• Published 1st Apr 2014
  • 14,112 Views, 1,418 Comments

Puppets of Tragedy - Iridescence T Wind



We all know the story, human from earth goes to Equestria from buying a mystical prop from a mysterious unnamed salesman to attend Comicon. But what you didn't expect was the prop to be a puppeteers crafting kit.

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Interlude: Rook Takes Cloudcake?

Amber was frustrated, as far as I could tell. It had been hell of a week, and only now were they getting close to seeing their friend and employer again. Over the last few days, they had taken the fastest and speediest method they could since the evacuation to the Griffonstone Kingdom, a perilous journey of several days by train ride after being portaled over to Manehatten. Yoko, curious as she was apparently jaw droppingly Amazonian in build, had relented to their quest after the props she had sent over to their wayward schemer had not yielded the results that any of them desired. Implying that the props and tools were now also in the hands of Xanders mortal enemy, the law and order of Celestia. While she had been able to spot Manehatten by map and location from their old base, they had to take two days lazing about on a train to reach the boreal mountains, then Ambers home.

The Kingdom itself, had also wasted two more days of time, as apparently bringing the ancient crown of the kingdoms rulers to the ruler less empire hadn't been enough, they had to also find some weird lamp thing called the idol of boreas that had been a fancy golden wing surrounding the largest perfectly cut ruby she'd ever seen. Finding it hadn't even been that hard, it was learning about it that took the most time until they all but bribed an old grandpa of a griffon for the full story. While the abysmal abyss had been treacherous, for most ponies. Amber had, in classical evil fashion, raided a month early her Hearth Warming present... A freeze-ray and used it to essentially negate the intense winds by physical barrier of the Abysmal Abyss to grab the dumb lamp-statue. While she got a freeze ray, the dastardly villain, that she was, tossed me what would be my Hearth Warming present as well.

To be perfectly honest? I was more than pleased with the gesture of a utility belt themed after bats that held whatever I needed in its many pouches. Though, a little confused at the shark-oriented pest spray that was in one of them. As far as I was concerned, the cybernetics was already too great a gift to ever be repaid, and the fact that he had several alternate projects in the works for me was too much of a consideration. I could swear he acted more like a goofy saint than a villain most of the time. Even as the servos hissed and whined like a purring kitten dressed a little too oddly for comfort much like Amber was. "You feeling alright?" I asked, to the distraught bird brain that was Amber.

She shifted in her dress, royal and regal, and a bit entirely too warm, with a cloak fit for a Jarl setting apart from most of Canterlots nobles, like someone had stuffed a lion in a tutu. She smirked to herself, as Amber annoyed, growled, "The sooner we get him out of here, the sooner I can take this damned thing off Cass. Lets try to make this quick, but still civilized for the 'namby pamby pony princess' as tavern teenage drakes like to call Celestia."

I snorted, which got a small stressed laugh out of Amber, who only mildly returned the feeling as I patted her on the back with my cybernetic hoof, "Celestia isn't just namby pamby, you know. She... is the princess of the sun."

"Ugh, don't remind me." Amber groaned, "I'm already stressed out enough with what I'm going to be trying to get out of sunbutt as is." The crown she wore was a bit ill fitting, I had to admit, like it was made for someone a size larger than her, and the spikey bones that would crown the face, instead bite into her cheeks.

I resisted the urge to continue the patting as Amber, like most of the women in the base, didn't really liked to be touched. Aside from Yoko's Rough housing, but that was an entirely different type of contact than the social contact she preferred. She sort of wished Trixie was was with them, as her snarky attitude did have a way of disarming tensions within the groups she was in no matter the situation... Unfortunate, that she had stayed behind with Yoko in the event that Xander had made his way back. Apparently she had some sort of spell for long distance sending, and she wanted to help Yoko set up the new base at the outskirts of the other major charity act of Xander's. The kelpies were more than willing to lend a hoof, though a little too eager, as if they could worm their way into her friends bed if they did. More likely, they would install three dozen ways to sneak into whatever ended up as Xanders bedroom, considering the worst of the worst that had hailed the poor guy trying to harem him was there. While Princess Melody had done her best to sooth that entire tide of romance, it was still a long way from being settled until Xander took a spouse, if he took one at all.

The impatient tapping noise filled the room again, razor filed claws tapping out a steady beat upon the wooden armrest of the aerial Carriage that they were descending in. I endured the noise, briefly aware of just how sharp Ambers claws actually were as they started to dig small holes into the treated wood where her nails met it. Ever reminding her of the mental image of the lion in the tutu. I had to turn my attention to making myself look nice as well. It was a court, and while I no longer really had my old wonderbolt uniform, the fancy getup I had gained was amusingly masculine in comparison. Amber had complained for days that I had managed to get a military ensemble similar to that of a wonderbolt uniform in color scheme and decor, and pinned my badge of valor to my shoulder, as were Equestrian veterans would. Mainly since the fancy shoulderpads were more common than actual shirts, and I was pretty sure Spitfire would take anyone who put a hole in their flight suit back to bootcamp for a Tartarus Training Cycle. Hence the shoulder pads.

"We worked it out, remember? Griffonstone has a high export value in metals and Xander has coins from that dragonstash to spare. Heck, he even mentioned being tempted to rob another dragon just to make sure the sirens are set for the next few generations themselves. Worst case is, we go raiding dragon lairs like its going out of style, maybe amass a small army of drakes. I hear overwhelming strength is a popular government for them anyway." Despite my best resistance, I had to take Amber up by that tapping claw, if only to distract her for a moment, getting the griffons attention away from the window view, her own eyes were remarkably sharp witted, beautiful as her name sake, maybe. Shame I didn't swing that way, else I'd be flirting. Though we were both eyeing the same guy, I knew, I also knew better than to bring that up.

Amber rolled her eyes after a moment of consideration, "Xander isn't a tyrant, you know. Besides..." she mocked a small gag, "The fact that 'raiding a dragons den' is a relatively trivial matter to our boss is horrifying in of itself. I don't think he should do so, in either case, lest he anger the Dragon Lord. Never met the guy, but apparently he's old and strong enough to melt the top off mountains with a single breathe if he so chose, and nearly as ancient as Celestia besides."

"Still, no shortage of dragons around here," I teased, "Heard there's one in the Everfree that used to causing a bit of a stir every decade or so with its periodic burst of smoke-snoring. Sure would put a lot of ponies hearts at ease if someone took care of it."

Amber raised a feathered eyebrow, "Old Razorscale? That cantankerous dragon does cause a few problems, but not nearly as much as to warrant the Puppet Treatment."

"Oh you'd be surprised, news is, that every time it snorts, the wildlife goes wild... Well, wilder, you know what I mean, and they cause all sorts of problems from destroyed gardens from bunny stampedes, to the rare occasional panicked manticore attack. Heard all about in bars around Manehatten." I leaned in, as if preparing myself to divulge a major secret, "Did you know, Ponyville apparently used to have a Pear farm?"

"No!" Amber gasped, though I could see her beak twinge slightly into a grin as she went along with it, "You don't jest!"

"Ay, but one and a half decades ago during the dragons snore, and no one knows what happened to it... But apparently it was like the owner just upped, and disappeared! Farm and all! Someponies apparently have a theory that it was the Apples that made them up and vanish, but there was also a high number of reports that day of panicked timber wolves and a hydra spotting close by where the farm was. And the apples had their own issues with a flock of vampire fruit bats back then as well."

"Oh, do tell me more of these theories," Amber conspiratorially whispered back, "It sounds like juicy info in the event I ever end up against the mare who embodies Honesty."

Our gossip managed to last the rest of the flight down, five minutes or so, given the altitude griffon airships enjoyed, when properly motivated. But with tensions eased, and looming intimidating castle ahead, it was good that I managed to get Amber a little relaxed, it hid my own tensions on the matter. Trixie knew I became a bit of a blabber mouth when nervous, but I think Amber might of noticed as much herself, as her own attempts at sympathy, while crude, helped in her own little way. Canterlot Castle was just as big as I last remembered it, back when I was a Gala attendee as a wonderbolt. Albiet, a fair less decorated in streamers and banners than on a holiday night, there was the signs of winter going into full swing as well. While Canterlot itself was going into full swing with the winter snow, and decorations. The castle exterior itself was rather dry of 'such unneeded distractions', as Shod had put it. While she had no doubt that there would be decorations for the last week or so leading into Hearth warming and the start of the year, Shining Armors prior job holder, Steel Shod, had run a tight shift regarding ornamentation that might hamper their job. Keeping the outside of the castle decorated with wind worn walls was a nightmare after all, and she was glad to see that Shining Armor had followed up on his example as they descended the final stretch, as the entry courtyard was one of the few areas decorated on the exterior, shielded from the weather the teams would bring in. A subtle poetical symbol, that while yes, decorating for the season was impractical for the entire month, they were still celebrating the events leading up to Hearths Warming in their own way.

She could practically smell the holly and cinnamon in the halls, however, even from here. The one time she and her team had joined the Royal Guards for Hearth warming had been a joyous occasion, about half a decade ago, but it had still been hilarious to see half her unit flirting with a single guard, to the annoyance of Shod and the envy of the rest. She'd have to look him up while she was here, last she heard, he'd taken up forging metals in his retirement. And oh boy, did she want to show him her new limbs. The stallion was gruff, but appreciated problem solving, hell, he and Xander might exchange notes. She practically giggled at the thought, no wait I did, I realized in mild horror, matching my gaze back to my griffon companion. Amber looked impressed at her for some reason, did she read that as nerves of steel? Oh please don't make me the first person out the carriage.

Thankfully, the cute boy they got to be their squire, or personal servant, apparently, announced Amber first. The good boy that he was, he was going to get a few coins when no one was looking. I'd need to remember his name, he had wonderbolt colors which was a bright point in her book, no one dastardly could bear Wonderbolt Colors without some form of divine retribution smiting them in my book. Though she was going to have to wait till they were out of eyesight of the other griffons, no need getting the boy on a watch list for a mugging. Griffons were apparently real cutthroat when it came to coins in exchange for goods, and even information or right to pass was a good they were willing to sell. Gaius? No, that wasn't it... Gallows? No, way to morbid for a bright sparky youth with family issues.... She knew it started with a 'Gal' but it couldn't just be Gal, unless his parents were being cruel to him, or really had wanted a girl, or both. I didn't have enough of a read of griffon culture really, but apparently they were all 'honor on the battlefield, and Prestige in Wealth' sorta folk, according to Amber anyway. Given the fact they had to pay for just about everything on their way here, yeah. That was certainly the case.

"I think Xander is rubbing off on you." Amber commented drily, and I blinked in surprise.

"How so?"

She gave a sharp grin before the door opened, "You're lost in thought, just like he gets when he notices something strange."

Ah, I thought, before lightly slapping my cheeks with my metal hooves, "Well, no time like the present Princess, lets get this show on... Or rather, off the road." Amber gave a final mocking 'ugh' before rolling her eyes and striding out with all the grace she could muster. Amusedly, I noted, she was wearing metal clawed shoes underneath her fancy dress, which wasn't quite as hidden as she'd probably like it when walking down the stairs.

I tuned out, after the general proceedings began, trying to catch a glimpse of where our 'damsel in distress' might be hidden away in, spotting a few curious glances at foot level barred windows, not the sort I recognized, at least. Unless Xander had magically grown bug eyes in the last few days. Some tried to say something, but whatever noise they made was mostly blotted out by wards on hand, and the windows were too small and thin gapped barred to do much more than watch. Well, that removed the dungeons, so was he locked like Goldi-pone in a tower? I casted my gaze skyward, but the details were a bit too far to make out, even with my own vision. Besides, it wasn't guarenteed he'd even be out on a balcony, or even aware of us. For all I knew he might be locked in a vault deep within a castle, or in a different castle altogether. I did hear rumors about Celestia wanting to eventually get a summerhome in Rainbow Falls, apparently being interested in sports. Was it more than just rumors or-...

My attention was diverted as we entered the main hall, while festively decorated there was another figure that stood out. At first I failed to put two and two together until the black robed hood fell down, revealing the masked face. Ah, that was what Amber had meant. Xander looked pale, well he did more than usual given his ceramic white face. The more accurate term was probably a little gaunt, like he had been sleeping less than usual. Ambers own gaze tightened a little bit, as I took in the details. He was injured, as much could be told from the bandages around his neck and shoulders that were visible within the collar of his robe, whatever hellish fight we'd miss had done a number on him, as his own gaze was mildly distant, as if lost in thought, a faint twinge of concern adding a lot more worry than I reasonably thought was warranted. Celestia wasn't a tyrant, or evil ruler, by Taratarus, she was the prized saintly mother figure of Equestria. Known for her forgiving and patient nature.

After we crossed the threshold, his expression went from distant to discomforted, as he wrestled with approaching, but Amber took the initiative, approaching him, waving aside her guards, and glaring the nearby Royal Guards into submission before addressing him, "Hey boss." She spoke simply, much to both my, and his amazement.

Whatever thought process had been going on in their leaders head had short circuited, amusingly, as I was reminded just how small Xander was compared to everyone present, aside from Gallus-, no wait, Gallus was a few inches taller than him. Everyone else stood head and shoulders taller though. I almost missed Xanders response, as I tried to think of something clever to say. Xander let out a long breathe before chuckling lightly to himself, in the way that cartoon villains do, we could both tell he was crying a little inside, from Ambers casual address of him, "Amber... Amber... Amber..." He looked tired, there was bags under his... mask-eyes, we noted, "I... um... Don't know what to say to that in this given circumstance."

I gave up with the political charade, I wasn't built with withstanding the scrutiny of the idiots we were surrounded with, and so what if I showed some emotional support to the villain of the ages, I swept forward from behind Amber, "Xandy!" I had meant that as Puppet Master, but it came out as a ridiculously cute nickname which I immediately regretted saying as I wrapped him up in a hug.

Xander was startled at first, freezing like a signpost a bit shocked. He was unusually cold to the touch, where skin and mask met fur anyway. We had figured out he hadn't had much physical social contact growing up, or at least physical affection, while he would turn away any overt attempts to flirt with him, in comparison to Amber or Trixie, he was need incarnate. The frozen stiffness slowly turned into a returned embrace of a gentle hug, if somewhat adorably awkward given the height difference. As if highlighting his own lack of experience, he was awkwardly trying to pat me on the back, as if consoling me, rather than the other way around, before he let out a pained squeak, oops too tight. Releasing him he took a small breath of relief, but looked a little less tired, and a small bit pleased as he adjusted himself, reminding me of a particularly villainous cat that had just caught the mouse, rather than the exhausted run ragged appearance he had before. Unfortunately his gloom returned, and I privately avowed myself to give him another, the dork needed it.

"What are you two doing here?!" He hissed quietly, concern toning his voice.

"We're here to rescue you!" I proudly whispered back, interrupting Ambers own reply.

After a moments pause, Amber added in, "That's the plan anyway."

His eyes looked a little wild, "You need to leave, I have the situation handled but-" Whatever Xander was going to say was interrupted as Shining Armor entered the hall, his eyes narrowing briefly as he spotted Amber, as though his worst fears were confirmed.

"Princess Amber Von Gestochen Scharf, Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and Princess Cadence are ready to see to you in the Day Court Room, when you're ready for introduction. A side room for courtesies is also being prepared, if you wish to join them for the luncheon hour."

"We will be right there in a second." Amber replied, "Thank you Captain." Shining Armor gave a pointed look to Xander, whom I could feel slightly shivered, as I was still hanging off him by my arm wrapped around his shoulders, but Amber managed to intercede, "We will be right along in a second."

He nodded but didn't leave. Wise move, we could of just grabbed him and dashed otherwise. I wasn't sure how important those 'artifacts' were to Xander, but he did have the puppet generating one on his far side hip.

"We'll catch up later." Amber said despite his small non-verbal protests, and I agreed with it.

"Yep, with Cake and tea. Should be relatively quick, by Day Court standards." I tried to cheer him up.

Xander went to say something, but his gaze flickered to the waiting captain, and back to us, and shut his mouth for a second before responding, "Be careful, and please stay... safe, with your discussion."

It was my turn to snort, "Wrong lot for that, dangerous profession you know, caring." I joked, earning a groan from both of us, but I patted him lightly on the back, "Get ready for tea.. and wear something nice, we have a plan!"

"You have a plan...?" For some reason Xander seemed both impressed and terrified.

"You'll see." Amber winked. and we left him behind to wonder and stutter. It was kinda cute, actually. Maybe Melody had something going on the whole idea of making a harem. I mean- We needed to save Xander, yeah. Our plan was foolproof, afterall. I did note, that while we turned to leave, Amber gave her own mark of affection in a heavy pat to the shoulder, causing a small wince of pain from Xander, but it was clearly noticed, as his worry for some reason only went up instead of down.

------------------------------------

I could tell a lot about the boss from a glance. Unlike what most people had come to the supervillain, I knew far better than to judge this particular book from his snarky, if somewhat overly cautious nature. The bags under his eyes, the wariness. She'd seen that before from him, back when they'd first freed the sirens from one tyrant and he had declined picking up the rulership of an entire species. He was many things, a brilliant magician, maybe, a master of illusion? Probably not. She'd figured out the trick with the dolls after the first few minutes of meeting him, and despite the attempts to make them feel alive, it had always seemed just the slightest bit forced when it came to words from them, and whenever he was distracted, all personality would drain away from the rest of his creations and render themselves inert, or slowed depending on the situation. But this was a tanget, the word that was coming to mind again and again was...

Introvert. He was one of the sort who needed time to themselves. She'd seen his need for isolation peak during the sirens wiles at his door at night, and it wasn't until she had personally taken steps to ease that frustration; in the form of intimidation, that they'd taken a hint and left him alone. She still recalled the walls of the facility slowly growing a bit less roomy each day, like his sense of being cooped up was causing the air itself to get claustrophobia. It wasn't a pleasant feeling to know that your boss could at any time flick a panel down and kill you, but it was a small price to pay with someone so rightly paranoid. Hell she'd say he hadn't been paranoid enough. She still could see the tired look, how he all but inhaled coffee to give function to what a rest deprived mind failed to recover while they took for granted what they wanted from him. The only ones who'd bothered to show any appreciation were either here, or holding down the fort in his absence, and she'd be damned if anymore bottom feeders tried to worm their way up with a knife behind their back to bring down her boss.

Rainbow Dash had played them all like a damn fiddle. To think she was even considering trying to have the new mare join her and Cass on a daily training routine, but it hadn't even been a full day before the turncoat had decided to do a spy movie and slip the base. By the time they'd gotten the elevator shaft free, the squirt was already half way to Canterlot with the information she had leaked with. Element of Loyalty, hah. The only thing she was seemingly loyal too was being and getting others stabbed in the back it seemed. That sort of thing tended to draw attention and made her wonder if Rainbow had lost that element. Probably not, she decided. She was staying at one of her 'friends' homes since they took the cloud house with her. While most people would of probably balked at stealing an entire house, the alternative was leaving it there for her to simply push it back out of the mountain scott free, and without consequence. She'd taken a bit more personal satisfaction to rifle through Dashes stuff afterwards for any juicy blackmail in the future. While she now had a bucket load worth of things to embarrass her about, however, the sporty mares dwellings had been unfortunately extremely boring. Wonderbolt propaganda decorated practically every facet of non-standard furniture the mare lived in, and given the amount of dust in her living room, she wasn't the sort to really sit still or stay inside. The sheer amount of wonderbolt posters would of been creepy if it had been focused on a single person, but as far as Amber could tell was that Dash had been all but married to the idea of becoming one of Equestrias Finest Fliers. She did find one bit of blackmail on Dash in the most unlikely of locations, however, and that treasure trove was better left unmentioned until it was needed.

My eyes had commented about his own, he wasn't being given sufficient alone time, I knew his waking hours must be spent heavily watched. I also could just as easily note at least one royal guard deviating his gaze from staring straight ahead to staring at the odd collection of us. I almost wanted to claw out his damned eye. Boss was in a situation where it seemed he couldn't trust the very bed he slept in, and from what he had told her in the days leading up to this capture, she could well believe it. She still remembered the day he had wandered back home, the base having flickered in power for the first time, utterly drained and wanting nothing more to sleep. How, to her surprise, he had taken with him a gallon of Cider and uncorked it, downing and filling no less than four glasses worth of the stuff as though he was a fish, and it water. He didn't even seem affected by it, two mugs were what most ponies were able to handle, and while she had tried the stuff one time, it really didn't stick that griffons would be any less affected. I had found the courage to go waiting outside his bedroom door when he finally retreated to his personal haven, and after a few minutes of hesitation she had pried it open with little resistance. The doors didn't resist if he wasn't concentrating on them. Typically he only locked them when he was about to pass out. It felt like a violation of privacy, but I had to be sure he was alright.

A little known fact about Griffons was that our hearing was a fair bit sharper than most of the other races, maybe it had to deal with our ancestors hunting habits, or that it made it easy to stay alert, but it lead a certain amount of awareness others would constantly underestimate. Some Griffons could speak the softest of whispers and not even seem to move their beak, and be understood fully by others while Equestrians waited for an answer to the question they asked, oblivious he had already given it. It caused problems, ponies tended to gossip and it caused problems when they thought they were out of earshot and they siad the wrong few words. I wasn't allowed back in Flight school after she threw a prissy bitch back in her youth into a low voltage thundercloud for calling her something she found rather quite repugnant, even today. But what I heard were not subtle insults, or backtalk, or even the sound of the bosses normal ungodly loud snoring, it had been sobbing back then.

To my own continued immense shame and lack of experience that I still regretted, I had backed away, only learning later on through careful questions what had happened. The boss was always like a zombie in the first thirty minutes of waking up, but his schedule wasn't something solid. Trixie had called it silly at first that she kept a boiling pot of water on the generator ran stove each morning to mid afternoon. Boss would need his coffee just as much as she did, and she had remembered being quite shocked at how early in the morning he had come back from the dead of sleep. Or rather... she still expected, he didn't sleep at all that night.

That morning he had arrived at precisely six am, the bags under his eyes had been on par to what she was seeing now, if a little shallower then, Somehow, the inky black void that made up the rest of his gaze was a little bloodshot, faint tendrils of what must be veins working their way towards the flickering fires of his eyes which had all but gone out with how tired he was. It had been more than a mild shock to see him like that, as whenever his eyes normally closed, his fireballs would distort into a solid line. The fact that they'd gone to near flickering embers quietly dying off had been alarming. A reminder that no matter how strange he was, he was a mortal just like the rest of us. He had sat down, or more collapsed onto the seat, his upper body slumped against the table as I prepared our drinks.

The boss liked to act tough at first, being a maniac and drinking coffee entirely black until he realized I didn't even care when we first met. I learned the softer side of him soon enough, though. He had a sweet tooth of the likes maybe that pink laughter girl could compare to. Extra sugar, and at least half the drink was creamer from the local store, almond kind, not regular milk. He said where he was from, the milk his species consumed came from cows that weren't bipedal or talking, and that it was something of horror to himself that milk was widely used in Equestria given the source. I had snorted and commented about drinking other species milk in the first place should of been weird, and he swapped to almond milk ever since. Suitably seeing the wrong point and having a small episode, that had lasted the first few minutes of before he had fully woken up. The subject of his grief had been where I'd learned about the first of many atrocities of Equestria as a kingdom. Death by Petrification. He had carried the subject on from the study of basilisks to its implications of those who hadn't been removed. She had also seen notes on possibilities to remove the affliction, or execution method, outside of the scope of unicorn magic.

I liked that side of Xander, even if he was a little young. He was generous, never commandeering, and the only arrogance he had ever borne was usually the sort that came with grabbing someone else by the same vice and strangling it out of them one sentence a time. Her boss was a softy at heart with a spot for victims of accidents and those targeted by criminal evil doers. She did see him regularly donating to random charities whenever he thought a pile of bits was getting in the way, while he thought he was being clever with a portal, she saw a few logos between portal transfers to know just where they were going. Cassette had hit him where it hurts with her revelation back then of being abandoned by the government, but this had been a new one in their eyes.

There was a strange sense of fear in his eyes, not of anything present but what could be, neither was it for himself either, as his gaze had flickered between his friends present and then to the throne room doors, followed by Shining Armor after he made his presence known. His gaze fell, face becoming blank as a mask, ironically enough, before the others could notice. A flicker of doubt, squashing itself away. I spotted Cassette slowly becoming a little straighter, and realized I myself was tensing slightly at the posture. He was preparing himself to fight, I noted, readjusting the very crown we had stolen from a heavily guarded museum by this very same stallion in front of us.

I placed my claw on his shoulder, interrupting whatever train of thought he had going through his head, "I'm going to get you out of here, boss. Just hold on for a little longer."

He took a deep breathe as he looked at me, those pupils of fire, an oddly comforting sight, the mask on the mask falling to a look of concern, "I had it handled, at this point." his own hand reaching up, and grasping mine own shoulder, mirroring me, "Careful, we'll catch up later," Alexander turned his gaze towards Shining Armor, letting go, and nodded. Shining Armor tilted his head slightly, but escorted them without a further word, the announcement for their arrival into the day court ringing forth again, as they made their way to a waiting room. Formal, and made for show. Old paintings of the prior generations of Blue Bloods decorated the walls, and comfy couches that must of cost a fortune to the trained eye. We waited in hushed tones, discussing what had happened, excluding certain details like locations and using little nicknames we've picked up for each of the core members while in the presence of the royal guard captain. Hell, I'd think we would of used them even if it wasn't with the stoic gaze upon us.

In Canterlot, the walls had ears. Supposedly. The truth of the expression more came with the sheer volume of servants, and guards that were present in every room, every hallway, every courtyard, and every balcony. Xander could more freely express the terms he had went through then we could express the going ons in our current base of operations. I checked the time, 11:40, that meant-.

A distant announcement, Princess in waiting, Melody had joined the ranks. Her own carriage arriving, drawn by hired hooves, and with that the departing of Shining Armor. Minutes later, they were joined with the Siren Xander had chosen, and his surprise became, practically speaking palpable. Melody had taken with her an escort of fellow sirens. Amber didn't knew what to make of Melody, to be honest. Her previous role as a historian showed vibrantly, with her mane, hair instead of membrane, done up in a bun, with a crystalized stick holding it together like a mini royal rod. The Crown that had previously been Sharp Operas apparently, but abandoned once he outgrew it, hung on her head, i'll fitting just as her own was. Sharp metal bands etched with ruby lines giving an appearance proper for the molten siren ruler that had been her predecessor, but clashed with the rest of her outfit horribly. They'd need to give her a sit down on proper modern fashion, sometime.

"Your highness," she said curtseying in a way only sirens could, with using their body to lower themselves much like a creature with legs would of, "It is a pleasure to see you again."

Xander had frozen, his eyes, transfering gazes between her and myself, "As much as it is good to see you all again... Are you two doing what I think you're doing?"

Melodys own response was hard to gauge, she was used to working for far crueler and less forgiving employers, her face the perfect mask of a secretary, rather than a ruler, "I came here at Ambers Behest, we figured two rulers would be a far better chance of securing your release than just one. As Princess Celestia has already recognized our sovereignty as independent from her own."

"At the moment, your rule amounts to a city-state at best..." he murmured, "The Crystal Empire also suffers from that mistake..."

"Isn't that empire long gone?" I asked, mildly surprised, "Vanished, like near a thousand years ago?"

He blinked a few times, the fireballs in his eyes vanishing and reappearing, "Ah. I've said too much, but many places tend to misname themselves in terms of their rule. Take Yakyakistan, which favors itself a kingdom, but follows laws that makes it more of a Jarldom, as its viking origins and culture would indicate. Everyone on this continent is trying to call themselves prince or princess, or king and queen, but ignoring titles like Jarl, in the case of Prince Rutherford, or Dictator, in the case of the Storm King."

They mused themselves over that, Melody noted after a few moments, "That is, indeed sound wisdom, though I'm still new to this whole worldly affairs thing, we've been catching up on the treaties, or at least I have been, given Amber has only had a few scarce days of rulership, so I've heard. She nodded to me, and I nodded back, "It was actually my idea to arrange this meeting after Amber had suggested calling in work you've put through."

"Figured, with two rulers backing you, we could enforce a treaty known by the world powers as the 'Cooperative Ruler Rights' Act, or CRR, that was enforced shortly after the end of the Pony-Griffon war." I commented, to his blank face I added in, "Its a clause between world leaders that prevents them from being held away from their positions of leadership and directing their country by paying a reasonable sum for their release. What this sum is, is related to the crimes and trauma inflicted on the defending party."

"We've had discussions between a few ambassadors visiting the city on your current exchange would be. It is surprisingly cheap." Princess Melody snorted, "A total sum of two thousand, four hundred, and eighty eight bits. Though we might be able to convince them that they owe you money instead, after dealing with several national threat level villains yourself."

In comparison to Xanders wanted poster, that was pocket change, and Trixie had laughed her ass off after hearing about it. One could buy about five carriages for that, or a carriage-home like trixies old studio apparently. Still, it was a surprisingly small amount, as an oversight of the arrangement meant that no matter how valuable the priceless artifacts they had stolen were in the museum, the fact that they were 'priceless' meant that their effective cost added 0 to the fine. As the treaty had indicated that things 'without price' cost 0 bits. That effectively meant, that he'd only be charged for the act of commiting the theft, rather than what he had stolen. Flimsy, but more than doable considering the artifacts had then been pushed into the possession of their rightful owners. Plural.

Five minutes passed, and the representatives of Yakyakistan arrived. Their artifacts being returned, had opened the door to negotiation with the siren. Another five, the palace shook as Torch, the lord of Dragons arrived. Forcibly controlling his size to be able to fit in the hall. Followed shortly by the Neighponeish emperors daughter, Crown Princess Viper arrived. The Tribal Chieften Representative of the Buffalo arrived shortly after, and the Saddle Arabian representatives of their sultan as well. Shining Armor had gone Pale by this point. The city square was likely filling up with a crowd, as more and more came. The Diamond Dog Corperation had sent a bureaucrat to represent the interests of their species, Even the Abyssians had sent a representative, last but not least came the Breezies, a bit of a surprise that they had been able to arrive, given their realm lay in the feywilds, an unpredictable place of fairies on another plane of existence, but Melody had worked wonders with what we had.

All in All, Amber and Melody gave grins appropriate of evil masterminds, Favors had been called in. Artifacts returned to their species, both from the museum haul, and surprisingly quite a few returned from the dragons horde itself. The Puppet Master himself asked, barely above a whisper, "Why?"

I replied, with my best, queenly voice, "To beat a princess without martial force, one must pray upon the weakness of every ruler in the world..." his gaze met my own, "Bureaucracy."

They all felt like the 'tea party' was going to be put on hold.

------------------------------------

Prince Blueblood was miserable. Impressed, but utterly miserable. Around him the faces were the same. Stress and adrenaline had filled their last forty eight waking hours, as the creature above them giggled in devilish delight. He'd decided her race was that of a demon, as without horns or hooves, the little girl whom was even smaller than the puppeted villain flew without wings above them. The last forty eight hours had been filled with something called an 'Artillery Bombardment', which had only reinforced his beliefs that Equestrians did not know how to wage a proper war before the villain had come around. The ponies around them had suffered through this non stop bombardment for forty seven hours, and forty minutes, according to his watch. How they hadn't run out of ammo yet was beyond his understanding.

It had started well enough, they had been lead through a creepy portal, into a waiting room of a vast grey spirally energy dimension, and out into the distant mountain ranges of the northern borders of Equestria. A Soldier, older and more mature than their commanding officer had lead them into a wooden barracks that had been freshly made(by hoof, from the looks of it), and they had settled in, and spent the first two days doing some of the most grueling physical exercise they could think of. The shock of the Drill Sergents was something to be commended, breaking down their mental barriers as they were made to do a ten mile jog, one hundred pushups, and one hundred situps each day. The Pegasai were also made to do a hundred wing-ups and the unicorns magical exercises based on Starswirls own recommendations as well, which was Levitation practice. Each unicorn was given a Boulder to lift depending on their maximum strength with the basic spell, and told to push themselves to try and carry an even heavier one through the air than they could normally lift. They were given classes after these exercises based on strategy and survival, of which they had stood at rapt attention, their instrutors all individualized and focused on at the same time by individual Drill Sergents, who did not let up the pressure with hooves on training, and ending each day with drills for marching practice before they retired to the mess hall, and followed dinner up with classes to get those who needed it, caught up with the rest.

The third day was what caught them with their pants down, so to speak. For lack of a better term, the barracks exploded, sending them all flying out oddly now glassless windows, and they were told that to 'break them out of their herbivore mindset, they were going to show them what a real war was like'. Thus their current situation. Ditzy Do, his now neighbor, had taken shelter with him after digging her own hole, alongside his own. The Unicorns, once trying their various spells to push off the bombardment, had run out of mana to shield and redirect shells more than thirty six hours ago, and they were all gone to ground. If anything, though, they had been punished for it, as the instructor told them that they had all been targeted for using magic, and that they could 'lock onto' magical signatures. A few of the pegasus ponies had tried to take to the air, but clouds of black smoke would suddenly appear and knock them from the air with mild concussions from knockback. Of all of them, the Threstrals had taken this more inline than the rest, though each boom made them flinch for the first day. Their heightened sense of hearing making this an issue for them as well as their nocturnal habits.

Silence had struck at the end of the fifth day of their training. Ponies had been given a chance to go home, at this point as the artillery stopped. No one had stepped forward. Either out of determination, like he had, or out of shock. They were told to make their way to another camp, without magic. They managed to recover enough supplies for a ten day journey during the bombardment, and the smell of shit was strong in the trenches. Though they were already nearly unrecognizable from what they had once been at the start of this hell. Covered in dirt, and sweat they had marched forty miles through hazardous mountain terrain, and known avalanche zones. Supporting each other, and following up with what they had learned in survival classses. Their Tenth day of training came to a close, and he felt oddly close to all of those whom he made the trip with. He saw the purpose of it.

All the while, while they marched, their commander would watch them, to ensure that no one cheated, that any self sabotage in an 'active enemy front' was punished. The first day had came with the punishment for using poorly concealed campfires. Smoke being let out as one unicorn chose materials that produced smoke more visible to the naked eye than the ones they were supposed to use if any at all. The crakoom of Artillery fire blasting the campfire to dust, and sending the offending group sprawling taught them that lesson, and everyone else learned the lesson as well as an avalanche nearly struck their squad. They were doomed, they all thought as they had saw the avalanche, a solid wall of disrupted snow, stone, and uprooted trees, came down upon them. Awe became the carrot to the stick, as a wall of magical energy blocked the onrush of death and diverted it in either direction away from them. The disappointed look of those glowing golden eyes, as she stared at them all that night, was all the motivation they needed to reinforce themselves.

Their commander, Tanya Degurechaff spoke a lot. Of common strategies, of situations, their drill sergeants often providing real time examples for her, of how they could work together as well to counter certain situations, and of the tactics they should employ out on the field. Common mistakes, both in war and of the current military of Equestria, with them. Royal Guards tended to operate in groups of six, with pairs operating at a time, with a separate watch of bat ponies in areas where light visibility became a huge issue. 8 hour shifts with 16 hours downtime. This was, to Tanyas perspective, unacceptable. Groups of four needed to be active, at the minimum. In the event of a missing member, then the alarm could be raised, as a solo guardsmen was liable to be ambushed and taken care of just as easily, if not more so than the first, for instance. He lost track after the first hundred or so fixes and lessons she had given them over the five days of hiking. Often going back to reiterate and push into their minds the fixes and problems, as well as recommendations to holding the duties expected of them.

Tricks for catching out infiltrators, of turning ones head while looking another way. Looking up, at random intervals to catch fliers, and those who could climb walls and ceilings. Of turning ones head as though one was gazing in that direction, and quickly moving your gaze back to where you had just looked, to catch those who would use the edges of your vision in mid movement. Communication, was a big portion of those lessons. all of these lessons didn't do squat if they couldn't use their strengths and weaknesses to their full advantage. They actually earned something of a reward, an hours break with hot food when Ditzy Do had spotted one of these 'infiltrators' during their march by applying their lessons. Prince Blueblood had devoted himself to memorizing each lesson, wishing he had a recordance spell memorized so that he could go over each one over and over again. All of this was brilliant.

He wondered what war she had fought in, privately, to endure this living hell, as their path took them through an arranged obstacle course, a live fire exercise, and a labyrinth full of traps and danger before they found themselves at the camp. More than five times bigger than their previous barracks, he could see this was a proper military installation that would rival, if not outpace the one time he had visited the Wonderbolt Reserve training grounds. Everyone was now more or less far more familiar with each other. Large massive concrete structures, with walls formed from a black stone that must of been slate, large structures bigger than most gymnasiums filled the area. His mind scattered at the possibilities for training that would require them, and the purposes of the three hangers that could fit the largest airships easily within them if they required it.

He had found an easy going camaraderie with two mares and a fellow stallion. A fellow unicorn, and a Threstal surprisingly enough. Ditzy Do had more than proved capable of being a quick thinker, having practically saved half the camp by herself by identifying several traps ahead of time all along the trip. The other two, a Unicorn whom he recognized from Celestias School for Gifted Unicorns, by the name of Book Worm, whom was scrawny kid, but had a talent for magic on the grander scale, had turned to their expert on the magical conundrums that the obstacle course and labyrinth itself provided, where ditzy couldn't be able to provide details. The last was the Threstral known as Dark Rivers, a survival specialist from a thousand years ago, surprisingly. His knowledge of the war between pegasai and the Griffons was first hand and the like the rest of the bat ponies, was one of the few people with actual war experience. Albeit, all of what he had seen so far, was unlike any war he had fought before. The closest he could compare this to, was the great bow archers of the Minotaurs, but even they had a limit to what they could employ back then. While Prince Blueblood Himself, had found himself in the unfamiliar role of leading ponies.

They were separated, in the end of the tenth day by race, the next four weeks would focus on training what they knew, only coming together each morning for daily exercise and mess hall, before separating again for training. Their practice weapons were unusual. While he had, himself, practiced with a rapier and was a middling duelist by the time he had applied and been put into this hellish, constantly screamed at by drill-sergeants mess. These weapons were an oddity. The weapons they were given, while made for practice out of a heavy wood that emulated the real weight of metal, were unknown in design. the closest thing he could easily compare the first weapon to, was a double sided sword, but instead of a hilt, or cross guard, it was almost entirely just blades, with a small iron core pole, barely large enough to be held in the hoof, and not comfortably enough to swing by hoof either.

The principle of it was simple, given that Unicorns didn't have the same stresses of wielding a sword in their magic as wielding a sword by hoof, they would focus on the small bar core of the sword, and let the magic bleed onto the base of the blade itself as well. They had no worries for 'cutting' themselves, upon it, and the strategic use of magic could allow a unicorn to use it as a spear, thrusting and stabbing from above like a javelin that had been thrown, withdrawn, and thrown again, to hacking and slashing with the length of it. What now adorned his back, was something heavier, protective, and reminded him of a beetle as well, alongside the quiver of five of these blades in total.

Tanya had called it a Great Shield, a modification to a Tower Shield, that allowed multiple unicorns the ability to set up a shield wall, or lock someone the size of a bear or smaller in, with six of them working in concurrent unison. The top of the shield was curved in such a way, alongside its shape, that no one could feasibly stab them from behind without puncturing the shield itself first, and while clumsy, the later iterations of this would be light weight with a magical crystal enchantment that could flip into a far heavier and magnetized enchantment at their whim. With two interlocking sets of joints, the shields could be used to set up a locked shield wall, or if locked into the other joints, cage an opponent when six of them fell into place, allowing barely enough room to stick their sword beams(as they had dubbed it) into it like an Iron Maiden. The fact that these shields could also be layered and could dig spikes into the ground to further reinforce it, was an added bonus, as it would allow them as a unit to deal with creatures far stronger than them. He did note, however, that anyone taller than Celestia, like the Minotaurs, or dragons these shields couldn't really lock them down, however they could still serve the same role as Tower Shields in that regard in either case.

At the end of their first month, they had received armor, alongside the lessons to care and maintain it, and he was pleasantly surprised. Far more protective, he saw, than royal guard armor, as far more of their bodies were covered, he was also pleasantly surprised at the enchantment stones that manifested in reinforcements for the weight, reducing the burden of all his equipment, and even a small bolstering of his combat magical effectiveness. It must of cost a fortune to build these, and the odd blue-grey metal that had been stronger and lighter than steel, was its own oddity. One of their rank had the audacity, unfortunately, to question why they weren't getting the Royal Guard Armor.

They had all been punished with a lecture on how stupid it was, and the unfortunate person in question was forced to wear a set without the weight reducing enchantments and run a mile in it. At the end of it, he had to get help to get it physically off of him, as near two hundred pounds of gold armor proved their point versus the forty their new set weighed when unpowered. Care and maintenance became a constant routine as well, performed at the start and end of each day, he learned to quickly keep gear in top condition, and never slack in those duties. Punishment was barracks wide otherwise. He was glad that the others had taken it to heart as well, as no one slacked on it.

He was curious, however, to what the pegasai and thestrals were training on, as their battle training had taken role in the second of the three hangers, as the unicorns themselves practiced in the first one primarily. The earth ponies he had seen briefly in a side building window, doing far more works with paper, though he didn't know what. All he had heard on their front, was that Equestria was long overdue for a change in paperwork methods, forms and accounting, and didn't envy the earth ponies of their task. They still joined the rest on the morning workout, but instead of metal uniforms, theirs were more akin to the uniforms one might see at meetings and the Canterlot ball, formal dress uniforms, rather than battle gear. Administration? Was that their role? The thought process was baffling. Earth ponies were by far the most enduring race of the three, and he had seen more than one or two of them capable of doing the work of what would take half a dozen unicorns with pickaxes done with just their bare hooves before in the same time frames. He left his mind open, however. Applied lessons, and second thought about them, like he was told. Tanya, and the Puppet Master didn't care about ones social status, only results mattered to their eyes. He couldn't agree with them possibly any further, without physically becoming them.

As they hit the month and a half mark, he felt something he hadn't felt before, looking upon them as they regathered up for the last two weeks of training. Accomplishment. A few hundred ponies from all walks in life walked in sync with each other, as they marched down the mountain, having left the facility for the first time in a month. He was the acting commander of the unicorns now, having strived in his studies and gone beyond the call of duty by the volunteer officer track and aced his classes. Squad Leader Ditzy Do stood beside him, alongside Squad Leader Dark Rivers, and the Earth Pony Intelligence Officer Fountain Hooves. Behind them, was their second and third in commands, and the rest of their ranks.

Tanya had given them a challenge three days ago, and by the stars, he thought, they were all itching for it, the chance to prove themselves. To make the effort of the grueling training track worth it. To make the thousands of raining wooden staffs thrown down upon them, the bruises of a three hundred sparring practices, and the never ending lectures worth it. The hundreds of miles they had jogged, thousands of pushups and sit ups, and training drills, the formations, and marching orders. Military stratagems and war practices worth it. After this challenge, the next few weeks would be filled with more practice, more training, and the new addition of War Games. fully armed and steeled practice for dealing with what the Puppet Master himself would throw at them. They had already gotten a taste of the monsters he could employ, abominations made flesh, horror stories made real. This one challenge, and they would know just how far they had come. They'd be blooded on him, and he on they. Then they'd return in time for the first war waged on Equestria in a thousand years by the end of the second month.

Oh what fools, they had been. Prince Blueblood thought to himself, as he stood alongside the first ponies he considered actual friends. To think that the Royal Guards were anything other than a fancy decoration as they had been. He was elated with their new found strength, and sad for what they had been before. What a bright future of security, what a bright future for progress. A need, he had once found unfulfilled, was now slowly being completed. A freedom...

Long overdue.

Author's Note:

Long chapter, I know. I hope you enjoyed it, I find myself wanting to fill in with more dialog, but I also recognize that would bog down progression a fair bit. This arc wasn't intended to be as long as it is, leading up to the Canterlot wedding episodes, but I find my progression had been more or less heavily bogged down by this subarc. I wanted to give a far more reasonable pace, rather than ending up with 20-30 chapters of Xander being locked in a tower, and Ditzy/Prince Blueblood training. So I decided to condense some stuff for the training folk into this chapter on the third of three perspectives being shared here. The next chapter will likely deal with Amber/Melodys plan, (which occurs during the 1st day of training, if you're wondering.) , and then 1-3 more chapters of Xander doing prep work for the wedding, maybe a side chapter of Shining Armor's perspective, maybe a chapter for halloween on a horror monster being used as a military test( Was thinking, Fiddlesticks, or a brothers grimm tale like the headless Horseman ), and then the events of the Wedding. Still subject to change, but wanted to throw it at you, would love comments on what you think of these interludes, and if you want to see more on other peoples perspective, or just want Xanders view on things. Hope you enjoyed it at least~! :twilightsmile:

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