• Published 5th Sep 2018
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The Golden Age of Apocalypse - Book I - BlueBastard



A Berylverse Story - The ponies investigate an ancient prophecy tied to Sombra's plan to destroy Equestria, all the while Sunset prepares for her coronation. But not all is as it seems when the mystery begins to imply a far darker truth of the past.

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Chapter 15 – Racked and Ready

Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 15: Racked and Ready

“Is everything okay, ladies?” Celestia asked, her face the very image of calm though only those closest to her knew her voice held tones of concern.

While the decision to host the newcomers from the human world to lunch in the castle was spontaneous, it was far from the first time the royal cooks had ever been asked to make a full luncheon at the drop of a hat. But while she had faith that the royal kitchens were hitting the high standard that they were known for, she inwardly chided herself for blowing the most basic rule of diplomacy via food: pretty much shoving her own native world’s cuisine in front of individuals whose own diets might not be able to adjust. Sunset of course, being a naturally born Equestrian who simply had migrated to the human realm, had no such problems, but it only now occurred to Celestia the full ramifications of having the three bodyguards who had accompanied Sunset: they were being told to eat food that for all anypony knew wasn’t meant for human consumption, especially given the fact humans as a whole were entirely foreign to Equus at large.

Celestia thought about all the rumors over the centuries of humans that roamed the wilds of Equus, especially the legends pertaining to The Megan, supposedly a human that her mother had known. But so long as Faust had lived on this plane, she’d never mentioned anypony who worked for her that Celestia hadn’t already known. True, the sun alicorn had been just a foal back then and hadn’t been privy to all of the Crown’s secrets, but even then, she wished the part about The Megan would’ve been true.

At least then I could ask her what would’ve been a decent meal for humans turned ponies, she mused.

“Are you kidding?” replied Sonata, her eyes shimmering with glee. “This stuff is delicious!”

Then again, maybe I don’t have to worry about it after all. A small smile came to Celestia’s face as she relaxed.

Meanwhile, the meal went on as one of the SIRENs felt the need to converse. “Pardon me for asking, your highness,” asked Adagio, “but are you worried that because we aren’t really ponies, that there may be things that should be inedible to humans?”

“Inedible?” replied Celestia. “Oh, not at all. Given how you all have made a sizable portion of the food in front of us disappear, I’m sure anything being inedible to you isn’t of concern. But you three seem somewhat uneasy all the same, so as your hostess I want to make sure you are comfortable as can be.”

“Well, for one, we’re used to your counterpart being a little less, well….” Adagio demurred.

“Pony?” Celestia offered.

“Well, that, yes. But I would also add, well...formal. No offense intended, of course.”

“None taken. Even if we are counterparts, we’re not the same individuals. But I must admit as to being intrigued by my counterpart,” Celestia stated. She would have said more, but suddenly seeing her daughter bristle at that probably brought up bad memories once more and she left it at that.

“To be fair, having lunch while feeling like the waitstaff are ghosts is a bit unnerving, suffice to say,” Aria added.

Luna cocked an eyebrow. “Ghosts?”

“No offense, your highness, but as was demonstrated to us a while back, it would appear that the Equestrian version of the SIREN group is effectively the entire maid-slash-protection detail within this castle.”

“The Hooves,” corrected Sunset.

“Uh, yeah, the Hooves.”

“Well, not all of them,” interjected Celestia, “while the kitchens are staffed by ponies, the royal kitchen supervisor is one of the Hooves, after poor Symphonica met the wrong end of a guardpony’s lance back when the Changelings tried to invade—as in a changeling took a lance and turned it on her—she’s got a bad hind leg injury that put her out of active duty.”

“I can relate to that,” said Razz, feeding a bit of pear to Helee.

“And…” Aria took a deep breath. “I know this is probably not something that should be brought up, but…a lot of our fellow SIREN members were killed because of what our prior CO did to them, girls who largely were the only family we’d had for all our lives. So, to see them, even if it’s just their alternate versions and not the ones we knew personally, walking around serving us lunch is kind of awkward. Uh, no offense.”

“Would you care to have your glass refilled?” a silver haired, black coated pony carrying a water ewer asked. Without even being told, the triplets knew the pony was named Piano Bliss, though her demeanor was different from the girl they’d encountered just the week prior. “Personally, though, I think I’d freak out myself if ponies I thought were dead suddenly were walking around.”

“But you’re not dead, just a shopaholic, if Mint was right,” Sonata responded.

“What’s a ‘shopaholic’?”

Just then, another three ponies walked in: the one in front was a medium gray mare with azure blue eyes, set off by an off-white mane and tail. To her left was a baby blue coated mare with pink eyes, sporting mane colors of white, gray, and cream colors. Finally, to the right of the first mare, a cauliflower hued mare with gray eyes brushed locks of blue and indigo mane out of her face as the three made a straight beeline for Princess Celestia. The first one then suddenly turned on a dime and barked orders at the triplets; “Guardsponies Dazzle, Blaze, Dusk, atten-HUT!”

As one, the three instantly moved out of their seats and into attention…at least they tried to, given the reaction to the order had been entirely habitual, but also when they’d been human. As ponies, however, they managed to end up in a crumpled heap of bodies trying to stand back up.

The gray mare facehoofed. “Unbelievable! You three have the audacity to—the hell?”

The mare hadn’t finished her words in time before three mares, identical to the ones who now finally stood at attention on the other side of the table, rushed into the room and flawlessly stood in fixed attention pose like statues. “Orders, Mezzo?” asked the duplicate Adagio.

“Oh boy, here we go again,” mock-groaned Sunset. Razz and Twilight did their best to hide amused smiles while letting out slight giggles. “Did you guys forget that you now outrank most ponies in the room?” Sunset pointed out.

“Wait…” said Dagi, recognition coming to her face. “Mezzo…as in Intermezzo Blue?”

“Well, at least you know who I am,” replied the suspicious mare, “but now maybe somepony can tell me why–”

Soni, almost at the verge of tears, pointing a hoof at the light blue mare. “M-Madrigal Storm?”

Aria then completed the pattern by gesturing to the final mare: “Vesper Blue?”

The most empathic of the group at the table, Cadence immediately caught on to the wellspring of emotion that was about to be unleashed. “Ok, before anypony says anything else,” she intoned, silencing whatever angry retort Intermezzo was going to spit out, then turned to the triplets who seemed to be frozen in shock. “Obviously, the human equivalents of these three ponies were individuals close to you, but it might help if you could explain what’s going on.”

“It’s because in terms of seeing ‘ghosts’ around,” answered Sunset for her bodyguards-slash-cousins, “they’re seeing their grande sœurs alive and well with their own eyes…”

Grande sœurs?” asked Twilight, though she figured the meaning was obvious already.

"Okay, Twi? You know the relationship you and Cadance have? It's almost like she's your grande sœur. Almost. The real thing, I'm told, is a lot more intense. Closer than blood family, at times."

“Blood is thicker than water, after all,” Sonata said.

That served to confuse Twilight all the more. “But if you said they’re not related by blood, then why–”

“We mean it in the terms of the original Roman version of the phrase, your highness,” Adagio clarified. “‘Spilled blood as brothers is thicker than the water of the womb’.” The looks of horror that came over all the other ponies’ faces at that puzzled Adagio. “It’s what we went through as kids, okay?”

“I swear, I am never going to get used to humanity,” Razz muttered for what must’ve been the umpteenth time.

Meanwhile, back in Ponyville, everypony seemed to be enjoying the latest spontaneous Pinkie party…except for the pony who the party was for.

“Coco, darling,” said Rarity, “don’t you think you should be out socializing and getting to know more ponies than just being a wallflower? This is your party after all.”

“I’m…I’m not really one for big social gatherings,” admitted the blushing Coco. “So many ponies who could get the wrong impression! It makes me really nervous, and when I get really nervous my tummy gets all queasy and I just feel worse for it.”

“Oh, darling!” laughed Rarity, good naturedly. “That’s just butterflies in your stomach! You just need to be more prominent and have more self-confidence in who you are. After all, someday you want to be a big fashion name like Hoity Toity or, if only to indulge my ego slightly, myself, right?”

“Yes, of course!”

Rarity then approached and took Coco’s foreleg into her own. “Then you’ll need to be comfortable in putting yourself out there for the world to know who you are. They need to know you exist first, before they ever consider becoming your customers, or even giving you a loan or something to let you establish the founding boutique from which your fashion empire will be born.”

“That sounds…daunting…” Coco stammered.

Rarity laughed again. “In a way, I suppose you’re right: first impressions are everything in our line of work and I won’t lie: Some of the upper crust clientele are downright petty in the things that will offend them even if you only do it by accident. The only surefire way I’ve ever heard of getting oneself set up as a fashion brand name is more or less be a very loose mare among handsome, wealthy stallions with more money than common sense or loyalty.”

“So…basically what Suri probably did?”

Rarity couldn’t hide the smile on her face. “More or less, darling. More or less.”

“In a way, I’m glad they insisted on coming,” admitted Sunset. “They don’t like to admit it, but they really needed the closure.”

Following the revelation of who Storm and the two Blues were, in the human world, to the SIRENs, the pony versions of the grande sœurs immediately were horrified to learn the truth of their counterparts’ fates. Almost like mothers finding their long-lost children, the three instinctively took to the triplets as their own, younger charges much as their human versions did. At the moment, after much tearful emotion display, it had been revealed that in the rush in getting to Equestria, the triplets didn’t know the first thing about actually being equines, so the elder trio had taken the younger ones off to at least become proficient in knowing how to use throwing knives and basic swordplay. The princesses all remained in the dining room, finishing up what was left of their meal.

“Well, things haven’t been destroyed with massive explosions yet,” noted Razz, “so I can’t complain too much, can I?” She just shook her head when Sunset glared at her. “You know I’m kidding, right? I’m just glad to see them happy – even Adagio,” Razz added. “Besides, it’s nice being able to find even some form of a family you’ve known all your life still being around. It’s a lonely world out there if you have nobody to turn to.”

“I thought you did find a family?” Sunset asked.

“I did, and my parents mean everything to me, but…there’s nopony in my life that I’ve been close to since foalhood. I suppose that’s par for the course, though, considering my lineage.” A thought then occurred to Razz then. “I wonder if he ever had somepony in his life before… y’know….”

Celestia closed her eyes and thought deeply before replying. “Sombra…even before his eventual departure from the royal capital at the time to become the tyrannical despot of the Crystal Empire, he had been an unpleasant individual seeking to steal the throne from both Luna and myself after we took our mother’s place at the head of Equestria. I will admit that ever since his first defeat, I have often tried to understand just who he was as a pony: what could have driven somepony to turn against everything they knew for the sake of power.”

Both Luna and Sunset coughed rather obtrusively at that last remark.

“Unlike you two,” snarked back Celestia, “I wasn’t responsible for what happened to Sombra when he took the left hoof path—not to mention I would like to think we’ve let those old bygones be bygones by now, correct?”

“Tell that to Equestria’s founding stance against dark magic nearly cleaving my head off,” commented Razz, rolling her eyes. “But more to the point—Luna and Sunset were both effectively possessed by more sinister forces that were by no means a reflection of who they are normally; who they are is standing right here. I’m related by blood to that bastard Sombra in order to have his kind of power – he’s a different twisted freak all together.”

“Yes, that he was, sadly,” nodded Celestia, “but I do believe that boils down to four key attributes of his character—his force, his obsession, his vulpinity, and…his denial.”

“Come again?” asked Sunset. “I recall reading about that guy when I was at school here, but I thought he was just a ponytale figure. You’re telling me he was real?“

“Divine Right is a close approximation,” clarified Razz.

“Is something wrong with my nephew?” Celestia asked, worriedly.

Fortunately, Twilight, who had done some reading up on the human world while she had been there, was quicker on the draw. “Sorry, Sunny – Razz means Der Fuhrer. That guy from your world’s second global war.”

“Er, yeah, totally meant that,” Razz said awkwardly. “No idea how I managed to mix them up.”

Sunset quickly realized they hadn’t told Celestia about her world’s Divine Right. Although she could only guess as to why, she was smart enough not to inquire. “Ah. Yeah, I can see how that would not be good,” was her only response.

“As I was saying,” continued the solar tetrarch, thankfully unaware of the second layer of conversation, “those four things probably characterized him the most, and I wonder if each represent the four who he prophesied as inheriting his legacies. His force was his sheer power, his mastery of dark magic and how he forced it upon all in his domain—that would be you, Raspberry. Next was his obsession; his drive to become lord of all that was and would ever be, to have the power over everything as its designated ruler, as if it was his duty. While sort of obtuse, I do believe Lockbox’s dedication to her family’s legacy in Nightshade to the point of psychosis qualifies.

“But it’s the latter two that concern me as they have not surfaced yet. His vulpinity made him far more dangerous than just a brute with power, for he knew how to manipulate, to plan, to execute in ways that provided exactly what he wanted. Even without copious dark magic, that alone would have been far and away more deadly in the area of politics. Finally, his denial…Sombra believed he was always in the right, that he defined the morality of his actions and that dark magic—the left hoof path—is not inherently evil and corruptive. It drove him mad, believing the impossible and refusing to treat fact as anything but fiction.” With a sad sigh, Celestia looked at Razz and concluded, “I fear the pony who finds themselves with that aspect of his, but not for our sake. Only tragedy do I see befalling them.”

With Rarity by her side, Coco felt far more confident as far as meeting other ponies went. It almost felt like she belonged there, a feeling she didn’t get very often, but relished dearly.

So of course she was facehoofing hard when she spent a little too long in the little fillies’ room only to emerge and find Rarity deep in conversation with a mustard yellow pony—Mellow Brook, maybe?—probably talking about a prospective business deal involving costumes. Coco perked up at that thought and probably would have liked to have been part of that conversation, she just…needed to wait to get her hoof into the conversation. Just needed to wait for a momentary lull so it wasn’t awkward.

Just then, out of the corner of her eye, she noted a mane of four colors—red, yellow, black, and white—moving through the sea of ponies, upon the quad-chromatic sat a most curious hairclip: a two-color pool cue, with at the end opposite the wider end being a red, tiny heart gem in lieu of a pool ball. Coco knew it looked unique, it looked cute, and that she wanted to know more about it.

Razz and Heliodor sat alone in one of the auxiliary ballrooms of the castle, as Razz had requested. This was a personal matter, she’d told the others, one that shouldn’t take too long and she’d rejoin the others soon enough. However, at the same time, she’d requested from the Hooves that they send two others of their kind to meet with her in this ballroom. The Castellan and the...sub-Castellan? Razz still wasn’t sure about how the rankings within the Hooves worked but she’d called the two mares up by name regardless.

In short time, the two requested Hooves showed up. “Greetings, Lady Beryl,” said Marimba, Castellan of the Princesses’ Hooves as she bowed. Her companion, Cuica Trecento, also bowed. It was similar, Razz noted, to the first time she’d met these mysterious paramilitary mares—but that only made the absence of the former third member of their party all the more noticeable.

“How may we be of service?” Cuica inquired.

“Hello again, ladies,” replied Razz, “it’s good to see you both again.”

“As it is to see you,” Marimba replied, “though I suspect you didn’t call upon us to revisit your adventures on...Earth, was it?”

“Yes, the human world is called Earth, and yes, you’re right that I requested your presence for other reasons.” Razz thought about how she could best word it before deciding just to be upfront. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but...I need to know what you didn’t tell—or rather, show,—when we were first introduced back in Pyrite Town.”

“Milady, I beg your pardon,” said Cui, “but are you accusing us of being less than absolutely faithful to our roles as Hooves?”

“What? No, certainly not! It’s just that, well...when you escorted me to Pyrite Town Hall, my conversation with Pavane revealed that she, along with you and all the other Hooves, are part of some secretive tribe of pony not known to the majority of the populace. This was somewhat backed up later by my trip to Endless Vale the week I got back. Finally, earlier today three other Hooves, acting on orders of Princess Celestia, revealed the big secret.”

“Ah, yes,” acknowledged Marimba, “as Castellan, I was informed by the Princess that she intended to have the three ‘SIRENs’ that are attached to Lady Sunset and those present at the time be shown how the Hooves are her own sirens. But forgive me if I do not see why you needed to see me and Cui in private as part of that.”

“If all Hooves are sirens and can thus become, well, seaponies, then that means you have those forms as well, yes?”

“That’s...correct,” said Cui, “but—”

“Then show me, please.”

With the two Hooves shrugging to each other, they placed their hooves on the ruby pendants on their necks and hummed a high note. Before Raspberry’s eyes, they turned from mares into large, serpentine sea creatures without losing much of what were identifiably equine-like features, their hidden ruby necklaces shining from under their coverings.

“I know what you will ask next,” solemnly said Marimba, absently flicking her tail, the fin moving to and fro. “The answer is yes. Like you said, all Hooves are sirens, and Pavane was no different, albeit she was one of the rare sirens who seemed slightly more comfortable on four hooves instead of flying with a fish tail.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” asked Razz, confused. “You’re sirens! Even if everypony doesn’t know that the personal private guard detail of Princess Celestia is made up of your kind, everypony does know the legends of your powers! Furthermore, why didn’t any of you take on these forms during the whole Tirek shitshow? Particularly of all ponies, Pavane, if she could have literally flown out of the way from Tirek’s hoof?!”

“The reason we didn’t tell you, despite your high standing, Lady Raspberry, is simply because the Princess, as well as Ladies Luna and Cadence, thought it best to not overload you at the time. As you probably recall, you barely survived the events aboard the Sunny Rainphase and despite having most of your power taken away were still a beacon for Tirek’s attention.”

“Additionally,” Cui added, “I presume you’re aware of the mythology behind our tribe—which for the record were slightly, intentionally hyped up because back in those days we needed stallions to breed as we’re a fully 100% female species––”

“How does that even work?” Razz asked.

Cuica chuckled. “It’s probably more proper to say that only the females of our tribe inherit the siren traits. We do give birth to boys, but they are born as whatever species their father is and potentially have the ability to sire sirens of their own someday...provided, of course, that the mother has distant siren ancestry as well. It’s...rather complicated and truthfully, I’m not versed in the biology of it all.”

Marimba nodded. “In any case, sirens abhor cannibalism but inexplicably being thought of as cannibals in that context makes us more mysterious and dangerous sounding, so we just went with it—and for that reason, you really didn’t need to know three ‘cannibalistic’ fish horse creatures were assigned as your personal security detail out of the blue.”

“Yeah, alright, makes sense,” said Razz. “But why didn’t Pavane change?”

“Because I didn’t give her authorization to do so,”Marimba replied simply.

Razz gaped in shock. “That’s...that’s stupid! You’re telling me that Pavane let herself die instead of trying to survive? That you ordered her to die?

“Lady Raspberry, you must remember: first and foremost, we are the Princess’ Hooves before we are anything else,” Cui told her. “While being a siren is a prerequisite, not all sirens are Hooves. There are those who live back in the native Isles of Sirenia or the Sirenian Coast, either because they were not from the first generation of Hooves, or they chose to do something else with their life, as the Princess allows. You must understand: Our entire organization – our initial way of life – was founded by sirens who had nothing but their service to give back to Celestia after she saved our kind by swiftly ending the Sirenia-Equestria incident.”

“She defended us, so by honor they pledged to defend her in turn,” Marimba added. “From the first siren who pledged her hoof and sword to us today, each of us carries the tradition of those that came before. To that end, we as Hooves act as bodyguards and gendarmes but that means we are soldiers who must follow our orders even if we think they are not the proper course of action. Sometimes these decisions don’t seem completely clear to outsiders—sometimes they don’t even make sense to those who carry them out. But still, we have to carry out the directives we are given.

“Pavane was a true member of the Hooves to the last, even if it cost her everything to save you,” Marimba finished. “And even though my heart aches at her absence, the warrior in me is proud that she did her duty to the end.”

Cuica nodded and spoke once more. “Additionally, the Hooves as a whole were under orders by the Princess herself to not take on our true forms lest Tirek get the idea we were more than just average earth ponies. With that brute being potentially able to use magical singing, it would have been a crime against anything with a sense of hearing in addition to increasing his terrible power. Pavane turning into her true form would have only endangered all other sirens still able to fight at the time, because we don’t know what would happen to us if Tirek stole our magic like he did from other ponies - and you of all ponies should know how horrifyingly bad things got when he got the bulk of your power.”

Razz nodded. “I...I understand, I think. I...I guess it’s just the way you sirens handle your lives is much more different than what I’m used to.” Razz then laughed, “and like I’m one to talk, given my life on the run for nearly a decade.”

Humming another, slightly lower note than before, the two sirens then returned to their pony forms, with Cui coming forward to put a hoof on Razz’s wither. “While true, the way we as Hooves function is much different from even a typical guard, Pavane would have been honored by your desire to understand our kind.”

Thoughts of her fallen sister-in-arms caused a barely perceptible flash of pain across the siren’s face, and she reached up and touched the ruby pendant around her neck; perhaps as a means to give herself some small comfort. But the sight of the pendant reminded Razz of another, very different kind of pendant—or more accurately, an amulet.

“Are you alright, milady?” Cui asked with concern. “You look like you just realized you left the stove on.”

Razz immediately made her way to the door. “Something like that, yeah.”

Uncharacteristically, if certain ponies were asked, Corner Shot seemed relatively nervous or anxious, as if she was constantly looking for somepony who she expected to be there but wasn’t.

C’mon, c’mon! the mare thought, trying to not draw attention to herself as she attempted to navigate through the masses of ponies without her rising star power as a top pool shark getting her involved in talking with anypony who wasn’t the one she sought out. The rest of them came back, but where are you?

Then just like that, she saw her, and just like before, Corner found herself paralyzed. Something about Razz always seemed to catch Corner off guard. She couldn’t say whether it was her kind, loving eyes that looked onto the green phoenix beside her. Or her adorable, sweet smile as she sent the bird on its way. Or the quiet, self-assured strength with which she carried herself despite the clear hardship she’d endured. And yet, Corner wanted nothing more than to lend her own strength to her. To hold her and comfort her when she was especially weighed down… to lov—

Corner abruptly shook the nonsense from her head. Where in the world were these thoughts even coming from. Focus, Shottie! You have a job to do….

Razz didn’t seem to have noticed her yet, so there was still time for Corner to approach her and act like she hadn’t just spent the past several seconds staring longingly at the other mare. Corner was about to do exactly that when another pony beat her to it.

A diminutive earth pony mare with a beige coat and expertly styled two-tone teal bangs, complimented with a tri-color frill hairclip, all but galloped up to Razz, calling out to her with the voice of a lovesick filly. A fire burned in Corner’s chest when she saw the other mare wrap her forelegs around Razz’s neck, nuzzling her deeply. A fire alighted in Corner’s veins, and she suddenly found herself approaching the pair, her hoofsteps falling perhaps a little harder than intended.

“Hey Razz!” Corner greeted, trying her best to sound nonchalant even as she turned a withering glare towards the other pony hanging off Razz’s neck. “Who’s your friend?”

For her part, the smaller mare immediately let go of Razz and tried to put the dark unicorn between herself and Corner without making it obvious that’s what she was doing. Razz, on the other hoof, seemed oblivious to the growing tension—or if she was aware, did an exceptional job hiding it—and smiled.

“Oh, this is Coco Pommel. She’s a dear friend of Rarity’s I met over in Nightshade,” Razz said.

“Nightshade, huh?” Corner said thoughtfully, scrutinizing the smaller pony carefully.

Razz gently nudged Coco forward. “Coco, this is Corner Shot. She’s playing in the pool tournament.”

With a nervous smile, Coco offered a hoof to bump. “The, uh… pleasure’s all mine!”

Corner simply stared at the offered hoof impassively. “That it is.”

It was a few moments before Coco realized the menacing pegasus wasn’t going to take the offered hoof, and she lowered it, awkwardly clearing her throat. “So, uh… I really like your hairclip?” Coco offered with a nervous smile.

Corner simply turned her attention to Razz, giving her a much more genuine smile than any she had spared Coco. “So, it’s good to see you back. How was Nightshade?”

Razz’s brow furrowed, either just now catching on to the tension between the other two ponies or unable to continue hiding it. Nevertheless, talk of Nightshade elicited a weary sigh from the unicorn.

“To be frank, it was a hot mess, and I don’t really have time to go over it all. I have something to take care of back at my place, and just wanted to pop my head in to see how my friend’s party was going.” Razz then put a diplomatic hoof on Coco’s withers. “You should ask her about it. She was there for just about all of it.”

Corner gave another dismissive glance at Coco. “Maybe another time. There’s actually something I want to talk to you about.” Then with a sultry grin, Corner said, “Maybe I can escort you home?”

Razz gave another curious look to each of her companions before giving an uncertain, “Okay,” before turning to leave, telling Coco to enjoy the rest of her party as she did so.

Corner lingered just long enough to lean close to Coco and whisper, “Word of advice, Coocoo….”

“Coco.”

“I know what I said,” Corner stated loudly before returning to a whisper. “Now, it might be in your best interest to keep your distance from the archmagus.”

“What?” Coco was taken aback. “Why? Are you talking about that stuff in the news from awhile back? Rarity told me that was blown out of proportion and that everything worked out. Besides, Princess Twilight wouldn’t have made her an archmagus if they didn’t trust her!“

“Trust me,” Corner replied, a stern look on her face. “I recommend that you act like you’re horribly allergic to her or phoenix feathers or whatever, but stay away from her, got it? By now Corner was really in Coco’s face and jabbing her chest with a hoof.

“O-okay,” squeaked Coco. Grunting in acknowledgement, Corner then turned and walked off in a huff, following Razz out the Sugar Cube Corner’s entrance.

“I see you’ve met Corner Shot,” suddenly came a new voice—this time, a stallion—and made Coco jump. Slowly she turned in fear to see possibly the largest stallion she’d ever seen, but oddly he seemed more meek than his large frame suggested. “I’m sorry, I did not mean to frighten you, Miss…”

“Pommel, Coco Pommel,” she stated, offering a hoof and a slightly forced grin. She hoped this pony wouldn’t be as in her face as that “Corner Shot” had been.

“They call me Nineball,” he replied, taking her hoof and shaking lightly, like a gentle giant. “But, as I was saying, that mare you just met, that Corner Shot? She’s the one you need to be wary of, for where she goes, only trouble ever follows.”

“G-great to know,” stammered Coco, suddenly wondering how a pony that large could apparently eavesdrop on the entire conversation—even the whispered parts—without notice. She secretly wondered where Rarity was—the timid earth pony felt the need to leave and get settled in that nice guest room, private and away from the public for things were getting far too uncomfortable for her at this rate.

Thus, she nearly had a heart attack when a bright flash of light followed by a pop of magic heralded the sudden appearance of Princess Twilight and a number of other ponies in the middle of the party. It was as Pinkie Pie started shrieking with enthusiasm that Coco decided she was done for the night.

“I believe I can speak for my subordinates and myself in saying that those three are some of the fastest-learning individuals we’ve ever taught!” said Mezzo, beaming with pride. “I can only hope our ill-fated counterparts were as proud of them as we are.”

“Indeed, it is a shame we can’t ever actually meet ourselves,” added Vesper, “but those three at least get the opportunity to see themselves in a way most never can.”

“Indeed. Thank you, ladies,” said Celestia, nodding her head in appreciation. “Tell me, where are the ‘local’ Adagio Dazzle, Aria Blaze, and Sonata Dusk?”

“Both the ones of the Hooves and the, ah, ‘SIREN’ trio are visiting the armory at this time,” explained Madigral Storm. “We figured it would be best to help arm Princess Sunset’s guards with weapons more fitting than things like, and I quote; ‘Eff-En Five-Seven,’ a ‘Springfield Ex-Dee-Emm Parabellum’, something Aria specifically gushed about called the ‘M-107A1,’ and a ‘Colt 1911 Heritage’… I didn’t really want to know why they use young male ponies considered ‘heritage’ in some way as bludgeoning weapons. Frankly, the idea sounds quite barbaric.”

“Actually, that’s a handgun,” said Sunset, before facehoofing a second later. “Right…no hands. My bad.”

Vesper raised a hoof to ask what the newest alicorn was talking about, but then the sound of laughter rung out and one of the triplet groups—their ruby necklaces denoting that they were the non-human set—entered, clearly doing only a so-so job of holding their composure. “Apologies, but…” barely managed siren Sonata, while her two compatriots went to hold the doors open. The cause for the riotous laughter soon emerged:

The other “siren” trio—meaning the triplets—had apparently decided to go for broke and across the three of them were equipped with maybe half the entire Royal Guard armory surplus. Rapiers, throwing blades, long knives, a few javelins, heavy swords, a healthy amount of chain mail, and a dagger each only just began to describe the walking weapon racks the SIRENs had decided would be necessary. Soni had gone so far as to manage to dig up an older style guard helm with a muzzle guard and was wearing it—somehow, the back of the helmet where the plume was supposed to have been was missing the plume, allowing her somewhat redundant ponytail—as in the one made from her mane and not her actual tail—to stick out as a replacement.

“I think they miss their toys back home,” teased Sunset with a giggle.

“Admittedly, it wouldn’t be so bad if we still had fingers,” admitted Aria, “but since we’ve only got what we have access to here, better safe than sorry, right?”

“You don’t intend to walk around Ponyville wearing all that stuff all the time, do you?” asked Cadence, concerned for the health of the trio. “Even with just one or two armaments, you’ll stick out, but it looks like you’re gearing up to go declare war on the griffons or something!”

“We carry much more armament whenever we’re fully geared up,” Adagio explained.

“Our loadout is usually much lighter than this, though,” Sonata reminded her sister.

“Well…maybe this is overkill,” shrugged Ari, symbolized more by the metallic rustling of her chainmail under the weight of over a dozen different polearm-type weapons strapped to her back than any actual movement that could be seen. “But, like, even though this is maybe several hundred pounds of gear, we can carry it all pretty easily, so why not?”

“Because it limits your movement,” replied siren Aria. “Having more weapons than the typical guard regiment isn’t gonna mean squat if you can’t hit one enemy with any of them.”

“C’mon, girls. I’m sure the highly trained local bodyguards know what they’re talking about,” Sunset said.

Fine…” The SIRENs all groaned as they surrendered the armaments they’d initially gathered. Now significantly more visible, each of the triplets now only carried a saber and dagger, while their third armament was different among them: Dagi retained her javelin, Soni still had some throwing knives and the proper carrying pouches, but Ari had a new weapon altogether.

“Wait, crossbows exist here?” the pleasantly surprised magenta pony exclaimed as she pulled out what looked like a miniature string-drawn horizontal bow with a wooden handle. “Because I know this wasn’t back in that armory!”

“It’s not standard issue, but…” answered siren Aria with a slight blush, “it’s my personal armament. Seeing as how your sisters say you’re the most accurate with a bow and the only individual I ever entrust that thing to is myself, I see no issue letting you borrow it for a while.” Her eyes then turned hard as she added; “But so help me if you don’t return that thing to me in one piece without a damn good reason why it’s damaged…”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s your baby, got it,” replied the ponified human, reholstering the primitive firearm while rolling her eyes. “Trust me, especially since I apparently am you, I have my own special babies back home I don’t let anybody touch. It’s in good hands with me…er, hooves, I mean…right?”

“I suppose,” the elder Aria chuckled.

“Well, thanks, regardless. Remind me of that when we come next time with our own gear: you and me are spending some time on the range with my loadout. You’ll love it.”

“Loudout?”

The sun alicorn laughed, a sort of end to the conversation. “Well, I think you’ve all dawdled around here long enough,” chuckled Celestia. “The others in Ponyville are probably wondering why this ‘luncheon’ is taking so long.”

“Right,” replied Twilight. “Besides, Razz still needs to tell me what exactly went down in Nightshade besides the business with Lockbox.”

“Wait, what’s Nightshade?” asked Sunset.

“We’ll explain later,” said Twilight with a wink, then in a flash of magic she along with all the other ponies in the group vanished, leaving only the eldest alicorns and the sirens in the room.

“So, be honest,” spoke Luna, “does Equestria not actually have more crossbows than the one you just let the other Aria have?”

“Heck no!” laughed Aria. “We intentionally didn’t let the baroness’ escorts anywhere near the weapons locker where all those things are located. I just spun that make believe story so the other me won’t go walking around with that crossbow like just anypony has one and be an idiot with it. Last thing I need is quartermaster Spreadsheet chewing me out about how I lent a crossbow to somepony not qualified enough to not jam a bolt into somepony’s rear end by accident.”

Raspberry hoped that the unamused frown was clear on her face as she watched Corner Shot step out of the Sugar Cube Corner. Evidently, the pool playing pegasus had lingered a bit to get some final words in, and Razz didn’t like it.

“You want to tell me just what the hell that was all about, Shot?”

Razz thought she saw a shiver pass through Corner’s entire body, but she wasn’t sure whether it was her glare that caused it or just the chilly night air.

“You mean what happened with me and that harlot in there?”

Razz gave Corner a no-nonsense glare. “My friend, yes.”

“She was pretty intimate with you for just a ‘friend’,” Corner shot back.

“That’s just who Coco is, she doesn’t mean anything by it.” Then Razz’s frown deepened. “It’s certainly less annoying than jealous rage.”

Corner recoiled like she’d been struck, and a blush formed across her cheeks as she stuttered. “Buh… t-that’s not… that isn’t what this is about!”

“Mind explaining what it is about, then?”

“It’s about protecting you, Razz! About making sure you don’t get hurt!” With a sigh, Corner composed herself and spoke clearly and rationally. “I’ve seen plenty of mares like her in my time. Not trying to brag or anything, but being as popular as I am on the international pool scene often attracts… the wrong kind of people. Ponies or other creatures that just want to get close to you for your fame.”

Razz raised an eyebrow. “And?”

“And you’re the Princess in Pretense of the Crystal Empire. The Archmagus of Dark Magic.”

“And what? You think Coco is some kind of gold-digger?”

“I’m just saying I’ve seen her same ‘innocent seductress’ routine many times. Tell me, has your ‘friend’ Coco ever been as touchy-feely with any of your other friends?”

“She’s the same way with Rarity,” Razz answered, but the more she thought about it, the more she wondered whether she’d ever seen Coco get as physically affectionate with Rarity as she was with her. “And so what if she isn’t? You ever stop to think that maybe it’s just a simple crush?

Corner opened her mouth to respond but Razz kept going. “All that matters to me is that Rarity trusts her, and therefore I trust her. And if you have any respect for me whatsoever, you will trust my judgement and stop harassing my friends. Okay?

Corner sighed, and it looked to Razz like she was admitting defeat, but there was an undercurrent of disappointment as all of her features visibly drooped. “Okay, I’m sorry. Can’t say I can see myself being best friends with Coco, but I was out of line.” Corner offered Razz her hoof. “Friends?”

Finally allowing herself a smile, Razz bumped the offered hoof. “Friends.”

With that, the two ponies started making their way across town towards the Travelers’ Retreat.

“Well, I tell you what, your pal Pinkie throws some utterly insane parties,” Corner said after a while. “Frankly I could see myself planting some roots here if fate puts me on that path.”

“Y’know, I am curious: just where do you call your hometown?” asked Razz.

Strangely, the question caught Corner up for a moment before she replied. “Horseshoe Bay…at least, that’s the town I was told I was born in.” The pool shark then took a deep sigh, as if to steel herself for her next words. “Don’t know who my birth parents are, as far as I know I was actually an unwanted pregnancy that got dumped on the steps of some orphanage in Detrot shortly after the umbilical cord was cut. But since the orphanage was filled there, I spent my youth in a place called Diamond Mountain.”

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s a beautiful place, in the Macintosh Hills—“Diamond Mountain” is actually just a large hill; it’s called that because of Diamond Lake. Beautiful, glistening waters.” The look on Corner’s face was wistful. “Just the greatest place you could ever live in. Most of what we did around there was actually in the turnips and parsnips growing trade. Ever heard of Jellied Jewels’ Candied Turnips?”

“Yeah, my mom’s a fan of them, why?”

“They come from Diamond Mountain. I know the owner’s kid. Maybe I can have them send a sampler or two.”

“That’d be great. Sounds like your hometown was special, then,” Razz said with a grin. “Lonesome Dove, at least for me, is my hometown again as of only recently—had to really work to gain the locals’ trust.”

Pretty soon the Retreat came into view, and Razz suddenly remembered something. “So what was it you wanted to talk to me about back at the party, Corner?”

With a confident grin, Corner said, “Oh, I wanted to offer you my services.”

Razz tilted her head. “Your services?”

“As your bodyguard, of course!” Corner said, still grinning. “Lots of weirdos come to these tournaments you know.”

Razz laughed. “What qualifications do you have to be my bodyguard, Ms. Pool Shark?”

“Hey, I’ve seen my fair share of fights. What could it hurt to have me around?” Corner’s sudden interest made Razz a little worried, especially when Shot suddenly leaned in a little too close for comfort. “Heck, I’ll even start tonight, I’ll sleep in your room to keep an ear to the ground in case—”

“Yeah…no,” declined Razz with a laugh. “I can handle myself, thank you. Plus, my parents...I’d have a hard time explaining that one.”

“No, really, you might be in trouble and—”

“I have a stupidly high healing factor, Shot. Even if somepony tried to kill me, they’d have a damned hard job of it. I think the fact is you’ve had a little too much to drink and we should call it a night.”

“Now you’re just playing hard to catch aren’t you?” grinned Shot, evidently tipsy herself. “The fact is, there’s no way you’re—”

“Good night, Corner Shot,” interrupted Razz, promptly teleporting the pegasus to her room upstairs lest things get out of hoof. Last thing I need is for somepony who I honestly barely even know to pop out of my room tomorrow morning, thought Razz, I’d never hear the end of it from Spic and Span!

Returning to her room, Razz reached into her bags and pulled out what she had originally come back for. The Alicorn Amulet stared back at her, seeming to call to her. There is great work to be done. Find the others….

Razz ignored its unsettling pull and locked it away in her room safe. That would do until she could find a proper place to keep it.

She readied to go to bed, when out of the corner of her eye she saw The Rose with the Broken Neck. Ever since things had gone south in Nightshade, she hadn’t had time in the past few days to keep reading that chronicle of nightmares, but now all was said and done. Sometimes, she’d heard ponies humorously describe intriguingly awful things as like ‘cart crashes you can’t look away from’ but in this case, it felt more like a drawn out murder. Whatever it was, she reached out with her mind and enveloped the terrible book in her black miasma of magic. It was time to enter Sombra’s hell once more.

DAY 107:

Sometimes, I swear, those Equestrians will never learn. This is my realm, my charge and my domain! And I will not be told how to handle my affairs! Especially not by the Throne of Everfree!

Did they think me blind? They claimed to be clerics of the Celestine and Selene Orders, here on a “peace parley”, but I’m not stupid. I’ve seen how mares and stallions like them weasel their way into the hearts and minds of my subjects, turning them from local vassals of the Empire into practical lackeys of the Sisters – and I will not abide that!

As the last of them was lined up before her executioner, she claimed to have forgiven me, but that I will be someday “taught a lesson” by “the Divine Sisters” themselves.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But as of today, it’s not my head that is in a basket or on a pike in the town square, correct?

I briefly consider going to visit the Broken Rose, as she has had no other company since the day she managed to talk the last trio into killing one another, and my very desire to set myself on her gives me pause. She has seemingly developed an ability for persuasion on a level that I have never seen before – and that could be of great use to me…or the potential for vexing me further.

Moreover, she seems to have completely healed, thus making the need for assistants no longer necessary. Other than the scars and bruises that she arrived with, there was no sign that she’d ever been crippled. So either the magic of this world, or her own innate abilities, has completely rejuvenated her.

I really should study human magic more, if for no other reason than to identify it. Thinking about that, I wonder if I should not have even bothered with that fool Baldassare, and instead made overtures with the Rose’s parents. If they had one foal with magic ability, perhaps they could have others?

Alas, there is no way to get there now; the gems I need to continue my work on refining my portal depends on the goodwill of the Throne of Everfree – and there is no good will there to be had, sad to say.

Well, I am off to dinner with an unexpected guest. And if this new assignation bears fruit…the potential gain I stand to reap will be quite the sobriquet.

DAY 107, CONTINUED

I have just concluded the most pleasant of dinners with a mage, a mare by the name of Dr. Mangle-leg. At least, that’s what she calls herself; she claims to have given up her true name when she was branded a “warlock” and expelled from Equestria’s Royal Magic Guild. She told me that she’d been experimenting with corpses to see if she could recover vital essences from the dead, but had instead created what the zebras call nzambi – the walking dead. I asked her what her thoughts on that were, and she told me that while she hadn’t intended to reanimate the dead…they did make for wonderful research experiments.

I look at this mare before me: lame in one leg, off-white coat with a wheat-hued mane tied in a severe bun and ice-blue eyes that seemed a little harder than average, especially with the monocle she affects. That, as well as her cutie mark – a steel-colored medical cross – makes lesser ponies consider her off-putting, perhaps even unattractive. But given that she wants to serve me in return for allowing her experiments to continue? Well, I daresay I haven’t seen a mare more beautiful.

I will not give this lady the honor of accompanying me to my bedchambers, as I have much more vital plans for her. I will admit, most of my tastes in mares run towards those whose only uses are for that. But for someone as…wonderful…as Mangle-leg? No, a beauty such as hers is to be prized and it will be.

In her own research labs, as she desires. In any case, in time I should introduce her to my own projects, in particular the Rose and the corpse of the changeling queen.

What beautiful music we could all make together.

Who says I don’t address the needs of the fairer sex?

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