Granite walls. Torches flickering from sconces. Iron-barred cells waiting hungrily for a pony to imprison.
And for some reason, one thought was going through Spike’s head.
It’s not quite as bad as I thought…
The optimism was somewhat uplifting, but not enough to make him forget where he was: The dungeons of Canterlot Castle. Even if the halls were cleaner and better lit than expected and the bars of the cell lacked rust, it didn’t change the fact that this was a prison. One that he’d heard stories about, but never expected to actually see beneath the gleaming-white spires of the palace.
And certainly not while facing into one of those open jail cells with a magic-restraining ring placed over his horn.
“Alright, get in there!”
Spike didn’t have much of a choice. Somepony, likely the guard that had spoken, shoved him hard before he could take a step on his own. He stumbled right into the small cell.
“Wait!” Spike protested, spinning around to face his captors. “If you’d just let me explain--”
His voice was silenced by the bars of the cell slamming shut. Across the hall, he could see Orange Sherbet suffering the same fate.
“You can explain everything to the captain,” spoke the sneering guard who had closed Spike’s cell. “Until then, just wait here quietly. Like a good little pony.”
Without another word, both of the armored ponies marched off. Spike couldn’t even begin to guess where. His mind was spinning with far too many worries and curses to think. He lowered his head with a frustrated groan, his forehead pressing against the cold metal bars as he struggled to focus.
“Well, this is far from ideal,” a familiar voice spoke from outside Spike’s cell.
“You can say that again, Octavia,” Spike grumbled.
He blinked, suddenly realizing what he’d just said.
“Wait, Octavia?!” Spike raised his head with a start, eyes wide as saucers.
Judging from what he saw and Orange Sherbet’s shocked gasp, Spike’s ears hadn’t lied. Octavia sat, just barely in view, in the cell next to Sherbet’s own. The earth mare looked almost as dejected as Spike felt. Though he could only guess seeing as she sat with her back against the bars.
“Oh Ditzy, you too?” Orange Sherbet fretted.
“Yeah…” Ditzy Doo’s voice came from the cell next to Spike’s, significantly more subdued and downtrodden than the stallion had ever heard it before. “Sorry guys.”
“Well what happened?” Spike asked, shoving his own personal worries aside as he simply stared at Octavia.
The look she gave over her shoulder almost made Spike shudder. There was fear and sorrow in her eyes, to be sure. But at the same time, not a hint of surprise. A look disturbingly like the “I told you so” glares his assistant seemed so fond of giving him.
“Miss Doo and I suffered a… slight lapse in judgement,” Octavia admitted with a heavy sigh. “We found a mutual friend of ours in danger and tried to help her.”
Spike’s ear twitched as he heard Ditzy give a mumble of confirmation from her cell. Octavia seemed to be biting back on something, her eyes drifting down to her hooves.
“Regrettably, she was nothing like the pony either of us was familiar with.” Octavia’s eyes were back up before Spike could ask anything. Her worry gone, and replaced with a piercing curiosity. “What about yourselves?”
“Uh… pretty much the same.” Spike winced at the truth. Even if it was the most accurate way to sum up his talk with Ink Blot.
The dungeon went quiet. No sound but the occasional sigh from one of the others. Spike closed his eyes, one hoof rubbing his forehead as he tried to think. The sound of somepony clearing their throat and a repeated clang of hoof against metal quickly broke the silence, however, and drew his eyes back to cell across from his.
“Alright, let’s not get down on ourselves,” Orange Sherbet spoke up, lowering her hoof from the bars. “Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie are still out there, and when we fail to meet up with them I’m sure that… they’ll…”
The Manehattenite trailed off, and Spike could tell why. He could only imagine Ditzy was probably fidgeting and looking as nervously awkward as Octavia. The musician noticed him staring at her, and her own gaze darted to the side--
“They’re both already locked up in here, aren’t they?” Spike guessed.
The cells were silent for another moment.
“Wow, he’s good!” Pinkie’s voice echoed from further down the hall.
A frustrated sigh, undoubtedly belonging to Rainbow Dash, answered the pink pony’s voice. Ignoring the chill of the metal, Spike pressed his face against the bars and strained to look towards the voice. His eyes narrowed, just able to make out a blue hoof reaching from beyond Octavia’s cell.
“Uh, heh heh.” Rainbow Dash’s nervous chuckle accompanied the waving forelimb. “Hey there, everypony!”
“I guess questioning the guards didn’t go so well then,” Orange Sherbet sighed, rubbing at her own forehead now.
“Turns out they’re not the most talkative bunch,” Rainbow Dash’s voice answered.
“Aww, I thought they had plenty to say Dashy!” Pinkie sounded so bubbly Spike wondered if she understood where she was. “Stuff like ‘Halt!’ and ‘Get back here!’ and ‘No trespassing in the castle!’”
“Wait, what?!” Spike cut in.
“Thanks for that, Pinks…” Dash grumbled, her hoof disappearing into her cage again.
“Pardon me, but didn’t we all agree charging straight to the castle was a bad idea?” Octavia exclaimed as she pressed against the bars of her own cell. “We were trying to avoid another misunderstanding like in Manehatten!”
“Yeah? How’s that working out for you?” Rainbow Dash answered sarcastically.
If looks could kill, Spike was certain that Octavia's glare would have drilled a hole through the wall between her and Dash. Despite the sting of truth Rainbow Dash's point had, he (wisely) chose to keep his mouth shut.
"Come on, Dashy," Pinkie's cheerful voice chimed in again. "No need to be such a grouch!"
"Pinkie has a good point." Spike could see Orange Sherbet mouthing the words again, silently to herself before shaking her head. Almost like she couldn't believe she'd just said them. "Fighting amongst ourselves isn't going to improve things."
Octavia's glare relaxed at that. She let out a heavy sigh, her shoulders slumping as she turned her back to the cell bars once more.
"I suppose you're right," she admitted. "Not that things could get much worse."
Spike couldn’t help but nod in agreement as he looked around his own cell. It felt surprisingly cramped, despite the fact that the only furnishing was a bare cot bolted to the wall. The only other decoration was a small, barred window high up on the wall. Squinting, he could just make out a shimmer of familiar, magenta light filtering through it…
"We're not done yet," he said, his heart almost skipping a beat.
Spike knew what he’d see when he turned around, but he did so anyway. Just as he expected, Octavia and Orange Sherbet were giving him some rather confused looks. He could feel the other mares doing the same, even through the stone walls. Even in the face of all that, Spike began to smile.
“Okay. Things didn’t go like we planned,” Spike explained as he straightened his hat. “But we still got this far! Didn’t you hear what that guard said?”
Nopony else responded. Octavia, if anything, looked more confused with the way she tilted her head. Spike’s smile broadened as he pointed in the direction the guards had went.
“‘You can explain everything to the captain.’ Guys, they’re going to let us see Shining Armor!” Spike couldn’t help bouncing on his hooves a bit as he spoke, a chuckle even slipping out as he shared his revelation. “We can explain everything and be outta here in no time!”
Now his smile was catching on. Even as Orange Sherbet gasped and covered her muzzle, he could see the grin starting to form. The loud whoop and burst of confetti that fluttered into view could only have been Pinkie Pie joining in. Eagerly, Spike turned his eyes to Octavia.
“You’ll forgive me if I withhold my enthusiasm,” Octavia’s grumbling voice broke in.
Spike’s smile faltered a bit as he looked to the musician. Octavia still had her gaze locked on him, with nothing but a dry, humorless expression on her face. She even rolled her eyes a bit as she turned her back to the cell bars once more.
“Uh, Octavia?” Spike tried not to wince, forcing himself to keep his voice cheerful. “I just said we’ll be getting out of here--”
“And I have no doubt you believe that. I’m somewhat unconvinced,” Octavia answered without looking back. “I might not have seen much of this Canterlot, but I’m familiar with Shining Armor. You’ll forgive me, but I sincerely doubt he’ll listen to--”
“He has to!”
Spike inhaled sharply through clenched teeth. His shout, and the echo of his hoof slamming against the floor, thoroughly ended the brief feelings of elation that had filled the dungeon. Now there was silence again, and Octavia’s shocked eyes staring at him as he tried to control his ragged breathing.
“I-I mean… look, I’m sorry. I get that Shining’s probably different. Here and in your Equestria,” Spike admitted, as much to himself and the knot forming in his stomach as anypony else. “But I know I can get through to him! No matter what’s changed, he’s still--”
Spike’s ears fell flat. Both from the booming shout and sounds of metal clattering. He didn’t even have the chance to ask what was happening before one of the guards that had thrown him into his cell came racing up. He skittered to a halt, pulling himself into a stern salute before freezing in place like a statue.
Then a familiar voice floated down the hall.
“Steel Hoof, report.”
Spike’s heart skipped a beat for real this time as the steady clank of armored ponies marching began. He pressed himself against the bars, craning his neck to try and get a look at the approaching speakers.
“Ah, y-yes sir! Well…” There was a bit of coughing from a pony Spike could only guess was Steel Hoof, and the sound of him fumbling with a clipboard. “First off, we have these two caught trying to break into the castle.”
“Trying? I thought we did a pretty good job!” Pinkie Pie spoke up. “I mean, we got all the way to--”
A flare of magenta light nearly blinded Spike, causing him to stumble backward. Pinkie Pie’s voice suddenly cut out, replaced with unsettling silence.
“You’ll get your chance to talk, prisoner.” The familiar voice sent a chill down Spike’s spine this time. His ears fell flat, almost unable to believe how detached it sounded as the hoofsteps started again. “What about these two?”
“Er, interfering with a guard in the pursuit of his duties.” Steel Hoof cleared his throat. “Also aiding and abetting a convicted criminal. We’re still searching for Miss Heartstrings--”
Octavia had a scowl on her face, but said nothing. Likely because whatever magic that had silenced Pinkie was still glowing slightly. Spike’s heart was thundering in his chest, almost drowning out the hooves as they marched towards him and Orange Sherbet. He opened his mouth, trying to think of something to say.
"Finally, there's the pair that Chief Herald Ink Blot helped bring in—"
Spike didn't hear any words after that. His own voice also vanished at the sight of the stallion that marched in front of his cell.
For a moment, he almost couldn't believe this was the same pony as his brother. Even reminding himself that technically he wasn't didn't help. The Shining Armor he remembered always had a warm smile. Always looked so proud and brave in his decorative purple armor.
There was no sign of either on the unicorn Spike was looking at. Only a cold glare being focused from under a helmet of hard, gray steel. Somehow it looked even worse than the one on the posters. Possibly due to the numerous bags and faint scar Spike could see gathered under those icy-blue eyes...
But despite the differences, he couldn't deny it. The white-coated, steel covered unicorn before him was undoubtedly his brother.
"This is the pony that attacked the shield?" Shining Armor asked, his voice jarring Spike back to reality.
"Attacked-wait, what!?" Spike sputtered out, shaking his head in an attempt to re-rail his thoughts.
"Well, that's what Ink Blot suspects." Steel Hoof was referring to his notes, seemingly trying to ignore Spike's outburst. "Let's see... strange pony he'd never met before, tried to act ‘real chummy' with him shortly after the attack was announced—"
"Hang on a second!" Spike almost regretted interrupting as his brother's glare turned back on him. He tried to ignore the feeling of his throat tightening. "We didn't do anything to... uh, I mean it's not like..."
... Darn it, Discord.
Spike stopped stammering and bit his lip as his rather harrowing arrival in the city burned at the front of his mind. He fought back the urge to shudder as Shining Armor's eyes bored into his own. The older unicorn took a step closer to the cell, and Spike felt his own hoof instinctively move back.
“Alright, I know this looks bad,” Spike said, trying (in vain) to keep his legs from shaking. “But I can explain--”
A sudden flare of light cut him off. Spike froze as a beam of magenta magic shot from his brother’s horn, connecting to his own. The younger unicorn grit his teeth as the iron ring over his horn seemed to tighten.
“I have my own ways of getting the truth,” Shining Armor’s voice spoke over the crackle of magic. “Let’s see just what sort of spells you’ve been casting, shall we?”
Spike wasn’t sure what the bigger shock was. The dismissive, frustrated tone Shining had used, or the spell that was surging through him. He was certain, at least, that the spell was to blame for the sudden rush of heat to his head, and the familiar feeling of magic gathering in his horn.
“Just hold still and this will be over faster.” Shining’s order was the only thing Spike could hear over the static that filled his ears. “Now, what do we have… here?”
Spike tried to lift his head as his brother’s question trailed off. Even if he couldn’t see Shining’s face through the magenta aura around him, he could feel something was wrong. Sweat was starting to pour down his face as the room kept growing hotter and hotter, all as a shower of multicolored sparks began to pour down from somewhere over his head.
Or on top of it
“What in Equestria--”
The realization must have hit Shining Armor at the same moment. A second too late for either unicorn to do anything. The Element of Magic, already so hot Spike was surprised his mane hadn’t caught fire, gave one last flash.
Spike’s head snapped backward as the magic connecting him and Shining Armor suddenly broke.
He thought he heard somepony cry out, somewhere in the distance. His senses were swimming, however, far too dulled to tell who or where. His entire body tingled with pins-and-needles, the worlding pitching and spinning dizzyingly around him as his legs tangled. It was only the smallest of reliefs as he felt himself smack into the wall, and he leaned against it for support as the flood of magical energy slowly began to clear from his senses.
“Spike!” Orange Sherbet’s horrified voice drifted into his buzzing ears. “Spike, are you okay?!”
Spike tried to speak, to say something to reassure the mare. All that he managed to get out was a groan followed by a half-choked cough. Judging by the sound of clattering armor and hooves, however, he wasn’t the only one reeling.
“C-Captain Shining Armor?” Steel Hoof was stammering. Spike could make out the blurry shape of the guard moving towards somepony leaning against the cell bars. “S-sir?”
“What was… I’ve never seen...” Shining Armor coughed, the figure pulling himself away from Spike’s spell. “That isn’t possible…”
The pins-and-needles sensation was nearly gone, letting Spike feel a dull ache all along one side. The cause likely being that the wall he thought was supporting him was actually the floor of his cell. He groaned again as he rolled himself onto his stomach, his vision slowly clearing as he looked up to the door. Shining Armor was still there, glaring down at him as he panted for breath. Spike was almost hurt over how little he was surprised.
“Just who are you?” Shining Armor growled out.
It took a second for Spike to realize the question was directed at him.
His heart came to a dead stop. Somehow his head managed to snap up, his eyes staring in disbelief. He couldn’t tell who or what he was looking at, however. Not with how fast the world was suddenly spinning.
“I-I-wha-y-you--” Spike’s voice cracked. Denial, questions, and explanations were all trying to fight their way out at once. None of them got the chance to as Shining’s magic flared once again.
“Don’t play games with me! Your spells are barely more than junior class!” Shining Armor was shouting as his spell pulled something from Spike’s head. “But this thing--”
Spike’s hat, complete with the Element of Magic attached to it, flew between the bars and landed on Shining Armor’s waiting hoof. A part of Spike held its breath, glued to the emerald feather, watching to see if it would react again.
A much more significant part, however, was stuck on his brother’s question.
Who are you?
“Whatever this is, it has more magic than anypony I’ve ever seen.” Shining had stopped shouting, but the threatening tone of his voice still forced its way into Spike’s ears. “And it just tried to blast me in the face with it! So what is it? A weapon to destroy the shield? Or me, perhaps?”
“NO!” Spike shouted, his voice finally coming back to him.
Shining Armor actually jumped back from the bars at the outburst. Spike was on his hooves without even realizing he’d moved, his breathing ragged as he stared wide-eyed at the white stallion. His hat, and the strange actions of his Element, suddenly didn’t matter in the slightest.
“Shining, why would I ever want to hurt you?!” Spike didn’t care how loud or desperate his voice sounded. Anything to get it past the lump in his throat. “Come on! It’s me! Spike! Don’t you recognize me?!”
The dungeon was deathly silent. Spike, however, wouldn’t have noticed if an earthquake suddenly broke out. He was too busy taking in the look on Shining Armor’s face.
There was confusion. Frustration. Suspicion.
But not a hint of familiarity in those blue eyes.
“You… you do recognize me…” Spike swallowed hard, his entire body suddenly feeling very cold. “Don’t you?”
“No.” Shining Armor’s answer felt like a blow to the stomach. Spike’s vision was blurring again as the other stallion’s eyes narrowed on him. “Should I?”
“B-but… I mean…” Spike’s mouth was so dry he could barely get the words out. “You’re my brother, why wouldn’t you--”
He couldn’t get the rest out. Magenta light covered his body and yanked him sharply forward. Spike’s gasp of fright stuttered out as he stopped just before hitting the bars of his cell. Shining Armor was right on the other side. The glare was back, but it was nowhere near as cold as it had been. This time his eyes were on fire.
“What. Did. You. Say?” Shining Armor growled out, biting off each word.
“I-I-I’m...” Spike couldn’t stop stammering, his mind going blank under the hateful gaze. “I’m your br-brother?”
Orange Sherbet let out another worried shout as Spike found himself released from the magical grip. Despite the short drop, his rubbery legs gave out, dumping him back to the floor.
“I don’t know what kind of game you think you’re playing, but there’s two things you should have known.” Shining Armor was talking between deep breaths as Spike struggled to stand once again. “First off: Nopony mentions my family. Ever.”
Spike got his head up. Just in time to see his brother give a dismissive snort and turn his back.
“And secondly, if this was supposed to be a ploy to get close, you didn’t do your research.” Even as he walked away, Shining Armor’s words still slapped Spike in the face. “I never had a little brother.”
Armored hooves were clanking away. Steel Hoof had darted off, following his commander. Spike’s ears were flat against his head, as though trying to shut out what he’d just heard. But still, the voices carried down the hall.
“S-sir, what about the other--” Steel Hoof started to ask.
“Come get me when one of them feels like telling the truth!” Shining Armor shouted back. “There’s somepony else I need to have a word with…”
That was the last Spike heard before the distant slam of a door echoed through the dungeon.
Cautiously, Rainbow Dash lifted one ear.
Well, that went great…
She bit back on the urge to mutter the sarcasm. Instead, she pressed up against the bars, trying to peer as far down the halls as she could. The dungeon was quiet again but for the distant clank of guards marching away.
The pegasus nearly banged her head on the ceiling as a harsh, electric crackle broke the silence. The wall of glowing energy that Shining Armor had placed across the hall from her flashed once and vanished, once again revealing Pinkie Pie’s cell. The pink mare inside was gesturing animatedly with three of her hooves, somehow managing to balance on just her right foreleg.
“-- So then he was like ‘Oh, but I prefer porridge’ So I--” Pinkie cut herself off as a sweeping gesture sent her toppling to the floor. The mare peeked out from under her fluffy mane, tilting her head curiously. “Hey, what’s with all the frowny faces? My story wasn’t that boring was it?”
Normally, Dash would have at least chuckled over the non-sequitur. Or just from Pinkie Pie being… well, Pinkie Pie in general and apparently not realizing Shining Armor’s spell had kept anypony from hearing her. This time she just cast a worried glare toward Spike’s cell. The lone stallion of their team remained completely silent, not so much as a whimper coming from behind the bars.
“Did I miss something here?” Pinkie Pie asked as she sprang back to her feet.
“Uh… we kinda need a new plan--” Rainbow Dash started to explain.
“HE DIDN’T RECOGNIZE ME?!?”
The cyan mare’s ears fell flat as Spike’s voice exploded from his cell.
Cuz this one just went from bad to worse.
“I just don’t-That doesn’t make any-How could he not recognize me?!” Spike sputtered out, frantic hoofbeats echoing as he likely paced around his cell. “Shining has known me literally all my life!”
“Spike…” Orange Sherbet was talking. More shouting, actually, to be heard over the continuous clack of Spike’s hooves. “Spike I understand you’re upset--”
“I think he’s well within his rights to be,” Octavia interrupted, her normally calm voice carrying so much spite Dash could almost taste it. “I knew Shining Armor could be harsh, but this…”
“Oh, is that what everypony is all upset about?” Pinkie Pie asked. “Aww, I wouldn’t be too hard on ol’ Shiny! This one just probably had a little sister instead!”
Rainbow Dash’s wings stiffened at those words. She gestured frantically, trying to get Pinkie’s attention. The damage was already done apparently. Spike’s pacing had stopped, and Ditzy Doo was staring at the wall between herself and Pinkie. Dash could already guess the others were also looking in the same direction.
“A little… what?” Spike was the first to speak up, much to Dash’s displeasure. “Pinkie, that doesn’t make any sense!”
“Sure it does! That’s how it is in my Equestria, and Dashy’s too!” Pinkie explained, her smile never fading. “Twilight Sparkle: Element of Magic and Shining Armor’s little sister!”
Dash’s wings slumped and she bit down on her lip.
Here it comes…
“Twilight-You mean like my assistant Twilight?!” Spike was still shouting, and Rainbow Dash caught herself wondering just how far away the guards had gone. “B-but… Yeah, she’s our family but… I mean, she’s a dragon! I love her to pieces, but Shining never even met her until I brought her home from school!”
“Awww, and I bet she’s just the cutest little thing!” Pinkie Pie cooed, her eyes going wide. “Buuuut where I’m from, it’s the opposite! Twilight’s the unicorn and Spike is her adorable little dragon assistant!”
There was no sarcasm or taunting in Pinkie’s tone, but somehow Dash had a feeling that didn’t matter to the stallion. He had stopped shouting, at the very least. Judging from the stunned squeak that came from his cell, Rainbow Dash guessed that was because his mouth was hanging open. Taking a deep breath, the cyan pegasus cleared her throat and steeled herself for what was about to come.
“So, you guys were wondering why Pinkie and I raced here ahead of you?” She asked, not bothering to wait for a reply. “That’s why. Because I got worried that this world would be the same as both of ours and… well that if Spike met Shining--”
“Then we’d all get arrested and accused of treason.” It wasn’t a question, though from the sound of things Octavia was pressing her hoof against her face very hard. “And neither of you thought it prudent to mention this to the rest of us?”
“Oh right, that’d be easy to say!” Rainbow Dash shot back, glaring at the walls between her and the musician. “‘Hey, sorry Spike but your brother might not be, y’know, related to you in this universe!’”
“Girls, please!” Ditzy Doo’s voice broke in. “This isn’t helping!”
Rainbow Dash grumbled under her breath, her rump slumping to the cold stone floor. Even her angry sarcasm couldn’t cover up the guilty knot in her stomach as she warily looked out towards Spike’s cell…
“I guess I should mention that Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie aren’t the only ones that could have said something,” Orange Sherbet’s voice suddenly spoke up.
Rainbow Dash would have double-taked, if only she could see the socialite. All she could do instead was let her jaw hit the floor as the sound of scrambling hooves sounded from Spike’s cell.
“What?” He croaked out, his voice cracking slightly.
“I… I didn’t mean to hide it, Spike. I wasn’t even really sure if it mattered… but my world is the same as Pinkie’s.” Orange let out a sigh, a slow clack of her hooves indicating her turning to face the stallion. “I thought that since Mosley and I were still married in this version of Equestria that maybe things would be closer to what yours was like, too.”
“... That’s why you tried to warn me before I spoke to Ink Blot…” Spike’s voice was low, trailing off as Rainbow Dash looked down at her hooves.
“I’m sorry,” Orange Sherbet said simply, her voice heavy.
“What about you two?” Spike asked. “Ditzy? Octavia?”
Neither of the two named mares spoke up right away. Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but notice Ditzy was poking at the ground, her wings flicking out nervously before she let out a small sigh.
“I hadn’t really thought of it since I barely knew him but…” Ditzy said with a nod of her head. “Yeah, Spike is a little dragon in my Equestria.”
“The same is true in mine,” Octavia admitted, sounding far more subdued. “Like Ditzy I wasn’t particularly close to my world’s Spike… I suppose that’s why this never occurred to me before now.”
“Yeah… yeah I guess…” Spike wheezed out.
Rainbow Dash grimaced at the stallion’s voice. She glanced over to Pinkie Pie, who slowly seemed to be realizing the gravity of the situation. Enough so that she ceased bouncing, her usual smile starting to fade. Much like the others probably judging from the silence now reigning in the dungeon. The exact sort of guilt-laden, heavy silence that made Dash’s wings start to twitch.
“Alright, I get it already! We goofed big time on this one!” Rainbow Dash jumped back to her hooves marching up to the bars of her cell. “But c’mon! Spike, you were the one trying to make the best outta this earlier! Everypony think! There’s gotta be something we can do--”
“I… I dunno…”
Spike’s voice floated from his cell, a hoarse and tired sigh. Even with as soft as it was, Dash still found herself falling silent at the sound of it.
“I don’t know what to… ugh…” Spike said, his hoofsteps moving towards the back of his cell. “I’m sorry. I just… I think I need some time…”
“But-hey!” Rainbow Dash shouted, one hoof reaching futilely between her own bars towards the stallion’s. “Spike, wait--”
“Maybe we should just… leave him alone for a bit?” Ditzy Doo suggested.
Rainbow Dash nearly bit her tongue as she looked to the mailmare. A few sighs and a grumble that sounded suspiciously like Octavia seemed to agree with the idea, however. Even Pinkie Pie, looking a bit deflated as she leaned against a wall, just nodded her head slowly. Reluctantly, Dash drew her hoof back into her own cell.
“I think we could all use some time to… gather ourselves,” Orange Sherbet suggested, the clank of metal suggestion she was clambering onto her cot. “I’m certain one of us will come up with an idea once we’ve had a chance to clear our heads.”
Dash just had a deep frown on her face as she looked up to the small window overlooking her cell.
I hope so...
Ink Blot let out a long, uneasy sigh.
He’d lost track of just how long he’d been sitting around. Pacing the confines of what had once probably been a nice study or tea room could only fill the time for so long. After staring at the blank, white walls and the folding chair and table that decorated it, it was hard to believe, even for him, that he was inside Canterlot Castle.
There wasn’t much use denying it, however, with the guard standing just outside the closed door. Nor had there been much else to do since they’d taken his statement. Slowly, his gaze drifted back up to the ceiling, silently praying that the number of tiles had magically changed since his last counting.
The sound of the door opening brought his attention back to ground level.
“It’s about time,” Ink Blot grumbled as he hopped out of his chair. “If I’m done with my ‘civic duties’ I’d like to be going--”
Home. He didn’t get the chance to say the word. His voice immediately froze when he saw the stallion walking into the room. The one whose short-cut blue mane was free from his helmet, but his stony-faced expression hadn’t relaxed in the slightest.
“Oh… Shining! Hey there, uh, Sir…” Ink Blot hurriedly jumped back into his chair, forcing a smile onto his face. “S-so, what brings you here?”
Shining Armor didn’t answer. Ink was doing his best not to sweat as the armored unicorn calmly trotted to the other side of the table. His horn gave off a brief spark, setting a white paper bag onto the center of the table. The earth pony’s eyes twitched to it on instinct.
His eyes flicked back up an instant later, just in time to find himself locked in a distressingly familiar glare.
“Ink Blot, how many ponies are upset with the way I run things?” Shining asked, pressing his forehooves together as he took a seat.
“I, huh, uh…” Ink Blot bit down on the inside of his cheek, forcing himself to stop stammering. “What makes you think I’d--”
“I’m not in the mood for games, Chief Herald. We both know that you can’t help picking up gossip,” Shining interrupted, gesturing for quiet with one hoof. “I’m looking for an honest answer: How many ponies are upset with the way I run things?”
Ink Blot swallowed a bit, doing his best to take a deep breath. Even with as calm as Shining’s voice sounded, he couldn’t help the strange feeling running through him. Like he was sitting at the very edge of a cliff.
“Heh… I ain’t exactly a census taker, you know?” Ink Blot said, putting his forehooves on the table for balance. “But everypony knows whose shield is keeping ‘em safe!”
“And?” Shining asked.
He was leaning in closer. A fact which wasn’t helping Ink Blot’s sense of vertigo. The gray stallion lowered his head for a second, taking a deep breath.
“What’d you want me to say, huh?” He managed to ask, lifting his gaze again. “Ponies complain about the guy in charge? That wasn’t exactly news even before everything went to Tartarus in a tumble-dryer.”
Shining let out a snort as he got up from the table. Ink found his eyes glued to the other stallion as he walked to the lone, barred window that was left in the room. The only other reason Ink had staved off boredom for as long as he had, gazing out over the empty city streets below, mentally mapping out the quickest route back home.
“They say that I’m harsh, but none of them even stop to think about why.”
Ink Blot shook his head as he realized Shining was talking again. The calm tone was slowly fading, and the earth stallion found himself glancing at the door again.
“My shield is the only thing keeping us all safe. Does anypony even appreciate how difficult it is keeping it powered?” Frustration was creeping in as Shining shoved one hoof against the bars. “All I ask for is a little order and stability to make that easier! And what do I get?”
Shining’s horn sparked, causing Ink to freeze up. Much to his relief, the only thing that began to glow was the white paper bag Shining had entered with. Ink Blot had to raise one eyebrow as it tilted over, spilling a brown fedora with a gold-and-emerald band onto the table.
“A gaudy fashion accessory?” Ink Blot asked, looking back towards the window.
Shining Armor still wasn’t laughing. He also wasn’t looking out the window anymore. His eyes were locked firmly on Ink Blot, causing the earth pony to freeze up.
“It doesn’t look just a bit familiar?” Shining asked, taking a step closer.
“I-lemme think--” Ink Blot looked to the hat again, biting his lip before the answer suddenly sprang to the front of his mind. “Oh, that Spike kid was wearing it, right? Hard to forget a flashy piece o’ headgear like that!”
“Well that ‘flashy piece of headgear’ just tried to blast me into next week.” The frustration was gone from Shining’s voice, but it certainly hadn’t become any calmer. “Now why would some random streetcolt have something like that do you think?”
Ink wasn’t sure how to answer that. He simply stared at the hat again, silently mouthing Shining’s words. The green crystal sticking from did little in response other than glitter slightly under his gaze.
“There’s only one reason: To try and destroy the shield and all of Canterlot. But he flubbed the job.” Shining’s hooves were moving again as he spoke, pacing back and forth in front of the window. “So what’s the next best thing? The pony who maintains the shield, of course. But how do you get him close enough to try?”
Ink Blot suddenly became very aware of how quiet Shining’s pacing had become. He tore his eyes away from the hat, and nearly toppled from his chair as he did. The white stallion was standing right in front of him, his eyes narrowed into terrifying points.
“How about by having him make some crazy claim about being related to me?” Shining said, taking a threatening step closer. “Oh, and just to make sure I notice him, why not turn him over to the guards yourself?”
It took a moment for Ink Blot to realize just what Shining had said.
“WHAT?!” He shouted.
His protest ended with a low groan, the chair finally reaching its literally tipping point as he tried to jump back. Ink’s vision swam slightly as he lay on the floor.
Unfortunately, as his eyes refocused, the only thing he found himself looking at was Shining Armor glaring down at him.
“Do you seriously think…” Ink Blot trailed off as he stared into those cold eyes. Finally, he let out a slow sigh. “Oh who am I kidding? Of course you’re serious.”
Ink Blot rolled back to his hooves. Shining Armor just stepped back, silently watching as the earth pony stood back up. As much as his insides were twisting with horror, his legs shaking as the weight of the accusation settled on him, there was one thing that was far from his thoughts.
“We never got on even when things were good. You’re just gonna believe whatever you want no matter what I say,” Ink grumbled as he blew a lock of his black mane from his face. “So why bother with the whole song and dance, oh Great Protector?”
He could see Shining start to pull a sneer at those words. It gave Ink a small sense of satisfaction as the unicorn forced his mouth into a grim line and looked back to the hat still laying on the table.
“Where did the weapon come from?” He asked, turning his gaze back on Ink Blot.
“Like I would know?” Ink Blot scowled as he jerked his head toward the door. “Maybe little Twilight found it out in the thorns and sent that yahoo to bring it to ya?”
The earth pony knew he’d crossed a line before he’d even spoken.
Even he couldn’t have predicted the anger that broke through Shining Armor’s stony mask. Ink Blot suddenly regretted his words as he drew back, the fallen chair, the table, and even the bars on the windows rattling threateningly. Almost as though they were barely restraining themselves against the magenta magic that clearly wanted to send them flying at the former news-stallion.
“I told her to stay where it was safe!” Shining shouted, stomping closer. “You do not get to joke--”
“I’m sorry!” Ink shouted, desperately. “Shinin’, c’mon, we know you wouldn’t actually--”
Ink Blot’s heart was hammering in this throat. The table was still trembling, its legs nearly buckling after being dropped from five feet up. Shining Armor was drawing in deep breaths, his teeth slowly unclenching as the magic faded from around his horn.
“I can’t prove that you have anything to do with this.” Shining Armor raised his head, his eyes hard and cold as ice once more. “But I am going to get the truth one way or another.”
Shining’s hoof rapped against the floor. The door opened, and two more guards entered. Before Ink could even blink, they were standing on either side of him.
“Escort the Chief Herald to the guest suites,” Shining Armor ordered as he turned back towards the window. “He’ll be staying here until this case has been settled.”
“Yes sir!” The guards chorused.
Ink Blot didn’t even try to argue. Both from the fact that his breathing was still slowing back to normal, and the simple question worming through his mind.
“What’s the point?
His hooves feeling like lead, he followed the two armored ponies towards the hall. He couldn’t help taking one last look back towards Shining Armor, though.
What he saw nearly brought him to a halt. The white stallion was staring out the window, but something was off. His eyes looked unfocused, one hoof pressed against his temple, a fine sweat gathering on his forehead.
For an instant, he wanted to speak up. Before he could, however, the door to the interrogation room was swung shut behind him.
Shining was breathing heavily as he tried to focus. The streets of Canterlot were rolling outside the window, blending together with the sparkling light of his own shield. All of it tangling with the countless, black vines he could see just on the other side of the barrier.
It was getting harder to think. Shining’s head was pounding, almost as though those vines were wrapped around him. Squeezing tighter and tighter, just like what they were doing to his shield. Just waiting for a moment of weakness so they could slide through...
Gritting his teeth, he pointed his horn between the bars.
Focus! Don’t. Fail. Them.
His horn sparked, then flared to life. A bolt of energy shot forth, burning a small hole through the glass as it streaked into the sky like a firework. Shining panted for breath as he watched it rise and splash against the inside of his forcefield.
The entire construct shimmered, dimmed, then flared brighter. Shining breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the encroaching vines pull back, his building migraine lessening slightly now that spell was actually cast. Gingerly, he turned around and began to walk towards the door.
He stopped as he reached it. Almost as an afterthought, his magic reached out and grabbed the fedora still sitting on the table.
“Maybe I can put you to good use,” he grumbled at the hat.
Without another word, he made his way out into the hall. His hooves moved slowly, being careful not to stumble on his way back towards the central throne room.
Hundreds of feet overhead, a lone Plunder Vine gently touched down on the bubble of light once again. Just as slowly as Shining Armor himself, it began to snake its way over the surface.
Unlike the stallion, it came to a rather abrupt stop after just a few moments. Slowly, the tip of it lifted up. A single thorn sprouted from its end, and drove itself downwards.
The vine glanced off with the tiniest noise. Almost like a pebble hitting glass.
And from the spot where it had struck, a tiny web of hairline cracks began to spread.