• Published 26th Feb 2018
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A 14th Century Friar in Celestia's Court - Antiquarian

Providence is an odd thing. Friar Jacques de Charrette, warrior monk of the Hospitallers, will learn this the hard way as a vision leads him to Equestria, where he and his newfound friends will face a diabolical threat.

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Strength Training

Cloak sat alone in the room he shared with his brother in the lower districts of Canterlot. It was close enough to the underground martial school they ran for the Vox to be convenient, but far enough away to provide some insulation from a raid should the Guard somehow catch wind of the plot.

It also provided some much-needed distance from the youthful energy and misguided optimism of the Vox. Cloak had come to appreciate that distance more with each passing day. At first, he’d found their naivete pathetic. Then, he found it aggravating. Now, other emotions had taken up unpleasant residence in his mind. Emotions he wasn’t sure he could properly put into words.

Offense at their blindness, perhaps?

Astonishment that they didn’t recognize they were being played?


At times he would find himself hoping they’d wake up and smell the horse crap. Then he’d strangle those treacherous thoughts, because a Shade shouldn’t care what happened to them. They were weak. They deserved this.


When he allowed himself to pity any of the Vox, he pitied Sandstone and Sea Breeze. The young couple were earnest and well-meaning, and seemed especially out of their depth.

At other times, the thought of them made Cloak’s lip curl in scorn.

Fools! he would think. Do they not see how their concern for others makes them weak?

But then, a voice would remind him that the love he and his brother shared was their greatest strength.

Angrily, he would round on the happy couple in his thoughts, decrying their pathetic willingness to serve a cause that did nothing for them.

Yet there’s something familiar about them, isn’t there, came the mental reply. That naivete, that belief that the world can be just and kind… you know what that’s like, don’t you, Cloak? You used to feel that way too.

Cloak ground his teeth in frustration. Yes, I did feel that way. Because I was a child. Because I didn’t know how the world worked. Because everything I loved hadn’t been taken away from me!

You still have your brother, he was reminded.

Yes. His brother. The only other survivor of that night. The one who’d covered him with his wings for warmth as they shivered in that blasted ditch, watching their home be consumed in fire and blood.

And where was Celestia’s light for us that night?! Where was the strong hoof to defend us?! Where was our Harmony?! Nowhere! The only strength in this world is what you take for yourself!

Is it strength to strip away the innocence of another pair of vulnerable ponies?

Yes! thought Cloak with all the vehemence he could muster. But the word left a bitter taste in his mouth.

A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. Dagger poked his head in. “Ready to go, bro?”

Without thinking, Cloak responded, “Ready to go manipulate some poor dumb misguided idealists into being our spear-fodder?”

Dagger blinked. “Um… yeah. You ready to go do that?”

Cloak gave his head a shake to clear it. What’s wrong with me? “Yeah, coming.” He rose to his hooves and followed his quizzical brother out the door.

As they walked, Dagger shot him an odd look. “You okay, bro?”

“Sure,” lied Cloak. “Just tired is all.”

“Well, you should hit the sack early tonight,” advised Dagger. Then, with a cheeky smirk, he added, “The Revolution needs you, after all.”

The image of a burning Canterlot home filled his mind, with Sandstone and Sea Breeze cowering in a ditch before it. “Yes, it does.”

Dagger fought the urge to keep shooting glances at his brother as they worked their way out of the dimly lit apartment building. The long walk from the fifth floor of the empty old tenement house gave him plenty of opportunities to fight it. What’s eating him? he wondered. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he felt sorry for the idiots.

To an extent, Dagger could see where the impulse came from. Initially, he’d found the Vox pitiable. Now, he just found them laughable. If they can’t be bothered to think for themselves, they deserve what they get. And, hey, if the Revolution succeeds, maybe they’ll come out on top. Or, he amended, the most ruthless ones will. There’s always gotta be somepony on top.

Dagger rather planned that somepony be him. And Cloak. I’d never want the top without him.

Still, the young Blade Initiate could not help but hope that some of the more likeable Vox survived the coming battle. A couple actually had potential to be decent Disciples, maybe even Initiates, and it always paid to have loyal lackeys on your way to the top—

A chill ran down his spine and his animal instincts screamed in his ear. Predator! they warned him. Predator stalking you RUN! The beast loomed in the shadows of the hallway behind him, waiting to strike.

Dagger spun, knives primed to fling at the target. Cloak whirled next to him, his eponymous cloak snapping in the air as he charged his horn and aimed at whatever Dagger felt. Dagger wasn’t sure if Cloak had sensed the same thing he had or was just reacting to his movements, but it didn’t matter. There was a palpable wrongness in the dim hallway, and Dagger had no intention of dying here.

The hallway yawned dark and empty behind them, with no windows and no lights to illuminate its length. Even so, the shadows were too deep, too absolute to be natural. A pale hoof emerged from the blackness and Dagger tensed to strike—

Only to tense from fear when he saw who it was.

“Grand Shade Kiln,” Cloak managed with a bow. The words snapped Dagger out of his stupor, and he likewise bowed.

Kiln regarded them with his furnace-like eyes and overlarge pupils, face inscrutable. “You raise your weapons to me?” he asked. His tone was not accusatory, but his voice rolled like thunder.

Cold sweat dampened Dagger’s coat. “Apologies, Grand Shade, we did not recognize—”

“Do not apologize,” rumbled Kiln. Dagger fell silent. “That is weakness. And you…” his low chuckle resonated in Dagger’s skull, “are not weak.”

Dagger wanted to thank the Grand Shade, but his mouth was too dry to speak.

Kiln stepped closer, and the floor shook from his magnitude. The creaky old building ought to have echoed with his hoofsteps, but instead the world felt muted and the sound close, like sitting in a closet full of woolen coats with nothing but the amplified sound of one’s own breathing and heartbeat to break the silence. Every loud noise was distant and unreal, while every soft noise resonated in Dagger’s head as though it was within his very bones.

The Grand Shade loomed over them, a mere foot away. It was all Dagger could do not to collapse under the weight of his presence. His instincts bade him shut his eyes and cower.

But he would not. Kiln had said they were not weak, and Dagger would prove it. Forcing his coward eyes up, he gazed deep into the yawning blackness at the heart of Kiln’s eyes. Vertigo struck, and Dagger’s muscles contracted with the nauseating sensation of freefall, but he did not look away.

Kiln allowed the scrutiny, then broadened his lips in an over-wide smile. “As I said, strength. You will do well.”

What happened next, Dagger could not describe. The closest he might have come would have been that Kiln blinked Dagger’s eyes, and suddenly the young pegasus was gasping for air, barely able to keep himself from vomiting and Cloak had to hold him up. Kiln now stood several feet away with his back to them. “You will not teach the Vox today,” declared the Grand Shade. “Instead, you will carry out an execution.”

Dagger tried to answer, but was shivering too much. Cloak spoke for both of them. “Who is the target, my lord?”

“A troublesome businesspony who has been asking many questions about one of our projects. He and a certain Member of Parliament have been reaching beyond Equestrian borders with… unfortunate consequences.” He paused, long enough that Cloak opened his mouth to ask a question, only to be cut off. “Another operative is dealing with the second problem. You will deal with the first. Today. At precisely four o’clock.”

A note slid across the floor to stop at the brothers’ hooves, though Dagger hadn’t seen Kiln move.

“Discretion and fear are paramount,” Kiln rumbled. “More important than the target’s body is that your own are not taken. If he should live but the message still be delivered and you escape, that would be preferable to the Crown recovering all three of your bodies.” Kiln glanced over his shoulder, and under his gaze Dagger almost retched. “Succeed, and be rewarded.”

“It is our honor, Grand Shade,” said Cloak.

“Our honor, Grand Shade,” croaked Dagger.

Kiln smiled, and Dagger heard his own blood rushing in his ears. “It is,” pronounced the massive pony. Then he stepped into the shadows and was gone.

With his departure, the natural sounds and sensations of the world returned. Dagger immediately collapsed, gasping for breath. Cloak hovered over him, firing up a spell with his horn. “You looked into his eyes, didn’t you,” remarked Cloak. It wasn’t a question.

“You didn’t?” wheezed Dagger.

“No, dipstick. I’m not stupid,” snapped Cloak sourly, using his magic to ease his brother’s suffering. Dagger felt his muscles start to relax and the nausea begin to dissipate. “I’ve heard the Acolytes talk about what happens if you look too deep. Even when he’s muting his power, weird crap can happen, and he wasn’t being subtle today. You’re probably going to be feeling it the rest of the day.”

What Dagger felt right then was the need to cough. He covered his mouth with one hoof and gave several rather satisfying hacks, hoping that Cloak didn’t see the flecks of blood splatter against the russet-furred backdrop. “It was worth it,” he declared with as much force as he could muster.

“What?!” exclaimed Cloak. Aghast. “Why?!”

Dagger grinned crookedly. “Because now he knows he can take us seriously.”

Cloak shook his head and picked up the note. “I worry about you, sometimes. Let’s just find what poor fool we need to snuff so we can get to work.”

“Wonder who the MP he mentioned is?” said Dagger. Come to that, I wonder why he mentioned him at all. We didn’t need to know.

“No clue,” said Cloak as he scanned the note. “But, whoever he is, I hope the pony they sent after him knows what he’s doing. I wouldn’t want to make Kiln mad at me.”

Dagger couldn’t suppress a shudder. “You have no idea.”

Jacques winced as the needle and threat was pulled through his flesh. Hardened though he was, pain was still pain.

“Sorry, darling,” apologized Rarity as she stitched his wound shut. “I’m afraid the rocking of the train is making this a little more challenging than I’d like.”

“You’re doing a fine job,” he assured her. “By your deftness I guess you’ve done this before?”

Rarity shrugged. “I told you I have a temper. Despite what Applejack may say, I’ve been known to dirty my hooves on occasion. And, ever since we became the Bearers, we’ve had our little adventures. Some of which we came back from in better shape than others. Though never…” her eyes drifted towards the door which led to the baggage car. Clearing her throat, she brought her attention back to the task at hand. “Anyway, it’s not the first time I’ve stitched a wound.” She indicated Oaken with a tilt of her head. “I just wish your healing magic was as effective on mundane injuries as it was on dark magic.”

Oaken flexed the foreleg he’d used to shield himself and the others from the magic darts. It still bore the marks of the injury but, thanks to Jacques’ magic combatting the power of the Dark weapons, it would heal much quicker. “Well, I just wish I had a better track record not getting stabbed by these guys,” the soldier groused. “So far I’m 0 for 2.”

“Look on the bright side,” Jacques advised him. “Last time you were hospitalized for weeks and could barely walk. This time you’ll have a limp for a couple days at most. Next time it will be a papercut.” Oaken chuckled. The friar turned his attention to Windforce. “Feeling better, Sir Windforce?”

The pegasus’ injuries, thankfully, had been mostly bruises and scrapes. He’d taken a beating, but it was nothing that rest, ice, and time would not cure. Windforce sat in their midst, not-so-subtly within their defensive bubble. He took a long sip of his tea, then set it down slowly. “On a relative scale, yes,” he replied, his voice muted. “But I suspect my hooves will be shaking for some time.”

“That’ll pass, sir,” Oaken assured him, surreptitiously topping off the MP’s tea. “Most ponies get the jitters when they almost die. Perfectly normal.”

The four of them had taken over the dining car. Windforce’s status as a prominent Member of Parliament and Oaken’s role in protecting said Parliament had given the Lunar Guard jurisdiction over the train for the duration of the journey. Even if it hadn’t, nopony had been foolish enough to argue the point. Once the train arrived in Canterlot the passengers, under orders from Oaken, would be told to remain in their seats until such time as the local constabulary could arrive to process the crime scene.

Or, more accurately, until the REF ponies who were to meet us at the station secure the area while Colonel Query and his trusted investigators decide what to do, thought Jacques. In the meantime, there’s no reason we can’t get started. “Sir Windforce,” he began aloud.

“Just Will or Windforce, please, all of you” corrected the pegasus. “You saved my life. I think we can dispense with the formalities.”

“Will then. Did you recognize the assassin?”

Windforce grimaced. “Never seen him before, but that’s hardly surprising. I’ve made a lot of enemies over the years. Wouldn’t be the first time a cartel hired somepony to ease me off this mortal coil. Though this is the first time they’ve been brazen enough to strike this deep in Equestria.” He massaged his bruised throat with a hoof. “Closest any ever came, too.”

“His accent was Equestrian,” pointed out Oaken. “Local hitter?”

Jacques shook his head. “It sounded personal. Or rather ideological. Even if he was a hireling, I doubt his interest in you was purely mercenary.” He frowned. “A pity we cannot ask him.”

Windforce took another sip of tea. “Yes, well, we might not have learned anything from him anyway. Ponies who dabble in dark magic tend to be a disagreeable lot.”

The friar exchanged a glance with the others. We never told him that was dark magic. “You’re familiar with his methods, then?”

“Not those specifically,” replied Windforce, “but slavers are a nasty bunch. Some of the more powerful cartels have gained power by crossing lines nopony should cross.” His voice was steady, but his teacup shook as he raised it to his lips. “I’ve seen things I can’t unsee. Let’s leave it at that.”

They continued their speculation and questioning for the rest of the journey, but turned up no solid theories. Their efforts were somewhat hampered by the fact that Jacques and the others weren’t sure if Windforce had been briefed on anything regarding the Shades. Odds were he hadn’t, and none of them wanted to be the one to break the seal of secrecy.

Eventually, they drew up on their destination. Jacques had grown accustomed to seeing Canterlot from afar, but this was his first time really seeing the city. The sight took his breath away. The Equestrian capital was a shining pearl of a metropolis - a hybrid of Constantinople, Rome, and Antioch forged of ivory and gold, jutting from the side of a mountain, supported by craft unthinkable to human minds. Though the part of him which had become more accustomed to the possible impossibilities of Equestria knew that the shining city was simply the product of magic, ingenuity, and a peaceful domain, the part of him which still lived in the lands of Provencal and the Outremer saw Canterlot and concluded he’d been given some taste of heavenly Jerusalem. In spite of all that had happened on their journey, he could not help but move to the window and gape like an awed country child seeing a great city for the first time.

Rarity, it appeared, was not immune to the effect either. Stepping up beside him, she smiled proudly, remarking, “Quite a sight, isn’t she?”

Jacques’ eyes drank the scene in – the waterfalls, the pegasi flitting about the towers, the impossible construction of the tiered city protruding from the living rock of the mountain. “More than you could ever hope to know,” he murmured.

The train wound its way into the station and slowed to a stop. Rather than disgorging all its passengers as was customary, the conductor hopped off the train alone to speak to the local Guard contingent. Conveniently, Captain Argent Sabre just happened to be waiting there with a group of six REF soldiers, originally a courtesy escort for the Ponyville trio.

Argent’s face was suspicious as the conductor approached, then flat when she heard what he had to say. She immediately detailed a pegasus from her squad to fly off, presumably for reinforcements. Then she sent a pair of troopers to accompany the conductor back to the engine , while her big red-coated sergeant summoned group of nearby Solar Guards to secure the train. The remaining two ponies, a dark blue-green earth pony with a red mane who Jacques recognized as Corporal Thresher and a wild-looking pegasus mare with a white-spotted tan coat and grey mane, accompanied Argent to the dining car.

Upon entering, Argent attended to the MP first, her tone as quietly professional as ever. “Sir Windforce. Do you require medical assistance?” When he shook his head, she turned her attention to the others. “I’d ask the same, but,” she gestured to Jacques’ and Oaken’s self-applied medical treatment, “it seems you have that in hoof. I’ve given orders that the train be moved to the nearby railyard. We’ll process the passengers and crew there.” As if on cue, the train shifted back into motion, much to the confusion of the ponies who’d been waiting for their friends and loved ones at the station. Once they started moving, Argent spared a more personal glance at each of them, starting with Windforce. “Well, Will, I always did say you should invest in a permanent security detail.”

Windforce gave a weak chuckle. “I daresay you’ve convinced me, Argie.”

“Friar, Rarity,” Argent continued, “it is a pleasure to see the both of you again, though I wish it was under better circumstances.”

“Quite,” agreed Rarity feelingly.

“Ah, but where would the fun in that be?” quipped the friar.

Argent and Rarity both shot him annoyed looks while Windforce laughed tiredly. Thresher and Oaken both displayed their mastery of the art of non-reaction, which seemed to be required of junior enlisted ponies. The wild-looking pegasus mare, for her part, let out a raucous guffaw. “Fun ’e says! Leggy blighter after me own ’eart!” exclaimed the mare in an accent that Jacques couldn’t place. “You’re alright, mate!”

The REF captain shot her subordinate a hard glare. “Sergeant Miru, refrain from your usual indecorous behavior.”

Miru saluted. “Sorry, mum. Won’t ’appen again.”

“I highly doubt that,” remarked Argent quietly. Shaking her head, the captain resumed her business as the train pulled to a stop in the yard. “Now then. I’ve sent for reinforcements to help process the rest of the train. In the meantime, brief me.”

They did. Argent’s face didn’t change from its mask of control, but Jacques noticed that she reached up to tap a ding in her armor more than once. Once they’d finished their explanation of the attack, she asked how much the other ponies on the train knew.

“We didn’t tell them much,” reported Oaken. “Four junior crewmembers know there was a violent disturbance in the baggage car. I identified myself and Sir Windforce to two senior crewmembers to assert jurisdiction.” He waved his injured forelimb. “A few passengers saw me bleeding. Somepony might have recognized the MP. We gave out no other details.”

Argent sighed. “Best we could hope for under the circumstances. We’ll wait till Ernie gets here to do the rest of the debrief.”

They didn’t have long to wait. Colonel Earnest Query arrived a short while later – a heavyset, balding stallion with glasses whose bemused expression belied the sharp intelligence in his eyes. After being introduced to Rarity and Jacques (he knew the others already) ‘Ernie’ wasted no time extracting the story from the travellers, even gleaning some bits from the context that they’d missed. After a thorough round of questioning, he gave permission to have Windforce escorted home. “I’ve already had my ponies secure your manor,” he promised. “Once you get there, sit tight. We’ll have round-the-clock REF presence with you.”

“Thank you,” said the MP with a relieved sigh.

Argent addressed her troopers. “Miru? Thresher? See to it Sir Windforce makes it home safely.”

The pair saluted, and Miru confidently declared, “No worries, mum. We’ll ’ave him home in five ticks. This way, sir, big fan o’ your work by the by, real honor ta be your escort.” She glanced at Jacques and his companions and flipped a cheeky salute with one wing. “Thanks for having ’is back, mates. ’Specially you, ya leggy bloke. Always noice ta ’ave the undiscovered race turn out ta be friendly.”

“Um… you’re welcome?” ventured Jacques, who was reasonably confident that he understood about 60% of what she said.

“Miru,” glowered Argent, “out.

“Righto, mum. Cheers, mates.”

Before leaving, Windforce made a point of trading grips with his three rescuers. “Thank you. All of you,” he said earnestly. “If you ever need a friend, you have one in me.” With that promise given, the MP and his escort departed.

Once they’d left, Query heaved a deep sigh and took off his glasses to polish them, shooting a rueful glance at Argent. “Never an easy day, eh?”

“To quote the late great Master Chief Frogmane, Ernie, the only easy day was yesterday.”

“True enough,” chuckled the colonel. He shifted his gaze to Jacques and Rarity. “Incidentally, it’s a pleasure to make both your acquaintances. Hardly the best circumstances, but these are difficult times.”

Rarity thanked the stallion graciously, but Jacques remained intent on the investigation. “What do you believe happened here, Ernie?”

“I have my theories,” replied the stallion, rising from his seat. “I always do. But I’d like to see the crime scene before I share them.” He gestured to the door which led to the baggage car. “If you’d accompany me, Friar, Captain?”

“Certainly,” chorused the pair. Nodding politely to Rarity and Oaken, Jacques and Argent followed Query to the door. Just as they’d reached it, however, Rarity stopped them with an abrupt statement.

“I’d like to come with you,” she said.

Jacques and the other ponies exchanged glances. “There’s really no need, Miss Rarity” Query said carefully. “Jacques is perfectly capable of walking me through what happened without you seeing the final unpleasantness.”

“I don’t deny that,” she replied. “It’s just… I think I should see how it ended.”

Jacques felt his heart sink. “I fear it is a rather grisly sight, madam,” he warned her.

Rarity looked up at him, her eyes afraid, but firm. “I know,” she said quietly. “But if we are to fight the coming darkness, I had better be ready for such… grisliness.”

Oaken winced. Argent looked at Rarity as though she wasn’t sure whether to object or approve. Jacques just sighed, thinking, I thought you might say that. He turned a questioning gaze to Query. Though plainly unhappy, the colonel replied, “If you’re sure, ma’am, then I won’t stop you.”

Taking a deep breath, Rarity declared, “I’m sure.”

Gesturing for her to follow with a tilt of his head, the aging intelligence officer led the way. The crime scene, fortunately, was just as they’d left it: smashed, battered, and toppled stacks of luggage, several discarded knives, and, protruding from walls and baggage, darts which resembled some sort of crystalized dark liquid.

And, of course, the body, thought Jacques. As the friar warned, the unicorn’s corpse was not a pretty sight. The long black dart he’d impaled himself upon speared up like a stalagmite, protruding from the crown of his head like a second horn. Barely an inch of it was visible, but his skull provided a grim metric by which to extrapolate its greater length. Blood had run down his head and pooled on the floorboards around him.

Worst, however, was the face. Rigor mortis had been unkind to the unicorn. His limbs were locked in the unsettling posture of his death spasms. His glassy eyes were fixed upwards on where Jacques had stood when they’d had their final, fatal confrontation. His lips were pulled back in a manner that bared his teeth in a snarling, defiant grin.

Ghastly, thought Jacques, shaking his head. And unnecessary. I had no desire to end the life of a helpless captive. What folly drove him to this?

The friar could not mull long on this question, however, as he heard behind him the raspy breath of Rarity. Grimacing, Jacques turned to see the poor mare frozen, her sides heaving with rapid breathing as the corpse held captive her gaze.

Unbidden, memories sprang to Jacques’ mind – his gentle brother on the day of the bandit raid; a young sergeant after his first battle with the Saracens; a fellow knight bleeding out next to the man he’d just killed. Time and time again, Jacques had born witness to that first sight of violent death. Each time it was different. Each time it was the same.

Jacques reached out a hand. “Rarity—”

The mare spun and sprinted back the way they’d come. Oaken turned and followed. The abrupt twist upon his injured leg made him wince, but he didn’t slow. “I’ve got her,” was all he said as he ran after the fleeing mare.

Query sighed at Rarity’s exit. “I was afraid of that.”

“Better now than in the heat of battle,” Argent pointed out, her quiet tone showing an empathy that her words glazed over. “I’d rather have spared her that, but we don’t have the luxury. From what I’ve read of the Shades, it’s hardly the worst first exposure she could have had.”

Jacques, thinking on the grim account of Argent Martel, was forced to nod in agreement. All the same, I’ll speak with Rarity about it later. For now, however, he had to put the poor mare out of his mind. Addressing the colonel, he asked, “Have you any new theories forming?”

Query studied the dead stallion closely, stepping around him to see him from multiple angles. In particular, he examined the head, leaning in close and squinting. Abruptly, he said, “Friar, you can dispel magic, right? How about detecting it?”

The man stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Yes and no. I have a passive sense of when magic is being performed around me, but it’s not always obvious. I can, for example, sense the dark magic of the darts, but it’s faint, to the point that I might not notice if I wasn’t paying attention. Why?”

“Because I think there’s a glamor spell on him,” answered Query. “Think you can say for sure?”

Jacques rolled his shoulders. “I’ll certainly try.” He went over and knelt by the corpse, careful to avoid the blood. He held out his hand to hover a hair’s length from the body and concentrated on the flow of magic. At first, he felt nothing. But, as he moved his hand along the length of the corpse, he detected faint traces of a magic which felt similar to that which Oaken’s and Ironhide’s armor used to give the Lunar Guard their uniform appearance. Similar, but different, he realized. It feels more like the shadowmancy that Twilight has been practicing. Only this is… darker. Whatever this stallion used, it was not the pure version of the art that Luna and Miss Sparkle use. “I have something,” he said before relaying his observations.

“Thought so,” smirked Query. “Rip ’er off.”

The friar obliged. He rose to his feet and pointed his open hand at the body. His hand glowed a pale white, and he closed his eyes to better visualize the enemy’s spell matrix. Once he had a clear image of the target, he grasped it and yanked, tearing the illusion away. There was a sound as of a ripping canvas, though he wasn’t sure if anyone heard it but him. When he opened his eyes, where once there had lain a sea green stallion with dark blue mane, now lay a gold stallion with brown mane.

“Hah!” exclaimed the triumphant colonel. “I thought he looked familiar. Meet Golden Glow, formerly Sergeant Golden Glow of the EUP Guard.”

Argent’s lip curled in disgust. “Not another bloody traitor. I don’t suppose he’s about to make our jobs easier by being a known associate of Specialist Bound Probably-a-Traitor Glyph?”

“Nope,” replied Query.


“Glow’s story is actually kinda sad,” Query explained. “He was a competent soldier, good NCO, followed orders well, etcetera. Served in the Equestrian Army for four years, the last one of which he spent with the 5th Fillydelphia Dragoons during Operation Featherfall.”

Argent’s ears went back. “Oh,” she said quietly.

Jacques raised an eyebrow. “Forgive me, but my study of history did not cover that particular operation.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Query. “It was relatively recent and not something the EUP brags about. How familiar are you with the present state of the old griffon kingdoms?”

Jacques folded his arms. “The basics. With the exception of a few more stable ones like Griffuania or Hungriffy, most are either failed states, marauder empires, or the fractious territories of warlords and feuding clans.” Remembering Griffonstone, he added, “Some great old kingdoms we don’t even have records of anymore.” Hm. I just said ‘we’ don’t have the records. Assimilation comes swiftly in these lands.

Query nodded. “That’s the short of it. We’ve tried to bring the factions to the negotiating table for decades with little success. At this point, we mostly focus on keeping things from escalating. Militarily, we try to keep out of it except to keep the banditry and conquering in check and protect emergency relief expeditions. Featherfall was an attempt to break the status quo and convince two of the larger factions in old Griffonsreach to stop fighting each other. Good intentions, poor execution.”

“Meaning the prat they put in charge was an utter incompetent,” interjected Argent sourly. “He and his cronies leveraged it for personal gain, ignoring the advice of the local Equestrian negotiators and violating the mandate set by the Foreign Office. Worse was his handling of the Dragoons. All the red tape he bound them in practically castrated the poor lads.”

“I wish I could say she was exaggerating,” grunted Query. “It was the sort of caricaturish armchair soldiering that every grunt has nightmares about but that seems too unreal to actually exist. Put yourself in Glow’s horseshoes: you spend your days trying to crack down on bandit raids, run patrol, and pull security with an ambassador breathing down your neck, questioning every decision, spreading your forces thin, insisting you ask for permission to engage even if you’re plainly under attack…” he shook his head. “And, all the while, you’re doing it in the midst of hostile griffon territory, surrounded by creatures you might never have seen before deployment and now only see the worst of – griffon raids, thefts, infighting, you get the picture.”

Jacques did. It was all too easy to see people as less-than-human. It must be even easier when they are entirely different species.

Query resumed the story. “By itself, none of that probably would have made him worse than your average malcontent. Then came the Baker’s Crossing Incident – a supposed peace summit that turned out to be both griffon factions trying to ambush each other. Intel later suggested that neither side wanted Equestrians harmed but,” he shrugged, “heat of battle. Six Dragoons were killed, all from Glow’s platoon.”

Jacques winced. I think I can guess where this tragic tale goes.

“That was the last straw for Celestia and the Foreign Office. The princess overrode the ambo’s supporters in Parliament and sacked him. She sent a Griffish Isles diplomat in his place, but the damage was already done. Golden Glow left the Army in disgust, hating foreigners, foreign missions, foreign races, and foreign affairs. He puttered around causing trouble and looking for like-minded ponies. He found them in the Blank Slates.”

“I’m unfamiliar with the name,” said Jacques.

“They’re not really around anymore,” explained Query. “Bunch of hardliners who started out wanting the same thing Golden Glow did, then took it to the next level – sabotaging businesses who traded over the borders, assaulting politicians who opposed their views, and burning EUP recruitment stations.”

“Domestic terrorists,” spat Argent.

Query smiled dryly. “At the time they were just alleged domestic terrorists. The Blank Slates were darn good at covering their tracks. It was a long time before we could prove anything. We scooped Glow up a couple times during the investigation, but he always gave us the runaround and we had to let him go. When we finally put together a real case against the Slates, we captured and tried most of their leadership and a good number of their rank-and-file, but a lot of the lower-rung goons vanished. Glow was one of the ones who managed to slip the nets.” He nudged the corpse with one hoof. “Never thought I’d catch up to him here.”

“Seems his sins caught up with him,” declared Argent, her voice coldly satisfied.

Jacques shot her a glance. “I agree that he brought himself to this end, Captain, but we must remember he chose a wicked path in vengeance for what wickedness was done to him. While the ultimate responsibility for his evil remains his own, we ought to be mindful of our own lives, and how things might have gone darkly for us if we’d faced our own trials less worthily.” He sighed and regarded the stallion sadly. “Obviously, it’s not an excuse for what he became, but it does explain how he got here.”

Argent looked at him askance. “I’ve lost ponies to the incompetence of superiors, both civilian and military, and lost plenty more to foreign aggressors. I didn’t blame another race or turn on my nation.”

“And for your strong moral character and wise choices you should be grateful,” the friar pointed out with quiet firmness. Argent huffed and looked away. Jacques turned back to Query. “Do you think he was still affiliated with the Blank Slates?”

Query shook his head. “It’s possible, but I doubt it. We dismantled them. Even if we hadn’t, this dark magic is leagues above anything they ever pulled off. Sure, I’ll bet he jumped at the opportunity to hit Windforce, but I think he had new backers. Three guesses who I have in mind, and the first two don’t count.”

Jacques stroked his beard. “It would make sense for the Shades to recruit a former soldier for his combat experience. He would also have been the logical choice to assassinate Windforce. With his past, it would be easy to pin the blame on vestiges of the Blank Slates if he was caught.”

“Deniability,” Argent summarized. “But that still begs the question… why? Why Windforce? Why now? Do the Shades have an agenda like the Slates?”

“Not if they’re anything like the Shades of old,” replied Jacques. “His recruitment is more likely a matter of convenience, which implies that Windforce either made himself an enemy of theirs in some other manner or…”

“… or he was part of a larger scheme,” finished Query, who’d been thinking along the same lines, “meaning the real objective is something else entirely.”

The three regarded Golden Glow’s corpse in silence for a moment. Abruptly, Argent exclaimed, “I bloody well hate spycraft.”

On the balance, Rarity was rather pleased with herself. She managed to make her way off the train and to a relatively secluded part of the rail yard before her legs seized up, her back arched, and she vomited up the meager contents of her stomach.

It took longer than expected. Despite how little she’d had to eat or drink in the last few hours, her body seemed bound and determined to expel each and every last ounce of it, along with whatever other fluids it could find.

At some point during her violent digestive expulsion, Rarity became aware of the crunch of hooves upon gravel next to her and a pair of hooves holding her mane back. She was mortified, grateful, and far too busy coloring the rail yard to see who it was.

After what felt like an eternity, her heaving came up dry, and then subsided into panting and quivering. Tears rolled down her face, but she didn’t trust her balance enough to wipe them with her hooves, nor her concentration enough to wipe them with her magic. The pair of hooves which had held back her mane helped her step away from her leavings and sit. Gravel didn’t make for a particularly comfortable or clean resting place, but it was preferable to standing.

She wanted to closer her eyes to shut out her surroundings, but whenever she did her vision was filled with the gruesome sight of the body. Is this what it’s going to be? she wondered. Is this what we’ll have to do?

Rarity sat, sniffling and panting, until a hoof reached up with a kerchief to clean her face. She allowed the hoof to do so, and wasn’t surprised to recognize who the brown hoof belonged to.

“Thank you, darling,” she croaked.

“You’re welcome,” replied Oaken.

“I’m sorry you had to see me in this… beastly state.”

Oaken moved around to face her, his expression at once chiding and gentle. “There’s no shame in this, Rarity. Believe me, lots of ponies pitch their rig the first time. I know I did.”

Rarity sniffled and let him clean her face. She now felt well enough to do it with her magic but, in that moment, she was glad she didn’t have to. It felt much better to be cared for, and to feel the comfort of knowing that tough, soldierly Oaken had likewise ‘pitched his rig.’

How do soldiers adjust to seeing things like that? Doing things like that. They all seem so unbothered by their profession. Jacques… Marble… Song… will I become like them?

Abruptly, she blurted, “Do you suppose Morning Song got sick when she first saw… well…”

Oaken didn’t answer for a moment, instead finishing his ministrations first. “I don’t know,” he admitted after a moment. “I know she’s quiet about what got her to join up, and I decided it’s not my place to ask.”

“I see,” said Rarity slowly. “I suppose she’s found ways to become numb to it.” The image of the body flashed in her mind. “Perhaps I will as well.”

Her words elicited a frown from the Lunar Guard. “Rarity, soldiers might adjust to killing and death if they see it regularly, but that’s different from being numb. Healthy adjustment means learning to cope. Numb means you stop caring.”

Would it be so terrible to not care about a dead assassin? came the callous thought. Instantly she looked away, ashamed of the dreadful thought. But is that what I’ll have to be like? she wondered. Will I have to harden myself to this?

None of her internal conflict was voiced aloud, but Oaken seemed to guess anyway. He chewed his lip for a moment before taking on the tone of a storyteller. “You know, my pops was a Marine back in the day. Still is, really, even if he’s retired.” The burly earth pony chuckled. “Boy, I thought he didn’t get bothered by anything. Didn’t feel pain, didn’t get tired, didn’t ever look weak. He liked fighting, liked soldiering, always seemed to miss war. When I asked him if he ever lost any sleep over it he said ‘no.’”

Rarity looked up at that. After all, she was convinced she’d be seeing the dead stallion when she slept. I already see him when I close my eyes. Could I become like Oaken’s father?

Could I stomach it if I did?

Before she could continue her morbid speculation, Oaken continued, “I figured killing, like everything else, just didn’t bother him; that a tough old Gunny like him didn’t have to care about the creatures he killed. I wasn’t sure if that scared me or not.”

You aren’t the only one, thought Rarity.

Oaken tapped one hoof against the gravel, lost in the memory. “Then came the day I told him I was joining the Lunar Guard. I expected him to rail at me for failing to join his beloved Royal Marine Corps, but… he surprised me.”

Rarity swallowed. “What did he do?” she asked.

His green eyes met hers, and in them she somehow sensed that she was seeing his father as well. “He looked me dead in the eye…” Oaken grasped her by the shoulders, “took me by the shoulders, and said, ‘Son, I will pray every day that you never have to take the life of a thinking creature. I don’t want you carrying that weight. But, if you do, you’d best make darned sure you done right, or else you’ll face a reckoning when it comes your turn to die.’”

Oaken leaned in, his gaze never wavering. “I learned that day that the reason he slept well wasn’t because life wasn’t precious to him. It was because life was so precious to him that he would never kill unless he had no other choice. And, because he knew he could carry that weight, he decided he would carry it so others didn’t have to. That is what made him a good Marine. Not callousness, but compassion.”

Rarity felt her breath catch.

The Lunar Guard continued earnestly, “Rarity, I can’t tell you how you’re going to deal with what’s going to come next. Maybe you’ll be like Song and deal with it quietly. Maybe you’ll be like my pops and seem casual about it. Or,” he sighed, “maybe it’ll eat at you. I don’t know. I wish I did. What I do know, is that, like my pops” he released one shoulder and tapped her on the chest, “you’ve got a good heart. If, heaven forbid, you ever have to make that call, I know you’ll do right, and you won’t be any less of a good pony than you are now. In fact—”

Whatever else Oaken had to say would remain a mystery, as Rarity flung her forelegs around him and sobbed gratefully into his chest, gasping “Thank you! Thank you!” whenever she had the breath for it.

Oaken, wisely, responded with silence and a warm embrace.

Jacques and Argent eventually reached the end of their usefulness to Earnest Query’s investigation and left the stallion to his own devices. Argent informed him the travelers’ quarters had been prepared at the Royal Palace and that, with their role here concluded, it would be best to head there straightaway.

First, they had to collect Rarity and Oaken. It proved not to be difficult; the pair were returning to the dining car just as Argent and Jacques were leaving the baggage car.

Rarity looked rather worse for wear, with her mane disheveled, eyes red from weeping, and a sallow countenance that suggested vomiting. At present, however, she seemed composed, and Oaken’s presence nearby appeared to provide a source of stability to her.

Argent, allowing her military rigidity to withdraw for a moment, stepped up to Rarity and gave her a sympathetic hug before leading ivory mare towards Canterlot Castle. Jacques and Oaken fell into step behind them as Argent held a quiet mare-to-mare talk with Rarity.

The friar took advantage of the moment to have a man-to-stallion talk with Oaken. “How is she bearing up?” he asked sotto voce.

“Better than you might expect, worse than you’d want,” replied Oaken. “She’s a strong mare. Stronger than she knows, I’ll bet. But I’m sure it would help for you to talk to her.”

“I plan to,” said Jacques. He gave the stallion a brotherly nudge. “You’re a good pony, Oaken, and a good friend.”

Oaken looked uncomfortable with the praise. “Just doing right by her,” came his humble response.

“Exactly as I said,” persisted Jacques. “A good pony, and a good friend.” Then, since it was plain Oaken wasn’t the sort to relish in multitudinous compliments, the friar changed the subject, “It would be nice if the rest of this visit passed uneventfully.”

The Lunar Guard shot him a sideways glance. “Think it’ll happen?”

Jacques chuckled dryly. “No, but it would be nice.”

Mason Grey whistled a jaunty tune to himself as he ambled home. Today hadn’t been without its frustrations and setbacks, but on the whole, he was in a good mood. Business was booming, his investigations into the strikes had born fruit, and, best of all, he would be entertaining his favorite princess later.

In fact, he thought as he passed a flower stall, I think it would be appropriate to commemorate the occasion. “Afternoon, my good fellow,” he greeted the shopkeeper. “Tell me, what do you have in the way of blue roses?”

The shopkeeper happily showed him over to a particular display case carrying just those items, proudly describing them as the result of a synthesis of earth and unicorn magic. “I have to warn you, sir, they are rather expensive—”

“Splendid!” exclaimed Grey, tossing a pouch of bits that more than equaled the roses’ value to the startled merchant pony. “I’d be offended if you sold me anything but the best of the best. After all,” he winked cheekily, “I’ve got a date with a princess tonight!” Which was technically true, as it was a pre-arranged date of meeting, but the look on the shopkeep’s face suggested that he interpreted the term differently. Grey smirked. The rumor mill will have a field day with that one. Ah, let them talk. It will be good for a laugh.

“O-of course, sir,” stammered the shopkeep. “How would you like them arranged?”

A short conversation later and Grey was happily winding his way home carrying the roses, humming a romantic ballad, guileless of the russet-colored pegasus and grey-coated unicorn who stalked from the shadows.

Author's Note:

Antiquarian sat at his desk reading a newspaper and humming a non-romantic ballad to himself. Aura strode in carrying a rather impressive lace envelope. “Are you a glutton for punishment?” she asked without preamble.

“Happy New Year to you too,” he answered, glancing up from his paper.

“Ah, yes, and what better way to ring in the new year than by psychologically breaking a character.”

“Challenging,” the writer corrected. “Psychologically challenging a character so that she might grow stronger and endure the trails to come. And it had to happen eventually.” He gestured to the envelope with his paper. “The IRS slips are getting fancier.”

“It’s from the Angry Mob,” noted Aura. “More specifically, from the branch of the Angry Mob which adores Rarity and would rather she not, shall we say, be put out of sorts by your writing.”

Antiquarian sat forward and took the envelope from her. “Hm. I wonder if themed death threats will become a trend.” He opened the lacy package and frowned in confusion at the contents. “Did… did they crochet a letter of complaint?”

“So it would seem.”

“‘To the despicable wretch who calls himself a professor’,” he read aloud. “Hm, maybe this is addressed to Professor Page Turner. Anyway, ‘It has come to our attention that you have offended the Lady Rarity with your unchivalrous words and indecorous’ yadda yadda yadda.” He skimmed through the lengthy card. “I count 27 uses of the word ‘darling’ and 16 uses of ‘of all the things that could have happened, this is The. Worst. Possible. Thing.’”

Aura shrugged. “Points for playing to form, I suppose.”

“Well, they lose points for being overbearing about it,” he critiqued. “Anyway, ‘given that it would be beneath us to dirty our hooves with such a banal task as giving you a well-deserved thrashing, we have instead chosen to employ…’” he ran out of text and flipped to the back with a huff of annoyance. His annoyance turned to bolt-upright shock at the next word. “‘NINJAS?!’

As if on cue, a shuriken whizzed by and pinned the letter to the wall.

“Holy bleep!” cussed Antiquarian. “Bleeping ninjas!” He leapt to his hooves, pulled a bottle of whisky from his desk, and immediately set about dousing himself with the contents, dodging two more shurikens along the way. “Aura! Execute emergency maneuver Ninjas-Can’t-Catch-You-If-You’re-On-Fire!”

Aura winced. “Antiq, I really don’t think that’s the best way to—”

A shuriken shattered the bottle above his head. “AURA!

“Okay!” she snapped, igniting her horn. A moment later, the highly flammable whisky became highly inflamed whiskey, with predictable results.

“OH IT BURNS!” Antiquarian calmly and rationally explained as he casually sprinted to the window. “OH SWEET LUNA’S LICOURICE STICKS IT BURNS! DAN MCNINJA MADE THIS LOOK WAY EASIER THAN IT ACTUALLY IS!” He then, with careful calculation and aforethought, flung himself full force through the third story window of his office and ran into the distance, calmly declaring, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

Aura shook her head as she watched him go. “The things I do for you, Uncle.” Turning, she saw a group of ninjas standing in the doorway, watching the burning pony flee into the distance. “Well?” she demanded when they made no move to pursue. “Aren’t you going to, I don’t know, chase him?”

The foremost ninja shook his head and replied blandly, “No point. Didn’t you know? Ninjas can’t catch you if you’re on fire.”

Aura’s eye twitched. Then she stormed out of the office to go buy a few gallons of burn salve. “You’re all completely insane.”


If any of you know where ‘Ninjas can’t catch you if you’re on fire’ comes from, you are cool. I decided to bleep my bleeps with censors instead of the standard bl:yay:p out of homage to how that particular story handled its own censoring. Even though Fluttercensor is best bl:yay:ping censor.

To the chapter itself, this one really fought me. I went through nine versions before the current one and it came in very piecemeal. On the early drafts everypony left the train and then came back, which was pointless and added a page and a half of unnecessary description. Rarity’s scene and Oaken’s personal story in it was originally quite different, and I changed it because I thought it was disjointed and confusing, possibly preachy. Dagger having his staring contest with Kiln was a spur-of-the-moment addition, but I think it came together quite well. Golden Glow was originally going to go a very different direction before I settled on the Blank Slates.

The Slates themselves take inspiration from a variety of conflicts going back all the way to ancient Rome, because it turns out that people getting screwed and then taking destructive and dangerous conclusions about the world from how they got screwed is pretty universal. Which is another way of saying ‘don’t read too much into it and don’t bring up modern politics.’

Though, really, the repeated warning is probably unnecessary. You’ve all been very good about that thus far and I am ABUNDANTLY GRATEFUL FOR IT.

Truly, thank you all for not starting crap in my comment section. It’s made my life better.

Shoutout to FanOfMostEverything’s Operation: Hearthwarmer, and, no, it’s not because of the shoutout to me in the description.

Okay, not just because of that.

Honestly, I enjoyed it because it dodged a lot of the misused and outright terrible tropes that usually infest such stories and replaced them with actual good character development and some clever twists on the standard Crystal War fare. It’s also a Hearths Warming story (in a way), and my clan celebrates the Octave of Christmas (which includes January 1st), so the timing works out too.

Anyway, happy reading, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, joyous whatever-other-holidays-you-celebrate/celebrated-recently!

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Comments ( 46 )

I wonder if friendship is witchcraft is still a thing

Pirates are a ninja's sworn enemy.

Gorilla + Rocket Launcher > Ninja

Garry Gunmetal approves of this chapter.

Happy everything, thank you for the chapter! It was bl:yay:ping good!

Also living the author notes escapades as usual

Cloak is a poor practitioner of the sword logic, those thoughts of hesitance and self-justification will ruin his focus and his capability along with it. This philosophy he's flirting with is characterized by absolute confidence, in that the pursuit of supremacy is it's own fulfillment. For even in defeat the sword logic proves it's singular truth, that strength overthrows weakness, that existence is the only proof of strength.

Of course, consideration of what defines "strength" is a very deep topic indeed. Cloak should beware, his logic is a very brittle reed, if it fails even once it will shatter utterly.

Kiln stepped closer, and the floor shook from his magnitude. The creaky old building ought to have echoed with his hoofsteps, but instead the world felt muted and the sound close, like sitting in a closet full of woolen coats with nothing but the amplified sound of one’s own breathing and heartbeat to break the silence. Every loud noise was distant and unreal, while every soft noise resonated in Dagger’s head as though it was within his very bones.

Magnificent. Puts me in mind of another horror, "When Oryx looks upon you, you feel that you may vanish if he looks away."

As I recall, Vader used to do something like this, he had a way of drowning his surroundings in a choking aura of despair, a chill to freeze the soul. That, combined with his mechanical, unrelenting style of combat, created a truly hellish battlefield that few could stand for even a few moments.

And this is simply Kiln not bothering with hiding his power, if he actually intended harm it would be far, far worse. If Kiln ever gets drawn into combat in a populated area, people are going to die just because they were in the same building as him.

Oaken leaned in, his gaze never wavering. “I learned that day that the reason he slept well wasn’t because life wasn’t precious to him. It was because life was so precious to him that he would never kill unless he had no other choice. And, because he knew he could carry that weight, he decided he would carry it so others didn’t have to. That is what made him a good Marine. Not callousness, but compassion.”

Ah, that is very good advice on the morality of killing in battle and war, or at least how to deal with it. Though there are many ways to view it, it's not often that you come across a gem like this.

Definitely something to remember.

They're aiming for Mason? This is so not making sense.

...well. I fully support every part of Luna's Roaring Rampage of Revenge (tm) if he so much as gets nicked by them. It will be glorious.

Is it strength to strip away the innocence of another pair of vulnerable ponies?

Yes! thought Cloak with all the vehemence he could muster. But the word left a bitter taste in his mouth.

Actually no it isn't especially if it's deliberate.

“you’ve got a good heart. If, heaven forbid,

Didn't Oaken just use the wrong vocabularity? Or do Ponies use the word Heaven too?

Well, they have words like 'angel'. I feel like Rarity might have said 'heaven forbid' at least once. Either way, I've decided to use it here.

Kiln is not a pleasant person to be around. I'm glad that came across.

ANother awesome chapter, Antiq! :pinkiehappy: I can’t wait for the next! Are we about to see Best Princess lose her cool on a pair of fools?! Possibly. Possibly. I hope so, I love it when Luna does awesome stuff!

She is a shifty woman. But the Shades would like her.

Actually assassinating Mason Grey right after he bought blue roses to take on a "date with a princess" would probably create quite a large headline. Not especially hopeful for his survival chances right now, but let's pray that potential headline doesn't come true.

What's so shifty about her? I mean sure she basically want's to Thanos the Star Wars universe in order to eliminate the cycle of war perpetuated by the Jedi and Sith, but that doesn't mean she's shifty.:pinkiecrazy:

Is is strength? Well it requires strength.
Is it right? That's a matter of perspective.
Will you accept it? There's the question to ask.

Those are very good questions.

The questions are just as important as the answers. Often, the answers aren't hard to find once you ask the question.

Always fascinating to see the contrast between the brothers. Especially Cloak wrestling with the inherent contradictions of his philosophy and life.

Come to that, I wonder why he mentioned him at all. We didn’t need to know.

Hypothesis: For the benefit of the audience. Grand Shades, like party ponies, have looked beyond the veil of the world. Though they fail to see the humor in the revelation.

“Ah, but where would the fun in that be?” quipped the friar.

And for a moment, a statue locked in a state of shock seemed to grin.
Hmm. I can't help but wonder how Discord would fit into all of this. (The answer, of course, is "Terribly, and to the detriment of literally everyone's plans. Do Not Open Until Conflict-Resolution-Mass.")

Once you get there, sit tight. We’ll have round-the-clock REF presence with you.

Not the guarantee of safety one would hope for, especially given Golden.

Oaken's father provides a fantastic contrast to Dagger, and a much needed buttress to Rarity's emotional state. Well done there.

And Mason is about to have an interesting afternoon indeed...

Thanks for the chapter and the shoutout. And remember, if you can't store poison in your tear ducts, you shouldn't try to replicate any of Dan McNinja's other feats.

Always a delight to read your comments, but I really should know better than to do it while eating/drinking. I almost spit my food/coffee laughing on multiple occasions.

Hypothesis: For the benefit of the audience. Grand Shades, like party ponies, have looked beyond the veil of the world. Though they fail to see the humor in the revelation.

That's one of the most interesting hypotheses I've seen about my stories in a long time. One that's initially funny, until one considers the terrifying implications.

Hmm. I can't help but wonder how Discord would fit into all of this. (The answer, of course, is "Terribly, and to the detriment of literally everyone's plans. Do Not Open Until Conflict-Resolution-Mass.")

One hundred and twenty percent accurate. :rainbowlaugh:

Thanks for the chapter and the shoutout. And remember, if you can't store poison in your tear ducts, you shouldn't try to replicate any of Dan McNinja's other feats.

At the very least, one should grow an impressive mustache first. Mustaches, after all, are a mysterious source of power. (Oh, and you're welcome).

I'm also glad that you commented directly on Oaken's father and the contrast there. That scene was probably the hardest part of the chapter, because the wording for such things must be just so.

Hey, Antiquarian, hope you're happy that at least one member of The Angry Mob had the wherewithal to bring a fire extinguisher. Apparently it had been hidden for just such a Ninja Emergency.

I do love a helpful mob member.

Oaken leaned in, his gaze never wavering. “I learned that day that the reason he slept well wasn’t because life wasn’t precious to him. It was because life was so precious to him that he would never kill unless he had no other choice. And, because he knew he could carry that weight, he decided he would carry it so others didn’t have to. That is what made him a good Marine. Not callousness , but compassion .”

I wish more people understood this. It is love that drives a good soldier, not bloodlust. Bravo, and so beautifully written; though it did twist my heart a little to see Lady Rarity in such a sad state.
That scene with Kiln gave me a horrendous case of the willies:twilightoops: Seriously, the vibes he was giving off made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But what really turned my stomach (seriously) was the letter sliding across the floor with no visible efficient cause,(I could hear it happening) nearly dropped my tablet.:pinkiesick:
Reminded me of a few homes I have seen that needed a serious blessing.
I love Mason Grey, he reminds me a bit of Tolkien and Churchhill :moustache: I hope nothing happens to him but if the plot demands it, heaven save the poor saps from Luna's wrath.
Once more, my gratitude for such a great chapter. I have a holy envy of your writing talent.:twilightsheepish:



You sure it wasn't filled with gasoline?

Nah, if you don't know enough to deal with ninjas, you're not in need of a Ninja Emergency Response, because they've already chucked their nuns at you. ;)

Kiln is a lot of fun to write for because he is, in many ways, my answer to how a lot of people handle horror and fear in storytelling these days. Many writers just make things as graphic or as overtly grotesque as possible. Which is horrifying, sure, but that's simply because of our natural biological reaction to gore. The moment people become desensitized to it, the horror loses its impact.

By contrast, things which fall into more of an uncanny valley (being horrifying because they're just a shade unnatural) or which are frightening because they play upon deeper instincts (like the primal fear of the dark, the inevitable, or the unknown) are, in my opinion, more consistently horrifying because they are tied to things which we seldom become wholly desensitized to.

I think it's partially because there are some fears we always carry with us. A Navy SEAL may be essentially unafraid of people shooting at him because he's learned to turn his fear into motivation, but then find himself wholly unprepared to deal with being injured and no longer able to operate. Everyone has those subconscious fears, and many of them go back to these basics of 'out of control', 'the unknown', or 'the inevitable,' all of which may be represented by the mysterious and powerful monster in the dark.

Ultimately, that's what makes it so satisfying to see villains like Kiln defeated, or at least successfully defied. At a primal level, I suspect it reminds us that, while hardship, suffering, and a lack of control are inevitable, that doesn't mean we can't take agency and make the most of what we can control, scoring victories against these opponents in ways that matter. Seeing, say, a group of plucky protagonists taking on a single nightmarish entity and coming out on top might, for example, make me look at my health problems and conclude, "You know, I'll lean on my friends and use my suffering as inspiration for writing about perseverance and perspective. I can't change my circumstances (i.e. destroy the monster), but I can face it and prevent it from ruling my life." Perhaps I wouldn't make that connection consciously, but that doesn't mean it's not helping me at some unconscious level.

Thus, characters like Kiln are fun for me for two reasons: 1, they're more genuinely terrifying to me than the flatly gruesome, and 2, they leave a more lasting impact when they are faced, defied, and overcome because they speak to the human psyche at a deeper level.

All of which just came to me out of the blue as I wrote this response. Literally didn't consider any of this until just now, which is something of a testament to the deep places of the psyche where Kiln was born.

Magnificent, and once again you've put into words my thoughts and feelings on this matter. I feel like I need to write a peer reviewed essay on this reflection now:rainbowlaugh:

10014910 That's the thing with evil plots: they usually don't make sense until it's almost too late to stop them.

Glad to see that the cast are addressing the real possibility of death and dismemberment in a mature manner (not that I would expect any less). And unsettling villains are always great fun to read about (and something I need to work on myself, if I'm completely honest :unsuresweetie:)

And yes, fire is best shield from ninjas. It's been proven by science.

That scene with Rarity was really good. And rather realistic. She has never experienced anything like that before.

Great chapter, by the way. :twilightsmile:

Eventually, you'll have to break Pinkie and AJ. Even though they are my favorites, I won't send ninjas after you.

That was a nice pile of Doctor McNinja in the author's note. You continue to prove that you are a man of culture.

Thanks for fighting the good fight and getting this chapter posted. Much excellence and intrigue to be had.

Even if that cliffhanger is going to kill me.

The lack of ninjas is appreciated.

Thank you. I've been looking at maybe doing video/audio shorts on writing technique and storytelling, perhaps with a Patreon. If I end up doing that, this would be one of the topics.

Fantastic. I know I would be interested:pinkiehappy:

She's, and that game, are one of the only Star Wars I actually like:facehoof:

The Grand Shade loomed over them, a mere foot away. It was all Dagger could do not to collapse under the weight of his presence. His instincts bade him shut his eyes and cower.

"Your reitsu," Alondro observed. "It is similar in magnitude to that of an arrancar." He withdrew his zanpakto. "Fortunately, you aren't anywhere close to the numeros, barely at the level I'd expect from a lesser fraccion. This won't take long.... BAN-KAI!!"



10021523 I think it's gonna kill the poor pony they're stalking... unless he suddenly explodes.

Which would subvert our expectations! (BRILLIANT WRITING!!)

10027832 EXACTLY THAT!! :pinkiecrazy:

Except... more like this...

A man with a pointy stick, maybe. But I wouldn't go as far as ninjas.

Man, that gorilla + rocket launcher math is vintage McNinja too!

Excellent work, Antiquarian. It was a thought-provoking piece as usual.

For example, what is Cloak going to do once his philosophy crumbles around him? His inner deliberations already reveal the cracks in his own thoughts. Is he going to change his ways, leave the shades and work against them? Part of me hopes he does. I always love a good redemption.

I also wonder how Dagger is going to react to his brother's doubts. He seems to wholeheartedly believe in the philosophy.

There’s always gotta be somepony on top.

Dagger rather planned that somepony be him. And Cloak. I’d never want the top without him.

Will he listen to his brother's doubts? If Cloak does abandon the shades, will he follow? Or will it be a fight of brother against brother?

On a slightly related note, what happened in their shared past? Cloak's thoughts hint at a tragedy, but more than that, it hints at an anger that lies just below the surface.

And where was Celestia’s light for us that night?! Where was the strong hoof to defend us?! Where was our Harmony?! Nowhere! The only strength in this world is what you take for yourself!

I'm sure the details of the tragedy will be revealed in due time, but I want to consider the question posed here. Why do bad things happen to people? This is especially troublesome when bad things happen to good people? A likely answer is that bad people do bad things. A more pressing question is why God, or Harmony, in this case, allows it to happen. Here too are several answers ranging from 'free will' to 'the greater good'. This may deal with the logical problem, but it doesn't heal the pain and suffering of those facing the tragedy. I admit, I still struggle to come up with an answer for those who are feeling the pain of loss.

Moving on. What exactly is Kiln? The Grand Shade seems more than a pony but doesn't seem like a demon or otherwise spiritual entity. Did he sell his soul or just dabble in Dark Magic until he became so twisted he can't really be called anymore?

Speaking of twisted ponies, I find the interaction between Argent and Golden Glow interesting. Why do people react so differently to the same or similar events? Why do some men break in the face of horror and tragedy like Golden Glow and others stand fast and oppose the horror like Argent? It could, of course, be the details of their past, but even brothers raised in the same circumstances can react wildly differently. Cloak and Dagger is an excellent example. When faced with the ponies of the Vox, Cloak starts to doubt their philosophy of strength while Dagger continues to cling to it.

Many people have said things about Oaken's father's view on soldiering. Good soldiers do not kill because they want to, but because they have to. I believe that they are correct in this regard. It is when one becomes numb to the act of killing, or worse still, enjoying it (I wonder how video games are affecting the modern soldier in that regard, but I digress) that atrocities happen. I could be wrong, but I doubt that massacres, tortures and other war crimes happen when a soldier is not eager to kill.

Speaking of killing, I hope that Mason Grey does not die, but I understand that it is the nature of these types of stories that characters die and those characters may be ones the readers like. If he does, regretfully, die, I will refrain from joining the angry mob over it, but I will not like it.

And now for some belated commentary. I like how you handled the politics in this story. You don't pick sides. Liberal, conservative, and centrist is working together toward the same goal. I suppose that the ideal is the same in the real world. I could mention a few controversies where we want the same things, but can't agree on how to get there. In respect to your policy of not allowing argument on modern politics, I will refrain from doing so. The point is that I like your handling of it.

Similarly, I like your handling of Friar Jaques. He is a wise old man who is pleasant to follow. He is not preachy, which I think is hard to pull off. It is certainly a joy to read his story.

Thank you for your praise, especially regarding Friar Jacques. I try very hard to keep him from being preachy, but there's a lot more guesswork involved in that than I'd like since I don't know how people will interpret things until it's too late for them to not read it. Also, thank you for complimenting my handling of politics while also adhering to my rules.

That question of 'why do bad things happen to good people' (often called simply 'The Problem of Evil' or 'The Problem of Pain') is one that other people have commented on before. Once, I was planning on having Jacques address that directly. He still might, but enough people have brought it up that I'm considering just posting a non-canon aside which is essentially written in Jacques' voice but stands on its own as an explanation and could be taken in- or out-of-character. People could choose to read it or not, and the question would still probably receive abbreviated answers in-canon, but I think there's merit in offering insight into Jacques' (and, for that matter, my) answer, at least in part.

Regarding the twins, yes, their tragic origin story will be explained in greater detail later on.

As to the question of why different people react to essentially the same experience wildly differently, there are more factors than I could possibly list here, among them biology, temperament, past lived experiences, split second decisions, initial impressions, and the ideas to which we are exposed. I think people's personal philosophies (whether they are articulated or not), their expectations of the world, who interacts with them, and how those other people influence them are probably the most pivotal.

For example, a young and impressionable teenager who falls in with a good crowd that teaches honor, respect, accountability, and good-natured humor will probably reflect the qualities of his friends. The same teenager, if he falls in with a bad crowd that teaches deceit, selfishness, pettiness, and cruelty will likely reflect the qualities of his friends.

But, if we examine the same scenario with a teenager who, though young, is possessed of strong moral character and an iron will, then the outcome will likely be different. If he falls in with other good-natured youths, they will all likely strengthen each other (though hopefully they will not become arrogant in their strength). If he falls in with a bad crowd, he may be rejected by them, choose to leave them, resist their corruption better, or even begin to convert them by his example. He, like any other, may fall (and, if so, probably fall hard), but it's less likely because he has a firmer understanding from the outset what it is to be a good person, likely from his upbringing.

Argent grew up with strong supporting factors, a clear ethical code, and a legacy of service in her family that strengthened her against temptations towards hatred and bitterness when she faced evil as a soldier. Critically, she also chose to avail herself of those supports. Golden Glow either lacked those supports or, for whatever reason, chose not to take advantage of them; likely a combination of both.

In all things, of course, moral agency cannot be denied. People in the worst of circumstances can still be heroes, and people in the best of circumstances can still be villains. Protective or unprotective factors simply make one or the other easier and may be said to diminish one's agency, but they do not replace it. Argent, Golden, Dagger, and Cloak have all made choices which brought them to where they are, fatally in one case. Hopefully, the others will fare better.

These author notes are getting crazier and crazier and I love it! :rainbowlaugh:

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