• 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 2 - Illusions of Grandeur

Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 2: Illusions of Grandeur

Breezily chatting with a few of the guardsponies, Twilight Sparkle patiently waited for Raspberry by the front gate of the town garrison. Twilight had already heard the story about this mysterious group of performers and their exposure to both a changeling and Trixie Lulamoon—and the Princess of Friendship wasn’t sure which one was worse. Truthfully, she still struggled with whether or not she should issue the Cranky and Egotistical Trixie a pardon; while she had been helpful in preventing a potentially dangerous creature from getting into town, she’d also been a personal thorn in Twilight’s side for more than the alicorn was comfortable with. Still, with what little was known about changelings and the fact that Trixie was involved, Twilight felt she had to insert herself into the situation, regardless of her feelings regarding the showmare.

“Twilight!” called out a voice, to which Twilight turned to see. Sure enough, Razz was racing toward her, her pet phoenix closely behind and the guard who was supposed to be escorting her working hard just to keep up. “Thank goodness you’re here! I’m sure there’s going to be Princess-type stuff and my authority doesn’t extend to the Guard.”

“Well, if anything, you’re the pony who is more necessary than I am,” Twilight pointed out, punctuating it via a questioning eyebrow raise. “You never mentioned having anypony you were still on good terms with before the night you arrived in town and saved your father from timberwolves.” She then caught a glare from Heliodor, now perched on his mistress’s horn as usual, making the alicorn chuckle. “Well, present company aside, of course.”

“In all honesty, I didn’t expect Rough Edge to even remember me,” Razz admitted. “I only met him the night after I left Lonesome Dove, and to be perfectly frank I don’t even remember much of the details beyond worrying out of my mind that the quick disguise I’d whipped up to make me look less demonic would fail. But when I tried getting a room and found I hadn’t saved enough money from my house, Rough Edge’s acting troupe happened to have just got done with some play and he himself just walked up and paid for a room I could use.”

“What, like he was trying to hit on you or something?” Twilight impishly asked, as the two kept talking while entering the garrison.

Razz followed, shaking her head. “Given I was still only a teenage filly and he was easily twice my age at the time, I was afraid that he was trying to bed me. Obviously, that didn’t turn out to be the case, considering he spent the cold night in the troupe’s stagecoach alone just so I could have a bed, and then he paid for my train ticket up north to Baltimare. It’s been a decade since then, during which I can’t say I’ve heard anything about him or his acting troupe.”

“Been hearin’ a lot about you, though,” suddenly piped up a pony in one of the stalls ahead. Immediately recognizing the voice, Razz quickly dashed to the cell holding the speaker, finding the imprisoned pony laying on the small cot inside to be a dark red unicorn with bluish-gray mane hairs. His cutie mark was a pair of crossed prop swords, over which were the twin masks of drama—those representing comedy and tragedy. As the stallion sat up to make himself presentable, his eyes opened revealing their deep auburn hue.

“I knew you were gonna be somepony truly unique someday, kid,” he said with a grin, “but I never would have believed the down on her luck teen I gave my room to that night was a real-life princess and the future archmagus! I tell ya, it’s like that play I did the night I met you: Queen Faust, pretending to be a commoner pegasus in order to find the threat to ponydom...only this is real life!”

“All the more reason to consider your identity fraudulent,” said one of the guards that quickly rushed over to prevent the detainee from trying anything funny. “Given that you and your buddies are behind bars because you were caught smuggling a changeling in—"

“I’M AN ACTOR!” called out another cell that presumably held the changeling, though it sounded like a regular young stallion’s voice.

“You’re a disgusting insect is what you are!” called back the guard, grumbling before turning to face Razz with an apologetic expression. “My apologies, Archmagus, but as you can see these changeling sympathizers seem to think you’d somehow be able to prove they’re innocent despite clearly aiding the enemy.”

“I wasn’t aware that they stopped teaching ‘innocent until proven guilty’ at guard boot camp,” snarked a third pony—an earth pony, whose coat was mustard-hued, matching nicely with his medium blue eyes and gray mane coloration. Oddly, his cutie mark appeared to be a burning saddle, though what that could possibly be referencing was lost on Razz. What was not lost was the realization she’d seen this pony before, too.

“Hey, I remember you!” she exclaimed. “You were at that place, too, though I don’t recall your name…something like Marshmallow Books?”

The earth pony grinned. “I’m flattered you remember that much, ma’am, though it’s Mellow Brook—I do prefer ponies to get my name right since I am a scriptwriter.” He then smiled and added, “I do know Marsh, though—her works are pretty good, though a bit too much on the romantic fluff.”

The guard, however, apparently wasn’t happy that the town’s recently returned archmagus in fact did know these random ponies. “Archmagus Beryl, you can’t possibly believe these individuals came to town claiming to know you, bringing with them a changeling and a repeat offender who is all too well known in this town, and not think they are up to something!”

Then, a fourth pony who had been jailed with the group piped up. “Yes, your guardliness, I confess, we were planning on doing something…entertaining the ponies of this town!” The pony gave a lopsided grin and added, “You know, there was this little thing going on a little while ago. I think they called it a war. Then Celestia got ill and the sun kind of made things even harder even after the war. Right now, ponies need cheering up, and that’s what we do!”

“You shut your mouth, prisoner,” the guard warned.

“Oh, I’m so, so sorry about being snippy. Being falsely accused and thrown in jail will do that to you sometimes.”

Evidently, the guard was getting agitated by the almost playful behavior of the ponies behind the bars. “Oh, because a batpony hanging around with a changeling and two sketchy stallions isn’t suspect in the slightest? I can think of only one reason why a batpony wouldn’t be back in her home in the mountains along the Equestria-Griffinlands border if she wasn’t part of the Lunar Guard, and that’s because you bat ponies are all natural kleptomaniacs!”

“Oh, because other ponies are so well known for their ability to not judge individuals based on anything other than pre-existing notions and stereotypes?” said Twilight, who caught everypony else off guard with her only now joining the group. “Yes, Ms. Stage Fright—as Trixie introduced her—is a batpony. Doesn’t mean she’s a thief just because of the recent gang of batpony thieves being apprehended in Trottingham. Furthermore, your previous captain, Stormbreaker, was a bat pony herself. Did you not trust your own captain?”

“Captain Stormbreaker was a proven soldier, dedicated to the crown! She was nothing like-”

Or need I remind you of how this town needed a filly for everypony to realize Zecora wasn’t some ‘evil enchantress’? Or a reminder to the whole town about how Princess Luna isn’t still Nightmare Moon?” Twilight could have cited a third example—the fact Raspberry Beryl had almost been executed due to her handicap of only being able to use dark magic—but chose to not alienate the ponies who had reached out to Razz in the first place.

“Well, I, uh…” stammered the guard, caught between an honest answer and trying to justify his disposition.

“Private True Believer, you are dismissed,” Twilight told him, “and furthermore, I will be speaking with Capt. Right regarding your conduct.”

“Y-yes, your Highness.” Head bowed low and a vivid red blush on his face, the guard immediately took leave lest he dig a deeper hole for himself. Especially since his commanding officer was Capt. Divine Right, who it was rumored had his eye on the princess—Believer would get some serious punishment for this if those rumors were true.

Private True Believer, you are dismissed,” suddenly echoed a near-perfect copy of Twilight’s voice. Had the real Twilight not just spoken, it would have been indistinguishable. The occupant’s voice then immediately shifted back to the stallion’s voice from before. “Hmmm, yes, semi-childish, a bit heavy with the sing-song pitch, though some refinement should make it quite useful for some instances….”

“For a changeling with evidently loyal travel companions,” said the alicorn, somewhat annoyed at the sudden thought of the guard’s bias having been correct after all as she walked over to face the shapeshifter, “copying my voice and then reviewing it like food certainly isn’t winning you any points with me.”

The changeling—who at face value appeared to be no different than the common changeling drone in any way other than unusually sparkly wings—seemed to finally realize what he’d done. “Huh? Oh, oh! A thousand pardons, your highness, it’s…sorry. I have a habit of…I guess you can say ‘collecting’ voices I don’t recognize and trying them out for possible use in acting roles later.”

“Collecting?” asked Twilight, extremely skeptical.

“Yeah, like…uh, I know this is asking a lot, but could you take this spell off of me that keeps me from changing?”

Razz, now alongside Twilight, seemed equally skeptical. “You certainly don’t seem to need help changing your voice, nor do you sound like an actual changeling, really.”

Surprisingly, the equine-like bug seemed to take pride in that. “Thanks, you’d actually be surprised at how hard it is to fake accents without using magic, like my brain is hardwired to do.”

“Then how did you change your wings?” asked Twilight, gesturing to the changeling’s back. “Changelings don’t have sparkly wings. And believe me, I’ve gotten close enough to your queen to know.”

“He isn’t in the thrall of that bitch Chrysalis,” answered the batpony in the cell behind them, “because Versa was raised as one of my younger brothers.”

“Huh?!” stammered Twilight. “You’re saying he’s somehow been your surrogate brother since he was in the larval stage?! But how did—" The appearance of a mulberry hoof on Twilight’s muzzle stopped the brainiac from continuing.

“We’re getting off track.” Razz pointed out. “As interesting as that sounds, we still can’t be sure of anything any of you are saying since your identities haven’t been verified.” Razz sighed, looking over to the pony claiming to be Rough Edge. “That will have to be done before we can do anything else.”

“Well, I actually can vouch for Trixie,” said Twilight after pulling Razz’s hoof off her muzzle. “For better or worse, she’s the real deal. But as for the rest of you,” the alicorn looked at each of the three ponies and the changeling in turn, “do you have a valid way to verify you are who you say you are?”

“Actually,” said the unicorn claiming to be Rough Edge, “that’s why I was hoping Miss Raspberry would remember me: She’s the only one who will understand how I can establish we did in fact meet a decade ago and that way convince you that Versatile isn’t dangerous.”

“Who the hay is Versatile?” asked Razz, only to have the changeling respond with an annoyed throat clearing.

The phlegmy sound of a changeling throat clearing sounded from the adjacent cell. “Ahem. Yes, the bug-horse thing has a name, and it is ‘Versatile.’ Thanks for asking.”

Fifteen minutes later, Twilight and Razz found themselves walking with the four troupe members—their official name being the “Four-Footed Performers” as they learned—along with Trixie and several guards to protect the princesses if necessary. Trixie, for her part, was deemed to have not actually known there had been a changeling as part of the actors she’d been journeying with and was only with the group because they were heading back to the checkpoint where the stage coaches had been left on the side of the road. According to Rough Edge, his proof was with his personal belongings within the FFP’s wagon, but for the whole trip between the garrison and the checkpoint, the most interesting topic was the changeling named Versatile.

As his friends insisted, Versatile—or “Versa” as his fellow performers called him—was only a changeling in biological nature. Hailing from the border town of Nightshade, both he and his adoptive older sister Stage Fright explained that about two decades ago, during the last known movement of changelings before Chrysalis tried to invade Canterlot, Fright’s parents had found what looked like an abandoned foal a few miles outside of town. It was quickly obvious of the real origin of the “foal” but so was the fact the hive had left him to die—he was destined to be nothing but a disposable drone in the first place. Having more appreciation for life than his own species, the batpony couple took him in as one of their own children. As a result, Versa preferred to think of himself as a stallion, since that was the life he knew—and besides, Twilight thought drone had negative connotations regardless. Razz, meanwhile, found common ground with Versa as they both vastly preferred to hide their fearsome “real” forms in favor of looking like ordinary ponies, though Versa retained his color scheme despite the preferred form of a young batpony.

“It’s the fact I look like a freak of nature that gets ponies trying to shove a pitchfork into me,” explained Versa. “But a changeling-colored batpony? Par for the course,” he said with a grin.

“At least you can actually keep a physical change while you sleep,” said Razz. “Mine is purely just an illusion, if my bird roosting on my horn is any indication of that, or the pile of pillows I occasionally murder in my sleep because I roll around so much.”

“Oh, while we’re on the subject,” interrupted Twilight, who actually intended to change the subject, “Versa, do you still need to eat love or some other kind of emotion like anger or the like?”

“Only if you have some stockpiled somewhere?” he dryly replied. “Is there a brothel in town?”

Twilight sputtered at that. “Prostitution is illegal in Equestria!”

“Yes, I’ve noted it’s illegal in most of Equestria’s provinces,” the changeling-as-batpony stated. “But trust me, we’ve been in more than enough places in the realm where it’s not only legal, but some mares consider it a decent living. In any case, I actually don’t — haven’t for years. I know it’s weird but I pretty much only need to eat food like any other regular pony.”

“But, isn’t magic derived from the emotion of love how changelings power their magic? How can you even be maintaining your current form if you haven’t consumed love from other ponies in years?”

“Actually,” said Stage Fright, “according to our brother, Echolocation—he’s a savant of science and is a first-year student over at Manehatten U.—the way Versa was raised with us in a loving family environment makes him almost self-sufficient as he produces love just like any pony else, meaning he’s basically his own power supply.”

“But how…?"

“Echo thinks it was something to do with me not developing a link to the ‘hivemind’ or whatever,” Versa explained. “His working theory is that because I wasn’t raised a slave to a shared consciousness, my growth wasn’t stunted and as a result, I’m just as much a conscious, self-sufficient being as anypony else. It’s still tough to keep up my preferred appearance, since I am using my energy to look like this and I can’t keep it up forever, but between the friendship I have with Edge and Brook, and having the sibling love from my sister, it’s enough to keep me covered when I need to take a quick break and be ‘myself’, if you know what I mean.”

Any further talking was interrupted by Trixie’s sudden outburst of “Hey, we’re here, ponies!”

Shortly after, while Trixie mysteriously dragged Twilight off to discuss “matters” neither of which seemed keen on divulging after Twilight’s reaction to Trixie whispering it in her ear, Razz and the acting troupe were left standing outside the latter’s stagecoach. For security reasons, the guards had insisted that, instead of letting Rough Edge simply go in the coach and fetch his purported evidence of trustworthiness, that they would instead go into the vehicle and remove his belongings for him. Then he would produce the evidence in plain sight.

Of course, as it turned out, wherever this evidence was, it was buried deep within the cramped coach and forced the guards to pull out everything in their way simply to have enough room—they staunchly refused to do the obvious of removing their armor which would have solved the problem as well.

“Hey, watch it, that was my Grandma’s steamer case!” said Brook as a guard not-so-gently tossed a slightly beaten up suitcase off to the side. “Honestly, we could just pop the coach’s side open if you need more room!”

“No, this thing is on the other side of the coach, under my bunk,” Edge told him, getting a groan out of his friend.

“It would still give us more room, because that way it would give us, you know, vertical space to work with. I’m sure the guards could do with a little less high anxiety, you know?” Brook replied.

“Except it’s in a nook I built into the coach,” Edge pointed out. “Even having the coach in full stage mode wouldn’t really help.”

Brook frowned at his partner. “Seriously what even is this thing? We’re the two founding members of this group, you’ve been my best friend since high school, and even I don’t have the foggiest idea what you’ve been keeping from me!”

As another guard removed a small, red box from the coach that had been latched underneath a recessed cabinet, Edge motioned to indicate that the box was what he needed, or at least whatever was inside it. “Because if you’d known about it, you would have pitched it for what it is.”

“Wait, if I would know what it is, then why do we need the archmagus here?”

The guard brought over the box, handing it over to Edge who promptly removed the lid. He then levitated something out of it, wrapped in a carefully tucked bundle that clearly implied whatever was inside was of great importance. Without answering Brook, Edge proceeded to gingerly unwrap the bundle until finally, the brilliant diamond gem within was revealed, or the top of it was at least. Everypony except Edge and Raspberry looked stunned at the precious stone that for all the world appeared to be worth a fortune.

It was Stage Fright who voiced what everypony was thinking: “You’ve had that the whole time?! No offense, but there better be a damn good reason why you’ve been hiding something that valuable from everypony!”

“It’s because it’s not worth anything,” answered Razz, who looked to Edge. He nodded, to which Razz then lit up her horn in its dark embrace, the bright diamond following suit as she lifted it out of the wrapping. The entire crowd gasped as precisely where the diamond had been obscured by the wrapping, there was a clear separation that marked the end of the diamond and the beginning of a deep, rich obsidian.

The guards, however, were less than enthused. “Sir, you do know it is highly illegal to possess—"

“Now hold on!” interrupted Razz. “This…this is one of my gem replicas, judging from what I’m feeling off of it. But not only that, it’s one of my earliest attempts, judging by how the diamond disguise is only half-formed. What I don’t get is…why do you even have this?”

Edge smiled. “Remember how I let you use my room that night?” Razz nodded, prompting him to continue. “Well, after I’d seen you off and moved back in, I found that under the bed.”

“But then, why did you keep it? You knew nothing about me, but this is clearly dark crystal and, well…” Razz blushed, “if anything it should have made it obvious I was no better than a fraud who was going to make synthetic gems.”

Edge laughed. “Archmagus—"

“Razz, please.”

“Well, alright, Razz. You have to remember, I’m an actor, but as much as I can pretend to be things that I’m not, I’m actually pretty good at seeing through other ponies trying to do the same. And what I saw in you that night when the miserable-looking teenage filly with the bindle walked into Rising Star’s joint—what I heard from you when you basically poured your heart out into my withers after I insisted I give you my room because you couldn’t afford one? Even if I knew from the first moment you weren’t telling the whole truth, there was enough for me to believe you were a good pony just in a really hard spot.

“But it was that weird crystal that made me realize what a special pony you were, Razz. See, back home in Las Pegasus during my colthood, my grandma Straight Flush would tell me stories about a long-forgotten city, a Crystal Empire in the northern range where the ponies all shined like precious stones as if they themselves were made of the stuff…and of the tyrannical King Som-somethingsomething—"

Razz giggled. “King Sombra?”

“Yeah, King Sigma, or whatever you said! Anyway, according to Grandma Flush, King Snusnu had been some crazed dark mage who corrupted the whole place with dark crystal and had taken the whole Empire and its populace with him when Princess Celestia and Princess Luna banished his butt to the planet’s freezer section.”

“Wait, you knew this thing was probably evil and—" began Brook, before he caught the angry eye glaring at him from the phoenix still sitting on Razz’s head. The screenplay writer would have to ask if it was a legit phoenix, he’d never even heard of a non-red one, but whatever that bird was it looked ready to kill him if he didn’t make a saving throw. “Sorry, appeared to be evil but in no way actually was malicious, and so for the past decade or so have kept it hidden under where we all sleep?!”

“Yeah, but you gotta remember, Mel,” answered Edge, “the Crystal Empire itself didn’t come back until, like, a year or two ago. Truth be told, I didn’t even know that what I found was a product of powerful dark magic. Personally, I legitimately thought it was diamond and obsidian fused together and had secretly been left by Razz as a means to repay me.” He smiled. “I never had the heart to spend it, given what you’d been through—it seemed unfair for you to have given up something of that caliber.”

Razz blushed slightly harder than last time; if anything, the fact Edge had found what was nothing more than a prototype of a gem forgery made it clear Razz had been a bit too careless in leaving evidence of that magnitude behind. But that he’d thought it had been a kind of “thank you” she’d left for him was deeply touching. “I…I hope you didn’t try to sell it at some point, n-not that I’m one to talk of course.”

“Let me guess, since that dark crystal is only half-disguised, it would have made me look like I was the one practicing dark magic?” Edge’s words made Razz’s pupils shrink in fear at what she could have unintentionally done to the first pony to show her kindness in her life. Noticing her panic, Edge plucked the hovering dark crystal forgery from her magic and put it back in its wrappings, then subsequently its box, before walking up to her and drawing her into a one-forelegged hug. “Don’t worry, I never had any intention of selling it, if anything it convinced me that you were somehow tied to that mythical Crystal Empire my grandma told me stories about. A strange, secretive pony comes into a random roadhouse in the middle of the night, only to find she can’t get a room for the night, but through the kindness of another stranger she gets her warm bed and a train ticket up north, and leaves behind the most unique gem formation I’ve ever seen?

“The thought of selling it occurred to me, but only if the troupe desperately needed the money, and then only if there was no other choice. No, I’ve always kept it mainly as a memento of you, Razz, especially after news about Lonesome Dove finally reached the roadhouse.”

“Y-you knew about what I’d done?” stammered Razz. “I…I mean I guess it makes sense, the roadhouse wasn’t far from there and after what I’d done to my father—"

“No, Razz, you didn’t do anything,” Edge said with a hard tone, catching Razz by surprise. “I won’t lie: it was shocking to hear what the pony claimed you’d done, but I refused to believe the mare I met was really nothing but a demon through and through. What I did believe was that nopony you’d ever known up to that point had ever really tried to help you because of your…unique powers. Being alone in life without anypony to go to, especially for a pony who has had it as rough as you, is no way to live, and so I’ve held onto that crystal in the hopes it would make our paths cross again before it was too late.” Oddly, Edge then chuckled softly. “You have no idea how worried I was when news finally reached me about what went down in Canterlot.”

If she hadn’t already been close to tears by that point, Razz was now. “You mean…you’ve been worrying about me all this time?”

“Of course! Meeting a special filly like you ain’t easy to forget! Plus, you were just a kid trying to find her place in a world that refused to understand your predicament. If nothing else, I worried that we never would meet again so you would know there was somepony who did care. Hell, I probably would’ve taken you under my metaphorical wing, had I known.”

Razz said nothing, but Helee suddenly leaving her horn to perch on the edge of the coach said it all as no sooner had he touched down did Razz fully embrace Edge and let the waterworks run down her face. While she had everything she could want in Ponyville—friends, family, honest employment and lodging—the fact there had been somepony who had always been thinking of her and even kept a memento of her in the hopes it would lead to their reunion despite what other ponies judged her as just made her all the more thankful for what had gone right in her life.

Even though Twilight was well aware of the rumors about how Trixie was supposedly her ultimate rival—if anything, Sunset Shimmer had really been the one to hold that title purely by being her predecessor as Celestia’s personal student—she realized this was the first time she’d ever been in Trixie’s mobile home. If it could even be called a “mobile home”, really, for the total area inside the stagecoach was maybe the size of a large living room, but the useable space was about two-thirds as much due to the left side being filled with the fireworks spinners, the trumpets, the large purple silk curtain, and the mechanisms used to deploy all of it when the left wall was lowered for “stage” mode. Along the right wall were two hooks—currently holding Trixie’s giant hat and cape—followed by a window and a miniature dressing room stand with mirror. In the back portion of the coach was a set of storage cabinets, on top of which sat a mattress and bedding that suggested that was where the blue unicorn bunked every night.

“Would you believe that this is actually bigger than the original that got crushed by the ursa?” chuckled Trixie, taking advantage of the alicorn’s momentary shock. “My father had taken out an insurance policy: evidently he hadn’t trusted that I would be able to cover expenses should something destroy it. I don’t know where he got ‘crushed by an ursa that was rudely awakened by two idiot colts’ insurance, but it was enough to get me a brand new stage coach that looked the same as the old one but gave me more room.”

“Hey, you’re not talking like you’re narrating every moment of your life,” noted Twilight.

Trixie just rolled her eyes. “Just because it sounds like I enjoy hearing myself speak in the third person all the time doesn’t actually mean I do it in the privacy of my own abode!” The normally boisterous performer suddenly seemed to lose much of the bravado she normally radiated as she added “It’s at least one of the illusions ponies still don’t see through.”

Twilight noted the immediate loss of confidence in Trixie’s demeanor. “Trixie, the whole ‘Magic Duel’ thing was ages ago. Don’t tell me ponies are still holding that against you.”

“No, most ponies outside of Ponyville have, thankfully, forgotten about that for the most part. Though there are a few villages around the Empire that have no love for me—you have a sizeable fandom up there, did you know that? But...the truth is that my act is getting kind of stale since there’s no significant feat of magic I can introduce without causing collateral damage or hope to learn within a year and…” Trixie rocked her head side to side like somepony grudgingly agreeing to another pony, “…it’s hard to make ponies believe I really am more talented at magic when the best I can do looks more like sleight of hoof tricks than actual magic. Plus, after Tirek stole so much magic and turned it against the country, ponies really aren’t that eager to see a stage performer of my vocation using magic so freely—and that’s when my old reputation kicks back in even though I had nothing to do with that Ursa attacking the town.”

“I dunno,” said Twilight in reply, “Ponies really are just scared of unrestrained users of high-level magic powers, especially after the energies I had to release when I had the power of all four alicorns within me. Plus, no offense, Trixie, but are you capable of higher level mag—"

“You’re not the only unicorn who got into Princess Celestia’s School!” angrily retorted Trixie. She then puffed her chest out slightly, slipping back into her usual boastful self. “You may have gotten the princess herself as a teacher, but only because you managed to pass the initiation exam’s last requirement—the one even the examiners normally couldn’t do. The Great and Powerful Trixie didn’t even need to take the exam, since she was recognized on her eighth birthday for her inherent power and got a Fullride Scholarship!”

Trixie got a scholarship to the school? Twilight wondered, trying hard—and failing—to keep the shock off her face. While the school was truly the vaunted establishment of higher magic education, Twilight had been stunned to learn one of its most important purposes was borderline indoctrination of notably gifted unicorns, albeit only in definition, as outside of rare exceptions the scholarships were mainly to ensure particularly vulnerable foals were protected in a dark magic free environment lest the Left Hoof Path corrupt them with promises of great power. The fact Trixie was born with such an inner magic wellspring to warrant a scholarship also lent the missing explanation of how she’d been able to fall prey to the Alicorn Amulet’s power—according to ancient texts deep within the Canterlot archives, the Amulet was extremely picky about the ponies who it deemed worthy of drawing from its vast pool of dark magic, for as far as dark magic was concerned, strength favored strength alone. She doesn’t need to know that if she doesn’t already by now.

Seeing the unicorn-turned-alicorn princess be put into a position of having underestimated her “rival’ brought a smile to Trixie’s muzzle—though not of contempt as evidenced by her return to the more modest version of her personality. “Heh, I went through so much in the past to try and prove myself as your better, and all I had to do was mention we went to the same damn school. But I never used it in my ‘act’ because ponies would then demand I do things possibly out of my caliber—yeah, yeah, it sounds hypocritical in light of me failing to drive off the Ursa but can you fault me for not ever planning on two colts actually doing something as stupidly dangerous as luring one into a populated area simply to see me fight it?”

“Trixie, I don’t recall ever seeing you at the school, though admittedly being personally mentored by Celestia meant I spent most of my time at the palace. But I know a few ponies who would have mentioned you, I’m sure.”

Trixie looked away. “I...never completed my studies there. During the fourth year there, my mother grew gravely ill and I had to return home to help my father care for her, even though it meant giving up my scholarship. One of the teachers, old Mr. Spellweave, contacted a friend of his and managed to get me a scholarship to the Magic Academy of Baltimare. But the quality of education isn’t anywhere near that of the Guild Academy, and so…” Trixie shrugged, as if that answered the rest of her statement.

Twilight opened her mouth to say something, but the sound of crying outside preempted her. Quickly trotting past Trixie, Twilight peeked out of the mobile home’s front door and was relieved to see it was just an emotional Razz doing the crying—evidently Rough Edge had been telling the truth and so presumably was also honest in supporting the changeling traveling in his troupe. It also served as a reminder to Twilight to wrap things up, as she turned to face Trixie again. “No, I can’t, but that’s all in the past, too. What still isn’t really explained is why you’ve come to town again now if you feel your act is wearing thin.”

Trixie perked up at the request. “Oh, it’s simple: I want to take my act to the human world!”

Twilight’s left eye twitched a little. “Trixie, you have two seconds to try and convince me what you just said is not what I think you just said, because otherwise—"

“Sandy told me,” said the magician, following up in response to the deadpan alicorn stare with, “She attended MAB’s sister school for earth ponies, the University School of Baltimare, so we were both at the Baltimare central library often and got to know each other. I was there when she first learned the word ‘hyo-mahn’ from some dusty book in the back of the public library.” She then sighed. “Look, all I know is that whatever you and your friends have been up to recently that’s related to Sunset Shimmer’s sudden return as a princess of all things has something to do with this ‘human world’. And that it’s a world without every third pony having natural magic. I do okay here in Equestria, but over there? I’d be the most successful entertainer who ever lived!”

Twilight, needless to say, was not so keen on the idea. “Are you out of your mind?! You literally just said you want to be in a position where you have incalculable power compared to everypony else: How is that not going to end up like the Alicorn Amulet screwing with your head again? The only thing that’s different is that the Amulet is pure dark magic, and nopony is immune to it except—"

The world seemed to stop for a split second as the neurons in Twilight’s supercomputer of a brain finally made an obvious connection. Disregarding Trixie for a moment, Twilight simply turned back to the door and looked out. She saw a now-emotionally collected Razz chatting idly with the other ponies, whatever set her off before evidently resolved.

But among the things that would set Razz off...dark magic was not one of them. She was the only pony alive who could be trusted in her knowledge of the left hoof path, for she was immune to its mental corruption. Imagine what we could learn about that amulet with her help… Twilight thought as she returned her attention inside.

“Trixie, instead of trying to work your way into something you really shouldn’t know anything about,” said the princess to the frantically-waving-her-forelegs-to-get-Twilight’s-attention mare behind her, “how about I just teach you some new tricks and help improve your act while you’re in town?”

Trixie huffed. “I would prefer no charity.”

“Don’t think of it as charity, then,” Twilight replied. “You said the caliber of education at Baltimare Academy isn’t up to snuff, right? Just think of it as me plugging up the holes in your education. You can’t be blamed for that, Trixie. You were trying to take care of your mother while she was ill—and to me, that’s worthy of praise.”

“Really?” The alice-blue maned unicorn looked like she was about to reach a level of excitement bordering what Pinkie Pie would consider ‘calm.’ “I mean, yeah, that would be great! But…what stopped you mid-rant there? You’re acting kind of funny, all of a sudden.”

“Don’t worry about it, Trixie,” replied Twilight. “It’s a matter best kept in the dark for now.”

From the number of times he’d read it, the scroll had been worn smooth at the edges and had started to tear. He constantly used a repair spell on it in order to keep it intact, but there was only so much that even magic could do against the ravages of wear and tear and time itself. He could have easily solved the problem by putting it in a display case with a preservation spell, and that would easily protect it.

But if he did that, it would reduce his sister’s last words to just that: words. Touching the letter made it feel as though she was still alive. LIke he hadn’t failed her and he hadn’t let her die. Sometimes he could almost feel her fur against the letter, as if she was holding it while he read. It was madness, sure, but a justifiable one.

He loved her and missed her so much that it tore a gaping wound in his heart and soul. How could he not? She had been his beautiful little sister, and she’d given up everything for duty, including her title, despite what Princess Celestia had exempted her from. She said she wanted to honor their mother, who had been a Hoof when she met their father. And from what Princess Celestia said, Pavane served with dignity and honor, just as a princess should. Even one who’d abandoned her title.

Still, Pavane had been his little sister, who he loved and tried to keep from her fate. His parents had told him he couldn’t; it had turned out to be true. So with a heavy heart and a massive brandy snifter, he reached for the scroll and opened it once more, reading the words he’d already memorized months ago at her funeral, but still forcing himself to read each word as if they were the first time he’d set eyes on them.

Blueblood set down the letter and wiped his eyes, reaching for the brandy snifter. He felt rage and sorrow at the same time. His sister had been murdered by Tirek and there hadn’t even been a body to bury. The “funeral” had been a mockery of life, just an empty casket with some of her personal belongings being set in a cenotaph. An empty grave, just as his heart felt. A fake soul for a fake tomb.

He threw the brandy snifter down in disgust, screaming in rage as it shattered on the marble floor. It was then that he heard a knock at the door, followed by it opening. Very few people had keys to his private apartments, so he should have expected this. Likely it was Broome again; he’d tried to fire that old coot for sticking around when he wasn’t wanted, but somehow the old stallion had the gall to think that he actually was wanted.

I suppose he knows me better than I do myself, Blueblood thought to himself.

He turned to look at the pony who had come in, gray as how he felt, her violet eyes filled with immense sorrow as she looked at him. For a change, she didn’t wear her normal bowtie, a sign that she was “off-duty”, so to speak..

He idly wondered: how many ponies in his life were practically always on duty? What meaningless items dictated their perpetual enslavement to their responsibilities? In many ways, Octavia Melody, his sister’s lifelong best friend was just as trapped as he was. Blueblood practically considered the mare like a sister himself, given how long she’d been in their lives.

“Blu,” she said in a soft voice.

“Go, Octy. Go before I ruin your life as well. Leave me to my own condemnation.”

She shook her head, much the same way his little sister had, a sign she wasn’t going anywhere. Blueblood knew she didn’t need to say anything more and held his forelegs out for her. She accepted the embrace and together, two siblings of the heart cried out in pain and sorrow for the third they’d lost and for the innocence Tirek had taken from the world. The world had always unfairly referred to her as his primary lover, his main dalliance whenever he wasn’t skirt chasing some other mare of the moment. It was vastly unfair to her, but she put up with it anyway, because of how much they meant to each other. Not that he’d ever been untoward with any mare outside of his “act”, but her least of all.

“Why do you do this to yourself?” she asked him. “Pav would not have wanted you to hurt yourself like this!”

“I hurt because it’s the only thing that still tells me I’m alive,” he told her in a dead voice. “I hurt because if I’d been better at my duties, my sister would still be here.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes, it was. If I’d been smarter, or quicker, or more clever to check in the places where no pony usually does––”

She embraced him once more as he broke down and cried. She cried along with him, but she continued to hold on, because she had to. She’d already lost one pony she loved like family. She would dare not let it happen a second time.

Author's Note:

That's right - Pavane's brother was Blueblood the whole time.

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