Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

Flying On Hoof

Twilight shared a quick look with Spike, a wordless request between two who have shared most of their lives with each other. Translated, the message was simple: "He's yours. Sic him."

In response, Spike turned around and blocked the path of the incessant assistant of Duke Esteem like a boulder in front of a doggie door. "Look, the investigation is ongoing. We need to do what we need to do."

"But this was his wife! Surely, you can tell us what you—"

"No. We can't. When we have something to tell you, we will. Until then, everything is on a ‘need to know’ basis, and right now, you don't need to know."

The little stallion flared his wings like a foal having a tantrum, and fluttered them hard enough to make a breeze in the hallway. "Now see here, you insolent—"

Twilight had to turn away to hide her smile as Spike grabbed the pony by the lips, two claws clamping down from opposite directions. If he had done it a little harder, the Duke's seneschal would have a couple new spots for lip piercings.

"No, you see here. While we're wasting time here yelling at you, the trail is going cold. We're going to Fort Hurricane to plan our next move and get reinforcements, and you're going to stay here with the Duke. You don't have a security clearance, I just freaking met you, I don't know you, you're not coming with us no matter how many times the Duke says otherwise, Twilight outranks the Duke, and if you don't shut that mouth of yours I'm going to burn it off. Got it?"

The assistant nodded and scooted back like a scolded puppy.

"Good." Spike mashed the button on the lift, holding in his breath until the doors finally closed. "Argh! Man that guy was irritating. 'I've been assigned to observe your progress.' Yeah, for all we know, you're a spy."

"I don't think that's too far off, Spike. This whole thing is just so fishy to me. Considering how much trouble Cloudsdale Armories is in, I can't rule out Esteem's involvement."

Spike folded his arms and leaned against the side of the lift. "You know what, Twilight, I'm getting awfully sick of being in the dark so much. We've got at least two separate, massive conspiracies uncovered in the last year, and we still don't know jack squat about them. Just once I'd like to get the bad guys banging their head against the wall in confusion instead of us."

"Roan wasn't built in a day, Spike, but I get where you're coming from. Let's just focus on the task at hoof, because this next part is going to suck."

"Really? I'm almost afraid to ask, but what is next?"

The elevator slowed and dinged, opening to the upper chariot bay and the sound of a hundred thousand angry pegasi ready to tear down the manor and, had it not been made of clouds, set it on fire. The bay was made of undecorated, solidified cloud at every angle, save for the doors straight ahead. There were a few chariots with Artfeather's Coat of Arms parked in some of the stalls, but no pegasi to fly them. Just as well. With that livery they'd be flying targets, Twilight thought. The one ready to launch, however, was Princess Luna's.

"Good tidings, Lady Sparkle." Bloodmoon gave her a bow. "Captain Dash is being treated as we speak. Since we are out of contact with the Princess, I have been assigned this chariot to ferry you to your destinations for this mission."

Twilight looked around for other ponies for a moment, but found none. "Great. Drop us off in the core of the city, point us in the direction of Cloudsdale Armories HQ, and then head to Fort Hurricane."

Bloodmoon froze in place for a second, like his brain had to catch up with what she had said. "You want us to leave you in the middle of a city currently in control of tribalist mobs out to drop every non-pegasus down to a precipitous demise?"

"Eeyup." Twilight hopped in the chariot and helped Spike up. "I want Esteem to think that we're at Fort Hurricane we are while we sneak around places he probably doesn't want us to be. The MPs still have Cloudsdale Armories HQ on solid lock down, right?"

"I… think so? But, I hope you understand, Lady Sparkle, this isn't a normal city. Cloud structures can be several kilometers apart, often with no solid path between them. In fact, the protesters have taken to destroying what paths there were, and your destination is on the opposite end of the city. It'll take you hours to get there on hoof, if you can get there at all."

"Ah, that's what you meant by sucking." Spike flopped back in his seat and started rubbing his ankles. "Yeah, I gotta admit, this is going to be pretty awful."

"But, how will you even get from cloud to cloud? Lady Sparkle, if you are going to intentionally put yourself in danger, I must protest!" Bloodmoon's voice wasn't that of an incredulous subordinate or dark guardian. Here, his cat eyes weren't even threatening. They were soft, worried; the same as Twilight might see in her father if he was wearing Night Guard armour. "If you use that butterfly spell, then mobs will try to tear the wings off! It's suicide!"

"Cardinal, I appreciate the concern, but I need Esteem think I’m not going to Cloudsdale Armories HQ, which means I need his scouts to report seeing my chariot going to Fort Hurricane." Twilight glanced off in the vague direction of the center of the manor. "I'm not convinced he's entirely innocent. I need more evidence to figure out the whole picture, and if he thinks I’m getting close, he may do something reckless to destroy the evidence, such as manipulate the protesters to attack en mass.

"Also, I won't be stuck anywhere. My torc can deploy into armor more than capable of protecting me from a fall even from this height, and my teleportation spell has a maximum range of a few kilometers, provided I can see where I'm going. In fact, the spell can even launch us safely through the air like a cannon."

"Uh, Twi?" Spike poked her in the shoulder. "You do realize that there's no way to use 'launch through the air like a cannon' with 'safely,' right?"

"It'll work. I used it in Gryphonhelm. And it means I can change direction faster than a pegasus. I'm not saying it will be easy, but I need Esteem distracted for a while. Anything you guys can do to keep him and the Cloudsdale police off of me would be helpful."

Bloodmoon sighed. "I can see you're dead set on this. Very well, we will do as you ask. I think I have a few ideas on how to 'frustrate' our friend the Duke, now that I think of it."

"Go for it, just get us to the core as soon as you ca—Oof!" Twilight grabbed onto the rail of the chariot and held on for dear not-wanting-to-fall-off-as-it-would-be-highly-inconvenient as they rocketed out of the bay. A small swarm of a mob was there to greet them, but they sailed through the crowd like a hoofball through a cluster of mosquitoes. None of them were prepared to match the flying speed and skill of the Night Guard, much less able to.

It was afternoon by this point, but there was no telling that from the sky. Everything was the same stormy blue, with occasional flashes of lightning splitting the sky. Flying through it by chariot gave Twilight a slightly better impression of the sheer scale of what she was about to attempt. It was probable that nopony without wings had ever managed to cross so much of Cloudsdale as she was about to.

There was a first time for everything.

Hey, Aurora, are you there? What are your thoughts?

"I would prefer taking the chariot all the way. I understand your objective and goals, but those aren't my goals. My first priority is to keep you safe."

Okay, assume the chariot isn't available. What would be your recommendation, given that scenario?

"In that instance, I would agree that going through the core of the city as much as possible is the best option. There are plenty of narrow alleys and passageways through the clouds that can conceal us, and in such corridors, the strength the protesters have via numbers is drastically diminished.

"However, we don't know our way around. We will either need to find and recruit a sympathetic pegasus guide, or hope that, despite our concealment, one of your pegasus friends finds us."

Rainbow knows me really well, and she knows this city. I'm betting she'll find us within thirty minutes of getting released. Also, I’ve chosen my route carefully to maximize the chance of getting found by Cloud Burner. Twilight felt a tingle climb up her body, giving her a warmth that the chilly air could never deny her. She had friends coming, so she had nothing to fear.

The rest of the ride was smooth sailing through the sky. Though they did get some dirty looks from a few pegasi, none dared challenge the Night Guard chariot. Following a turn around yet another growing storm column, the monstrous, enormous size of Cloudsdale's core was laid bare.

Cities in and of themselves were always sights to behold. The complexity of Shanghay, the art deco towers of Manehatten, the organization of Stalliongrad, they were all marvels. Yet, none held a candle to the sheer, unrivalled size of Cloudsdale. A dome of cloud rose from some predetermined elevation above the ground, and swelled so high it looked like it could very well swallow the stars themselves. The chariot sped towards it at a pace nothing on the ground could ever hope to match, yet all the core did was loom there, seemingly never truly allowing them to arrive at their destination.

Even when they finally did get to a landing space, the scale of the pony and dragon on the edge of the cloud was akin to a grain of sand sitting next to the tallest skyscraper in the world. Much like the rest of the city, the clouds had become heavy from the mobs' weather manipulation, making them a dark blue.

As they hopped off the chariot, a deep, dark, narrow tunnel leading into the cloud stood before them. The landing area had an uncovered, but once they started going in, it wouldn’t be long before they were plunged into darkness. Behind them were more clouds, but they were in the distance, and Twilight had a unique opportunity from her vantage point; she could see the ground.

She could have seen it earlier, true, but this was her about to be on her own. She would have no alicorn, nor pegasus, to help her. In all likelihood, any nearby pegasus might actually try to facilitate her departure for the earth. In this, entering a city that might rightfully be called a force of nature unto itself, so far above the ground that no individuals could be seen, and next to a space so vast and empty it felt like a void, she was all alone.

Alone, save for the loyal, brave, equally-wingless dragon friend by her side, and that one friend might honestly be enough.

Bloodmoon landed himself on the rear seat of the chariot and peered down at them. "Are you sure you want to go through with this, Lady Sparkle? It's not too late to change your mind. Again, we are happy to take you wherever you need to go."

"I'm sure, Cardinal. Again, I really do appreciate the concern, but I've made up my mind. We're sneaking through the core. If you really want to help, find Rainbow and let her know where we are, then make sure Esteem doesn't know what I'm up to. Maybe, after a bit, start spreading rumors of sightings of us away from our real target. Anything you can think of to help us and mess with the Duke."

"Very well. I wish you luck, as I'm afraid you will need it." Bloodmoon turned away for an instant, then swung back around. "Oh! Pardon me, I almost forgot. The pegasus you sent me to find was not at the restaurant, but his family was. I left a message with them, and they said he would return and read it shortly."

Twilight exhaled some of her tension as a tiny bit of weight lifted off her shoulders. "That's good. We'll have one more ally looking out for us then. Thank you, Bloodmoon."

He gave her a nod and a smile. "Please, call me Bloody."

Everypony, Twilight, Spike, even the two charioteers, looked at him like he had just dumped a goldfish bowl on his head and proclaimed himself King of the Sea Monkeys.

"No? Dammit, you're right, that's a terrible nickname."

"Uh, yeah." Spike scratched his head, and given his pointy claws, Twilight wished he'd scratch her head too, because what had been said was so weird she needed it. "No way in hell we're calling you that. 'Bloodmoon' is short enough, dude."

Somehow, it was possible for a Night Guard to blush. "I tried Moony, too, and my Sovereign laughed like a hyena before giving me the sternest 'no' I'd ever heard."

Spike shook his head, but Twilight couldn't tell if it was in exasperation or disappointment. "And she was right, man. But hey, don't sweat it. Remember, nicknames are given, never chosen, right Capsaicin Queen?"

Twilight groaned. "I am never going to live that down."

"Well, duh, a dragon heard it. We live a long, long time, Twilight. Tens of thousands of years from now, when I'm bigger than some mountains I've watched crumble, I'll laugh and think, 'Heh, Capsaicin Queen.'"

Twilight grabbed him by the neck with a foreleg and noogied his giggling head. "Get going, guys. We'll get moving after I deliver some big sister style revenge on this twerp."

"Fair enough, Lady Sparkle. Good luck!" He snapped the reigns, and the chariot was out of sight in seconds.

"Okay, okay, lemme go!" Spike protested, pushing away from her as best he could.

"I ought to tickle the scales off you, but we have work to do." Twilight let him go and turned back towards the dark tunnel ahead. "Come on, let's get started."


Twilight and Spike froze at the new, yet somewhat familiar voice. It had come from above them, on the roof of the structures to their sides and before the alleyway turned into a tunnel.

"Abandoning your chariot, perhaps for a ruse of some kind? Interesting, indeed. I had wondered if we would ever meet again, Twilight Sparkle. I should have known that all I would have to do is find the biggest possible ball of trouble and head right for it."

Twilight looked up at the mare speaking to them, finding a pegasus with a blue, wide brimmed hat and a large, matching overcoat. Her coat of hair was now blue as well, rather than the green in Ponyville, but her dark, wavy mane was the same as ever. Even her confident, aggressive smile hadn't changed a bit.

"Phantasm," Twilight said, barely able to hold back the contempt for the mare who had sent her town, her ponies into a panic. "What are you doing here?"

"Helping a friend."

"Helping them do what?" Spike asked, adding to Twilight's glare with his own. "Steal something?"

"Actually, I'm helping her evacuate, if you must know. This place isn't even safe for pegasi anymore. Besides, I'm sure you have a file on me or something. I've already hit Cloudsdale, so I'm not doing it again."

"Which reminds me." Spike cleared his throat and stood up straight like he was giving a speech. "Twilight, why are we not trying to arrest her?"

Twilight raised an eyebrow at him. "And take her where, exactly, Spike? Much as I would like to, we've got more important things to do right now."

"Still frustrating…" Spike grumbled.

"Perhaps, mister dragon," Phantasm said, resting her head on a hoof. "But I'm only even willing to come by and chat because I know she can't arrest me at the moment. Not that I couldn't get away, seeing as I can fly and you two can't, but I learned a long time ago it's unwise to push Celestia's elite too far.

"That being said, I was pleased with your performance in Ponyville, Lady Sparkle. Granted, I had to provide some motivation, but—"

"No you didn't." Spike and Twilight said like twins.

Phantasm grew a face like a school teacher catching a student in a lie. "Please. You political types are all the same. If I didn't get your attention and hold something over you like that, you'd have just pretended to do something while that so-called house fell down around the orphans!"

"First of all, I'm not much of a political type. Whenever possible, I'm about friendship, not division. Second of all, no, you didn't need to run around stealing my friends' things. In fact, Spike, help me illustrate, if you would."

"You got it!" Spike jumped off to the side and sang some mock fanfare music. "Ladies and, well, just ladies, really, presenting a play in one act! How to tell Twilight somepony is in trouble! Aaaand, action!"

Twilight sat down, put on the silliest, goofiest face she could think of, and pretended to be at Bon-Bon's by eating an invisible sandwich that her empty stomach really wished was real. "Gee, what a lovely day! I'm sure glad to be back in Ponyville with all my friends! Oh, what is this? A mysterious stranger is asking for my attention!"

Spike walked up to her, mouth partially covered by his arm in the manner of Phantasm's scarf. "Hello there, royal official! I am a concerned citizen, and not in any way a pretentious thief! I have reliable information and great concern that Ponyville's new orphanage may be unsound, and could collapse at any moment! In fact, I think the company that made it is super corrupt and mobbed up the ying-yang! You should check into it as soon as you can! I don't think that building will survive today's storm!"

Twilight stood up and feigned the most ludicrous pose of concern sure could muster. "Oh, my! That is a matter most grave indeed, citizen! I will look into it right away!"

Spike pretended to pull some curtains closed. "And, scene!"

"Ta-da!" They both yelled, dropping into a bow.

"Seriously. You expect me to just believe that?" Phantasm's eyes all but burned a hole in the cloud under Spike and Twilight. "I had to do what I did! You know how many ponies I tried to do that exact thing with to warn them? How many officials told me to not worry my pretty little head, or asked for a bribe to even look at the problem, or who just thought I was a mare wanting attention? Twenty! Twenty corrupt flankwipes willing to risk the lives of orphan foals over money or incompetence!"

"What are their names?" Twilight asked.

Phantasm froze still, wide eyed and with a wrinkled nose. "Huh?"

"I said, what are their names?" Twilight gave Spike a look, and he pulled out a notebook and pen. "If they're corrupt, I'll have them investigated and see that they are removed from their positions and tried accordingly. And, just to make sure, if the agents I assign to the task fail to find evidence, once I have time I'll perform the investigation myself."

Phantasm blinked. "Just like that?"

"Just like that. I know our government has huge problems, but that doesn't mean I'm turning a blind eye. I do what I can, when I can, to help make this a better place for my ponies. And this is one of those things I can take direct action on, if you'll help me."

"You really expect me to believe you? I have a lifetime of experience telling me otherwise, Sparkle."

"Then what do you have to lose?" Twilight's expression turned cool as the breeze blowing through her mane. "Tell me the names. If nothing ever happens, you get to be proven right. If I fulfill my word, you get revenge on those who wouldn't listen to you. It's win-win."

Phantasm looked down on her like a panther holding contempt for prey, crouching as one about to strike. "Fine, we'll play it your way." She rattled off a list of officials, some within Canterlot, and most in Manehatten. All were recorded in Spike's notebook, ensuring an appointment under a bright spotlight.

"There. Give me a little time, and I'll look into this. Cloudsdale comes first, though. It's a mess out here."

Phantasm nodded. "One of the few things we can agree on, certainly. I once loved this city. It's just a memory to me now."

"Hey, Pr-Er, Phantasm! Are we going or what?"

Phantasm disappeared from the edge of the cloud in a puff. "I told you to stay back until I'm done!"

"Wait a minute," Twilight said. "I think I know that voice. Do you recognize it, Spike?"

"I think so. Want to check it out?"

"Definitely. Grab on!" Twilight sparked her way through reality once Spike was on board, popping back into existence on the upper cloud next to Phantasm and another pegasus, this one hitched to a large cart covered with a tarp.

She was yellow with a frazzled, cream white mane with black highlights, and a bee cutie mark. She was also definitely a Ponyville native.

"Honeybee?! What are you doing here?" Twilight glanced back and forth between her and Phantasm, then went to the cart. "I thought you said you weren't stealing anything this time."

"Way to go, Honeybee." Phantasm mumbled. "Now she knows we're connected."

"I'm sorry! I didn't know, and I was worried! You were taking so long, and some ponies started to stare at me! I had to move!"

"Ugh. Fine. No going back now. And, for the record…" Phantasm tore off the tarp on the cart, revealing an entire load of jars of all kinds of honey, from apricot to wildflower. "We aren't stealing anything."

Honeybee dipped her head down, ears flat against her head. "I only have a little stand and studio apartment in Ponyville, so I keep most of my stock here in Cloudsdale. But I can't anymore! They're breaking up our clouds, tossing our merchandise! Phantasm was just helping keep me safe while we ran…"

Twilight closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. "Okay. Here's what's going to happen. Honeybee, as long as you promise not to harbor Phantasm, I'll let this issue drop, and you can go on your way. If I find out you're helping her, though, I will have to investigate further."

Honeybee stepped back a pace or two, head still low and scared. "Really? You'll let me go?"

"I know you, Honeybee. You're not a crook."

Phantasm stuck out her tongue. "Neither am I. I'm a thief. There's a difference."

"Thank you, Lady Sparkle." Honeybee dropped to the cloud as best her attachment to her cart would let her.

"We're neighbours, Honeybee. Call me Twilight, same as always."

"Okay! Enough with the sappy stuff already!" Phantasm flared out her wing and gave Honeybee a slap on the flank. "Let's go! This place isn't getting any safer!"

"Right." Honeybee took off to the sky, Phantasm close behind. "Thank you!"

"Avoid the Duchy Manor!" Twilight yelled out, getting a wave in response. "Hope they heard me. Ready to get going, Spike?"

"Yeah. I'm ready. Let's see if we can't find a tavern or something to get some food on the way. Maybe one with a 'non-pegasi welcome' sign. Or at least a 'we don't like unicorns but we'll be nice to them if they have a fire-breathing dragon' sign." Spike hopped back down to the pathway, wiping water off his armor afterwards. "I'm famished."

"It’d be a big risk being seen like that, but if there’s a window open and we can see food, I’ll try to use magic to swap it for some bits. Barring that, though, we press onwards."

"And to think, this is just a tiny slice of the core." Twilight stepped out into the afternoon sun, though it was blocked by a thin layer of cloud, tinting everything blue. A pie-slice-shaped chunk of the core of the cloud was hollow ahead of her, and it was as if a normal, average town was hidden, nestled away inside Cloudsdale's massive form. The only main difference was that this town's buildings were all made out of clouds. Every single one was either built up from the cloud stuff underneath, or was a separate puff ball entirely, floating freely in the odd semi-dome of the neighbourhood.

The built-up structures looked, for all intents and purposes, like a normal large town, except for what they were made of. They also benefited from a shared water and waste transport system in the layers of cloud underneath, again much like a normal town. There was even a road grid for non-pegasi, not that pegasi had any problems bypassing it entirely, but Equestrian law demanded it when practical.

There was a large central "road" leading through the neighbourhood, with many other smaller roads crossing it in a wide arc. Most of the way down the road, however, was something there shouldn't be: a fire. Protesters had amassed flammable objects in the center of the town and set them ablaze. Smaller fires dotted the distance, too, adding a reddish tint to the sky.

"Whoa. Even this place isn't safe." Spike knelt down and felt the cloud making up the ramp ahead of them. It hugged the interior cloudwall of the town, and descended to street level. From where they were, at the top, they had a wonderful vantage point to view the chaos taking place in the distance. "Look at this. The clouds have been thinned out here. Any non-pegasus walking across it without a fully charged, premium quality amulet would fall right through. Possibly to their death."

Twilight took a tentative step forward and planted a hoof firmly in the cloud, feeling it sink down but ultimately support her. "Looks like pegasi can walk it just fine. What about you?"

Spike matched her movement, also sinking a bit into the cloud. "It's like really thick snow, but I'm fine. Celestia didn't skimp on our armor, that's for sure."

"Good to know. I'd rather not lose my number one assistant to flimsy craftsponyship."

"In fact, I bet I could… Stay here a second." Spike rubbed the tips of his claws and licked his lips while eyeing the cloud wall. "I'm gonna try something."

Twilight felt a twinge of nerves run through her stomach. "Okay… Hopefully not something that'll get you killed."

"Nah, if it doesn't work, I'll know right away. Here we go!" Spike punched at the wall, sinking his razor sharp claws into the vaporous material. Whatever he did, exactly, he had a firm grasp. The next punch was higher, as was each one after that. Spike proceeded to literally claw his way up the side of the wall using nothing but his hands until he was roughly seven or eight meters up. "Looks like everypony is out there, being an unruly mob. Over here, it's quiet. I bet if we stayed up against this cloud, we could sneak past."

"Good idea!" Twilight yelled back. "But you should get down before you're spotted!"

Spike let go of the wall, falling straight down and landing with a muffled thump, then banged his armor with a fist. "Feather fall spell works great. Knows just what speed I can handle!"

"Which is about three times faster than my heart can take," Twilight said, trying to calm the rumba going on in her chest. "Avoid doing that if you can. I'd rather not die of a heart attack."

"Heh. Sorry." He chuckled sheepishly.

"Let's get moving. We still have a lot of ground… er… cloud to cover." Twilight walked down the ramp, looking every which way for ponies that might spot her. Random pegasi seeing her weren't necessarily a problem, but could become one if they were networked with the Duke or decided to start a fight.

Even so, the only ones she saw were dots in the sky fluttering about the clouds and smoke, much too far away to see what, let alone who, she was.

"The city being so big means that ponies are spread out, less likely to bump into us." Twilight picked up her speed as the clouds solidified and gave her better footing.

The bottom of the ramp met the end of the main road. Ahead was a slow fade from storm blue to fire red as it got closer to the bonfires set by the protesters. To her left and right were smaller roads along the wall, each dark and abandoned, perfect for sneaking. The right one, however, would take her closer to her destination, so onwards they went. Spike jogged alongside Twilight to keep pace with her fast trot, not once getting winded.

You've come a long way, Spike. I'm proud of you. Twilight felt the warmth and pride well up inside her as they marched, thirsty and famished, but steadfast. The air was smoky, yet cool and damp. The alley dropped deeper into darkness as they moved and smoke built up in the dome to obscure the sun.

Spike's stomach was starting to get as loud as Twilight's as they neared the end of the road and closer to another tunnel. "Hey, Twi? Is that a sign for a tavern? Think we could see if they have a welcome sign for non-pegasi? Or food lying around in plain sight?"

"Hmmm… We have to try to not be seen more than a moment. A random report or two making it to Esteem will just confuse him, which is fine, but too many solid sightings of us will given him a way to figure out where we’re going.

“But, we might be able to do it this way. We’ll take a peek in a window or something. If you spot food, let me know, and I’ll try to swap it for some bits." Twilight leaned a bit too her left, crossing the road and making her way to the last building before the tunnel.

It was more a dive bar than a tavern, with neon lights of beer and cider brands adorning the windowless walls. The neon signs buzzed like static, while a rather dank smell permeated the roadway outside. The door was just a piece of lightweight plywood with an open padlock.

As they arrived, Twilight's vision turned red, and her blood boiled. She'd never been one to grind her teeth, but she was about to pick up the habit at this rate. The only reason she hadn't screamed and stormed inside was her present need for stealth. "You have got to be bucking kidding me."

A wooden door blocked the entrance to the single story, comparatively tiny structure. Above it were a pair of signs. The first read "Wing Warrior's Bar." The second, however, was tailor made to attract an alicorn's rage.


“Wow.” Spike said. “They misspelled ‘violators’.”

"It's almost worse than that, Spike. Look!" Twilight pointed at the edge of the sign, where a wooden molding surrounded the faded lettering. "See the wear and tear? That wood hasn't been stained in at least a decade. This sign has been up all that time, and they haven't been fined, sued into oblivion yet, or corrected the spelling."

"Well, I know just the mare to take care of that!" Spike chuckled as he pulled out the notebook, writing down what they saw. "How many bits are they donating to Cadence's charity?"

"All of them."


"All the bits. When I get home I'm going to tear through this place's financials, bank accounts, everything. They're going to have to sell this place when I'm done."

"Isn't there a legal maximum fine?"

Twilight aimed a glare at the bar, loading it up with as much will to set it on fire that she could muster without actually lighting her horn. "Only for individuals. Not for businesses. And this is the most flagrant, long-lasting violation of the Equal Welcome Clause of the Equestrian Compact that I've ever even heard of. It needs to be stomped out as an example to show that it cannot be tolerated."

"You got no argument from me. By their definition, I'm a 'grounder,' too. Never mind that there are those of my species that could eat this place. And I don't mean eat the patrons. I mean they could literally put the entire building in their mouths and swallow."

Twilight laughed and turned away from the rage-inducing sign. It wasn't good for her blood pressure to look at it too long… assuming alicorns had to worry about that. "Well, at least we know where we aren't getting food. Like I'd ever spend bits at a place filled with tribalist reprobates. I'm honestly surprised that they had the collective brain cells to even make that sign. How they could even manage to run a bar for this long is an even bigger miracle."

"Uh, Twi?" Spike asked, looking at something behind her. "I think you should know…"

"Not now, Spike. I'm busy insulting the idiots gathering behind me." Twilight turned around, and set her mouth to maximum snark. "Oh look, it's a bunch of thugs that think they have something to teach me!"

The three draft stallion pegasi coming out of the door were wearing blue bandanas on their forelegs, the same color as the frock on the pony she had captured. Each was also wearing bark-thread jackets — a kind of dark, tough fabric made from tree bark — along with an obvious bad attitude.

The one in the center curled a lip and took off his sunglasses. "Yoos got a problem with our little club here, grounder?"

"Not really, seeing as it's not going to exist much longer. Why, do you have a problem with ponies that weren't 'blessed' enough to be born with wings, or is it just horn envy?"

Spike whistled. "Wow. You really got her pissed off. Normally she's really, really nice. Which of course means she's about to… Well, the last thing that pissed her off this much was a gryphon that she sliced up with burning telekinetic blades. And we were about to just go on our way, too."

"Nah, don't goes yet!" The apparent leader said. "Why don't yoos come inside and has a friendly drink!"

A pulse of fear went through Twilight's body, which was the natural reaction she should have had. It plowed through her entire body, spiking her adrenaline. Then, a second later, it hit a brick wall and stopped dead. "Why yes, that sounds like a lovely idea! Spike, come on, let's have some fun."

Spike's eyes darted to and fro, and his face put on a number of different expressions before settling on one: confidence.

Don’t worry, little bro. We got this. Twilight’s grin as they walked in couldn’t have chewed more scenery if she was a goat and the bar had been filled with kudzu, even though her nose wrinkled at the musty mildew smell that greeted her with a punch in the olfactory nerves. She could see, but that was about as much generosity as she could grant the place. Like with many cloud buildings, small tufts of clouds charged with lightning magic served as lights, although these appeared to be about ready to go on strike.

To her right was a hook shaped bar, to her left a group of pool tables, an illegal pair of slot machines, and more neon signs. Several more stallions in bark-thread jackets were inside, along with a pair behind the bar. After one last break of pool balls, a record playing an old pop hit was all that reached her ears.

One of the ponies sitting at the bar turned and looked at her. His eyes tried in vain to focus on Twilight, and gave off an odor of sweat and alcohol that only intensified with a large belch. Whatever he opened his mouth to say would forever be lost as he slumped over and passed out on the floor.

“Wow,” Twilight said. “What are you serving here, strychnine shooters? That guy needs a hospital.”

“He’ll be fine,” the leader said with a grunt. “Now, what ‘xactly is yoos problem with our club?”

Twilight looked him up and down, cataloguing his dye tattoos and watching his face. There was scorn, dislike, even a bit of hatred. “You’re not the one I’m looking for, really. Let’s see…” She checked another stallion, then another and another. It wasn’t until she arrived at the last one, a pegasus behind a bar, that she found what she needed.

"Not da one yoos lookin’ for? Stick brain, what yoos think—“

“Quiet. I need to speak to him.” Twilight hopped in the stool next to her target, staring him right in his eyes.

His blue bandana and red, stained bark-thread jacket vest hung on him like a part of his skin, battered and wrinkled like the rest of him. His old eyes burned embers at her, and the top of his head had left his mane behind, possibly in disgust. A long grey beard dangled from his chin in a vain attempt to make up for his mane loss. A set of tattered, beaten wings were glued to his sides. “And just why do you want to talk to me instead of Flak, grounder?”

“Because I need to speak with the owner, and you’re him.”

“And what makes you say that?”

Twilight sucked in a breath. “This place has seen as much maintenance as your wings, as much cleaning as your clothes, has a blatantly illegal and horrifically tribalist sign out front, and you’re giving me the biggest stink eye out of anypony in this room. You are definitely the owner, and probably have crippling self-esteem issues. You’ve obviously given up on yourself and your business, and you blame anything without wings for your own failures and faults.”

“Big words for a grounder.” Flak stepped up behind Twilight and loomed behind her. “An’ I was ’bout to let yoos go if yoos apologized.”

“That a fact?” Twilight asked, not bothering to turn around.

“Now I know I didn’t just hear you threaten the Grand Mage, Flakky.” A rumble of powerful pegasus magic pulled at everypony’s mane, sucking in air to a pair of wings and turning it into storm cloud exhaust. The new stallion at the door wasn’t like the others. His wings were pristine and powerful, his skyclad, light grey coat sang of wild clouds roaming the sky, and his metallic blue mane was both mismatched and complementary to his equally metallic red tail. His eyes, though, were by far the most striking. They burned not with hate, but energy, pride, and honor. “If I were you, I’d let her go, right now. Retired or not, my oath still binds me. I’ll protect her to the death.”

“What the buck yoos doin’ here, Cloud Burner?” Flak picked up the chair next to Twilight and held it over his head. “I thought I told yoos to stay outta our bidness!”

“I saw you force Twily in here. You think I’m just going to let you hurt her, you tribalist flank wipe?”

“Enough!” Twilight’s kick cracked the cheap wood on the bar front. “Burner, thank you for finding me, but you’re mistaken. They didn’t force me in here, and I’m not being held here.” She grabbed the owner by the shoulder, turning him so she could see the ice in her eyes. “They’re the ones be being held by me.”

The other pegasi in the bar stood up and took a few steps forward, spreading their wings. The shing and snick-snack of blades hidden in pinions chattered amongst them, and those without picked up chairs, bottles, and even pool cues.

“Lady, yoos think you can take us all on? Yoos even know how many weapons we got?” A soft clank came from Flak’s hoof as he tapped the side Twilight’s torc with a bottle.

“Idiot.” Twilight flashed a look of contempt to Flak, then pointed at the bar owner. “I told you, I’m talking to him. Besides, it doesn’t matter how many of you there are, or how many weapons you have.” Twilight picked up a liquor bottle in her magic, examining the amber fluid in the dim light. “This is a small bar; a tight, enclosed space. And I have a fire-breathing dragon.”

The entire room froze and turned their heads to Spike, who was busy lighting his fists on fire.

“Do the math.” Twilight smiled like she had Bloodmoon’s fangs. “If you even can. I’m the Grand Mage. I’ve faced down Discord. Bottles and chairs don’t frighten me, and the second you try to use them, Spike over there will torch you all to ash. I can teleport to safety. Can you?”

Silence took hold of the group, and the sweat on their brows wasn’t from Spike’s flame. Each looked to the other, checking for something, anything resembling leadership.

“Have I got your attention now?” Twilight asked. “Good. So, here’s what’s going to happen. When I get home, I’m going to prepare paperwork to shut this place down once and for all. Celestia knows how it’s survived this long in the first place.”

“It’s Artfeather,” Cloud Burner said. “She runs interference for this place, and a bunch of others like it, for some forsaken reason. My family has been screaming bloody murder about it for decades. It absolutely kills tourism in this core slice. Makes it harder to run a restaurant.”

“Ah, well, I kind of doubt she’ll be doing it anymore.” Spike chuckled. “And even if somepony else does, Twi outranks them by default.”

“True,” Twilight said, her smile escaping her best containment efforts. And I think you just gave me a piece of the larger puzzle, Cloud Burner. Thanks. “So, barkeep. What’s your name again?”

“I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.” The stallion folded his forelegs and spat into something behind the bar. “So you can just get out of—“

“His name is Wing Warrior. He owns the place, and he’s a complete tool.” Cloud Burner fired off a salute at Twilight.

“Thank you, Cloud. Nice to know I don’t have to get creative to get info. Now, as I said, this place is closing for good. Unless, and this your only chance, each and every pony here does a complete one-eighty. You’re all going to volunteer with Princess Cadence’s charity network, and form a neighbourhood league to support and welcome non-pegasi in Cloudsdale. This bar, once cleaned, will be a focal point for the effort.”

“I’d rather seen it closed down!” Wing Warrior grumped. “You unicorns think you run everything! Not here! Not Cloudsdale!”

“News flash, extra, extra read all about it!” Spike hollered, jumping up on a stool. “Twilight Sparkle is Grand Mage, ranks just under Celestia, has most of her legal powers, basically does run everything!”

“He’s got a point, Dusty Wing.” Twilight jabbed a hoof in Wing Warrior’s direction. She would have given Spike a hoof bump instead if his fists hadn’t been literally on fire.

“That’s not my name!”

“It is now.” Twilight picked up another liquor bottle and held it up to the light. “Although I don’t really need to prosecute you to shut this place down. I mean look at this! Everypony! Yes, you tribalist pegasi, too. Take a closer look at this bottle.”

A few of the gang members hesitated, looking at Spike, but stepped forward.

“See what’s inside here?” Twilight swirled the liquid around and held it even closer to the light.

“There’s… bugs in it.” One of the pegasi said. “How’d they get in there?”

“Fruit flies. Bad sanitary practises attract them like a magnet.” Twilight leaned over on the bar. “I don’t need police or a prosecutor. I just need a health inspector.”

“Pfft. Little unicorn, all weak and helpless.” Flak laughed, putting down his chair. “What, ’fraid of a little dirt? A little germs?”

“Oh, you want to play it that way, huh?” Twilight slammed the bottle on the bar and hopped off the chair, her hooves scrunching down on the cloud as she walked around to the other side of the bar. “I bet I’ll find interesting stuff back here, too. Let’s see… Ah!”

She grabbed hold of a cider bottle and dragged it along the bottom of the metal cooler it was stored in, letting it splash in the inch of water under virtually zero ice. “Well, this is in the putrid liquid your cider is sitting in!” Twilight lifted up the glass and smeared it along the bar, leaving a trail of slime and mold. “Doesn’t that look delicious?”

“Please. Ain't like da bottle didn’t keep da drink safe.” Flak leaned over the bar. “Gonna have to do better than that, dainty daisy.”

“Did I say I was done?” Twilight picked up a rag and shoved it inside a soda gun, giving it a turn like a cotton swab in an ear. “I hope none of you ordered pop, because you got a nice dose of this with it!” The cloth came out with its corner covered in a brown goop. “This is basically a solid mass of bacteria. But wait,” Twilight said with a big grin, “let’s check the kitchen!”

Interruptions couldn’t be abided for this rant, not even trivial things like the physical distance between her and the kitchen door. A quick spark of magic and she was simply there, bypassing things like space and the group of ponies that occupy it. She pushed open the door and found enough violations in two seconds to shut down four restaurants or bars, never mind one.

Flak scoffed. “I’ve eaten here for years, and I’m fine! Yoos can’t scare us!”

“I’m trying to open your eyes, Flak! Our maybe, at least, your friends’. And hey, look at what we have here.” Twilight stood in the doorway, propping it open and addressing her misguided ponies. “This is a cloud city, so I really have to congratulate you. It takes some real screwing up to manage to get a freaking dead rat up here.” Twilight lifted the rodent corpse by the tail, dangling it for all to see.

Flak was barely phased, but the others were talking, whispering amongst themselves. Wing had his back turned, and Cloud was busy holding in either vomit or a laugh; it was hard to tell which.

“That being said, it’s one thing to have a dead rat in a cloud kitchen, but you really went above and beyond here. I mean, bravo. I’m going to have to do a scientific study on this at some point because the odds are just spectacular. You don’t just have a dead rat, you have a whole family of them!” Twilight lifted the other six rats of varying sizes up, shaking the dust off them to pile on the cloud floor. “How in Equus you managed to have and support them long enough that their babies hit at least adolescence I have no clue.”

One of the pegasi choked back some vomit, then rushed out the door. The others, save Flak, were looking green around the gills. Even Spike looked like he’d lost his appetite.

“But wait! I bet I can find even more!” Twilight sparked back to the bar, lifting up all the liquor bottles at once and looking under the mat they were resting on. “Yup. More insects, more goo. And…” Twilight blinked. Something was off. It wasn’t her eyes or nose telling her that, but there was something there, in her magic, that shouldn’t be.

“Wait a minute.” She set them back down, save for one bottle of silver rum. “This isn’t right. This Bacolti Premium is… Well, look at it.” She brought it over under the light. “See what I mean?”

A few of the stallions came over, staring and even poking at it.

“Looks fine to me,” Flak said. “Not even any bugs to upset a prissy stick brain’s stomach. Just a normal, full bottle of rum.”

“Exactly. A little too full, don’t you think?” Twilight pointed at where the rum had been filled to the very top.

The other ponies’ faces became grim, even Flak’s. Wing, though, was sweating and shaking, even as he refused to turn around.

“There’s only one reason a bottle of alcohol could be that full,” Twilight said.

“And that’s if they were refilling it with something other than what was on the label. “Cloud Burner stepped into the crowd, grabbing the bottle with his own hooves. “Cheap booze in place of a premium spirit. Wing, you cheap bastard. You’re not just a tribalist scumbag, you’re a thief!”

“Crook,” Twilight corrected. “Still think I’m an ignorant stick brain? It’s just as I said. No business owner who has pride in himself would leave his place in a state like this.”

The pegasi crowded around the bar, like sharks scenting blood. Many still had their weapons drawn, but they were pointed at Wing, not Twilight. The bartender finally turned around, backing himself up against the wall.

“Fellas, what are you doing?” He splayed himself against the liquor cabinet, as far away as he could be from them. It wouldn’t be enough. “She’s—She’s trying to trick you! To divide us!”

“No, that’s your M.O., not mine.” Twilight slid the bottle down the bar and into one of the pegasi’s hooves. “We are stronger as a nation, and as a culture, when we look past our differences and work together, regardless of tribe. That’s what Harmony means.”

Twilight felt a hoof placed on her shoulder, but it was gentle, not harsh. When she turned to look at Flak, even his expression had softened into something more like cloth than nails.

“Yoos goin’ to wanta leave, grounder. We’ll settle da score with Dusty here. This ain’t yas issue.”

“Please! Please!” Wing cried out, darting from failed escape to failed escape. “Don’t leave me with them!”

“Hold it!” Twilight bellowed, her judgement the only thing keeping her from using the Royal Canterlot Voice. “You’re not going to hurt him. If you want to screw him over good, there’s something else I need you to do.”

Most of the pegasi looked at her like she was suggesting they all go juggle flaming chainsaws, but Flak held up a wing for silence. “And what might that be?”

“Keep him here, safe, for the next twelve hours or so. I’ll send RGIS to pick him up. Until then, stay awhile. But, and this is important, you don’t discuss this, not even my mere presence, with anypony other than RGIS members, or he’ll get off scot free.

“In the meantime, I suppose you could... enjoy Duty Wing’s hospitality.” Twilight looked over at the kitchen. “If you can stomach it.”

“I… suppose we could do something like that. Can’t turn down ‘free’ booze.” Flak smiled and popped a toothpick into his teeth. “Alright then, he’ll live. He might not be too happy ‘bout what we’re gonna do ta dis bar, but he’ll live.”

Twilight glanced over at the whimpering pony and walked out the door, Spike and Cloud Burner close behind.

“Are we really going to leave him?” Spike asked, putting out the fire on his fists. “If he’s connected to Artfeather, I don’t know if we can just leave.”

“I know what you’re saying.” Cloud Burner flew up to the tribalist sign and spat on it. “But Flak won’t tolerate being ripped off like that. He also doesn’t want a murder or felony assault charge, though. It’d be his third strike, so he’d go away for life. So I think he’ll cooperate.”

“I just wish I had some more personnel supporting me so I could have Wing hauled off right now.” Twilight’s ear twitched as she heard the plodding of hooves on cloud that were neither hers nor Cloud’s, and turned around to face them. “Flak? Is something wrong?”

Flak exhaled and took off his sunglasses, revealing a scar on his right eye. “Just wanted ta take a look at things one last time. Maybe pull in the signs, make it look closed. Like it will be, soon. I’m really gonna miss this place. It was a hole, but it was our hole, ya knows?”

“My offer still stands. Do a one-eighty, and I lose the paperwork.” Twilight offered a hoof, but Flak shook his head.

“Can’t trust ol’ Wing anymore. We ain't gonna be back. And, things jus’ don’t change dat quick, ya knows? Even if yoos is right ’bout all that Harmony stuff, yas gotta blink and shield yas eyes when yoos first step out into da sun.”

"Get used to it quick, Flak. This city will tear itself apart without it.” Twilight said, taking off down the next tunnel.

It wasn’t long before all the twists and turns in the cloud took their toll on the light, leaving them with only what could filter through the walls.

“So, I’m assuming you wanted to be out of his earshot when you told me why you needed me.” Cloud trotted out to the lead before stopping to block the way. “Not that I’m not happy to see you, Twily, but you probably shouldn’t be here. This place isn’t safe.”

“Thank you, Captain Obvious.” Spike leaned up against the cloud wall and sat down. “Not safe is kinda par for the course for us.”

“Actually, I’d say that ‘serious danger’ is our normal.” Twilight sat down, too, and patted her hungry stomach. “But yes, I do need your help, Cloud. Celestia has assigned me to investigate Artfeather’s assassination.”

“Whoa. So it was murder? I suppose it makes sense they’d send you, but why ask for me? I’m retired, and in case you can’t tell, I have to dye my mane to keep the grey out.”

“Rainbow is injured and being treated at Fort Hurricane. I need a pegasus on my team that knows Cloudsdale inside and out. A native. And it has to be a pony I trust. You’re at the top of my list after Rainbow.”

"I don’t know…”

Twilight gave him the look. The sad, vulnerable filly eyes that managed to put cookie after cookie on her plate during her early years as Celestia’s student.

“Aw, dammit, not that, anything but that!”

It was time for the coup de grace. “Pleeeeease?”

“Ugh. You and those sad eyes. Fine, I’ll help.”

“Well, whatdaya know, Twilight!” Spike took off a boot and rubbed his foot. “You still got it!”

“But, first things first.” Cloud sat down and pointed a wing at Twilight. “Fill me in. What’s going on, and where are you headed?”

Twilight explained what they were up against, and how much work they had ahead of them.

“You’re insane.” Cloud deadpanned. “Nopony can make it across Cloudsdale on hoof, let alone in just a few hours! It would take days, even if it was possible!”

“Oh ye of little faith, Cloud. You should know me by now. I have a plan.” Twilight lit her horn and started the calculations for a new shield matrix. Energy flowed around her like ribbons of silk, wrapping her in protection.

Spike put his boot back on and stretched. “Knowing her, and the fact that she's putting together a shield… It’s probably even more insane and risky than crossing Cloudsdale on hoof in the middle of an uprising.”

“But what’s—” Cloud’s eyes darted to the subtly-moving clouds in the wall, the ones where wind could be heard behind them, and he sucked in a gasp wholly unbecoming of a Day Guard soldier. “No. No way. Nuh-uh. There’s no chance I’m letting you do this. I tried it as a colt and was nearly killed, and the only reason I wasn’t arrested was because my dad’s a Count. You’d be safer marching through the protests holding an ‘I’m an awesome unicorn, neener-neener-neener’ banner.”

Twilight turned the eyes back on. “Pleeeeease?”

No! N-o-means-no! I let you do this and Celestia will have me skinned and hung over Canterlot Castle’s main doors, or use me as a throw rug.”

Darn. Finally, a request too big. I guess even the puppy eyes have limits. “Oh well, your loss. It would have been easier with a pegasus to help guide me, but I can do it solo. And I am doing it, with or without you.”

Cloud flared out his wings, the pinion feathers dancing with magic and lightning. “Over. My. Dead. Body.”

“Uh, dude?” Spike whistled at him. “Over here. Tight, enclosed space, fire-breathing dragon sworn to protect her.”

His magic died off, and his wings drooped down. “I’m going to be going along, aren’t I?”

“Eeyup.” Spike said.

Cloud facehooved. “I cannot believe I’m doing this.”