• Published 18th Jul 2013
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The Last Crusade - CyborgSamurai


Four childhood friends discover that their friendship goes back a lot farther than they thought. 5s/4 side story.

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MMPD

The Last Crusade

by CyborgSamurai

Chapter 1:

MMPD

Home.

Boy, is that a loaded word. Just saying it out loud immediately puts a picture in your head, doesn’t it? Sights, smells, items, memories, friends, families, events, thoughts, hopes, dreams, desires... a million things all neatly tied up and presented in a succinct little package. Abuela would no doubt comment on how American that whole idea seems. I don’t see how America has anything to do with it, but you learn to keep your opinions to yourself after a few smacks upside the head.

I’ve always thought that home means something a little different to everybody. I can certainly see why most people associate it with a location, but for me, the importance of ‘home’ has always been in the people that care about you.

Which is why I can say that, despite all that’s happened, I never once lost my home.

Ah, but where are my manners? Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Magellan Guillermo Raimundo. Yes, that’s my actual name, both my grandfathers demanded that my parents’ first son be named after them, and they flipped a coin to see who got my first and middle names. No, you did not kill my father; you needn’t prepare to die. Yes, I’m Spanish and I speak the language fluently. No, I won’t teach you any curse words. Yes, the accent is real, my grandparents are first generation immigrants and they babysat my sister and I when we were kids. No, I don’t know any good Spanish recipes because I’m a terrible cook. I’ve literally managed to set juice on fire, as my mother will tell you if she’s known you for longer than five minutes. Yes, I’m aware that I’ve been described as a ‘pretty boy.’ No, I’m not interested in a relationship right now. I’m sorry to dash your dreams of living la vida loca on the rocks.

Have we gotten that out of our systems?

Good.

Call me Mage.

Pretty cool, huh? My parents gave me the nickname to save me from grief in school, and the attempt was successful for the most part. Sure, I still had to endure the usual snickering and occasional jibes that came with the first day when the teacher belted out my full name, but a simple correction and confirmation were enough to set the record straight. Things became even cooler when I learned that a ‘Mage’ was a spellcaster class in a ton of video games, so needless to say, I took to them like white on rice.

It was actually this eclectic interest that led me to meeting the three best friends I’ve ever had, although video games weren’t what first drew us together. The initial novelty was that we all shared a birthday, and this coincidence led to us always holding our birthday parties together. Our friendship took off after that, and even though this tradition had become an inconvenience for me in recent years, I still felt the need to honor it.

And it was a good thing I did, too, for it was on that day, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of our births, that our world changed forever.

Nostalgia hit me like a tidal wave as I drove back into my hometown for the first time in months. It was May 1st, 2020, and winter this year had been late in making way for spring. The snow had only just finally melted, there was still a chill in the air, and the trees hadn’t gotten the memo that they were supposed to be sprouting leaves. I didn’t mind living in the north for the most part, but it was years like this that made me secretly wish I lived somewhere warmer.

The town itself looked the exact same as always, which is to say, sleepy, outdated, and in sore need of a paint job. I’ve nothing against my home, as I believe hating the place you grew up in is akin to hating a part of yourself, but there isn’t much opportunity here if you aren’t a farmer. Seeing as I’m not exactly the farming type, I left for college immediately after high school.

I passed by my familiar haunts without a second glance and continued out of town into the country. My family lived in town, but was currently away on a trip. A smattering of phone calls throughout the day assured me I was remembered on my special day, though, so I was only a little saddened at not seeing any of them.

I turned off onto a familiar dirt road, made my way past acres of dormant farmland and swampy forest and pulled into the driveway of a brown split-level house with three parked cars outside. Sure enough, I was the last one there. Then again, I had the farthest to drive. I’d gotten a job in the city at a local IT firm once I’d gotten my degree, and while it wasn’t what I'd call glamorous, it paid the bills and allowed me to live on my own. I’d always had a streak of independence along with a fierce desire to prove myself, which caused me to push myself harder than my peers. Certain individuals have commented that this tendency has made me a ‘high-strung neurotic perfectionist,’ but the aforementioned individuals didn’t have degrees, apartments, or a steady career.

I stepped out of my car and let the sharp, unpolluted air of the country force its way down my lungs with only the barest of breaths. I'd always be a city boy at heart, but there are just some things you can’t beat about the country. I stood there and just breathed for a few seconds before going to the back seat and pulled out three separate wrapped parcels. Taking care to balance them, I went to the door and let myself in without knocking.

“Get out! We’re armed and drunk!”

I didn’t even bat an eyelash. I hummed to myself as I took off my shoes and hung up my coat on the wall. The house was warm. It smelled like cigarette smoke and pizza, and the sounds of a video game could be heard from up the stairs.

A solid, blonde-haired man wearing a stained wife beater and ripped jeans appeared. He was holding a open beer in one hand, a pistol of some kind in the other, and a lit cigarette in his mouth. He made a show of staggering and trying to cock the weapon before pointing it at me.

“Now look ‘ere, I dun care wut’cher shellin’, you can take that mochaccino face of yoursh and hop it back over the border!”

I calmly walked up the stairs. “Dylan, you did this last year. I’m pretty sure that’s even the same shirt.”

Dylan. The jokester and daredevil of the group. He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, but his impulsiveness and cheesy sense of humor is best taken in small doses. His short fuse and stubborn streak leave something to be desired, too, but there’s something to be said about being friends with a guy who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.

A smirk crept up on Dylan’s face. He lowered the fake gun and took a swig of his beer before stepping back to let me in. “This is a new shirt, thank you very much. Do you have any idea how hard it is to make these stains permanent?”

“You’re a regular Michelangelo,” I deadpanned. I saw that there was a small pile of presents sitting on the kitchen table. I went over and added mine before coming back to give him a hug.

“Oy, Dylan!” A new voice yelled from the living room. “Get your ass back here so I can finish kicking it!”

The speaker was a lanky, black-haired man in a set of worn work clothes. He was sitting on the couch while holding a video game controller in his hands, and none too happy that the word ‘PAUSE’ was flashing in the middle of the TV screen.

Dylan took a lazy drag from his cigarette. “Cool your jets, Mike. I’ll finish spanking you when I’m good and ready.”

Mike. Probably the most laid back guy you’ll ever meet. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been close to freaking out about something only to have him pull me aside and calm me down. Too bad that all goes out the window when you tap into his competitive side. Dylan has always had a knack for doing this, and if I had a nickel for the amount of petty squabbles those two have had, I could pay off my student loans.

Mike gestured to the TV. “You used Mage as an excuse to pause RIGHT when I was about to get a ring out on you! Now you’re gonna know what’s coming and block it!”

Dylan rolled his eyes. “Yeah, because I knew you were gonna start a combo on me when he walked in through the door. Excuse me for wanting to say hi to the guy we haven’t seen for a whole year!”

I frowned. “What? It hasn’t been a year. You guys saw me at Christmas.”

“That was the Christmas before last, Mage.”

A brown-haired man in a blue shirt and jeans walked out of the kitchen holding two steaming pizzas. He set them down on the coffee table before looking up at me. “We haven’t seen you since our last birthday party. Hi, by the way.”

I laughed sheepishly as I realized he was right. “Hi, Phil.”

Phil, Mike’s cousin. He’s one of those guys that everyone likes, but no one’s really sure why. He moved to the area back in middle school. He was actually a bully at first, but that was only because he’d been picked on at his other school and was trying to save face. He’s really quiet and has a tendency to obsess on things, but that sometimes leads him to spot things that others have missed... such as a house in good shape that goes in foreclosure, and the bank puts it on the market at a fraction of the price.

Phil smiled at me, then looked to Dylan and Mike, who'd just resumed their game. “Now that Mage’s here, you guys wanna do presents now, or wait until after food?”

The only response was the furious clicking of buttons and analog sticks. Mike’s brow was furrowed in concentration while Dylan was gritting his teeth. Suddenly, there was a loud death wail, followed by an announcer declaring, “K.O!”

Dylan fist pumped with a victorious cheer. “Aw, yeah! Tie breaker goes to me!” He stood up and began doing his traditional celebratory booty dance.

“That wasn’t fair!” Mike protested loudly. “Mage interfered! I demand a rematch!”

“Hey, now.” I folded my arms. “Don’t go blaming this on me. It’s not my fault you suck.”

Mike gave me the stink eye. I stuck out my tongue in response. Dylan began raising the roof. We did this for all of three seconds before we burst out laughing. Hey, just because we were turning twenty-five didn’t mean we had to act like it. It was always like this, though, just bullshitting and giving each other harmless flak. There was something comforting about knowing that even though I hadn’t seen these guys for a while, I could just pick up right where I'd left off.

Phil waved his arms at us. “Hello? Serious question, guys! Food, or presents?”

Mike put down his controller and warily eyed the steaming pizza. “I don’t feel like burning my mouth. I say presents.”

“Agreed,” I said.

“Yeah, presents,” Dylan said.

“Excellent,” Dylan said in a deep voice as he rubbed his hands together. “Let the annual MMPD meeting for world domina—I mean, the super happy funtime birthday party extravaganza commence!”

MMPD. It was what we called ourselves. Not sure why, when, or even which one of us came up with it, but there it was. All of our parents and the majority of our graduating class knew of our little group name, and we’d made things like t-shirts and ID cards that had the abbreviation proudly emblazoned on them. Part of me felt a little bad at being a part of what essentially amounted to a clique, but never bad enough to do anything about it.

We all went over to the kitchen table to exchange gifts. You might think that we’d just go at it in a royal free-for-all, but we had an actual method to this. Every year we went through the letters of MMPD to decide who got to open presents first, and since Mike had gone first last year, I got to go first now.

“Go for it, Mage.” Phil handed me a small box wrapped in blue paper.

I tore apart the paper and gasped as I beheld my bounty. It was a box of small bottles the size of five hour energy drinks. I checked the side of the box to make sure it was what I thought it was.

Flatline® Dietary Supplement: Über Tryhard!

Flatline® Über Tryhardis the pinnacle of Biochemistry technology specifically designed to make you burn fat in SECONDS! Guaranteed to keep you awake for days on end! Now in three delicious flavors!

WARNING: Contains caffeine comparable to five cups of the leading premium coffee. Do not exceed one bottle of Flatline® Über Tryhardwithin twenty four hours. Symptoms of caffeine overdose include excess energy, restlessness, nervousness, increased heartbeat, anxiety, sweating, and dizziness. Do not take if you are pregnant, nursing, under twelve years of age, are taking medication, have a medical condition, or are allergic to shellfish.

The others were all laughing now as I slowly looked up at Phil in awe. “I didn’t even know they still sold this!”

Phil was wearing a smug grin. “They don’t. I got it off Ebay.”

“Think of it as a memento,” Dylan said with a wink. “Though I doubt any of us could forget that weekend even if we tried.”

What he was referring to was—never mind. I couldn't do it justice if I tried. All you need to know is that we were each grounded for three months, no charges were filed, and we made the front page of the local paper.

I facepalmed. “If I’d known my dad had that much duct tape—”

“STOP,” said a chorus of three voices.

“You try to apologize every time it gets brought up.” Phil produced a paper bag and shoved the wrapping paper into it. “We were stupid teenagers, and stupid teenagers don’t read the warning labels on things. Now, when you use things in the way they’re supposed to be used, suddenly everything works out fine! I actually bought a second case of this stuff for when I get scheduled for a night shift. They work wonders.”

I looked over at him. I knew Phil’s work schedule was sporadic, but this was the first I’d heard of him having to pull all-nighters. “Do you have to do that often?”

Phil nodded. “I have to do one tonight, actually. I’ll be heading to work a little after midnight.”

I grimaced. That had to be murder on his sleep schedule. No wonder he wanted the good stuff.

“My turn!” Dylan handed me a long, narrow box about four feet long. I blinked several times as I stared at the package, then felt my heart skip a beat.

“You didn’t.” I got goosebumps as I felt its weight.

Dylan put his elbows on the table and rested his chin in his hands.

“Open that sucker up.”

It was with shaky hands that I complied. I carefully lifted the lid, and... okay, I admit it, I squealed like a little girl. A beautiful Spanish rapier rested within the box. The curved, complex hilt was pure white and swept around twice to form the hand-guard. The blade was an inch wide, a little over three feet long, and ended in a sharp, pointed tip. A golden metal scabbard rested beside the rapier that was engraved with, ‘MMPD Para Vida.’

“Madre de Dios...” I reached in and took out the sword. The grip fit my hand perfectly, and was wrapped in black embossed leather. The balance was perfect, and the edge glinted dangerously as it caught the light. I took a few steps back from the table and inspected the blade.

“Careful, Mage,” Dylan said quickly. “That’s the real deal. You could seriously mess someone up with that thing.”

I knew that the instant I saw it, but I appreciated him telling me all the same. I’d taken fencing lessons all throughout school, and the guys knew I’d always wished I could get a real rapier some day.

“I can’t believe it!” I set the weapon back in its box and did a happy little dance. “My own rapier! My own rapier! My own rapier!”

“Yes, Mage, your own rapier. You can finally stop dropping not-so-subtle hints about it.” Dylan’s words didn’t match the smile on his face.

I stopped dancing as a huge surge of gratitude welled up inside me. I advanced on Dylan, and his eyes widened as he realized what I intended. He tried to get away, but I was too quick. I grabbed his head and kissed him on both cheeks.

Mwah! “Thank you!” Mwah! “Thank you!”

“Ack!” Dylan freed himself and pushed me away. The others roared with laughter while he wiped his face furiously. “Bad Mage! We’ve talked about this!”

I hummed a merry tune and went back to my seat. Hey, I didn’t know that wasn’t an American custom until I went to grade school. Some things just kinda stick with you.

“If you two are done making out,” Phil said with a snort, “there’s one more present to open.”

I looked to Mike, who was holding a medium-sized box that looked heavier than the others. He nodded at the rapier before giving me the present. “This isn’t quite as grandiose as Dylan’s, but I know you’ll still like it.”

Still high on euphoria, I ripped through the paper to see what Mike had got me. Dylan and Phil both groaned as the gift was unveiled, but I let out a happy little exclamation: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the Complete Box Collection on Blu-Ray.

I clapped my hands. “Awesome! Is this all the seasons?”

“Think so.” Mike reached over and looked at the back of the box. “There were five, right?”

“Yep,” I said. “Though I still can’t believe how they ended it.”

Did I mention I’m a brony? Yeah, I probably should’ve brought that up sooner. I got into the show in middle school, and the combination of animation, character development, plot, and over the top antics kept me hooked until the show finally ended. Speaking of the ending, boy did that come out of left field! Five seasons of friendship and happiness and love and they end it with Discord betraying everyone and making all the ponies disappear with some kind of curse? What the hell were the writers thinking?! Sure, every story has to have an ending, but to have it go out on such a dark note? It sparked a lot of controversy with the fandom, but the writers were adamant that that was how the show was gonna go out, so there wasn’t much that could be done. Everything leading up to the ending was good, though, so I wasn’t about to throw out the entire franchise just because of one episode.

And yes, I’d tried to get the guys into MLP several times, but alas, my attempts were met with... less than desirable results.

“What I can’t believe is how long you were into that show.” Phil glared at the box like it was made of something vile. “It’s bad enough you tried to get us to watch it. Just think of what would’ve happened if the rest of the school had found out!”

“Better not let your family see that, either,” Dylan said with a laugh. “They’ll think you’re a pedo.”

I sighed at the unfortunate truth. “At least I live alone now. I don’t have to worry about storing all my swag in Shmangie’s room anymore.”

“How’s she doing these days, by the way?” Mike asked.

I smiled. “She got promoted at her job. She’s in charge of hiring employees for four states, now!”

Dylan whistled. “Go, Angie.”

Angelina Juanita Raimundo, my darling older sister. Shmangie to me, Angie to everyone else. We were being silly one day when we were young and started putting the ‘shm’ sound on everything we were saying. Suddenly, our names were hysterical. She and I had always been close, and one of the biggest things we’d always shared was MLP. We used to get up early together to watch the latest episodes, and we’d have endless debates on everything from best episode to best pony. Shmangie reminded me of Rarity in a lot of ways, which coincidentally was also her favorite pony. She'd even tried to get into the fashion industry at one point, but gave up after she found out how expensive the schooling would be.

“I really wish you guys had given it a shot.” I put the box set on the floor with the other gifts. “You really would’ve enjoyed it! We could’ve even gone to some of the conventions!”

There was a collective shudder from around the table. Dylan swept the wrapping paper together and crumpled it up into a ball. "I think I speak for the three of us when I say it’ll be a cold day in hell before we voluntarily have anything to do with your cartoon horses.”

A sly smirk crept up on my face. “So you’re saying I’d have to blackmail you? That can be arranged. I still have the video of the time you got drunk, put on one of your mom’s dresses, and did the macarena out in the middle of the street.”

Dylan went as white as the hilt of my new rapier. Mike and Phil failed to hold back their laughter as the memories of that particular night came back to them.

“You told me you got rid of that tape!” he hissed.

I was going to tease him more, but he did just get me a freaking sword, so I figured I'd be nice.

“Relax,” I said. “I’m just messing with you. I cracked the thing in half and burned it, which I got in trouble for, by the way, because the smell of burnt plastic tends to linger!”

Dylan visibly relaxed. Sure, he liked to do crazy stunts, but he also had a reputation to uphold as a tough guy. We gave him grief about it at times, but we’d never intentionally do anything to make him look bad.

“Welp, Mage’s done,” Phil’s eyes lit up. “That means it’s my turn!”

“Yep,” I tossed him my gift. “Go nuts.”

The rest of the gift exchange lasted about twenty minutes. The others seemed to enjoy the respective computer parts I’d gotten them, but that was to be expected considering I’d flat out asked them what they wanted. I’ve never been a fan of trying to guess what other people want for presents, as there’s always a chance that you got something they didn’t like, or worse, got the right thing but it’s the wrong brand or something. It’s safer to ask the person exactly what they want, then go out and get it. Does it take out some of the fun? Yeah, but it’s an acceptable sacrifice in my book.

We went back to the living room to eat the pizza and play video games, aka our fallback when we didn’t have anything else to do. Yeah, it might seem boring, but back in school, if we weren’t talking about what new releases were coming out, it was trying to get unstuck in a current game. Video games weren’t all we did, of course. We all had our side interests, like me with ponies, but those weren’t things that we enjoyed as a group. We did the things that all kids do, like go to movies, camping and skiing retreats, an occasional trip to an amusement park, yadda, yadda, yadda. But if it was a regular Friday night with nothing else going on, we’d load up junk food and caffeine, rent a few video games, and play them all throughout the night.

Things were pretty much the same now, except we had alcohol now instead of caffeine.

I plopped down on the couch to watch Phil and Dylan play a cooperative game. I finished off my slice of pizza and made to reach for another, but some smartass had moved the pan over to the far end of the coffee table. I looked over at Mike, who was sitting next to me looking at the TV with a curious blank stare.

“Hey, Mike,” I said. “Pass me the pizza.”

Mike didn’t reply. He just sat there with an unfocused look in his eyes.

I cocked my head. Was he out of it or something? Maybe he just didn’t hear me.

“Mike, I want more pizza. Slide the pan back over here, please.”

Still no reply. His mouth was hanging slightly open, his breathing was slow and shallow. Dylan stopped playing the game and looked back at us.

Okay, now I was getting annoyed. I poked his shoulder and spoke in his ear. “Helloooo! Earth to Mike! Anybody home?”

Mike jumped. "Wha?" He leaned away from me and shook his head clear. "Oh, sorry, Sweetie. Guess I’m more tired than I thought.”

I raised an eyebrow. Sweetie? Sure, we were close, but we weren’t that close! Damn, he really was tired if he was making Freudian slips like that.

“Did you just call him Sweetie?” Dylan looked between us with his lips slightly parted. “Is there something you two would like to tell us?”

Now, most people don’t know this, but I have a hidden flair for dramatics. I was in the drama club for the majority of high school, and while I normally keep that side of my life on the down low, there are times when an opportunity is simply too good to pass up.

“Yes, Dylan! I admit it!" I put an arm around Mike and put my hand to my forehead. "Mike and I are secret lovers! Oh, you’ve no idea how hard it’s been hiding our love away from the world, sneaking around to each other’s homes in the dead of night, whispering sweet, passionate nothings in each other’s ears when no one is looking! No longer! Today, with you and Phil as witnesses, I hereby announce our love to the heavens! May all who disapprove of our union be cast down onto the rocks! Come, Michael my dear, let us retreat to the bedroom and do wild, depraved things to one another!”

Dylan gave me a slow golf clap. Phil glanced at us out of the corner of his eye, then went back to the game. Mike, to his credit, didn’t shy away or say a thing throughout my entire speech. As soon as it was done, though, he took a slice of pizza and smushed it in my face.

“Sometimes I wonder about you.” He removed my arm and moved to the other side of the couch.

I let the pizza hang on my face for a few seconds before taking it off and licking my lips. “Hey, you asked for it.”

“I said I was tired,” Mike defended. “Was a long day at work today, and I have to get up early again tomorrow.”

A large part of me wanted to scream at him that he wouldn’t have to work so hard for crappy pay if he’d gone to college with me, but I wisely decided to keep quiet. It was no secret that I disapproved of all three of the guys’ life choices, but I wasn’t about to ruin the party by getting into a shouting match with them about it... again.

“I’m pretty tired, too,” Dylan said with a yawn. “I spaced out for like five minutes in the grocery store today and pissed off a bunch of customers. Lucky my manager was on break or I woulda got chewed out.”

“Dylan!” Phil said. “We’re in the middle of a game!”

“Ugh.” Dylan pulled out a new cigarette and lit it up. “You guys are so impatient.”

Phil and Dylan finished their game, then Mike pulled out a classic four player one that we all enjoyed. The hours flew by in a happy blur of playing and joking, and I found myself drinking more and more as the night went on. I normally don’t indulge, but it was my birthday and I had nowhere else to be. Dylan joined me in the binge, but Mike and Phil abstained due to having to work the next day. The night whittled away, and I found myself content to just sit on the couch and enjoy the company of my friends in an alcoholic haze.

“Seven was the best game of the series hands down,” Mike said flatly. “Great plot, great characters, amazing gameplay, and the graphics were ahead of its time! There is no discussion on this; your argument is invalid.”

“Ohhhh, please.” I found it impressive that the slur in Dylan’s voice now was identical to the fake one he’d had when I arrived. I’m not sure what it said about him that he was able to mimic it so well. “Sheven had good graphics?! The charactersh had freakin’ blocks for hands! I could make better modelsh if my own hands were blocks!”

“I’ll take blocky models over piss-poor gameplay any day,” Mike retorted. “You can stand on your soapbox and defend Nine all you want, but I’ll never understand what you see in it.”

Dylan finished his current beer and let out an impressive belch. “The pure aweshomeness that is Nine is beyond the capabilities of your shimple little mind to undershtand.”

“You’re both idiots,” Phil said. “Six is the best one of them all.”

“Shut up, Phil,” Mike and Dylan both said at once. They looked at each other and laughed.

“Mage, be the tie-breaker here.” Mike said to me. “Which game of the series is the best?”

It was times like this that I really missed. Sure, I’d made new friends in college and at work, but I’d never made the same kind of bond that I shared with these guys. Maybe it was because we’d known each other for so long, or it was the perfect mix of our personalities that made everything fit, but for whatever reason, something about the combination of the four of us just felt right. I always felt a strange kind of contentment when we were together, and it fervently made me wish that we hadn’t drifted apart so much after high school. Wasn’t like I could force them to come with me to college, though. They wanted to stay, I wanted to go, so that was the way things had to be.

“Mage?”

Why’d they have to stay? What was so appealing about this place that made them not want to leave? Okay, Mike had an excuse, seeing as his entire family were farmers and he wanted to help them out, but Phil and Dylan? I’d seen people that were dumber than both of them manage to scrape through with degrees! Was it the money? Sure, it was expensive, but the whole point of going to college is to get a job that pays well! Were they so short-sighted that they weren’t able to see that?!

“Ohhh, check out his eyelids, they’re totally drooping.”

“Heh, he alwaysh was a shleepy drunk.”

“Mike, lay him down on the couch. I don’t want him faceplanting on the coffee table.”

Was it me? Did I make a mistake in leaving? Was I supposed to stay in the area and work in retail for the rest of my life? I didn’t want that! I wanted to make something of myself! I wanted to go out! Broaden my horizons... and meet new people! I wanted... to share my talents... with the world!

I wanted...

I wanted...

***

“Where are we going, Scootaloo?!” I yelled over the wind.

“I don’t know!” Scootaloo pumped her little wings even harder as she pulled the wagon filled with me and our fellow Cutie Mark Crusaders on her scooter. “Away!”

“You think we can outrun him?” I chanced a look back at the schoolhouse, and felt a chill as I didn’t see a single one of my schoolmates running out of it.

“Sure as hay gonna try!” Scootaloo replied through gritted teeth.

“Wait!” Apple Bloom said. “You’re goin’ the wrong way! We need to find Applejack and the others! Take us to Sweet Apple Acres!”

Scootaloo started to veer west, but I quickly spoke up. “NO! Rarity is closer! We should go to the Boutique first!”

“Make up your minds!” Scootaloo straightened out and continued the original direction we were going.

“What was that thing back there?!” Babs said.

“Discord.” I spat out the word like a curse. “My sister and the others beat him a while back with the Elements, but then they let him go or something because he promised he’d be nice!”

Babs shivered. “Sure didn’t seem nice to me.”

“Don’t worry!” Apple Bloom patted her cousin’s shoulder. “My sis and the others already beat him once, they can do it again! All we gotta do is

A polka-dotted brick wall appeared in the middle of the road.

“AAAHHH!” Scootaloo swerved to avoid hitting the obstruction. She veered left and we went down an alleyway.

“Where is he?!” I looked all around.

“Dunno, but I don’t wanna find out!” Scootaloo blasted out of the alleyway and into another empty street. Carousel Boutique was now in sight, only a hundred yards away. If we could just get a little farther...

A patchwork monstrosity magically appeared in front of us with a crack like thunder. His long, serpentine body had the head of a pony, the body of a snake, and the tail of dragon. His claws, hooves, wings and antlers were of various other animals, and his yellow, mismatched eyes glowed with malevolence. He looked down at us with a mad, victorious grin, and spoke in a menacing voice that chilled me to the bone.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” Discord lazily snapped his fingers. The wagon and scooter turned into popcorn, and we all yelped as we were dumped unceremoniously onto the ground.

“Hmph, kids these days!” Discord haughtily raised his chin. “Here I go to the trouble of making a surprise appearance at your school, and you four have the gall to run out on me? For shame!”

“SCATTER!” I screamed. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it’s not like we stood a chance. Our only hope was to try and make him go after us one at a time. Maybe then one of us could get to the Element Bearers...

Apple Bloom ran to the left. Scootaloo went to the right. Babs ran down the street away from Discord, which meant I had no other choice. I took a deep breath and ran right at him, hoping against hope that I could run right between his legs.

“Aww, how cute. Futile, but cute.” Discord snapped his fingers again.

My vision went completely dark. I skidded to a halt and rubbed my eyes, but I couldn’t so much as see my hoof in front of my face. Cold dread crept up on me as I backpedaled away from where Discord had been.

“W-What did you do?!” I squeaked. I looked all around, but there was nothing but endless black. My breath quickened as my hackles rose.

There was a terrified scream to my left. I whirled around in a flash, but there was nopony there. Still, I’d heard the voice enough times to recognize its owner.

“APPLE BLOOM!” I began running blindly in that direction. She sounded close. She couldn’t be more than a dozen feet away from me. I flailed wildly in front of me to try and find her—

The scream was cut sickeningly short. My stomach fell out, and I strained my ears to see if I could hear anything more. I all heard was the sound of my own ragged gasps.

Another scream sounded to my right. It was farther away, but not far enough that I couldn’t tell who it was.

“SCOOTALOO!” I tried to get to her. I had no idea what I could do, or even what was happening, but I couldn’t just sit by and let my best friends get attacked. If there was anything within my power to try and keep my friends from harm, I would do it.

Scootaloo’s scream was cut off as well. An emptiness suddenly struck me, and even though I couldn’t see what’d happened, I knew that she was gone. My throat tightened as my heart hammered in my chest, and I made no effort to stem the tears that streamed down my cheeks.

A third scream sounded, this time directly behind me. My composure shattered into a million pieces. I started running straight ahead as fast as I could. Terror now had me in its iron grip, and my survival instincts were completely directing my actions.

Rarity’s home was straight ahead.

Rarity’s home was safety.

Get to Rarity, and everything would be all right.

Babs’ scream ended much like Apple Bloom’s and Scootaloo’s. I didn’t stop running. It was all I could do to keep from screaming myself. I heard nothing but the sounds of my own body. I felt nothing but the ground beneath my hooves. I saw—

My vision abruptly returned. I hadn’t moved so much as an inch during the whole time I was under the spell. Still looming over me like the reaper was Discord. Carousel Boutique was still a hundred yards away, but it may as well have been a hundred miles. Despair took me, and I hung my head and fell to my haunches.

“Not even going to try to fight, eh? Pfft, you're no fun.” Discord lifted me up in his magic and forced me to look into his horrifying eyes. “Tell me, did you enjoy hearing your friends being picked off one by one? That was a little darker than my usual modus operandi, but I've always been one for trying new things.”

Rage flared up inside me. I wished I knew how to shoot one of those cool magical rays I saw Twilight use once. I wished I could command the Sun to shoot down a pillar of light and fry him where he stood. I wished I could grab one of his limbs and fling him around Ponyville like a rag doll. I used all the strength I had to try and break his magical grip.

I managed to wiggle my hooves.

Discord laughed. “So you do have some fight left! Not bad, not bad at all. Then again, I’d be surprised if the sister of Generosity didn’t have some resistance to my magic. Unfortunately, that resistance is why you have to go. I can’t have you swearing vengeance on me and trying to form a rebellion when you’re older.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I didn’t care. My friends were gone. I’d failed to warn my sister. I was powerless to even save myself. I’d no idea what Discord was going to do me, but if the sadistic look in his eyes was any indication, it wasn’t going to be pleasant.

Discord flashed me a cruel grin. “If it's any consolation, it isn't anything personal. I’m simply doing this to cover my bases—oh, and to hurt your sister. Can’t forget that.”

Rarity. I wasn’t even going to get a chance to say goodbye. When was the last time I’d said I loved her? The last conversation we’d had was about me starting magic lessons. I could only hope that she knew how much I—

The door to Carousel Boutique opened. Rarity stepped out with a confused look on her face. She looked around, then glanced down the street. She froze as she saw Discord, and then her eyes drifted down to me. She saw the desperation in my eyes, and her confusion morphed into horror. She raced towards us as fast as she could.

Discord placed me in his lion’s paw. He then raised his eagle’s claw, which was glowing with purple light.

“I can't wait to see the look on Fluttershy's face when I tell her I didn't even spare you four," he said. “By the way, you might want to brace yourself. If the screams of everyone else I’ve done this to are any indication, it hurts. A lot.”

Discord had his back turned. Rarity was halfway to us. Murder filled her eyes as a swath of razor-sharp diamonds appeared in her magic.

Discord tapped my nose with his eagle’s claw, and white hot agony lanced through my head. I let out a raw shriek of pain as the magic spread throughout my entire body. My limbs tried to seize up, but Discord’s magic kept me still. I felt myself shrinking, compacting, contorting, transforming. My mind turned to mush as the spell took hold.

Discord cackled and recited a chant in a powerful voice.

For Five Score! Divided by Four!

Your memories removed, your body confused!

For your insolence you must pay,

Cast off to a land far far away!

To scatter the six, just the start of my tricks!

Your mind shall be weak, your outlooks all bleak!

Forget everything and live like a fool,

You’ve lost, ponies! None can stop—

Rarity fired her salvo. It shot forth like a swarm of locusts and bludgeoned Discord with bone-breaking force. The diamonds then looped the diamonds around and enveloped us both in a magical cyclone of wrath. Discord dropped me to defend himself, and the last thing I heard was Rarity screaming my name as everything went dark.

***

I woke up with a mouth drier than a desert and a head full of pain. I immediately flinched and shut my eyes to block out the evil day-star's light that shone in through the windows. I covered my face with a pillow and took a moment to get my bearings.

Phil’s house. Birthday party. Presents. Video games. Drinking. Oh Celestia, drinking. Current issue: Light sensitivity, dehydration, headache the size of New Jersey. Shivering. Cold sweat. Tears? Diagnosis: Nightmare, followed by severe hangover. Recommended course of action: Ingest of copious amounts of water to alleviate symptoms. Proceed to bathroom for bodily maintenance.

I groaned and gingerly opened my eyes. The room wasn’t spinning, that was a good sign. I took a chance and slowly got to my feet. No signs of nausea, good! I might actually be able to do this.

I wiped the tears away and looked around the living room. A glance at the clock told me it was almost ten, which meant Mike was at work and Phil should be getting home soon. I didn’t know where Dylan was; probably passed out in Phil’s spare bedroom. I made a note to ask him what happened last night later.

I entered the bathroom and spent the next ten minutes drinking water and addressing bodily functions. My headache gradually began to lessen, and I took a moment to think about the dream I’d had.

Damn, that was surreal. Normally you don’t get any feedback from your senses in dreams, but in this one I’d felt everything, including all the bodily reactions to fear. Was this one of those night terrors I’d heard about? I thought only little kids got those! Should I tell someone about this?

I considered it for a moment, but decided that a single dream wasn’t enough cause for worry. If it became a recurring thing I might need to take some action, but it was probably just a bunch of random thoughts and memories that formed together in one big terrifying conglomeration. I’d get over it, and soon I wouldn’t even remember it's happened at all.

I took a look at myself in the mirror and cringed. I definitely needed a shower. I grabbed a spare towel from Phil’s linen closet and started to strip off my clothes.

Now, I say ‘started,’ because I never actually finished. I got my pants and boxers off, and when I glanced at my reflection in the mirror again, I saw something that made me stop in my tracks.

Sweetie Belle's cutie mark—a silver bell with a pink heart behind it—was stamped upon my thigh.