• Published 22nd Jul 2012
  • 36,263 Views, 7,113 Comments

Rites of Ascension - CvBrony

Twilight makes a new spell and starts the gears of fate with her ascension to alicornhood. (Writing started before Season 3.)

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Strong as the Earth

Spike leaned against the train car window, listening to the gentle clickity-clack of the tracks rocking him back and forth. A big part of him wanted to fall asleep, but each time he drifted off, lightning ran through his spine. He clutched the package in his arms ever tighter with each jolt, ready to burn anyone and anything that dared try taking it from him in lawless San Palomino.

He had received a telegram shortly before Blade Forge had completed his work. Rainbow had been captured, and Twilight was alone, racing against a clock to save her from the cruelest pirate in the Duchy.

No matter how weak he was, Spike had to find her. If nothing else, then he could deliver the package in his care. With luck, that and his flames would turn the odds against whatever they were facing.

“Stupid formula… Why don't you resolve!” Trixie chewed up and swallowed the rest of the apple that she was eating, and it went down her throat like a tennis ball. “Argh. What am I doing wrong?” She put her head down on her table and eyed the equations on her paper, then sighed and looked around the room for a distraction.

It didn't work. It was a three meter by three meter former storage room that the Royal Guard had deigned to give her to work in. The walls were institution beige, and the carpet institution brown. The lights were institution fluorescent, and the ceiling tiles institution white. The chalkboard behind her made it look like the world's smallest classroom, and its green colour matched the filing cabinets to her right. Even the door was oppressivelyboring. The whole place was made to round up inspiration and march it into a prison camp.

“That does it. I need some air before they lock me in a real institution.” She grabbed her papers, stuffed them in her bags, and stomped out the door.

“Having trouble, are we?”

Trixie froze at Captain Dual Strike’s words.

“If you can't perform, perhaps it's time for you to go on your way, Ms. Lulamoon.” Strike loomed over her. “I'm sure we can arrange some security to travel with you on your… shows.”

Trixie swallowed, even though she knew she shouldn't have. It gave away her nerves, and a cold reader like her knew what that could mean when she was up against a stallion like Dual Strike. Not only was he one of the worst examples of ponykind she'd ever met, but the air around him carried a metallic buzz of power. Captains were never weak.

However, the power he had was nothing compared to Obsidian Armor’s. His wasn't just a buzz, but a burning wall that pushed her back if she got too close. Combined with the fact that he wasn't a jerk, it was easy to see why Princess Celestia chose him over Dual Strike.

“Captain,” she said, flat as the plains of Stalliongrad. “I am taking a small break. As I understand it, that is within my rights under the terms of my ‘employment’ with the Crown. Surely, even you do such things.” Trixie let the corner of her mouth not facing Dual Strike turn up slightly. “After all, you're not Shining Armor.”

The din of the War Room quieted to a hush.

“No, I am not.” The Captain turned around to leave. “I suppose we can discuss your ‘employment,’ as you put it, another time.”

Trixie stayed frozen there, waiting, until he had left and the noise of ponies working had resumed. Even when she moved, she shook like a fish on a hook. By the time she made it to a vending machine in the castle proper, she felt sucked dry of any energy. Even her favourite super-sugary candy bar wasn't likely to fix that anytime soon, despite the orange soda she chased it down with.

I can't keep this up. I know Twilight has a plan in place, and I trust her, but still. She finished off her soda and chucked the can in a recycling bin. I don't think she fully understands what I'm stuck in here, helpful though she tries to be. So! I have to do something, but what?

She sighed and leaned back in her bench, looking up at the artwork on the tall, marble walls. There were ponies in armor, pictures of honored soldiers long since passed. “Heh. Can't believe I pretended to be—”

Trixie blinked, and several times at that. “Empty Night! I could… Was that her idea? Was she going to…?” She pulled out her papers to see if she had enough to justify going to the Princess, then decided it didn't matter. If Her Highness was like Twilight said, Trixie could stretch the truth a little to get an audience, ask the favor, and probably not be in too much trouble for her audacity.

She trashed the candy bar wrapper and hauled her butt and her incomplete papers to the Throne Room. Every few turns saw more and more Royal Guard checkpoints to pass through, and a different spell or test she had to pass through to continue onwards. It wasn't like when she was next to Twilight; the Princess’ student could run through unimpeded. Trixie had to prove herself, over and over.

That is, until she reached the final checkpoint at the doors to her destination, this time protected by Day Guard. There was no checkpoint, not even a glance in her direction. She just walked through, like everypony else seemed to do. A normal pony would have assumed they were just for decoration, then. Trixie knew better. Not in any explainable way, but in the deepest part of her gut. The Day Guard pegasi were where they were for a reason, and she dared not test them.

Inside was a room that was a testament to the glory of Equestria and its Princesses. The stained glass, the long hall, the grandiose, elevated throne, it was all meant to instill reverence in ponies, and it was very effective. Trixie was no different in that regard.

There was a small crowd inside, filled with ponies that had business to air in front of Celestia, to seek guidance or a decision from one who has lived for countless lifetimes. Trixie didn't have an appointment, but a Princess’s job was varied and pressing, and interruptions were commonplace. In that way, she was just one of the crowd.

She inched her way through the herd, shuffling and apologizing to ponies as she waded through. Eventually, she was at the front. The annoyed looks she earned sent the hairs on her neck into attention enough for her to need to push them down with a hoof. That didn't stop the glares from continuing.

Technically the glaring ponies had a point; she was cutting in line. The order of petitioners was fixed, with names called on a list. That being said, there were definitely certain prerogatives to being a pony that came from the War Room.

After finishing a ruling, Celestia cleared her throat. “I believe it's time for a small recess. We shall reconvene in ten minutes, everypony. Please feel free to use the facilities or find a snack.”

The loud kachunk of doors opening announced the entrance of two more Day Guard, and nopony missed the cue to clear out. In a moment, only the Princess, her seneschal, and Trixie remained.

Celestia took a cup of tea that Raven Quill had brought, and sipped from it. “I take it, my little pony, that you have something for me?”

Trixie swallowed again. While it was dangerous to give a clue like that to Dual Strike, with Celestia, there was no point in even trying to hide. She'd see through her anyway. “Mostly. It's not complete yet, but I think Twilight and I could get it working together. It's… I don't have a name for the spell yet, but it makes a magic square. A really, really big one. Something on the size of a city.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “That kind of spell is beyond you, little one. I find it curious that you pursued a solution of such magnitude. Take care to remember that alicorns are not yours to use at will.”

“I mean no disrespect, Your Highness.” Trixie bowed as low as she could, and the shaking started again. “This can be accomplished by unicorns, with emphasis on the plural. At least with the proper planning.” She pointed to her horn. “If I may?”

Celestia nodded, and Trixie started her spell.

Even though it was just a miniature version, it pulled on her horn in all directions as it spread. The square was simple, and a lot of the guts of the spell just weren't there. Of course, the guts were broken, so she couldn't include them. All that was left were the grid lines criss crossing the inside.

“Basically, it's a detection grid. Set up by trained unicorn teams, and spread out over the size of a small city, it can pinpoint levels of thaumic contamination throughout. Each line will respond by changing colour based on the amount it finds. With two dimensions, we can determine the exact position of each bit of pollution in moments… at ground level. I haven't gotten the actual spell working yet, so I haven't dared try three dimensions yet.”

“Interesting…” Celestia put down her empty teacup. “Properly set up, we could scan entire cities before the Illusionists could even realize what’s happening. And we could detect illegal thaumic dumping at the same time. Excellent work, Ms. Lulamoon.”

“I'm not done yet, Your Majesty, but I think I'm on the right track.” Trixie’s ears went back against her head, and her hind legs gave out from the shaking. Try as she might, she couldn't meet the Princess’ eyes. “And… I…”

“Miss Lulamoon.”

The words were soft, but they were an order, and Trixie's gaze locked onto the alicorn’s eyes of their own accord.

The Princess, for her part, was the picture of tranquillity. “I know what a pony looks like when they have something uncomfortable on their minds, my little pony. In fact, I feel safe wagering that whatever you have to say, it was the real reason you came to see me. Am I wrong?”

Trixie swallowed as a chill rushed down her neck. “No… No, you aren't. I… I have a favor to ask.”

Celestia nodded serenely as the glow of her magic took a fresh teacup from Raven Quill. “Go ahead,” she gestured slightly with the cup, and there was the ghost of a smile on her lips, “You are hardly alone, nor nearly the first. Regardless, you are performing a valuable service for the Crown. Tell me, my subject, what can I do to make that job easier?”

“Well… I…” Trixie stammered. Celestia was clearly trying to put her at ease. Given that Trixie had waged years of slander against her beloved student, this was far easier said than done. She clenched her teeth and bowed her head, holding in her tears as much as she could. “I…”

She flinched away from a touch on her shoulder, ready for it to be a strike. Instead, she opened her eyes to find Raven Quill, who wasn't ready to give up on her.

Raven put her hoof back on Trixie’s shoulder, and leaned in to whisper in her ear. “Don't be afraid. You are Twilight's pony, and Celestia would never jeopardize their relationship. To her, you’re untouchable, okay?”

The world went crystal, locking Trixie in place. Her mind ran over the words again and again. “I'm her… what?”

Raven adjusted her glasses and smiled, speaking softly, though there was no way the Princess wouldn't hear. “Alicorns have a protective instinct for their subjects, just as you have an instinct to obey Celestia when in her direct presence. Regular ponies gain resistance to it through familiarity with an alicorn, but for them, the closer to their heart you are, the stronger their instinct burns.

“Twilight will be Celestia’s equal soon enough. In many ways, she already is. You are under the protection of an alicorn ascendant; one who has already fought and bled for your sake. Harming you for any reason would be...” there was a pause as Raven summoned a politician’s gift for understatement, “Impolitic.”

“Raven…” Celestia’s smile veiled nothing of her disapproval, though the seneschal didn't do much as blink.

“I…” Trixie swallowed again, waiting for Raven to return to her place. “I… I want…” She clenched her teeth while her words boiled to bursting. Her heart pounded, sweat leaked down her brow, and she was ready to bite her tongue.

Go, filly! Now or never! Trixie sucked in a last breath. “I want to become a member of Twilight's Evening Guard!”

Celestia froze mid-sip, and for a time, all was silent.

No, Trixie thought while her heart pounded. She's going to—

“It's about time,” Celestia chuckled.


“My little pony, I was wondering how long it would be until you asked one of us that.” Celestia put down her tea and stepped down from her throne to tower over Trixie more directly. “Before I approve or deny your request, however, I must ask you why you wish such a thing.”

She… She knew… Trixie slumped to the ground and deflated. She knew this whole time. I'm such an idiot.

“Miss Lulamoon?” Celestia prompted. “I need an answer.”

“I…” Trixie shuddered. Don't lie. She'll know. “I can't go on unless it happens. Captain Dual Strike is out to get me. So is General Gemstone. I need cover, and this would provide it. So yes, I'm just being selfish. But, that's not the only reason.

“Doing so would… repay her. For the trouble I caused. Not to mention, I could get more done with the others off my back. Which means I could hurt these bastards. Root them out. Hopefully before anypony else is hurt like I was.”

Celestia seemed to mull this over for a moment. “Normally, I look for more altruistic reasons, but given your history, I find this acceptable. I will approve the assignment.”

Trixie's eyes widened and welled up with tears. “Thank—”

“Don't celebrate just yet, my little pony. Doing this means giving your very life to Twilight. You will live, and possibly die,by her command.” Celestia paused to let her words sink in. Once Trixie managed to nod jerkily, she continued, “Also, although I have approved the placement, you must swear an oath to Twilight herself before it takes effect. I would take you to her right now, but I'm afraid I can't. I don't know where she is, other than ‘somewhere in San Palomino.’ You'll have to wait until she gets back.”

“Oh…” Trixie swallowed a curse. “I don't suppose you could take me to Fort Earthborne, then? Wouldn't she be likely to go there at some point?”

Celestia scratched her chin with a pinion. “Not a bad idea. Very well, brace yourself for teleport, little one.”

An idea punched the back of Trixie’s head. “Wait!”

Celestia stopped and tilted her head. “What is it, my little pony?”

Trixie tapped the tips of her forehooves together tentatively. “Do you think you could maybe keep this a secret? You know, until I get back in the War Room, so I can… tell… Captain Dual Strike myself?”

Celestia did something Trixie never thought she'd see on a paragon of patience like the Princess: put on a devious, mirthful smile. “I think that can be arranged.”

“Status update?” Twilight asked while wiping soot off her face with a damp washcloth. The cool water in it was a small but welcome comfort in the heat.

Lofty Goals was even more covered in dust and dirt than Twilight was, but then again, he didn't have the advantage of armor covering nearly every inch of his body. His suit had been deliberately torn to shreds to serve as first-aid bandages for ponies hurt in the attack.

“We've completed a headcount,” Goals said. “Just over a dozen ponies were taken. We have hundreds hurt, only six dead by some miracle. It looks like they were mostly after equipment. It could have been a lot worse.” He sighed and looked at the fires still raging around him. “Though it certainly doesn't look like it could have been worse. I'm told, though, that if not for your guard scattering their forces, our security ponies and gryphons would have been taken out completely. We're in her debt.”

Twilight winced at the thought of her lost friends. “She's actually a bounty hunter I hired. She didn't have to fight back like that. But… I'm glad she did. It tells me I was right to bet on her.” She ground her teeth and seethed. “And all the more reason I need to rescue her and make Farriér pay. How are we coming on the telegraph system?”

Lofty motioned for her to follow, so she did, and the two of them made their way outside the compound towards some broken power poles, only to stop before they got there.

“Lady Sparkle, something else very sensitive was taken, and it was meant for the Crown. However, I'm under explicit order from the Crown to only discuss it with royalty, and even then only if directly asked about it by name. Violating this order would constitute treason. Do you know what I'm talking about?”

Twilight's heart thudded in her chest. “No. But at this point I'm guessing it's why you were targeted. I am the Grand Mage, so I can assure you, whatever it is, you can tell me.”

He shook his head. “No. The warning was extreme, Lady Sparkle. I recommend asking the Princess. Hopefully the wires are fixed now.”

They continued on to the usable poles, stepping through the splinters of the ones that were destroyed. After passing several half-standing ones, they arrived at a group of ponies working on one that was intact.

One pegasus stallion, dressed in twin work belts and a hard hat, looked exactly like he should have: like a pony that had just seen a massacre. He had a short beard and his eyes looked like he hadn't slept in days. Still, he worked as smoothly as any pony Twilight had seen. In moments, he'd managed to finish tapping into the telegraph wires.

This was why Twilight had to encrypt her messages over the wires; anypony that knew what they were doing could tap into one of the lines. And out in the desert, with very few potential witnesses, nopony on either end of the communiqué would be any the wiser.

“I think we're ready,” the stallion said. “What do we send? Celestia, what does anypony send after something like this?”

“Here.” Twilight tore a page out of her notebook and floated it over to him. “I've already made and encrypted the message for Fort Earthborne. Send it to the address shown, and we should have relief forces here by the end of the day.”

“That's something, I guess.” He grabbed it in his primaries and went to work, while everypony else either lined up to send their own messages to loved ones or went back to helping those who were hurt.

All the while, Lofty Goals and Arctic Snow coordinated and gave orders to ponies running to and fro.

Twilight stomped a pebble in her way into dust, then flopped to the warm ground. “Just what am I doing? How many ponies am I going to get killed?”

A building in flames collapsed in on itself, sending ponies running to avoid the spewing embers.

“I should be helping…” Twilight wiped more soot off her face, but it just smeared, damp. Water left over by the washcloth, surely. Twilight didn’t have time for tears.

“You can't do everything for them.” Aurora appeared in front of Twilight, though she was only a faint presence, like a ghost. Nopony else would see her, certainly. She had no real body, but appeared as stressed as any of the ponies in the camp. There were bags under her eyes, and her mane was a mess.

Maybe that's what I look like, Twilight thought.

“More or less,” Aurora replied. “But my worries are for you, not them.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. I'm an ageless alicorn. I'll be fine. I should be in there, helping—

“Sender's Shower won't work here and you know it. Their cannon shells had fire dust in them. A water spell with a very high mana concentration might help douse the flames, but everything currently on fire is already destroyed beyond salvage. Their normal water hoses will be enough to contain things on their own, and that's the best course of action right now.”

Twilight put her ears back. So many were hurt…

“Even if you knew any of the incredibly difficult mass healing spells Celestia knows, you wouldn't do much more than what the medics are already doing. Our thaumic profile just isn't attuned to healing. If you knew more focused healing spells, it might help, but we haven't seen anypony in that kind of need yet. They're either already beyond help or well within the means of the healers already here.”

Twilight grumbled and kicked another pebble so half heartedly it barely turned over twice. Why must you be so good with logic when I'm trying to feel sorry for myself?

“Because my ultimate desire is your well-being. I can shield you from physical attack, but emotional injury is something I have to heal with words. Besides, you're missing something important.”

I am?

Aurora nodded. “Think back. What happened when the myrkur first appeared? What was the order of events?”

Well… Twilight wished she had water left. I was talking with Lofty Goals, then the myrkur just appeared. There was also a barrier, and we…

Aurora smiled while Twilight's jaw dropped from her realization.

The other pony adjusting the shield was hooked into it with his magic when I smashed it! The feedback on that would have blown out his horn, or at the very least knocked him out! If their forces were scattered, there's a chance they left their agent behind.

Aurora vanished in a puff, and said, “He must have been close to the barrier to adjust it like that. Look near the building you were at.”

“Already ahead of you.” Twilight shot through the air with her cannonball spell, aiming for the one large building still completely intact. The air was filled with smoke that ate at her lungs, and there were ponies everywhere.

She switched to her magic sight and told Aurora, “Help me look. Check for large wellsprings that… Wait…”

I see it too. I think we found our pony.”

She blasted herself back down towards the ground, coming to a reasonably gentle landing in a tiny alleyway near where the shield had been. Shadows danced all around her, thanks to the fires still raging, but they couldn't hide the bright wellspring from her sight.

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Seriously? In there?”

“Well, I wouldn't have looked for a pony there if I hadn't seen them with your sight.”

“Yeah, but…” Twilight grabbed the lid of the dumpster and swung it open. “I never would have picked a place like this to hide.”

Inside were a few bags of trash, upon which a young, yellow stallion lay unconscious. He was kind of short, had only a small, one-sided saddlebag, and his mouth hung open enough to let his tongue rest on something unfortunate. Worse, his horn was chipped and burnt.

“I read about the kinds of things forensics techs have to dig through in those textbooks. I'd hoped I'd never have to experience it myself. Okay, Mr. Pirate, let's get you out of there and get you some medical help. You can't help me if you die.”

Twilight grabbed him with her magic, since his own couldn't block her due to his damaged horn, and pulled him out along with some of the rest of the trash, just in case there was evidence.

As she stepped out into the street, a red sun peeked out of the smoke, which only made her sweat even more than she had been. It didn't do much for the smell of the garbage, either. More important, it highlighted a shadow along the ground. A line had been drawn in the dirt, and it was going all around the building.

“Aha. They used a physical drawing in the ground to help create a magic square. What do you have to say about that, Mr. Pirate?”

She rummaged around in his pockets, finding a variety of magic implements and a few pieces of mining equipment. One item stood out, though: a foreman’s ID badge for Site 47.

“Ahhhhhh! Stop thinking that fast!”

Sorry, Aurora, but I think I just figured it all out. The only thing I don't know for certain at this point is where, exactly, his hideout is. But I have a list of candidates I can get through very quickly. Too fast for him to finish his plans. Farriér's number is up.

A rumble of thunder had Twilight look to the sky. Through the smoke, haze, and hellfire, a beam of moonlight tore open a hole in space. A legion of pegasi pulling chariots poured through, the first few being Night Guard. After that came the ones in desert camouflage. The Army of Equestria had arrived, and with it, no fewer than a hundred and fifty ponies ready to help.

Luna was the first to find her and land. “We received your message. How bad is it?”

“Not as bad as it could have been, but…” Twilight swallowed some bile. “They took Rose. She helped fight them off.”

“And the shipment?” Luna asked like she was being held over the edge of a cliff. “Is it secure?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Shipment? What shipment? Oh, you mean the thing you didn't tell me? Lofty Goals didn't want to say what it was, but he did say it was taken.”

“It was…” Luna shivered. Luna, the Princess of the Night, shivered. “Cardinal! Find whomever is in charge!”

“Uh, hello?” Twilight raised a hoof. “Care to clue me in?”

“Psy Ore. The mineral used for a long term, highly intrusive geas. This mine found some a few hours ago, and was instructed to secure it while a chariot was dispatched to recover it.” Luna pressed her forehooves to her temples. “They must have the ability to break some of our encryption… Yours isn't used much, but we don't share the top level methods with mining companies, of all things.”

“Hours? That is quite a turnaround.” Twilight started a pace back and forth, kicking up dust and ash with each step. “No wonder I wasn't told; you didn't know yet. Though now I know how they did it. But first…

“If you'll recall, earlier I received intelligence from an Illusionist, a member of what he called the ‘Knights Templar.’

“He vanished before I could detain him, but not before claiming that there was a business connection between the pirate I'm after, Farriér, and the group behind the coup attempt last year. This supports that intelligence.”

Luna waved at one of her guards, and sighed. “I remember that RGIS had some interest in this company, though I don't believe that their investigation went anywhere. I shall have the files forwarded to you.

“More importantly, however, you appear to be carrying an injured stallion and… and a pile of garbage. Why?”

Twilight unceremoniously dropped the pile of refuse — pirate included — at Luna's hooves. “This young colt is with the pirates that attacked. After what you said about the psy ore, I have it figured out. He's a plant by either the Majestics or one of their agents to watch for possible new sources of Psy Ore, and probably signalled Farriér. But then I showed up and met with Mr. Goals. So he waited for us to enter a building. Arctic Snow, a former military officer and current head of a private security company, was also there, and he looks like he could definitely have handled himself in a fight.

“Once we were all inside, it was the perfect time to trap us to keep us busy. He set up a powerful, opaque barrier to confine us. He likely also signalled for the attack to commence, since he had neutralized the top two threats. But I broke out just before the ship escaped, and the feedback probably knocked him on his flank.

“I want him in a cell in Fort Earthborne. He's got a lot to answer for. I also need you to take me there. I've got a way to find Farriér, and I'll need an army to assault his base of operations before he runs.”

Luna blinked. “Runs?”

“Oh yeah. He's been a step ahead until now, but at this point I've got him figured out. He never wanted to take me on; the Majestics made him. He left the doors of his airship open because he knew my barrier and armor would try to convert his attack to a manageable amount of kinetic energy via acceleration, and he aimed for me to get launched out the side. Then he could either try to finish me with airship guns; and if that failed, it was a plausible excuse to the Majestics.

“It adds up. That impact from his weapon? I got knocked and stunned by the light, and a little shocked, but Aurora still blocked almost all the actual damage. Had I not been tossed out, I'm pretty sure I could have adapted and taken him down then and there. When he saw my power, he threw me out to escape from me.

“And think of this. He should have thought he had me dead to rights with his airship guns when he attacked the mines. He certainly had the rest of this place under control. So why not press the attack when I got out? Because he knew I had a solid chance of winning, even with the ship on his side.

“So he took Rose, who he knows of because we've doubtless been seen together for a while at this point. She's another hostage to make me think twice while he plans to run away from both the Majestics and myself. He has to be pissing himself with fear. Of course, that raises the obvious question: Where to?”

By this point a small crowd of Night Guard were either keeping other ponies away or sitting at attention like they were in a class.

Twilight lit her horn and drew a basic map of the Duchy and its neighbours into the dirt. “To the South is Shanghay, beyond the Glass Desert, but the Triads would never trust a pony with his reputation. They'd either rat him out or try to kill him and take his ship.

“To the west are the Border Lands near the coast, but it's not as lawless as San Palomino. Cadence has done a remarkable job grooming the early colonies there, and the environment is less hostile. Odds are we would catch him there pretty quick.

“To the east are the Hinterlands, and for obvious reasons, that's right out, which leaves the north. If they can either make it through the Stormlands, or go around via the ocean, they can make it to the remote areas of Stalliongrad. All kinds of terrain, few settlements, and train lines ripe for robbing. That's where he's going to go.

“Yet it's easier said than done. That's a long journey for a ship that needs as much maintenance as his does, and he needs supplies to get settled and set up. So... his plan is likely to hit a few more trains and towns for supplies, but then ultimately run back to base as fast as possible to load up the goods, fix their engines to last as long as possible, then run for it. All we have to do is find his base and hit them while their engines are in pieces, and thanks to Mr. Goals, I have a short list of base candidates!”

Twilight froze for a moment, waiting for Luna to speak. The Princess and her guards stood still, looking at her.

Twilight put her ears back. “What?”

Luna and her guards broke out into applause.

“Great speech!” one yelled while another whistled.

“I was spellbound!”

“Truly an orator for our time!”

Twilight blushed redder than the desert. “Sh-shut up, I was doing well! I figured it out!”

Luna raised a wing and whistled for a chariot. “Oh, we're just teasing, Twilight. But fear not! I shall rally my guards, my sister's, and anypony and anything trustworthy and with wings. We'll find that base in hours, not days. Tonight, we shall rescue your friends, and deliver some much needed justice to the untamed desert!”

Twilight reached for her gas mask, but stopped when she realized the air around her was safe to breathe. Considering what was in front of her, she didn't feel silly in the slightest.

Fort Earthborne was at the southern edge of the Firestorm Valley, and the latter lived up to the name. Half the desert below had such a high concentration of fire magic, it was spontaneously combusting. Fire raged below her, as it had for millennia, and would continue for millennia more. It gathered in pools, literal lakes of flame, that only creatures whose life force thrived on heat could survive in.

The sky was nearly pitch black. Only a setting, blood red sun broke through the smoke. Three hundred and sixty five days a year, this land was blanketed in heat and soot.

None of that compared to where the “storm” part of the name “Firestorm Valley” came from. As far as Twilight could see, great funnel clouds made of nothing but fire swirled into the layer of soot miles above the ground. They tilted and danced endlessly over the vast mana krene — a fountain of magic below the ground — that gave the valley its fiery properties. Any pegasus that didn't take this place seriously could be swallowed by them at any point and consumed.

Seconds after exiting the teleportation, Twilight had already broken out into a sweat. How she wasn't choking on ash, she didn't quite know, though she assumed it had something to do with the interaction of the natural magic of the area and the pegasi pulling her chariot. Regardless, of all the places she'd ever seen, this was the one that most resembled her mental picture of Tartarus; a true hell on Equus.

Yet, the ponies in Fort Earthborne lived in this day after day. Thrived in it, even. By all accounts, they included the best earth pony units in existence. They did have some pegasi and unicorns, naturally, but over eighty percent were hornless and wingless.

Twilight held on to the canteen the chariot pegasi had given her while they entered a dive towards the base. Smoke started to fill her nostrils, though they were above the blanket of smoke over the ground. It was still enough to nearly choke her when she gasped.

Fort Earthborne was enormous.

She had already known this for some time. It was the largest non-airborne military base in the world, after all. However, one had to at least see it to know it. Anything less wouldn't do.

Originally, the first fortifications brought in hundreds of years ago were done so at then-unimaginable expense to provide a counter to a clan of dragons. They were threatening to wage war if not granted the desert and tribute from the Hinterlands, so Celestia created the Fort as a message: We Shall Stand. Though a peace accord was struck, the initial fort stayed as a reminder. Though, only relatively recently had it been built to its current size.

From those small beginnings rose a military institution perhaps grander than any other in the world. Poking out of the smoke were dozens of shield domes, each a bowl of cerulean light covering many, many acres. Inside each were dozens of buildings, some tall, some wide, others just a covering for artillery guns. All were jet black, likely covered in soot.

In the middle of it all was a dome larger than any other, housing several different biomes alien to the desert. There were no buildings in it, or at least, none she could see. Trees, however, were plentiful. There was even snow in one corner, opposite a mountain. All of it was artificially brought into being for the express purpose of training recruits.

In total, the shielded land area was over a thousand square kilometres, or nearly two hundred fifty thousand acres.

Twilight grabbed her stomach as it protested against the sight. All that, all those ponies, all that equipment, all those buildings, all those weapons, all those lives, were under her command.

And she was about to point them at other ponies who were technically her subjects.

You don't become a pirate without acknowledging certain risks,” Aurora said, appearing next to her. “I can understand being desperate enough to turn to stealing, but these ponies are participating in mass murder and slavery. There's no grey here, subjects or not. Moreover, they have your friends.

“I'm supposed to protect you, so I have to know.” Aurora stared Twilight in the eyes like she was as old as an alicorn herself. “Are you going to hesitate?”

“Not even for a second.” Twilight snapped, then put her ears down in apology to Aurora. “Farriér is pure evil. There's only two ways this ends. One is him captured and in jail for all eternity. The second is in his death. He's far too dangerous for any other acceptable outcome.”

Aurora nodded and disappeared. “I agree.” The rest of the ride was silence, save for the subtle roar of flames burning in the background.

They swooped down to the entrance, which was a hole in the steel wall surrounding the base. It had a thinner shield than the domes, one that would keep the smoke out, but allow other things to enter. After phasing through the opening, the first thing she noticed wasn't the strangely soot-free buildings or hundreds of recruits marching and exercising in formation. It was a lone stallion, clad in the armor of the Night Guard. Specifically, the armor of a High Cardinal.

“Shiny?” Twilight jumped off the chariot before the pegasi pulling it even had a chance to line up for a landing, then leapt at her waiting brother’s embrace. “Shiny!”

“Oof!” Shining chuckled as he braced himself for the impact, taking in stride despite clearly not being entirely prepared for it. “Hey, there. About time you arrived. I—” He stopped and sniffed the air. “Wow. You need a shower worse than some of these recruits.”

Twilight broke the hug and punched him in the leg. “Hardy har har. Where's General Stone? I need to coordinate new search parameters. Farriér took a friend I made out here, but I know how to find him now.”

“He's in Earthborne Operations Command. It's in the next dome over. I'll walk you.”

They marched along the pavement, which was much cooler to the touch than the desert floor. To prevent the domes from cooking the inhabitants like a steamer, there was heavy insulation underneath the asphalt. Twilight also noted that the cooling systems throughout the base were rigged to regulate the temperature by pumping heat out of the domes. It was still hot, though, and the sweat on the recruits made it feel worse than it was.

The groups all bowed as they passed, and Twilight waited a few seconds before letting them up. It was a small mark of mercy, to give them a little break in their routine —; one that made her brother smirk and roll his eyes.

The building they entered was large and square, with a pyramidal roof. The main doors were of the heavy blast variety, meant to withstand bombardment from high yield warheads. When Obsidian got them open, they didn't merely lead in, they led down.

They didn't get to an actual room until they were several stories down, and even that was behind another set of blast doors. But then, what did I expect? Twilight thought to herself. Fort Earthborne is the command hub for a huge portion of the military. They're going to keep it protected.

Inside, it was nearly a single room; a space the size of several hoofball fields. Twilight assumed there was a bathroom or something somewhere, but it wasn't obvious. There were alcoves lining the wall, like the castle War Room, but the feel was entirely different. While the War Room was bright, cramped, and smelled of coffee and paper, this place was dark. The ceiling was entirely cloaked in darkness, as was most of the floor. Spaced out, bright spotlights illuminated key areas, while smaller lights kept the alcove bright enough to read the papers festooned on the walls.

The center was the second most interesting thing about the room. It had a series of map tables to put all other map tables to shame. Each table was at least a dozen meters in length, and they were arranged in a grid large enough to take up most of the floor.

The thing that drew her eyes most, however, was a… pony, if she could call him that. He was a medium green, with a dark green mane and beard. He wore a desert camouflage uniform faded more gray than normal, and spoke with a loud, reverberating Scottish brogue that had Twilight's ears facing away from him to avoid the onslaught of his yells. His normal speaking voice could probably give orders to the entire place without a problem.

What struck her most, though, was the fact that as she approached, she had to look farther and farther up. She thought back to when Princess Luna had first returned to Ponyville.

This pony was taller, and by a not-insignificant margin. Given the four stars on his shoulder, there was only one pony he could be.

“Sis,” her brother said, “meet General Stone.”

Twilight blinked, then looked at Obsidian. “Are his parents ‘Mountain’ and ‘Boulder’?”

“Nah, he's just a freak.” Obsidian all but shouted.

“Whit?” Stone snapped his gaze to Obsidian.


Each of his steps was a tiny avalanche shaking the ground, rattling Twilight's teeth harder as he grew closer.

“Jist whit was ‘at noo?” Stone towered over both of them, and glared at Obsidian with the eyeball of a demon. The only reason he wasn't using two was because one was hidden behind an eyepatch. “When did ye forgit whit happens tae smart tongues oan mah base?”

Twilight blinked and rattled her head. Stone’s accent was thick enough to be the main mast on a galleon, though she was pretty sure she got all that. It'd just take her a moment or two to process, or so her Mental Committee on Abnormal Sounds and her Mental Committee on Language Processing told her.

“Mebbe ye need a reminder?” Stone continued, leaning forward and over Obsidian enough to even get him to back away a little. “Or would ye rather rephrase 'at?”

Obsidian put on a Cheshire smile, sucked in a breath, and said, “You're right, I would.” He cleared his throat in the most hackneyed way possible, gathering the attention of the entire place, then boomed with his bass Night Guard voice. “What I meant to say, was, ‘General Stone is such a freak of pituitary nature, he—” WHA-WHAM!

General Stone didn't throw Obsidian Armor into the wall. He didn't need to. All he had to do was raise his foreleg in his direction mind-bogglingly quickly. The impact did the rest.

A blink later, and the General was on top of him, pressing against his windpipe with a hoof the size of a chariot wheel.

Shiny! Twilight dropped into a battle stance and lit her horn while Aurora deployed, recovering her body in a tight fit of newly-modified armor. Wait! Twilight yelled at herself, stopping the kinetic bolt before it tore off Stone's head.

He's an ally, and I'm not supposed to… Oh, what do I do? He's hurting Shiny!

“Now, seeing as how I cannae give ye push-ups until ye die, I'll just have tae embarrass ye until ye die. Git out ay this, if you can, laddie.” Stone pressed down, while Obsidian's horn dimmed, and his struggle slowed.

Twilight’s vision went red, and fire burned down her skin, from the tip of her horn to the bottom of her tail. “Let. Him. Go!” Her words echoed with the shot, the bolt striking center mass and flinging Stone into the wall of an alcove as easily as he had tossed her brother.

A burst of magic later, and she appeared next to the prone General, towering over him for a change. “Hurt him again, and next time I won't miss your head.”

The entire base was silence. Every single pony in the room was stock still. What few numbers of pegasi there were had landed, and the four or five unicorns’ horns had died.

Aw, crap.

Thunder rose from the ground to overtake everything in a grand display of… laughter?

It was laughing. All of them were laughing their heads off. If Discord had been around, he wouldn't have had to expend even a trifle of power to make it literal. Several ponies were rolling around on the ground, and even the base guards were into it.

Aw, double crap.

“Whit in blazes burst me?” Stone slowly, shakily climbed to his hooves, then wobbled around like a mountain with legs.

That, General Stone…” Obsidian rubbed his throat and coughed. “Was you getting roughed up by my little sister!”

The laughter was dying down, but dozens were still taunting, singing at their general.

“Alright, ye idiots. I cannae give him push-ups until he dies, but I can give them te you! Get back to work or you'll be digging latrines out in the wastes!”

With that, the tidal wave of laughter subsided and drew back from whence it came. Stone even wandered towards the center table, which was off alignment from the others.

“Now, then, Lass.” Even as far away as he was, and even though he was clearly just “talking” to her, it still felt like General Stone yelling in her face. Everything about him was just that huge. “What was this about new information for me?”

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief, and trotted to the middle table. The others were all maps of some segment of the Duchy, while this was a map of the entire thing. She pulled out her notes and laid them out. “I need you to redeploy the search teams. I've narrowed down Farriér's possible bases to these mesas and buttes. Spread out the teams into five, get the Bellerophon on station, and hit them one by one.

“Don't get them get too close unless they need to, and tell them to stay alert. Odds are there are defenses in place, likely heavy AA guns. But get them there, and clear each location one by one. If we do this right, then within a day, we’ll know where Farriér is, and we can take him out and possibly rescue dozens of hostages along the way. Rainbow Dash and Desert Rose included.”

Twilight picked up a pen and stared at the map, looking for proper paths through the terrain. “If we deploy land forces here—”

“Twily.” Obsidian grabbed her with a foreleg and proceeded to noogie her through her helmet.

Freaking older brother powers.Can you adapt to that, Aurora?

“Neither of us know how ‘freaking older brother powers’ work, so no. Not a chance.”

Triple crap.

“Come on, Twily, we need to talk real quick.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and followed him out a ways to an unused table. “What is it? We need to start looking, or—”

“Twilight, General Stone is a freak of nature, yes, but he's the best pony in the world when it comes to leading open warfare. And you're sitting there, trying to do his job.

Twilight opened her mouth, and when she froze, dead words sloughed off her tongue. “Mfgerthuga…”

“I know it's hard. You're used to doing things yourself as Grand Mage. But this part of your job is more like Celestia’s. You have a job for these ponies because you can't take on an airship and all its pirates by yourself. But you've given your side what they need to succeed at that job.

“So, here's what you do. You tell them to do their jobs, and they'll get it done. Meanwhile, you'll go get a shower and a meal.”

Twilight opened her mouth again, and Obsidian just covered it with a hoof.

“Being a high rank in the military often just means you sit on your duff while waiting for results. It's the name of the game, Twily. Give them the order, and take care of yourself. We'll run and get you as soon as we have news, okay?”

Twilight sighed, but stayed silent and nodded lest she get another lecture. Slowly, she walked back to the center table, the one with General Stone eyeing her in silence.

She put her ears back, and pulled her notes together in a neat stack. “General, you have all the information I do here in these pages. Find where Farriér is hiding. Shut him down, permanently. Mission success is only possible if he is killed or captured.

“Also, find the ponies wrongfully taken by them. All of them you can, Rainbow Dash and Desert Rose included. Especially those two. Spare no expense.

“Notify me the instant you know where Farrier is.

“Those are your orders. Carry them out.”

A little twinkle sparkled in General Stone’s pupil. “Aye, Lass. Ye have my word.”

“Okay, this cage is pretty well made…” Rainbow slumped back against the wall, wishing for a window. She was surrounded by metal bars, and beyond that were metal doors and concrete. A kick against the lock did nothing but threaten to chip her hoof, which was the last thing she needed.

The other ponies she'd been with were already gone; probably sold to some nefarious something-or-other she and Twilight would have to go break up later. Now was the time for action!

And there was nothing she could do.

Rainbow screamed and thrashed around in place, flapping her wings for all their worth and kicking the bars. “Aaaaarrrrrrrggggghhhh! I'm not just captured! I'm bored! Come on, you walking dumpster fires! Open this cage and come at me in a fair fight! Or try to drug me again! Something!

She flopped down, splayed out on the floor, and thunked her head on the ground repeatedly. “This. Sucks.”


Rainbow's ear twitched at the sound. Somepony's coming. Play dead or intimidate? … Intimidate.

She rolled to her hooves and sat, looking dead ahead, and froze.

One pegasus opened the door, and four more and a unicorn came through. The last two were carrying an unconscious pegasus.

Dammit, should have played dead. Too many to take in tight quarters.Hope they open my cage to dump her in.

The lead stallion walked past her and opened the cage next to her.


Rainbow's eyes caught the unconscious mare's cutie mark. A police-type shield… Is she a lawpony? If so, when I escape, she's coming with me.

Rainbow tilted her head, breaking her concentration on being a statue. She's a draft mare… That's kinda rare. Those hooves are big, too. Might be a heavy pegasus. Maybe she can break the bars…

A flash of silver came out of the unicorn’s pocket as he pulled out a syringe with a blue liquid.

“Hey, douchebag.” Rainbow tapped the bars. “Don't do what you're thinking of doing.”

The stallions looked at her like she was nuts, and the unicorn put the needle in the mare's leg and pushed the plunger down.

“Okay, I've killed…” Rainbow ran up the total in her head. “About ten of your friends so far. You—” She pointed at the unicorn “—had better hope I don't run into you when I break out of this place. Because I will kill you.”

The stallions broke out into laughter and locked the mare in her cage. A glimmer of glowing red on the key caught Rainbow's eye.

The locks are magic. Can I use that to my advantage?

The group all filed out, taunting her and laughing more. The unicorn was last in line.

“You and me, bucko. We got a date, and it's not ending well for you. Count your seconds. Each one you have left is another way I know how to kill a pony, got me?”

“Oh, like I'm scared, caged little birdie.” The stallion gave her a rude gesture you'd expect from a pirate. “Maybe after you go nuts from the Elixir we pumped into you you'll be a bit more respectful. And maybe, if you're very nice, I'll buy you with my cut off our latest haul.”

Rainbow narrowed her eyes. “Come over here and say that.”

He stepped forward and grabbed hold of the bars. “Cocky little bitch. I'll teach you to—”


Rainbow blew the smoke off her wings while the remaining pirates turned around, stunned. “Whaddya know. I got him even before I busted out of here. Add that to the pile, boys. One more and I'm up to an even dozen.”

Her grin only grew while they gingerly, carefully lifted their friend from off the ground.

Those lessons about Faraday cages from Twilight came in handy. I can't shoot them on the other side of the bars, but if they're touching the bars? Zap.

“I'd hurry if I were you.” Rainbow wiped the gem on her armor with a fetlock. “If you want him to live, you only have another couple minutes to restart his heart before brain damage sets in.”

They picked up the pace a bit, and eventually left her alone.

“About time.” Rainbow kicked the gate again, but it held. “Damn. That wasn't enough to bust the lock. Maybe it doesn't have a core?” She squinted at the keyhole, putting her eye as close to a potentially critical core as she dared. A little glimmer of red pulsed inside the lock. “There's a core, but if it survived that, it's well hardened to electric shock. Still, that's one step closer to getting out. Just gotta puzzle this out a while…”

Twilight stepped onto the dusty tile, each hoof gliding her along the shared shower of an unused mares’ barracks. There was a must in the air from disuse, and it was sharing space with a quiet cacophony that was an active military base. Not a bunker, fort, castle, or outpost. A true, honest-to-Celestia military base.

There was more power around her under her control than she'd ever had before. Her horn couldn't hope to match the combined might of a modern, industrialized war machine. At least, not yet.

The one thing that it didn't have ready for her were private quarters. She was making do with what she could find—a shower in a barracks abandoned for the season. The place was dark, and she hadn't bothered to turn on the lights. There was plenty of that blood-red light left in the sky for an hour or two, and it lit her way just fine.

She stood there, silent for a time. A little peace might do her wonders, but it wasn't to be found. Outside was marching, yelling, singing, loud pegasi roaring by at a few hundred klicks an hour, and even some distant rumbles of explosions from ponies training on artillery. The walls did little to stifle them, and a shield wasn't an option if she wanted to be informed of the enemy's discovery.

Twilight grabbed her torc and shook while taking her off. It had been days since she had last done that, and when she tried to put her down, it wasn't until the clanking of metal breaking tile hurt her ears that she even realized she had dropped it. “Sorry, Aurora.”

“No worries. The tile got hurt more than me.”

Twilight couldn't help but imagining Aurora winking at her.

She took a step towards the faucet, and turned it on. For good measure, she turned on the ones next to her, too. Recruits had ten minutes to shower, dress, and make their bed to perfection. She had no such limitations, and she was grateful. The first splash of water going down the drain was opaque brown.

The shower was warm, naturally. This base didn't spend energy heating water; it just came that way. Cold water was a luxury for high-ranking officers and the medical tents.

Regardless, warm was fine by her. It was still water, dirt's natural enemy in a cleaning environment. There was some basic shampoo left by somepony in the corner, and she squeezed a mound of the goo on her head and back, draining the bottle.

She lost track of how long she spent standing in the water, letting the soap rinse out. The bubbles had long since stopped, that much she knew. The feeling of cleanliness hadn't come like normal. It just taunted her with how close it was.

The fact that she was on four hooves was the only reason she wasn't stumbling around when she finally got out. Even after drying off, all she felt was dizzy. She dragged her torc over to one bed, tossed her down, and then flopped into the one next to her.

The blanket was thin and breezy, which was fine given the fire-tornado-spawning climate, but it was as itchy as Shining always said they were. It was enough to make her squirm around like a fish, until something in her mind finally gave in and fell fast asleep.

“Are you okay?” Aurora asked within Twilight's slumber.

“I don't know.” Twilight didn't bother opening her eyes. “Did I do the right thing leaving Rainbow behind? And now he has Rose, too.”

“I think hiding was the right choice for her at the time.”

Twilight sighed. “Some alicorn I am. Celestia would have—”

“Glassed the desert in a rage.”

Twilight curled up even more into a ball. “Why are you so logical and smart? I'm supposed to be logical and smart!”

“No, you're supposed to be an alicorn caring for her ponies. Even before then, you were a neurotic worrywart, though you are doing better lately. And I'm smart because you're smart. I have most of your memories and knowledge. I just think a little differently than you do.”

“Then what do you think I should do?”

Twilight felt a hoof on her back. It was small, and gentle. It was also a warmth in her heart, pressing her deeper into sleep. On an exhale, she fell into the void.

There was a sound. It was kind of loud. Not important. She'd finally gotten used to the blanket, after all.


Stupid alarm clock. Twilight bopped the stupid alarm clock to make it shut up.

“Uh, Twilight? That's my nose.”

Twilight blinked and opened her eyes. There was no stupid alarm clock. There was, however, Trixie, and Twilight had her hoof on the mare's nose.

“Oh!” Twilight jolted up, tossing the blanket aside and putting one hoof on the floor. The rest of her followed in a way that was not at all orderly or alicorn-like.

She had fallen on her face.


“Errr… Sorry? I hadn't expected that.” Trixie grabbed Twilight's foreleg and pulled her up. “Are you okay? You look like a mess.”

Twilight yawned and finally found an equilibrium in sitting that her Mental Committee on Balance found acceptable. “Ye-yeah. Was just in a deep sleep. What's…” Her eyes caught what Trixie was wearing: Evening Guard armor. “Are you okay? Did Dual Strike try to throw you out?”

Trixie blushed and drooped her ears. “Um, not exactly…”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, “Not exactly? What did happen, then?”

“Well…” Trixie scrunched her eyes closed. “I…”

Twilight fought the urge to fold her legs. If it was life or death, her friend would have been in more of a rush. Instead, she kept calm, and waited. “Trixie, you can tell me anything. Don't be afraid.”

“I…” Trixie shook as she took off her hat and wrung it. “I want to join your Guard!”

Twilight blinked. “Oh. Okay.”

Trixie looked like she couldn't been shattered with a lightly flung pebble. “Th-... Huh? Th-that’s it?”

“Honestly? That was my backup plan all along.” Twilight stood up and stretched. “Guard members answer solely to the pony they're sworn to. They're immune from prosecution and not required to follow the orders of anypony outside of their own chain of command. With you in my Guard, there's not a thing anypony can do to make you leave your place in the castle.”

“So… You're, I mean, you're okay with it? With me…” Trixie blushed more red than the fire outside. “Being your guard?”

“Yep. We've already fought on the same side, Trixie. I trust you.” Twilight stretched one leg at a time while walking towards the bed her torc was resting. “Besides, you're a natural fit. You've gotten along with us since we found you, you have magic dedicated to combating one of my main enemies, which is also your enemy, and we could certainly use another mage on the team.

“The reason I didn't do it right off the bat was twofold. One, if I mentioned it, I would be effectively pressuring you into it by offering such a promising way out. Two, this is a big deal. Do you remember what Rainbow told you in Gryphonhelm?”

Trixie rubbed one of her forelegs with the other. “I remember.”

Twilight put on her torc and took in a breath. “Everything she said was true. Your life for mine, if it comes to it. But she didn't get into all of it. If it comes down to it..." She turned away from Trixie's gaze, "If it's... necessary, I may have to give you an order that will mean your death, even if there's no direct threat to me."

Twilight's ear twitched at Trixie’s gasp and she continued softly, "It's not something I could ever do lightly. It's not something I would ever want to do at all... but you would have a duty to me, and I have a duty to everypony. If I let my ponies die when I could have sent you into the fire to save them, then I would be betraying..." she let her breath out in a soft whoosh, "...Equestria. Celestia. Myself, my friends... everyone, really. So that's something you need to keep in mind."

Trixie hid her eyes under the lip of her hat as her lower lip quivered in silence.

“It's your choice, Trixie. And if we ever eliminate the Illusionists forever, I'll be happy to release you from service. But while you wear the armour, it means you have to place the lives of others — including mine — above your own.” Twilight walked to the door, and stopped before leaving. “I'll respect whatever you choose, and even if you decide not to join, I'll still protect you from Dual Strike and whoever his cronies are.

“Take some time to think about it. I'm going to get coffee and a meal. After that, I'll be in the EOC. If you decide to join, find me, and I'll swear you in.” With that, she picked up her bags, and left her friend to choose her path.

Author's Note:

Tune in next time for the epic climax! Twilight Sparkle vs the Pirate Farrier!

I hope you all liked this one, and thanks again for sticking with me, and Happy New Year!


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