• Published 26th May 2020
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Tales from Everfree City - LoyalLiar



Celestia's first student and Princess Platinum conspire to cheat the princess out of an arranged marriage.

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Interlude V - Teacher, Sailor, Soldier, Spy

Teacher, Sailor, Soldier, Spy

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Bon Bon, by far the sanest of Ponyville’s resident confectioners, looked up from a bowl of experimental wasabi lemon sours (‘sanest’ is a relative term) and called around the corner. “I’ll be right with you.”

The voice that called back carried a strong Stalliongradi accent. “Are we the only ones here?” It wasn’t hard to guess who it belonged to; Ponyville wasn’t exactly going to be ‘little Stalliongrad’ in the domain of Canterlot anytime soon.

“Yep. Slow day, Mr. Ink. Picking up something for the students?” Rinsing off her hooves, Bon Bon hung up her apron before marching out of the kitchen and into the main storefront of her little shop. Just as her slatted batwing doors had fully opened to offer a view of the room, she stopped. “You’re Fizzlepop Berrytwist?!”

The mare in question fixed Bon Bon with a nearly lethal look of spite. “Tempest Shadow.”

“She’s with me,” Ink explained, though the words could quite fairly have been called ‘grumbling’. “And we’re here on guard business, Agent Drops.”

Realization offered some calm to the would-be confectioner, who nodded at the comment. “Can you flip the sign to ‘closed’ and push the pegs on the bottom of the door, Commander Ink?”

“I’ve got it,” Tempest interrupted before the short red stallion could answer, and with a rather violent stomp and a flick of her muzzle, the shop was closed. “Never heard of a spy in a candy shop.”

“I’m retired,” Bon Bon answered tersely. “Here, join me in the kitchen, so we’re not standing in a closed shop.” Holding open one of the saloon-style doors with an extended pale lemon foreleg, she nodded to both ponies in turn. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Gin for me, if you’ve got it,” Red Ink noted.

Tempest flatly added “A beer’s fine.”

“This is a candy shop,” Bon Bon replied. “I’ve got some liquor-flavored extracts, but I’m more offering a butterscotch soda, or hot cocoa, or a milkshake…” Once both ponies were inside the kitchen, Bon Bon followed.

It was a reasonable space for one professional, efficiently layed out, but with perhaps more pink and blue in its cabinetry than good taste would normally tolerate. For three ponies, however, it was a bit cramped, and there was hardly anywhere to sit; instead, the trio gathered around the island in the center of the floorplan, leaning on it with their forelegs raised like a standing table at a bar, just barely far enough apart not to smell one another’s breath.

“Water’s fine, then,” said Tempest.

“At a candy shop?” When the question earned Ink a glare, he shrugged his overdeveloped shoulders. “Suit yourself. I’ll take a cola if you’ve got one.”

“Of course.” With uncanny earth pony hoof agility Bon Bon produced a glass bottle from her fridge, set it onto the counter, and delivered to the cap the kind of perfect backhoof slap one only sees in black and white films. Her perfect alignment caught the sealed metal with just the tip of her hoof, no fetlock involved, and with a satisfying ‘ping’ it flew free. “Now… Ink, I know you’re Honor Guard, but nopony actually told me you were coming…”

“Ah, yes, short notice.” Ink nodded. “Secret Service thinks you ‘still have a bee in bonnet.’” The Stalliongradi stallion paused, and then corrected “your bonnet. Sorry.”

“It’s fine. I get the passphrase.” Bon Bon leaned down to a cabinet under the island, and produced a tall root beer float mug, which she carried over to the sink. “And to be clear, she has clearance to talk about this on your authority?”

“I don’t have that authority anymore,” Ink muttered, reaching across the island to grab the cola that hadn’t actually made it his way yet. “I lost the ‘Command’ title after the Honor Guard review. It’s ‘Lieutenant Commander’ now.”

“Wait, you used to be in charge of the whole guard?” Tempest asked, before scoffing. “Were you in charge when I—”

“If I’d been in charge, Tempest, you’d be dead,” Ink answered tersely, slipping into a heavier Stalliongradi accent than even his usual speech. “Shitty part about Honor Guard is, even when assassination on foreign soil was proven ‘right answer,’ you don’t get to tell Celestia ‘I told you so’.” Ink actively spat on the floor of Bon Bon’s kitchen, earning him a glare from the mare in question, before adding “I was never in charge of ‘the whole guard’; that’s Sparkle’s brother, Shining Armor. The Honor Guard is ten ponies, at most. Seems like less and less these days.” With that done, he lifted his cola and drained it with a rather regretful gulp, only to stare at the empty glass as if wishing it had been full of something far stronger. “Officially, Bon Bon, White Flag is the Commander now. Trust Celestia to give a pony with a name like that the command.”

Tempest cocked her head. “What’s wrong with the name White Flag?”

Ink stared at Tempest with a raised brow for a solid two seconds—an expression which even Bon Bon mirrored—but he didn’t actually answer her question, instead returning his eyes to the ex-S.M.I.L.E. agent. “But practically speaking, the Honor Guard answers to Shining Armor. Which is to say, there’s no point in the Honor Guard anymore. We’re actually just bodyguards now.” To conclude his little rant, Red Ink let out an overpowering belch, and when the rather unpleasant noise was done, and Bon Bon slowly began lifting her ears up from their completely folded state, he pressed on, either ignorant or uncaring about his partner’s question. “We’re looking for Dr. Caballeron. Or failing him, Daring Do.”

“Ah.” Bon Bon smiled. “Well, then, I can… sort of help you. I used to keep track of the monsters Daring kicked up for S.M.I.L.E. when I was active. It’s too bad you weren’t here a week ago.”

“Well, that’s better than nothing,” Tempest agreed. “What happened a week ago?”

“Daring Do was here in Ponyville. Undercover as ‘A. K. Yearling’ of course, but apparently even though her cover identity got out in public, because it was in the tabloids and not the real news, most ponies still don’t believe it.”

Ink chuckled dryly. “I’m sure your boss had nothing doing with that.”

“Do you think everything is a conspiracy, Stalliongrad?” Tempest asked flatly, eyes half lidded as though the fatigue of putting up with the double-talk in the room was nearly putting her to sleep.

Bon Bon sighed, but she wore a slight smile. “Well, thank you for believing me at least, Tempest. Anyway, Dr. Do was here to see Rainbow Dash. I don’t know what they discussed, unfortunately; you’d have to ask Rainbow for that. I can only tell you where she’s been, and my records are older than her latest book, so they won’t be much use.”

“Great…” Ink muttered. “Rainbow…”

“You don’t like Rainbow?” Tempest asked.

“Rainbow doesn’t like me,” Ink explained. “She’s not big on guards in general, and we… kind of got off on the wrong hoof.” The blood-colored pegasus cast his glance to Bon Bon once more and sighed. “You’re sure there’s nothing else you can tell us? Secret Service didn’t give you anything?”

“Cap… sorry, Lieutenant Ink, we’re spies, not fortune tellers. And we specialize in monster activity, not tracking Equestrian citizens. Especially ones who aren’t even politicians.”

“Fine, fine, we’ll get out of your mane.” Ink tucked a wing into his omnipresent jacket, pulling out something like a hundred bits, which he slapped down on the counter nearest the door out of the kitchen as he left. “Can you send some sour gummy bears to the airship? And whatever chocolates you’ve got.”

“What airship?” Bon Bon asked as the saloon doors swung shut behind Ink.

From the front room, the stallion could be heard to call “Is there more than one parked in the middle of town?”

Tempest, who hadn’t immediately followed, rolled her eyes and mouthed ‘Can you believe this asshole?’

Bon Bon only chuckled and offered a sympathetic look in reply.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

“You know, I didn’t take you for the kind who’d be big on gummy bears.”

Ink scoffed. “Sour only. For sweets, I go chocolate. But don’t say that too loud in hear. Pink Pie will hear you, and by the time you know what hit you, it’ll be too late for your waistline. I like Bon Bon because the pieces are much smaller.” The short red pegasus had let Tempest into the halls of Twilight’s school via a back door and through a large empty gymnasium, and he conspiratorially glanced over both his shoulders before continuing on his way. “You’re not a fan of gummy bears?”

“They’re fine,” Tempest muttered with a shrug. “But they don’t really vibe with your whole ‘tough guy’ thing, do they?”

“Tough guy ‘thing’?” Ink asked with a raised brow. “You think I am… What is idiom… putting on hot air?”

“Uh… I didn’t exactly graduate AP Equiish myself, so sure?” Tempest shrugged. “All I’m saying is the whole ‘huge muscles’, ‘bad Equiish on purpose when you obviously know better’, ‘all black jacket’ thing is kind of hard to miss. And you don’t really need to keep it up around us. You don’t have anything to prove.”

“Why would I waste time acting?” Ink asked.

“Look, I used to do it too. All kinds of creatures get the hell out of the way when they know you can kick them across the room.”

At the implication, Ink glared a fiery look at the unicorn in his company, before shaking his head. “Is this your idea of hitting on me?”

“I… what, no!” Tempest groaned and held a hoof to her temple, ears pinned down. “This is what I get for trying to make friends Twilight’s way.”

Ink barked out a cough of a laugh and indicated down the hall. “You want to be my friend? Lesson one: it’s not an ‘act’. I don’t go out of my way to be that kind of pony anymore. They’re just… some habits are hard breaking. And some are still useful for work. But truth be told: I’m happier teaching history than I was breaking necks in the snow.” As he approached a door simply labeled ‘Ms. Dash, Room 424’, he added “Sometimes I do miss it, though. Here’s the door; I’m gonna drop off my lesson plans now.”

If you aren’t familiar with Rainbow Dash from history texts, stained glass windows, statues, one of the sixteen biographies of the mare (none of which authored by Rainbow herself, humorously), or some other means, you must be awfully far into the future; I don’t currently imagine the world will last long enough to properly forget Rainbow Dash, Bearer of Loyalty. But on the off chance it does, allow me to share a brief description. Rainbow Dash was among the smallest adult ponies I have ever known to exist without some form of severe developmental condition. Perhaps it was out of a desire to look her friends in the eyes (or down on them from above) that she tended to hover at all times, even indoors. Sky blue in color, the most visually obvious quality of the mare in question was her naturally six-colored rainbow mane. Second, at least to me, were her eyes, perhaps because they were nearly identical to Gale’s in color.

Rainbow Dash had been upside down midway through some sort of a demonstration of a stunt that unquestionably held extreme relevance to the hour’s chosen subject (I’m given to understand the title on students schedules was ‘Loyalty’, and I won’t comment in the interest of my own mental health), when the door opened. In a demonstration of frightening aerial prowess, the teacher halted upside down in midair and visibly hovered for a solid two seconds before abruptly falling out of the air…

…and somehow landing on her hooves. “Hey, Tempest! Definitely wasn’t expecting you in Ponyville. I’m kinda in the middle of a class, but if it’s important I can take a few min.”

“We won’t take too much time,” Tempest promised. “We just wanted to talk about Daring Do.”

A few students in the class laughed. Rainbow, however, turned bright red and lunged out the door straight past the waiting adult, taking up a position hovering in the hall. “Shut the door!” she hissed in her harsh, vaguely squeaky natural tone of voice. As Tempest obliged, the hovering pegasus folded her forelegs across her chest. “What’s so important? Hurry it up, I haven’t got all day; the students have to come first.”

Tempest nodded. “Princess Celestia sent us on a mission to find a missing pony. We think Daring Do may be our best lead on finding him. We also heard she’d been in Ponyville to talk to you.”

Rainbow nodded. “Well, yeah. She talks to me all the time. I used to like to go with her; I’m the most awesome Daring sidekick after all. And I am kind of in the know about stuff going on for, like, adventures and things…”

“Some hurry you’re in there,” Tempest muttered ‘under her breath’, loud enough he could be sure Rainbow heard.

Rainbow Dash glared in response before she answered. “Daring wanted to know about… some stuff…”

At that, Tempest grit her teeth. “Look, I get if you don’t trust me, but I promise I’m working for Celestia on this. If you don’t believe me, I can get Somnambula. But it’s practically guardspony work.”

Yeaaahhh…. About that…”

Tempest sat down in the middle of the school hall, mouth beginning to hang slightly agape. “I really didn’t expect to hear one of Twilight’s friends was on the wrong side of the guard. You’re serious?”

“It’s not like I wanted it,” Rainbow protested. “Twilight and I went on this crazy adventure in Stalliongrad a few years ago. We were just looking for these old books, and staying at some random hotel in the middle of snowy nowhere, but then this crazy guardspony with like a curved farm sword thing comes bursting through the door and just starts attacking ponies. We barely got away, and only because we had help from the guy who owned the hotel, and this tiger lady… Look, the point is, it turned out there are these ponies who don’t like the government in Stalliongrad, because their guardsponies are super evil, and I kinda knew a couple of them. And Daring was going to go looking for some treasure in Stalliongrad—well, not the city, but the boonies. I think it was close to Trotsylvania actually. So bring your garlic.”

“Garlic?” Tempest asked.

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “You know, because vamponies come from Trotsylvania?” When Tempest continued to stare blankly, the pegasus repeated the ocular motion. “Whatever. The point is, the rebels are the good guys. I don’t know why Princess Celestia doesn’t just, like, help them win outright or something. But you gotta not get them in trouble, okay? You promise?”

“I… Sure.”

“Okay. So, Daring’s going to this old crystal pony fortress called Onyx Ridge… I think it’s kind of near the bridge to Baltimare. I guess there’s some magic bell or something she was looking for… I never really follow the history stuff that much, to be honest. But I put her in touch with our friend Safe Haven, who’s living in Trotsylvania now, since he knows the area. And Youmin, who’s hard to miss because she’s a huge tiger, though I don’t know where she actually lives, since she kind of stands out.”

“So if we’re looking for Daring, do we go to Trotsylvania, or this weird castle place?”

Rainbow shrugged—an impressive motion, given she did so with her pegasus shoulders (that is, the muscles attaching her wings to her back, rather than her forelegs) and still remained hovering despite the motion. “I dunno, I’m not like, her stalker or anything. I just like the books, and sometimes I’m basically the hero of them. If you do decide to go to Trotsylvania, you gotta go to…” and then Rainbow nervously cast her gaze up and down the hallway, before hovering slightly closer to Tempest’s head and dropping her voice to a whisper. “The Suite Shoppe Hotel.”

“Weird name,” Tempest noted.

Evidently, the pegasus agreed, given her firm nod. “Ask for Safe Haven, I think he’s working at their restaurant. Tell him I sent you. Just, uh, one thing: you absolutely, positively have to keep quiet about this here.”

“In Ponyville?” Tempest asked. “Who would even care?”

“Well, there’s this asshole guardspony… guess I’m kind of repeating myself there… who Twilight keeps around as a favor to the Princess or something. Er, the *other* Princess… Celestia. You know what I mean, right?” When Tempest nodded, Rainbow’s story barreled onward. “Anyway, before he was in charge of the Honor Guard, he used to be in charge of the Stalliongradi guard, and he still holds a huge grudge about the rebels. If he found out, I’d be worried for my friends.”

“You really don’t like guardsponies, do you?”

Rainbow shrugged. “I don’t mind Twilight’s brother. But my dad—my birth dad, not my real dad—was… look, it’s complicated, and you probably don’t want to sit and hear it. Let’s just say I got tangled up in guardspony crap one time, and it was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

“The worst thing that ever happened to you?” Tempest chuckled. “Worse than me?”

“You didn’t kill any of my friends,” Rainbow answered rather tersely. “So yeah.”

“Maybe I should be worried about this mission,” the broken-horned unicorn joked.

“Eh, as long as it’s not tied up in the ‘Honor’ Guard, you’re probably safe.” I should note that the quotes around the title of Celestia’s elite personal guards were provided by Rainbow’s hooves. “If you’re just working for Princess Celestia, you’ll probably be fine. Probably. Look, I gotta get back to my class now. That everything you needed?”

“Y-yeah,” Tempest Shadow answered, with uncharacteristic hesitance in keeping with the sinking feeling in the base of her stomach, as questions she had thought were settled in Canterlot began to surface again. “Thanks, Rainbow.”

“Don’t mention it,” Rainbow said as she swooped over to her classroom door. Midway through, she glanced back over her shoulder to offer a parting comment. “Really. Don’t mention it.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Tempest was barely up the gangplank and back onto the deck of the constellation for five seconds when she found a pegasus hovering over her. “Welcome back, Tempest! Did you lose Red Ink?”

“He’s off pretending to be a teacher, Sombo… what in Tartarus is your name again?”

“Som-nam-byou-lah.” Though on a written page, that might come across with a certain resentment or passive-aggression, the mare in question delivered it with a smile. “I know it’s kind of a weird name these days; it’s okay if you need some time to get used to it. Did you find out where we’re going?”

Tempest actively glanced over her shoulder, checking for Red Ink’s presence, before nodding. “Onyx Ridge.”

“Ooh, I know that place!” Somnambula chuckled. “Well, I’ve never actually been there, but I know about it. But that’s where Queen Jade and Smart Cookie beat Warlord Halite and created the Crystal Union.”

“Huh,” Tempest noted, evidently not impressed by the story. “Where’s Sunset? I should talk to her.”

“Oh, she’s in her room, I think. She said she wanted to practice some magic.” Tempest was already two strides away from Somnambula when the latter added to her back “I think she has a sword for you too.”

Tempest stopped mid-stride. “A what?”

“I think it used to be Gale’s, though she must have gotten it after we went into Limbo, because I’ve never seen it before.” Somnambula then chuckled. “Or did you mean you don’t know what a ‘sword’ is?”

Tempest huffed once. “I know what a sword is. But I’m more hooves-on kind of mare.”

Somnambula shrugged. “Well, I’ll keep waiting up here for Red to get back. But when you’re done talking to Sunset, if you want to swap with me, I can make us some lunch.”

Though it wasn’t exactly a question, Somnambula’s offer still felt awkward as it hung in the air completely unanswered behind Tempest’s back, like a fart in a two-pony submarine. Thankfully, at least, when Tempest opened the doors to leave the question behind, there wasn’t seawater waiting to pour in.

It only took a few strides and a few more seconds for Sunset Shimmer’s door to reverberate with the heavy knocking of Tempest Shadow’s shod hoof.

“Oh!” Tempest heard Sunset, though muffled, through the door. “Sorry, that must be the rest of my team back. Do you mind?”

“Not at all,” agreed a muffled voice that Tempest decidedly did not recognize. Before she even had a chance to try and place it, though, Sunset’s magic opened the door, and the mare in question beckoned Tempest enter.

Though Sunset had settled her personal luggage (what little there was, in an age when clothing even on wizards had become a matter of formality instead of practicality, the Fillystines), Tempest’s eyes were immediately drawn away from any change to the quarters since she had visited them in Canterlot, and toward the glowing see-through unicorn standing beside Sunset’s bed.

“Tempest, this is Dr. Even Luminance; Dr. Luminance, this is my, um… traveling companion, I guess—”

“Pilot,” Tempest supplied. “Let’s be honest, I’m here to drive the ship.”

“Amongst other very useful things,” Sunset pushed. “Um, but yes, Tempest is our pilot. Uh, that’s Tempest Shadow.”

“Nice to meet you, Tempest” offered Dr. Luminance. In her transparent form, she was a middle-aged unicorn mare with a bun behind her head and a pair of glasses that went truly above and beyond the absurd, with one lens shaped like a six-pointed star of magic (you know the one, with the asymmetrical points) and the other an upward-pointing crescent moon.

“So you’re dead, I’m guessing?” Tempest replied in return.

Sunset winced. “Tempest!”

“Oh, it’s quite alright. I lived a good hundred-and-two years, and I’ve been dead for, what, forty more?” Luminance shrugged. “But yes, Tempest. Sunset here apparently needed to practice her necromancy. And among Princess Celestia’s students, the tradition is to seance your most recently dead predecessor.”

“So you were one too?” Tempest asked. “Just like Sunset and Twilight and Morty?”

“Well, I don’t know a ‘Morty’... did Celestia take a donkey student recently? But yes, like Sunset and Twilight certainly, when I was a very little filly. Before I went into research. Actually, that does raise an interesting point: Twilight isn’t that much younger than you, is she Sunset? Is the Princess taking more than one student at a time?”

“No, I’ve just been doing, uh, research in portal magic?” The fact that the half-truth came out as a question caused Luminance to raise a brow, but she didn’t interrupt, and so Sunset continued. “I’ve been spending a lot of time in a different dimension, and time flows differently there. At least according to my birth certificate, I’m a little over forty.”

“Oh, interesting. I’d love to hear more about that!” Luminance chuckled. “If you ever feel like practicing your necromancy more. But I imagine you’re satisfied now?”

“Yeah, the emotional approach worked surprisingly well to reach the Summer Lands. You ready for the lurch?”

“Of course. I’d say ‘don’t be a stranger’, but…”

Sunset nodded with a chuckle. “Talk to you later, Luminance.”

With a whoosh and a pop, the seance ended, and Sunset’s shoulders fell with a satisfied sigh.

“Hard magic?” Tempest asked.

“High stakes, I guess. If you screw up, you can damage the soul you’re talking to. Not that there’s really any risk; casting a raw seance with no safeguard magic is a huge crime, and they don’t even teach it if you take a necromancy class. But there’s still that worry in the back of your mind, especially if you’re experimenting.”

“Like the ‘emotional approach’ you said?”

Sunset nodded. “In the part of Tales from Everfree City I was reading, Morty taught Gale how to get her magic into Tartarus with raw emotion. I decided I’d try the opposite with a happy memory. These days, when you learn in school, you have to memorize this long complex formula of basically math problems that get your magic where you want it by logic. Which I guess is more reliable if you’re teaching it en masse, but it sure is a lot more work. And if it hadn’t worked for me, it wouldn’t have hurt Dr. Luminance, because I hadn’t reached her with my magic yet. Just… y’know, you’re doing something that feels risky, even if it’s actually safe.”

“Uh, sure.” Tempest shrugged. “Whatever you say. Sorry I interrupted your magic practice.”

“It’s fine,” Sunset replied. “What did you and Ink find out?”

“Nopony knew where we could find Caballeron, but Daring went to Onyx Ridge just a little while ago, so that’s where we’re headed.”

“Oh.” Sunset nodded, and took a few strides toward the doorway where Tempest was lingering. “Well, that’s in Stalliongrad domain, so Ink should—” Sunset stopped, both speaking and walking, when Tempest placed a cautionary (and rather frigid, being clad in metal) hoof on her shoulder.

“That’s the problem.”

“Hmm?”

“I’ll try and make this short: Daring Do is working with the Stalliongradi rebellion. I guess Rainbow Dash is friends with them or something.”

“Rainbow has friends in the Stalliongradi resistance?” Sunset couldn’t help but chuckle. “The pony versions of my friends are weird.”

Tempest, wisely, chose not to press further on that comment. “And I don’t know what Red Ink told you, or what Celestia told you about him, but Rainbow Dash was very worried about what would happen if he ran into her friends. So much that she made me promise not to tell him anything about what she told me.”

“He wasn’t with you?”

Tempest shrugged. “He split off after I went to talk to Rainbow Dash. Apparently, they don’t see eye to eye. So what I do know is, before he was this undercover guard for Twilight, Ink was in charge of the Stalliongradi guard. Meaning the resistance was against him. Maybe personally, if the way he talks is anything to go by. And… well, Rainbow didn’t say it outright, but I kind of get the sense if we put him in a room with them, somepony’s going to die.”

“Hmm… Well, let’s talk to him about it. No point keeping secrets, right?”

Tempest blinked twice in disbelief before she found a response. “You’re going with the ‘friendship’ angle?”

“Of course!”

“Sunset, this is crime and war and politics and spies, not… not hugs and campfires and sing-a-longs!”

Sunset nodded. “And if we can make the former more like the latter, I think things will turn out a lot better. It’s what Princess Celestia would want us to do.”

“If the Princess really wanted this to be all hugs and love, why are Ink and I even here?”

“Well, sometimes monsters do need a hoof to the face,” Sunset admitted. “And like you said, somepony has to pilot the ship.” Then, forcing her way out of her own doorway, and leaving Tempest struck mute, the unicorn added “For what it’s worth, the sense I get from having talked to him in Canterlot is that Ink has changed a lot from the pony he used to be. We’ll have a talk when he gets back in the common room; I want everypony on the same page. I know I’m not as diehard and naive about treating the magic of friendship as the be-all, end-all solution to problems as Twilight, but I’ve had my fair share of experience with it on the other side of the portal. And in my experience, most problems end better when you solve them with friendship than violence.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

The promised meeting came on the bolted-down couches of the Constellation’s common room: a pair of gently curved resting places arrayed around a likewise bolted-down coffee table (as was all the ship’s furniture) in a sort of ( O ) arrangement. Tempest had actually taken the ship into the air in the time before the meeting, seeing no point in wasting flying time when the airlanes over Ponyville were so completely devoid of traffic—and with the common room in plain view of the massive glass belly of the ship through which she could keep at least one eye open for the unlikely risk of a midair collision—which meant Somnambula had more than a spare moment in the kitchen before everypony finally got together.

It was over mugs of cocoa and hot chocolate and something which was more a snacking buffet than proper dinner—flatbread, a variety of dips, sliced vegetables, and a chocolate mint hummus that worked better than it had any right to—Sunset finally got the team together.

“Alright everypony. I wanted to just go over what we learned today, and I guess to make sure we’re all in agreement on what we’re doing.” Sunset afforded herself a sip of her cocoa and smiled gently. “Thank you for the meal, Somnambula.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” Somnambula deferred, a hint of embarrassment at the praise on her cheeks.

“Go on, Sunset,” Tempest insisted over the smell of coffee in her own cup, pinched tightly between her hooves.

“Alright. Somnambula and I met with Princess Twilight, who had some items for us from Celestia, to help in our mission.” Lifting the boxes in question, Sunset nodded in turn to each pony around the room. I won’t waste the reader’s time re-reciting what the last two chapters have told you; suffice it to say that had Sunset failed as a researcher into dimensional magic, she would have found considerable gainful employment writing summaries for the back covers of dime novels.

When the spiel was done, Gale’s precious Aestas Melos hung from the side of a somewhat confused Tempest Shadow (who had no earthly clue how, given her broken horn, she was intended to use a sword designed to be held via telekinesis), and the last of Cyclone’s earthly remains had been slipped into Red Ink’s breast pocket, Sunset took a very long breath. “Now… based on what we’ve learned from Ink’s contact, and apparently Rainbow Dash, we’re heading for Onyx Ridge.”

“Oh, back home,” Ink noted with mild amusement. “Fun place. Not exactly a tourist destination.”

“Anything you know about it, Ink?” Sunset asked.

The red head of the pegasus guard dipped once. “It’s full of… well, their term is ‘vargr’, but most often we use ‘wargs’ or ‘winter wolves’. Semi-feral carnivorous diamond dogs. Sometimes they come out to attack close by towns. They love pony meat. Guards patrol for them, and offer bounty on pelts, but going down into tunnels is suicide. Vargr will burst right out the walls and rip your throat out if you aren’t careful. So we could never get rid of them.” Ink chuckled, and took a long slow sip of coffee. “Now we know what Celestia actually meant with Tempest and I being here. I’ve been three floors deep in their mines, which I think means I still hold the record.”

“You can’t reason with them?” Sunset asked.

Ink shrugged. “I don’t know that they’re smart enough to speak. Not that I’ve tried since one tried to eat me when I was a colt, but you know.”

“Sounds like it’s not a ‘friendship’ kind of problem,” Tempest agreed, though her eyes stayed locked firmly on Sunset when she did.

Sunset’s shoulder rose and fell. “Well, that may be, Tempest. But I want everypony to understand, we’ll try to do things friendly first. If these creatures are as wild as Ink says, and they really are just hungry animals, we’ll do what we have to do. But that brings me to another point.” Again, Sunset paused to sigh. “Ink, um, we have reason to expect Daring Do may be working with the Stalliongradi resistance.”

Ink’s face, normally quite even and gently amused, wrinkled—and while the mispronunciation of his beloved Stol’nograd was a familiar trigger, it rarely produced the flash of hatred that sparked in his eyes. “Do you have names?”

“I do,” Sunset agreed hesitantly. To her visible concern, Ink responded by pushing himself up from the couch and onto his hooves. While his diminutive stature didn’t make the action particularly threatening to Sunset, the fact that the air in the closed cabin of the airship grew palpably hotter was quite a warning sign. Sensing the same danger, Tempest’s horn began to gently spark. “But before I say anything, I need to know you’re going to put the mission ahead of any personal vendettas you might have.”

The stallion stopped mid-forward stride, and in a moment of self-awareness, forced a deep and visible breath through his frame. “You’re asking a lot, Sunset.”

“I know you used to be in charge of the Stalliongradi guard.”

“The ‘Black Cloaks’,” Ink corrected, flicking his inky jacket with his wing. “And fine, I’ll play nice. Or at least, give you the chance to talk. As long as you understand that if they decide they’d rather come at me… well, let’s just say I won’t be sad.” The pegasus sucked down another deep breath and flopped himself down on the couch. “It’s Stoikaja, isn’t it?”

“Who?” Sunset asked. “I don’t know that name.”

“The mother of the ‘resistance’.” The phrase left Ink’s tongue with no shortage of spite. “I’ll make a very long story very short: you remember when I asked Princess Luna about Third Brother? And Eldest Sister said I knew him?”

Sunset nodded. “He was somepony you killed?”

“No. He’s my little brother Polnoch. Uh, that would be...” Ink traced a circle in the air with his wing as his mind fought to translate. “‘Midnight’ in Equiish. And Stoikaja had him killed.”

“What does ‘Stoikaja’ mean?” Somnambula asked, riveted by the story unfolding.

“Resistant. Enduring. Just ‘tough’ if you want a short word. In Equiish, I’ve known her to go by ‘Soldier On’. She’s dangerous.”

“Another wizard we have to look out for?” Tempest asked scornfully.

Ink shook his head. “An earth pony. And I guarantee you, she won’t waste time talking if we run into her. Not that she’s without reason.” After a hesitant swallow on that ominous note, he finished “For the rest of the criminals, though, it’s just work. I don’t mind working with them. I’ll even let them go if you want, though you won’t get me to pretend to be happy about it. You might want to leave me behind.”

“Well, the good news is there’s no name like ‘Tough’ that we’re expecting. And if you really do have the record, I don’t think we can afford to leave you behind.” Sunset swallowed. “The names are… um, Tempest?”

There was a moment of hesitation before Tempest replied “Safe Haven and Youmin.”

“The tiger? Hah!” Ink grinned. “I’ve never actually met that one before. Never even heard of ‘Safe Haven’. But you’ll get no trouble from me.”

“Well then,” Sunset nodded. “I think I’m satisfied. That’s all I had to talk about. I guess… enjoy yourselves until we reach Onyx Ridge?”