• Published 7th Apr 2017
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The Amulet of Shades - Sparkle Cola



Unfortunately, the Nightmare Moon Incident had one further complication...

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Chapter Eleven: The Fillydelphia Convention Center

Zerrin Slash looked around at the assembled team, his heated griffon blood churning at the thought of his first military exercise with such an elite group. After two weeks of training simulations, this would be his first live assignment and he was anxious to prove his mettle.

Granted, they were only there to perform a routine security sweep before Twilight Sparkle’s big visit tomorrow, but at least it was live. In the entirety of his two weeks as the newest member of Princess Twilight’s security team, he had only seen her up close twice. Commander Fizzlepop, Twilight’s overly protective head of security, was always assigning him to the furthest away assignments. Now that Twilight was featured as the keynote speaker for Friendship Day festivities, and Commander Fizzlepop needed her entire force, Zerrin would be able to stay a lot closer. He just wished at some point they could get some bloody action.

Fizzlepop finished talking about whatever with the building’s two head custodians, a multi-colored changeling, and a strange creature that was probably a kirin, though Zerrin had never met one in person before.

While the two made their way towards the main stairway at the edge of the main hall, Fizzlepop turned to address them.

“Okay, miscreants. Ear up.” Fizzlepop unrolled the roster and held it in front of her with magic. “Zen’zie and Russet have agreed to stay in their office on the ground floor while we perform the sweep. As we reviewed in our meeting at 1500 hours, the Convention Center features two wings branching off of this, the main hall.” She pointed behind them with a hoof. “The North Wing is behind you, and for those who lack even an iota of a sense of direction, behind me is the South. I’m looking at you, Crimson Spark.”

“What? Why me?” The poppy-red unicorn glared around, even as the other team members started snickering. A few muttered quips bubbled up about Crimson’s death-ray head cannon, but not having a clue as to which way to point it.

”All right, pipe down.” Fizzlepop broke in, her tone flat. “If we can cut the chatter we can get to work.” Her eyes traveled over the group, pausing on her defensive specialist. The diminutive unicorn had been patting Zerrin on his shoulder, whispering in his ear. “Zora, you can flirt with our newest griff later.” Zora snatched her hoof away and stared straight ahead, eyes wide.

“Aside from the main staircase here there are stairwells at the end of each wing behind the labeled access doors. Also, there are two additional underground levels. Teams of two will perform their sweeps outward toward the stairwells. Once there, Wade and Stormclaw will monitor the stairs while the remaining ten sweepers will spread through the lower levels, starting at the periphery and working back towards my position here. Once the sweep is complete, we will set up our guard points as previously covered. Any questions?”

A grizzled minotaur raised his well-muscled arm from the back. “If we run into any nerds, do we get offered hazard pay?”

Fizzlepop gave him a blank look before rolling her eyes. “If there are no serious questions, I’ll give you your assignments. First assignment is that Wade Tinkerman there will do pushups on the floor until I’ve finished with my instructions.”

Several team members chuckled as they made way for the minotaur to lower himself to the ground to get started. Wade didn’t even look bothered to do it. The sound of his exertions were the backdrop for Fizzlepop’s droning voice as she continued.

“For North Wing, Zerrin and Blackbeak will be on 3rd floor. Bulwark will be with Nebula on the 2nd, and Stormclaw will pair up with Onyx for the 1st.” The dragon of the group looked down, eyes meeting with the lone changeling. They each nodded their acknowledgement.

“As for the South Wing, Mazumah will team up with Gravnet on the 3rd floor, while Wade will pair up with Zora on the 2nd. Finally, Crimson Spark and Cadrey will take care of this level. If there is nothing else, gear up and deploy. Go.”

* * *

Lieutenant Hillgren Bulwark angled an ear towards the collar of his barding, where his transmitter crackled to life.

“Units in the North Wing, this is Actual. What’s your sitrep, Bravo-Zulu one-one-niner?”

Hillgren’s eyes swept from side to side as he listened to the paired-up griffons give their report. From the corner of his vision, his search cohort, a pegasus named Nebula, burst out of a door. His wings were twitching and his lips were curled in disgust.

“The next closet I find buried in dust is yours!” Nebula hissed, dusting the cobwebs out of his electric blue mane. “You don’t have any wings to preen!”

Rolling his eyes, Bulwark pointed to the next door. “Got it. I’ll take the dusty ones. You can get the rest infested with spiders, doctor.”

“That’s not—”

The gravelly voice of Beta Team’s leader—the lone dragon of their group—broke in over the transmitter, the Alpha leader having finished his report. Stormclaw’s voice usually rumbled in the bass register, but he always sounded near-unintelligible when speaking through their transmitters. Bulwark wasn’t sure, but he believed it was due to the dragon race’s natural magic resistance and the fact that their transmitters were powered by magic crystal arrays.

“North Wing first floor is clear so far, Commander. Anti-teleportation arrays are in place, and we’ve marked four access points—pegusi fire escapes. The floor is seventy-five percent complete. Any update to our orders?”

“Just finish your assignment and place the remaining sensors,” came the reply. Commander Berrytwist was unflappable as always, perhaps more so now that they were on an active mission. “...Oh, and don’t blow anything up.”

Bulwark chortled to himself. He swore he could also hear teams chuckling from elsewhere in the building—whether they were transmitting or not.

“Yes… sir.”

Twilight’s Security Team was only six weeks old, but old Stormclaw had been dealing with explosives for years. As far as Bulwark knew, he had never suffered a setback until last week during a training exercise. Whether the mishap was because Stormclaw had a crush on Fizzlepop or not was up for debate between the team members, but at least Ponyville didn’t mind the unexpected pyrotechnics. The local residents considered it “mild” compared to what they termed “the early years.”

Regardless, Captain Fizzlepop wasn’t willing to let that one go just yet. With a creak, Bulwark pushed another door open, scanning the room before walking inside. This one seemed to be a meeting room with a conference table and a drop screen at the other end.

The transceiver crackled again.” Actual to Bravo-Zulu, acknowledged. November-Hotel two-oh-four? Give your sitrep.”

Reaching up with his right hoof, Lieutenant Bulwark hit send on his transceiver. “Third floor is 80% clear, Commander. All but the final array are in place. There are two Pegusi entrances to either side, but all are secured with a deadbolt and have magical rune protection. Magical sensors have also been placed every twenty meters. Over.”

“Acknowledged, November-Hotel. Actual to Oscar-Sierra six-one-two. Give your sitrep.”

Bulwark continued to listen while Wade’s burly voice spoke up. As he made his way back into the corridor, he caught a glimpse of Nebula as the pegasus pushed his way into a public restroom before his eyes flicked down to the end of the hall. He wasn’t alone. There was a third pony standing by the stairway access door. Her back was turned, and she seemed to be heaving, either mildly convulsing or gasping for breath. The lights at the terminus of the hallway flickered a bit, casting the area in subdued hues of semi-shadow.

“Hey there, Ms. Custodian—um, Russet, right?” Bulwark spoke up, making sure Nebula would be able to hear him now that there was something strange in the neighborhood. He might’ve been tempted to call those other guys if it wasn’t for the fact that the “bogey” was the kirin mare he had seen only half an hour ago.

Nebula poked his head back out of the restroom, one eyebrow raised. “You say something?”

Bulwark flicked his tail, gesturing down the hallway with his muzzle. “We have a security breach and you pick now to use the little filly’s room?”

“It was the next door!” Nebula stomped his hoof. “What, you want me to get a hall pass before I check the next one?”

“Easy there, Nebulizer.” Bulwark chuckled. “Just needling you is all.”

The medical pony rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’ll give you a needle.”

Ignoring Nebula’s remark, Bulwark returned his focus to the kirin. “Ms. Russet? You and your supervisor were instructed to remain in your office while we conducted our sweeps. May we escort you back downstairs?”

The kirin continued to heave, her bushy mane twitching every so often. Frowning, Bulwark stopped his approach to within five meters. What was it he learned back in his days with the force?

If there's something weird
And it don't look good
Who you gonna call?

When dealing with a custodian mare half one’s size, Bulwark didn’t feel the need to call anypony, really. In a case like this, ‘weird’ was probably just better met with a billy club.

Sliding the baton free, Bulwark flicked his eyes back to Nebula who was bringing his transceiver up. “Okay, Ms. Russet. I need you to turn around slowly… Hooves where I can see them.”

Static sounded from behind him as Nebula murmured something in response to a query from Fizzlepop. Circling to the side, Bulwark kept his eyes trained on the mare, trying to gauge her mental state by getting a view of her face. “Russet Gleam? It’s gonna be okay. Let’s help you back downstairs, alright?”

The kirin just twitched.

“Should I, uh… call for backup, Lieutenant?” Nebula’s voice broke in from behind.

“Don’t trouble yourself.” Bulwark smiled. “I’m at least twice her size and she’s unarmed—”

A flash of bluish white light blinded Bulwark for second before a body impacted him from the side. Widening his stance, Bulwark gasped as the kirin’s body roiled with a scorching heat, setting his fur ablaze. Bulwark was screaming before his mind even registered the pain as his flesh began to char.

“Get her off, dammit! Get her off!” Bulwark hollered. “And backup is necessary!”

Nebula opened his wings and shot forward. “Code 10-10!” he yelled into his transceiver. “This is November-Hotel! Bulwark’s been assaulted!” In two wing beats Nebula had flicked out his knife and closed the distance to strike. Before he could, Bulwark dropped out from under him, rolled, away, and pinned the kirin beneath. Nebula’s eyes widened. He banked hard in the cramped hallway, kicking off of a wall as his transceiver crackled to life again. “Bulwark, what the Tartarus are you—?”

Continuing his roll, Bulwark’s intentions were soon clear as he landed on his back, Russet on top. His rear hooves coiled under the flaming custodian’s bare torso. One kick sent his attacker crashing into a nearby wall. Free of his assailant, Bulwark rolled again to finish smothering the flames.

“Fire extinguisher!” He gasped, standing up as patches of his coat continued to flicker. “We need to contain her, not kill!” Regaining his bearings, Bulwark drew his sword—hopefully its business end wouldn’t be needed. The kirin—nirik, rather—pulled herself to her hooves, shaking her head and snarling. Flames flared all over her coat, the heat rolling off in waves that caused Bulwark’s skin to prickle. The bulletin board behind her spontaneously combusted.

Bulwark’s brain raced through his options. He wasn’t registering pain at the moment, but he knew that blessing was temporary if the smell of charred flesh was any indication. Thank Celestia for small favors like adrenaline. Maybe he could take the nirik out with a knockout blow? It might-

Cold, white foam blindsided him from the right.

“Not me, you idiot!” He coughed and fought through his watery eyes. “Her!” He pointed to the nirik. She stalked closer, framed as she was in flames with the wall now fully ablaze behind her. There was some crimson liquid dripping from one of her fangs. Bulwark’s eyebrows rose. Had she bitten him?

Nebula gave a quick nod. “Sorry sir!”

In another second, the nirik received a heavy dose of flame retardant. Further blasts blasted the wall behind her. Bulwark mashed his transmitter button, even as he sidestepped his attacker, deflecting her attack with an armored hoof.

“Captain! Zora would be really helpful right now to take the tango safely. She’s running amuck, lighting things on fire, that kind of thing.” Bulwark watched as Nebula crossed in front of him, hitting the custodian again with his spray. “Orders?”

“I’ve dispatched Stormclaw and Onyx to your position. Their team is much closer. Besides, if those bursts were indeed fire extinguisher emissions and not radio static or your legendary flatulence, you could probably use his fire resistance.”

Bulwark shook his head. How his commander could make rapid decisions, identify obscure sounds, and insult him all in the same sentence, he had no idea. At least Fizzlepop sounded unperturbed—as usual.

Finding an opening, the blazing nirik leapt forward. Causing Nebula to give ground with a few more short bursts.

“Lieutenant? I don’t think we’re cooling her off any. She won’t take a chill pill!”

Bulwark nodded in agreement, widening his stance a bit. “That about sums it up. Draw her back to me, I’ll have to inflict a little more force.”

A gravelly roar slammed the brakes on his train of thought. The sound reverberated off the walls and pummeled his eardrums. It came from the main atrium—and it sounded nothing like Stormclaw when he got pissed off…

…Were there more attackers?

“Nebula! Do it now! I think we have bigger problems over at actual!”

The brown pegasus nodded and doubled back, slowing to allow the nirik to give pursuit. Bulwark shifted his weight, allowing Nebula to pass before spinning to deliver a buck, blasting the flaming creature into the opposite wall.

* * *

“What is it?”

The thunderous roar sounded again. The source of the noise shambled out of the South Wing, rumbling out onto the main floor. Two barbed tentacles writhed from either side of the central mass, ending in broadened spatulate-like tips covered in barbs and spikes. The body ambled forward, oddly supported by only three tree-like legs, evenly spaced under it’s misshapen body. A third tentacle, tipped with numerous eyes, projected straight off the top of the bizarre creature’s body, gyrating in the air. The aberration’s mouth was easily large enough to swallow a pony whole and was lined with massive teeth, some as long as half a pony’s leg.

And here was this…thing rampaging in a locked down public building. Blinking in disbelief, Fizzlepop shook fuchsia mane. This wasn’t quite how she envisioned tonight going when she planned it as a simple exercise.

The floor shook under Fizzlepop’s hooves. She missed once or twice before finally pressing down her transmitter link. “All available units! Proceed back to the atrium and get a visual on the hostile. Tell me what I’m bloody seeing isn’t a fever dream!”

Gravnet Swoopes, her second in command, flew back from the first floor of the South Wing, Mazuma Gaines in hot pursuit if the cadence of the unicorn’s hooves was any indication. Gravnet climbed rapidly, surveying the beast as she flew. The two griffons on the third floor of the opposite side dove into the atrium from above, their wings fully spread. Blackbeak mimicked Swoopes’ strategy, but Zerrin dove straight down, grinning as he drew an enchanted blade from the scabbard on his back.

Fizzlepop’s transmitter came alive again as her mechanics expert spoke up.

“Actual, this is Whiskey-Zulu on 2nd floor South side,” the minotaur’s harsh voice pierced through. “Zora is down. I repeat, Zora is down and she’s hurt badly. I am trying to stop the bleeding, but she’s going to need Nebula pretty quick.”

Fizzlepop swore under her breath. “Nebula, give me your sitrep when able. Wade? Do what you can until Nebula arrives.” Fizzlepop studied the monster as it lumbered forward, pursing her lips before pressed her link again. “I need more eyes on the creature. Does anyone have any intel on this thing?”

The radio remained silent as Zerrin continued to engage the creature. He laughed as he dodged and slashed, every swipe giving a slice or a nick on the nearest tentacle. And yet, his feathers and barding remained pristine. It seemed less like combat and more like dance…maybe the two were indistinguishable at this point.

“Zerrin—you want any backup?” Fizzlepop didn’t bother to radio that one since his proximity easily allowed him to hear her. She allowed her voice to sound a little bored. Zerrin was the FNG, yes—and a Griffon to boot—but not even those could account for his more…fiery aspects.

“Hah. Why would I need backup against a mindless brute like this? I’ve hunted far worse back in Gryphus! UGH!”

Pristine no longer.

Zerrin recoiled as the creature stuck it’s other tentacle deep within its own throat before flinging a dripping and slimy something at its attacker. Gravnet Swoopes came down to engage the creature from the other side. In response to this new threat, the central tentacle flexed near the tip, strangely angling the eyes to allow it to look in opposite directions at the same time.

“Commander, it’s an otyugh,” Wade’s voice butted in. “Zora is unconscious, but before she slipped under she told me that she had seen one of these things before while working as a contractor up in Minos. Some of the southern cities up there employ creatures like this in their sewers to deal with the waste. That being said, don’t kill—”

“Is that why it smells so bad?” Zerrin screeched, cutting across the transmission as he wiped the slime from his fur with a claw. “Gods above, it’s like a skunk took a bath in a latrine, and then puked out his—”

“Not helping, Zerrin!” Fizzlepop snapped. “Go ahead, Wade.” Zerrin did a half-turn and pointed the middle digit of his right foreclaw straight up in the air, his beak twisted in a sneer. Fizzlepop raised an eyebrow at the gesture, whatever it meant, with an annoyed glare before her eyes widened and a crack appeared in her unflappable facade.

Zerrin drifted too close. She opened her mouth to shout a warning, but it was too late. The otyugh’s tentacle had flashed forward, entwining itself around the griffon’s hind leg. Zerrin gave a rather unmasculine squawk as he was yanked towards the beast, a few feathers left floating in his wake.

Wincing, Fizzlepop watched as Zerrin was pulled towards the beast’s maw, a gaping opening lined with rows of irregularly shaped teeth, waiting to engulf its prisoner. She pulled a throwing blade from her barding, but she didn’t want to accidentally hit the new meat. Zerrin drew a dagger from his forearm sheath, plunging it directly into the tentacle repeatedly as he started to thrash. “Slice the darn thing off!” Zerrin howled. “Get it the hell off me! And what is that smell?!”

Swoopes reacted quickly, her blade held out to make a long slash against the monstrous appendage. Wade’s voice came over the transmitter again as Fizzlepop angled her ears to listen.

“Don’t kill it!” Wade repeated. “The creature is the head custodian! The changeling!”

Motioning for Swoopes to break off, Fizzlepop started to charge a spell instead. Swoopes had apparently already heard the message, and was altering her vector to go for the beast’s eye stalk, her wings flaring out in a wash of blue-gray, and white. Out of the corner of her eye, Fizzlepop saw more team members arriving onto the showroom floor: her earth pony weapons expert, Cadrey Striker, and her unicorn offensive specialist, Crimson Spark. Things were going to turn real deadly, really fast if she didn’t stun the beast.

Wade continued. “We saw her standing there, just breathing heavily before she transformed and attacked! No warning, nothing to indicate intent... Got Zora pretty good, but I was able to deter it with an electric discharge!”

With another foul roar, the beast had closed in. Fizzlepop had been slowly giving ground as she coordinated the information, but now, she was backed into a wall. It was time to either contain the threat or neutralize it. “Acknowledged. All teams, go for energy weapons. Shoot to stun. Don’t kill the changeling unless you have no other choice!” Fizzlepop focused her spell. It was time to see if the recent modifications Twilight had made to the prosthetic built into her armor were worth their salt.

* * *

One hour earlier...

“Door.”

“Barrier.”

Tempest continued to name each rune as she pointed them out to Meadow, the rune-sequence obviously tied to a lock-and-alarm mechanism. After casing each of the Fillydelphia Convention Center’s entrances, they came across an access ramp dropping down to an underground tunnel for utility vehicles. The security door was protected by a series of magic runes.

“After those, the next rune says requirement, and then this one says rune-key. Do you follow?”

Meadow stroked her chin thoughtfully. “You do know that I completed my graduate studies in ornithology? And that I don’t have a horn?”

Tempest rolled her eyes. “You don’t need to be a unicorn to write runes: just a steady hoof. Anyway, the runes above most likely set the conditions for the system, while the runes below probably set the conditions for the trigger, for either deactivating the lock or sending an alarm signal.” Tempest then pointed below a featureless panel where two series of runes were scrawled beneath. “Then this one here says True=open.” Her hoof scraped downwards before gently tapping on the rune beneath. “And that one says False=send.

Meadow studied the heavy metallic door for a moment, before looking back up the ramp they came down, vehicles and carriages speeding past in the darkening twilight. The wind had picked up and it was starting to rain. After descending the ramp, they had found the door recessed about five meters in, a small overhang giving some protection against the elements. “So how do we open it? Is there a keyhole somewhere?”

Tempest frowned for a minute, wordlessly stroking her chin in confusion. Finally, she pointed to a square, featureless panel, about eight centimeters square, positioned exactly above the runes responsible for the trigger. “My guess is that’s it.”

“What, that blank metal panel?”

Tempest nodded.

Meadow’s brows furrowed. “Shouldn’t there be a keyhole or something? How does one use a panel like that?”

Smiling, Tempest cocked her head. “Not a common door design, eh?”

Meadow shrugged. “Nope. I might have seen one in a bank. Once...?”

“So it’s a keyed entry without needing a keyhole. There is probably a hidden rune behind that panel, and the key is likely a featureless block hiding a rune with the exact match. Put anything else up against it, and the ponies with uniforms show up.”

“You sure?”

“What do you think? It’s my first break-in since a thousand years ago. And I’ve never seen runes used this way. But it seems to make the most sense.”

“But—” Meadow began hesitantly, “—why couldn’t a pony simply go inside the main entrance, find their way down there, and just copy the rune? Or better yet, why couldn’t a pony just scry it?”

Shaking her head, Tempest continued. “I bet the rune isn’t visible from either side of the door. It’s probably sealed within the surface. As for the key, it’s probably featureless as well. Really quite an ingenious system.”

Meadow grinned. “And you’re the genius that knows runes. Can you get past it?”

“I don’t really see how…” Tempest mused. “As I said, it’s a rather ingenious system. I mean, I could try blasting it, but we’re trying to be stealthy here.” Tempest frowned at the door, shaking her head. “This is probably a dead end.”

“You could always… ask Maelstrom.” Meadow ventured.

Tempest snapped her head to the side. “Have you been bucked in the brain? There’s no way I’m asking him for help! You were there… you heard what he said—felt what he did to me!”

Meadow looked away, sheepish. “Was just a question,” she muttered. “Though you’re probably right. He’s creepier than a cockatrice doing the Haka…

Tempest could only stare at her blankly.

“Wait!” Meadow’s eyes widened. “What if you change the code with your mana-laser thing?”

“With my emitter? I don’t know, Meadow, the sequence is pretty air-tight. It’s not like I can just insert a rune, or alter one without…” Tempest squinted in thought before she drew her head back as if shocked.

“Oh, I’m an idiot!” She grinned. “And so are they!”

Meadow bounced on the tips of her hooves. “What? Who?”

“I can’t add a rune or alter the meaning, but I can reverse the polarity!” Tempest pulled her saddlebags off, setting them down before rummaging around in one. After a moment, she had pulled out her emitter and a two pairs of darkened goggles.

“Polarity? What do you mean?”

Hoofing a set of goggles to the mare, Tempest reared up, placing her hooves on either side of the lowest runes. Grinning, she slipped her goggles on, light flashing off of the reflective surfaces. “The rune-smith that scrawled failed to take one simple thing into consideration. And we are damned lucky.” She started to bring up her emitter before she hesitated suddenly. “Wait. This is going to draw too much attention.” Tempest’s horn lit up for a few seconds before a hazy field began to form, blanketing the access to the outside. “Illusory magic doesn’t get enough credit. Now, slip on those goggles if you want to watch.”

After Meadow wrestled with the goggles, Tempest began the process of focusing her magic at one end of the emitter. She kept feeding her bright-green mana into the surface until the entire cylinder began to glow. Finally, a beam of blinding white light emerged from the other side as Tempest carefully drew a single line, making a diagonal slash across the two separate runes that symbolized an equals sign. With two simple marks the conditions now read:

True≠open
False≠send

With dawning comprehension, Meadow clopped her hooves together in glee. “That’s brilliant! Now we won’t have to worry about tripping the alarm—no matter what we guess!”

Meadow and Tempest both removed their goggles, grinning at each other for a few more seconds before Tempest suddenly smacked her forehead with a hoof, growling in frustration.

Meadow frowned. “What?”

“Take a guess. Will either option open the door?”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” Tempest glared at the door for a few more seconds before turning around and opening her saddlebags again. “Well, there’s more than one way to fleece a sheep.”

Meadow looked perplexed while Tempest nosed around, her face half-buried in the bag. “But why would you want to hoodwink a sheep?”

“...what?” Tempest stopped rummaging long enough to shoot Meadow a questioning glance. Receiving no further clarification, she rolled her eyes and returned to her search.

“Ah!” She pulled out a small vial. “Here we are.” She waggled the small stoppered bottle with her magic. “Concentrated arcanic acid. Quite a nice tool not normally found in your home chemistry set.”

“So, you’re going to blow it up? What happened to stealth?”

“Acid doesn’t make metal blow up… unless this door is made of an alkali metal.” Tempest muttered. “I’m going to eat away the metal so I can actually see the rune.”

She carefully unstopped the bottle before smearing the paste over the panel. “The door’s not made of Celestium, but it’ll do. Iron is reactive enough for this. Hopefully I am right, and there is actually a rune hidden there.”

Meadow watched as Tempest continued to spread the cream-colored substance. Nothing happened was happening. “Um, Ms. Sabre?” She raised her hoof. “Do we have to know this for the test?”

Rolling her eyes again, Tempest smirked. “Just watch…” Her horn glimmered for a moment, the mana trailing off the tip before seeping into the substance smeared on the panel. Tempest covered her nose and backed away as the material started to bubble and change color.

“Dance, little protons.” Tempest whispered behind her hoof. “Dance!”

The skin of the metal panel continued to react, and after a few moments some open spaces eroded away, leaving islands of metal elsewhere. Eventually, a defined shape began to become apparent.

“A circle?” Meadow was incredulous. “The stupid rune was a circle? But what does that mean?”

“It doesn’t mean anything.” Tempest gazed back up the ramp. “We just need a matching circle. Be right back.” There was a flash and a clap, the report of air snapping closed to fill the void left by her body. Meadow stood there, blinking for a moment before Tempest reappeared in the same location.

“What did you—”

Tempest held up her prize in a greenish magical field. “Tin can!” she grinned.

* * *

The door shut with a muffled thump, the sound reverberating through the access tunnel. Tempest was taken aback by its scope—sturdy concrete walls supporting a utilitarian ceiling at least twenty meters above. A gentle buzz emitted from the artificial lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling supports, their cold light casting harsh shadows at intervals behind containers, dumpsters and a smattering of wood-framed sets Tempest could only guess the purpose of—perhaps frames to display signs and presentations up on showroom floor?

Meadow licked her lips. “Well. This is cheery.”

“Shh!” Tempest motioned for Meadow to creep along the left wall with her. Cover was sparse, and she didn’t know if the building even had staff on duty right now, or if the security team they had watched enter the building were anywhere nearby. Tempest waited until Meadow had sidled up next to her, their backs both pressed against the wall as they peered down the tunnel for any signs of movement. “I’ll make us invisible if I have to, but I don’t want to play that card unless absolutely necessary. Especially if the team has magic sensing abilities. You said the custodial offices would be in the lower levels?”

“I said it was likely.” Meadow corrected. “I have no idea if they are. I’ve never been to Fillydelphia.”

Tempest frowned back at her, until her eyes focused on the far wall about twenty meters further in. She pointed with a hoof. “There!”

Set in the concrete wall was a window with some lettering across the base, barely readable at this distance but unmistakable in meaning.

Custodian Offices

The office light was on.

Meadow smirked. “Told ya! Let’s go fill out a job application.”

Tempest cocked an eyebrow. “While the building is closed and currently being swept by a security team before tomorrow’s event?”

They crept up to the offices, peering through the window before finally checking the office door. The office area was sparsely furnished: just a desk, some humble chairs along the wall of the entry, and an aged swiveling chair that more resembled a torture device than a place to sit. Faded motivational posters decorated the wall behind the desk, and several clipped comics were attached with tape, yellowing with age. Documents and requisition orders were stacked haphazardly on the desk, and further examination revealed the owner of said desk had decidedly reckless and chaotic organizational abilities. A name plate was visible, partially buried under a nearby stack.

Assistant Supervisor Russet Gleam.

“Pony cleans the building but she can’t find the bottom of her desk.” Meadow murmured under her breath. She hovered into the air and dropped in behind the desk, her amulet glowing for a moment. “That never gets old.”

“Meadow, what are you doing?”

“Looking for job applications, duh. We need an alibi, right?”

“Oh for the love of—” Tempest walked further into the office where a short corridor led to a large supply closet and a second office. Along the side of the corridor was a coat rack with several additional custodian’s vests. With a flick of her horn, her magic enveloped a smaller one and launched it at Meadow. “Put this on. You’re hired.”

The office door swung open.Two ponies walked in mid-conversation. An abrupt silence filled the air. Both pairs of ponies blinked at each other, each waiting for the other to say something. Meadow’s hoof was still stretched out, about to take the uniform still hovering in Tempest’s green magic.

After getting over her initial shock, Tempest cocked her head, perplexed by what race these ponies could be. The first to walk in was vaguely pony shaped, but was covered in a chitinous carapace instead of a fur coat. Atop its head were a pair of notched horns, and its colors were rather vibrant. To top it all off, the creature had a pair of fangs, its mouth hanging open in a surprised ‘Oh.’ The closest thing that Tempest could compare it to was a changeling, but she had only seen those in books.

The second pony resembled a unicorn in some ways, but the mane was all wrong, and the horn was bifurcated at the end. Further, bizarre reptilian scales ran along the bridge of her nose and down her spine. In all of Tempest’s travels, this was something new.

The colorful one challenged them sharply. “What is the meaning of this? What are you doing in here, the building’s supposed to be closed!”

“Hi!” Meadow chirped. She turned around, holding the custodial vest to her chest. “We really, really wanted to show you how interested we were in getting hired as custodians... so we came in here!”

How did you come in here?”

Tempest put a hoof to her face. Activating her horn, she pulled the two ponies inside with her magic, shutting the door behind them. With two more flashes of light, she tilted the blinds closed and activated a silencing spell, sound-proofing the room.

Both ponies struggled, trying in vain to free themselves. Tempest felt each of them push back against her magic, but their power was leagues away from her own. The changeling finally crossed her arms, glaring at Tempest in a huff.

“You may call me Zen’zie. What may I call you?”

“Just relax, Miss. We don’t want to hurt anypony.”

“Of course.” The changeling continued glaring. “You know, if you set us down and just leave quietly, that’s really your best option.”

“Shut up.”

“Just… just go away, and never come back. Deal?”

The kirin’s chimed in with a little more flare. “Yeah! You two chuckleheads give us any problems and you’ll be in for a very bad day!” She directed a cloven hoof toward the door, her mane starting to shimmer with heat. “Of all days to break in here, you do it when Princess Twilight’s Vanguard is doing a security sweep? You two are screwed!”

Tempest’s mind raced as she tried to think of what her next step should be. Studying the guards responsible for guarding Princess Sparkle seemed like a good idea at the time, but in hindsight, maybe it would have been better to fabricate a ruckus that she could watch at a safe distance. Or scry them all, for that matter.

Tiring of the lion-pony’s increasingly annoying taunts, Tempest formulated another spell and added it to her already active spell matrix, creating a secondary sound-proof bubble around the rainbow changeling and her vulgar companion. She turned to Meadow.

“Well, now what?”

Meadow looked back at her, pensive as she watched the two custodians, one hanging there glaring while the other continued to yell. “I dunno, Temp. We weren’t supposed to be seen by anypony. I really didn’t want to see others get mixed up in this…”

An airborne stapler whizzed by Tempest’s head, narrowly missing her horn. She flinched, but quickly recovered her spell focus and shot a glare back at the changeling who was now baring her fangs. Increasing her magic, Tempest added a weak anti-magic barrier to her sound bubble.

“We have to find a way to proceed. We’ll… just observe Princess Twilight’s guards from a safe distance, check on those idiotic unicorn twins, and then we’ll lay low for awhile. But I agree—I don’t want anyone hurt. I just can’t abandon our overall mission just because of a hiccup or two.”

Meadow looked down for a moment, appearing stricken. “Speaking of hiccups…”

“Yes?”

“I… told the Manehattan Police a few things about you…”

Tempest couldn’t keep the flat tone out of her voice. “You what?”

“I told them a few things…” Meadow started rubbing a hoof against her foreleg. “Before I found out more about how legitimate this all was… Before I learned about Maelstrom.” She walked away from the floating custodians, glancing back at them over her shoulder. “Are those two okay?”

“They’re fine.”

“And they can’t hear us now?”

Tempest gave her a nod. “That’s right. The spell is soundproofed both ways. And now they can’t launch staplers at us.”

“Okay. Well, I told them about your teleportation ability, and your overall magical prowess. I told them I met you on the deck of the Windsong heading back from Gryphus…” Meadow’s tone began to turn sullen. “And I defended you from their suspicions that you were behind the librarian incident.”

Tempest grimaced. “I’m grateful, Meadow. But…”

Meadow continued to stare at her, holding her breath before releasing it. “It was you, wasn’t it?”.

“Indeed. That was I.”

“I thought that maybe…” Meadow’s voice hardened a bit. “What happened?”

Tempest sighed. She had held this back because she had become reliant on Meadow’s company. Traveling in solitude for so long, facing hardship after hardship as she had—from one side of the globe to the other—and then to be carrying such a heavy burden? Meadow, while irritating at times, had greatly reduced the burden. And Tempest didn’t want her to leave.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen. I used a particular spell from the Eye, Meadow. The intent of the spell was to cover up recent memory—about fifteen minutes worth. Following that, a pony would recover normally, only having felt like they had been daydreaming, or had dozed off for a minute. They just wouldn’t have a recollection of those fifteen minutes.

“But something else happened?”

Tempest nodded her reply. “Yes. I don’t know what. Back when I was in the eastern wilds, outside the far border of Gryphus, I had used that particular spell to get out of a couple of scrapes. In neither instance did the recipient react that way. Moonlight Sigil’s case was… well, I still don’t know what happened.”

Meadow rubbed at her chin in thought, staring at the green tinted magic field surrounding the two custodians. Now both had stopped their activities and were only glaring back. “Well, maybe for our guests, the kirin and the changeling, we need to do a little “moonlighting.”

Tempest’s mouth fell open. “You can’t be serious. Didn’t you just say you didn’t want other ponies mixed up in this? What if it happens again?”

“Well, let’s consider our options, shall we?” Meadow held up a hoof as if she was going to start counting off on fingers like a minotaur would. “First option: we tie them up and leave them here. Risks? Either they escape, are discovered, or we get detained and then nopony finds them and they starve to death!” She held up her other hoof. “Second option: we let them go and they run straight to Twilight’s Vanguard. Sucks to be us.” She then grabbed a rear hoof and held it up. “Third option: we leave and get as far away from here as we can, hoping those guards don’t catch up.” Finally she lifted her other back hoof, wiggling it in front of her as she hovered in the air with a small smile. “Last option: we try your spell. If it goes wrong again, at least we’ll be able to watch the security team during a distraction. Maybe this time you can catch what is going wrong with your magic. Either way, I doubt the effect is permanent—Ms. Sigil is probably safe at home right now, wondering what all the commotion was about. How long does it take before they would awaken?”

“Fifteen minutes.” Tempest glared at Meadow’s wiggling hoof. “And what if the effect is permanent? What if all I did was turn a librarian into a monster?”

“Psh!” Meadow sliced a hoof through the air before deactivating her amulet, clopping back down on all fours. “Like that would happen. Even if doctors don’t help, which they probably can, I’m willing to bet that Twilight and her friends could straighten her out with the Elements of Harmony… or the power of their friendship… or whatever it is they are wielding right now. Anyway!” Meadow shook her head. “What choice do we really have right now?”

Tempest pursed her lips. There was something a little off, here. One moment Meadow was horrified about affecting other ponies, and now she was urging her to release a spell that seemed to have unpredictable side effects, effects that could apparently change a pony into something violent and disturbing in the extreme.

What had changed? A few days ago, Meadow would have never dreamed of suggesting something like that, even if she was put in mortal danger. She had been so adamant on her principles back in the hotel room.

The hotel room. That was where things began to change. Sure, she got the rest of the story and began to seen things as Tempest knew they were, but what if it was something else. Could Maelstrom reach into another pony’s mind by exposing them to the memory? Tempest suddenly felt ice run down her back. She studied Meadow and stared, trying for all she was worth to see into her soul. What was going on behind those bright, golden irises? She supposed it was still possible Meadow was acting based on new information, but Tempest wasn’t going to take anything for granted. Not at this point.

Tempest broke her eye contact, concentrating on her two choices as they stood. Best case scenario? The two custodians would take a fifteen minute nap on the clock. Worse case scenario? Two crazed attackers would be loosed, this time a bizarrely colored changeling and what Meadow had called a kirin.

Tempest heaved a sigh. “I guess you’re right. Not like we have much choice right now.” She felt the sudden weight of a foreleg across her withers.

“C’mon Temp. It’ll be okay. You knew other ponies could possibly get involved, right?” Meadow leaned a little further forward, whispering as she lowered her head into Tempest’s line of sight. She must have been floating again. “But if you’re committed to releasing your mom, is there any other way?”

Tempest’s chest clenched for a second. She felt a different sort of weight than that of Meadow’s foreleg. If felt like a moist lump of clay settling inside her heart. Meadow was becoming a good friend, and Tempest wanted to believe that the mare was just trying to help. The alternative was too much to consider at the moment, but she vowed to study the matter closely. Just not right now. Tempest finally looked up, her gaze hardening. “No.”

She walked up to the barrier, lowering the two ponies as she approached. The eye around her neck began to glow in a violet light. “My friends. Allow me to beg your forgiveness for breaking in like this. We will be taking our leave. I know you two are feeling angry, and maybe a little bit afraid?” The violet glow had now reached Tempest’s eyes, its tendrils now reaching out toward the two

“I know what it’s like to not be accepted, Zen’zie. For others to be constantly suspicious of you?” The changeling had gone rigid, knees locked and eyes wide, a light violet miasma beginning to seep into her eyes. Tempest then turned to the kirin. “I’m sorry your clan exiled you, Russet. That you’re so far from the wild that you love. Let’s recall happier times…”

* * *

“Blackbeak!” Fizzlepop yelled into her transmitter. “I need a distraction!”

The griffon was already circling above, taking increasingly riskier maneuvers as he tried to find a way to free Zerrin. He pulled up to reply, hitting his transmitter and breathing heavily. “I got it. One bona fide distraction, coming up!” Closing his wings, he plummeted like a stone, dropping down behind the beast before flaring out his wings to land. Once down, he unslung his net launcher and took aim before firing it into the back of the creature’s central tentacle where all the eyes were.

Fizzlepop grinned. “You’re promoted!”

Fizzlepop released a shot of energy, guessing that she should only use enough to stun something changeling size, and not this monstrosity. She could always use more later. Zerrin had been desperately kicking off against the creature’s mouth, trying not to take damage. Fortunately he only had to deal with his own tentacle, now that the other was trying to pry the netting off of the eye stalk while dealing with Swoopes and Blackbeak. Zerrin would most likely not get involved in the energy blast.

Probably.

* * *.

Rafters were not a normal place for a pony to be.

Thank goodness she wasn’t actually on a rafter—only on a catwalk nestled next to one. Tempest’s invisibility spell ended up being their best choice, and besides, this time she hadn’t left a mana-trail for some intrepid detective to follow. Meadow was floating somewhere nearby, if her disembodied giggling was any indication.

The security team seemed to have its share of hotheads, but they also seemed extremely well organized. The talents and abilities on display were quite diverse. The species on display were also surprisingly diverse. If it came down to a head to head clash against them, Tempest was pretty sure her skill set wouldn’t be near enough. And while it was nice to fantasize about not needing to depend on the Eye to multiply her power, it was clear to her that doing so might be unavoidable.

“I know who the commander is.”

Meadow’s unexpected voice in her ear caused Tempest to startle. Her hip bumped the railing of the catwalk, making the frame vibrate for a moment. “Geeze, Meadow!’ Tempest hissed. “Get my attention before you sneak up and whisper in my ear! And why should it matter who the commander is?”

“It matters because that pony there is Fizzlepop Berrytwist. Fizzlepop was actually known formerly as Tempest Shadow, believe it or not. She was the twisted and brutal commander for the Storm King’s armies and almost single-hoofedly took down three of Equestria’s four princesses.”

Tempest’s ears perked to attention. Two griffons just emerged from an upper floor wing, and the monster was shambling across the showroom towards the leader’s position. That pony took down three princesses? Not possible.

“You’re joking. Are you serious?” Tempest looked at the grotesque beast in morbid fascination. How had the changeling turned into that?

“It’s all in Princess Twilight’s latest biography!” Meadow whispered. “Quoted in her own words, right there in the book.” Tempest felt her head turned by an invisible hoof back towards the grape colored mare with the fuchsia mane, barking out orders as she monitored the monster’s approach. “That pony down there used a device that turned Celestia into a statue made of obsidian. Did the same to Princess Luna and Cadence. Crazy, right?

“You’re going to tell me more about this—just not right now!”

Why, of all times, was Meadow bringing up this up now? She wondered if maybe there were other magical Macguffins just laying around Equestria, items of great power that could possibly help her in her quest? Items that would perhaps make her less dependent on Maelstrom?

Tempest’s mind churned as she watched the commotion below. A courageous griffon took on the beast with a sword, and seemed to be doing quite well for himself until he became distracted… or cocky. Now he was being dragged in and the other combatants were reacting. A smaller griffon suddenly dropped in behind the brute, firing a net launcher gun that seemed similar to what the police had chased her with the other day. The commander’s horn and prosthetic covering was beginning to grow brighter.

More ponies were running towards the fray when Fizzlepop fired off her spell. It was an energetic cascade of fiery blue light that lanced ahead, crackling up the monster’s legs and sending it into convulsions. The thing flailed about, whipping the griffon in its tentacles back and forth before going insensate and dropping to the ground. As the thing crashed to the floor, the griffon was released from its grasp, also insensate. With a flash of green flames, the monster’s form reverted back into the colorful changeling from before, steam rising up from it’s charred carapace.

“Contain it!” Fizzlepop barked. “Slip an anti-maj on it’s—her horn! Before she comes to!”

Mazuma was already acting, bringing the ring over with her magic and quickly placing it on the downed changeling’s angular horn. A blue earth pony and a light-red unicorn arrived on the scene, attending Fizzlepop as she turned to give them orders.

“Crimson Spark, teleport—wait, the anti-teleport arrays are up now—gallop up to the 2nd floor, South Wing. Lend what support you can to Bulwark, and then get Nebula over to the 3rd floor of the North wing. Zora is down and she might have lost a lot of blood. Move!”

The unicorn turned on his hoof and ran, leaving Fizzlepop to now address the earth pony. Cadrey, you cover our perimeter. Oh, and take our our one-griffon strike force when he comes to. Be sure to remind him of our operational procedures while you’re at it.” Cadrey went over and began to look over the downed griffon.

“Swoopes?” The Pegasus stepped up and saluted. “Scout the perimeter and provide air cover. Mazuma Gaines, you see to the health of Zen’zie as needed until Nebula is available. Go.”

Tempest admired the quick thinking and assertive nature of the team’s commander, but she also was starting to come to grips with the consequences of what just happened. She tried to swallow back the guilt that she was responsible for two ponies getting injured,a kirin and a changeling. She was well aware of the risk, but that didn’t make it any easier to swallow.

It was also time to go. She didn’t have time to sit in self-pity, and she had seen what she came for.

“Meadow?”

“Way ahead of you, Temp.” Meadow’s voice was between her and the ladder at the end of the catwalk. “Would be nice if we could just teleport out, right?”

Tempest nodded, becoming increasingly aware of every little sound her hooves were making as she made her way back to the ladder access. Meadow was right. Not being able to teleport was a big problem. “Meadow?” Tempest whispered. “Float ahead and find us a fire escape. I don’t like levitating myself around since it makes me sick to my stomach, but it’s our only way out.”

Fizzlepop’s voice came up from below. “Blackbeak? Scout upstairs and check the catwalks and accessory corridors. Something keeps rattling up there, and I want to make sure it isn’t something other than rats. Once we’re clear we’ll start the magical scans.” The buzz of Fizzlepop’s transmitter crackled to life again. “Whisky-Zulu come in, this is Actual.”

“Go ahead, Actual.”

“Wade, once Nebula is there, I need you to go contact the local authorities about holding a crazed changeling captive.”

“Acknowledged.”

“November-Hotel two-oh-four...?”

“...Go ahead, Actual.”

It was at this point that Tempest realized it would have been a wonderful idea to make a second flight amulet. And a communications amulet. And a sound bubble amulet. She racked her brains on how she could do something like this… without collateral damage. She tamped down the feelings of despair as she looked over the injured changeling’s body.

No time for that right now. We have to get out of this, first.

Author's Note:

Tillie did this art mostly just today. She's awesome. More than that, all my kids are awesome.
Since I pushed a few scenes ahead, chapter 12 is already partially written, so there is that. Hope y'all enjoyed. I had fun trying my hand at some action scenes. Mild, I know, but there will be more. :rainbowdetermined2:

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