them back to the ground.
“Well, at least the guards around here are easy to trick,” Dash said, releasing Pinkie as she looked off in the direction the soldiers had flown. “Heh, guess some things don’t change.”
“Yeah!” Pinkie Pie cheered from behind her. “But, uh…”
Rainbow Dash’s smile faded as the bubbly… Pinkie-ness faded from Pinkie’s voice. Turning back around revealed the earth pony’s ever-present smile was gone, replaced with a confused frown.
“Why aren’t we asking them about Shining Armor?” she asked, tilting her head quizzically. “I thought we were supposed to be helping Spike and the others--”
“We are!” Rainbow Dash winced at the volume of her own voice. After a hasty glance around, she began speaking much quieter. “We’re going to. I just kinda thought…”
Dash glanced up to the image hanging overhead. It was a struggle not to flinch as the eyes of her former fillyhood crush continued to watch her. But at the same time, something was bubbling inside her. A question boiling away at the surface of her thoughts.
Just what the hay happened to him?
“Whatever happened, I’m gonna find out,” she resolved, her voice growing stronger as she returned the glare. “And the best way to do that is at the source.”
Dash scraped one hoof against the ground. Suddenly the banner seemed far less intimidating. It almost felt like a challenge, one she wouldn’t back down from.
Just as her vision was starting to narrow, though, something else caught her eye. Pinkie Pie’s gaze, moving from her to the Shining Armor above and back again. After a few seconds, the earth pony’s eyes widened in understanding.
“Oh… OH! I get it! No… wait a minute!” Pinkie exclaimed as she leapt in front of Rainbow Dash. “What about Spike? If he’s right and Shining is supposed to get his element, shouldn’t we go get him first?”
That got a wince out of Rainbow Dash. Slowly, the pegasus mare drew in a deep breath.
Knew this’d have to come up sooner or later.
“Um… about that… I’m not so sure...” Dash sighed, awkwardly rubbing one leg against the other. “I don’t think Spike should meet up with Shining just yet…”
“Why? Cuz you don’t think he’s Shining’s brother in this Equestria either?”
“I--” Dash cut herself off as she realized what Pinkie had said. “Wait, what?!”
The idea of Canterlot had always carried a certain image. Immaculately clean streets watched over by the castle’s ivory towers. Shops filled with exotic goods from lands far beyond Equestria’s borders. And, most importantly, the sheer variety of ponies from nobles and foreign dignitaries to common workers that would be bustling in and out of those same stores; as well as the museums, libraries, and homes. In her own Equestria, Orange Sherbet could only imagine that the offices of the Canterlot Sun wouldn’t have been any less crowded.
Unfortunately, the sight before her was just another reminder of how far removed she was from “her” Equestria.
“Oh man…” Spike muttered from next to her.
The disappointment on the stallion’s face was all too understandable. Like most of the other businesses they’d passed, the office building before them looked like it hadn’t been used in ages. Sherbet could see only one window that wasn’t boarded up, and what was probably a beautiful paint job was now chipped and fading. The only thing that differentiated this building from the dozens of other places Sherbet and Spike had passed was a faded sign above the door.
The Canterlot Sun
“Oh dear,” Sherbet said, checking the sign for the third time to make sure she was reading it right. “I suppose it might not be as bad as it looks…”
The unicorn next to her let out a soft sigh. Before she could turn to begin reassurances, however, Spike was already starting to walk up to the front door.
“Even if it is, we still have to try don’t we?” Spike looked back to her, a determined smile on his face. “I mean, it’s not like we can give up at the first hurdle.”
Sherbet smiled back at him and nodded. Inwardly, she breathed a sigh of relief. After the shocked state Spike had been in earlier, it was comforting to see him more confident. As he lifted one hoof to knock on the door, the earth mare began trotting up behind him.
The smile immediately jumped off Sherbet’s face as the door flew open. Right into the unfortunate purple unicorn standing in front of it. Sherbet winced at the impact, and by the time she looked again Spike was a purple heap lying next to the open door.
“Spike!” Instinct took over as Sherbet ran to her partner’s side.
“Oh fer… Get outta the way, kid, I’m in a hurry!”
Sherbet grunted as another stallion hurried out from the Canterlot Sun’s office. A gray earth pony with a messy black mane and carrying what looked like a trumpet on his back. One who was hurriedly locking up the door and starting to run out into the street.
Orange could feel her eyes narrow. With a frustrated snort, she quickly jumped in front of the stallion, causing him to rear back in shock.
“Hey! What’s your problem, lady?!” The stallion protested.
“You just ran into somepony,” Sherbet answered, taking a deep breath to keep her voice calm. “Aren’t you even going to apologize?”
The stallion’s own glare met hers. With a frustrated snort, he pushed forward. Sherbet’s eyes went wide at the sudden charge, stumbling backward. Apparently, that was the opening he’d been waiting for. The grey earth pony shifted to the right, shoving by Sherbet and breaking into a gallop.
“Look, I already said I’m busy.” The stallion said as he passed her. “If he’s hurt, you can send me the hospital bill, alright?!”
For a moment, all Orange Sherbet could do was stare after him, getting the briefest glimpse of a newspaper on his flank. As he rounded the corner, she lowered her head and took a long, deep breath.
Not completely unexpected… unfortunately.
She had to wince at how true the thought was. A low groan from behind her, however, quickly drew Sherbet’s mind elsewhere.
“Spike!” She hurried back to the unicorn’s side, leaning down to help him back up. “Oh my goodness, are you alright?”
“Where did that guy go?” Spike grunted as he found his hooves again.
With a surprising amount of energy, Spike dashed into the street. Sherbet just shook her head as she followed, putting a restraining hoof on his withers. Even as a small part of her couldn’t blame the agitation in his voice.
“Spike, I know that stallion was quite rude,” Sherbet said in a voice so calm it nearly surprised her. “But if Canterlot is anything like Manehatten was--”
“That’s not it!” Spike protested, pulling away. “I know that guy! I mean, I know my version of that guy so… not that guy specifically but… Ugh.”
Spike rubbed his head, probably nursing a headache from the look on his face. Sherbet, meanwhile, had covered her mouth as she realized just what Spike was trying to say.
“Oh!” she gasped out, pointing down the street. “That way, he took the third left--”
The words were barely out of her mouth before Spike took off. Sherbet took a deep breath before darting after him. Silently, she was thankful as the unicorn’s sprint quickly began to flag. Her own legs were already trying to remind her she was no race horse.
“Spike, just who was that stallion?” Sherbet asked as they ran. “Does he work for The Sun?”
“Work for it? That was Ink Blot!” Spike panted, looking back to her with a broad grin on his face. “He’s the editor-in-chief! At least he is in my world!”
Orange Sherbet nearly stumbled at that. Spike, however, seemed to be redoubling his efforts to catch up to the gray-coated pony. She could swear, there was even a spring in his step as he ran.
“If anypony… knows what’s been going on… here…” Spike gasped out between breaths. “It’d be him! This is better than we could have--”
Both of them stumbled as the ear-piercing, brassy cry of a trumpet echoed through the street. Looking to Spike, Orange Sherbet found her own confusion mirrored on the unicorn’s face. For some reason, that gave her an uneasy feeling.
“I take it that’s not normal for Canterlot?” she guessed.
“Only if there’s a parade or something.” Spike had a confused frown as he resumed trotting. “And I can’t think of what they’d be celebrat--.”
As he started to turn the corner, Spike came to a halt. Sherbet raised one eyebrow, cantering up to his side. She couldn’t ignore the growing worry she felt as she noticed the stallion’s eyes growing wider. Cautiously, she followed his gaze.
“Oh my,” she muttered.
The street before her looked much more like what she’d expected. Ponies were milling about, almost shoulder to shoulder, quite a few still emerging from the surrounding buildings. Glancing back over her shoulder, Orange noticed several more coming down the street she and Spike had just walked.
Another blast of the trumpet kept her from asking just what was happening. The noise, however, drew the crowd’s attention to what looked like a raised platform at the end of the street.
On that platform, with the trumpet he’d been carrying pressed to his muzzle, was Ink Blot. Flanked by two armored unicorns that Orange could only assume were royal guards. Before she could take in any more of the scene, a hoof nudged against her side. Glancing toward its owner, she found Spike jerking his head toward the crowd in front of them. As well as the sight of several ponies moving past them to join that same crowd.
“Oh!” Orange snapped her muzzle shut and nodded in understanding.
Without another word between them (just as well as Ink Blot let out a third blast from his trumpet), Spike and Orange quickly joined the rest of the ponies hurrying to the stage. Moving through the back of the crowd, she could almost feel a tension in the air. Quite a few of the gathered ponies looked some mixture of confused, annoyed… and nervous.
Her attention was drawn back to Ink Blot, however, as the earth pony cleared his throat.
“Hear ye, hear ye, oh Citizens of Canterlot.” Orange Sherbet had to raise an eyebrow at Ink Blot’s voice. Contrary to the skittish citizenry listening, he almost sounded bored. “I bring important word from our Great Protector and leader, Sir Shining Armor… oh, you all know the schpiel-”
A slight, nervous giggle rippled through the crowd. Orange covered her mouth, but couldn’t help noticing the amused grin Spike had. Looking back to the stage, however, Ink Blot seemed less jovial. He was wincing under a glare one of the guards was giving him, muttering something to the armored pony before clearing his throat and turning back to the crowd.
“Hmm-hem… It is my duty to report that, approximately thirty minutes ago, a disturbance was detected in the Northern Quadrant of the Great Shield--”
Ink Blot visibly rolled his eyes and fell silent as several alarmed gasps sounded. Orange Sherbet pursed her lips as the ponies around her began muttering various concerns to one another. A quick glance to Spike confirmed the same nervous look on his face as Ink Blot rapped a hoof against the ground.
“Hey! Listen up, I’m not done here yet!” The gray pony seemed to be muttering something as the crowd quieted themselves. “Now then, Sir Shining Armor has looked into the matter, and says that there is no reason to panic. The barrier itself is unharmed. However…”
Orange swallowed hard, trying her best not to glance to the rest of the audience. Somehow, she had a feeling she knew what words were coming. Even Ink Blot fidgeted a bit before continuing.
“There is reason to believe some… thing, might have managed to get through--”
He was cut off by a scream from the audience. The whisper campaign before was nothing compared to the bevy of questions coming from the frightened ponies. Orange gasped as the crowd surged forward, somepony shoving against her and sending her stumbling to the side. Thankfully, a purple hoof helped to steady her before she fell.
“You alright?” Spike asked, his voice barely audible over the ponies around them.
“Yes, only--” Sherbet bit her lip as she looked around.
Several pairs of ears flattened at another blast of the trumpet. Up near the stage, the two unicorn guards stepped back, giving warning glares to the ponies below. Ink Blot was leaning against his trumpet, rubbing his head with one hoof as he muttered to himself again.
“As I was about to say…” The earth pony was casting a rather dark glare at the audience. “While something might have breached the shield, Sir Shining Armor urges everypony to remain calm.”
The questions were starting to fly again, too loud and too many for Orange to pick out any words in particular. They were quickly silenced anyway as Ink Blot lifted his instrument again with an incredulous glare.
“Our Great Leader has doubled the Royal Guard patrols across the city to protect everypony,” he continued, slowly lowering the trumpet. “If citizens should happen to notice anypony acting suspiciously, immediately notify the closest soldier.”
There were still murmurs coming from every side. Nopony seemed at ease. Not that Orange Sherbet was paying them much attention as she looked back to Spike. As their worried eyes met, she could tell they were thinking the same thing as Ink Blot’s voice continued on.
“Thank you for your time, everypony. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
The sight of Ditzy Doo folding her wings over her muzzle sent a pang of guilt through Octavia. Still, she did her best to ignore the feeling as she carefully leaned out from the alleyway the two shared.
Carefully, her eyes scanned the streets, her ears twitching eagerly. Not a single sound came down the empty, cobblestone path. Slowly letting out the breath she’d been holding, the earth mare motioned to her companion.
“Alright, I believe the coast is clear,” she said as she stepped out into the road.
“Oh!” Ditzy answered, her hoofsteps falling in behind Octavia’s own. “Uh, good?”
Octavia simply nodded silently as the two started down the street. Even with her heartbeat slowing once again, the musician still had a deep frown carved on her muzzle. And each tap of her hooves echoing around her only made her discomfort grow.
I’ve never seen Canterlot so… quiet.
“So, Octavia?” The musician stifled her sigh as Ditzy’s voice spoke up again. “Not to be mean or anything but… are you sure this is the right way to the library?”
“Relatively sure. I have lived most of my life here,” Octavia flinched a bit as she tried to pretend she hadn’t been dreading that very question. “Admittedly, I’m not used to this particular route.”
She suppressed a worried groan as she looked around the street. In her mind’s eye, Octavia could almost see the shop fronts and street musicians. There was even a faint hint of music in the air as she briefly closed her eyes.
Opening them again just renewed her disappointment. Another bland, rundown street lined with more Shining Armor posters. Just like the last half-dozen or so she and Ditzy had cut across.
“So, do you… um, know your Shining Armor?”
Octavia’s earlier frown turned into a full-on grimace. Her hooves slowed as she looked back to Ditzy Doo. Who, judging from her rapidly fading smile, seemed to be regretting the question.
“We’re acquainted, yes. He’s the captain of the guards in my Canterlot,” Octavia admitted as she turned back around. “Much like he seems to be in yours, Spike’s, and this one. Why do you ask?”
“No reason!” Ditzy’s denial was spoken just a little too quickly (and loudly) for Octavia’s tastes. “Just making small talk, that’s all.”
The pegasus fell silent again as the two kept walking. In her head, octavia counted off the seconds. As she reached ten, she began to quietly hope that the other mare simply was going to drop the subject.
“But… you didn’t really seem happy about the idea of looking for him,” Ditzy said.
Octavia cleared her throat and rolled her shoulders at that. Suddenly the weight of the cello sitting on her back seemed uncomfortably heavy. Which was nothing compared to the strain of calming her voice to answer the other question she’d been dreading.
“I’m not exactly on the best terms with my Shining Armor,” Octavia explained, letting out a long sigh as she ended the sentence. “The idea that he’s in charge around here is…”
She barely managed to suppress a shudder as the duo walked through the shadow of another banner.
“Somewhat disquieting.” Octavia pursed her lips before continuing. “I’m personally hoping we can figure out just what happened to Canterlot without finding out how serious those posters are.”
“Hey! Back off you jerks!”
Both mares stumbled to a halt at the shout that had echoed from back down the street. Octavia’s ears went flat and she bit the inside of her cheek to avoid cursing.
It’s like they wait for moments like this.
“Oh my gosh,” Ditzy Doo had a terrified look on her face as she turned in the exact opposite direction the two had been moving. “That voice…”
Despite her sardonic thought, Octavia felt the same rush of worry. A feeling that only increased as the voice sounded again.
“Lyra!” Octavia and Ditzy both gasped out.
The two looked to one another in confusion for a split second. A scream from down the street forced them to shake it off. Without another word, both mares took off at top speed.
The street had been deserted rather quickly after Ink Blot’s announcement. Not exactly a surprise given how scared so many of the ponies had looked. Only Ink Blot and the pair of guards were left. All three were up on stage, having some kind of discussion, the unarmored earth pony looking more and more agitated the longer they spoke. Despite their hushed tones, it was almost possible to make out what they were saying.
“Spike? I’ve been giving your plan some thought.”
The unicorn jerked his head up. It was hard enough paying attention to the stage from the alley he’d duck into. Sherbet’s whisper had been more than enough to break his concentration. Spike barely stifled a frustrated sigh as he turned to look at her.
“Something wrong?” Spike asked, doing his best to ignore the nervous way his partner shuffled her hooves.
“It’s just…” Orange Sherbet let out a sigh before speaking again. “I think I’m going to agree with what you said before about it.”
I have an idea… but I’m not sure you’ll like it.
The stallion flinched at his own words. He barely managed to force out a shaky chuckle in response.
“Alright, yeah. I’ll admit it’s not the best plan I’ve ever come up with,” Spike said, scraping one hoof along the ground. “But we don’t really have a lot to work with.”
“Still, pretending to be yourself?” Sherbet had a strange look on her face, like she could barely understand what she’d said. “Or, uh… the Spike from this Canterlot, I mean? Oh dear…”
He really couldn’t blame Sherbet as she rubbed her head. Just the idea of a second… him somewhere in the city was giving Spike a headache too. He did his best to ignore it as he glanced back to the stage.
Ink Blot was still there. Though judging by the way he was gathering his trumpet he likely wouldn’t be for long. The guards were already marching off as well.
“Looks like now’s our chance,” Spike whispered, glancing back over his shoulder. “Just stay out of sight. Ink will know you’re not from around--”
He stopped talking as he noticed Sherbet nervously pawing at the ground.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I’m just…” Sherbet took a deep breath and raised her eyes to meet his. “Spike, can we even be sure this Ink Blot knows you?”
Spike raised an eyebrow in response. Between his confusion and his own racing pulse, he couldn’t answer right away. Plus, there was something in Sherbet’s question. Something more than just the doubt and nerves he was feeling.
He shook his head, forcing the concerns out. Spike could already hear Ink Blot’s hoofsteps passing the alley. The unicorn quickly put on the biggest smile he could muster.
“Trust me, okay? Ink Blot knows everypony in this city.” With a deep breath, Spike could almost feel his own frets ease a bit. “And if something does go wrong…”
He took a step away from Sherbet as she suddenly looked very worried. Spike quickly winked before starting to turn around.
“Well, at least one of us can go find the others then,” he finished.
Before the mare could protest again, Spike darted out from the alley. Ink Blot was already almost around the corner. Spike paused for an instant, wondering how the earth stallion could move so fast with his head bowing so low.
“Hey, Ink!” Spike called out, cantering after his target.
He began to seriously reconsider his plan as Ink Blot suddenly spun around to face him.
“NOW WHADDYA WANT!?”
Spike’s ears were ringing, but that was the least of his concerns. Every other time he could recall, Ink Blot had greeted him with a smile. Certainly not the withering glare he was now giving.
"Wh-whoa, easy Ink..." Spike cleared his throat, trying to get his voice to come out as something other than a squeak. "I-it's just me. You know? Spike?"
The other stallion arched an eyebrow. At the very least, he looked less angry.
"Spike?" Ink Blot parroted.
Spike could feel himself starting to sweat. He quickly forced his smile back. No easy task as his hooves began to quake.
"Yeah, you remember! From the Canterlot Sun?" The unicorn was sure his voice was coming out just a bit too high-pitched. "Guess it's been... like, a lot longer than I thought?"
Please, please, please…
Spike’s heart was pounding in his throat. He could hear the faint sounds of armored hoofsteps, possibly the two unicorn guards. Orange Sherbet’s concern was ringing in his ears, almost drowning out his own thoughts as he tried to believe his plan wasn’t already coming to a crashing failure. All the while, Ink Blot's brow was furrowed. It almost felt like his eyes were burrowing through Spike as he continued to glare.
"Oh, right... Spike," Ink Blot finally said with a shake of his head.
Inwardly, the purple pony breathed a sigh of relief.
"So what do you want?" Ink Blot's harsh tone tugged at Spike's nerves again, reminding him of his mission.
"Want? Oh, uh..." Spike quickly cleared his throat as he finally steadied his legs. "Actually, I... needed to get into The Sun. I left something important there and—"
He stopped himself as he noticed Ink's eyebrow arch again. Suddenly, Spike found himself seriously hoping he was just imagining things. Maybe the suspicion Ink Blot was looking at him with was all in his mind.
He also hoped that applied to the sound of Orange Sherbet face-hoofing.
"You left something at The Sun." Ink Blot's voice was a disbelieving monotone as he looked Spike up and down. "Kiddo, The Sun shut down a loooong time ago."
"I know tha-knew! Knew that!" Spike nearly bit his tongue as he fumbled for words. "But I... heh heh, this is gonna sound so stupid—"
"Try me," Ink Blot said, tapping one hoof impatiently.
Spike swallowed hard as he tried to collect his wits. His eyes were darting uncontrollably though, casting about for something to use as a convincing story.
"I lost..." He took a deep breath as his gaze finally settled on one of the several boarded up doors that lined the streets. "I lost my apartment keys."
A long silence hung between the two stallions. Spike did his best to smile as Ink Blot held his gaze. Almost as though the earth pony were trying to read his thoughts.
Your keys?! That's the best cover story you could come up with?!
Spike sincerely hoped Ink Blot could not hear his thoughts.
"Alright, Spike, you're gonna have to explain that," Ink Blot finally said. "Just what would your keys be doing at my place?"
"They're my spares!" Spike winced at his own volume. He cleared his dry throat before trying to talk again. "I always kept a spare key in my desk. You know, before we got shut down."
The gray pony's brow furrowed. Spike could almost swear he seemed to be considering what he'd heard.
"So yeah, I lost my regular keys just today and remembered I never took that spare out," he continued, hoping the story still sounded convincing. "But The Sun was all locked up, and then I heard your trumpet and—"
"Alright, alright, I get the picture!" Ink Blot finally said, waving one hoof. "Fine, yeesh, I'll let you in to grab it."
Spike finally smiled for real as Ink Blot started to walk away. Glancing back toward Sherbet, he flashed a wink and a nod before falling into step behind his employer. Inwardly, though, he could barely contain his excitement.
It worked! This is great!
"Hey, it's been awhile since we talked," Spike said as they neared the corner. "Maybe we could catch up? Or talk about the good old days or some—"
"It's not that long a walk, sport," Ink Blot grumbled.
... Almost great...
For once, Ditzy wished her lazy-eye didn’t make flying so difficult. She couldn’t help but think how much faster it would likely be than running.
“I said, leave me alone!”
She forced herself to shake off the worry as she pushed her hooves faster. Through her drifting eye she could see Octavia doing the same. Even though she could hardly catch her breath, Ditzy redoubled her efforts. There wasn’t much further to go. The alley the voice had shouted from was just a few strides away. Ditzy almost toppled over as she rounded the corner.
“What in Equestria--” Octavia gasped out from somewhere to her left.
Ditzy thought she saw the earth pony skid to a halt. She didn’t really take the time to notice or care. All her attention was on the pale-green unicorn ahead of her.
“Lyra!” Ditzy shouted.
The unicorn turned to her, gold eyes wide. In an instant, Ditzy had closed the distance between them. She couldn’t contain herself, both forelegs shooting out and pulling Lyra into a tight hug as she came to a full stop.
“You’re alright! At least, you look alright-” Ditzy was gushing, her brain barely able to keep up with her mouth. “You are alright, right? We heard you shouting for help!”
“I-yeah, bu- wait a second!” Ditzy stumbled back at Lyra’s words as the unicorn squirmed and shoved her way from the embrace. “Just who the hay are you?!”
Ditzy started to open her mouth, only for it to snap shut. Lyra was staring at her, a mix of confusion and shock on her face and no sign of recognition in her eyes. A harsh reminder to Ditzy of just what she’d forgotten. That despite all of her senses recognizing the pony before her, this was not the Lyra Heartstrings she knew so well.
“Oh… uh, well…” Ditzy stammered a bit before finally falling silent.
Suddenly, the mailmare could feel her cheeks turning red. She chanced a look over her shoulder, expecting to see the same embarrassment from Octavia.
Instead, the musician suddenly seemed extremely worried. Confused, Ditzy looked back toward Lyra.
It was then that she noticed the other two ponies standing nearby. A pair of stallions, one unicorn and one pegasus, wearing suits of guard armor. Both of whom were also giving her rather annoyed glares.
“Oops,” Ditzy muttered as she took a step back.
The unicorn guard merely grumbled something in response. Ditzy could barely make out the words “Darn civilians” before the armored pegasus had shoved his way in front of her.
“Alright ladies, move it along,” the guard ordered, his wings spreading and blocking Ditzy’s view of the alley behind him. “Nothing to see here--”
“I beg your pardon,” Octavia interrupted, quickly moving up to Ditzy’s side. “But we distinctly heard that mare calling for help!”
Ditzy shrank back a bit as the guard let out a frustrated snort. She didn’t want to admit to feeling slightly thankful as his glare moved to Octavia. As the two locked eyes, sizing each other up, she closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath.
Then, likely surprising everypony else almost as much as herself, Ditzy stepped forward and shoved her hoof between the two glaring ponies.
“Please,” she said, her eyes pleading with the armored pegasus. “We didn’t mean to cause trouble. We just wanted to make sure everything was alright, really!”
Ditzy glanced to her partner, smiling as she saw Octavia take a step back. The guard also seemed much calmer. Even if he did still have the usual “no-nonsense” look one expected from a soldier. At the very least he’d lowered his wings, allowing Ditzy to see the unicorn guard and Lyra again. Both of whom were watching the scene play out with wide eyes.
“Fine.” Ditzy could hear the pegasus guard let out a small sigh as he spoke. “Your concern is noted and… somewhat appreciated, citizen.”
Octavia’s jaw had dropped in shock. Ditzy just smiled back at the guard, letting the sense of relief wash through her.
“Appreciated, but misplaced, seeing as there’s nothing to concern yourselves with here,” the guard continued as he jerked his head toward Lyra. “That shouting was just this criminal waiving her right to remain silent--”
“CRIMINAL?!” Octavia’s voice exclaimed alongside Ditzy’s own.
“Hey now, that’s a little harsh isn’t it?”
It took Ditzy a moment to place the voice. Still, through the shock she managed to remember. Even if she hadn’t all eyes were going back to the green unicorn that was the centerpoint of the ruckus.
“Ma’am, I remind you that you do have the right to remain silent,” the pegasus guard said, his tone sounding more like a threat than a reminder.
“Oh come on!” Lyra protested, even as she took a trembling step back. “All I was doing was playing my lyre! I didn’t do anything wrong!”
Ditzy’s ear twitched fearfully at the sound of Octavia’s voice. Swallowing hard, she looked over to her partner. She almost immediately wished she hadn’t. Octavia had a worrying twitch in one eye as the guard they’d been speaking to turned all his attention on Lyra.
“Didn’t do anything wrong, eh?” He almost seemed to be enjoying the moment. “Steel, read the charges.”
“Busking without a license.” Before Ditzy could blink, the unicorn guard had pulled out a notepad and was reading from it. “Performing outside designated music zone. Performing five decibels over legal noise limit--”
“That’ll do,” the first guard interrupted.
A slight breeze passing over her tongue made Ditzy aware that her mouth was hanging open. Suddenly, Octavia’s apparent anger wasn’t as worrying. If anything, she could sympathize. Especially as the armored pegasus fixed Lyra with a smug grin. Something was just boiling inside the grey mare’s chest as she watched her friend begin to tremble…
And she couldn’t help thinking just what would happen if the situation were reversed.
“So, unless you’d like to add resisting arrest to the list--” he started to say.
“And why shouldn’t she?” Octavia spoke up.
The guard was immediately silenced, spinning around to face the other mare. Ditzy didn’t bother worrying about her teammate. There was an opening between the guard’s wing and alley wall. That was all she cared about. With a surprising burst of speed, she managed to slip past the soldier.
Not a hard task, as she noticed he and his partner seemed rather occupied with Octavia.
“So you corner her because what? She played some music? Tried to bring a little happiness to those around her?” Octavia’s tone was almost deceptively calm. The way she was biting off her sentences, however,was giving Ditzy chills. “Heavens forbid that anypony recall how beautiful this city is supposed to be!”
It was clear the Octavia was getting into her stride. Yet somehow, the Element of Kindness couldn’t bring herself to stop her. Especially as she turned her focus to Lyra. The unicorn mare was still visibly shaken, simply staring wide-eyed past Ditzy.
“Wha… I…” Lyra stuttered out, tearing her gaze away from Octavia. “Who are you guys? Really?”
Ditzy just smiled, gently putting a hoof on the other mare’s shoulder.
“Well, it’s kinda complicated…” Ditzy was trying to speak as gently as she could. No easy task as she strained to be heard over Octavia. “The important thing is, we’re here to help.”
Lyra’s jaw stopped flapping. Something that should have relieved Ditzy, but didn’t. Likely do to the confused stare the unicorn was giving her. If it weren’t for Octavia’s continued ranting, Ditzy knew she’d have felt uncomfortably in the silence.
“Why?” Lyra finally asked.
Ditzy glanced back over her shoulder. Octavia still had the guards’ attention. There was really only one answer to Lyra’s question she could think of. And somehow, the mailmare had a feeling Octavia would say the same thing.
“Let’s just say you remind us of a friend of ours,” Ditzy answered.
“--Well? Anything to say for yourselves?” Octavia finally wrapped up her tirade.
Both the guards were still in a stunned silence. Octavia was panting slightly, still fixing both of them with a hard glare. Ditzy cleared her own throat, turning fully around, already planning her own piece to wrap the whole situation up.
“Wow. That’s just… wow…” Lyra suddenly spoke up again from behind her. “That almost makes me feel really bad about this.”
A clatter of hooves echoed through the alley. Ditzy’s eyes went wide as she spun back around.
Just in time to see the tip of Lyra’s tail vanish around the corner.
The pegasus guard shoved Ditzy as he charged past, knocking the mare to the ground. Ditzy grunted, the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding coming out in a pained whoosh. Octavia was calling her name, but a gray light blazed into being. Before either mare could move, strands of cold, gray magic were binding the both of them. Numbly, Ditzy glanced up to the unicorn guard responsible for the spell.
“Well, I guess obstructing justice goes on the list today too,” he said.
Glowing bindings wrapped over her muzzle next. Not that it mattered. Ditzy was too stunned to say anything.
Much as he hated to admit it, Spike was running low on ideas.
Ink Blot had been proven right. The walk back to the office had been much, much shorter than he realized. Worse, the few attempts he had made to start a conversation had only been met with noncommittal grunts and sighs. Now the faded sign of The Canterlot Sun was hanging over his head, and Ink Blot had busied himself with the lock.
Least I’ll be able to get to the archives.
The thought cheered Spike a little, but not nearly as much as he would have liked. Somehow the lack of any further plan disturbed him far less than the pony in front of him. Even with Orange Sherbet’s pep-talk from before, it was impossible for him to relate the talkative, good-natured editor he’d known with the dour grump in front of him. Part of him was almost wishing that the door wouldn’t open.
Spike shook his head, trying to force the thought out. As he did, though, he couldn’t help catching a glimpse of more of the Shining Armor posters. Another hard glare coming from a normally familiar face. More evidence that if Ink Blot was this bad, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the rest of the story...
“There we go! Stupid lock…” Ink Blot finally grunted, shaking Spike from his thoughts. “Alright, get in and get whatcha need already.”
“Uh, right,” Spike said, barely remembering to smile as he spoke.
Of course, the gray stallion didn’t return the grin. He simply shook his head and headed through the door. Spike chanced a quick glance to the side, barely catching sight of a lock of Sherbet’s mane before she ducked around the corner again. With a deep breath, he marched through the door.
“Ah… ahh… AAAH-CHOOO!”
In that same breath, he let out the most tremendous sneeze of his life. He sniffled, wiping at his nose as his eyes slowly adjusted to the dimmer light inside.
“Guh, sorry about that!” Spike sniffled again as something tickled at his muzzle. “I uh… whoa…”
Despite how the building had looked from the outside, the inside wasn’t as bad as Spike had expected.
It was worse.
Not that he’d thought he’d see ponies running from desk to desk or hear the sounds of typewriters or printing presses. If it hadn’t been for Ink Blot going in and out twice however, Spike would have guessed the entire building had been abandoned. A thick coating of dust covered almost every surface, from the window sills to the desks shoved against the walls and into corners, to the very floor he walked on. It even covered the lamps, washing the room in a dingy gray light. Only a single patch of the place seemed clean: A lone trail of hoofprints leading away from the door, which Ink Blot was following as he led the way inside.
“Soooo… been a while since you had anypony over?” Spike guessed, as he trotted after his boss.
“Not a lot of call for visitors,” Ink Blot answered as he kept walking. “‘Course, you already knew that.”
“Yeah, yeah! Of course!” Spike answered as his heart skipped a bit.
As much as the answer should have depressed him, Spike couldn’t help but feel an excited rush. It was, after all, the most Ink Blot had said to him so far.
“You still live here though, right?” Spike did his best to follow the other stallion’s tracks, so as not to kick up more dust. “I woulda thought--”
“Don’t really care whatcha thought, Sport.” Ink Blot interrupted again, causing Spike to let out a frustrated grumble. “Now are you gonna find that key or what?”
The unicorn looked to the side of the room. Even under so much grime, he was certain he could pick out his desk to make his story convincing. That, however, hardly mattered anymore. Instead, he looked back to the earth pony he’d been following. The one whose flank was about to vanish into the room with faded letters that still read “Editor-in-Chief.”
“What happened to you, Ink?” He blurted out.
The other pony stopped, and backed out of the door. Inside, Spike knew his cover story was about to be shredded.
Looking from the office he’d been so proud to work in, to the pony he’d been so proud to work for, however, made him forget why he cared about that.
“What did you--” Ink Blot started to ask.
“You heard me. I don’t care if things are different, I know this isn’t like you!” Spike’s insides were boiling with both anger and worry. He couldn’t stop as the words kept coming out. “You wouldn’t just give up on The Sun like this! Even if--”
“Even if it was the end of the freakin’ world?!” Ink Blot shouted back, stamping his hoof.
Spike’s voice fell short as the earth stallion stomped up to him. A scowl was on the gray pony’s face as he send sprays of dust into the air. In a second, he was eye-to-eye with Spike, and the unicorn trembled at the cold glare burning into his own.
“The Sun shut down, because nopony needs it! What good is news when nothing ever changes, huh?” Ink Blot’s hot breath was blasting Spike in the face as he yelled. “Why else would I work for his great-stuck-up-protectorness if there was any other choice?!”
“I--” Spike started to answer.
He didn’t get the chance to as Ink Blot shoved past him. The earth pony was marching to the front door, not even bothering to look back at Spike.
“So now I’ve gotta question for you,” Ink said as he walked. “Just how can you act so familiar with me and not know about all that, I wonder?”
Spike squared his shoulders. The truth was basically already out. His mouth started to open, ready to say it, right as Ink Blot opened the door.
At that point, the purple stallion’s mouth fell open, but no sound came out.
Because on the other side of the door was Orange Sherbet, looking perfectly miserable as she stood flanked by a pair of armored pegasus ponies. Neither of whom were giving Spike very friendly looks. Ink Blot simply turned around, a smug grin on his muzzle.
“Guess what, Champ? I think we’re all about to find out the answer to that,” he said, stepping aside to let the guards in. “In fact, how about we all take a little trip up to Shining’s place and let him know while we’re at it?"