• 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 21 - Fancy Flies Living Lies

Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 21 — Fancy Flies Living Lies

“Coco, just so we’re all on the same page, please…how are you, well…you?”

Coco nervously pawed the ground. “My life story, huh? Well, I do owe you all that much, if not more still.” She paused, closed her eyes, then began. “It started a few decades back when Chrysalis was trying to come up with plans to strengthen her secret presence in pony society. She had—probably still has—agents in places you wouldn’t believe and if I knew any of that information I totally would tell you but—"

“Coco,” interrupted Rarity, “Focus.”

“Ah, right, thanks,” the halfling said, blushing. “Anyway, one of the things she wanted was to make a new type of changeling breed. A type of changeling that was also genetically a pony—that’s the flaw in any existing defenses against normal changelings; they only look like ponies but biologically they can’t pass. So Chrysalis thought that if changelings can assume perfect disguises as ponies, with the cutie marks and the wings—though unicorns are harder as there’s no way to truly disguise their green magic auras—then why not try to blur the line that separates bugs from ponies?”

“Uh, because Ah’d figure she’d have had sense enough to realize y’ can’t just make changelin’s be something they ain’t born as?” said Applejack. “Like, I get you standin’ here shows it’s possible to a degree, but…” The farmmare shook her head, trying to get her thoughts straight. “…but there’s no way you could’ve been born both a pony and a changeling…right?”

Coco looked at Applejack with a sad smile. “Technically, that’s right—as far as I’m aware, my biological parents were both ponies, and it was a mare that birthed me, but…this may sound weird, but I didn’t leave the womb the same way I went in.”

“Do we really wanna go into that detail?” whined Rainbow Dash, who caught glares from everypony else.

“I never knew the ponies that I should call mother or father,” interrupted Coco. “It’s likely they weren’t well off—a laundrymare and a small-time street vendor, maybe?—but nopony would have batted an eye if a pregnant mare as low in social standing as that went missing, abducted by changelings. I presume she was eventually returned home, hypnotized into believing that she’d wandered off and gotten lost in a place like the Everfree—and that the stress of trying to find her way back home caused her to miscarry.

“The truth is she didn’t, though sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if she had. I don’t know the things Chrysalis had done to her, or if she was even the first. All that mattered was she was the last: that the foal she gave birth to was the unnatural fusion of pony and changeling Chrysalis had wanted—me.”

“So, you’re saying that Chrysalis…raised you, basically?” inquired Twilight, venturing dangerously close to “research” mode.

“Just as easy to say that she created me from whomever the baby in that mare was supposed to be,” Coco laughed, though it sounded empty. “Being the abomination of nature she’d been trying to make, you’d think she’d at least treat me like one of her drones, wouldn’t you? She hardly seemed to care I existed, making it no secret all I meant to her was potentially strengthening her armies. She left her higher-ranked drones to be in charge of teaching me the basics—reading, writing, things any foal is taught in school—but all she ever seemed to express in my presence was disappointment, especially when she found out the limit of my camouflaging powers extended only into just hiding the non-pony parts of me and nothing more. And when by some miracle I did manage to get my cutie mark? She merely regarded it as predestined for how I would ‘infiltrate" pony society through the fashion world!

“Eventually, she decided I was ‘ready’ and after setting up a fake background and some financial support, she got me enrolled into The New Stable fashion school and… pretty much dropped all contact. I never heard from her or any other changeling ever again until she somehow found out I was going to Canterlot on the Seabiscuit Arno.”

“Hold on,” interrupted Rarity, “That whole business really was just about you?”

Coco nodded. “Yeah, she thought I was ‘abandoning’ my mission in Manehattan or something—not like that bitch ever told me what that was—but when she learned I’d gotten into the social circle of ‘those six mares that ruined the wedding’ and especially you, Raspberry, she essentially ordered me to play secret bodyguard for you.”

“The hell?” Razz was stunned, and a brief look to Heliodor—who shrugged to indicate the same level of confusion as her—before returning to look at Coco. “I wasn’t even at the wedding. What does Chrysalis want with me?”

“I doubt she would have told me even if I had asked; to her I’m just supposed to be smarter than the average changeling and be a more effective sleeper agent.” Then Coco seemed to shrink back a little as she added “Maybe too good a sleeper agent given the last time I was among other changelings.”

“Yeah, now that you bring that up, was that whole thing back in Nightshade where you were kidnapped by changelings just a ruse to make us believe you weren’t, well, this?”

Coco shook her head. “If it was, I wasn’t told that either. However, I do believe that that hive in Nightshade was actually going rogue—their queen kept demanding that I acknowledge that I knew somepony and just kept getting angrier and angrier after I named all the ponies I know. But if she knew my secret, in retrospect it’s possible she wanted to try and turn me into her own double agent against Chrysalis. It’s probably the bug part of me, but I’m always subconsciously been drawn to following strong-willed females, since like regular insects, Changelings have their queens.”

“Like Suri?” asked Rarity, though her tone indicated an unspoken addition of and me?

Only for Suri,” spat Coco, her distaste for her former boss evident, “but while yes, in changeling terms I have sort have made you my ‘queen’ to serve, Miss Rarity, it’s only because I actually love working for you—my cutie mark and special talent are genuine, even if most of the rest of me is not.”

“At least your talent isn’t more or less concentrated evil,” said Razz with a chuckle. “In all seriousness, though, I think you and I have a lot more in common than you’d think, Coco.”

“You need to feed on love, too?”

“No, apparently I’m a serial pillow killer,” answered Razz, stepping back and opening her closet to reveal the pile of punctured pillows. “I’m guessing you can sleep with your disguise on—I can’t.”

“Raspberry, dear, why didn’t you mention anything about your sleeping issues?” Rarity asked. “I’m sure I can come up with something that could help…” She then perked up and practically sang I~DEEAAAAAA!”

“Rares, focus,” Rainbow admonished. “Anyway, you were sayin’, Coco?”

A thought then occurred to Razz, based on what she’d learned about how Versatile the Changeling had largely come to solve his love energy problem. “Say, Coco, since you’re half-pony, do you have the ability to self-recharge?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

Razz shrugged. “I’ll fill you in on that later, but basically if you’re out of, er, ‘love juice’ right now—because no offense but I’m not letting you suck the love out of me, that sounds all kinds of wrong—how long do you need before you can safely put your disguise back on?”

“Oh, usually just a good night’s rest for two nights is enough,” Coco shrugged. “I…just haven’t been getting much sleep recently because I’ve been working so hard on clothing jobs.”

“I told you that overworking yourself was a bad thing,” chided Rarity. “But now that the danger to you is even more evident, I forbid you from working until your, er, ‘love reserves’ are topped off.”

Coco looked to Rarity with shock. “I’m…I’m not fired?”

Rarity’s eyes widened. “Good heavens, no! When did I say you were fired?” The alabaster unicorn was then promptly tackle-hugged by the overjoyed halfling.

“You just did,” snickered Rainbow.

“Not now, Rainbow,” scolded Fluttershy.

“Well, it’s all nice and dandy that this business with Coco sorta-not-really attackin’ Razz is finished with,” said Applejack, “but what Ah wanna know is why Chrysalis is so interested in Razz. What did Razz ever do to her?”

“Yeah, there’s plenty of ponies out there who could argue they have good reasons to plot revenge against me, but I don’t think Chrysalis is one of them,” Razz mused.

“I beg your pardon, Razz, but I never said Chrysalis wanted to bring harm to you,” Coco said, her sweet voice being made ominous by the words she was speaking. “She actually seemed to want me to protect you.”

Protect me? From what?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” said Coco, stopping her affectionate assault on her boss, “It’s Corner Shot.”

Razz wanted to argue the point. To say that Corner Shot was, despite her faults, a friend, and that she’d have no reason to harm her. But then Razz remembered how suspicious Corner had been acting of late. “Why would Corner want to hurt me? And why would Chrysalis want to protect me?! The more you explain, the less sense this all makes!”

“I know, and I’m sorry. I don’t have all the facts myself—Chrysalis likes to keep information on a need-to-know basis. But I know she has her reasons—she is, after all, a very brilliant tactician.” Several distasteful glares from the other ponies gathered indicated to Coco that complimenting their hated enemy was probably not the best way to gain their trust. “I was just stating an objective fact! Trust me, I probably hate her more than any of you!”

“She nearly married my brother!” protested Twilight., “I was nearly her sister-in-law!”

“...okay, other than Princess Twilight, I have more reason to hate the queen than any of you. But when she told me to protect you, Razz, she explicitly said that Corner Shot was actually an agent for some dark covenant that worshiped Sombra.”

“She seriously thinks those cultist crackpots are somehow involved in all this?” Razz rolled her eyes. “Looks like Chrysalis’ information network has been slacking off, because I took care of that cult months before the war with Tirek. That was several weeks ago!”

“Don’t you mean almost a year ago?” Rarity asked, reminding Razz of the shift in time she’d had to endure..

“Um...yeah.” Razz scratched the back of her head in a very human manner. “Kinda forgot that part. Still trying to adjust to that.”

“Whatever you did, you only took out one of their operation cells,” clarified Coco, “The actual main body remained hidden just to make you think you’d destroyed them entirely.”

“I should have known it was too easy,” the dark unicorn groaned.

“Somepony wanna fill us in on this whole ‘Covenant’ nonsense?” asked Applejack.

“The Covenant of Shadows,” began Twilight, “was—if I recall correctly—a group of like-minded anarchists who sought to restore their idol King Sombra to physical form so he could finish his conquering of the known world beyond the Crystal Empire. After the war, groups of rebels began attacking government facilities in an effort to slow reconstruction. We thought it was Tirek’s loyalists at first, but it turned out to be ponies loyal to this ‘Covenant.’” She then noticed everypony looking weirdly at her. “Sorry, old habit.”

Razz was furiously trying to crunch all the mental data. This is bad, what with Sunset and her cousins in town right now—they barely just finished dealing with that demon Chernabog, getting drawn into another conflict is something they don’t need, especially while the triplets don’t have their usual weapons and are still getting used to pony bodies!

Still, at least there was finally an explanation for Corner’s mysterious behavior.

“This is a lot of information to take in at once,” finally said Razz, before a well timed yawn. “But it’s also like, three in the morning and it’s going to be a crappy day for all of us at this point with what little sleep we have, so I suggest we all get to bed and rest up—most of all you, Coco.”

Coco blushed in embarrassment.

“Yeah, Razz is right,” agreed Twilight, “I’m going to have a bad enough time explaining all this to Sunset and the triplets in a few hours, so if Corner is going to do something to Razz, now we know at least to be on the lookout.”

“Shall I put out a warrant for Corner Shot’s arrest?” Divine Right asked, finally making himself known after spending the past several minutes silently taking everything in.

“It would certainly make me feel better,” Rainbow Dash said.

The other ponies present all voiced their approval, except for Twilight… and Razz. “If we arrest a pony with Corner Shot’s public notoriety, we’ll put ourselves at the center of a huge scandal.” Twilight explained. “The fact is, we don’t have anything on her that’ll stick. At most she assaulted Coco…” Twilight looked at the mare in question. “And if we arrest her on that, there’ll be an investigation… one that will inevitably have to make your big secret public. I take it you don’t want that?”

Coco emphatically shook her head.

“Then we have nothing on her, and she’ll be walking free by the end of the day.”

“And then we’ll have tipped our cards to her, and by extension, her employers—whether it’s really the Covenant of Shadows or not,” Razz added. “Then they’ll all turtle up, and we won’t get any information on what they’re planning.”

Divine sighed. “Then what do you suggest we do, your Highness?”

Twilight looked at Razz, who said simply, “We do nothing.” The look on Divine’s face (as well as the rest of the ponies) said it all. So Razz continued. “We let Corner Shot think her cover is intact… and then wait for her to make her move.”

“Are you suggesting we use you as bait, Razz?” Rarity asked, the worry clear in her tone.

Razz shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s not like I’m easy to kill.”

“But there is still considerable danger to you,” Divine warned. “I don’t care how powerful your ability to heal is. If somepony really wants to kill you… they’ll find a way.”

For one reason or another, Corner Shot was used to operating on minimal sleep. It was bad enough she was still on hooftips over fretting just what the early morning hours situation had been that guards had been warranted to keep the place locked down; for all she knew the guards were still around. After a quick shower, Corner went through the motions of hiding the rings under her eyes—so long as nopony took a super close look or she accidently rubbed her face, it was a passable job.

Mercifully, the number one way to deal with needing more energy than one got through sleep was already waiting in the Retreat’s main dining hall—one damn good brew of homemade coffee. Having stayed at a wide variety of lodgings for rent in her career, Corner had by proxy sampled all kinds of hot, brown water mixtures. Usually, when she had to stay at one-off, locally run establishments like the Retreat, the coffee tended to be a bit heavy in having what Corner charitably would call “The Regional Flavor,” if it wasn’t crappy instant coffee outright, and more than once Corner had seen a bad day get worse all because of one bad cup of mud passed off as a drink. But as she’d come to find out, Cashmere’s coffee blend was one of the best she’d ever had, and deep down Corner knew it was a bright spot in what promised to be a rough day ahead.

“Oh, good morning!” greeted Raspberry as she walked in from the Retreat’s kitchens with a plate of fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip muffins on her back.

Corner then noticed for the first time how not only the muffin-bearing plate, but all the plateware hosting the morning breakfast goods were made out of extremely fine looking crystals of all the colors of the rainbow. It didn’t take a genius to figure out how the Traveler’s Retreat could afford to have such luxurious looking dishes, let alone risk customers accidently breaking any of them—after all, Razz’s cutie mark was sort of a dead giveaway, even if all she’d done was make disguised dark crystal. It also was probably why Razz chose to manually carry things to and from the kitchen instead of just using telekinesis—the last thing any casual pony would want to see first thing in the morning is the food being enshrouded by evil looking dark magic auras.

“Morning, Razz,” replied Corner Shot before taking a big swig of her coffee. Yep, two or three more of those probably needed to go down the gullet before she tried starting the day.

Oblivious to Corner’s need for coffee rivaling Sunset Shimmer’s, Razz finished putting the muffins down before taking a seat next to the pool-playing pegasus. “So, big day today, what with it being the finals, right?”

Corner shrugged. “Yep. Me against Nineball. Kinda wish I’d had the chance to get more shut-eye, though.”

Razz blinked in confusion. “Oh, you didn’t get enough sleep? Was it a problem with the bed, or maybe the—"

The pegasus laughed. “Don’t worry—it wasn’t anything to do with the accommodations, if anything they were what helped me get what little slumber I had. No, it was the guard banging on my door at two in the freakin’ morning just to tell me to go back to bed. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you? Heard from some other people staying at this place that guards were doing the same stupid shit to all the ponies trying to sleep.”

“Oh, that? Yeah, I think that was largely my fault.” Razz faked a blush and rubbed the back of her head. “I had a bit of an…episode…last night.”

“An episode of what? I mean, whatever it was, it required Princess Twilight to send out guards and disturb all the sleeping ponies?”

Razz sighed. “Look, keep this on the down low, okay? Usually, I’m fine with being able to sleep without having to keep my left leg in its brace so long as I put ointment on it first thing after I wake up, but sometimes…well, do you know what ‘phantom pains’ are?”

Corner raised an eyebrow. “Wasn’t that the name of the bad guy with the gas mask from that one Daring Do book nopony liked? Uh, Daring Do and the Philosopher’s Legacy, I think?”

The unicorn shook her head. “I’ve not read any of the Daring Do books yet—though both Twilight and Rainbow said that one sucks—but no, it’s not anything to do with that. It’s a medical condition where damaged nerves will randomly and periodically send signals to the brain that make it feel as if whatever damaged them in the first place is happening again.”

“And you’re saying that happened last night?”

Razz nodded. “Yeah, felt like I was being attacked, even though I was well aware that there wasn’t anything in the vicinity that meant me harm. I don’t like talking about how I got this injury, but all you really need to know is that the thing that did try to gnaw off my leg had powerful jaws—emphasis on had.”

“But what does that have to do with your, uh, ‘episode’ as you say occurred last night?” Razz noted Corner seemed a bit wary after a few choice words about something posing the dark unicorn harm, filing the note away in her memory.

“I consider myself lucky that for the years I wandered Equestria, I never got any lasting injuries that didn’t eventually heal completely, but part of that is thanks to my reaction to any kind of great, sudden pain being…well, dark to put it mildly if you get my meaning.”

“Ah,” said Corner, feeling as if she did get Razz’s meaning—the pegasus had her own involuntary reaction to things like that, but it wasn’t necessary to bring up the details. “Anyway, I think I’ll grab another cup of coffee before I head over to the pool hall to warm up.”

“Same, I have some things I need to finish up here at the Retreat but I’ll be sure to see you kick Nineball’s sorry butt!”

“I’ll hold you to that!” Corner laughed before proceeding to get the next cup of coffee. Razz’s seemingly innocent, yet oddly specific choice of wording had only left Corner ever more on the edge, to the point she needed that last cup of coffee simply to calm her nerves.

“Hey, Big Mac! Big Mac!” a small filly cried out, racing across the pool hall floor. An orange pegasus and light gray unicorn of similar ages followed behind her.

Realizing he was being confused for somepony else—and knowing exactly which pony he was mistaken for—Nineball turned from the table and looked down at the three small fillies. “Can I help you?”

“Ah’ve been lookin’ all over fer―” The first filly, a yellow, red maned earth pony with a cute bow who also seemed to be the ringleader of the trio, suddenly seemed to realize just who she was talking to. “Oh, sorry, thought you were mah brother!”

“How do you know I’m not, er, ‘Big Mac’ and I’m just wearing a disguise to trick you?” he suggested playfully. Most colts and fillies tended to shy away from him due to his size, but not these three. In truth, he actually had a soft spot for children that ran counter to the usual aloofness that was his reputation in pool-playing circles.

“Hmmm, you know, he’s got a point,” said the unicorn, rubbing her chin.

“Yeah, an’ Ah’m secretly a top pool player in disguise, too,” said an approaching stallion who Nineball could only figure was the real ‘Big Mac’ the fillies had been looking for. Big Mac then looked up to address his not-really-similar counterpart. “Ah apologize, Mr. Nineball, Ah hope these three didn’t trouble you too much.“

“Oh, they did nothing of the sort!” chuckled Nineball. “If anything, all they’ve been doing is what most of this whole town has been doing—mistaking me for you, Mr, ah, Big Mac, is it?”

“Eeyup,” replied the apple farmer, followed by the two large stallions shaking hooves.

“A pleasure to meet my doppelganger, it’s not every day I walk around a town and everypony thinks I’m somepony else—the whole thing rather amuses me, honestly.”

For a brief few minutes, the CMC watched in awe as Nineball and Big Mac idly chatted about a few things—namely because seeing Big Mac talk to anypony other than Miss Cheerilee for longer than five seconds at a time was so rare it was thought by the fillies to be a sign of the apocalypse.

For Nineball, however, his pleasurable chat about the pros and cons of wearing giant yokes all the time needed to come to an end when he saw the mare he’d been waiting all day to speak to enter the hall. Bidding Big Mac and the three fillies goodbye, Nineball then proceeded to walk around the hall in order to reset his more intimidating composure before finally confronting his opponent to be.

“Oh, hey, Nineball,” nonchalantly greeted the green pegasus, her mind obviously elsewhere.

“Hello, Corner,” replied Nineball. “If it’s not to much trouble, I’d like to have a word with you in private.”

“Seriously, I just got here, okay? Can’t you at least do the nice thing and let me practice a lit—"

Suddenly, a large red foreleg moved in front of Corner, its owner glaring down daggers. “Please, I insist.”

“Yeesh! Fine, fine,” groaned Corner, who proceeded to follow Nineball into an empty side room, probably one used for birthday parties or boring corporate get-togethers, whatever ponies did at pool halls when tournaments weren’t going on. As Nineball closed the door—something that if Corner Shot wasn’t Corner Shot would have her worried—the mare seemed not to be bothered by saying, “Look, if you’re just going to tell me to forfeit now, you—"

“I know about your wings,” he intoned, and that changed everything.

Corner immediately froze up. There was no way he could know, she’d taken great pains to ensure nopony would ever notice. And until now, nopony had bothered to look deeper into her claims of a chronic wing rash or medical history. “Wh-what are you talking about? Do my wings look like they’re breaking tournament rules?” She fanned them out to back her claim up. “See? All-natural pony feathers!”

Nineball turned, his eyes still solid slits of angry bright blue. “To the naked eye, they look that way, but I have reason to believe you’ve got an illusion spell that cloaks the truth.”

Shit shit shit! Corner was slowly slipping another notch down into panic mode. First it had been the guard at two in the morning, then Razz’s weird word choice at breakfast, but now somepony who shouldn’t even have been relevant to Corner’s other business in town had figured out her secret? Don’t make me have to resort to violence, mentally pleaded Corner in her mind, at the very least I-

Getting right into Corner’s face, Nineball made his move. “You have your wings lined with rubber pads to help with the gripping of the cue, don’t you?”

Wha? Corner took a step back out of shock, wondering what the hell Nineball had heard or found out to come to that conclusion. But if he has convinced himself that’s the truth, then maybe I can get out of this one after all…

“Well, for starters, that’s bullshit and I bet you can’t prove it without simultaneously proving you’ve probably been doing something of a pretty shady nature yourself, can you?” Nineball’s frown becoming more pronounced was just what Corner needed to be her usual, cocky self. “Even if you could, my wings aren’t lined with rubber or anything—that’s against the rules and trust me, having anything on my wings to ‘help’ with grip actually only interferes with it instead. But…” Now it was Corner’s turn to get into Nineball’s face, still bearing her smug grin. “If it will help you sleep better tonight after I beat you, how about I play our long awaited rematch on your terms? With these babies?” She held up her front hooves, while folding her wings back to her sides now that they were unneeded.

For a few moments, Nineball seemed to be mulling the choice over in his head, his great big expose’ plan foiled. Finally, he relented. “Fine. If you really are as good as you say you are, you shouldn’t have any problem playing with your hooves as well as you do with your wings.” Then without further discussion, he opened the door and walked off.

Corner just stood basking in her smug satisfaction for a minute before also departing the room, letting Nineball put distance between him and her. But inside, she knew the stakes were now rising from all kinds of angles, not just the ones she could predict. She was out of time—it needed to be done tonight.

Much to Corner’s dismay, she’d only remembered too late that her hoof-handling skills for playing pool were a bit rusty and hadn’t been practiced in a long time. As a result, the final rounds of the tournament against her archrival Nineball quickly proved to be the hardest series of tables she’d ever played.

What made it worse was the fact that keeping her head in the game had become in and of itself a trial due to her increasing paranoia. Now, being at a pool table in the center of the building, with ponies seated at chairs encircling the one table to watch the finals, the countless pairs of eyes bearing down on her every action was not helping matters.

It was best out of seven, with the first victory going to Nineball easily.

If there had been any small mercies along the way, Corner had taken the unintended warning from North Shores very seriously. Her wings now not needed for playing the game, the urge to scratch was significantly reduced. But her perpetual state of nervousness prevented it from entirely going away, and every time she flared up her wings to scratch, she worried ever more that somepony would notice. That somepony would realize how something as random as incidental rash itchiness was dealt with in methodical strokes. Always five strokes, five places, in sets of three different patterns.

Score: 0-2. He’d taken the second round just as easily as the first.

Dammit, concentrate! Corner scolded herself—somehow, she realized that everything that needed to happen, that she wanted to happen, now lay in the balance of who won the tournament. Ironically, the only pony she knew of who wouldn’t find anything special about her winning it all…was herself.

Score: 1-2. Corner had started to rally at last.

What really was at stake, though? All the crap about winning the tournament was old hat to her now, she wasn’t a well-known professional pool shark without having pocketed a few tournaments in the process, and frankly purely on the merits of this tournament it wouldn’t matter for her reputation if she won or not. Sure, somepony would stir up some shit about how she wasn’t playing with her wings like she had for the rest of the tournament, but she regularly got shit for using her wings anyway and given how she was notably even with Nineball in performance, it could easily be written off as her being “nice” to him, which in a way wasn’t entirely incorrect.

Score: 2-2.

But as she’d thought before, it wasn’t the glory of winning she cared about so much as it was what winning could mean. She knew that among the crowd watching her right now were some of the most important ponies alive. She knew a bit more about the true nature of Sunset Shimmer and her cousins than she really should have, but so long as they kept out of this business they were of no concern. There was also Princess Twilight Sparkle, a pony Corner truthfully suspected was little more than just a puppet of Celestia—she’d practically been groomed for the role of representing the Element of Magic, after all.

Score: 3-2. Corner Shot now took the lead.

Most important, though, was Raspberry Beryl. Every chance Corner got, she couldn’t help but search the crowd to try and find the unicorn she’d befriended. The matchup was nearing the halfway point by the time she’d finally been located.

Score: 4-2.

Everything basically revolved around Raspberry Beryl. It was why Corner had come to the town in the first place. Well, ok, she’d come to town because she was in this tournament, that much was obvious. But it’s why she’d come to town so early—for reasons she didn’t feel totally comfortable about, in retrospect.

Score: 4-5.

Shit! Corner had fallen into the trap she’d kept setting up for herself and had basically let Nineball pull a hat trick by taking the next three successive rounds.

And the fact she’d been so preoccupied about Raspberry Beryl is what worried Corner so much.

Score: 5-5.

Raspberry Beryl…Razz…was special, that much was obvious. Sometimes Corner wondered if even now, Razz understood just how powerful she was by her birthright. At one point, she’d been driven to have Equestria’s entire government entirely at her mercy, ironically getting closer to her ancestor’s ultimate goal than he himself ever had. She might have even done the deed had she not been stopped by a filly of all ponies somehow persuading her not to.

Score: 6-5.

But as a tool of overthrowing the government of Equestria? Corner couldn’t see Razz as just that, a mere extension of Sombra’s wrath from beyond the grave. In a small time the unicorn had become Corner’s friend, a very close friend, and how they could relate to each other made Corner feel like Razz was special in some entirely other way than just her lineage.

Score: 6-6. Final Round.

No, I can’t lose! Corner was now visibly sweating slightly, everything now coming down to this last round of pool. But as the cue sticks hit the balls into the pockets, Corner still was at war internally—had she been compromised? Had she compromised herself? Was she even capable of doing what she knew needed to be done?

Score: 7-6.

She’d won, but just barely—if Nineball hadn’t slipped up at the last moment, it would have gone to him. But as the realization of victory dawned on her, so did a far darker truth: she needed to finish what she’d already started the moment she’d first come to Ponyville weeks ago.

Hours later, following the usual celebrations expected at the end of a long fought tournament finals match, the residents of Twilight’s castle chose to unwind inside the crystal tree and away from the partying throngs in the city streets.

“You’d think the pony Superbowl just finished up and the town’s favored team won,” commented Aria, idly lounging in a somewhat uncomfortable plush chair.

“It’d probably be the Colts,” suggested Dagi with a grin, before turning back to her book—which despite being written by a non-human species, was in perfect legible English—and changing the topic. “But talking more in the present reality, I expect Sunny to be talking with Princess Twilight all night, so it’s just us three we need to worry about tonight.”

“And what?” asked Ari, “we’ve spent so much time focusing on Corner Shot, certain she was a danger, but she’s probably leaving tomorrow and we have no evidence of anything.”

“Maybe we’ve just been barking up the wrong tree?” suggested Sonata. “Maybe she’s just a really nervous pool shark with visible OCD tendencies? There are humans who constantly make sure their little pencils on their workdesks are perfectly aligned--”

“Yes, and we see Twily do that every day,” Aria noted. “Your point is?”

“Who’s to say there’s not a reason a pegasus doesn’t have the same psychological behavior with her own feathers?”

“There’s always the part where she’s not inclined to fly,” reminded Dagi. “Like, are there any other ponies with wings in this town other than Corner Shot who don’t like taking to the skies? Like, Princess Twilight and even Sunny—who has been able to fly for less than a month—seem somewhat drawn to flying around sometimes. And even at today’s finals match, didn’t you notice she wasn’t using her wings this time? I feel like there’s a reason for that. A pegasus whose entire playstyle, whose livelihood, revolves around using her wings to play pool…but she neither behaves like normal winged ponies nor uses her wings when she needed them for a game more than ever.”

“And that’s not even mentioning her apparent knowledge of CQC,” Sonata added, recalling what Razz told them of Corner’s brief fight with Coco.

“Yeah, well, unless we catch her in the act or something, what can we do about it?” said Aria. “It’s not like the answer is just going to fall right into our laps or anything.”

Just then, Heliodor flew in through the conveniently open window, dropping a letter into Aria’s lap before immediately departing.

“Just had to open your big mouth, didn’t ya?” snickered Soni.

“Like you had anything else planned for tonight?” Taking the letter, the ponified human teen held it upright and quickly skimmed over it, her eyes slowly growing bigger before narrowing toward the end. Suddenly, she handed it over to Dagi. “Looks like we’re back on duty.”

“Oh boy, what did Razz get herself into…” groaned Dagi as she skimmed the letter. Finishing, she handed it over to Soni. “Alright girls, this is our chance to prove ourselves to everybody.”

“Don’t you mean everypony, sis?” corrected Soni.

“Noted. But the more important thing is we need to get armed up and out of here. As much as I don’t like that cunt Razz, I’m pretty sure Sunny will kill us if we let something happen to her.”

“So…you’re sure this ‘Everfree Moonlight Lily’ exists?” asked Razz, following Corner into the Everfree Forest in the dead of night and knowing far better than she was letting on.

“Y-yeah! Read it in a book at a library, it’s supposed to be super-rare and only sprouts in the presence of a princess.” Corner, on the other hoof, seemed to be a bit too happy that Razz agreed to the sudden request to go into the dangerous local woods in the middle of the night.

“Remind me why you wanted me to come along and not, y’know, an actual princess? Twilight’s the one with the wings and the horn.”

“Because you’re the closest pony around who has a bloodline that goes back to the true original royal families of Equestria! I mean, sure, it’s Sombra’s but it’s still noble blood even if it’s…yeah, I’ll stop talking now.”

Following her victory over Nineball earlier that day, Corner had waited until the right moment to privately ask Razz to come with her for a favor to investigate a flower—the “Everfree Moonlight Lily”—and cited something about needing royal blood to make it appear. She felt bad about leading the mare on like this, but the forest was the only place nearby where Corner truly felt she could be alone with Razz. Long enough to do what was needed.

The two proceeded in silence afterward for a few minutes before reaching a clearing, the bright waxing moon illuminating the ground below.

“Well, this should be the place,” said Corner, trying to figure out when to drop the bomb. She needn’t have bothered.

“Corner…did you really think I was dumb enough to believe that crap about some magical flower I’d never heard of that needed ancient royal blood or whatever to show up?” Razz’s demeanor had gone from friendly to almost emotionless. That unsettled Corner greatly. “The only reason I actually agreed to this was because you clearly wanted to just get you and I by ourselves away from town. Which happens to be something I found beneficial for my sake as well.”

“I, uh, wha?” Corner had no idea what Razz meant by her last statement and was rapidly trying to take back control of the conversation. Shaking her head, Corner decided maybe now was the moment to make her move. “Look, Razz, how much do you trust me?”

“A lot less than I did when we first met, that’s for sure.” The coldness of the words cut Corner deep as Razz seemed to suddenly become aware of far more than she should have. “You’ve been hiding something from me, that involves me, and I get the impression it’s something you know I’m not going to like very much, isn’t that right?”

“W-what on Earth makes you think any of that is true?” Corner knew she was starting to lose ground, despite being so close to achieving her goals. But seeing Razz, who had been nothing but friendly to her the whole time, just drop it all like a curtain and regard Corner so coldly…admittedly the pegasus knew she was guilty of having done the same thing at this point but if Razz would just let her explain, maybe things would still be alright. The pent up nervousness of the whole day, however, seemed to choose that moment to break, and suddenly all over Corner Shot’s body it felt like it was very, very itchy. Like her very blood veins were itchy. And glancing at the stoic, emotionless Raspberry, Corner could tell that for some reason, the same was happening to her, too.

“Why are we here, Corner Shot?” asked Raspberry. “Why did you want you and I alone, where nopony else could potentially interfere with us?”

“Razz, please,” begged Corner, “you need to understand that you’re meant for greater things, your importance as a descendant of Sombra—"

“So it is true, then?!” Razz shouted, “That you are nothing more than a stooge who works for the Covenant?!”

“I…I…” stammered Corner, already knowing she’d fucked up but good now. How did Razz know about the Covenant? About me working for them?!

“I thought you were a friend, Corner,” continued Razz, who now looked hurt and betrayed and by proxy making Corner feel the same way. “I hoped that what I’d heard wasn’t true, but apparently all I am is just somepony for you to take back to your masters, aren’t I?” With a Rarity-esque Harumph! Razz promptly turned her back to Corner and started walking back toward Ponyville.

I tried, Razz, I really did, sadly thought Corner, finally recognizing she’d burned the bridge of friendship between them and there was nothing to be done to fix it. Silently, Corner opened up her wings, an olive-green colored knife in the shape of a feather materializing at each wingtip, while her eyes narrowed. “Apologies, Raspberry,” intoned Corner, “but you must play your part in the prophecy, even if you have to be convinced through force!” Then in an instant, Corner’s wings pulled back, making the knives catch the light of the moon, revealing the tips having been coated with a liquid—in this case, a fast-acting anesthetic that would make a victim fall asleep in seconds—and taking aim at the pony she’d dearly wanted to not use those knives on.

The knives never got thrown as at that moment, familiar green-and-gold fire erupted from the sky toward Corner, forcing the revealed assassin to quickly dodge and forfeit her shot. Heliodor took one more fierce blast at the pegasus before darting over to roost on Raspberry’s horn, who herself now looked upon Corner Shot with nothing but sadness. Corner wanted to try one more time to convince Razz to see her side of things, but in the blink of an eye the unicorn had teleported away.

“AAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHH!” screamed Corner, stamping the ground with rage. She’d let herself miss every opportunity to use those knives to knock the unicorn out without her ever knowing in time—she shouldn’t have let Razz even speak, let alone get flustered and try to play Ms. Nice Pony. Now she was going to have to resort to more…ugly…methods, but come hell or high water, Razz was going to play her part and Corner would ensure her safe delivery to the Covenant. It was for the best, after all.

But suddenly, there was rustling from all around the clearing, leaving Corner little time to prepare before three familiar earth ponies appeared out of the forest, well armed with swords, daggers, and each a specialty weapon from what Corner could make out.

“Well, well, well,” said the orange one—Adagio something or other, Corner neither remembered nor cared at this point—who drew her sword, revealing it to be a cutlass. “Looks like we might have more in common than a love of pool, Ms. Shot.”

“Indeed we might,” replied Corner.

“I don’t think I need to tell you that you’re going down one way or another, right?” Adagio stated.

“Let’s make it the hard way!” snarled Corner, who then instantly launched more feather knives in the direction of the three other ponies in a quick in-place whirlwind. She was both slightly surprised and impressed to see Sunset’s cousins—if they ever were actually related to her and not just undercover bodyguards to begin with—were able to dodge and re-establish their fighting stances in almost no time at all. Corner would even dare say they might be as well trained as her…but if what Corner’s briefing info said was correct, they weren’t used to being quadrupeds—how that was the case was beyond her, but if it was true, that would be their downfall. “I just hope you three have the skills to at least make killing you worth my while!” Then Corner drew out two new knife blades and charged at Adagio, the battle beginning in earnest.

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