• Published 29th Jun 2017
  • 3,574 Views, 120 Comments

Hearts and Minds - The card holder



Equestria is facing a potential crisis involving distorted reality based on cognition. Celestia tells an old friend, who has just the solution for her...

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Discarded Devotion

Cutting through the compound fence was little issue, and Twilight chose not to question why Joker had a knife at the ready for seemingly such an occasion. Once everyone was past the fence, he wasted no time before he waved for everyone to follow him, making a beeline for a nearby small building. Instead of trying to get inside, however, he instead took cover behind it, the others doing the same in formation behind him.

While everyone else was trying to peek around the side of the building, Oracle was scrolling through a small collection of holograms that materialized around her.

"Nothing close to us right now," she reported, her goggles hiding her eyes from view as they rapidly flicked from one piece of data to another. "But they got shadows in there for sure."

"Over there!" Mona pointed out. Ahead of them, out in the open, was what looked like a stallion in a drab gray military uniform. However, Twilight noted that something was definitely... off about the pony. For one, the bottom of their hooves was surrounded by a slight, constant flow of black smoke, which rippled along the ground as it walked. Not only that, but the rest of its body was bulging in a few inequine ways. To cap it off, she couldn't even see his face, as it was obscured by a large gas mask, although she could make out a pair of beady red eyes from beneath it.

"I don't see any others close to it," Oracle said. "Once it's close enough, you can take it down safely, Joker."

"So that's a shadow?" Twilight asked.

"Doesn't look too tough," Dash whispered. "I could probably take it right now."

"Stay put," Queen harshly commanded. "Joker knows best when it comes to timing; he's never let us down before. Just let us handle the fighting."

Joker himself didn't say anything, opting to instead just watch as the shadow slowly patrolled closer. Curiously, Twilight noticed that he didn't have his knife drawn at all, although she did notice him almost compulsively adjusting his gloves.

The moment the shadow was in range, Joker leaped out from the corner of the building, his body a black and red blur as he jumped right on top of the shadow, reaching for its mask.

The shadow had just enough time to react. "Hey, what are you-!"

"I'll reveal your true form!"

With that, Joker ripped off the mask in a spray of black and red, then leaped off the shadow, revealing its pure black face, save for the red eyes. The shadow convulsed painfully, before dissolving into a red and black mass. Just as quickly as it disappeared, however, the mass sprang back up and reformed into a rather large, beastly creature.

Though it was far larger than any she had seen, Twilight gasped as she recognized the creature immediately.

"That's a cockatrice!"

Just as quick as Joker did, the other thieves took up attack positions around the shadow. Skull was the first to act, running right up to the cockatrice and smashing its face with what looked like some kind of club.

As soon as his attack landed, Noir began running up to the shadow. However, instead of using a weapon, she instead removed her mask in a flash of blue fire, which immediately materialized as a strange looking being behind her, which almost looked like it was wearing a dress.

"Persona!" she yelled out, just before the 'dress' on the persona opened to reveal a large collection of guns, which proceeded to tear into the beast, weakening it even more.

As this was happening, Joker struck an odd looking stance a small distance away, holding a hand in front of his face as he, too, began summoning a persona.

"Vishnu!"

Just like what happened with Noir, a figure took form in the blue flames behind Joker. This one was a yellow-skinned, multi-armed humanoid of some kind, although Twilight couldn't make out many other details from her current angle. She did notice that, unlike Noir, Joker was maintaining his distance.

"Ravage them!"

And then, with a wave of the persona's arms, a large gust of wind struck the cockatrice, literally tearing into it. It wasn't long before the shadow succumbed, dissolving into a black mist that quickly faded away.

Now that the fight was over, Skull stretched his arm out. "Alright, we still got it!"

"Great work as always, team," Mona complimented, before bounding a bit closer to the ponies. "It's safe to move further in now, we should go."

Twilight just dumbly nodded, her mind still too preoccupied with processing what she just witnessed. Dash and Pinkie were equally confused, yet neither of them could find the words to question it.

"Hold on, let's not forget the money," Fox reminded them, kneeling down where the shadow once stood.

That finally snapped Twilight back into focus. "Money?"

"Shadows drop cash when we kill them," Oracle explained. "Not sure why, but we might as well take it!"

"Aw, what the hell?" Skull complained, holding a handful of gold coins. "This ain't yen!"

Dash let out a small gasp. "It dropped bits? Are those real?"

Twilight inspected one of the coins closely. "They're real..."

"Huh, I suppose shadows only drop the currency of the palace ruler's country," Mona theorized.

"All our targets were in Japan, after all," Panther added.

"In any case, you should go ahead and take it," Fox said, already depositing the loot into Twilight's saddlebags. "It won't serve us much good."

"Uh... thanks?"

Once the money issues were dealt with, Joker waved the rest of the group forward with him.

"Let's get moving."

"We should duck into that warehouse," Queen said, pointing it out ahead of them as they ran. "I'm sure we'll find something worthwhile in there."

Joker nodded in agreement, and made a beeline for the large open doors on the front of the building, the rest of the thieves and the ponies following closely behind. The large front doors were partially opened and there were no shadows around, so they quickly slipped inside, before immediately taking cover behind some crates, just in case there was anyone on the inside.

After Oracle confirmed they were alone, they relaxed. "I forgot how exhilarating this was!" Noir commented.

"Alright, so maybe I believe you now about that whole 'stealing hearts' thing," Dash said. "But still, these places are ruled by somepony, right? Who is it, then?"

The group didn't have an immediate answer, but the contents of the warehouse eventually caught Mona's eye. "We might be able to find some clues in here."

"Oh, good thinking!" Oracle said. "Skull, come over here and help me open this box!"

"Fox, help me with this one," Queen commanded.

Joker went to a third crate, finding it sealed with a simple but hefty padlock. Thankfully, he still had a few lockpicks left on him, so he was able to work it open in a matter of seconds.

Everyone opened their own crates at about the same time, with everyone gathering around to see what they held.

"It looks like... jewelry?" Skull pointed out.

Dash gasped loudly. "That's not jewelry! That's the azure amulet! As in 'Daring Do and the Azure Amulet'!"

"What about this?" Fox asked, holding up some kind of small scepter.

Dash gasped again. "That's the sinful scepter! Why is that here?!"

"Wait, if these are artifacts from the books," Panther started, "why is there more than one?"

Her question shocked the others, and they took looked through the crates to confirm it.

"Wait, does that mean that these are forgeries?" Twilight asked.

"But why would there be this many fake artifacts in here?" Queen thought out loud, before noticing something else within the crate. "Huh, what's this...?"

Reaching into the crate, she pulled a clip board off its inside wall, then started reading it aloud. "'Azure Amulet. S EQ. Ahu: Twenty percent. Cab: Thirty percent. AkY: Fifty percent.'"

"Well, little miss bookworm," Skull said, prodding Dash with his elbow, "any of that sound like something from that book?"

Dash ignored the nickname and started pacing around in thought. "'S EQ'... the amulet was found in South Equestria," she said, "where Daring Do had to fight her archenemy Cabelleron, who also wanted the amulet, but then just when she thought she got away, she was attacked by her other archenemy Ahuizotl, but she managed to get away from that, too."

"What about this one?" Noir said, holding another clipboard from another crate. "'Sinful Scepter. Grif. Ahu: Forty percent. AkY: Sixty percent.'"

"'Grif.' would be Griffonstone, or at least outside of it," Dash explained. "There, Daring Do raced Ahuizotl to get the scepter."

Mona put a paw to his chin in thought. "I'm seeing a pattern here... But I'm not sure you'd like the implication."

Panther held up the third clipboard. "Basically the same thing on this one, too. Just with 'Cab' at thirty-five percent and 'AkY' at sixty-five."

"All those percents," Fox theorized, "Could they perhaps be some kind of profit split?"

"And those abbreviations..." Oracle continued the thought. "Cabelleron, Ahuizotl... Which means that the last one would be-"

"A.K. Yearling..." Twilight cut her off, reaching the same conclusion. "Which means that the reason there's so many fake artifacts is-"

"L- Let's keep looking, okay?" Dash interrupted, clearly not wanting to discuss the possibility. "I- I'm sure there's a good reason for all this."

No one said anything in response, until Joker nodded, and started leading the group further into the warehouse. Crates were stacked high enough to form makeshift hallways, although they didn't bother cracking open any more of them.

Eventually, they came across an office by the back of the building, which was thankfully empty. The room was mostly empty, only containing a few desks and chairs.

One notable item, however, was a map on one of the walls, which was heavily marked all over.

"It's a map of Equestria," Twilight noted.

"You think all those marked off spots are places where Daring found something?" Pinkie asked, her earlier excitement noticeably deflated.

Dash looked from one spot to another, before nodding. "Yeah... this is where she found everything."

"Why is this place circled?" Queen asked, pointing towards the southern end of the map.

"South Equestria?" Twilight said once she got a good look. "Why would that be worth circling...?"

"Halt, intruders!"

The group whirled around to the office door, where a pair of shadows had managed to cut them off.

"Dammit, we got careless!" Mona chided, already getting into a battle position. "Get ready to-"

Suddenly, more shadows burst up from the ground around them, trapping them even further in the room.

"There's more?!"

"We'll have to fight our way out," Fox said, already keeping a steady grip on his katana.

"Now, I hope you have a good reason for breaking into my base."

Everyone was surprised by the somewhat familiar voice, and watched as the group of shadows parted just enough to let a single pony through. This one looked normal, compared to the others, but it was hard to ignore her bright yellow, glowing eyes. She was wearing some kind of officer's uniform, styled similarly to the outfits the shadows were wearing, and her gray mane was topped off with a matching cap.

Dash took a shaky step forward. "...A.K.? I- Is that you?"

'Yearling' let out a small chuckle, her voice very audibly distorted. "Looks like you just can't stop butting into my business, can you, Rainbow Dash?"

"What is all this?!" Dash asked, waving to the warehouse around them. "What do those clipboards inside the crates mean? Why are there so many fake artifacts in them?!"

This time, 'Yearling' let out a full blown laugh. "Don't tell me you're really this stupid?"

Dash took a step back. "W- What?"

"Dash, that's not Yearling!" Mona called out. "It's her shadow!"

"Although, I guess I do have to thank you a little," Yearling's shadow continued. "After all, thanks to you, I was able to give a smaller cut to my lackeys on those jobs."

"So I was right..." Twilight said from the back of the group.

Dash recoiled as if she was struck. "You mean... all your books- no, your adventures... they were all fake?"

Yearling rolled her eyes. "You really thought I made enough bits to live off of just from selling those trashy novels? That's just not how the world works." She looked at Twilight. "You know that just as much as I do, right, Sparkle?"

"What do you mean?" Twilight asked, genuinely confused.

"Don't act like you don't know how little Twilight Velvet actually makes on her books."

Yearling's statement made Twilight gasp loudly. "How do you-?!"

"Us authors get to know each other after a while," Yearling explained. "Not that it matters, since you aren't leaving this room alive."

Dash was on the verge of tears. "I... I thought we were... friends..."

Yearling's shadow let out a massive laugh. "Oh, that's rich. I'm in charge of everything you see here," she said, waving all around them, "and you really think I'd bother interacting with you because I liked you?" She laughed again. "No, it was simply for convenience. After all, having one of the famed Elements of Harmony, not to mention a qualified Wonderbolt, vouch for your books is a pretty good way to boost sales." She smirked. "Or, to help sell the authenticity of certain 'relics' to underground contacts."

While she laughed some more, Dash simply looked at the ground. "You... used me..."

Yearling paused in her laughter. "Yes, that's what I just said. I knew you were dumb, but-"

"I... put my trust in you," Dash continued, a new fire in her eyes as she looked back up. "I would've died for you, A.K.! And this whole time..."

"Dash!" Twilight called out, only to be stopped by Joker, who simply shook his head at her.

Twilight's outburst was ignored. "...this whole time, you used me! You took my faith in you, and you threw it all away for profit!"

By now, she started taking steps towards Yearling, and the other gathered shadows tensed up, ready to defend their master.

Meanwhile, Oracle's eyes widened as something popped up in her readings. "No way... is she...?"

"Go on, get angry," Yearling taunted. "I doubt you'd last long against my troops, but I'm sure it would be entertaining."

Dash was about to fire back a rebuttal, but she gasped, her head suddenly being filled with almost crippling pain.

At the same time, she began to hear a voice.

"I can tell that you don't like the truth."

The pain intensified with the words, and Dash fell to the ground. Twilight and Pinkie called out for her, but they were again blocked by Joker.

"Now tell me, now that her true nature has been laid out before you, what shall you do?"

Dash struggled slowly to a kneeling position, but the splitting pain in her head just wouldn't let up, sending her back down. The voice didn't stop, either.

"Will you forgive and forget, like so many others you've beaten?"

Actually, now that she thought about it, the voice sounded almost like...

"Or will you teach this villain the price of betraying your loyalty? If that is the case, we may form a deal."

Even through the physical and emotional pain she was going through, Dash still found enough strength to mutter something into the ground. "I... accept."

"Very well, then let us start the contract."

The pain intensified, and Dash cried out as it felt like her head was splitting into pieces. At the same time, her eyes started glowing the same bright yellow that Yearling's shadow's eyes were.

All the same, she could clearly hear the voice's words.

"I am thou, thou art I. Thou who would sacrifice everything for thine companions, and thou who shall smite those who callously take advantage of this sacrifice!"

As the voice increased in intensity, so did the pain, but Dash still found it in herself to fight her way back onto unsteady hooves.

"Now, reveal thine power, and let it run wild!"

Yearling had seen about enough of this, however. "Men, take them out!"

The shadows slowly started advancing on both the group and Dash, the former taking combat stances. However, Dash's face suddenly erupted in a small blast of blue flame, and when it cleared there was a strange mask over her eyes, looking like a cross between flight goggles and an opera mask.

While the pain had stopped, there was still an ongoing, uncontrollable urge in her mind. Acting on it, Dash quickly brought her hooves up to the mask, trying to take it off.

Even as the shadows started closing in around her, Twilight noticed this with great concern. "What is that on her-?"

Twilight's question was cut off as there was the sound of tearing flesh, followed immediately by Dash yelling out in pain once more as she ripped the mask off her face, blood pouring into the air from the motion. Then as soon as it happened, she was fully engulfed in blue flames, the force of which either knocked shadows back or forced them to maintain distance for the moment.

Twilight, however, could feel her heart stop at the sight. "Rainbow Dash!"

After a few agonizingly long seconds, the flames partially cleared, revealing Dash standing in the same spot.

But she was no longer alone.

The blue fire that surrounded Dash coalesced into a strange, hulking figure behind her. It was vaguely pony shaped, and Twilight could make out what looked like a helmet belonging to the ancient pegasus tribe. The rest of the being was completely alien to her, however. It had a massive set of wings that unfolded behind it, and Twilight could see bolts of lightning coursing through the being's entire body. She couldn't tell if it was wearing armor, or if that was simply the shape of its body.

Dash herself had changed, too. Her eyes weren't glowing anymore, but she was now wearing an elaborate outfit. It looked like some weird cross between a Wonderbolts uniform and a typical "adventurer" outfit like Daring Do wore, with several extra bits of flair, such as a higher than normal collar and a dark blue coat that draped behind her slightly.

Dash took a few deep breaths, looking around her, and at the being behind her. "So... was this that 'persona' thing you guys mentioned?"

Flexing her wings, and glad to see that they were completely unobstructed by the outfit, she gave an almost evil grin. "Because this is bucking awesome!"

"So ponies can gain personas too," Fox observed, taking the initiative to walk up to Dash's position.

"I mean, makes sense, if they can have palaces and shit," Skull said, also getting into the new formation.

Joker was the next to walk up, the rest of the team following when he did so. He gave a smirk to Dash as he looked down at her.

"Think you can handle yourself?"

Dash returned the smirk tenfold. "We'll never know unless be beat the hay out of these guys, right?"

Yearling, meanwhile, had already started pulling out of the room. "Men, kill them all! That's an order!"

The shadows immediately convulsed and turned into their true forms, revealing themselves to be a gathering of cockatrices and even a couple manticores that were far more beastly than normal.

"Stand down, you have no chance against Commander Yearling!" one of the shadows called out to the group.

"'Commander', huh?" Dash shot back. "Funny, she doesn't exactly strike me as the leading type, now that I know better." She took note of the newfound power within herself, and took hold of it. "Now, time to kick some flank!"

Twilight could only watch the proceedings, dumbfounded.

"You get 'em, Dashie!" Pinkie cheered on, somehow already recovering from the sheer bizarre nature of the scene before her.

The power within Dash surged, and she pointed a hoof. "Let's go! Hurricane!"

The being behind her- her persona- stomped the ground, and lightning arced out into each one of the nearby shadows. While it hurt the cockatrices, it was particularly devastating against both of the manticores, who were knocked flat by the attack.

Dash capitalized on this, and immediately took to the air before diving directly into a weakened cockatrice, turning it into black mist.

At the same time, Mona cut into another cockatrice before jumping back, finishing it off with a round from his slingshot. The moment he hit the ground, Joker took the lead, and followed up with a (somewhat unnecessary) twirl before his mask vanished in a puff of blue flame.

"Trumpeter!"

A flying human skeleton with a trumpet materialized behind him, and proceeded to play something unable to be heard by mortal ears, causing all the nearby shadows to stagger, their movements slowed.

This action wasn't missed by Twilight, however. "Wait, I thought...?"

Fox dodged a strike from one of the manticores that had recovered and countered with his own persona. "Goemon! Strike!"

A large, almost caricature-like figure appeared behind him, and then proceeded to swing its own blade at the shadow, killing it in the process.

"Dance, Carmen!"

Suddenly, geysers of fire erupted around the rest of the shadows, killing several of them while setting the remainder ablaze, although it didn't stop them from fighting.

"Nice work, Panther!" Mona complimented, before dodging a strike from a burning cockatrice.

In the meantime, Dash had taken out a few other shadows, including the other manticore, with weaponized gusts of wind from her persona. Before she could finish another cockatrice, however, one of them managed to land a hit on her from behind, causing her to grunt in pain as she was knocked flat.

Her attacker just barely had time to get another attack in before it was knocked back by gunfire, eventually succumbing to one of the several shots that was put into it. Dash looked to see where it came from, only to get quickly picked up by Joker, his pistol still smoking in his other hand.

Not long after, the last shadow had fallen. Putting away his blade, Fox left his combat stance and stood straight up. "Is that all of them?"

"I think so," Mona answered. "Pretty impressive power there, Dash."

Dash went to wipe her forehead, bumping her hoof into her mask in the process. "Yeah, that was... nothing."

Suddenly, she stumbled off her hooves, before picking herself back up.

"Rainbow Dash!" Twilight called out, instantly at her side. "Are you okay?!"

"Y-Yeah, Twilight," she stammered out, "Just... just tired."

"We should probably go then," Skull suggested. "Gonna need everyone at max performance if we're gonna erase this place."

"How unusually sensible of you, Skull!"

"Can it, cat!"

Twilight turned on them before their bickering could advance any more. "Hold on just a second! Explain what just happened right now!"

"It's too dangerous here," Queen said. "Let's pull out to reality for now. We'll explain then."

Although she wanted to disagree, Twilight reluctantly nodded.

The trip back to the palace entrance was a quick one, and as soon as everyone was gathered, Joker took out his phone.

"Now returning to the real world. Thank you for your hard work."

Author's Note:

Just so you know I'm gonna have all the party members keep their original personas, not the "upgraded" ones, simply because I like the designs of the originals better and also their names are a lot easier to remember
And yes Joker's persona loadout will be (partly) based on what I was using at the endgame.

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