• Published 24th May 2015
  • 3,969 Views, 150 Comments

Treacherous Mists - Autocharth



Illidan the Betrayer returns in the stolen body of Twilight Sparkle as the Mists of Pandaria fall, an ally of the Mogu and their returned Thunder King. Scattered across Azeroth, her friends search for their kidnapped friend, finding allies and foes.

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Chapter 1 - Tomatoes Are Thrown, Quests Begin

Chapter 1 - Tomatoes Are Thrown, Quests Begin

*

It started, as many things do, with a dream.

Black water churned beneath her, a raging maelstrom that fell away into an endless abyss. Her legs straddled something rough and scaly that moved beneath her with a will of its own. Crackling, chaotic energies rushed past her in tremendous winds. The sky crackled with energy and her body felt strange, as though she was in two places at once. From beneath her, the furious waves suddenly off to her side, distant, and she stood side-by-side with two others within the skeleton of a city. She didn’t know them, these strange bipeds with violet skin, but she loved them.

No sounds reached her. They spoke, yet not a single word reached her ears, these presences that followed her as her surroundings shifted back to the eagle-eyed view of the dark, chaotic vortex.

She turned her head, catching sight of a leviathan with gleaming red scales that shone despite great wounds and even greater exhaustion. It was a dragon, more magnificent than any she had seen. She couldn’t let it distract her. She had to do this, she had to prove her worth, had to live up to the promise of her golden eyes—

Golden eyes?

She awoke with a gasp, her chest heaving. Vertigo struck and she flailed, covers knocked aside. It faded just as quickly as it had come, leaving the sweat-bathed mare to stare at the ceiling of her room. Her heart pounded, a frantic weight within her chest. For a moment she entertained the notion it was trying to punch its way out with each forceful beat.

Drawing in a slow, steady breath she forced herself to calm down. It was still night, the starry sky twinkling through between the curtains, and she didn’t want to wake—

“Twilight?” asked Spike. He peeked at her from his basket.

She hid her wince at the sleepy whisper. Lifting her head, Twilight Sparkle smiled apologetically at her little brother. “I’m fine. Go back to sleep Spike, you need your rest.”

The little dragon ignored this, pulling himself up the side of her bed. She smiled as she noted the pillow he still managed to clutch against his chest, like an amorphous teddybear. He looked at her with half lidded-eyes and ran a claw across his emerald crest, worry clear in his eyes.

“Sounded like you were having another nightmare,” Spike said. “Like last night.”

This time she couldn’t hold back her grimace, but she hoped it was too dark for him to see it. “You need to go back to bed,” she repeated. “Little dragons need a lot of sleep.”

“So do big ponies,” he pointed out stubbornly. “And I’m not the one having nightmares all week.”

They were both still whispering, despite the fact everyone in the building was now awake, all two of them. Twilight’s breath blew out, a gentle sigh as her ears drooped. How was she supposed to make him go to bed? The little drake was watching, peering through the darkness at her, and though she couldn’t see the look in his eyes, she could imagine the stubborn gleam to them.

“It’s nothing, Spike. It will pass in a day or two, it’s probably just something I read nagging at me. It certainly won’t pass if we stay up all night arguing and losing sleep,” Twilight told him.

“Uh huh.” Spike raised a scaly eyebrow at her. “Sure it will.”

Twilight groaned. “I promise, it will go away.”

“What if it doesn’t? What if it gets worse and you can never sleep again?” Spike demanded. He gestured frantically, as if this could happen at any moment.

Closing her eyes, Twilight bit back another groan. ‘He’s not going to let this go, is he?’ “I’ll…” Inspiration struck. Her eyes popped open and she blurted, “I’ll ask Princess Luna to help. If it doesn’t go away, I’ll see if she can help.”

She waited with baited breath. Ordering him to bed again would do no good; she could only hope this would convince him. In the gloom, lit by the silver of the moon shining through the window, she saw him scratch his chin thoughtfully.

“Spike—” she began.

He said, cutting her off, “Okay.”

Her mouth clicked shut and she blinked a few times, her intended piece on why he should listen to her pre-empted. She gave him a narrow eyed look, wondering when the bit would drop.

'There's no way it's that easy,' she thought.

He proved this by crawling across her bed, plopping down his pillow and taking a clawful of her bedsheet. With a jerk he pulled it up, until it draped over them both.

She couldn’t help a fond smile as he snuggled in against her. “Oh, I guess you think you’ve outwitted me, huh smart guy?” Amusement tinged her quiet question.

“Yep.” She couldn’t see him grinning, but she knew it was there, a sleepy, toothy little grin.

Letting out a chuckle, Twilight adjusted the covers and curled a foreleg around her little brother. “Good night.”

*

Spike yawned as he stirred amid the covers. He reached for the warmth that was his sister-mother-boss figure, seeking comfort in her cuddly fur. He pawed at the bedding for nearly a minute before lifting his head. Yawning again he struggled free slowly, slithering to the floor and casting a sleepy gaze across the otherwise empty room.

Wait...where’s Twilight?'

His eyes popped fully open and the little dragon looked around the room. The sleep was gone from his eyes in an instant, but the room remained a Twilight-free zone.

“Twilight?” He called, waddling towards the door. She failed to answer. “I guess she’s in the bathroom or something.”

Shrugging it off, Spike padded downstairs. His feet made barely any sound on the stairs, his steps light but slow. The little dragon made his way down, humming quietly. He glanced across the main room of the library as it came into sight, smiling when he saw his caretaker turned away from him, standing at one of the bookshelves.

“Morning, Twilight!” He called to her. She jerked, the book in front of her falling off the shelf. Spike stared, pausing and watching as she swayed in place for a moment. “Uh, Twilight?”

“Hm? Wha’? Spike?” Twilight staggered, legs buckling for a moment. She looked around in alarm. “Why am I out here? Was I sleepwalking?”

“I guess, you were just kind of standing there,” Spike said with a shrug. He pointed at the book on the ground. “Wait, were you sleepreading?”

Twilight scowled as her assistant began to laugh, holding his belly and bending over from the force of his mirth. He let his laughter go on, clutching his belly until he felt her magic brush past him. Through the giggles he glanced up. The book she had been sleepreading slipped back into place in the history section.

“Yes, I suppose I was. You can stop laughing now, Spike, or I’ll try my hoof at breakfast again,” she said, her tone bordering on threatening. It certainly worked, Spike’s laughter petering out.

“Come on Twilight, that’s not funny! Last time I was sick for a week, and I can eat pretty much anything.” He shuddered, hurrying down into the library proper and past her.

The library itself was fine, to all appearances, no more than the one book disturbed by the sleepreading. The sounds of an normal Ponyville morning filtered in through the open windows, a soothing, familiar background music that left both unicorn and dragon relaxed.

She fixed him with a faux glare before letting it drop. The dragon waddled before her into the kitchen, and she let him. Her cooking wasn’t quite that bad, at least she told herself it wasn’t. The fact her friends had all banned her from touching anything in their kitchens was just because they were worrywarts. It wasn’t her fault certain breakfast cereals were combustible.

“Alright, alright, you can fix us breakfast,” she agreed. “After breakfast, the schedule says....”

Spike rolled his eyes, mouthing ‘schedule’ sarcastically as he began to pull out pans, mix and ingredients. Twilight pretended not to notice. Her schedule floated up in her arcane aura, revealing its secrets to her. She frowned for a moment before shaking her head and reading the answer aloud.

“Abjuration!” she announced. “I might never be Shining’s equal in Abjuration, especially shields, but I have a down-scaled version of his shield. Do you think Applejack has any rotten apples she can spare?”

“Yeah,” Spike said with a nod. “She wouldn’t let me eat any. Something about ‘unhygienic’.” He shrugged.

“Why would— ugh, never mind. dragon physiology is too confusing to deal with first thing in the morning.” Shaking her head, Twilight put the schedule away. “I wonder who we can rope in to test my shield…”

*

The wind roared, and she loved it. The world was open to her, an endless expanse of blue sky and fluffy clouds that was all hers. Air rushed past her, slithering through feathers and across fur. She could feel every tug on her mane by the fantastic forces that fought her. It made her grin, smirk, as she defied it.

The sky was hers.

She banked, her moment of introspection vanishing as she slammed into a cloud. Her hooves struck the condensed water, the magic that let her walk and touch it as though it were earth sending a tingle down her spine. It was the magic that ran through her veins and coated every feather, natural power that she used to shape herself into an arrow that pierced the heart of the cloud. It’s centre gone, her magic pulsed through the remnant. Instead of whatever natural laws could dictate its response, the pegasi magic coursed through it until nothing was left.

Rainbow Dash smirked. ‘Awww yeah!

A rainbow bounced between clouds, clearing them in a blaze of aerial swagger and acrobatics. She gloried in her own prowess. Who could clear the sky above Ponyville as fast as her? No one, that’s who!

“Rainbow Dash!”

She twisted about midair, landing with a suddenness and force that made Twilight jump. The pegasus snickered as she watched Spike scramble to stay on Twilight’s back.

“Heh, what’s up? Need The Dash for something? Got some monsters to slay? Evils to banish? Cider to drink?” The energy expressed in her performance spoke in her rapid-fire questions, Rainbow Dash’s good mood almost contagious for the pair.

“Actually, I was hoping you would help me with some study—” Twilight began.

“Boring!” groaned Rainbow Dash.

“—by throwing rotten fruit at her!” Spike continued over Twilight’s shoulder.

That got her attention. Rainbow’s eyebrows shot up. “What, really? And she won’t get mad?” she asked the dragon, an eager look in her eyes.

“Not at all!” Spike assured her. He paused for a moment, thinking. “Well, not at you.”

Rainbow Dash rubbed her forehooves together, grinning widely. “Count me in! I’ll try not to crack that egghead of yours with the ol’ Rainbow Dash Fastball.”

For a moment, Twilight imagined having friends who weren’t eager to throw rotten fruit at her. It was such a lovely fantasy, but she was dragged back to the unfortunate reality that was her nefariously grinning friend.

“We were just going to Sweet Apple Acres now. Hopefully Applejack has some rotten apples she doesn’t need…” Twilight paused. “Not that I hope she’s had bad enough luck to get rotten apples or apples she has to throw out, obviously, since she needs to sell healthy apples and get as few rotten apples as possible.”

Spike and Rainbow Dash rolled their eyes at the same time. The little dragon poked her in the back of the head.

“Don’t worry, Twilight, Applejack won’t take it like that,” he said.

“I don’t know, maybe we shouldn’t ask, what if I offend her? The implications of a request like that could hurt her feelings if she thinks I don’t have faith in her apple farming abilities!”

Rainbow looked at Spike. “Has she been staying up all night reading ‘friendship guides’ again?” she demanded.

He shrugged, and neither drake nor mare acknowledged Twilight’s flat look of annoyance. “Nah, she’s been up because-”

The dragon found his mouth suddenly jammed shut by telekinetic force.

“Because nothing at all! I’ve been sleeping like a baby. I’m just really eager to practice my shield spell, that’s all. Actually, I’d like to practice my anti-magic spells, but there’s nowhere in Ponyville I can really do that,” Twilight said. She hurried the conversation on before Rainbow Dash could get a word in. “Maybe we should ask if anypony in the market has any rotten fruit they don’t want anymore?”

After a moment of giving Twilight a look to show she wasn’t fooled, Rainbow Dash let it go and said, “Ripe Red was complaining about a bunch of his tomatoes being ruined by something, want me to fly over to the market and get them?”

“Yes please, that would be very helpful. We’ll still ask Applejack if we can borrow an empty field. Thank you,” said Twilight with a smile.

Rainbow chuckled. “Hey, if I get to throw tomatoes at you, I’m willing to make a little effort. This is gonna be fun! See you there!”

She went from standing to flying in an instant, accelerating into the sky. Well honed pegasus magic cut away friction, a rainbow trail marking her flight across town. Twilight watched her go with a smile.

It’s nice to have friends who are always willing to help!

Spike tapped the back of Twilight’s head again. “Mmph!”

“Hm? Oh! Sorry.”

*

“Six bits.”

“Uh, two bits?”

“Six bits.”

“T-three bits?”

“Six bits.”

Fluttershy took a deep breath. “Four bits, and that’s as high as I’ll go….if that’s alright with you.”

Ripe Red hm’d in thought for a moment. “Five bits, and that’s as cheap as I can give you this many delicious, ripe, perfect tomatoes.”

“Four bits,” she repeated. She stared at him, trying to make it clear that she wasn’t going to back down.. It wasn’t quite a Stare, but it got her point across. “Or I’ll….I’ll just go without.”

“Tch, fine, four bits it is!” He pushed the tomatoes to her, scooping up the bits she placed before him.

Fluttershy smiled as she gently slipped the tomatoes into her saddlebag. Another market day, another improvement in her haggling. Maybe next week she could—

Her feathers twitched, and almost without thinking she stook a step to the side. Just in time too, given the rainbow blur that shot through that spot an instant later. Rainbow Dash checked herself before she wrecked herself, or the stall.

“Hey, Ripe, got any rotten stuff I can throw?” Rainbow asked. She blinked when he just pointed past her, his other hoof busy wiping tomate guts from his face, eventually turning to look. “Oh, hey Fluttershy. What’re you doing here?”

“I, um, I was buying..tomatoes…” Fluttershy trailed off. She stepped past her friend to offer the tomato vendor a handkerchief from her saddlebags.

“The only rotten tomatoes I have, you blue menace, are the ones I’ll throw at you if you do that again,” muttered Ripe Red. He gave the handkerchief back, his face relatively clean. “And I was about to sell those!”

“Aw, come on, those can’t have been worth much,” Rainbow Dash said with a roll of her eyes.

Ignoring the public menace, he gestured to the stock of tomatoes next to him. “You paid, Fluttershy, take your tomatoes while your friend pays me back for ruining those ones! Seven bits, Miss Dash!”

“What?! Seven? What, do I look like I’m made outta bits here?” demanded Rainbow. “That couldn’t have been worth more than two bits.”

“Seven. Bits. You can haggle when you don’t destroy them first,” he barked.

Fluttershy cringed, quickly getting her new tomatoes as the pair bickered. She waited for it to end, which it did after only a few minutes of arguing. Rainbow Dash grudgingly agreed to pay five bits for the tomatoes, and more for a barrel of tomatoes unsuitable for sale.

“Come back soon,” Ripe called after them. “And bring the barrel with you!”

Rainbow Dash just grumbled about tomato selling con-artists. She huffed under the weight of the barrel, but carried it next to Fluttershy as the pair trotted through the market.

“Uh, I hate to be rude, but why did you buy so many rotten tomatoes? I don’t think it would be healthy for you to eat them like that,” Fluttershy said. She glanced at Rainbow’s back, and at the barrel, trying not to make her doubts obvious. “A-are you sure you’re not hurting your back?”

“I’m...fine…” Dash growled. She grinned despite the strain. “Gonna throw ‘em...at Twilight….”

“Oh my! Why would you do that?” asked Fluttershy with a gasp.

“She...wants…me to.” Rainbow glanced at her meek friend. “Wanna help?”

For a moment, there was a heavy, pregnant silence.

“....w-well, if she wants tomatoes thrown at her…” Fluttershy mumbled. She looked around, as if someone might have heard her.

“That’s…the spirit!” wheezed the straining pegasus.

“Can I come?” asked Pinkie Pie.

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Su-ah!” She would have jumped in surprise, if it wasn’t for her load. Instead she just stumbled in distress. The barrel’s weight shifted, heavy wood pressing against her wings and back muscles as it began to tip towards Fluttershy.

“Bump!” With a bounce, Pinkie pushed Fluttershy aside with her hips and threw her forelegs up to stabilise the barrel. “I got it!”

“You got it? You caused it!” Rainbow Dash exploded, glaring at her friend as they struggled to get the barrel back in place. “It nearly fell on Fluttershy!”

“But I’m fine. Thank you for pushing me out of the way, Pinkie Pie,” said Flutterwhy with a smile for her fluffy-maned friend. She helped push the barrel back onto Rainbow Dash and get it centred so it wouldn’t fall. Pinkie stayed in place, relieving the weight a little.

“It’s okay, Fluttershy. Sorry for surprising you, Dashie, I just wanted to join in. I saw you walking and talking with all these tomatoes, and I thought ‘wow, Dashie must be really hungry! But those aren’t nice tomatoes, so she must be—’” Pinkie began, cut off by a blue wing covering her mouth.

“Pinkie, do you want to come throw tomatoes at Twilight?” asked Rainbow Dash as quickly as she could. She waited until Pinkie nodded, then drew her wing off. “Alright, but you have to promise to stop talking.”

Pinkie’s nodding grew more eager.

“Uh…” Fluttershy gave Rainbow Dash a worried look. The athlete sighed.

“Just don’t tell me the rest of the story, and help me with this thing.”

“Mhmm!” agreed Pinkie.

*

“But darling, it’s apple-scented!”

Twilight paused for a moment. That was not a statement she had expected to hear. Well, she was well prepared for shouts of ‘apple’ in all its shapes and forms, but not ‘darling’.

“Rarity!” gasped Spike. He ran a claw along his crest. “Am I clean? Twilight, how do I look?”

“You look fine, Spike. I wonder what Rarity is doing here,” Twilight wondered aloud.

“I told ya, I ain’t gonna fall for that a third time! Last time ya said that, it was peaches! Peaches! Granny didn’t speak to me for a week,” they heard Applejack say. The pair came into sight shortly after, Applejack warding off Rarity and a bottle of perfume.

“Oh, come now, it was a lovely scent. Surely you don’t think I did that on purpose, did you? No, no, no, darling, it was all a little misunderstanding. This time, I’m sure it must be apple,” Rarity said with a flutter of her eyelashes and a winning smile.

Applejack was having none of it. “Lemme smell it first then,” she suggested.

“You’ll try it?” asked the fashionista. Her eyes twinkled with delight.

“After ya let me smell it. Pass it here,” Applejack replied.

Rarity pulled the floating bottle back, just out of reach of Applejack’s hoof. Her voice lost its glowing cheer. “You know, I’m sure that’s not needed. If you’ll just let me give you a little spritz…”

“I think it is, sugarcube.” Applejack smiled, though it was hardly pleasant. The two exchanged looks, Rarity’s nervous, Applejack’s triumphant. They both knew Applejack had caught Rarity, and there really was no way out of it without Rarity admitting her subterfuge.

“Uh, hi?”

Rarity’s eyes lit up. “Oh, Twilight, darling, what a delightful surprise!” She exclaimed. She all but threw herself at Twilight, giving her friend a hug and another for Spike. “Whatever are you doing here?”

“I just came by to ask Applejack if I could borrow a field. What are you doing here?” Twilight asked, though she had a pretty good idea already.

“Hi, Rarity,” added Spike, contributing as much as he could.

“Hello there, Spikey-wikey, how are you?” she cooed. She gave him a pat on the head, smiling at his woozy grin. Turning back to address Twilight, she said, “Oh, just a little visit. Whatever would you need a field for?”

“I think that’s somethin’ I should be askin’,” Applejack remarked. She trotted over with a nod of greeting. “So...yeah, that. Not that I mind, sugarcube, just wanna know before ya start conjurin’ castles and giant crystals start sproutin’ from the ground.”

Twilight laughed at the very idea. “Build a whole castle out of crystal with magic? I’m not a princess, Applejack, just a well-trained unicorn.”

“Er, I didn’t say crystal castle...”

“I just need a wide, clear area to practice a shield spell. Rainbow Dash is getting some rotten tomatoes to test it,” Twilight explained. Her smile faltered at the looks on her friend’s faces.

“Tomatoes? As in...to throw at you— the shield, I mean?” Rarity asked, watching Twilight with a very carefully controlled expression.

Twilight nodded. “Yes.”

“Rainbow Dash...is gonna throw tomatoes at ya?” Applejack leaned in as she asked, raising an eyebrow at her friend. “Am I hearin’ ya right, Twilight?”

Again, the unicorn nodded. “That’s the plan,” she confirmed.

Their dispute forgotten, Rarity and Applejack exchanged looks. Rarity cleared her throat.

“I don’t suppose, given that you do want to test your spell as best you can, that you might...want a little bit of additional help?” she asked.

“Er, you mean…” Twilight furrowed her brow.

Applejack pushed Rarity to one side, ignoring her yelp. “We wanna throw tomatoes at ya,” Applejack explained.

“To help you, she means!” Rarity shoved Applejack away, smiling widely at Twilight. “We want to help you.”

“Yeah, what she said. Ya can use the south field if ya want, nothin’ growin’ there right now.” Applejack smiled, a little indulgently, as Twilight and Spike followed the direction she pointed. “We can practice there all we want. Y’all head over, I’ll wait for Dash.”

“Great! Thanks, Applejack, I really appreciate this. Come on, Spike, let’s set up.” With a grateful smile Twilight set off towards the south field, Spike bouncing on her back and his eyes on Rarity.

*

The wet squelch of a tomato splattering filled what was normally a rather homey orchard, tomatoes juices ran down Twilight’s face.

“Right on the horn! Ten points!” Rainbow cheered, punching the air. “And Rainbow Dash pulls ahead!”

“How unladylike. It isn’t a contest, darling— ha! Ten points, I believe that puts me ahead, does it not?” Rarity asked with a flutter of eyelashes at the scorekeeper, who all but melted.

“Y-yeah, you’re in the lead…” Spike nodded, smiling dreamily in her direction as he added another ten to her total.

Applejack ground her teeth, protesting, “Now that ain’t fair, y’all are in front of her, how am I supposed to hit her horn from over here?”

Twilight twitched. She raised a hoof, wiping tomato juice from her jace. “Do you really have to—”

She snapped her eyes shut just in time, and felt it hit home.

“Yay! Horn shot from behind! Goooooooo me!” Pinkie waved her hooves in the air, bouncing and cheering.

“You’re just behind Rainbow Dash,” Spike told her. He missed the scowl Twilight sent his way, too busy consulting his notes.

“Like I was saying, do you really-”

Tomato flesh and horn met with a thunderous — to Twilight, at least — splattering noise.

Fluttershy gasped, hooves flying to her mouth as her wings fluttered, keeping her stable. “Oh my! I’m sorry Twilight, I didn’t mean to get you while you were talking.”

“Don’t worry about it; she wants us to make her work for it! We throw tomatoes, she tries to catch them first, everypony wins,” Rainbow Dash reasoned, flying a loop around Fluttershy. She broke off, past the pile of tomatoes, and kept going until she was circling Twilight like an eagle, tomatoes at the ready. “Think fast!”

Twilight wiped tomatoes juice out of one eye in time for it to go wide. Three tomatoes came flying at her, launching point spread out along a foot in Dash’s ring. It was an act of instinct, sizzling the juice off her horn with raw magic and slapping them aside. The first just exploded, the second denting from the force, but her telekinetic field caught the third barely half inches from her face. She sighed in relief—

—and found out how big a mistake that was. Tomato guts spilled down her brow, the skin hanging off her horn.

“Heh, ten for me,” Applejack said with a satisfied chuckle.

“Alright, time to stop.” Twilight didn’t bother wiping the guts of the tomatoes from her face. She waited a moment for any more. None came so, with a true sigh of relief, she wiped the juice away—

Five tomatoes bounced off her shield. The shimmering barrier faded a few seconds later, and Twilight trotted out of the tomato strewn battlefield, the worst of the tomato based debris removed. She still dripped slightly with tomato juice.

“Time out, for real this time,” she said dryly. Only Fluttershy and Rarity had the good grace to look embarrassed. Rainbow Dash, less so.

“Hey, you said you wanted us to test you. We were just testing you when you weren’t expecting it, Twi’; gotta be flexible,’ the pegasus said. She grinned as she landed at Twilight’s side.

“Well, unfortunately for that, I expected—” Twilight began.

“Like this!” Dash leaped, hoof brushing through Pinkie’s mane. It came out with a tomato, soft and ready to burst, that mashed against Twilight’s horn. She was gone before Twilight and a half dozen tomatoes in her arcane grip could get her, laughing her way into the trees with a cry of “I win!”

“Remind me to never ask that mare for help ever again,” Twilight muttered. This time nopony attacked her with tomatoes, although the fever pitch with which Rarity went to work cleaning her mane bordered on an assault.

“Well, uh, you did want us to catch you off guard,” Fluttershy pointed out, ducking her head at the heated look Twilight threw her way. “Sorry.”

Twilight sighed. “No, I’m sorry. You’re right, I did want you to do that. My shield spell might be powerful enough, but I’m still not very good at acting fast enough.”

“Don’t worry, sugarcube. Couple more rounds like that an’ there won’t be nothin’ that can get ya. Wish we coulda seen more of that shield of yours. Ya sure ya don’t want me to get Mac? We can take turns kickin’ it, see how ya handle that,” Applejack offered. She held out a towel for her friend.

“That would be so amazing, watching you kick it and kick it and kick it-” Pinkie’s mouth moved at a mile a minute, much like the bouncing mare herself.

“Buck it, sugarcube.”

“Right! You’ll buck it and buck it and buck it again and again until it goes and goes bang! all over the place!” finished the exuberant party pony. “Just ‘cause we couldn’t help you break it with tomatoes doesn’t mean we can’t still help.”

“We were hardly going to throw stones at her, were we?” Rarity shuddered at the thought. “Imagine if we had managed to bring down her shield and one of them struck her! Imagine all the, ugh, blood! I much prefer just throwing tomatoes.”

Twilight looked at the ring marking the first wave of tomatoes. Even if her shield had proven strong enough to withstand tomatoes, and stones were too dangerous, she did need to practice it.

This practice wasn’t a waste though,’ she reasoned. ‘I managed to do fairly well until Pinkie got me in the snout and made it hard to see with all that juice. Besides, practice never hurts.’

She cast a look towards the apple trees, noting the hint of rainbow plumage. “You can come out now, Rainbow Dash,” she called, “I promise not to try to get you.”

After a few moments the pegasus rejoined them, grinning. She peeked over Spike’s head at the score, squealing at the sight of her own. His attempts to wave her off only led to Rainbow Dash snatching the notebook for a game of keepaway Pinkie was all too happy to join in on.

“That’s mine, give it back!”

“Fly up here and grab it then.”

“Aww, Dashie, he can’t fly!”

“I know, Pinkie, that’s the point.”

“Thank you everypony for acting like adults,” Rarity said, rolling her eyes at the trio.

Twilight ignored the commotion, replying to Applejack, “I’ll think about it. It probably would be a good idea to do that—”

For what had to be the umpteenth time, a noise interrupted her. This time, Twilight found herself didn’t scowl or complain. She looked towards Spike at the crackle of fire rushing from his maw. It was a much more welcome sound than the rip of tearing tomato skin.

“Whoa!” Rainbow Dash dived out of the way of a gout of green fire. It swirled, fire becoming ash and ash becoming paper. She caught the scroll before Spike could. "Hey, a scroll from Celestia! I wonder what it's about."

The scroll was ripped from her hooves, careening over to Twilight. She didn’t let a second pass, opening it. Her eyes ran back and forth down it, a look of concern appearing on her face. A cluster of worried friends grew around her, ignoring the smell of overripe and rotten tomatoes

“What is it?”

“Is everything okay?”

“Has something dreadful happened?”

Twilight rolled up the scroll, troubled, and looked at them. The questions came to a standstill. “I...don’t know,” she said, uncertainty in her voice. “The Princess wants us to come to Canterlot, immediately, and to come prepared for trouble. Equestria needs us!”

*

“Equestria needs a faster train!”

Applejack pulled Rainbow Dash back into the train, closing the window behind her. “The train is fast as it needs to be, now settle down, we’re nearly there.”

“Hmmph.” Rainbow Dash crossed her forelegs. “I still say it’s too slow.”

The train rattled on, unperturbed by her complaints. Despite her accusations, it sped along the tracks towards Canterlot with all the speed that could be expected of the express. The shining jewel of Equestria was closer every time Twilight looked out the windows. She sat next to the window, one hoof resting on the window sill, the other laid over Spike as the little dragon napped against her side. A strange feeling came over her as she watched the city grow larger. It was the city of her birth, but she didn’t feel like she was coming home. Canterlot, no, Canterlot wasn’t her home. It was a beautiful city she had been too absorbed in study to really explore, and even as she had studied in its heart, it had been distant.

I hope its not too serious. Maybe Princess Celestia just wanted to chat?’ Twilight furrowed her brow. ‘The scroll wouldn’t have been worded so urgently if that was true. Besides, I’m sure she has plenty of friends to chat to, like...uh...like...

Did Princess Luna count? Twilight frowned thoughtfully.Who were Princess Celestia’s friends? She must have them, the unicorn was sure. She was, after all, the Princess. Who wouldn’t want to be her friend?

Exactly,’ whispered a voice in the back of her mind, ‘Everyone would want to be friends with the Princess. Imagine the favours such a ruler would bring. Imagine the benefits reaped by her friendship.

Twilight gasped softly. Her eyes grew wide for a moment as it clicked.

“Is something wrong?” Rarity, concern colouring her voice, asked.

For an instant, Twilight felt... furious, there was no other word for it, that Rarity was eavesdropping on her. How else would she have heard the gasp against the rattle of the train and their friends talking? What was she planning that she had such nerve?!

“Darling? Are you alright?”

“Hm? Oh, s-sorry, Rarity, I just...I’m fine,” Twilight lied. Her smile was shaky and she didn’t look Rarity in the eye. “Nervous, you know.”

Rarity made a little noise of sympathy. “You just remember we’re always here if you need to talk, okay?” She patted Twilight on the shoulder before giving her some space.

Twilight waited until Rarity was gone before turning back to the window and letting her unsteady smile fall.

What the hay was that?! She just happened to overhear me, why did I take it so badly?’ She chewed on the thought, puzzling so intensely over it that she didn’t notice they’d arrived until Pinkie Pie appeared on the other side of the window.

“We’re heeeeeeeeeere~,” she sung, muffled by the glass she was pressing her face right against.

“Gah!” The unicorn shrieked, jerking back with a thud. Twilight rubbed the back of her head as she sat up, giving Pinkie a glare. The party pony just replied with a wide, glass-pressed grin. ‘That insolent— I mean, Pinkie Pie is just being Pinkie Pie,’ she told herself, shaking off more of the uncharacteristic affront. Picking Spike up in her magical grip, she cradled him in it. ‘I’ll let him sleep a little, until we get to the castle.

Her friends were all waiting, with various expressions of amusement, outside. Fluttershy hurried over to fuss, but Twilight gently dissuaded her and pointed out they should get moving.

“Finally!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. “Last one to the castle is a gnarly dragon egg!” She took off, a rainbow trail left in her wake.

“Hey, ya can’t fly, that’s cheatin’!” yelled Applejack as she began to gallop after her, powerful hooves pounding on the cobblestones.

Pinkie squealed in delight. “Race time! Come on girls, let’s go!”

Sniffing haughtily, Rarity raised her nose. “I hardly think such a display is appropriate in Canterlot. I shan’t act in such a way in the Princess’ own city.”

“I know the Princess wanted us to get to her quickly, but the way Rainbow Dash is going she might hit somepony,” Twilight added.

“And, well, I’m not fast enough to really make it much of a race,” admitted Fluttershy.

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to keep the Princess company until you slowpokes catch up. Bye bye!” With a wave, Pinkie took off, bouncing with inexplicable speed. Her unusual gait cleared the obstacles presented by other ponies.

“...Uh, did Pinkie just say…” Twilight said, gulping as the idea of leaving Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie alone with Princess Celestia conjured images in her mind. The words ‘banished’ and ‘dungeon’ made themselves readily apparent shortly after.

“What are we waiting for?!” shrieked Rarity, already charging up the road towards the castle. “Imagine the indignity! The disgrace! The scandal!

Fluttershy and Twilight exchanged looks, exasperation and amusement in equal measure, before setting off after Rarity.

*

“So I said ‘we’ll see who’s nuts’ and I kicked him, twice, right in the—”

“Princess!” Twilight cried, bypassing the last door between her and the muffled sound of Rainbow Dash’s voice with a blink of magic. She panted, mane askew, and blurted, “Rainbow is just exaggerating! She only kicked him once!”

Princess Celestia, Sol Invictus, Solar Aspect of the Celestial Cycle, sat upon a plush array of cushions in the centre of her study. On all sides, souvenirs and trinkets from centuries of politics and birthdays lined the walls. An axe from the Minotaur President sat between a tome of Zebrican poetry and a gold-bronze disc decorated in cog-like patterns. A gem with a hundred perfectly cut edges reflected the sun into green beams. These and more surrounded the Princess with splendour and wonder. She looked upon her most faithful of students and, with all the dignity of such an ancient being, giggled. It was such an unreal moment Twilight wasn’t sure if she was dreaming, or if perhaps she’d hit her head in her rush. But no, Rainbow Dash was joining in with laughter that had the pegasus rolling on the floor and there was Applejack trying and failing to suppress her guffaws. Pinkie felt no such compulsion to contain herself with her high pitched giggling.

“Oh, Twilight Sparkle, it is good to see you.” The Princess rose and swept Twilight into a hug, nuzzling her faithful student. “Regardless of the cause, I’m always pleased to see you and your friends.”

“My friends...yeah…” Twilight agreed, the powerful hug almost robbing her of breath. Her earlier conclusion came back, driving itself like a nail into her thoughts. ‘I don’t think Princess Celestia has friends...

She felt an aching pang in her chest for even thinking it, and told herself she must be wrong. It wasn’t something she should even think about around her mentor, it was just too much! Twilight hugged the Princess back, telling herself it was all her imagination.

"T-Twilight, I'm here! What have those scoundrels done?!" Rarity burst through the door, chest heaving, her mane a mess of wayward strands, and froze. She stared at the hugging pair. Every eye in the room was on her.

"Good afternoon, Lady Rarity," Celestia said with a faint smile.

"Hey, Rarity," added Rainbow Dash with narrowed eyes aimed at her friend. "What was that about scoundrels?"

Pinkie Pie sidled up to the pegasus. "Psst, Dashie," she stage-whispered, "I think she meant us."

"Yeah, Pinkie, I know that. I was trying to subtle!"

Twilight felt a few of her brain cells die. “I think you mean ‘be subtle’, Rainbow.”

“Yeah, that, I was subtling,” Dash went on nonetheless, “Totally subtle. I can subtle good.”

"Oooooooh! I get it!" Pinkie said, head bouncing in agreement. “You can subtle good!”

Rarity ignored them in favour of bowing hastily. "Princess, I'm so sorry! I hope they haven't said or done anything to offend you. Applejack, why didn't you keep a rein on them?"

"Me? Why the hay am I s'posed ta foalsit them two?" Applejack demanded, rising from her lounging seat on the floor to stand in front of Rarity. "They're grown mares— well Rainbow Dash is, most of the time."

Princess Celestia cleared her throat. "They weren't any trouble, I assure you. Quite the opposite, really."

"We had fun!" Pinkie cheered. She threw a hoof across the Princess's neck. "Right, Princess? I didn't know you could have so much fun without punch and cake.” She gasped. “Maybe we don't need cake for fun!"

"Let's not go too far, Miss Pie," Celestia hurried to say.

Rainbow Dash suddenly grinned, and darted to one of the walls. "You're not one to talk. At least we look, what's the word, presentable?"

She turned back without warning, revealing a mirror she'd taken from Celestia's collection of souvenirs. Rarity laìd eyes on her reflection and, for but a moment, she stared. She beheld her sweat-marred makeup. She saw her wild, unruly mane. Her shriek pierced the heavens themselves. It might have kept on going if Rarity hadn't been carried away by a flash of magenta magic. She winked from one point in space to another.

"Sorry, Princess. I sent her to the powder room down the hall. She'll be back in a minute, Twilight explained. She wanted to facehoof at the antics of her friends, and her relief at Fluttershy's quiet arrival a moment later was palpable.

“Sorry I’m late, I… I got a bit lost in the castle,” Fluttershy mumbled as she slipped into the room.

Less apologetic was Spike, who stomped in with a foul expression. “You dropped me,” he announced without waiting even a moment, eyes on Twilight.

The unicorn winced. ‘So that’s what I forgot about...’ “I’m sorry, Spike, I really am. I just, you know, panicked.”

“You panicked and dropped me!” the dragon corrected her with a scowl.

“I know, I know, I’m sorry! I promise it won’t happen again.” Twilight yanked him over into a hug, and whispered, “Please, Spike, not in front of the Princess. A new tub of ice cream when we get home, okay?”

After a moment of consideration, Spike nodded and hugged her. “Deal,” he whispered.

Celestia chuckled, and turned her head to Fluttershy. “There is no need to apologise, either for Rarity, or yourself, Fluttershy. Once Rarity has returned, we can talk of the reasons I called you here today. A few minutes lost to let her regain her poise are nothing to worry about.”

Twilight sighed in relief, and put away her fears for the moment. She was confident that Rarity would know that this was important, and when the red-cheeked unicorn came trotting back only ten minutes later, Twilight had her trust validated. Considering how long Rarity could spend touching up her appearance and fussing over her mane, it was among the fastest visits to the powder room Twilight had seen her friend take.

“I am dreadfully sorry, Your Highness, I just don’t know what came over me,” Rarity said with a barely noticeable tremor in her voice. She bowed awkwardly, rising only when the Princess gestured.

“You need never fear offending me, not any of you. After all you have done for Equestria, you’ve earned the right to speak your mind and say whatever you wish, whenever and wherever,” the regal alicorn told them. She smiled warmly, rising to her hooves from the bed of cushions she had been relaxing on.

“Chimichanga!” Pinkie Pie grinned at the looks that earned her. “She did say whatever!”

“I did,” Celestia agreed, chuckling for a brief instant. Her mirth faded after a moment, and again Twilight wondered how often her mentor was able to laugh without pretext to it. How many nobles told jokes the Princess had to laugh at simply for the sake of politeness? How rare must a real, genuine chance to relax and laugh be...

Stop that. Listen,’ she scolded herself, focusing just in time to hear the Princess begin.

“I have a task I would like the six of you to venture forth on,” began the Princess. Her horn glowed and a map of Equestria appeared hovering in the air before them. Dots began to mark towns and villages east of Canterlot. “A strange series of events have begun to occur. Over the past month, reports of strange creatures have reached my ears. They only appear in a town or village late at night, and always stealing what I can best describe as supplies; food, water and, oddly, stone working tools.”

“Stone working tools? Why would they need those?” Twilight asked. She leaned forward, staring at the map with rapt eyes.

“Better question is, why didn’t they just buy the food like everypony else?” Applejack added, watching the map with a frown. “Heck, even if they don’t have no money, I can’t imagine anypony would let’m starve.”

Celestia nodded, the shimmer of her horn changing slightly to highlight some of the map’s dots. “I’m afraid I can’t answer those questions. If I knew anything else about them, I would not call them simply ‘creatures’, but the descriptions of them...they match nothing I have ever heard of before, let alone seen.”

“And you want us to go flying and catch them red hoofed, right?” Soaring up to the map, Rainbow Dash studied it with a grin. “Do we get cuffs to use on them?”

Magic wrapped around her tail, and yanked her down as Twilight answered, “I don’t think the Princess wants us for just that, Rainbow Dash. If she just wanted to arrest them, she has the Royal Guard for that.”

“Very good, Twilight,” said Celestia with a look of pride that made Twilight want to squeal in delight like a little filly again. “My faithful student is correct. Nopony has been hurt and despite their great size these strangers have fled rather than fight. I would like the six of you and Spike to find them, and attempt to communicate with them.”

Spike perked up, eyes going wide at being included, and grinned. Twilight glanced at him for a moment, confused by his excited reaction.

Rainbow Dash, on the other hoof, did a bad job of hiding her disappointment. “So, no epic action battles or busting out the Elements of Harmony?”

“I’m afraid not,” the Princess confirmed with a small curve at the edge of her lips suggesting a suppressed smile. “I won’t treat them as criminals until I have a better reason to. If they had been actively hurting my little ponies when taking food, that would be a different matter, but I feel it best to extend a hoof in peace first.”

“Sounds like a mighty fine plan, if ya don’t mind me sayin’ so. Maybe they just don’t know how we do things here, and need a lil’ help,” Applejack suggested, earning an approving nod from the Princess.

“I assure you, Your Highness, that we’ll make sure it all ends—” Rarity started to say.

“—with a smile! Oh, and a party!” Pinkie cheered.

Rarity ever so gently slapped a hoof over Pinkie's mouth. "We'll make sure it ends as peacefully as we can," she finished.

"We'll do our best, Princess. We won't let you down!" Twilight said, and six voices joined her in making this promise.

Princess Celestia smiled, a warm, soft expression that filled them with confidence. It was the trust in her eyes that did it; the assurance that she believed in each and every one of them.

Twilight felt Spike clutch her a little tighter. Despite their exposure to the Princess and her charisma, it was still extraordinary when she focused all her ancient wisdom and knowledge on you, and gave you her trust.

'Imagine how strange that is for him, to have someone trust him,' whispered a grim voice in the back of her mind.

'I trust him,' she thought, yet a little seed of doubt wormed its way in despite her assurances. 'I do!'

It echoed in her mind, heavy with the weight of guilt. She pushed the thoughts aside, promising herself a long talk with Spike when they got back.

Her internal dialogue was disrupted by a blur of rainbow colours leaping past her to the door. Rainbow Dash pushed it open, hovering there. She looked over her shoulder at the others.

"We going or what?" She demanded.

"We, uh, don't know where to go, Rainbow Dash," Fluttershy pointed out. She ducked behind Pinkie. "Sorry."

A glow startled them. The magical map lit up as Celestia's hornlight intensified. Conjured paper formed, ink imprinted on it as the alicorn manifested the map physically. It rolled up, a ribbon binding it neatly, and it flew over to Twilight.

“Take this. It has the places these strangers have been seen, including the last known town where they were sighted.” Celestia raised a hoof to stop them. “The descriptions are strange; they speak of towering bipeds. They leave pawed footprints. Do all you can to reach a peaceful compromise, but do not put yourself at risk.”

“Hey, I’m a biped, don’t worry. We bipeds talk the same language,” Spike assured her. He put his hands on his hips, chest puffing up proudly. “We can talk about feet!”

After a few moments, Spike became aware that he was receiving a few odds looks. He raised his hands defensively.

“Listen, you wouldn’t get it. It’s a biped thing. Besides, everyone I know has hooves!” he explained.

“Come on, I wanna meet the plot hooks! Come ooooooooooon!” whined Pinkie, grabbing Twilight and dragging her towards the door.

“We’ll be back with good news soon, I promise!” Calling back as she was pulled out, Twilight’s heart warmed once more at the trusting smile. Her doubts and fears were pushed aside, and she pulled Pinkie’s hooves off so she could walk on her own.

*

The train rattled to a stop, and Twilight considered whether it would be an abuse of her close student-teacher relationship with Celestia to bring forward a petition to have all nuts and bolts on trains tightened, or a muffling spell cast all over. They were all far too noisy, and it was a welcome relief to step onto the train station platform.

It wasn’t very hard to find where the strangers had found food; the door to the town’s general store lay next to its frame. Whatever they were, they had made short work of the door and the frame around it. Glass from the shattered door’s window had been swept into a pile, along with the remains of the door itself.

“Applejack, Rarity, come in with me and we’ll talk to the owners. Everyone else, check around town, see if anypony else saw anything, or heard it.” Brow furrowed as she thought, Twilight tried to remember everything she had read from detective novels as her friends split up. “Spike, can you look for footprints?”

“Sure thing!” With a salute, Spike dropped to all fours, staring at the ground with incredible intensity. He walked slowly, penetrating the earth with the sheer focus of his probing stare.

Twilight left him to it, walking up to the door and knocking on the broken frame. She waited, looking back at Applejack and Rarity as the two followed her.

“Come in!” Someone called at last. “Mind the glass! I think I got most of it....”

The insides of the store looked little better than the outside.

“I thought this place was robbed a few days ago,” Rarity remarked, shuddering as she beheld the disorganised chaos. She flushed at her comment being caught by the owner as a mare appeared from behind the counter.

“Huh? Oh, the robbery, right,” the mare said with a shrug. “I cleaned that up already. They totally wrecked my store, but it’s okay now!”

Rarity shuddered. “It’s...it’s very you,” she agreed, although it was more of a guess. She took in the mare’s messy, unkempt mane and decided she was probably right.

“I’d hope so. It’d be terrible if it was very somepony else.” The mare gasped. “Like if it was Ordered Goods. I hate that guy. With all his ‘systems’ and ‘alphabeticalness’. Ugh, his store sucks! Bric-a-Brac’s Bric-a-Brac General Store is way better, and that’s my store! Here! Where you are now!”

Applejack gently poked Twilight. “Y’all alright there, sugarcube?”

It took a few seconds for Twilight’s brain to get back in order. Order was exactly what this place needed, but she had to focus. She had a job. She had a mission from the Princess. That was what was important right now, not this disorderly, chaotic mess. She tried to block it all out and just keep her attention on the shopkeeper.

“I’m...fine. Excuse me, Miss, we’ve been sent by Princess Celestia to investigate the robbery. I was hoping you had seen the creatures that did this,” she began, taking a notepad from her saddlebags.

The mare grinned. “Wow! The Princess sent you? That’s amazing! You must be really important!”

Rarity coughed delicately. “She is, darling, but the questions…?” she asked with a hopeful smile.

“Oh! Right! Well, lemme think….I heard a loud crash, which I think was the door, and came rushing down! I was so sure Ordered Goods was sabotaging me by sneaking in at night, but no! It was this big...thing!” Bric-a-Brac explained, gesturing wildly and energetically with every word.

Applejack raised an eyebrow as she asked, “A thing?”

“What kind of thing? Could you describe it for me?” asked Twilight. Her horn glowed, dipping a quill in an inkpot that floated out of her bag.

“Uh, it was...big?” the shopkeep answered with a shrug. “I couldn’t see much since it was dark and all, but it was big, with those things, you know, the wriggling things griffons and dragons have on the ends of their arms.”

“Fingers?” volunteered Rarity after a moment’s thought.

“Yep! Those things! It had those!” Bric-a-Brac nodded, beaming. “It had hands, and fingers!”

Twilight nodded, noting it down. “How big was it?” she asked.

Bric-a-Brac grinned. “Bigger than my door!”

Feeling a twitch developing, Twilight shook her head. An idea came to her. “Rarity, can you measure the door? Miss, how much bigger than your door? Did the creature look like it was bent over or in anyway compressing itself to fit through the door?”

Behind her, Rarity took the tape measure Twilight had been sure she would have on her, because Rarity was a firm believer that a fashion crisis could strike at any time, and set about measuring the the door frame.

Bric-a-Brac rubbed her chin, frowning softly in thought. “Huh, I’m not sure. I think it was about the size of that shouty Minotaur guy who came through town a while back. He was soooooo tall! Oooh, maybe it was taller than him!”

Bit by bit, Twilight began the excruciating process of extracting every bit of information she could from the disorganised Bric-a-Brac. The shopkeep was proving herself to be as mentally chaotic as her store layout belied, going off on tangents at the drop of a hat and distracting herself with the most inane of subjects. Between the three of them, they managed to get down relatively relevant facts. Twilight bade her farewell with much relief, and left the store to find the others waiting just outside for them.

“Alright everypony, tell me what you found.” Quill at the ready, Twilight’s mind became a calculative space of facts and logic, correlating everything that poured from the mouths of her friends.

“So, this mare with a really cool bike said she heard—”

“A friend of a friend of a friend said her friend saw-”

“I, uh, I-I didn’t actually, um, end up asking anypony…”

“Done!” Twilight announced. She held aloft the scroll upon which she had gathered everything they knew.

“Oh, lemme see!” Pinkie said as she reached for it.

Twilight pulled it away. “Let me read it first! Ahem; the unknown creature, hereafter referred to as ‘the creature’—”

Rainbow Dash groaned. “Come on Twilight, I don’t wanna die of old age before you finish!”

Hereafter referred to as ‘the creature’,” Twilight repeated, forging ahead with a minor glare at the interruption, “appears to be between eight and twelve feet in height, with a margin for error of up to four feet upwards, based on the door frame and the damage done to it. The creature appears to have skin or hide hard enough that the splinters and similar pointed dangers from breaking the door frame broke against its skin, rather than the reverse. Given the way the door was knocked outwards, and the debris from the door frame did the same, the creature also possesses substantial physical prowess.”

“Substan-wha?” Pinkie stage-whispered to the others.

Rainbow Dash leaned past Applejack, similarly stage-whispering back, “It’s really bucking strong. Like, Big Mac strong.”

Twilight cleared her throat and continued, “Only when inside the store did it make noise, and while making its escape. After it fled, nopony else in town was able to confirm they saw it. This suggests the creature is particularly physically powerful, with a strong, muscular build based on Bric-a-Brac’s glimpse of its silhouette, and that it possesses scales, skin or hide that is extremely tough, perhaps as tough as dragon scales. Some kind of Minotaur would be the main consideration, were it not for the pawprints it left in its wake here and in other towns, as well as a confirmed lack of any kind of horns, since it would be impossible for Bric-a-Brac to have not noticed them.”

“This is real interestin’ and all, Twi’, but it ain’t much help for findin’ the thing, is it?” Applejack pointed out.

"Hm, I suppose not. But it is interesting! When we meet this creature every extra thing we know will help us," Twilight replied as she went back over notes. “The possibilities for what this creature is are endless. Even Princess Celestia has no idea! Imagine what it might know!”

“Great, that’s just great.” Rainbow Dash circled the group, slowly rising. Her gentle ring suddenly changed into a sharp turn as she set off down the road. “There’s Spike! He looks like he’s found something! Come on!”

“Spike found a clue!” Pinkie cheered as she bounced down the road, detective hat inexplicably atop her head. “Let’s go investigate!”

Stifling a protest that her notes still needed to be alphabetised, Twilight hurried after Rainbow Dash. They met the dragon halfway towards the edge of the little town, and he beamed at them as he came to a stop.

“I found pawprints! They’re huge, like, bigger than Minotaur hooves!” he explained, cut short for a moment as he went from the ground to Twilight’s back in a flash of light. Holding on, he pointed beyond the town. “They were leading that way, towards the forest. I was gonna follow them, but I thought you would want to know first.”

“Good work!” The unicorn smiled, a telekinetic pat on his head spikes making the little dragon beam in pride. “We need to catch up with it before it’s too far away.”

“On it!” Rainbow Dash had barely had the chance to flap her wings before she was stalled midair. She glared down at the source of her lack of progress. “AJ, let go!”

Applejack spat her tail out. “Now hold on, don’t just go flying off like that. What if this thing ain’t friendly? We all hope it is, but if it ain’t, we can’t just let ya go alone.”

“I’ll take Fluttershy then, we’ll be fine,” Dash said with a roll of her eyes.

Freezing, Fluttershy stared up at the friend who wanted to take her, alone, to find the ten foot tall monster capable of shattering a door frame with ease.

“Perhaps not, darling. Let’s stick together for this, if you can hold yourself back just a smidge,” suggested Rarity. She shared a smile with Fluttershy, patting her friend on the shoulder. “Safest for everypony.”

Scowling, Rainbow Dash nonetheless slowed down to keep pace with the group, though it was clear she dearly wished to zoom ahead again. By the time they reached the nearby forest, Twilight had sent Dash into the sky to watch from above as a compromise. It wasn’t all good fortune for them however, as they came to a bank of wide stones in the ground.

“I can’t tell where the pawprints are now. Girls, spread out and check the edges of the rock, where the grass is again. Hopefully we can keep following them,” Twilight said with a frown. She stopped only a moment after she started, a soft call from Fluttershy drawing attention to the pegasus.

“Uh…” Fluttershy pointed along the ground. “It went this way. I mean, I think it did.”

It looked just like the rest of the ground to Twilight, and she looked around. None of the others looked as though they could see anything different, and slowly their eyes went to Fluttershy.

Flushing, she reached down to run her hoof across the edge of the stone. The moss shifted gently beenather her hoof. “You can see here, where the moss has been is just a little bit different along the edge,” she began to explain.

Of course she knows how to navigate a forest,’ Twilight realised. She resisted the urge to facehoof at her own unthinking ignorance. ‘She deals with creatures that live in the forest everyday, and I know some of them don’t like taking their medicine. How many must she have had to track down when they’re sick?

“I trust you, Fluttershy. If you say that’s the way to go, that’s the way we’ll go.” Twilight started in the direction Fluttershy had pointed.

“Go Fluttershy!” cheered Spike, punching the air as they passed her. She blushed, and as each of her friends praised her, the fire in her cheeks grew.

“I-it was nothing,” she mumbled shyly. The only reason she didn’t look away to hide her blush was to keep an eye on the barely perceptible trail leading them through the forest. It lead them through the forest, further and further from pony-made trails and paths. Eventually Rainbow Dash dropped back down to join them, grudgingly admitting the foliage was making it impossible to see anything.

“The only thing this way is a hill,” she had to say as they traversed the forest.

“Maybe they found a cave?” Pinkie suggested. “Caves are such fun, maybe they’re spelunking!”

Twilight began to pick up speed. She sensed something, the faint touch of magic on the wind, and her pace grew from a trot to a gallop. “We might be about to find out…”

“Hey, how come nopony grabs her tail when she runs ahead?” whined Rainbow Dash. She followed with a snap of her wings, darting between branches.

“That’d be rude,” Applejack said with a smirk, galloping under Rainbow Dash.

Twilight burst into the clearing and Spike nearly went flying as she ground to a halt. She knew they’d failed instantly. A campfire, not so much as a spark left in its blackened cradle of ash, and the remains of a camp were spread out before her. The hill rose above them, a rocky outcropping thrusting from the earth. Her friends began to arrive behind her as the unicorn studied the camp intently.

“We were too slow,” Spike said, heaving a heavy sigh. “Crabapples.”

Correcting him absently, “Language, mister,” Twilight said without looking away from the camp site. Her horn tingled, a faint whiff of foreign magic brushing her arcane senses.

Applejack had stopped at the edge, and frowned at Rainbow Dash when the pegasus ventured into the remains of the camp. “We didn’t miss ‘em by long, an’ by the looks of it there’s more than one.”

“That explains why they’ve been taking food and supplies,” Twilight agreed. Her expression turned to a mask of concentration, her horn igniting. Confusion furrowed her brow. “Strange. Someone worked some kind of magic here, but it’s not a kind I’m familiar with.”

That got raised eyebrows all around, and Spike looked indignant.

“But you know everything about magic! How can you not know?” he exclaimed, leaning forward from his perch. “Are you sure you haven’t just forgotten it?”

Flattered as she was by his belief in her knowledge, if not the idea that she might forget anything about magic, Twilight shook her head. “I don’t know everything, Spike, and you know that. Even if I can’t identify this magic, I can still follow it. It’s so distinct from the natural mana around it, I think I could follow it halfway across the world now.”

“Then we’d best hurry along then, if nothing else is of concern,” Rarity suggested. She levitated a handkerchief from her saddlebag, delicately dabbing her forehead. “Hopefully they haven’t gotten far, I’d hate to meet such newcomers without looking my best.”

“Too bad you didn’t give that much thought to seeing the Princess,” Rainbow Dash cackled. The glare thrown her way bounced off her ego’s deflector shields, despite the dagger-pointedness Rarity put into it.

“Hmm…” For all the apparent good fortune of this strange new magic, Twilight felt something aside from her mounting curiosity. There was a piece of the puzzle missing here.

Fluttershy was the first to notice, and she looked at the unicorn worriedly. “Is something wrong?” she asked.

Twilight sighed, and said, “Not….wrong, exactly. We know why they needed supplies, and why they had to keep going for food from towns, but I can’t help but wonder about those tools. What use are stone-cutting tools in the wilderness?”

*

The snap of stone cracking filled the air.

Shan Quan-ti, noble mogu captain of the Shan’ze clan, drew his hand back and idly dusted his knuckle. His manner was almost relaxed, until you looked in his eyes and saw the fury peering from beneath a heavy brow of dark blue.

“Do you know why I struck you, spiritbinder?” he asked in the tone of one inquiring about the weather. He watched the smaller mogu below him, wounded cheek pressed to the ground in display of abject submission.

'Because you are a shortsighted fool.'

“Because I have failed you, my lord,” answered the smaller mogu with not a trace of his thoughts upon his face. His terracotta orange skin had none of the noble armour that clad the lord above him, adorned only in the thick belt and kilt of a spiritbinder. “I swear, my lord, I need only time—”

With a casual kick, Shan Quan-ti silenced him.

“I struck you, Zhiyuan, because of your excuses,” he went on. “I do not want to hear of reports on what has failed. I do not want you to tell me what will not work. Do you know what I want?”

This time the spiritbinder said nothing, keeping his face pressed to the ground. He listened to the silence around them; the others would never be so foolish as to snicker or sneer, unwilling to risk opening themselves to Shan Quan-ti’s wrath, yet...

'They are laughing at me. I know it,' he thought and the flush of heat in his chest grew with each moment. A hand grasped the thick beads that hung around his neck, and the lesser mogu gasped as he was pulled up. His eyes locked with his lords, and he silenced his thoughts as he kneeled before the Shan'ze Lord.

Quan-ti stared into his eyes. “I want to hear what you need for your next test. I want you to succeed.” The threat went unsaid, the possibility of failure dismissed in his eyes as surely as his underling.

Zhiyuan saw the heat fade from the mogu lord’s eyes. Slowly, he raised Zhiyuan further, until the spiritbinder was standing on his own. He let go. Thick fingers brushed dirt from his servant’s shoulder, almost gentle. His expression didn’t change as the brush became a strike, across the mouth with the back of his hand.

“That," explained the lord, "was for not answering when I asked you a question.”

Zhiyuan kept his gaze lowered until his master had turned away. His hands bunched into fists. He imagined himself striking now, while Quan-ti was vulnerable, but whatever grip ambition might have on his senses fell quiet.

'He will kill you. A true Shan is never relaxed, never unguarded.'

He looked up, glancing over the other mogu. They lay about their camp, the second in as many days. The sight of Honghui the scout laid out, unconscious, soothed the ache in his jaw. For all the failure of his work so far, at least Zhiyuan had not exposed them to the locals.

'And these fools would kill me anyway.'

Taking the stone-cutting tools in hand, Zhiyuan grumbled under his breath. They were ill-suited to him, and he wondered how the strange, hooved creatures used them.

How am I supposed to make even the most basic of Quilan with these?’ he wondered, raging silently at the boulder he was ordered to craft into a Quilan vessel. ‘Does he expect me to use these to make anything of actual use? The rock isn’t prepared, or even the right kind!

“Zhiyuan.”

The spiritbinder spun, bowing instantly. That awful ache grew in his chest, like a knife resting against his heart. The emotions he loathed fought to explode from him despite all his control, and he wondered in a moment of irrationality if Shan Quan-ti was a mindreader.

“Yes, my lord?”

The mogu noble gestured towards the forest they had left only a few hours ago. “There appear to be natives coming. Following our trail.”

Zhiyuan opted for silence. The ache of a scar that split the crags of his arm reminded him of a lesson all mogu learned. Doubtless Renshu would be experience that lesson again, and again, until he would remember it the next time he failed to cover their trail. it would, the spellbinder mused silently, at least provide entertainment.

“They are far enough from their filthy villages that they will not be missed. Extract the soul of whichever you judge to be the strongest first, then the next…” Quan-ti stopped, catching something of Zhiyuan’s emotions in his expression. The noble’s eyes narrowed. “You hesitate?”

“I have only the capacity to contain a single soul, my lord,” Zhiyuan hurried to explain. His expression trembled, the mask of control almost slipping. “I lack the resources to craft a vessel for more than one before they would be lost, and the effort of keeping the additional souls from fading would be deny me the power to craft the weapon you desire.”

Shan Quan-ti grunted, leonine face wrinkling in a stony scowl. “Very well,” he barked with a dismissive gesture. “Extract the soul of the strongest.”

“And the rest?” ventured the spiritbinder.

A chuckle shook the noble mogu’s frame. “I tire of skulking like rodents and eating only stolen food. Do well in your task and you shall have a haunch of the fattest of the natives.”

Zhiyuan bowed once more, holding back the urge to lick his lips or do something so filthy as drool.He had glimpsed fat flanks of the natives, their plush coat hiding no doubt juicy flesh. The images hung in his mind, dancing before his eyes as he worked, until those images became fantasy of his teeth closing and grinding down tender steaks.

*

A shout from Rainbow Dash was the first warning they had that they were close. The moment they had cleared the forest she had taken to the sky, and now her need to soar was paying off.

“I can see them!” She called. Swooping down, the pegasus flew just above her friends. “Looks like there’s ten, I think.”

“Ten? Really?” Twilight tried to keep the skepticism from her voice, but she was knew she was fighting a losing battle on that front. "Are you sure? Not that I think you'd be wrong, but ten is more than I expected."

“They can’t have enough food to feed ten of them, the poor things,” said Fluttershy, voice trembling with the same worry Twilight expected for any creature in need from her.

Rainbow Dash snorted. “I dunno, they looked plenty tough enough from up there. They’re just over the next hill, in the depression.”

“May I suggest we not simply run up to them?” Rarity asked, and she began to slow. They slowed with her. “If we come just running over like bats out of Tartarus, we could frighten the poor things.”

“Good idea. I can go first, and you follow just a few paces behind me,” said Twilight, raising a hoof as protests began to bubble up from her friends. “I can teleport back if something goes wrong, and I did follow them via their magic, so we might have a common interest.”

“Welp, I dunno about lettin’ you put yourself in danger, but I’ll trust ya to stay safe.” Applejack patted Twilight on the shoulder. “We’ll jump in if we need to, though.”

Rainbow Dash nodded as they crested the hill. “You’re darn right we will! I mean, look at these guys!”

A protest about judging by appearance rose to Twilight’s lips, but it was stalled by her first sight of the creatures. She stared, taking them in before forcing herself to start approaching. They seemed to already have spotted her, their eyes on the pony, and they were just standing there. Twilight smiled. The band of creatures were waiting.

I was about right. Fourteen feet, maybe, and their skin looks like stone...are they stone? A kind of gargoyle?’ she wondered, glancing back at her friends following a few metres behind her. Rainbow Dash was clearly raring to go, and Applejack was just as clearly making sure their flighty friend didn’t jump the gun. This left Rarity on Pinkie Pie duty, which for once didn’t seem hard. The way Pinkie was looking just as confused as everypony else wasn’t at all reassuring.

Stay calm. They’re big, but they’re clearly thinking creatures. We can make peace,’ Twilight thought, stepping forward without missing a beat. This was the moment Princess Celestia had sent her for.

“Excuse me….hello! My name is Twilight Sparkle, and I—” Twilight brought to mind every time Celestia had spoken to dignitaries, every soothing tone to calm the irate noble. When it came to diplomacy, she knew, who better than Princess Celestia to study?

The leader grinned. At least, she was fairly sure it was the leader. Beautiful, orante armour covered its shoulders and clasped its waist, for all it’s hard, harsh designs. The creature barked something, almost a word a word, and stepped back as she approached.

“I...uh, I was wondering if we could….” the unicorn began, her voice faltering with each word as they backed away. 'What am I doing wrong? Is my voice too high? Too low? Soft?'

Another, skin as orange as a terracotta bowl, stepped forward. The tang of magic in the air grew sharp, and she noticed the faint glow around his hands. Too late, Twilight realised the magic was more than passive. It was being shaped into strange formations, energy twisting into a...spell?

“...talk…” she finished, eyes latched onto the display of alien magic.

Claws snapped shut over her soul, invisible constructs of magic that seized the immaterial within hert. Ice crept over her soul, a chill that permeated more than mere flesh. Her mind froze, and her body locked up. The strange spellcaster’s eyes caught hers and she couldn’t look away. It was, she noted in the little part of her head that sat there taking notes, similar to the magic she had followed but ever so slightly different. Utterly unlike anything she had been taught. Distantly she heard her friends screaming her name, and the other monsters — because what else could they be? — were charging forwards, spears and swords raised to the sky and war-cries on their lips.

My friends...’ It jarred her paralysed will into action. The shadowy talons reaching from the spellcaster trembled, their progress slowing. Her eyes watered as she forced her magic to awaken. The monsters were about to pass her now, weapons ready, gleeful murder in their eyes, as they went straight for her friends.

The alien spellcaster’s expression lost its smugness. Confusion and fear appeared in its eyes. With a snarl it pushed its hands towards her. Dark magic swelled and the deadly chill grew. Its stony expression grew uncertain knew something was going wrong, but not what. A small part of Twilight felt a little alien thrill at that.

The spell of soul removal continued to eat into Twilight, arcane forces working to sever the bond to her body. It faltered as it sunk into her, twisting when her own magic began to flow. It was a desperate act, the like of which Twilight had only performed once as a child, the day she earned her cutie mark.

Twilight screamed. Everything dissolved into a blinding flare of magenta light. Her grip on the world slipped away, and blackness overtook her until she had only a moment of awareness. It was a moment dominated not by a sight or a sound, but a thought. A warning; a threat that made her will buckle.

You are not prepared!

Author's Note:

Wonder who that is...

So here it is, the first chapter of Treacherous Mists! World of Warcraft meets My Little Pony, who would have guessed aside from all the other people who have thought of the same idea before me?

If you liked, please comment to let me know what you think. Tell me what you linked, what you didn't like, but don't tell me to remove any u or replace any s with z. I may have to set you aflame in righteous fury.
If you want to read more of my nonsense, I just posted the first chapter of Harmony of the Force, a Star Wars / MLP crossover, and I have that big long Justice Itself, my Diablo / MLP crossover.

If you enjoyed the story, I've got a Patreon set up way over here in case you have any spare change to throw at me. There's nothing exclusive there because I'm not a paywalling dick. You can even make me go to the effort of writing you a personal mini oneshot if you throw some change at me.

Cheers all who read this far, I hope you enjoyed it and will be around for chapter 2.