• 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 19 - Zero Dark Pony

Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 19—Zero Dark Pony

In the time that Trixie had been forced to live with Sunset’s lethal cousins singing loud, boisterous chorus songs every morning while they did jogs or whatever, she’d found it easier to use their voices as an alarm clock instead of her actual alarm clock. So, much to her surprise, this morning she woke to the normal bell ringing of the clock she kept winding every night out of habit, with no detectable sign of the trio’s singing outside.

“What in Equestria are they doing if not waking me up?” Trixie rhetorically asked. Just then, the door to her room opened up and the very three ponies she was talking about entered.

“Sorry, Ms. Lulamoon,” the one with the curly mane—Adagio, if Trixie remembered correctly—apologized. “We didn’t want to interrupt your sleep, but since you’re awake, we have a request to ask of you.”

Trixie raised an eyebrow. “And what do you three want to ask of the Great and Powerful Trixie Lulamoon?” A thought. “And what’s a ‘miz’?”

Sonata looked at her and groaned. "Do we really have to do this? Our Trixie isn't this much of a pain!"

Aria rolled her eyes. "Ixnay on the other Rixietay!" she groaned, barely avoiding a facehoof.

“Wha?” asked a confused Trixie—it felt like the first night she’d met these three along with Sunset all over again.

“Nevermind, it’s not important,” said Adagio. “What is important is that we need your help—there’s a particular pony who we want to watch without her knowing we’re watching her.”

“You want me to cast an invisibility spell on you?”

“Stealth spell,” Sonata said authoritatively. “No such thing as an invisibility spell.”

“Didn’t Sunny call it a Background Pony spell?” Aria interjected.

Adagio groaned, then addressed Trixie. “Actually, after evaluating what we need to do, it would be more optimal for us to have a disguise spell that makes us look like other ponies—nopony in particular, just ponies who don’t look anything like us.”

“You’re asking Trixie to do something that’s nominally considered illegal in this country?”

Sonata looked at her. "Don’t think of it as illegal, but rather as clandestine: You're being drafted as a civilian advisor into a military operation."

Aria looked at her sister. "Do we have that kind of authority yet? We still only have nominal acceptance by the REN; they haven't clea—"

"That's my problem, XO," Adagio told Aria. "I'll deal with that. So will you help us, Ms. Lulamoon? Or will we have to get somebody else?"

Luckily for the triplets, Trixie didn’t catch Adagio’s slip of the tongue in saying body instead of pony. “Trixie apologizes, but she really doesn’t feel comfortable about—"

“Hey, Dagi, what was that other showmare’s name again?” asked Sonata, “like, Abby Cadabra or something?”

“Wait, Abby Cadabra!?” exclaimed Trixie in shock. “You would seriously ask a charlatan like her to help you with something supposedly so important? She’d sooner take your bits and run than actually bother putting on a show!”

“Desperate times, desperate measures,” shrugged Aria.

Trixie gritted her teeth. As much as she truly didn’t feel comfortable about it, she was not going to let her performing rival Abby Cadabra—whose sudden appearance in town a few days ago had not made Trixie a happy mare to be sure—outdo her in this affair. “Okay, fine, Trixie will help you three this one time.”

“Yay!” exclaimed Soni.

Later, with utmost stealth, Sweetie Drops—or at least a pony who looked like Sweetie Drops—climbed up into the tree just a few hundred feet from the Traveler’s Retreat. Specifically, the tree that would provide an unobstructed view of the room in which a Miss Corner Shot currently resided. While it would have seemed very much like a “stalkerish” thing to do, the fine line between a stalker and a stakeout was very much dependent on context that was often lacking to those only observing the observer.

The irony that it was something Sweetie Drops normally did anyway because of her status as an Agency operative of course never registered, since Aria Blaze only knew of the human porn star by that name who happened to resemble her friend Bon-Bon. And even that was only because Sunset had told her—with shame—that it was something she’d used against Bon-Bon back when she was still an alpha bitch.

“Please don’t do any creepy shit,” mumbled Aria Drops, securing herself well out of view in the tree before pulling out a pair of binoculars and peering through them. Sure, it took something absurdly Lovecraftian to really leave somebody as well trained as Aria shaken—such as one’s former commander turning everybody in the old SIREN regiment into bipedal monster seahorses before her very eyes—but something considerably less tame like weird-ass BDSM shit was tolerable. Absolutely horrifying to watch and of the category of things Aria would prefer not to watch, but if the mission called for it, a voyeur she would have to be, willing or not.

Mercifully, it appeared that Corner wasn’t into early morning self-bondage, as all Aria could see the mare doing was a full repertoire of early morning stretches—both from regimens she figured were for general ponies, regardless of their subspecies; and from wing-based forms obviously exclusive to pegasi…or in Aria’s case, her liegelady—liegemare?—and cousin, as Sunset had mentioned all the new things she had to do in order to keep her new wings fit and functional. But of those “new” things, Aria noted, Corner did very few of them.

Strange, thought Aria, for a pony who supposedly makes a living from using her wings so strenuously, she doesn’t seem to focus all that much on keeping them in top condition. She couldn’t help but give a sudden start when, suddenly, Corner looked straight in her direction and in one swift motion had closed the blinds. For the next fifteen minutes, Aria remained in position, determined to not let Corner get the best of her, and indeed right when the first pangs of boredom crept around, Aria saw her mark leave the front of the building. From a safe distance behind, Aria proceeded to tail the pool shark as if pretending to also be on a morning jog into town. But also to keep observing how Corner Shot did little more than flex her wings time to time, otherwise refusing to do what seemed obvious and simply fly into town. You have wings, why don’t you use them? Aria had to wonder what the story was with a pegasus who refused to fly—and wasn’t Fluttershy’s local counterpart.

“Spike should never hear about this,” grumbled Minuette, “or else I’ll never hear the end of those toothpaste jokes…”

For better or worse, Sonata’s disguise had ended up being slightly different in colors but very different in appearance all the same—whereas Aria had just turned into a different “Earth” pony, Sonata was now a unicorn. Naturally, it was merely an illusion and her “horn” did not exist, but what struck Soni immediately upon seeing her new self in the mirror was how much she looked like a pony whose mane and tail came out of a Colgate brand toothpaste tube—and the mane style was a dead ringer for Sunset’s friend Minuette, so between that and human Minuette’s parents being dentists, Sonata really understood why the teen being called “Colgate” all the time had been aggravating. Though upon swearing she saw an identical pony to her appearance standing somewhere in the town crowds every few blocks or so, Soni couldn’t help but wonder if despite the myriad of color combinations alone that ponies seemed to exhibit, there were only a handful of said combinations that happened to occur a lot. Hell, she could have sworn there were four of five ponies who seemed suspiciously similar to Lyra Heartstrings—every single one of them, ironically, being unicorns.

New mental note, added Soni. Lyra does not ever get to learn this alternate reality exists or that I ever pretended to be a unicorn. Sunset’s got enough problems already.

But enough was enough, noting that the human Lyra unintentionally presented a threat to the stability of both realities like a Chernobyl Reactor powered by pure wishful desire for mythical horses was not the mission at hand. Relieving Aria on surveillance duties on Corner Shot, however, was. To that end, “Minuette” slipped through the crowds behind the mark, always keeping distance but at the same time not letting the mare escape her sight.

One thing that struck Soni almost immediately, much like it had her sister, was that where other pegasi seemed to naturally gravitate toward flying around virtually every time the thought came to them, Corner Shot rarely even flapped her wings. In fact, she seemed to be actively avoiding any possible chance of ponies accidentally colliding with her—specifically on her sides and with her wings. Every hoofstep also seemed to be both firmly planted and yet light enough that if necessary, a quick escape could be undertaken.

Sonata couldn’t confirm 100% the latter was true, but she was certain of it otherwise as that was what she was herself doing. And despite only being a sixteen-year-old from the human world, virtually every minute of those sixteen years had been devoted into training her as a perfect warrior—or at least, before Sunset’s grandmother godhorse changed the timeline—so even if she wanted to, she couldn’t break her pattern of walking, as it was etched into her very being. To see another individual and be able to immediately tell from their steps that it was a practiced technique to the point of muscle memory set off warning bells in Sonata’s head. She dearly hoped she was wrong, but if this pony walked with the mannerisms of a special operator, then the possible outcomes were not good.

Adagio Dazzle was no stranger to unusual operations. From explosive nighttime thefts in Dubai ending with rescuing sexually abused children, to fighting Canadian SPECOPS assault teams in exploding pizzerias filled with creepy-as-hell robot animals, and once even having to escape from the archives of the United States Department of the Interior for reasons that even to this day weren’t clear to her—at least those didn’t explode, in comparison.

But as far as unusual went concerning her, well…something as outright normal as being a spectator to a pool tournament without some ulterior objective of subterfuge at play was utterly unusual for her. The whole “the only pony not born a pony in the entire building” detail notwithstanding.

“You okay, Dagi?” asked Sunset, concern for her fellow yellow pony evident on her face. While Soni and Ari were on their assignment, Sunset had opted to ask her bodyguard-slash-cousin to come spend the day with her and Raspberry at the pool hall. The newest alicorn now was wondering if that had really been the right choice and Dagi really seemed out of it today.

“Don’t worry about me, your high…” started Dagi, slipping into bodyguard form, but after several seconds of a hard glare from Sunset, Dagi finally relented and allowed herself to be more open. “Fine,” she sighed, “if you really need to know, as much as I appreciate trying to spend time with you in this form, this whole thing makes me feel totally out of my element, so to speak.”

“Hey, trust me, I know exactly…well, okay, maybe not exactly what you’re feeling right now,” Sunset said, “since going from pony to human certainly adds a few joints here and there, whereas from human to pony probably takes a few of those things away.”

“Yeah, about that…” said Dagi, turning to Sunset. “Seriously, girl, how are you so comfortable in going from having spent the last few years of your life with fingers only to lose them?! Like, I’m still trying to understand how I can pick things up without opposable thumbs!”

“Extensory frogs,” was Sunset’s answer. Adagio gave her cousin a look of bewilderment, and Sunset chuckled. “I guess Zacherle doesn’t cover that in your biology classes?”

“Ha ha, Sunny.”

“Anyway, equines—both the kind back on Earth and the equinal species here—have frogs, pads underneath our hooves, similar to human arches in a sense. But the difference is, extensory frogs are a little different, as they act like biological electromagnets. When you think about picking something up, you do, just like you think about grasping something with your hands, as opposed to just letting it sit in your palm. That clear things up?”

“And I thought the weirdest part of my life to this point had been the fact I listen to a band called High Impact Sexual Violence in my off-hours.”

“High impact sexual violence?” asked Razz, who was standing nearby; half curious and half horrified that those exact words were able to be strung together. The only thing Razz could think of that even remotely matched that criteria was if a couple who were both wrestlers were trying to make children in the middle of a wrestling match. Taking place on the backs of the Wonderbolts.

“Human thing,” was all Dagi said, shrugging. It seemed to be taking all of her willpower not to add another petty insult to her answer, so Razz elected to let sleeping female dogs lie. Any further discussion was beneath Dagi’s notice, however, as at that point Corner Shot walked into the pool hall.

Right off the bat, Dagi noted that Corner was subtly reconnoitering the known and accessible egresses—or in other words, she’d not been in the building five seconds without evaluating her options for leaving it within the next five seconds if necessary. Then, slightly to her dismay, Corner seemed to notice the group and headed over, a guilty look on her face.

“Oh, hey, Corner,” said Razz, cautiously. She did not want a repeat of the previous day’s incident.

“Look, before anything else is said,” blurted Corner, “I’m sorry again for what I did yesterday—both for what I said and what I did. Maybe things got too much for my ego and…yeah, I’m not too full of myself to admit when I’ve fucked up.”

“Well, that’s the mark of a good pony, then,” replied Sunset, “admitting when you’ve fucked up big time. Celestia knows I’m certainly an expert when it comes to that.”

“Oh?” asked Corner, interest piqued.

“Well, uh, yeah. She practically raised me for most of my life and is my mother—well, here anyway” the maize alicorn said in a manner that hinted there was more to the story—and that the more of that story was probably going to be confusing if she explained.

“Plus, she’s a princess—can’t have princess figures going around and refusing to admit when they’ve screwed up, now can you?” chuckled Razz, before walking over and taking Corner into an embrace. “And as for you, Corner, for what it’s worth I forgive you. But I’m really not the pony you should be apologizing to.”

“Right…” Corner acknowledged with a wince. “Thanks, Razz, it means a lot to me.” After breaking the embrace, Shot seemed to finally recognize the existence of the one non-horned pony of the group. “And I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met, miss…”

“Adagio Dazzle,” said Dagi with politeness, holding out a hoof. “I’m Sunset’s long-lost cousin from Canneighda.”

“Corner Shot, at your service,” the pool shark replied, taking and shaking the offered hoof. “Gotta say, though, I’m curious as to why somepony from Canneighda who isn’t playing pool would want to be here—I know some ponies think knocking balls around with sticks is kind of a total bore.”

Dagi shrugged. “What can I say? I’m certainly not one of those kinds of ponies, rather I’m a fellow pool-playing aficionado myself.”

“Awesome, so I’m guessing you’re all here to watch me mop the floor with North Shores, eh?”

“Uh-huh!” Razz and Sunset answered in unison.

“Well, then,” grinned Shot, “let’s get to it!” Right as Shot was out of earshot, Dagi leaned in to Razz.

Razz and Adagio exchanged looks as Corner started preparing for the game. Adagio’s hard glare was met with a questioning look from Razz, and Sunset gave them both a glare that stopped any further escalation.

*CLICK*

Red light filled the bathroom, normally rather spacious for a typically-sized pony, but for the large stallion whose natural coat made him almost blend into the walls now, it was a bit on the tiny side. The sink was lined with black plastic from garbage bags, a mix of chemicals sitting in the bowl, and on the closed toilet seat a neat stack of photographs ready for developing.

Making sure that the door was locked, Nineball took a deep breath before setting to his work. With skill drawn from having taken many pictures before, he used a special pair of mouth-operated tweezers to pick up each picture from the top of the pile and gently dropped each slip into the waiting chemical bath. One by one, the white began to melt away into shades of black and gray, and images of ponies began to materialize. Corner Shot. Coco Pommel. And of course, Raspberry Beryl along with her bird Heliodor. All the shots of Raspberry seemed to be satisfactory to Nineball, who almost lovingly hung up each one of the pictures to dry on their own exclusive clothesline. But if one of the other two ponies ended up being more in focus, then he merely grunted before hanging them up on a different clothesline. He’d burned through an entire roll of film and so he had a lot of photos to develop and evaluate for reasons only he was privy to. But film was expensive, and every bad photo was a little more pocket change having gone out the window.

Razz and her pet are so photogenic, thought the massive red stallion, but neither of those other two mares seem at all as naturally talented for the camera. But then it hit him that maybe he wasn’t just a bad shot when it came to them—that something was a little too consistent when it came to what made all their shots poor quality.

For Coco, every shot she should have been in focus, she was actually somewhat blurry…but only her. The rest of the picture was crystal clear. In every shot of her.

And as for Corner Shot, he’d written off all of her photos as it seemed every time she was in focus, her wings were strangely always in motion or something else that didn’t look correct.

As he looked from photo to photo, the consistent errors slowly stopped looking like errors with the photo…and errors with the mares. And whereas Coco kept showing up blurry for some reason, it was the realization that he had not been a bad shot when it came to Corner Shot that struck him cold, that something far more shocking about her had been hidden in plain sight the whole time.

“One…four…seven…ten…thirteen…” counted Aria Blaze.

Now reunited at the pool hall, the triplets quickly and covertly compared notes and had all mutually come to the same conclusion: Corner Shot’s behavior was not the same as what a pegasus like her would be expected to behave like.

“What are you counting?” Sonata inquired.

“Watch Corner’s wings when she ‘itches’—something seems a bit too routine about the way she’s doing the itching.”

“You saw that, too?” conferred Dagi with a raised eyebrow. “I was thinking the same thing but it seems too random and attention drawing for something disguised as a nervous tic.”

““two…five…eight…eleven…fourteen—yeah, but for all that we’re highly trained, you gotta remember at the end of the day, we’re still human. Corner isn’t.”

"Well, think about that course we took on VLS systems. VLS-enabled destroyers don't fire their missiles in sequential order, but staggered, so they don't do burn damage during the hot pop."

Sonata, the gearhead of the trio, watched Corner intently. "Yeah, but you're thinking vertical. That order would definitely sound like something from an ABL unit, like a Mark 143."

“A what?

"A Mark 143—something like what the US Navy uses for their Tomahawks." Sonata nodded her head that way and said, "If she's got something like that under her wings, for whatever reason, it would have to be based on that. From what I can see of pegasi wings, they don't operate well enough for a pod design."

Aria shook her head in wonder. "And people think you're the dumb one."

Sonata grinned. "Well, I don't know everything, sis."

“You okay, Corner?” asked North, after his opponent had cleared a third table and making the score three-to-one in her favor.

“Yeah, I’m fine, so don’t try psyching me out when I’m kicking your butt.”

“No, seriously, that wing-itching of yours is on serious overdrive today—more than I think I’ve ever seen it.” He looked with genuine concern at the mare who he held a friendly rivalry with, even if she tended to always beat him. “This doesn’t have anything to do with that little spat I heard you had with some other mare yesterday, does it?”

“N-no, it doesn’t.” Internally, Corner swore. Guess Nineball wasn’t the gentlestallion he claimed to be.

North sighed. “Yes, it does, you aren’t exactly a mare who keeps secrets well, Corner.” As she walked over to the waiting sideline as it was now North’s turn to set the table and break, he stopped her by putting his hoof on her withers. “Seriously, I think this tournament’s been more of a load on your mind than any before, I’d hate for my suspicions that you’ve got some major insecurity problems to be right and that you go out because your head just can’t get in this game.”

Corner chuckled. “I thought you were my opponent, not my therapist!”

“Hey, it’s not fun losing to you if you’re not actually giving me the dignity of your full attention,” flatly said North, before taking his cue stick in hoof and trotting over to the table. Shaking her head, Corner simply just left her wings unfurled—they needed a break—and sat down at her seat.

“Hey, what’s Corner Shot’s…er…tramp stamp?” asked Sonata.

“You mean ‘cutie mark’ I think,” corrected Dagi, who frowned distastefully at the words.

“Cutie mark? You mean like that show on Cartoon Network—Filly Funtasia?”

“You watch that?” Aria asked.

“Actually, I caught Spike watching it one morning,” the youngest triplet replied. “I promised him I wouldn’t tell anyone, but hey, we’re not anyones right now, so that doesn’t count, right?” She turned back to the oldest triplet. “So...why cutie marks?”

“Hey, I don’t name the things, I just remember whatever Sunny says and try to adjust to this surreal situation we’re all in,” Adagio said with a shrug of her withers. “But to get back to your point, yeah, that’s weird. I’m guessing it’s pool related?”

“I dunno,” said Sonata, “it kinda looks like some weird dude in a party hat if you ask me.”

“Well, this is the mare you’re saying has missile launchers for feathers,” replied Dagi, “so having some weird butt art isn’t out of the question I guess.”

Meanwhile, Corner’s wing itch flared up again and Aria was right on the mark to count them. “Three…six…nine…twelve…fifteen…”

“Stop the bats! Stop the bats! Make them go and not come back!” lightly sang Coco as she did her best to finish off repairing or, in some cases, refabricating, some of the older costumes the Four Footed Performers had stowed away in their stagecoach and, in a previous stop, found a rather unwelcome infestation of parasprites had done a fair bit of damage to the outfits while in storage. Fortunately, during this pool tournament, the plays they were able to put on attracted large numbers of ponies and so brought them a lot of revenue. Hence why they were able to keep affording Miss Rarity’s (and by extension Coco’s) services as even the Element of Generosity could only go so far when it came to making ends meet through this kind of work.

Which, Coco did note, seemed to rely on a fair bit of luck when it came to Rarity’s clientele not exactly matching the demographics Carousel Boutique was situated in. Most industry experts in the fashion magazines Coco read would swear that Ponyville pre-Twilight Sparkle would have been literally the worst place for a seamstress looking to place herself among the elite tailors of the country. Heck, if she recalled correctly, Rarity had said her first big customer Hoity Toity had only come upon hearing of a fashion show taking place in a town he was traveling through at the time and he had no better plans. While Rarity herself was not totally to blame for what was a disastrous first showing, even with Twilight pulling some of her social class weight around to convince the fashion reviewer to give Rarity a second try, it was lucky he’d not just left town immediately after something pretty offensive or so the rumors had implied.

Then again, Rarity was nothing if not truly gifted in her talent as a fashionista. While at the time during Fashion Week, Coco couldn’t express anything but subservience to that bitch Suri Polomare, the truth had been the younger pony had been awestruck by Rarity’s second batch of dresses being both made out of things found out of a hotel suite of all places and yet so distinctly upper class in feel that it was no wonder she won.

At the same time, Coco felt that maybe she too had been a winner. Not in the usual get-a-trophy sense—that had been Rarity’s time in the limelight—but for Coco it was getting free of Suri once and for all. As much as the earth pony hated to admit it, she had probably been drawn to Suri more or less due to seeing similarities with her own mother, who for reasons beyond Coco’s control was something she felt naturally attracted to as being subservient. Part of those fears still manifested now that she was in Rarity’s service, though for the opposite reason of Rarity being an older mentor figure Coco had wanted all her life. And the part where Rarity didn’t constantly demand to be fed tributes of coffee was a bonus, too, for Suri seemed to just live off that stuff. Coco personally didn’t care for coffee, even just the smell of it had a strange reaction where she would feel tired. In fact, she felt really exhausted right then and couldn’t help but involuntarily start leaning toward the side, in danger of falling off her stool, as her eyes struggled in vain to stay open.

“Coco, darling, are you quite alright?” came the distinct accent of the Boutique’s owner. Before Coco could respond, she was wrapped in a rich blue magic aura and found herself righted in her seat. Soon enough, Rarity was by Coco’s side. “My word, you look absolutely dreadful! Have you not been sleeping well? Why, those bags under your eyes, I’m simply a terrible hostess-slash-employer for not noticing those sooner!”

“Huh? Oh, no, nononono, these aren’t bags under my eyes!” quickly explained Coco, who then used her tail to quickly wipe away what Rarity could have sworn were genuine signs of sleep deprivation. “It’s just, uh…grime! Yeah, working with these old costumes, can’t wash them normally because Celestia probably wishes she doesn’t know what they’d do to your laundry until they’re properly repaired, right?”

“Ah, I see…” was all the unicorn could say. In all honesty, after losing one of her favorite sweaters to Sweetie Belle’s…enthusiastic assumption that literally every article of clothing Rarity owned could go into a hot water spin cycle, Rarity was always one to err on the side of caution in making absolutely sure she didn’t end up repeating that mistake with clothing she actually was going to sell off.

That’s when she saw the trash can. “Coco…are you…spitting…into that can?”

Alarmed, Coco glanced down at what she realized had been serving as a makeshift spittoon for her while she’d been working. While it wasn’t turning into the unsavory receptacle that a tobacco chewing pony spit would create, it was still kind of questionable why Coco of all ponies was spitting into a trash can for undisclosed reasons. “Uh…,” stammered Coco, rubbing her hooves together, “I can explain…”

Sighing, Rarity raised a hoof to silence the younger mare. “No need, I know exactly what’s going on here.”

Coco immediately blanched. If Rarity knew what was actually going on to the point she knew the truth about the spit, then it was all over for—

“It’s sort of my fault, really,” continued the alabaster fashionista, “because I got you that job on Bridleway.”

“W-wha?” Coco was taken aback at the completely unexpected comment. She’d absolutely loved working on Bridleway, that had been a once in a lifetime experience! “Miss Rarity, it’s not your fault at all, I loved that job!”

“Oh, I’m not saying it was the better path for you, darling, it’s just that I failed to at least impart some hard-earned wisdom about working that kind of occupation. This spitting thing obviously isn’t intentional on your part—you picked up the habit from some other ponies who work backstage on Bridleway. I bet you weren’t even aware you’d been spitting, right?”

“Uh, n-no! Total surprise!” lied Coco.

“Indeed, it shouldn’t be long before you naturally stop doing it—because I insist that you stop working and go take a nap!” Rarity then looked hard at the understudy in her employ, but in a motherly, caring sort of way. “Believe me, darling, I can tell you’re exhausted—probably from that little spat you had with Corner Shot or whoever yesterday, can’t say I understand why but that’s your personal business and not mine—and you’re probably spitting out of exhaustion, hence your use of bad habits you didn’t even know you had!”

Coco vigorously shook her head. “No, honestly I’m fine! I owe you so much, Miss Rarity, and I want to prove that I’m worthy of working for you!”

To that, Rarity laughed. “Oh, Coco, if you must know, you already did that back in Fashion Week.”

“R-really?” Coco felt a little relieved—she’d worked her ass off on making sure those dresses met Suri’s exacting standards and while ultimately she still got said ass chewed out when Rarity’s ‘hotel chic’ line proved better in the end, the fact Rarity had actually been impressed with what had initially been a fashion-based proverbial slap in the face, much less recognized Coco’s hoofiwork quality, made the earth pony feel much better about the incident in retrospect.

“Of course! But you were only able to make such magnificent dresses when you were at the top of your game, dear. Not when you’re slaving over old costumes, spitting into a trash can without even realizing it, and almost falling off a stool. Suri took you for granted, but I don’t, and I intend to prove to you that I’m still the better mare to work for. Even if I have to levitate you myself all the way back into your room to do it.”

Blushing, Coco said nothing but took the hint—as well as being grateful for the chance to catch some much needed sleep. Starting when she hadn’t even made it five steps toward the stairs before passing out from sheer exhaustion. Chuckling, Rarity made good on her promise and used her magic to carry the tired Coco all the way to the guest bedroom, complete with sheet tucking and door closing.

She’s such a treasure, thought Rarity. And she’d give Applejack a run for her money in the dedication to hard work department! The smiling unicorn then had a moment of panic as, inexplicably, she felt a passing feeling of wooziness go through her.

“Oh, my, taking Coco up here must have been a bit more taxing on my magic than I thought!” said Rarity to nopony in particular. Rarity was no stranger to lifting heavy things—indeed, the only time she ever acknowledged having fallen in love with a giant boulder she’d named “Tom” for some reason was when she felt like boasting about her strong telekinetic abilities—but for a slightly smaller-than-average mare like Coco, it felt like she’d just lifted what she’d presumed to be Coco’s weight plus the hypothetical additional weight of a certain trio of fillies on Coco’s back. But ultimately the moment of lightheadedness was soon over and Rarity just shrugged it off. Maybe it’s just that earth ponies are heavier than they look.

“Jeez, I get it, you’re sorry!” chuckled Razz as both she and Corner Shot walked back to the Retreat together. “Honestly, you’re starting to give me flashbacks to how I was over a year ago when my big secret got out and I somehow kept making problems for everypony left and right. All that I could do was run around apologizing to everypony!”

“Hey, you’re a princess in pretentiousness or whatever, right?” asked Corner, “Doesn’t that mean you can get away with whatever you want, basically?”

“Princess in pretense, thank you, and no, if anything the fact I’m only even that because my bloodline traces back to Sombra makes ponies distrustful of me, even now.” Razz then shrugged. “But that also was only really a problem for me back when I was still unsure about being little miss Sombra in public and every other town I’d been to trying to skewer me with torches and pitchforks before too long. I’d say having been able to finally put down some roots here in Ponyville and having an actual life for once really has made me more self-confident.”

“Yeah, to be honest I can’t really see you as being a scaredy-mare running around to everypony and apologizing for the fact you were born. It’s not like you could’ve done anything about that, right?”

“No, it wasn’t me being born, it was…” Razz sighed and proceeded to give Corner a shorthoof version of the events leading up to the murder of her abusive father and her departure from her hometown. It was as painful and tedious to her as all the other times she’d needed to tell the story.

Corner raised an eyebrow in interest when Razz was finished. “So you’re saying that by embracing the darkness within you, it did in effect lead you on a better path in life?”

Razz stopped in her tracks, wide-eyed. “Corner, you do realize how fucking creepy that sounded, right?”

The pegasus blinked, then chuckled with embarrassment upon realizing what the unicorn had meant. “Oh, uh…yeah, sorry, probably could have phrased that better.”

“I’d say.” Razz proceeded to keep going forward while shaking her head. “In a sense, yes, being forced to use the dark magic within me did save my life, but only because my special talent is being immune to dark magic’s corrupting backlash—even then I can’t just rest on my laurels and assume I can use dark magic like Twilight uses any kind of magic. Just because my dark magic can’t affect me any more than it’s already made me look like a demon in the physical sense doesn’t mean it won’t gravely impact other ponies if I’m not careful. And I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anypony—sudden physical changes that permanently alter how you have to live your life suck.”

“Yeah…” said Corner, though Razz thought she caught something in the other mare’s tone that implied the topic wasn’t entirely something unfamiliar to Corner. But any idea of pursuing that line of discussion ended when immediately afterward, the duo had reached the front of the Retreat. “Well, whatever the case with you is, Razz, I’m glad I can call you a friend—being somepony who isn’t as lucky as you to settle down or have a stable set of friends to hang out with, I’m glad I can at least say you are one of the closest friends I have.”

“Aww, thanks!” Razz hugged Corner Shot in response, which caught the pegasus slightly off guard and a bit unsure of how to respond when Razz let go—fortunately, that was a decision Corner didn’t need to make when Razz then said “Anyway, I think I’m going to turn in early for tonight.”

“Yeah, me too. Gotta get plenty of rest so I’ll have enough energy to take on Nineball tomorrow—North Shores may be a tough customer, but just because I could easily beat him doesn’t mean he’s even remotely in the same league as that big red buffoon!”

“Well, you know I’ll be there to see it! Night!” And with that, Razz headed off to bed. Corner didn’t immediately follow, instead choosing to remain just outside after hearing the signature cry of a certain phoenix and then watching the green-and-gold avian return from his evening dinner hunt, soaring just out of view to presumably reunite with his mistress at her windowsill.

Wish I had a bird like that, mused the pool shark as she finally headed back inside and up to her own room. But unlike Razz, Corner’s night was not over. There was some business she still needed to take care of—business she knew her friend would not approve of if she knew the truth. Corner waited until nightfall, relying on the cover of the evening before silently opening her room’s window and proceeding to fly out for a little nocturnal exercise. But not before making sure her trademark pool cue hairclip was in place—it would be disaster if she lost it for so many, many reasons this night.

Sighing as she shut the door behind her, Razz knew it was time to enter the nightmare that was The Rose with the Broken Neck. She had a bad feeling about what that ‘Mangle-Leg’ was going to be involved with - because it was obvious it was nothing good - and if it was some problem Razz would need to clean up, now was the time to learn about it beforehoof.

DAY 141:

It is not every day when the first thing that catches my attention in the morning are the clanging of alarm bells. Though it is the war alarm that was sounded, a quick psychic rifling through the various scrying crystals I have stationed throughout the lands indicates that no, that it is not such – my realm is safe for now.

Still, the alarms can only portend one of two things…and as Sable heads to my front door to inform me of the alarm, I know – at least for now – that it is not him I should worry about.

As I reach the dungeon halls where I keep her, I immediately notice something is wrong – though in retrospect I think I should note that I sensed it long before I saw any actual signs of concern. My hooffalls become a gallop, and as I reach the door to the Rose’s cell, I see that it is broken. I immediately send out a call for more guards, and as I reach the shattered portal I quickly cast a shielding spell.

It is the only thing that saves my life.

Just mere inches from my left eye, I see the Rose, her eyes full of venom and hate, brandishing a broken unicorn horn, her intent clear as day: to stab me with it and end my life. I cast a second spell to immobilize her, and as I do, I see behind her, crumpled in a puddle of blood, the owner of the horn: Sgt. Black Granite. She had been a loyal soldier to the end and one I had considered promoting to ensign. Now she will have a promotion to coronet, instead – as I bury her with honors.

Wasting no time, I slam my foe against the wall. “Did you really think you could harm me, fool?” I ask her.

“YOU TOOK EVERYTHING FROM ME!” I hear her roar at me. “MY LIFE! MY FAMILY! MY FRIENDS! EVERYTHING! AND ONE DAY I WILL KILL YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU STAND FOR, YOU FIEND!” To my surprise, she manages to start moving, despite the immobilization spell and a second later, breaks it completely of her own strength.

In a different situation, I would have to admit, I would be suitably impressed. That spell I’ve used several times to disable or outright cow anypony I’ve used it against and she managed to break through it like a rampaging minotaur. That is nothing less than absolutely wondrous, both because it shows that she has a prodigious mind and strength that I had not expected. All from a mewling, simpering creature that was on death’s door just a short while ago and a terrified kitten not long before that.

Ah, Baldassare, if you only knew what a treasure you’d given me – I wonder if you would have parted with her?

Regardless, insolence must be taught a lesson. Taking her in my magic field once more, I slam her against the wall again, this time face first. I see the spray of blood and from what my studies of the human body have shown, this likely would have killed a lesser one. But now I know the Rose is no lesser. I do not have to fear for her safety.

She is nothing less than dangerous.

A shame, though, that I cannot win her to my side just yet. But so long as the Sisters fear my might and do not attempt to invade my lands outright, I will spend centuries grinding the Rose down, if need be. One does not make an omelet, after all, without breaking an egg or two.

“My patience grows thin,” I warn her. A lie, and we both know it, but I cannot afford to look weak in front of anyone or thing – I am a king, and kings do not know weakness. “Do so again and your life will be forfeit.”

As I drop her to the floor, she turns to look at me, her face a ruined mass of blood, though I know it will mend itself in a few days, as seems to be her wont. But instead of saying anything further or doing anything more, she instead crawls over and takes Cocoa Bean’s tattered hide and cries into it, saying multiple things in that human tongue of hers to the moldering skin. After a while, I realize it has to be an apology.

She attacked me, because of that? Some stupid strumpet I took in and taught a lesson when she became an upstart? I would say this makes no sense, but anypony with any shred of intelligence would see that! Cocoa Bean is dead and what is left of her is just hide and fur, nothing of value at all in this world, and yet the Rose treats it as though it was nothing less than a priceless treasure! Even moreso than the rags of the dress I ripped from her when she first arrived, or the sackcloth she currently wears.

Perhaps I will never truly ken the human mind. It is, after all, alien.

Finally, the reinforcements arrive and my orders to them are clear: I want her moved to a new cell, I want the door on that cell to be heavily spell-imbued, and there will be two guards on duty at all times – one a unicorn, the other an earth pony. Additionally, a platoon shall be on standby at all times should the Rose attempt to escape.

If she does, as regrettable as it is, I may have to end her.

I wonder if I can.

I also wonder what would happen should the Sisters find out about her.

Back at Twilight’s crystal eyesore, the purple alicorn looked at the triplets with a raised eyebrow. “You three are saying that the mare Raspberry just walked to the Traveler’s Retreat with is somehow some kind of elite assassin?”

“Yes!” the three replied in unison.

“I’ve given them authorization to investigate Corner Shot after her altercation with Coco the previous night,” Sunset explained, before fixing her three cousins with a serious look. “I am not, however, giving you permission to arrest and interrogate a high-profile athlete with no real evidence! We don’t need that kind of scandal right now!”

“Plus,” added Twilight, “you three admit that you’re only accusing Corner Shot’s actions as those of covert operations, because that’s exactly what you all would think of first. The wing itching, for instance, is a well-documented medical condition she has, nothing more.”

“But what about the fact she kept looking over to Razz virtually every chance she got?” pointed out Sonata.

“Maybe she’s just got a crush on Razz?” suggested Sunset. “Like, do any of you know which way Corner Shot actually swings when it comes to what she’s sexually attracted to?”

“Look, I don’t give a fuck who she screws, okay?” Adagio commented. “Least of all if it’s the freak—God knows she might mellow the fuck out if she gets her rocks off anyway. My concern is keeping you safe, and I’m telling you what my gut instinct says!”

“Then you three probably should just cool your jets—you’ve been dedicated so much to the idea of being my bodyguards, you’re seeing threats where they don’t exist. Besides, I know you three saw what Razz is capable of even when she didn’t even have access to her full abilities—in the off chance Corner is anything close to that level of danger, I’m sure Razz can handle it.” The maize-coated alicorn then yawned. “Man, I really feel tired after today, so I’m going to bed to prepare for those finals tomorrow.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll join you in that plan,” agreed Twilight, “Spike’s already gone to bed anyway. Goodnight everypony.”

After bidding both their cousin and the Princess of Friendship goodnight, it was just the three SIRENs left in the castle’s main room.

“You think they’re right, that we’re just being too overprotective?” Sonata asked worriedly.

“Well, OPS,” Adagio began before she shook her head. “No, little sister: do you think that protecting family is being overprotective? And I’m not talking about our status as the three senior officers of the SIRENs—I’m talking about us as sisters, and about our cousin over there. All-powerful alicorn or not, she’s just like us: a normal girl, and normal people get protected.”

“Uh...when did we become normal?” Aria joked.

“Plus, there’s the other dimension of this: Sunny’s put in our application to transfer our flag to the REN, and she was told that it’s in process. We’ll stand a better chance of succeeding if we can prove we’re up to the job.”

“Which means?” Sonata asked, though she already knew the answer.

“We need to find out what Corner Shot is up to, and if necessary, shut her down. Those are your orders, understood?”

Both Aria and Sonata saluted as one. “Aye, Captain.”

The antique grandfather clock in the Retreat’s lobby chimed once, signaling that it was now 1:00 am. Everypony had gone to bed and as far as they were concerned, so had everypony else both in the Retreat and the entire town. The front desk of the Retreat was left unhitched with not even the desk lamp left on—there was no reason to expect anypony to come in the middle of the night to check into a bed and breakfast that had NO VACANCY written on a sign put right next to the building’s main name sign.

So as a result, nopony was around or awake to notice the approaching form appear at the door. Silently, the black-cloaked figure slipped through the front door, somehow with enough skill to get past the attached bell. With purpose, the cloaked intruder made a beeline right for one of the private rooms reserved for ponies who worked at the Retreat—specifically the former guest bedroom.

Just as silently as how the front door had been handled, so too did Raspberry Beryl’s door not make even a squeak from the hinges, the stranger framed perfectly within the portal with the sleeping unicorn dead ahead. Heliodor slept soundly on his stand not too far away, but his presence made the intruder shudder slightly—he was the one who generated more concern should he wake up.

Cautiously, the cloaked figure ever so slowly loped into the room, freezing briefly if there was so much as even a creaky floorboard. But the uncertainty the figure held initially started to abide upon reaching the halfway point with success, neither bird nor mare stirring. Unfortunately for the figure inside the cloak, nervousness started to take hold instead—this was something they had really, really not wanted to do but at this point they were desperate and it was like they always said, desperate times called for desp—

The cloaked individual had been so momentarily distracted that they hadn’t realized until too late that they’d accidentally hit an incidental loose crystal Razz had left lying around. The tinkling of the faux-crystal across the wooden floorboards and the ultimate, slightly louder tinkle signaling having hit the opposing wall, might as well have been a gong going off inside a deep cave for how loud it felt to the cloaked intruder.

After what felt like an eternity, the coast seemed to be clear much to their relief. Heliodor had not stirred at all, while the sudden perking of Razz’s ears had proved to not have woken the mare from her slumber.

Close, too close! thought the cloaked one, now under pressure to finish the task at hoof before they made another stupid mistake that would get them killed—or worse.

Everything seemed to be fine, at least, as no further incident occurred up to the cloaked intruder reaching the side of Razz’s bed. This was it. Now or never.

“Please, forgive me for this…” whispered the individual, before within the hood of the cloak a mouth opened up as if ready to attack. And that’s when Razz made her move.

The figure in the cloak didn’t have any clue what had happened, as one second Razz was dead to the world in her bed, then an inexplicable flash of light filled the world for a split second, afterwards leaving nothing but a Raspberry Beryl-less bed instead. Any chance to comprehend what had happened was not given to the would-be attacker, as no sooner had Razz disappeared from the bed, did that same unicorn throw open her bathroom door and in one quick motion encase the lower portion of her would be assailant in dark crystal.

“Y’know,” said Razz, none too happy to be woken up at one in the morning, “you should have just left after you hit that crystal—I’m by nature a very light sleeper.” Approaching the intruder without having been more cognizant in first making sure the threat had been neutralized, Razz didn’t bother hiding her dark magic’s eye-irritating green-and-purple smoke—she wanted the intimidating effect. “Just who the hell do you think you are, barging into my home like this, planning to do…whatever the hell it was you were going to do?”

Razz did not notice the now trapped pony shaking feverishly and trying to now cower in fear of the dark princess—being rudely awoken left Razz’s mind not firing on all cylinders. The fact the intruder did not answer immediately was of more concern to the unicorn.

“Did you not hear me?” snarled Razz, reaching for the hood of the cloak, “JUST WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!”

Throwing back the hood, nothing in the world—or even both human and pony worlds—could have prepared Razz to see none other than a strangely sleep-deprived looking Coco Pommel fearfully looking up at the inheritor of Sombra’s great and terrible power. Now revealed, only then did the trapped mare choose to speak, and there was something about the smile Coco gave that seemed somehow… wrong.

“I…I can explain!”

Author's Note:

Just another reminder, folks, but the GAOA TV Tropes page still needs updating!

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