• 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 6 - Where Everypony Knows Your Name

Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter Six: “Where Everypony Knows Your Name”

After the guards and Twilight had taken their leave, Raspberry had spent an unreasonable amount of time combing through the collection of books she personally had taken from Sombra’s inner sanctum within the Crystal Castle. Sombra had apparently felt the need to write down almost everything like he was his own biographer—except for anything directly relevant to the mirror, the Amulet, or that Baldy di Castlevania human. It was like even Sombra didn’t want to be reminded of those things, or at the very least provide proof on his end that confirmed he had interdimensional affairs. Not even the self-glorifying “fictional” novel Feldspar and the Empress, by “Queen Umbra” (the book from which Applejack and later Razz herself had gleaned enough information to stop the spread of lycanthropy—twice) made so much as a reference to humans or the amulet or even the tangentially related bit about corrupting the blood of his own descendants, one of whom was reading his annoyingly purple prose right this minute.

She’d gone to bed that night a frustrated mare. There was one book still that she needed to look into, perhaps the worst in her collection: The Rose with the Broken Neck. Summoning it via a spell, she debated whether she should read it now or not—the last time she did, she didn’t get much sleep, and that had been after a relatively rough day. This one had been no less taxing between organizing the other books and Divine Right’s interrogation—as well as the terror that came with Twilight’s very frightening illusion—so she was at risk once more.

Still, I’m safe, Razz told herself. This girl from another world, the one Sombra renamed Broken Rose? I don’t know if she could say the same by the end. And I have a feeling I need to know. And with that, she opened the book to the next entry.

DAY 13:

Today has been quite intriguing. First, my spies in Everfree tell me that Celestia and Luna are unhappy with my “stewardship” of this realm (as if they have any right to question my authority!) and that they plan to do something if I do not mend my ways. I demanded from my spymaster to know how they intended to bring me to heel as if I am some dog, but he confessed he had no answer. It was instead a guard – a guard who I’d thought was loyal – that told me that they were coming here to kill me and to place my aunt Amore on the throne. He then attacked me, much to his extreme disadvantage.

Fortunately for him, he was granted a quick death via my newest minion, Sable Loam, who has been of quite some use to me as of late. Loam tore him to shreds, then asked what my next command was. Eager to give him what he wished, I ordered him and his forces to take care of the rest of the guard’s family, as if one of them was a traitor, they all had to be. Furthermore, he was to search the city for any sign of my aunt or cousins, as it was clear he would not have acted alone.

I then informed my generals present that should it happen again, I would be looking for new generals – and the parapets of the castle would be stained with their blood and that of their families. Needless to say, I got my message across.

The second great note of import was that my troops along the western frontier had begun their offensive against those bespawling cumbergrounds of Yakyakistan. I suppose I should have not been surprised, as Prince Richardson was a craven abydocomist, a braggart that believed he deserved to be anywhere near my greatness. Still, his braggadocio amused me and I continued to let him and his little band of dalcops live. No longer.

But no sooner than my strike had begun, that I was informed by a messenger that our quarry was not, in fact yaks, but instead a changeling hive. That became far more important than those mere yaks. Changelings were rare and possessed of a magic within them that fascinated me; a fruit on a vine, luscious and ripe and just waiting to be plucked. I knew I had to capture one or more for study.

My orders went out, without fail. Soon, they would be within my grasp.

The day was going well enough, that I even felt whimsical enough to visit my pet. It had been a couple of days since I’d last seen the Broken Rose and after the last visit, finding her still alive and mired in her own filth, I had little choice but to have one of my harem serve as nurses and caretakers. After all, given that she hadn’t bowed to death as she should have, it made her fascinating enough to allow for her continued existence.

As I enter the room, one of her current caretakers, Musica Allegra, dares to stare at me with unbridled hatred. I should punish her for that, but I let it pass. After all, she was foolish enough to come to my Empire to play a “peaceful concert” on behalf of the Princesses, without realizing that she would be my prize. She hates me for her own stupidity, but I do not care. Where would she go? My spies within my realm are everywhere, and I certainly wouldn’t let her return to Everfree.

I then see the other caretaker, Cocoa Bean, who is washing the Broken Rose with a sponge. Neither of them notice and it seems that have struck up a sort of friendship. It irks me that they do not stop their incessant prattling to take note of my august presence, but given that Miss Cocoa is nothing more than common field trash, the daughter of one of my farmhooves, she should be glad that I chose her to be part of my royal harem. But no gratitude do I get for my magnanimity, sad to say.

She finally realizes that I am here, but instead of begging forgiveness for not noticing earlier, she berates me for what I have done to the Broken Rose, stating that if I had a shred of decency, I would find clothing for the strange, naked and immobile creature before her. I ask her, what does she think of the Broken Rose and she tells me that she considers her a friend, and that both she and Miss Musica would do their utmost for her.

Such devotion was to be rewarded, and so I drew my sword.

It…was a messy affair and sadly, I have ruined one of my cloaks, but when it was done, I cover the Broken Rose with the hide I cut away from Cocoa Bean. I suppose that, in hindsight, she was right: I must take better care of my playthings, and that meant the Broken Rose must be shielded from the elements.

Well, Cocoa Bean will no longer have need of her own coat, in any case.

I tell Musica to dispose of Cocoa’s corpse as she sees fit, then lightly suggest that she perhaps prepare it for the Broken Rose’s consumption, as if I recall, men are omnivores. Musica screams at what I have done, but that is not my concern. I have taken care of my pet, and it is Musica’s issues to attend to now.

Perhaps I shall send Oceanglide to assist next time, as the fishmonger’s daughter is no longer as pliable in my bed as she used to be.

But as I leave, I suddenly get the feeling that something is boring into my soul. I don’t have to turn around to know it’s the Broken Rose. Somehow, I know I have broken something else within her today and that amuses me to no end. She is a fine gift, one that keeps on giving.

As my day wraps up, Sable’s troops report that they have found not only my aunt, but two of my cousins as well. Bound and bruised before me at the base of my throne, I look at my aged aunt and my cousins. Aunt Amore looks at me with pity (why, I’ve no idea), while my cousins Charity and Patience glare at me with the sort of expression only twin fillies can do.

I ask where Devotion, my aunt’s youngest daughter is, and she spits at me, telling me that I will never find her. That so long as Devotion lives, the House of Amore will continue to live and someday the cadence of truth will shine down and reign in the Empire. I laugh at my aunt’s words; she was always a sentimental old fustiliarian.

I look at two of my guards and I see what they have in mind. Well, never let it be said that I am not a generous king, so I offer them their desires. And as they spend themselves on my cousins, I have my aunt watch as all my guards take their enjoyment. She screams in rage and hatred, damning and cursing me, saying that on a day to come I will be destroyed by love and a star, as if she is setting prophecy.

Oh no, you old hag. The only prophecy is that I shall rule forever. I take my sword and run it through her, staining my carpet with her lifeblood. I then tell my guards to take their prizes to the barracks and that they shall serve forevermore as my troops’ bedswervers.

One of the sergeants asks how interesting it is that he will get his fill of princesses tonight.

Alas for him, he will not have his fill of princesses, but of prostitutes who once might have been royalty.

Too bad they gave up that option by opposing me.

Razz felt even worse after closing that horrid book—what she’d done to kill Fair Vista made her feel dirty now that she knew her hated ancestor had gone and actually skinned some poor mare alive. She felt more like Sombra even if her actions had allowed her to finally end lycanthropy.

And the more horrifying fact was she knew she had to keep reading it at some point. Inexplicably, “Broken Rose” was important somehow but for all the pain in Razz’s life, nothing compared to what she’d already read about the suffering of that poor girl.

The next morning, half-stumbling through her usual morning routine, Razz dragged herself out of her room and toward the front desk. She was so tired that she didn’t have the energy to react in shock when she realized she’d forgotten Pinkie Pie was supposed to come around early that day to return the Alicorn Amulet to her.

“Up all night again, Blackberry?” came a distinctly Prench accented voice.

“Probably trying to think of new ways to be trouble around here, I’ll bet,” replied a slightly different pitched version of the same voice.

Sighing, Razz turned and looked at the two mares who had appeared behind her. Spic and Span were the pegasi twins who composed the entire cleaning maid staff of the Traveler’s Retreat, and like almost all of the rare twins born to ponies, they had an obvious duality about them where their colors were the reverse of their biological duplicate. Spic—the “older” sister by maybe a minute’s time—was a celeste blue in coat color, mane and tail hairs a shade of gray Razz personally would think belonged on a dust bunny, with bright sky blue eyes and a predominantly orange coloration in her cutie mark: a spray bottle and cleaning cloth. The younger sister Span was the inverse—dust bunny gray coat with celeste mane/tail colors, pumpkin orange hued eyes and a sky blue polish canister cutie mark. Internally, Razz had long since found it odd how these two pegasi twins managed to have the same mane style preferences as the only other pegasi twins in town: Cloudchaser and Flitter.

Though also in comparison, Cloudchaser and Flitter tended to be nicer as well.

“I’m pretty sure even college sororities don’t have hazing periods that last as long as this,” remarked Razz, turning to grab a much needed cup of coffee for what was already starting to be a long day.

Spic huffed. “Yeah, like you would know.”

Span nodded in agreement with her sister. “I’m amazed you can even read.”

“And I’m amazed you two think it’s still okay to be absolute haridelles to the daughter of your employers who thought she was dead for almost a whole year,” said a new voice that caused both pegasi to freeze in a panic. “Of course, I’m also assuming you two already finished cleaning rooms 9, 14, and 21 if you’re standing here and belittling my daughter?”

“Uh, y-yes, just finished them, Madame Cashmere!” stammered Span, speaking for both herself and her sister.

Descending the stairs, the elderly Earth pony moved to put herself in front of her rude employees. “Well then, why don’t you two go out back and see if that performing group using the old coach shed needs anything.”

“You meant the tramps that she–” Spic gestured to Razz, who had turned around at that point, “–dragged in the other night?”

“Yes, the fine ponies that Ascot and I agreed to let use a space nopony has used or needed for over a decade. After all, the two previous cleaning ponies, Spit Shine and Mirror Finish, were more than capable of handling that old building’s needs when it was still regularly used, and unless you’re saying you two aren’t as good as you say-“

“No-no!” stammered Spic, “we’ll get right on that, won’t we, Span?”

“B-but of c-course, Spic!” replied the younger, and in no time the twin cleaning crew was gone.

Cashmere nickered. “I’m sorry, honey,” she said as she gave Razz a quick hug, “they’re normally far more hospitable, but when it comes to you they just turn into total haridelles.”

“It’s ok, Mom,” thanked Razz, “they’re Prench. I think they need to be jerks to somepony and I was the lucky mare that caught their attention. With my luck, I wonder if I’d win the lottery? I can already cheat death in more ways than I care to acknowledge.”

“Well, I can see somepony needs a good brew right now,” said the elderly earth pony, producing a hot mug full of the caffeine-laden elysium that Razz so desperately needed. “Oh, by the way, Derpy Hooves came around earlier to drop off a letter. Apparently there’s been a family emergency on the Pie Rock Farm and Pinkie had to leave on the first train this morning.”

“Oh, dear, I hope everything is okay,” said Razz, sipping from the cup now hanging in the air in a cloud of bubbly black magic.

“I’m sure it will be, Pinkie did also mention she shouldn’t be gone too long and will be back by the time the pool tournament starts. But in regards to the jewelry she wanted to give to you, it’s still at the ‘safe’ place—she doesn’t say where, just an address.”

Razz shrugged. “Well, it’s not like she just pawned it off to anypony irresponsible, right?”

Sandalwood had been engrossed in her book; A Vestibule of Stars, when the doorbell rang.

“Coming!” she called out, putting the bookmark inside the spine before the book on the table. She’d been expecting Cherry Berry to come around - she’d wanted some perfumes Sandy had run out of the previous day at the spa, so the tan pony had offered to make a new batch and Berry could come around and pick some up. But when she opened the door, a ‘berry’ of a very different pony persuasion was on the other side.

“Hey, Sandy,” said Razz, “Sorry for the sudden appearance but I heard that-”

“Sweet Celestia, you’re alive!” exclaimed Sandalwood, rushing Razz in a big hug. “Why didn’t you let me know you were here?!”

“Uh, I’ve only been back in town for a week?” said Razz, groaning internally as she realized she was going to have to go through this kind of introduction with pretty much the entire country until the news got out that everypony’s favorite dark magic expert was alive and well after all. “But yeah, I’m alive.”

Sandalwood then let go, looking expectantly at Razz. “So...where’d you go?”

“What do you mean?”

Sandalwood rolled her eyes, “No, you’re just gone for close to an entire year, leaving the entire country thinking you’re dead, then pop up out of the blue alive and well after all is said and done and we’re all picking up the pieces of a broken country? That’s not you, Razz, dark magic or not if you weren’t busy doing something major out of the country - your folks were completely devastated by losing you, as was everypony.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Razz, somberly. “What happened was...well, to be perfectly honest, I almost did die. I had to go far away from Equestria to recover and honestly, it wasn’t exactly all sunshine and rainbows where I’ve been.”

“If it wasn’t that, then...what?”

“I can’t tell you,” Razz repeated. “It’s kind of a super secret.”

“Like a Pinkie Promise?” asked Sandy in a deadpan.

“No, because I didn’t do the Pinky Swear. This is a Because-the-resident-alicorn-princess-said-so matter.”

“Fine, fine, I get the hint - for now. But I think we both know exactly where you ended up all this time and you’re going to spill the beans to me at some point.” She sighed dramatically before continuing on the original topic; “I bet you’re probably here for this.” Sandalwood reached around just behind the door, picked something up, and then handed the crudely wrapped box to Raspberry. “Yeah, kinda surprised you let Pinkie handle this thing. I mean, the fact she can get a little too out there aside, I know she’s just the good kind of hyperactive, but what this thing does, I really don’t want to think of what would happen if she wore it.”

Razz took the package, taking only a second to try and think of what Sandalwood was talking about. Her eyes grew slightly wider when she realized it was the Alicorn Amulet. “Hold on…Pinkie gave this to you?” Granted, this was exactly why Razz had come to that address in the first place, but it was only now dawning on her the sheer scope of Pinkie’s...obliviousness to the situation regarding a weapon of mass destruction being just casually handled like a cheap trinket of interest.

Sandy shrugged. “She said you told her to give it to me, though I’m guessing that wasn’t quite right based on your reaction.”

The unicorn shook her head. “Look, keep this on the downlow, but Pinkie was supposed to merely hide it away in one of her various spots of ‘things hidden away in case of that specific thing-based emergencies’, not give it to somepony who already had a little too much of a brush with the dark side of magic not too long ago.” Then another realization hit Razz: “Unless the story here is that Pinkie somehow intuitively knew that because you were briefly, uh, ‘altered’ by dark magic, you are slightly immune to it and really might be one of the few ponies in this whole town who could safely handle this thing.”

“That’s…pretty much verbatim what Pinkie told me,” answered Sandalwood. “You’re telling me that it’s possible Pinkie was just making all that up off the top of her head?”

Razz chuckled. “Seems that way, but while I’d be extremely worried about Pinkie’s ambivalence if it was any other pony, that party pony has some supernatural-level insight into matters and can explain phenomena in simple terms nopony else can.”

Sandy nickered. “Well, she was still wrong about it being some magical artefact from an ancient human, that’s for sure.”

The dark archmagus raised an eyebrow at that. “She told you that this had something to do with humans?”

The aromatherapist nodded. “Yeah, looking back on it, she probably just said that to make me agree to hold on to it faster to ‘examine’. There’s a weird engraving on the side face of the amulet that I thought might have been similar to one of the few known and translated human languages in the field of homonology.”

“Homonology?”

Sandalwood nodded. “The study of humans, of course! Not sure where the term came from, but Lyra knows.”

“Anthropology, you mean?” Razz corrected.

“Anthro-what?” Sandalwood asked, but then shrugged. “Nevermind. Anyway, homonology is the study of humans possibly existing. Er, let me rephrase that—it’s the study of humans in regards to pony history. Even if it’s classified info Lyra and I happen to be privy to, since I’m sure Sunset Shimmer would argue humans do exist...even if it’s on another dimensional plane, right?”

“I’m sure she would, if she was here and not there,” chuckled Razz. Inwardly, though, Pinkie’s supposed lie about the Amulet being related to humans wasn’t entirely without merit, even if she’d not truly been aware of the facts. The dark mirror in Canterlot and the Amulet itself were unquestionably both related to Sombra, as was his supposed cross-dimensional bartering with that Baltimare Castlevania or whatever his name was—Razz herself had been the last individual to go through Sombra’s mirror and end up in front of Bratzi Corleone’s mirror, before the latter shattered to reveal a haunting warning from Sombra directly referencing that bartering between human and corrupt unicorn. But human writing—there was a time where Razz thought that no matter what specific human vernacular was used, without magic inherent in the species there was no way to imbue magic inscription on anything—on a decidedly not-human artifact seemed entirely out of place. But the magic she had unintentionally, for the lack of a better term ‘stolen’ from Divine Right and had been imbued within her was only available if Razz ever needed to become that horrid human form again, meaning there WAS inherent magic within humanity but perhaps sealed...she banished the thought for investigation at another time. “Though now you’ve got me curious, Sandy, were you able to read what was on the Amulet?”

The tan pony nickered. “I don’t think so, the closest matches I could find to make even a partial translation ended up reading as ‘Be surto stink tine ovo kween’ and…yeah, utter nonsense.”

“Yeah, I thought as much,” laughed Razz, relieved that for the moment, the evil amulet did not bear a connection to ancient human powers. It was enough of a headache with the amount of dark magic sealed within already.

Later, as Razz walked down the main thoroughfare of Ponyville, Amulet back in her custody, she noted that there were considerably more ponies looking at her cautiously. She was without Helee for the day—apparently Spike’s own pet phoenix chick, Pee Wee, was visiting with his parents and according to Spike, Pee Wee’s parents had wanted the green phoenix to be kind of a chaperone to watch over their chick for the day. While Razz had immediately approved, it left her without the reassuring bird’s grip on her horn. Without that presence, the creeping feeling of insecurity was rising inside the unicorn, aided by the fact all these ponies had to be looking at her in knowledge of what her true, physical self looked like. What she was capable of.

But this is different than all those times before, confidently reasoned Razz in her mind as she focused elsewhere to ignore the looks. Yes, I’m capable of great and terrifying feats, like him, but I am more capable of keeping a lid on it in public now as well. The rumbling in her tummy also helped take her mind off of things as it was lunchtime, though where to go was tough since there wasn’t a restaurant she especially dislike—

“OOOF!”

Razz had been so distracted by the sudden need for food that she hadn’t noticed where she had been walking—or who she’d walked into. As she stepped back to see what she’d run over, she realized she’d accidentally bumped into a stallion. At first she thought it was Big Mac, given this was a very large and red stallion, but the details didn’t match up. This stallion was a far brighter shade of red, with mane, spaghetti mustache and tail colors a mix of black and almost silvery gray. His cutie mark looked like a pool ball—a striped one, white top and bottom with a yellow line running through the middle. However, while Razz wasn’t familiar with pool balls, something seemed…off with this depiction, as the middle of the ball designating the number was pitch black with a golden-yellow “9” in the middle. The scariest detail, however, was the piercing gaze from the stallion’s bright blue eyes, scrunched so narrow it was like he had thin strips of blue for eyes instead.

“I-I’m sorry, sir!” apologized Razz, reasoning that as scary this pony may look like, she’d fought werewolves, her own demonic father, and human “monsters” in an alien dimension she’d been trapped in for a year.. Evil Big Mac couldn’t compare, really. “I got distracted and didn’t notice where I was going, honest mistake.”

“You…” replied the unmoving monolith of a pony in a coarse, deep voice that seemed as though he was a natural for spooky voices. “You are the Heir of Sombra, are you not?” His accent seemed unusual, slightly coarse and rough as his tones—and just as creepy, though she didn’t admit this aloud.

“I, uh, beg your pardon?” One of the things Razz had found out following being named Sombra’s blood heir was that some ponies who had disapproved of her being spared the death sentence to be named royalty had made up some nasty names for her. Of the ones she knew about, ‘Heir of Sombra’ was the most common because even in casual conversation, it couldn’t be taken out of context without sounding like just a statement of the truth. So she wanted to give the benefit of the doubt here. A confrontation was not necessary. She hoped.

“Yes, you are the one who shares the blood of the dark king,” continued the stallion, slowly turning to face her. It was like some giant, godless killing machine was deciding on whether or not to try and break her neck or other body part—again, something that wouldn’t be the worst Razz had faced and would maybe just inconvenience her for the day. “It would appear that reports of your death over this past year of your absence have been greatly exaggerated, if you are here now.” He then glanced around as if searching for something - or somepony. “Tell me, where is your phoenix friend?”

“Look, I don’t know why you want to know all that, and I said I was sorry, okay?” she replied with a little more authority. “As it is, I’d like to be on my way, so if you please…” but as she tried to walk off, the stallion moved to block her.

“Please, I just have some questions I would like to ask,” the red pony intoned, like a spider inviting a fly into his den. “If it’s not too much troub-“

“Clear the alley, Nineball!” Another pony suddenly threw herself into the fray, Razz noting it appeared to be the same green pegasus she’d bumped into from two nights ago momentarily at the Retreat, judging from the same pool cue hairclip as before. “Or do you normally like keeping a mare—an important government mare even—from whatever it is she is trying to do?”

Having looked over to focus on the green pony now, his eyes still narrow slits, the stallion known as Nineball just stared at her before replying. “I could say the same to you, since it would look good on your part to be saving the damsel in distress given your reputation in some circles.”

“You’re still sore over me sharking you all over the felt at the semi-finals at the Las Pegasus invitational, aren’t you?”

“That was luck and nothing else, Corner,” nickered Nineball, but he seemed to decide backing down was the better option. He turned and walked off without another word, leaving a crowd staring at him more than Razz for which she was slightly relieved about.

“The nerve of some ponies…” grumbled the pegasus, before she looked to the unicorn. “In case you couldn’t tell, Nineball ain’t exactly ‘sociable’ outside of his native Stalliongrad. Though from what I heard, in comparison to the average resident of that Celestia-forsaken icecube of a city, he’s a practical life of the party.” She then raised a hoof and added “But where are my manners? I’m Corner Shot.”

“Raspberry Beryl,” replied Razz, taking the hoof in hers and shaking. “Thanks for the save, normally ponies who just hear about me in the news tend to keep their distance, not…well, that.”

“Don’t doubt it, but I don’t think he’s playing with a full rack, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I wonder if he’s an actual pony and not just some elaborate mechanical puppet pretending to be an actual pony. What he lacks in personality, he makes up for with being able to run the rails if you give him a chance.” Corner then took on a more concerned look on her face. “But...aren’t you supposed to be dead? You’re the Archmagus, yet you’ve been missing since the whole war with that big angry centaur got resolved!”

“That’s...confidential, sorry,” said Razz, quickly covering for herself. “My whereabouts following the defeat of Tirek were kept secret as that monster had made it his intention to steal my power and to an extent had. Due to my unique magical traits, I had to hide away to recover lest some other big nasty evil thing decide it wanted a piece of me as well.” That much was in a sense correct, as Razz had recovered in the human world, even getting a taste of what magic that wasn’t inherently corrupting felt like. “I’ve only recently been able to resume my duties and come home, as a matter of fact, so lots of ponies still think I’m dead. But enough about me - I take it you’re here for the big pool tournament then?”

“Obviously!” Corner Shot raised an eyebrow at the question. “Wait, you’re saying you’ve never heard of me before?”

“Well, no, I…don’t follow sports, never really had the chance as I tended to drift from place to place.” Suddenly, Razz’s stomach rumbled again. “Sorry, I haven’t had much to eat today.”

“And I’m just out taking in the town, first time I’ve been to Ponyville and the first chance I’ve had to explore the place. How about you take me to the best place in town and I’ll treat you, sound good?”

A huge grin spread across Raspberry’s face. “Sure!”

As usual, The Bannered Mare was bustling with diners and wait staff, but in one of the rare times she was glad to abuse her status a member of Twilight’s court, Razz and Corner were instantly seated at the table usually reserved for Princess Twilight and her court...which was odd, given that she didn’t know if Twilight had ever eaten here before.

“So, I’m guessing you don’t know much about the whole pool scene?” asked Shot once the waitress had taken their drink orders.

“I don’t know much about pool at all, really,” admitted Razz. “Though I am curious: what exactly is the scene as you would describe it?”

Shot smiled. “Well, you know how the big sports like hoofball or extreme underwater basketweaving have big name athletes? Sort of the same with pool, only it’s a question of how good a pony is in swingin’ the stick to move that egg in sweet spots, instead of brute-forcing a pig-knitted ball through solid moving walls of stallion sweat and muscle. It’s all about skill, plain and simple.”

Razz blinked; she didn’t understand about half of that sentence, but she figured that it had to make sense to somepony. “Oh...okay,” she answered simply.

The waitress then returned with their drinks, subsequently taking the food orders before departing. Shot started up again, this time talking about the crème’ de la crème of the pool sharks around. Aside from Corner Shot herself, there were eight other pool “superstars” who were commonly cited as the favorites to take the tournament trophy; Nineball, Bouclée, Carambole, Forward Spin, Golden Break, Table Speed, and North Shores.

“Thing about North Shores,” continued Corner, in between bites of the food that had arrived during her monologue, “he’s probably the only one of the nine that isn’t gifted with some pool-related special talent.”

“Oh?” inquired Razz, having found Corner Shot’s in-depth explanation about the sport spellbinding.

“Yeah, like, I think he’s some rich playboy who runs a tropical resort in San Fransiscolt—he’s certainly brown enough that I can never tell if he’s that color naturally or he just stays permanently suntanned. Rumor is that he’s got the hots for Princess Luna, but regardless of that, the whole point is that he’s gotten so good at pool because he thinks that it’ll get her to notice him.”

“And she will, I tell you!” said North, who coincidentally was walking by the table on his way out of the restaurant. “Heck, I don’t even need to really win, I just need to beat you, Corner!”

“In your dreams, North,” snarked back Corner, before realizing her mistake. “Oh. Right. She does do the whole ‘dreamwalking’ thing doesn’t she?”

“Uh-huh, so thanks for the encouragement!” laughed North as he moved on from the brief exchange.

“Really, he’s one of the best players there is?” skeptically asked Razz.

“Don’t let his slightly delusional demeanor fool you, that pony is a master of the left hoof path. Er, I mean, left hoof spin. Sorry, don’t know what I was saying before.”

“Eh, no big. But what’s your big thing, then, Miss Shot?”

Shot blinked. “Come again?”

Razz giggled. “You’ve gone on at length about all the other big pool sharks, what’s your advantage?”

The pool shark smiled. “Well, I’m probably the only pool playing pegasus who uses all her limbs to play. Legs for standing, wings for making the shot. Puts a hell of a backspin on the egg and always puts the others into sweet. Somepony once told me that kind of skill, unless you’re a unicorn—which is why the balls are enchanted to block certain spells—is practically impossible unless you’ve got fingers or claws like some of the minotaur and griffin players. Fortunately for me, there’s a separate league for non-hooved players. Not that they’d stand a chance against me, anyway—I’m just that good.”

“Really?” Truth was, it wasn’t inconceivable to Razz that a pegasus could use their wings as an extra set of appendages with feathers for digits. After all, there was the one pony who was quite a crack shot with a bow and arrow she’d encountered back in Lonesome Dove. “I didn’t think pegasi were capable of that level of ungularity with their wings.”

“Believe me, Raspberry,” chuckled Shot, though for a moment Razz thought there was a somber touch in the amused mare’s tone, “sometimes, ponies are capable of things you would never expect them to be. And honestly? If it wasn’t for the support of my family, I never would have found my true calling here.”

Razz nodded. “Your family must be really supportive, then.”

Corner Shot grinned. “I’m sure they’d love to meet you sometime.” It looked like Corner was going to say more, but the diner suddenly growing silent put both the pool player and the dark mage on alert. “Okay, something is going down.”

Almost as if in response, the sound of a very flustered unicorn trying to work his way through the crowded restaurant became audible, and some awkward sidestepping later finally found Capt. Divine Right arriving at the table. “Glad I found you, Archmagus!” he said. “I’ve been looking all over town for you.”

“What’s up, Captain?” Razz asked.

He gave her an urgent look that could either mean the world was in peril, or Twilight was late on a report and was using him to stall for time. “Her highness needs you to report to the castle. It’s…sensitive matters I’m not at liberty to discuss publicly.”

“Of course.” The unicorn then looked apologetically at her lunch companion. “Sorry about this, Shot.”

“Ah, you’re probably tired of me yapping anyway,” joked the pool shark. “Go on, save the world or whatever it is you royal types do.”

With a thankful nod, Razz then disappeared in a flash of light, with Divine soon following. Now left with a party of one, Shot just sighed and wished Nineball hadn’t managed to figure out her own feelings before even she had realized it.

“Why are you still carrying that thing?” asked Twilight the moment Razz met up with her inside the castle. “I thought Pinkie hid the Amulet!”

“Yeah, she hid it with the resident human conspiracy theorists...excuse me, anthropologists,” replied Razz.

“You mean the homonologists?” Twilight asked.

Razz sighed, not in the mood to correct Twilight on the correct phrase. “Anyway, it admittedly was the right move—Sandalwood’s slight immunity to dark magic made her the best choice in my absence. Kinda wish she hadn’t told Sandy there was human writing on it, though, since there isn’t.”

“Well, we need to hide it somewhere now.” Twilight looked around the main foyer of her castle. She still was relatively unfamiliar with it—words couldn’t express how much she preferred the former Golden Oaks Library to this—but decided so long as Razz had the Amulet in her possession, that was the safest place at the current time. “Uh, nevermind. Point is I’m going to need to leave for a few days and because we’re going to need someone to officially take care of royal duties, I’m leaving that to my court for now. Unfortunately, that means you’ll need to take over for me.”

Razz was taken aback. “Don’t tell me you have a sudden family emergency, too!”

“Oh, it’s an emergency alright,” curtly answered the alicorn. “Several hours ago, the commercial airship Seabiscuit Arno was reported to have gone down somewhere along the griffin/Equestrian border near a town called Nightshade.” She pointed to a map of Equestria, where on a peninsula close to where the sea boundaries of Equestria and griffin lands met, was the small town.

“Never heard of it, though during my travels I learned to avoid going near the griffin border—last thing I wanted was some griffin warlord learning my secret and trying to bring me into his forces.” Razz shuddered at the thought before continuing. “Still, shouldn’t there be a detachment of Guard on the border every few miles or so to protect against raiding parties of rogue griffins? And how do we know it wasn’t a bunch of griffins responsible for this anyway?”

“The Guard is barely able to keep a minimum guard at their posts along the border—sending in one of the detachments to investigate would open a gap in border defenses and obviously that’s a no-go. Plus, those same detachments are posted to keep a lookout for any griffin air- or oceangoing ships that such raid parties would use and there are no reports of such ships. It’s more likely this is a changeling attack.” The two ponies were silent, one letting the other register the ramifications of what meaning now lay before them. “Ever since they were driven out of Canterlot thanks to my brother and sister-in-law, the Royal Guard has put more emphasis on strengthening its ability to root out impostors around key towns like Canterlot and, as you saw with your actor friends, the outskirts of Ponyville. After the war, it’s been more important than ever, and what with resources and ponypower so short on hoof, it would be opportune for changelings to try and prey on a weak Equestria through its transportation routes.”

“But why do you need to go?”

The Princess of Friendship sighed. “Because if this is an act of war on part of the changelings—we can’t be sure Chrysalis is still in charge or even alive, as there’s been no trace of her for the past two years—then taking out a civilian airship that close to the border presents multiple problems. Sending out more of the Guard to investigate that small area would take time and resources to mobilize a rescue effort, leaving less to go toward another potential attack that could happen if the airship is just a diversion. Additionally, sending troops that close to the border would make the Minoans a little antsy. Remember that their lands aren’t too far from the Griffon lands, so they’ve seen that mess a little too up close and personal. So if the changelings aren’t trying to start a war with us directly, a troop buildup would mean that we think the griffins are getting ready for another round of their internecine warfare, and that would put the Minoans on alert. Celestia would really appreciate it if we didn’t unintentionally start a war between the minotaurs and the griffons.”

“But you’re talking the Guard here, not the Army, right?”

“Exactly. By sending me in with a small contingent of guardsponies, our neighbors won’t see it as an act of aggression.”

“But you’re still only one pony, Twilight!” argued Razz, “and to be honest you don’t know how to deal with a situation that for all you know could leave you stranded and fighting for survival just like those poor passengers on the Arno.” She took a deep breath before she gave her decision on the matter: “That’s why it probably would be better if I went instead.”

“Are you sure you want to go, Razz?” Twilight asked. “You haven’t been home much of late—to the tune of almost a whole year, even though it was only a month for you—and it all but destroyed your parents to lose you once already. Now I’m sending you out on another trip?”

“I appreciate the concern, Twilight, but you forgot one thing: if you’re going, even with a small contingent of guards, how will that look? The minotaurs will probably panic even worse: they didn’t send a division of Army soldiers, but one of their alicorns—the Warrior Princess, no less—and her cleanup squad.”

Twilight facehoofed. “You know, I hate that nickname.”

“You save the world enough times, you end up with a nickname, I guess. Anyway, that’s how it will look if you go. But if I go? It will be framed as a standard investigation for possible derelict action on the airship—especially since we can’t rule out that this could be some Tirek fanatics instead of changelings, so it could be a dark magic situation. After all, who better to look for that than an Archmagus of Equestria, right?”

“You do have a point,” Twilight admitted, studying Raspberry for several long minutes. She knew Raspberry Beryl well, through the innocent white lies, to the public spectacle of the trial, to having already faced down multiple evil threats and had been there to lend a helping hoof needed for Razz to vanquish her dark personal history. This was Razz, lending a helping hoof to the nation, proving herself worthy of her title, even though she had barely even been home for what had felt like an eternity to all those who valued her as a friend and family member.

“Plus, I did just get back from that sudden trip to Endless Vale, so it isn’t like I’m not already used to being sent out into the field at short notice.”

“Okay, I’ll authorize it,” said Twilight, “I wouldn’t dare sacrifice a friend in my place normally, but…well, you’re pretty insistent and if anypony was better suited for this task, it’s you. Just try to take one of the other girls. You could probably use the help.”

“Well, I was briefly thinking of reaching out to a couple of mages, but sure, I’ll take Rarity along. She could probably use the practice in magecraft, all things considered."

"Anypony else you want to go?”

“Maybe AJ for muscle?”

“Makes sense. I also want you to take Rainbow along. Tell her that her Navy commission is reactivated and as a lieutenant, she’s in charge of the Guard group you’re taking.”

“Yeah. Naval officer in charge of Guard troops. Even I know that’s not gonna go over well, Twi.”

“It could go either way—yeah, on the immediate level it’s not going to go over well, but it’ll probably make Tumblehome happy since she’s so adamant that the Navy should be in charge of everything protecting the country.” Twilight nickered while shaking her head, then continued. “But more importantly, the fact is that Rocketfuel told me that Rainbow really needs to work on her military bearing if she’s going to be in the Wonderbolts. He put her in charge of a flight unit within the Shooting Stars and she could barely handle it. So she needs the practice. I’ll ask Div to select a sergeant that will be able to smooth out the rough edges, so don’t worry.”

“You’re the princess here,” Razz said with a shrug. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get my ‘posse’ ready to get going.”

“Posse?”

Razz shrugged. “I dunno, it was something Sunset said in passing once while I was in her company. Probably just some weird kind of human slang without an Equestrian equivalent, y’know?”

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