• Published 17th Nov 2011
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Fallout: Equestria- The Last Sentinel - Adder1



It's hard to kill memories when you remember everything.

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Reflection Twenty: Blood in the Water

Reflection Twenty: Blood in the Water

“Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.”

We were supposed to have a room along the exterior of the hotel. We were supposed to have a patio with a table and set of chairs. We were supposed to have a wonderful view of the Forum plaza and the east side of the Bazaar. We were supposed to have just a simple equinpological research trip and a honeymoon.

Instead, we had a room in the interior of the hotel. Instead, we had no windows and no view. Instead, we had only one way in and only one way out. Instead, this whole trip had become something far more dangerous and far more secretive.

Life isn’t fair, and life isn’t free. At least we still had the nice accommodations and saved a few bits.

The suite had wallpaper the color of dusty hay with a criss-cross pattern of different shades reminiscent of tall grass. We had a large princess-size bed (or would it be Caesar-sized?) with a plush-looking mattress and fluffy pillows. The bathroom had polished tiles for walls and flooring, and we had the modern conveniences of a television set and air conditioning. There was a tall, potted plant off to the side with long, blade-like leaves; I took a moment to touch it. Plastic. Of course. No sunlight.

I didn’t expect the cat, though. It must have been a feral one. It certainly looked the part. I hadn’t noticed it at first until it mewed softly at us. It, in turn, appeared not to notice either me or Luna. Instead, it was staring, fixed on the empty space to our side.

Both it and I knew it wasn’t really empty.

“Go on,” Luna called softly, standing aside from the doorway and using her magic to usher the feral feline out. “Shoo.” Shutting the door behind her, she finally sighed. “I suppose I owe you an explanation for all this.”

I turned to face her. I don’t know how I felt then- a bit angry, a bit worried, a bit confused… maybe a bit scared too. I did my best to hide it in my tone. “I suppose you do.” I don’t think it worked.

The black-furred unicorn sighed. Her horn lit up and her magic projected across the room, scanning for… something. Then she glowed a bright white as she shapeshifted into her alicorn form and let out a soft breath. Then she nodded to the unseen unicorn.

Then came that feeling of being watched, like back in Ponyville years ago. Only this time, it was far, far more intense.

“Frost… the easiest way to do this would be if you close your eyes for a moment.”

I could see where this was going. And so I shut my eyes. Then came the sounds of rippling cloth. Of course. It was Dawn Treader all along.

Crinkling glass. Hooves on marble. Snapping wood. Dripping water. All at once.

Okay… maybe not, then. I opened my eyes.

She was flanked by a total of five Lunar Guards. I recognized Dawn Treader to her left for sure, but there were also two… pegasi stallions, they looked like, except with leathery, featherless wings of deep violet. They were nearly identical. Beside Dawn Treader was… yes, that was definitely that pony from earlier, still surrounded by that smoky veil. Last was an earth pony stallion who was, to my surprise, hovering silently off of the ground. They all had the same ash-gray coat, they all has the tufts of fur on the tips of their ears, and they all had those piercing eyes. Hungry eyes.

Since last time, however, their armor appeared different. It still had the archaic, demonic design, but rather than deep hues of violet with a splash of blue, the metal appeared to be a smoother dark blue with accents of light gray. It offered more coverage, at least just a little, but still remained menacing in appearance.

Luna glanced between her guards, noting the empty spaces to her right and beyond the hovering earth pony. “Where’s Obsidian? And Shine and Meadow?”

One of the pegasi glanced from me to Luna. “Should we be disclosing this information to you with him here?”

“Well we’ve already revealed ourselves to him,” Dawn answered simply and turned to the dark-blue alicorn. “Luna?”

“It’s no secret we’re conducting an operation here,” she answered. “Report. He should know.”

The ash-gray unicorn stallion nodded stoutly. “Obsidian’s cell is scouting out the palace once more for changes. I myself will be leading my cell to scope out the Bazaar plaza at your command. Now!” He turned back to me. “I suppose introductions are in order, Luna?” The dark-blue alicorn merely nodded, expression still hard.

And… Roanoke, again, if you could.

“This is Dawn Treader,” Luna said.

The unicorn stallion simply offered a thin smile. I was about to remark that we've already met, but those hungry eyes narrowed somewhat. They seemed to growl at me, and I remained silent.

Then Luna gestured to the obscured guard. “Daze Haze.”

[Snapshot. Black-and-white-image. A crowded sidewalk. Snapshot. Daze appears, unnoticed. Some phase right through her. Snapshot. She is gone. And so are a select few others. Nobody else noticed. Disappeared from memory.]

The veil circling the figure cleared until revealing most of the… unicorn mare, I presumed. Her face was still a swirling, inexplicable swath I couldn’t properly identify. She remained silent as she regarded me with a single visible eye.

Then Luna motioned to the two pegasi. “Anvil and Hammer.”

[Snapshot. Storm clouds circle the full moon. Snapshot. Bright flash of light. Snapshot. They descend, towing her grisly chariot in a near vertical drop at breakneck speed.]

Anvil smiled cheerfully and waved with a leathery wing. Hammer, meanwhile, simply gave a stout nod.

Lastly, she motioned to the hovering earth pony. “And Stagger Storm.”

[Snapshot. All is well at the outpost. All is silent. All is still. Snapshot. They are all cringing, contorted in silent pain. Blood oozes from their eyes. Snapshot. And he appears, stooping over one of them. Snapshot. They disappear.]

He too offered only a stout nod.

“These are my Lunar Guards, minus three.” Luna finished, “all Lord and Lady Protectors.”

And then that memory of walking through the statue garden with Hummingbird for the first time rushed right back. Eight statues. Eight guards. I was right- that garden had been a prison.

And I knew their crime.

“So, first off, congratulations on your engagement, both of you!” Anvil said in a chipper tone, smiling broadly. “I’m not sure whether or not you have a reception planned, but you both make a lovely couple!”

I was not amused.

He glanced around, smile deteriorating. “... no? Doesn’t work?” The armored pegasus...esque pony sighed. “Well, it was worth a shot.” He coughed into a hoof. “Awkward.”

“Only because of you,” Hammer muttered. “Now shut it.”

I glanced between all of them. “Okay. Okay. So, first things first, what exactly is going on and what-” I turned to Daze Haze, “-did you do to everyone at the checkpoint?”

There was an odd, deep inhale coming from the clouded mare, and she appeared to look to Luna for guidance. Luna clicked her tongue and lowered her gaze but for a moment before answering, “We’re conducting an operation here. By now you know that there is political unrest in Roam unlike anything seen since the dragon uprising. Caesar Raj’M’Kora was placed in power in the aftermath of that event as a promoter of peace and prosperity. With the worst recession Zebrica ever faced followed only decades later by the minotaur uprising, the people in general see him as weak and unfit to rule. I am well aware of the role of responsibility in zebra culture, perhaps more so after Viediv. And the people see the Caesar as having failed in his responsibilities.”

“So you believe that he is in danger?” I inquired.

“Yes,” Luna answered with a nod. “He is a good leader with good intentions. Were he a pony and this Equestria, he would have gone far. But he is far too innocent and naïve for the present circumstances, and the minotaurs knew that and sought to break free when the military was at its weakest in millennia. We fear- I fear- that his life is in danger, and I consider him a close friend. And we take care of our friends.” She glanced to her side. “Dawn.”

Dawn inhaled softly before continuing in her stead. “We have reason to believe that the insurgency led by Khotek plans to depose of RMK.” He stared at me as I opened my mouth and quickly explained, “Caesar Raj'M'Kora. Start picking up on the language, Frost.”

“Dawn,” Luna called again softly but firmly.

He inhaled softly through his nostrils. “Right. Sorry, but we’re burning moonlight explaining this to you. Do try to keep up. Now, we are not ruling out the possibility of armed assassination, as- if the last Senate poll holds any water- over seventy-eight percent of the civilian populace express at least some degree of contempt toward RMK, and Khotek himself has a penchant for making a show of force. With both the Senate and the Court similarly opposing him now, we suspect that they would accept his assassination if not favor it outright. Even if RMK led Zebrica through its most peaceful time, he’s also led it through the bloodiest in recent history. The war isn’t going well, and they want a more capable military leader at the helm. Such as Khotek, or Gorvan, or Dagmir, or any of the other legates wanting him gone. But RMK will not step down, nor will the minotaurs willingly surrender. It’s a case of the weakest link, and RMK may very well be just that. So the reason we are here is to assure his safety and evacuate him from the country if necessary. We don’t know the full capability of his lone Praetorian Guard, and we don’t want to risk finding out she’s incompetent or unfit for the circumstances. Thus, while we are here to protect both Luna and you, we are also here to assure the Caesar's safety. So now you know.”

I stared at them for a few seconds. That… was a lot to take in. Finally, I asked, “Does Celestia know about this?”

“Yes,” Luna answered.

“Does… the Caesar know about this?” I asked.

“No,” she answered, showing the hint of a frown.

Daze finally spoke in that ambiguous, androgynous, disguised tone, “A number of things could go wrong if he knew we were planning to protect and evacuate him should the situation grow dire enough. He might deny it and grow suspicious about Equestria’s involvement in the war, or- worse- it might give him a false sense of security and cause him to take more risks, thereby placing himself in greater danger and making our assignment more difficult.”

I grimaced briefly. “Does anyone else know about this?”

“No,” Dawn replied.

I breathed out a deep, misty sigh. “So exactly how many international laws are we breaking by doing this?”

“A lot,” Anvil answered, offering a cracked, guilty grin.

“Sixteen,” Hammer clarified in a deadbeat tone.

Anvil nodded, concurring. “A lot.”

“Including violation of the autonomy clause of the United Nations Security Council Accord of Greater Powers.”

“Let’s just settle with ‘a lot,’” Anvil said in a sharp whisper, making a chopping motion with his forehoof.

Hammer cocked his head momentarily. “Very well.”

I stared. “And we’re talking about this at normal conversation volume in a public hotel?”

Anvil pointed at Stagger. “He’s got it handled.”

Then, without moving his mouth, the hovering pony somehow managed to say, “Luna scanned the room for any sort of listening or recording device, and this room is effectively silent. Nobody knows we're here.”

I stared in realization. “You're an anemomancer.”

He nodded and cracked a thin smile. “You didn't think you were the only modern-day Mancer, did you?”

“Well... not anymore,” I answered, looking between the rest of the Lunar Guards as I took a step back in realization. My gaze finally settled on Daze. Focus. Getting to know another Mancer is secondary to this. “And the answer to the second question?”

The smoky unicorn inhaled deeply. “I forcibly altered the memories of all witnesses to ensure safe passage, yours included. In your case, I did it multiple times.”

I stared. “Multiple-”

[At the airport.]

[In the wagon.]

[Along the highway.]

[At the checkpoint.]

And I was back in the present once more, staring wide-eyed at Daze. She exhaled in a somewhat guttural manner. “You remember, don't you? What do you remember?”

“I-”

[At the airport, appearing as I was about to voice my decision to return to Equestria.]

[In the wagon, preventing me from noticing the empty space to Luna's side.]

[Along the highway, redirecting us to the Forum as initially planned.]

[At the checkpoint, erasing us from memory.]

Each time, there she was- unseen, unremembered. Almost.

And she had stopped time. I felt myself take another step backward, realizing I was in the presence of an extremely powerful unicorn. Two possibly. Plus a Mancer and two pegasi who could do who knows what.

“He remembers,” Daze stated simply. “Luna...”

“I know,” the dark-blue alicorn said with a frown.

“What is it?” I asked, looking between the two apprehensively. “What's wrong?”

“It appears that your highly superior autobiographical memory makes you... resistant to memory tampering,” Daze answered, “which poses a problem as Khotek also has veteris vestigia. Perhaps not as advanced as yours, but... that means I may not be able to simply manipulate him, and even if I do, there's the risk that he may remember me. And that's not good for Equestria.”

“So we go for the original plan, then?” Stagger inquired wordlessly.

“Obsidian and Luna have the final word on that,” Dawn Treader answered. “We'll discuss further when we can.” He turned to me and glanced at Luna.

She let out a sigh and said, “I'm sorry it had to turn out this way, Frost. I didn't think that you'd propose and you'd want this to be our honeymoon... forgive me.”

“No no, it's... it's alright, it's... it's fine,” I breathed out, still reeling from all this information. “You didn't know what I was planning, just... well this has become more than a simple equinpological research trip now, hasn't it?”

Luna only nodded sadly.

“It's... it's okay,” I sighed. “You didn't know what I was going to do. I just wish you would have told me something, even if it was just that you had important business in Zebrica, I don't know.” I let out another misty sigh, looking between the Lunar Guards and Luna. I honestly felt that spiel was more to convince me than to convince them. “Okay. Okay, okay. So we're obviously staying here as long as it takes for you to do what you gotta do. Where does that leave me? I can't get in the way, and I can't put Luna at risk.”

“You do whatever research you have to do,” Dawn answered. “Do as you originally planned, but use your common sense. I trust you not to approach Khotek's insurgents in a forward manner, and I trust you not to instigate an encounter with undesirable individuals. None of Khotek’s goons should know you’re foreigners, at least not yet. Don’t give them any reason to suspect that. We'll be monitoring you both closely, however, and we'll be there for both of you should there be any sign of trouble. If the situation grows dire enough, however, we may need to completely exfil, and then you do exactly as we say, when we say.” He stared at me. “You're lost. Exfil, short for exfiltrate, means get the hay out. So if it comes to that, you need to listen. Very. Carefully.” He nodded to Luna. “To her.”

“Can't... Luna just teleport us out?” I inquired.

“Well yes, but teleportation isn't subtle,” Dawn said. “It’s a spell that requires significant magical prowess to perform, and it also leaves magical backflash residue that the alchemists at the KSV can easily trace. She would be leaving a bread crumb trail to pointing to a powerful unicorn from Equestria. And we do not- I repeat- do not want Equestria to be implicated in what is turning into an international crisis. When we... 'move,' we're far less obvious barring the noises you've no doubt noticed. Moving somepony who can't normally do it, though... there are risks involved. And to make it blatantly clear, not a word of this reaches anyone else's ears. Understand? Nobody else must know we were ever here. Not Zoleks, not your parents, not even the other branches of the Royal Guard. Understood?”

“Alright... alright, that's fair,” I sighed mistily. “One question, though.” I turned to Daze. “You can stop time and alter memory. Why can't you use that power to save the Caesar, then? There are so many ways you alone could resolve the situation. You could stop the insurgency, and if Legate Khotek is such a huge problem, then... I don't know if you want to go so far as kill him, but you could certainly eliminate him as a threat somehow.”

Daze inhaled deeply once more before replying, “We've all considered other avenues and possibilities. The main problem is that memory alteration is an incredibly powerful and taxing spell and often requires follow-ups to ensure compliance, to say nothing of Khotek likely being resistant to such tampering. Too many already dislike or outright hate RMK. It's too late to attempt that, to say nothing of keeping track of each and every individual person. I already have to follow up with seventeen individuals today. And a damn dog. As for stopping time... that's another matter entirely. I merely formed a stable time loop that allowed me to analyze the situation and resolve it accordingly. I can't, say, stop time, kill Khotek, and have all else return to normal. I can manipulate objects and people, but everything is undone as time resumes. Think of it as a way for me to enhance my reaction time.”

“Why were we unaffected then?” I asked.

“You mean, why were you unaffected?” She appeared to pause and think for a few seconds. “It's likely because your highly superior autobiographical memory was trying to compensate itself for an experience it never had. You remembered me altering memory, but you experienced some form of temporal... disconnect or dissonance. And so your mind filled in the rest.”

“'Likely,'” I parroted.

“The mind is far more powerful than most believe,” the veiled mare answered. “It is able to create what can never exist and destroy the immutable. It's why I chose to specialize in psionic magic, and even now, so much remains a mystery. But that is why I can’t simply magick this problem away. It takes time and effort, and both are finite resources. We have so many resources as the Lunar Guard and not all the time to implement them. And time continues to grow short.”

Hammer turned to the deep-blue alicorn. “Luna, I'd suggest you take-” Anvil coughed, and the pegasus looked back at his compatriot, who repeatedly glanced in my direction. “Right. Luna, Frost, I suggest you both take your leave tonight. The situation in Roam has changed drastically in the last seventy-two hours, and we'll need to take account of the new fortifications and checkpoints.”

Luna nodded. “See to it, then. Dawn, take your cell and scout out the Bazaar. With Obsidian handling the palace itself, that leaves the governmental plaza to you, Daze. Stagger, I… have a feeling we may be discussing this further. Please remain close and maintain the barrier of silence. Go forth.”

In unison, they bowed and uttered, “We serve.”

That image was both so impressive and so unsettling that I blinked.

Rippling cloth. Crinkling glass. Hooves on marble. Snapping wood. Dripping water. All at once.

Only a fraction of a second to blink, and they were all gone. And we were alone again.

* * *

Evening turned to night with little to note. Everything just seemed... stilted. We washed up- separately. The shower, though nice, wasn't big enough for both of us. I called Zoleks to assure him I was okay, Nightingale was okay. We watched the television, flipping from channel to channel to see if anything was available. Everything was focused on the protests and the insurgency. Only one news station cast it in a negative light. Its signal cut out only a few minutes in.

And soon we found ourselves in bed, backs turned to one another, a curtain of silence separating us.

She opened it first.

“You're still mad at me, aren't you?”

I sighed mistily and closed my eyes. That was the question I'd both been dreading and expecting. I shuffled on the bed to turn to face her. “No, no, no I'm not.”

She was already facing me. And those cyan eyes, so full of everything, could see everything in me.

I broke eye contact and sighed again softly. “I'm trying not to be.” I could hear her sigh as well. “Luna, I... how long had you been planning this?”

It was a few seconds before she replied- a few too long. “Two days before I asked if I could go with you. Frost, it's... it's not the only reason I'm here… really...”

That last sentence, with its pleading, seeking tone, lanced through my heart. I swallowed, inhaled deeply, then said, “It's okay. You didn't know I was going to propose. It's okay.”

And once again, it was more to convince me than to convince her.

“Then why are we still like this?” she asked.

“Because,” I groaned, looking up at the headboard and gripping my mane with a hoof, searching for the proper answer, “because... urgh, because I'm not prepared for this! It's not because I blame you! You're, you're trying to prevent an international crisis! It's... I'm an equinpologist-historian, and I came here as one! I'm not... I'm not a soldier! I don't want to compromise your safety, or... or Equestria's safety or-”

All she did to quiet me was place a hoof on my shoulder. The subtle warmth slowed my speeding heart, mellowed my racing mind. There was a gentle tug, an invitation, and I accepted. We drew one another into an embrace. That warmth, still within my boundaries, gradually put me at ease.

“Just do what you can,” Luna whispered to me. “You're still an equinpologist, and you're still a historian. Do what you have to do- remember? That's what Dawn said. Just use common sense. I hate to do this… but I have to do this. Just focus on what you came here for. You'll be fine. We'll be fine.”

I let out a soft sigh, nodding lightly against her neck.

“Trust me.” I could feel her smiling a little. “This'll be much easier compared to dealing with in-laws.”

That got a husky chuckle from me, but it was short-lived. “Wait. In-laws.”

“Yes?”

“Celestia, I get, but... Princess Cadance is her niece.”

“Yes...”

“Which means...”

“You'd technically be her father.”

I pulled away to stare at her.

“And Blueblood's as well,” Luna said with a narrowed glance to the side and a slight edge to her tone.

I stared. “I can't believe I never thought about this. You're a mother?”

“By technicality, by technicality!” Luna quickly corrected, breathing out a sigh to steady herself afterward. “Cadance is... an interesting case. She's technically an alicorn, yes, although out of extremely rare circumstances of birth. She's realistically a winged unicorn, although she exhibits magical prowess approaching but not equal to, say, that of Twilight Sparkle. Blueblood...”

I fished for the rest of that sentence. “Blueblood...”

“Adopted,” she muttered through gritted teeth. “Both of them, separately. They lost their parents to unfortunate circumstances, and Celestia took pity. Why on him, I can't begin to understand. It appears she spoiled him rotten. Originally? She considered him a son. Now? A nephew. We try to distance ourselves from that whelp. Compare that to Cadance doing the same voluntarily out of humility.”

I thought for a moment, tunneling through memory. “Didn't he write-”

“-Lying, Parliamentary Style?” Luna finished. “Yes. So now you see why I'm not fond of my technical 'son.'”

“... does this mean I have to meet them?” I blinked. “And does this mean that the Captain of the Royal Guard would be my son-in-law after this all becomes official?”

Luna cracked a crooked grin. “By technicality.”

I tried to stifle a chuckle, which came out as a snort. Luna couldn't help but snicker, covering her mouth with a hoof.

And just like that, all worry melted away, and I was left- once again- with the impression that everything was going to be just fine.

* * *

There were a lot of sayings about Roam back then. One of them was “You haven't been to Roam until you've been to the Forum, and you haven't been to the Forum until you've been to the Bazaar.”

Show of hooves and hands- how many of you folks have been to Friendship City?

A good number of both shot up.

Alright, so quite a few of you. Good. No doubt you remember what the market area was like, and it's a start to picturing the Bazaar.

So let me fill in the rest. The Roaman Forum is essentially a gigantic cobblestone plaza. We're talking something on the scale of around a dozen square kilometers in size. Like Canterlot, there was both an inner and outer circle. The inner circle contained all the governmental buildings such as the High Court and the Caesar's palace. The outer circle was completely dominated by the Bazaar, and as the city continued to grow, so did both of these circles.

Now, picture a typical vendor stand. Maybe... maybe occupying a few square meters, perhaps a bit larger depending on the wares sold. It's set up with lumber, steel, PVC piping, whatever's on hoof. Have a few staffing it, maybe have some music playing, and decorate it in tribal banners and designs of all shapes and colors to cover up the hasty construction.

Now pack as many of them as you can in several square kilometers with just enough space for a decent-sized pathway and order these stalls based on wares. There were thousands upon thousands of such stalls lining the Bazaar, the people running them shouting at the top of their lungs to advertise their wares to the world, then cycling out whenever their throats got sore. Buy this, buy that, no buy these- all in the many different dialects of Zebrica, all as colorful as the array of banners and flags adorning the stands, thousands of them clamoring for the attention of your ears, voices rolling into one another and blending with blasted music to form a din unlike anything you've experienced before. Just as these vendors tried to use their voices to capture your attention, so did their displays. So many colors, so many boldfaced prices and descriptions- a bundle of gilleaves for ten cronii, a deal here, fifty percent off there- so many wares displayed, too many for your eyes to handle. Then there were the smells. Lorn have mercy on the poor soul who went to the Bazaar on an empty stomach. Your nose was assaulted by so many smells- sweet, spicy, thick, alluring, dirty, clean- from food, from oils, from scented linens, from alchemical ingredients. Some so subtle that they made you want to turn your head for another smell, some so strong you could taste them on your tongue. Then there was the crowd itself- so many people of so many shapes and sizes, wearing so many different kinds of cloaks and cloths. Everyone wore garments in Roam after all. And even with the graciously large walkways, there were just so many you ended up brushing into one another. And there weren't just zebras either. Just as Equestria wasn't home to just ponies and Manehattan was a cultural melting pot, so too was Zebrica, in particular Roam, and even more so in particular the Bazaar. Zebras, ponies, griffins, buffalo, donkeys, mules, and everything in between went this way and that way, each integrated into the Roaman way of life with their colorful garments. Even if zebras made up a vast majority of the population, understand that Roam was at its heart a multicultural city. Honestly, I think the only ones who weren't there were diamond dogs. I doubt even the ones from the City of Lights and Legends could stand the noise.

Folks, when I say you had to go to the Bazaar in order to truly understand what Roam was all about, it's not because there were items and trinkets you couldn't get anywhere else in the world. It's because of the experience that the Bazaar offered- sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch all at once. There was nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Even for a Manehattaner so used to having my senses assaulted by so much stimuli inside a nightclub, nothing compared to the sensory overload I was getting at the Roaman Bazaar.

And we were still standing near the entrance. At least the coastal breeze made sure that I didn’t have to deal with keeping cool on top of all that.

Viediv turned to face us. “You're sure you know exactly what where you want to go?” he asked in Zwahili, mindful of the Legionaries stationed nearby.

Luna, disguised once more, shared a look with me. Viediv had acquired cloaks for the both of us, and they were all we needed to look the part of integrated Roaman ponies. I turned back to him and responded in kind, “Exactly where we need to go. We'll be headed to the alchemists' bloc first.”

“Which is a quarter-kilometer from here.” He nodded. “Alright, I'll take you there. It's not a long walk. Nightingale, I suggest you try to... keep quiet. I know it is inconvenient, but with Khotek's thugs around...” He glanced over his shoulders at the Legionaries standing guard just beyond the entrance. Luna nodded silently in understanding. “Okay, let's go. Try not to let your eyes wander too much, eh? If we get separated, move all the way to the nearest shop and stand tall. It'll make it easier for me to see you.”

And with that, we set off into the utter cacophony of the Bazaar. Even as a Manehattaner, I found at least one of my senses drawn to the nearest stall and lagged behind Viediv, who usually noticed us falling behind and waited for us. Luna especially was overwhelmed, and we instead opted to stick to one another's sides to ensure we stuck together.

The storyteller chuckled.

‘It's not a long walk,’ he said... ahhh, well, maybe for locals. Ahh... dear goodness, I wonder how much I pissed the Lunar Guard off that day (The answer- a lot).

As the minutes ticked by, though, I started to notice some... interesting differences between the Bazaar I researched and the one I was walking in. For one, this area of the Bazaar was mainly supposed to be filled with souvenirs for tourists. With Roam closed to foreign travel barring us, there was nothing of the sort... and instead I noticed a slew of Legionaries patrolling the area instead. Most of the people who passed them by seemed to regard them as part of the scenery and just trotted right past without so much as a glance. And so I did the same.

Eventually, we reached the alchemists' bloc. If I could offer an analogy, my nostrils were plucked from the mud puddle and thrown into the lake. All those foreign smells made me dizzy with sensory overload, making me wobble slightly on my hooves. Luna thankfully used her magic to steady me, and I offered her a grateful smile.

Good Lorn... I couldn't begin to tell you exactly how much I saw in that bloc while we slowly traveled from stall to stall. Zebra magic takes so many different forms after it’s made physical. Remember, zebra magic works through being made physical- imbuing, essence grafting, alchemy, fetishes, the like.

The storyteller tapped his chin with a hoof.

So many different forms? Scratch that, they can take any form. Remember my piano back in Stalliongrad? Xamuros restored that using alchemy. Where and how he managed to get the reagents to do that, I'll never know. At the alchemists' bloc, though, there was... goodness, there were so many different things there. Basically anything that wasn't an electronic device was being sold there. Writing utensils, dishware, pottery, cabinets, cloths and linens, instruments...

Then a call in Zebrikaans. “Essence-grafted silverware! They'll never break! We give demonstrations!”

I couldn't help but give pause and call to Viediv.

The stall, much like the others, was large enough to contain a space about as large as my family's old high-rise apartment in Manehattan. Plastic tubing formed the frame, and a series of tarps and banners of deep violets and sunny yellows sectioned off a rear section of the stall from view. Although a cloaked, hooded zebra mare was at the front, displaying and advertising an assortment spoons, forks, knives, tongs, and other utensils on a set of tables, I spied a toga-garbed unicorn mare in the back, reclining in a folding chair. Interesting. Anti-Equestrian sentiment around, here we had a pony and a pair of experts on blades at that... well, cutlery at least.

“Hello,” the zebra mare greeted us in Zebrikaans with a stout nod and a thin smile. Then, in traditional Bazaar vendor fashion: “What do you seek?”

“I first seek one of your demonstrations,” I answered in kind.

She nodded and produced a spoon from one of the packs lying under the table, showing it to us to display its factory-fresh condition. “Silverware can get bent or scratched or chipped.” She then bent down and scraped it against the cobblestone at her hooves, then displayed it to us. The surface was indeed covered in scratches and chipped points that would probably cut a tongue. “Not so with these.” The zebra mare swept one of the spoons off of the table instead and repeated the motion. Twice. And then sandwiched it between the stone and her hoof and really ground it. I could actually hear the sound of it over the clamor of the rest of the Bazaar. When she displayed it to us, the spoon was pristine, unblemished.

I huffed softly, impressed. Sure, I'd witnessed zebra alchemy before, but this was something I hadn't seen back in Manehattan. “And what reagent did you use to graft to make your silverware so durable?”

The zebra mare simply sat down and crossed her forelegs. “Trade secret. Now what do you seek?”

Mm. Touched a nerve there. I glanced at Viediv and found him giving a subtle shake of the head. So instead I inhaled and replied, “I seek... custom work.”

She let her crossed forelegs relax just a little. “What kind of custom work?”

I was about to sprout a pair of ice arms but thought better of it. We didn’t want to attract attention. Instead I reached into my cloak with a hoof and produced Silver Skean, pressing it against my opposite foreleg to pop the spring latch before fanning her open and regripping. “Could you do the same to something like this?”

The zebra vendor stared at the weapon for a few seconds, then looked up at me. The pony mare in the back was paying full attention to us as well. She looked up at me and asked, “Are you KSV?”

The storyteller sighed, chuckling softly.

What was it about balisongs back then that people immediately assumed you were some kind of hitbuck if you had one?

“No, just a collector of interesting foreign trinkets,” I answered with a hearty, husky chuckle. “Think you could give two of these the same treatment as the rest of your wares?”

She put a hoof to her chin in thought and held her hoof toward Silver Skean, adopting a questioning expression. I nodded and allowed her to take it in her hooves. She splayed the handles apart as if trying to get a sense of how it worked, even trying to repeat my method of opening it. It instead fell from her open-faced hoof and fell downward, but she quickly caught one handle with her other hoof and breathed out a sigh of relief.

“The moving parts might make it complicated, but I should be able to, yes,” the zebra mare said with a nod. “Would you please come in with me? All three of you?”

I looked between Luna and Viediv, who nodded in turn. “Yes, if you welcome us,” the zebra stallion answered.

“We welcome you,” she answered in turn, then looked to the unicorn mare in the rear. “Mint Twist, would you take over, please?” I noted that she still kept speaking Zebrikaans.

Mint Twist nodded and stood up, heading to her coworker to take over. The demonstration had attracted a few more passersby, but first the two whispered to one another. The zebra mare blinked as if realizing something. Luna, Viediv, and I shared a glance. Not a good sign. Oddly, though, I didn't get that feeling of being watched... something like this should've riled the Lunar Guards. Still, the zebra vendor nodded for us to follow into the rear section of the tarp-covered tent, and we obliged. The tarps must have been alchemically treated- the noise was reduced to a dull roar on the inside, a sanctuary for our ears.

When the word “alchemy” comes to mind, many think of the pestle and mortar, the bubbling cauldron, the outlandish glassware- at least, back in my day. The back area of the stall simply had a few large mats for sitting and a large chest, presumably full of reagents or whatever was necessary for the alchemy.

And oddly enough, there was a radio set quietly playing Flakey Art's Moanin'. The zebra mare paused by the set, reached a hoof as if to switch the track, then shrugged.

“You're a long way from home,” she spoke in Equestrian as we settled in. “I must say you chose a very bad time to come to Zebrica. Hopefully the Legionaries haven't been giving you trouble?”

I frowned- and I was certain I wasn't the only one who did. “So you knew, then.”

“Mint Twist recognized the Manehattan in your voice,” she said with a soft smile, clicking open the chest so that the lid obscured its contents. “She grew up there. Keeps talking about how there's a lot of similarities between it and Roam. I wouldn't know.” She started looking through the contents, which made me antsy. “So what brings you to Zebrica? It's supposed to be closed to foreign travel.”

Viediv finally spoke up by clearing his throat. “Miss, could you please show what's in the chest? We don't know what you're doing.”

“It's Kanturi,” she answered, smile disappearing before she spun the chest around to display a series of shelf stacks held aloft by the hinges of the chest, each holding a slew of bones organized by grid, each with odd nicks and grooves carved into them in patterns that sent inexplicable chills down my spine. “And there you go. I'm not packing a sawn-off if that's what you're wondering.”

“Sawn... off?” I asked, not understanding. Ugh. It pains me in a strange sort of way to remember how I knew barely anything about guns back then.

Viediv flattened his lips and shared a glance with Kanturi. “Shotgun.” I grimaced at that.

“Shotgun,” Kanturi sighed in accord, swiveling her chest back to face her. “By the Caesar, you ponies and your innocence. I'm not an enemy, for sun's sake. You wouldn't catch anyone in Roam speaking Equestrian in public with the Legionaries around.”

“So... you don't support Legate Khotek?” Luna inquired.

She arced a brow and paused in her sifting. “Legate Khotek? You mean Legate Damaro? Well I don't like Caesar Raj'M'Kora for where he's steering Zebrica, but I don't much like the 'rah rah it's the Equestrians' fault for restricting gem trade' banter either. So why are you... two, doing here anyway?” She looked at Viediv. “You're most certainly a native, but you two...” And back at me and Luna, “you two are here for a reason, and it's not simple tourism.”

“Just equinpological research, Kanturi,” I answered. “We were able to secure special permission from ImmeD to enter Zebrica.”

The zebra mare continued to eye us. “Hm. What kind of research?”

“In a nutshell, I'm trying to discover how the Age of Industry affected Zebrican culture and society as a whole,” I answered earnestly with a light smile. Not too much to make it seem like a lie- because it wasn’t- but earnest enough to entertain the idea. It was already suspicious enough for an Equestrian to be in Zebrica. I didn’t want her suspecting otherwise.

Kanturi looked down as she resumed sifting through her chest. “And so you come to the Bazaar. So is this merely a business transaction, or...?”

“It could be,” I answered with a shrug. Wait for it... “You don't owe me that.”

She looked back up at me with a sidelong glance. And a grin. “Well... you do sound like someone who knows a thing or two about us.” The zebra mare inhaled through her nostrils. “Before anything else, was your... knife... thing... the only object you wanted to be grafted, Mister...?”

“Frost,” I answered. “Just call me Frost. And my friends here are Viediv and Nightingale.” I pursed my lips briefly. Even if it was a show of trust, I don’t know if I should have given us our names in exchange for hers. “Possibly an identical one as well, depending on how the first goes.”

“Then I'll have to ask you to pay half of the cost up front,” Kanturi said. “I don't know how much you've learned of our magic, but unlike you unicorns-” She looked between me and Luna, “-we require physical materials.

“How much?” I inquired.

“It's custom work for a weapon,” she answered. “Two-fifty cronii up front, two-fifty after.”

Why did everyone always think I intended to use them as weapons? Still, I glanced at Luna at that. Five-hundred cronii was equal to around three days' single occupancy at our hotel's suite.

Viediv cleared his throat. “Kanturi, those were... bone charms, were they?”

The zebra mare eyed him. “Yes.”

“I don't think those are legal at the Bazaar,” he said with a slight frown.

“Not officially,” she said with a slight shrug.

“Pardon, but... why aren't bone charms legal in the Bazaar?” Luna inquired.

And soon all eyes were on her. Kanturi clicked her tongue and replied, “Because while similar to the Nameless Magic, it is not the same. Still,” She glanced at Viediv, “some consider it so. But relax. They're rat bones. Sun's sake, who do you take me for?”

“Nameless Magic?” Luna questioned further.

Viediv opened his mouth.

“Don't say it,” Kanturi said, tone rising just a hint. Just a hint. “Don't. Say it.”

Viediv closed his mouth.

“This is borderline taboo,” I murmured quietly to Luna. “Don't press.”

Her lip twitched as she suppressed the urge to frown but nodded.

“So was that why you were so afraid we were KSV?” I asked.

“That, and it seems the KSV seems to judge anyone connected with a pony here in Zebrica,” Kanturi replied with a frown, nodding toward the front. “Mint Twist has come under... ah, scrutiny.”

“Is she your...?” Luna asked, tilting her head forward at the end. The implied word was clear. Kanturi nodded slightly, slowly.

“So why show us the bone charms, then?” Viediv inquired.

“Because I know that you, as a good Roaman citizen, should know that there's a difference between what the Bazaar allows and what the Bazaar actually does,” she responded with a snort. “And because you were so paranoid of me having some kind of weapon packed away, like some sort of hitmare.”

I suppressed the urge to chuckle from the irony.

“Hmph... fair enough,” Viediv murmured, crossing his forelegs.

“So do we have a deal?” she asked me.

I glanced at Luna, who merely gave a slight permissive grin and nodded toward Kanturi. I turned back to the zebra mare and said, “Four-fifty cronii total. And I get to ask some questions about the state of Roam.” I held up a hoof. “But I will pay the two-fifty up front. Deal?”

Kanturi pursed her lip for a moment before nodding. “Deal.” And so I counted out the coin and slid them across to her. After she whisked them away, she set Silver Skean down on the mat and wriggled her forelegs to shimmy the sleeves of her cloak out of her way. “Ask what you will.”

I nodded, watching her all the while. “There was a recession that started around twenty-five years ago that started in Zebrica and lasted for over a decade. How did it affect you personally?”

“Starting big already, hm?” Kanturi huffed with a wry grin. She slammed a hoof down on one of her bone charms, hidden from view by the chest's lid. Afterward, she arched her hoof back up, drawing a ghostly, smoke-like substance that seemed to sigh as it moved through the air. “The short answer is here, the Bazaar. But I'm sure you're more interested in the more complex answer, yes?” I nodded, and she continued. “I grew up during that recession. It was a tough time for everyone in Roam. We all helped one another out, but if you know a thing about inflation... even if we did manage to perfectly distribute wealth- which we didn't- that wealth was shrinking in value. The capitalists of the modern corporations and the politicians they lobby for like to say a rising tide lifts all boats. I don't know if it works that way,” She then used her other forehoof to draw up an identical swath of smoke, “but I know that a falling tide beaches many boats.”

“But not all,” I said, catching the change.

“Not all,” the zebra mare echoed in accord as she drew her hooves into a tight, slow circle, condensing the strange, smoky essence. “CEO's swindled the stock market cold and held onto that wealth. How else do you think they withstood the recession? The same with yours and Aldorna's. We're not the only guilty ones.”

“I wasn't making any accusations,” I said calmly.

“I know,” Kanturi said, now starting to extrude the balled-up essence into a thin shape, pausing to look at me. “But I want to set the record straight. The world isn't as innocent as you ponies like to see it.” She folded the extruded essence back on itself, forming a thicker layer. “My family weathered the recession- if we follow the same metaphor- by finding deeper waters. We found out where all the money was going.”

“Big business?” I inquired.

“No. Well, yes, it flowed there too. I don't know if 'too big to fail' is ever a valid reason to bail out a company out of a recession, but I know it's a reason why some corporations stayed profitable during it.” And then she pulled back her hooves, taking a look at the essence. It was now a cylindrical shape hanging in the air, about as thick as a guard rail for a stairwell. “Recall my short answer.”

“The Bazaar?”

“The Bazaar,” Kanturi echoed with a nod. Then she dipped her hoof into the essence roughly halfway in and drew it down the middle, causing the lower half to split. Now it started to resemble my balisong with the handles splayed apart. “You see, long ago, before these big businesses and corporations and mass production, the heart of the Zebrican economy was the Roaman Bazaar. You've seen how large it is. Imagine all the cronii and traded goods changing hooves and hands. It all adds up. But when it comes to goods and services, the best are favored. Cheap, quality, convenience- pick two.” She laughed softly at that. “So there were the cheapest, the best, and the fastest who eventually dominated larger and larger portions of the Bazaar.”

“The merchant princes,” I surmised.

“Yes,” she affirmed. At this point, she was 'shaving' off the excess essence to match the details on Silver Skean- the skeletonized handles, the milleted grooves, the blade itself- with a precision I'd never seen before in my life. The essence she shed simply hung in the air, swirling in an invisible wind. “You know what they say about wealth? The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer? Usually, people take it literally. I like to offer an alternate interpretation of that. The rich get richer because they've come to enjoy the spoils of materialistic goods. They want the new, fastest wagon on the market. They want the newest, fastest terminal. They want the biggest, grandest villas. And they never tire in their search, wanting more and more and more. Meanwhile, the poorer learn to cope with how little they have. They get more frugal in their choices. Do I need that? Or do I just want it? I could probably live without that, right? Trim the fat. Save money for what you really need. Spend less. Stretch that cronus to last you another day, or week, or month. So we have the merchant prince, sitting on his linen-built wealth the way a dragon sits on its hoard. And what happens when they smell the promise of wealth offered by mass production, mass automation, mass commerce, mass export? The dragon hungers and wants it. So soon, the merchant prince became the business owner, who then became the CEO. And this, of course, left a great big hole in the Bazaar. And what happens then?” She looked at me expectantly.

I drew my lip taut, failing her expectations.

“New players step in,” Luna answered to my surprise. “All that competition is suddenly gone.”

Kanturi smiled, continuing to weave the essence. “Yes. Water seeks the lowest point. And that falling tide was flowing right into the Bazaar. You see, there are two economic... spheres, let's call them, in Zebrica. There's the one you no doubt know- big business, the bloated CEO, all of that- and the Bazaar. We operate on a barter economy backed by the exchange not just of the cronus but also other goods and services. There is no set price. The buyer and seller agree on the trade, unconstrained by values of international currency. So you see? It doesn't matter if it suddenly takes five cronii to buy a loaf of bread when it cost just one before the recession. You want indestructible silverware? I want enough to eat for a week. Let's trade. So you see, even if the cronus lost so much value, we sidestepped that. Physical goods and services don't lose value as easily. You always need food, water, shelter. And so the rich businesszebra keeps his or her wealth, riding out the falling waters. Meanwhile, we created our own wealth through this separate system, riding the falling waters from one ocean to another. Small wonder the Bazaar is at its largest ever in Roaman history. And so I went from a rag-wearing servant to a merchant princess. Well… close enough, I guess.”

The zebra mare held her hooves back. Hovering before us was a ghostly, near-identical copy of Silver Skean. “I'd like to see a machine do this,” she said proudly, pooling the excess essence together with her hoof and pushing it back into the bone charm. “And now...” She used both hooves to wave through the air, guiding the shape into my blade. The sighs increased in volume, seemingly growing in number as more voices joined the chorus.

And then silence.

“Well it didn't turn to dust,” Kanturi said, pursing her lip momentarily. “Try it. Test it. See if it's what you sought.”

The storyteller revealed his next memento- Silver Skean, mimicking his next actions.

I reached for my blade, my hoof hovering just over it as I glanced up at her.

“It's safe to touch, I assure you,” she said to me with a smile.

And so I gripped my blade and tested it with a twirl, spiraling it on the surface of my hoof until it closed. Then opened. There was still a bit of ply in the handles, but as I tested by seeing how much I could tweak up and down, it was still as good as the day I bought them. Then I gripped the handles in both hooves, slid the latch across to lock the blade open, and then leaned to the side to press the flat side of the blade against the ground, applying pressure. The metal did not bend at all even as I essentially began trying to do a push-up using it.

And even after nearly two-hundred years later, the blade still held up strong against the armored stallion. He smiled softly, tossing it up in the air and catching it as it closed on the way back down, pouching it once more.

“Impressed?” Kanturi asked, smiling as I eventually lost balance with a cry of surprise. Luna mercifully caught me in her magic, even if I was at no risk at falling on my own blade the way it was oriented.

“Thank you, Nightingale,” I said with a sheepish smile, pocketing my blade. “Yeah, very. Now, before I pay, though... any chance you could do another? Same payment?”

Kanturi pursed her lip for a moment. “You have deep pockets for an equinpologist.”

“And that bothers you as a bone charm grafter?” Viediv piped up.

The zebra mare raised both eyebrows at that. “Fair enough. You have more questions?”

“Yes,” I replied as I passed over a larger pile of cronii- and Chrome Cleaver- glancing at Luna momentarily. “Who is Legate Damaro?”

“You're definitely new to Zebrica,” Kanturi snorted as she began her work again. “He is in charge of the protest. He rallied up every Legate- almost the entire Legion, really- in a move to end Caesar Raj'M'Kora's rule. Again, I don’t like the Caesar, but I don’t think I want to go so far as to oust him.”

“And... you haven't heard of Legate Khotek?” I inquired.

“Maybe in passing,” she answered with a shrug, another string of sighs sounding off as she drew out the essences of another pair of bone charms. “Why?”

Luna and I shared a glance.

* * *

“I hope I wasn't the only one who found that odd,” Viediv said, switching back to Zwahili as we made our way back into the clamoring chaos of the Bazaar.

“You weren't,” I said in kind. “Have you ever heard of Legate Damaro?”

“Opposite of what she told us,” he answered. “I know of Legate Damaro, but he's supposed to be working for Legate Khotek, not the other way around.” I glanced at Luna and found her sharing a similarly puzzled look.

“It couldn't be mistaken identity, could it?” I inquired.

“Two completely different zebras,” Viediv responded, making a quick sweep of his hoof in a negatory gesture. “We would know.”

“Think it's just a fluke?” I asked.

“Could be, but I can't say for sure,” he replied. “I honestly haven't been asking around much about the insurgency for... obvious reasons.” He hushed up, and I followed his gaze to a pair of Legionaries in the distance.

“Could be worth asking for behind closed tarps,” I suggested.

Viediv snorted. “Are you a war correspondent now?”

“No,” I countered, unable to help but glance at Luna, “just suspicious and curious.” Turning to her, I grinned and quietly asked in Equestrian, “Well, I splurged quite a bit. Anything you're looking for?”

* * *

It was the same answer everywhere we went. Damaro. Damaro. Damaro. Khotek? Who's Khotek? I think I've heard of him. I think he's in support of Damaro.

I managed to pull Luna aside into a gap between one of the stalls, convincing Viediv that we needed to-

The storyteller coughed.

-discuss the fine line between research and tourism. Viediv gave a silent groan as if anticipating we were having our first argument as a couple.

Unintentional, but convincing at the very least.

“So, did any of your...” Okay, Frost, let's try to find a subtle way to put it, “associates...” There we go, “... ever mention a Legate Damaro?”

“As one of the legates firmly against Caesar Raj'M'Kora, yes,” Luna replied. “It doesn't make any sense, though. We know that Khotek's at the helm. Viediv knows it.”

“Even Zoleks knows that,” I added. “I'm smelling something fishy going on here. You?”

“Among other things,” the black-furred unicorn murmured, wrinkling her overwhelmed nose. “I trust in my friends. Something's wrong here, and I think it might be Khotek's doing.”

“So how do we find out?” I asked.

Luna arced a brow and smirked in that expression that made me fall in love with her. “I thought you came here as an equinpologist. You're starting to sound like you're trying to help me with this.”

“It's a smidge more important than a little research,” I said, glancing at the passing crowd to make sure we weren't being eavesdropped.

“But something you're not trained for,” Luna said, expression neutral once more. “Didn’t we just have the whole talk where you were worried you weren’t prepared for something like this?” She rest a hoof on my shoulder. “I appreciate that you wish to help, but leave that to my friends, Frost. Focus on your research. Whatever else we pick up is just, as Pinkie would put it, icing on the cake.”

I sighed softly, “Alright. We're headed back out then.” She nodded, and we made our way back to Viediv.

“All sorted out?” he inquired in Zwahili.

“Yes, though we're done for the day,” I replied. “Five hours is long enough. Let's get some lunch and head out, alright?”

“Alright,” the zebra stallion said with a nod. “We'll be heading through the sculptors' bloc, then, unless you wished to head back to your suite first?”

“Would be best to head back the way we came to drop our things off, yes,” I said with a nod. “Thank you, Viediv.”

“You can thank me by paying for lunch,” he said with a grin, starting to lead us back.

Then came that feeling of being watched again. More intense than back in Ponyville but not as strong as last night. I knew what it all meant now. Multiple Lunar Guards were nearby. I glanced back at Luna, now wearing a frown. Her eyes, full of everything, were narrowed slightly, focused.

Then they fell on me. And she unmistakably mouthed, “Careful.”

I looked forward and used my hoof to tug the hood of my cloak a little lower over my head. A pair of Legionaries marched right past us on their hindlegs, their armor and gear clinking audibly as they passed. Their weapons were lowered, but the sight of their rifles held at the ready unnerved me all the same.

Then we caught sight of another Legionary pair. One held a hoof to his helmet's integrated earpiece, then nodded in the direction we were headed. His partner nodded and they headed off. And then another pair passed us, calling behind him in Zwahili, “Move! Double time!”

Viediv looked back at me with worry creasing his brow. “We should take another exit,” he said to us over the din of the Bazaar.

I nodded in agreement, turning around to face Luna. She likewise gave a stout nod, then narrowed her eyes further, mouth slightly ajar with her ears tenting her hood.

I adopted a puzzled, questioning expression, but soon, I heard it too. Something in the distance, growing over the din of the Bazaar. Slowly, but steadily...

Barra!”

Barra!”

Barra!”

Barra!”

Out.

Out.

Out.

Out.

In Voturian. A dialect belonging to one of the older, argrarian tribes.

Barra. Barra. Louder and louder. Barra! Barra! Louder and louder until I could clearly tell it was coming ahead of us, and the other Roamans- most of them- were joining the cry. A group- not just a pair- of Legionaries marched past us, pounding a forehoof into the air, barking the chant out.

The crowd paused.

Listened.

Echoed.

And then followed.

The storyteller shifted a little.

Herd mentality is something lost to all but those who've lived during those days- ghouls, maybe a cyber, and myself. Ponies had it. So did zebras, perhaps to a much greater extent. When someone they saw as the authority started moving in one direction, they followed.

The sea of people had suddenly formed a current. And we were pushed along with it.

Viediv, Luna, and myself were pushed up close together and could only shuffle our hooves and follow to avoid being trampled or pushed aside. Viediv was panicking, but he tried not to show it. He just looked at me, and I looked at him. He had that look, I had that look. And then I turned to Luna. She knew, I knew.

We were going with the tide. There was no turning back.

And that feeling of being watched grew only stronger.

We followed along because we had to, and I watched as some of the shopkeepers joined in like tributaries merging into an ever growing flood. Teleport, I thought to myself. Why doesn't she just teleport us out? Some voice told me that was just the way it had to be. (Because they'd know. Because they'd see. You'd be singled out. They'd know something was amiss. They'd trace us back to Equestria. Or they’d know we weren’t supporters. Neither were good.)

Barra!” the chanting continued, growing ever louder. “Barra! Barra! Barra!

Then something else joined it that made me jump and made my chest tighten.

Boom.

Barra!” Boom.“Barra!” Boom. “Barra!” Boom. Growing slowly louder.

We were out of the outer circle. We were within the inner circle of the Forum, the governmental bloc. The tall, marble buildings grew as we approached, supported by thick columns with incredibly detailed statues and friezes decorating the structures, depicting heroes from both reality and the realm of mythology.

The rational part of me told me- oh, no. We're marching on the Caesar's palace. The panicking, irrational part of me- it couldn't be that. No. Impossible. This couldn't happen to you.

Well, folks, life isn't fair, and life isn't free.

And then I realized what that steady boom... boom... boom was. We gradually joined a crowd- a massive crowd. There must have been thousands gathered in the grounds leading toward the palace. And all those thousands were beating their hoof on the cobblestone in near-unison as they shouted their demand.

As I later learned- tens of thousands.

Barra!” Boom.“Barra!” Boom.

The storyteller leaned back, taking a deep breath.

This is it, folks. There we were. Luna. Viediv. Me. In the plaza right in the middle of the governmental bloc of the Roaman Forum. The High Court with its mighty columns and steps to the right, the Senate with its arches and friezes and reliefs and statues of warriors and civil servicezebras to the left. And before us, the palace of Caesar Raj'M'Kora. Like something taken out of Canterlot, it towered above us. Its architecture reflected that of the multicultural city, resulting in a blend of different architectures. Arches, domes, spires, high towers, buttresses, thick columns- all in a rainbow of colors. While some may think of the design as chaotic or an eyesore, it perfectly embodied the sense of responsibility the Caesar had to the multicultural country of Zebrica.

And the thousands of people, those tens of thousands, perfectly embodied his failure to uphold that responsibility.

And far beyond the sea of people- mostly zebras- I could see a small group of zebras gathering ahead of the crowd on the wide, marble steps leading up to the palace. All were clearly in military wear. One of them stood before the others.

“Damaro?” I asked Luna and Viediv, shouting over the chants.

Both looked similarly unsure initially, but then Luna’s ears flicked up.

“Damaro,” she whispered in confirmation.

The legate held a single hoof up, and slowly but surely, the people quieted. The jarring silence left my ears ringing.

The storyteller leaned toward the audience.

There are many profound differences between equine cultures. Some of those are the reasons for music. We ponies sing to mark the passing of seasons, to celebrate events, to express our anguish. Our songs reflect the circumstances. Griffins are an industrious race. Most of their songs are work songs meant to be softly chirped or whistled to oneself while busy with a task. They take the mind off of the toil, carrying the mind and body through hours of dull work as if on a tailwind. Only a select few of their endogenous songs have lyrics, and they’re often religious.

Cultural contact and exchange has caused all different forms of music to mingle with one another. Ponykind also share work songs, and griffinkind also have their circumstantial songs. But these are the kinds of songs that originate with each equine species. They’re an integral part of their culture.

Now zebrakind…

Zebras… sing with meaning. With purpose.

He leaned further forward.

With intent.

The old unicorn righted himself.

I want you to remember this moment, folks. We could have ironed out the resource dispute. We could have paved the way to diplomacy between the zebras and minotaurs. But what happened next changed the course of history.

And it all started with a simple song.

The group of… legates, I assumed, beat their hooves against the marble.

Boom-boom boom.

Then there was a pause.

Boom-boom boom.

Another pause.

And now everyone did it.

Boom-boom boom.

The jarring silence became deafening loudness once more. The hammer of hooves… I can still feel them pounding away at my chest. And I still remember the haunted look that Viediv had as soon as he realized what it was.

Boom-boom boom.

“Barra barra!” the crowd chanted at once.

“Hozd wel boghd ou zarawa!” Damaro shouted in song.

Boom-boom boom.

“Barra barra!”

“Fezd wel l’hozd ma b’qa aamen!”

Boom-boom boom.

Barra barra!”

“L’alach we ness menhousinne!”

Boom-boom boom.

“Barra barra!”

“La horma dorm wet ouboudiiia!”

My mind raced to translate the song.

Out out.

Sadness and hate and the rule of the meaningless.

Out out.

Destruction and jealousy and no trust left.

Out out.

The people thirst and have no fortune.

Out out.

No honor but oppression and slavery.

Viediv stared with wide eyes like he’d just seen a ghost. I watched him mouth, “Kiongozi…

The storyteller inhaled deeply.

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Connecting the dots sometimes makes a complete circle. That song- that exact song- was the same sung in protest of Caesar Bodorok’s rule during the Draconian Revolution only just before I was born.

A song of no honor, no love, no singing birds, stark walls, ruined seas. A song of no beauty, only desolation.

Hyperbole? Yes, of course. No rivers dried up during either Bodorok’s or Raj’M’Kora’s rules. But make no mistake- hyperbole is an excellent form of rhetoric. Songs already magnify the equine emotion. Add hyperbole to an already very angry song… you’ve got some very angry singers.

The storyteller glanced to the side.

There are… only a few things that truly scare me. I don’t speak of fearing for my life or… of those close to me. I definitely fear for those. The fear I speak of is… more along the lines of tension and apprehension.

And that song always gets me feeling tense and apprehensive.

As the song finally concluded with a dying string of booms, he appeared. All heads rose and all eyes fell on him. Silence, too, fell. Caesar Raj’M’Kora appeared on the high balcony overlooking the plaza. From the distance, I couldn’t tell exactly what he looked like, but I could tell he was wearing only a simple cloak awash with colors of royal purple and gold. He was wearing a golden sash, perhaps- a slight glint gave that away- but he was otherwise modest in his manner of wear. Appearing beside him was another figure I couldn’t quite identify. Definitely a zebra, though… his Praetorian Guard, I believed.

High as he was above the ground, his voice still carried over the entire plaza. I remember that I was told he adamantly refused to step down. But after all that? His tone was… tired. Weary. Almost defeated. And old. “I will meet with the leaders of the opposition,” he said in Voturian.

The power of a song, folks.

And everyone who heard those words knew- without a shadow of a doubt- he had given in. And yet there was no cheering. There was no applause. No fanfare or celebration.

“You will meet us alone in the Senate!” the emboldened voice of Damaro unmistakably shouted- almost angrily- up to him.

The Caesar didn’t reply immediately. He took a few seconds. But when he did: “We will meet in the Senate, then. I will go alone.” The zebra at his side leaned over as if to whisper something in his ear. Definitely his Praetorian Guard. “I. Will go. Alone.”

Those starkly repeated words sent murmurs and whispers through the crowd. Among those I heard: “Has he lost his mind? They’ll kill him!”

“You have ten minutes!” Damaro shouted up to him before turning with the rest of his cohorts and starting away. And the crowd in his path quickly dispersed- some willingly, others as the Legionaries wordlessly motioned them to make way. As I looked around, I could see many looks.

You could tell a lot about people through their eyes. I never forgot that lesson from Hummingbird. And what did their eyes reveal to me?

Guilt. Uncertainty. Fear. Worry.

There’s a lesson from all this, folks. Be careful what you wish for. Because if you get it, it might just smell of rot.

The storyteller inhaled softly.

He was out in five. I don’t know how his old, tired body was able to carry him down all those stairs so quickly, but he was out in five minutes. There was a clear path for him to the Senate. Waiting for him there at the top of the steps were the legates. His guard was at his side. Once more they appeared to share a whispered word. He visibly shook his head and strode forth while she watched and remained. It was pitiful. She knew. Everyone knew. And yet she still watched like a hound watching her master leave from behind a locked door.

You could have heard a pin drop as Caesar Raj’M’Kora strode forth. Every footfall was audible. His stride was uneven with age, but he carried himself with a dignified posture- head even, shoulders firm, chest out. As he passed by us, though, I could make out the grayness of his muzzle and the dark, sagging circles under his eyes. Even at a distance.

I couldn’t help but shake the feeling. I knew what was coming as he made his way to the stairs, then walked slowly up them. My heart was thudding in my chest, pounding away. My mouth was dry, my knees jittery. I kept my breaths shallow, constricted, as quiet as possible. I needed my ears to be ready for whatever happened. I still felt that intense feeling of being watched. Why weren’t they doing something? Do something!

When he reached the top of the stairs, when he met with Damaro and the other legates, there were some shared words. Quiet, too far and too soft to pick out exactly what was said. Everything was so quiet. And then they headed into the Senate. Their rolling hooves were the loudest sounds in those few minutes that seemed to span hours. Then they slipped from view past the columns.

I studied up on Roam before I went. I did my research. The first thing I told myself when I heard the soft, sharp bang was that it was probably just the doors. That was the irrational part of my mind.

The rational part of my mind reminded me something. I remember everything.

The Senate was open to the public.

There were no doors.

“Raj!” came a single, clearly female shout.

Almost as one, the entire crowd uttered out a string of gasps, muffled cries, some shouts. For about half a second.

Then there was the unmistakable shout of a Legionary near the palace. My eyes shot back to the lone Praetorian Guard, who was now making a break for the Senate. The Legionaries along the pathway took formation in pairs, the ones in front crouching down in front of their respective partners so the other could take aim overhead. They didn’t even shout an order for her to halt. They just opened fire, each in disciplined, controlled, staggered bursts.

From utter silence sprung chaos.

“Run.”

Luna’s single uttered word reached my ears just as the crowd turned into a haphazard stampede.

A zebra stallion with wide eyes, wearing a worn, red co- zebra mare running with the crowd to avoid getting tram- another mare pulling a foal out of the wa- the foal, shivering, shutting his eyes tight-

No.

No. That was exactly what happened with Hummingbird and the changelings so many years ago. I would not allow myself to make the same mistake.

Luna.

Luna. Only Luna. Focus on her. Black unicorn mare, silvery mane, simple hooded cloak. Focus on her and-

“Viediv!” I called, looking around for him in the panicked mass. Mare, stallion, stallion, foal, stallion, mare, mare, stallion, mare- but none of them him.

I felt the firm grasp of a bent fetlock around mine and looked back at Luna. Looked into those eyes, so full of everything.

Luna. Only Luna. Focus on her. Black unicorn mare, silvery mane, simple hooded cloak.

“We have to go,” she called to me, voice firm with cool, calm logic.

That’s what my ears heard. She was putting it lightly. She was breaking it to me gently.

Sometimes, when I think back, I almost hear, “We have to leave him.”

Luna. Only Luna. Focus on her.

I nodded quickly and picked up the pace. I wasn’t going to let her become another Hummingbird.

But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that leaving Viediv behind, I also left a part of myself. I never found out what happened to him. I never heard from him again.

I eventually had to let go of Luna’s hoof. We both had to run on all fours to get out of the plaza, but I always remained close to her. The irrational part of me kept on wondering- why doesn’t she just teleport us to a safe distance so we could exfil… exvil… exfiltrate?

To blend in, the rational part of me answered once again. Few unicorns knew how to teleport. And the KSV would investigate a teleportation event after all this. But wait, it’s already clear that Damaro and the other legates killed the Caesar. Why-

Luna. Only Luna. Focus on her. Stick close to her. Ignore the burning muscles in your legs. Ignore the burning questions in your mind. Focus on her. Run. Just run.

By the time we reached the tents and stalls of the Bazaar once more, I staggered to my knees. Sweat was making my cloak cling to my fur, and my chest heaved for breath. And my legs! I hated that burning sensation! Luna helped me back up to my hooves, hugging me tightly.

“We’re okay,” she whispered. “We’re okay.”

I nodded, still gasping for breath. Every part of me just wanted to sag back to the ground and just lie there… except for my ears.

“By the sun… did you see her move? And it was like those bullets didn’t even touch her!”

“Did she get into the Senate?”

“Yes…”

“The that means Legate Damaro…”

“We don’t know for sure. Ugh… this wasn’t what I wanted to happen, joining in all of this…”

I looked back up at Luna, trying to muster up the breath to tell her, “Let’s head back” or “Let’s get out of here.” I just babbled something not even I could understand and settled with waving in the general direction of our hotel. Luna nodded and then widened her eyes. There was a string of surprised shouts and cries and I wearily turned my head to see what was going on.

Off in the distance- roughly thirty meters away- the Praetorian Guard burst past a row of stalls, skidding backwards on her hindhooves. I’d only seen pictures of them before, but even at such a distance, I couldn’t help but tense. Her armor was a deep crimson, gleaming with its innumerable, meticulously layered scale plating backed by something that looked like either leather or an extremely flexible or glossy alloy. It only covered the torso- there were no sleeves or skirts or guards for her limbs, tail, or neck. She didn’t even have a helm for that matter, leaving her movement unrestricted. Most interestingly, two black bands of cloth covered her eyes and slipped through her mouth as a gag and blindfold. And she was immaculate. There had been a lot of gunfire before everything went to hell, and she didn’t even have a scratch on her. Standing bipedal, she gripped in her fetlocks a pair of similarly glossy swords. They were colored a chaotic mix of black and brown and were extremely linear and simple in design- I couldn’t even tell if they had crossguards from this distance. Their edges were sharp- odd considering the Roaman inclination for stabbing over swinging. And they were dripping with blood.

The people nearby quickly backed away, letting out a string of murmurs punctuated with shouts and sharp cries. A pair of Legionaries arrived on-scene, one more raggedly than the other. He barked into his helmet mic in Zwahili, “The Praetorian is a traitor to the Empire! Shoot on sight!”

As he spoke, “The Praetorian,” his partner maintained his distance while keeping himself between the other soldier and the mare defensively and fired off a burst with his assault rifle. As if anticipating this, she kicked off sideways in a short hop that somehow sent her several meters to the side in a split second and set off a resounding thud from her landing that even I could hear from that distance. The bullets harmlessly sailed into a tarp.

As he spoke “is a traitor to,” the Praetorian Guard darted forward in a low sprint, forcing the Legionary to take a split second to correct his aim both to the side and downward. A split second he didn’t have.

As he spoke, “the Empire,” his partner only fired a single round that barely missed its mark. The mare swung both of her shortswords upward in a staggered, fanlike motion, twisting her torso as she went. The first cleave sliced through the stallion’s left foreleg and continued on to cleanly bisect his rifle. The second diagonally lopped off half of his head, carving straight through the helmet on its way up.

And the words “Shoot on sight” barely left his mouth as the Praetorian’s momentum carried her toward him. Her blades fanned back downward another double cleave, the first slicing cleanly through his torso- which I remind you was armored with ceramic-laminate scaled plating- and the second beheading the already doomed stallion.

Now… I’ve killed before all this. I might not have been entirely lucid during it, but let’s not forget that. But watching this mare who had been trained to kill with such fluidity and so little effort downright scared me.

By now, panicked shouts and screams filled the air as everyone started running away. Adrenaline coursing through my veins once more, I hauled myself up to my feet and started galloping away even as Luna hurriedly uttered, “Run! Up, let’s go!” The burning weight in my legs seemed to vanish as I ran off, chancing a look back at the Praetorian Guard.

By now the remaining Legionaries had wisened up and were engaging her from a distance, taking accurate single shots from further down the Bazaar walkway. The armored mare darted to the side, swinging her shortswords a few times as if to-

The storyteller snorted.

-as if to block or deflect the incoming bullets, then darted behind one of the stalls for cover, crouching low and appearing to stare at us.

Yes, she was thirty meters away and growing.

Yes, she had a blindfold on.

And yet I couldn’t shake the unsettling feeling that she was staring right at us.

That notion only strengthened as she stood and sprinted directly at us, her hindhooves creating a steady percussion of heavy thuds as she charged.

Jy!” She let out a muffled shout at us past her cloth gag. “Stopp, perde!”

“She’s headed this way!” I called to Luna, panic rising in my tone.

I watched her chance a look back, and when she turned to face forward again, she said with an edge to her tone, “She knows.”

“What do you mean she-” I belted back at her in surprise. “She can see? How?”

“‘I don’t know, but we are leaving!’” she replied quickly. “There’s too many eyes around us, Frost! Look for a place where we can hide!”

By the tone of her voice, it didn’t sound like she meant just the Bazaar. “How about… about our suite?” I asked, my words broken up by my panted breath.

“I don’t know if we can make it that far!” Luna shouted back. Her horn lit up, and the two nearest stalls suddenly shifted behind us into the path of the zebra mare. “Just move!”

In spite of her words, I couldn’t help but look back… and then gawk as she effortlessly sliced her way through in a flurry of dancing blades. I could have sworn there was a whole refrigerator- with food!- lying cleanly bisected in her wake.

I slumped my shoulders at that. What couldn’t those swords cut through? My muscles were really burning by now as I galloped after Luna. The Praetorian Guard was pouring on the speed toward us, and despite her bipedal stance and her heavy, thudding footfalls, she was gaining. As we raced past another batch of stalls, the bystanders quickly scrambling out of the way, there was a quick series of cracks and shouts, and I watched as the guard mare brought up her blades in jerky motions, sparks flying from them. Holy shit, she was deflecting those rounds!

“Where do we go?” I called to Luna, my heart pounding as we passed by the pair of Legionaries from which the shots came from. One of them kicked backward out of the way with a shout of warning. The other one didn’t react fast enough. The armored mare leaped into a frontflip, bringing her hindlegs down hard on him with a sickening, wet crunch, the impact causing her to skid forward atop his crushed body for a short distance before she leaped off to continue barreling after us. You’ve got to be kidding me- this mare was coming after us?!

We started making our way toward the cramped, winding roads with small businesses, restaurants, and homes springing up along them. And all of them had people. Some were running like we were, others were looking in surprise, but they were everywhere. Not to mention that I was hearing the kind of shouting from up ahead that could only mean more Legionaries…

“Look for an alleyway, look for an empty stall,” Luna barked, “just something!”

I looked frantically for a way out, but each and every which way seemed to have zebras wondering what the hay was going on or just plain trying to get out of the way of the rapidly approaching swordsmare.

And then, just like that, fatigue caught up with me. A splitting pain lanced up all of my legs as they finally cramped up and I toppled to the ground hard, panting heavily for breath. My chin split against the stone and I felt myself bleeding there. I wanted to get back up or cover my chin- anything. But my legs were locked up and refused to budge, and I could only groan pathetically from the pain. Even if I was willing to risk using my magic, I couldn’t muster the concentration. Luna turned back to me, eyes wide.

“Oh no no no no no…” she muttered quickly, looking at me, then up at an alleyway. I could only weakly look back up at the zebra stallion standing there out of the way of the commotion, eyes wide. “I’m sorry.” I heard her whisper. I was about to ask something before her sky-blue magic flickered once against the stallion and he was blasted backward with an arcane force with a cry of surprise, tumbling into a crumpled, groaning heap on the ground. The world turned a similar shade of sky-blue as Luna magically hoisted me up with her and darted into the alley. “Shut your eyes!”

I shut them tightly and felt cold metal pressing against my shoulder, accompanied by the sound of rippling cloth.

Then silence.

For the briefest moment, silence and not a feeling of being watched but the unsettling feeling of pinpricks… everywhere. It was like your leg falling asleep, just… everywhere.

Then sound crashed back, the rippling cloth sounding like a roaring wave, and I tore my eyes open.

We weren’t in the Bazaar anymore.

I didn’t even think we were in Zebrica anymore.

Everything was dark, unbelievably dark, but I felt cold, wet stone beneath my hooves. The cold metal touch at my shoulder left me.

“Don’t turn around,” I heard Dawn Treader whisper calmly but firmly as a soft heat suffused through my split chin. The wetness from the blood disappeared. Without a hint of a magical aura. “Do not. Turn around.”

“Okay… okay…” I panted softly, too exhausted to turn around anyway. “Is she… is she-?”

“I’m here,” Luna’s whisper greeted me, and I felt her wrap her forelegs around me. She’d dropped the illusion, and I felt relief spring forth in me, letting that sagging exhaustion claim me. I slumped fully back against my alicorn lover, utterly spent. I even had trouble keeping my head upright.

“Thank you… thank you…” I whispered, my heart still hammering away and my body shivering as if going into adrenaline withdrawal.

“Are they bringing her?” Luna asked.

“Ohhh yes,” Dawn replied out of view. “Get ready. She’s not going to be hospitable.” Then he shouted in a manner that carried an echo within this… cavern, I suspected. “Daze! Get RMK over here!

“Wait, what?” I whispered sharply. “But he’s-”

There was the sound of crinkling glass behind me. “Over here,” Daze Haze’s disguised voice echoed.

Hooves on marble. Snapping wood. Dripping water.

“Prepare yourselves,” came Anvil’s voice, much more serious now. “Obsidian’s cell is coming in hot.”

“Why hot?” Raj’M’Kora’s voice in Equestrian, with that Zebrican accent. The Raj’M’Kora’s voice.

“What’s going on?!” I demanded.

“Just stay quiet for now,” Luna shushed me. “Please. Just let us handle this.”

“Your guard has multiple Legionaries with eyes on her, your Highness, and whatever Daze tried to tell her about us trying to help out, it got lost in translation,” came Anvil’s reply. “If we want a clean evac, Obsidian’s cell might also be forced to bring two Legionaries along. And it’s likely that your guard will be initially hostile.”

“And you plan to kill them immediately afterward,” the Caesar surmised.

“... the Legionaries, yes.”

“And there’s no other way?”

“This would involve the least collateral, your Highness,” Hammer spoke. “Your guard is being very aggressive toward any Legionary in her path. And Princess Luna, I must ask again- should he be privy to all of this?”

I knew he meant me.

I felt Luna shift against me. “Yes. He was a part of this operation. He deserves some clarity, or at least enough to know why we had to do this.”

I felt so horribly out of the loop. I couldn’t see anything, it was cold and musty, and Caesar Raj’M’Kora was alive? And on top of that, they wouldn’t even allow me to see anyone or anything. The only comforting thing right now was Luna’s closeness. And even then I felt that adrenaline buzz working its way back at the notion of the Praetorian Guard being on the way...

A loud thud. Whooshing air. A muted chirp. All at once, all behind me.

Then there was a rapid pair of soft, bony snaps, then a sharp gasp of surprise and the rapid sound of metal-on-metal clanging, followed by rapid movement.

“Faraal, stopp!” Raj’M’Kora called. And then silence.

There was the sound of gently rustling cloth. “... Raj?” the unmistakable voice of the Praetorian Guard called in a whisper.

After a few seconds, there was a hard swallow and a polite cough. “Hoo… and you actually doubted the mare,” a smooth, male voice sounded off.

“I stand corrected and pleasantly surprised, then,” Dawn huffed in return.

“Still, cutting it a little close, your Highness?”

“I’m sixty-eight years old,” I heard the Caesar snort. “You’ll forgive my slow, ah, reflexes. Faraal, staan af. Hulle is vriende, verstaan?” Stand down. They are friends, understand?

There came a warped sound of sliding metal, followed by a loud snap and click. “Ek verstaan,” the Praetorian Guard… Faraal replied. Then there came a soft twin sigh and the shift of cloth, as if the two shared an embrace. “Wat gebeur?

Then there came a firm female tone. “Caesar Raj’M’Kora, Praetorian Faraal, if I may explain?”

A pause. “I would rather hear it come from Luna,” he replied.

“Of course, your Highness.”

Luna pulled away from me and rest a hoof on my shoulder, rubbing gently as she pulled away. The immediate threat of death was behind us at last… and I let out a deep, misty sigh. “Raj’M’Kora, Faraal, we- that is myself, my sister, and my Lunar Guard- strongly believed that the opposition leaders were planning to assassinate you, and we took measures to ensure that wouldn’t happen.”

“And you were right,” the Caesar huffed softly. “I… apologize. I didn’t believe you.”

“Regardless, the situation required all of us to act without your knowledge,” Luna spoke. “I hope you both understand. If either of you had known this beforehoof, it could have complicated matters more than they already are- or needed to be.”

“Yes,” Raj’M’Kora said simply. “But what happened? I’m sure Faraal would like to know especially.”

“Yes, of course,” said Luna. “Daze, you were there. We’ll start debriefing with you.”

A deep inhale sounded off before the mare’s androgynous voice spoke, “As you were heading toward the Senate, I appeared before Faraal with an exclusionary illusion and tried to explain the situation to her in a way she could understand. The language barrier, of course, didn’t help. She was suspicious, even though she acknowledged me and made no hostile move. After that, Dawn and I moved in to secure your safety, Caesar. I created a multisensory illusion and substituted you with it before extracting you here.”

I could distinctly hear Caesar Raj’M’Kora sharing a whispered string of words to this Faraal, likely translating for her. He then asked, “And afterward?”

“We proceeded to fully exfiltrate from Zebrica, along with your guard,” Daze replied. “Rest assured that my illusions will be convincing enough. As far as everyone is concerned, you’re a dead stallion, your Highness. Now this is the part where I must ask you some questions. More specifically, I must ask your guard. Is she capable of seeing through magical illusions?”

“Yes,” came the Caesar’s reply. “She is not fooled by illusion magic of any kind.”

Daze inhaled particularly strongly. “So she can see what I look like and can hear my actual voice. For instance.”

“Yes.”

Another strong inhale. “Princess Luna, permission to take my leave?”

“Permission granted,” Luna said quietly. “I’ll speak with you later.”

“Understood,” Daze spoke. It was followed by a rapid warbling sound.

Before my exhausted mind could even attempt to unravel the meaning behind Daze’s exit, the firm female voice asked, “Shall I continue the debrief, princess?”

“Continue,” said Luna.

“Second, Praetorian Faraal, we lost contact with you once you entered the Senate,” the unnamed Lunar Guard mare spoke. “We overheard radio chatter that Legate Damaro was dead. What happened in Senate?”

I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. Even if he probably deserved it, the gears in my head were turning...

More whispered chatter before Caesar Raj’M’Kora replied, “She… she killed all of the legates there. She says it was an act of responsibility, by… which in a way you can understand, was exacting vengeance. She maintains that if I had really been there, I would have been killed, so she assumed the responsibility of exacting that same punishment on them and any Legionary who supported them. In other words, also any who shot at her. She considered them traitors to the Empire.”

“You killed all of them?” the unnamed guard questioned.

Ja,” came Faraal’s reply after a brief whisper.

The Lunar Guard mare exhaled deeply. “Thank you.” A soft inhale, and then she confirmed my suspicions. “Princess Luna, that means that we have an even bigger problem. Effectively, the Caesar is dead, and so are all of the legates save Khotek, who we still haven’t heard a peep from.”

“Roam is going to eat itself alive…” Luna murmured.

“Or the minotaurs will take this as an opportune moment for strategic, widespread strikes,” Anvil added. “Likely both.”

I heard Luna sigh. “We’ll continue the debrief later. With Daze. But for now, we should be getting him back. He knows enough now. Anvil, Hammer, please retrieve our belongings from our suite. I’ll get Daze to forge our departure with ImeD. Meadow, Shine, you are both to return to the Senate to confirm the legates’ deaths.”

“We serve,” the four stallions complied simultaneously before there came the sound of hooves on marble, snapping wood, whooshing air, and a muffled chirp. They were gone.

“Can we trust him to remain silent about all of this?” Stagger Storm’s ‘voice’ finally asked.

“Your lack of faith and Hammer’s have been duly noted,” Luna said firmly with a slight edge to her voice. “He can be trusted.”

Wie is hy?” Faraal inquired audibly. “Die res is jou wagte, maar wie is hy?”

“Ah… Faraal wants to know who he is,” Caesar Raj’M’Kora spoke. “The rest are your guards, but who is he?”

I felt Luna’s reassuring hoof against my shoulder, and the world tinted sky-blue as her magic surrounded me.

The storyteller smiled.

Her reply still brings a smile to my lips to this day.

“Classified.”

Of all things that fit the bill that day, me, folks. ‘Classified.’

He let out a husky, rapidly deteriorating chuckle.

Ahhh… what a day, that day.

* * *

I don’t know when I passed out, but when I finally came to, I was staring up into the wooden loft of my apartment home in Ponyville. My legs were so sore I could barely move. I couldn’t even bring myself to hug Luna when she came for me, and I was very thankful I didn’t have to worry about summer session for Littlehorn. With all the international uproar, I was surprised she could even set aside time for me at all, even if it was just to feed me.

Yes. Feed me. Remember what I said about pride being my vice way back? I can’t tell you what felt more horrible back then- the fact that I had to be spoon-fed by my prospective wife or that dreadful ache in my useless legs. But for the most part, I spent those hours just trying to make sense of all that had happened and listen to the radio. We were so quiet, I don’t think anypony in town even realized I had returned yet.

It wasn’t looking good in Roam. Or Zebrica for that matter. The apparent assassination and the deaths of nearly all of the legates left a yawning gap in the fabric of Roam. The chain of command both political and military had been broken in a matter of minutes, leaving a vacuum of power.

I remember lying there in bed with Luna that night. Not even her soft, feathery wings comforted me.

“-ports of minotaur sympathizer causing mass riots within Roam continue to leak from the county. The extent of the damage and death toll have yet to be released, just as they have always been since the start of the uprising. We, like many news outlets, continue to press officials in Zebrica for infor-”

“Frost, can we please shut that off?” Luna whispered.

In reply, I fired up my horn with its sky-blue glow and sprouted an ice arm to flick my radio alarm off. The ache in my legs grew, and the arm fell and shattered against the floor as my concentration slipped. I missed, so utterly fatigued as I was, and simply turned down the volume instead to a near inaudible drone.

It was the only sound for what seemed like hours. Luna didn’t say anything this time. She didn’t peel back the curtain of silence separating us. My mind raced with thoughts, my imagination conjuring the worst. What was she feeling? Did she blame herself?

No. This time, I pulled those curtains down.

“Hey…” I whispered to her. “Are you alright?”

She shifted against me as if surprised that I had spoken first. “... no.”

I grunted as I wriggled my torso until I eventually turned to face her. I looked into those eyes, those eyes full of everything, now glancing away from me. “Talk to me,” I urged her. “Please.”

The deep-blue alicorn let out a soft, deep breath through her nostrils before murmuring, “I knew the risks when we planned this operation. I knew that something could go wrong, but… not this. You were in real, legitimate danger from something that none of us had really accounted for. It is inexcusable.” She punctuated her last word by stamping her hoof against the mattress. If it were against the floor, it would have had more emphasis. The way she did it, it just seemed… weak.

I sighed softly, mistily. Some of it trickled onto her, but she scarcely seemed to notice. “You couldn’t account for everything. That saying about expecting the unexpected? You just can’t do it.” She refused to look at me, and instead her ears tucked back. I sighed again. “Nightingale… look at me. Please.”

Her name. That was all it took. The power of a name. The single sweetest sound in any language.

“None of us saw it coming,” I whispered to her. “None of us. And when it did happen, you and your guards acted admirably and accordingly to ensure our safety. The only thing that didn’t seem to work out was me being out of shape.” I offered her a faint smile. “So please… don’t blame yourself.”

Luna didn’t look entirely convinced, but she did mirror my smile. That, at least, put me at ease. “Are you alright, though?” she asked, reciprocating my earlier question.

“Oh jeez,” I nickered. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to move for days. But otherwise? Yeah… I’m fine. And… yes. I understand why you had to do all of this. And honestly… you being a mare who takes care of her friends, no matter the risks? That only makes me love you more.”

Luna slumped slightly before pulling me in for a tight hug, letting out a deep sigh. “Thank you, Frost… and I’ll see if I can help with your legs in the morning.”

I smiled broadly and did the only affectionate thing I could do at the moment given my legs- nuzzle her neck. “And thank you for giving me bragging rights for ‘most interesting honeymoon ever.’”

Luna let out a soft, short chuckle, then gently tapped me on the back of my head with her hoof in response.

“Oh come on!” I chuckled huskily. “You have to admit it!”

“Well… it’ll certainly be one to remember,” Luna murmured, then went rigid.

“... Luna?” I called softly. “What’s wrong?”

She said nothing. I only saw a sky-blue glow coming from behind me as she used her magic to turn up the radio.

“-egion forces have reportedly consolidated themselves within the city of Roam to quell the riots. Eyewitness reports have leaked from Zebrica, leading us to believe that one of the few surviving senior legates by the name of Khotek has assumed command of the Legion and declared himself interim protector of the Empire of Zebrica, thus enabling him to assume emergency powers. When our correspondent inquired how he was able to escape from the rampage of the late Caesar’s Praetorian Guard, it was apparently because he was purportedly in the field at the time to ensure the safety of the Zebrican people from the minotaur militants. We will continue to report on the matter as new details trickle in.”

“Clever bastard,” Luna remarked in a murmur.

* * *

Footnote: Frost- Level Up! Level 20 Reached!
Perk Added: Stripus Incognitus- There are shades of gray between the black and white. Your knowledge of zebra customs grants you a +5 to Speech rolls against them.

Unlockables added: Soundtrack- The Old Lunar Guard

Soundtrack- Theme of the Specialist, Dawn Treader

Soundtrack- Theme of the Psionic, Daze Haze

Soundtrack- Theme of the Escort, Anvil

Soundtrack- Theme of the Bodyguard, Hammer

Soundtrack- Theme of the Silent, Stagger Storm

Soundtrack- I Have to Do This, I Hate to Do This

Soundtrack- The Bazaar

Soundtrack- Moanin’ by Flakey Art

Soundtrack- Who’s Khotek?

Soundtrack- Something is Wrong

Soundtrack- Civil Unrest

Soundtrack- Barra Barra

Soundtrack- Coup de Grâce

Soundtrack- Madness

Soundtrack- Chase

Soundtrack- Location Unknown

Soundtrack- Theme of the Praetorian Guard, Faraal

Soundtrack- Together (Special Thanks to Tofu)

Soundtrack- Wool Over the Eyes

Author's Note:

Well... at least it wasn't quite as long as the wait for last time. But yes, nearly three months between installments sucks. Really sorry about all the delays. I hope that in the end, this chapter was worth it.

If not, well, enjoy the crapton of music?

Anyway, my thanks to the usual suspects including Lazer726 for his suggestions and pre-reading. I must also especially thank you as the reader this time for being so patient. Here's hoping next installment comes out faster. Lastly, I must also thank Raugos for permission to use Anvil and Hammer as characters in TLS. Speaking of which, check out his works! My thanks to Egophiliac as well for allowing me to use... well, you'll see.

So with that, please leave some feedback. I read every comment and do take constructive criticism to heart.

Until next time,
Adder1

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