• Published 8th Jan 2020
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Golden Age of Apocalypse - Book III: Legacies - BlueBastard



Everything is finally ready for Sunset Shimmer to be crowned a ruling princess of Equestria, but not all is as it seems as the Covenant make their move and the history of Equestria itself is called into question as GAOA reaches its explosive end!

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Chapter 1 - Ties That Bind

GAOA Book III

Chapter 1—Ties that Bind

Seated at her desk in the reception area of the Mage Guild HQ, Lemon Hearts let out a sigh as she looked at all the paperwork she had to do today. The coronation for the new alicorn Princess Sunset Shimmer was right around the corner, and all of the local senior-ranked mages whose schedules she was responsible for had their schedules full, and Lemon still had more events to somehow cram in. Lemon had originally wanted to join the Guild Alchemical Branch, but too many incidents of getting her head stuck in equipment made the master alchemists hesitant to take her on as an apprentice. So Lemon sat at her desk in Guild Administration, with her dream so close yet so far out of reach.

Her supervisor came by as she was enjoying her morning coffee and informed her of something that only made her day more complicated.

“Just got word from the ponies organizing the coronation. It’s being pushed back a day,” Crispy Cream told her in his usual bored tone. Lemon always suspected he was in the wrong business. His heart clearly wasn’t into Guild administration.

“Pushed back? That’s a bit unusual, right?” Lemon asked.

“First time in history something like it’s happened,” Crispy said. “Then again, same could be said for this particular coronation itself.”

Lemon nodded. If she was being honest, she would have preferred to just get the whole thing over with as soon as possible so things would return to normal around here. Her commute was starting to get unbearable with all the crowds. At least having one more day should give her more room to fit all of the events she needed to into the schedules for her bosses. Unless….

Crispy dumped a large stack of papers in front of her and commented, “Mystic Essence and Shimmerswift will be doing some more prep on the extra day. Think you could create new schedules for them?”

Lemon Hearts gave him a smile she really wasn’t feeling and replied, “I’ll get right on it!”

Seemingly satisfied, Crispy Cream nodded and gave her a smile. It didn’t last long as he gave a side glance toward the entrance. “Hmm, looks like we have an unwanted visitor.”

Lemon followed her supervisor’s gaze toward the public entrance where a strange stallion entered, looking around cautiously. His mane was unbrushed and his coat looked like it hadn’t seen a bath in some time. His gaze then found Lemon Hearts at her desk, and he started to make his way toward her.

“I’ll go get security. See if you can convince him to leave without a fuss.” With that, Crispy left Lemon to fend for herself as the stallion approached and cleared his throat.

“‘Scuse me, Miss,” the stallion said. He was an earth pony with a maroon coat and a scraggly gray beard, and now that he was standing in front of her Lemon could see that he was built like a brick wall.

“Hi, can I help you?” Lemon asked politely. Despite his shabby appearance, Lemon didn’t think he looked like as much trouble as her supervisor did.

“Here t’see the Princess, if’n ya don’t mind,” the earth pony drawled, his voice harsh and gravelly.

Lemon tilted her head in confusion. “Um, this is the Mage Guild Headquarters, sir. If you have an appointment with one of the princesses you need to go to the Canterlot Royal Palace. It’s just down the street towards the mountain.”

The stallion let out an awkward chuckle and shook his head. “Sorry, guess I forgot she prob’ly doesn’t go by her royal title ‘round here. My mistake. I’m here to see the Archmagus.”

Now Lemon understood. “Oh, you have an appointment with Archmagus Raspberry Beryl?” Lemon doubted very much that he did. Most ponies who had an appointment of any kind would at least clean themselves up for it.

“No, but is there a way you could squeeze me in?” the stallion asked, grinning. “I’m sort of an old friend.”

“That right?” Lemon asked, unable to keep the skepticism from her tone. If I had a bit for every time I’ve heard that….

“Actually, I suppose ‘acquaintance’ would be more fitting. Still, I’d really like to speak with her. Is there a way we could make that happen?”

“I’m afraid Archmagus Beryl has a pretty full schedule right now. Coronations are always a busy time.” The stallion nodded, pretending he understood. Clearly he wasn’t from the city. Lemon then thought of something she could add that might actually convince him to leave. “Truth be told, the Archmagus is rarely even in the office. Most of the time she does her work out of Ponyville or the Canterlot Palace.”

“I see….”

“But if you’d like to leave us your name and an address you can be contacted at, we might be able to set up an appointment for you in about a month’s time.”

It was some time before the stallion replied in a resigned tone, “Alright, guess I should’ve expected the ol’ red tape two-step.” The earth pony sighed and reached into his saddlepack, pulling out a small unassuming stone. “Guess I gotta get her attention the messy way then.”

It was only as Lemon realized that the stone was actually a small chunk of obsidian that the earth pony violently smashed it against the ground. Remembering what had befallen her boyfriend’s old barracks nearly a year ago when a similar piece of obsidian disguised as an ordinary gemstone had been sent to them, Lemon took immediate action. She dove under her desk right as the cracked obsidian burst forth a jagged black spire, beneath which the security ponies Crispy Cream had sent for tackled the stallion to the floor.

“No.”

Thorax facehoofed. “Ocellus, you nearly got in trouble with the queen last time, so—”

“What’s the worst she’s gonna do?” countered the young changeling defiantly, “Kill me? It isn’t like the whole hive isn’t dying of hunger already! No changeling has eaten properly in weeks! Some are straight up going feral from starvation!”

“I won’t say you’re wrong in that things are bad, but…” Thorax sighed, how exactly could he convince the young pupa that there might actually be hope at the end of this hell? She was right, after all: Beyond the field patrols who were able to glean food off of ponies on outposts defending Equestria, literally every single changeling under the rule of Chrysalis hadn’t had the opportunity to go out and feed. Supported by the crushing defeat of Queen Capillo, Chrysalis had maintained the need to keep all but the most critical of changelings at the ready should the false Queen Mandible mount an attack in the hopes Chrysalis’s own forces had been weakened.

Well, they certainly had—by self-inflicted attrition. Perpetually being battle ready at all times was keeping them from properly caring for themselves and already there were a few who were dropping dead out of starvation. There hadn’t been a sign of the purple carapaces of Mandible’s forces—though given how the changelings under Chrysalis’s banner had heard of Mandible’s misfortune near a town called Nightshade, the idea that Mandible had ever been able to mount a sudden attack seemed remote.

And in hindsight, that turned out to be a hivesend, because such an incursion would have been the proverbial silken strand that broke the pupa’s cocoon, because the hive mind was regularly embroiled with dissent. What was Chrysalis even doing? She had been making mysterious disappearances over the past year and it had been at least three weeks since she’d last told the hive mind that everything was going to be fine. It was like she was oblivious to the real lurking danger of a riot—surely a queen who was a thousand years old would know to avoid such a thing.

Then again, after the complete rout of changelings at the Battle of Canterlot several years ago, things really had gone into a downward spiral for changelingkind. That had been when the schism had happened and several queens used the fractured state of the hivemind to split off their own swarms of changelings. Such a thing had been common in the past, according to the hivemind, but since Chrysalis’ ascendancy, it had almost never happened—and yet it was happening with greater frequency now.

Furthermore, changelings born after the battle were exhibiting unusual behavior: independence. It was like the hivemind not only allowed the lesser queens to break away, but it had severed the connection before the new members of the hives were fully developed. Such behavior was punished by the hivemind and it effectively brainwashed those individuals back into behaving more normally like the rest. It hurt Thorax—he knew he himself had been born different, because he wasn’t as…aggressive as his brethren, and indeed his heart really hadn’t been with the whole “plunder and feast on innocents” aspect of the Battle of Canterlot. To see others potentially like him suffer for being themselves? It put his loyalties in question.

That was probably why he was in this situation right now. He’d been part of the advance strike force to take down Queen Capillo’s splinter hive…and among the eggs which had been stolen from the main hive was a pupa barely a month past her first molting. But it wasn’t just that her presence in the hive mind, forcefully reconnected with the presence of Chrysalis’s forces, was unusual—it simply wasn’t there. And Thorax had found himself instead acting to protect the nymph, whose name was Ocellus. She’d immediately bonded to him and in fact had played a huge role in getting a lot of the rebel changelings to surrender—the losses could have been a lot worse for both sides if she hadn’t straight up begged for the fighting to stop and, weirdly, the majority listened. That too was unusual—could Ocellus be a young queen? But a queen without a connection to the hive mind?

The only way Thorax would ever get answers was to protect her from Chrysalis. And now herself, evidently, because she’d had enough of the starving and had gone out on her own before Thorax had tracked her down.

“What do you want us to do, then?” asked Ocellus, worry in her big eyes. “Something has to be done!”

“We obey the queen and we do nothing against her will,” came a third voice, and sure enough Pharanx came into view. While Changelings didn’t necessarily fall within the same concepts of siblings as ponies, there were certain groups within the hive that were regarded and behaved as if they were. Pharanx and Thorax were one such pair of ‘brothers’ though the former was arguably more the model changeling while Thorax…wasn’t. “What are you two doing outside the hive?”

“Getting a bit of fresh air, that’s all,” said Thorax, preventing Ocellus from getting herself into yet more trouble. “Isn’t that right?”

“Uh, yeah!” she quipped, shivering. It was obvious she thought Pharanx was scary. Possibly scarier than Chrysalis herself.

“Well, you two should know better than to go this far from the safety of the hive. There’s no telling what’s out there just waiting to get us.”

“Or, perhaps,” a fourth voice came, “A way out of your pitiful predicament?” As Thorax and Ocellus turned to face the newcomer, another changeling—this time, clad in a rich royal purple and looking much more healthy than any changeling in Chrysalis’s camp—emerged from shadow. He raised a hoof when Pharanx lowered his horn as if to charge. “I do not come to fight, rather, I come to end the fighting.”

“How so?” Pharanx asked through gritted fangs. “And who the hell are you?”

“My name is Clypeus,” the changeling said, “and I represent an interest within Mandible’s camp to end this amicably.”

“Speak now,” Pharanx ordered.

“The whole spat between our queens is that they’re fighting over control over us, the lesser drones of the hive. We slaughter each other and for what gain? We’re supposed to be working together for the good of the hive!” Clypeus gestured with a hoof behind the other three changelings. “Look at the state of what should be the home of all changelings—decrepit, with our kin literally dying left and right! And Chrysalis has caused this in some hare brained scheme to cement her power and…whatever it is she’s doing right now. Seriously, what is she doing?”

“Uh, okay, Clypeus,” Thorax said. “Even if we knew, we wouldn’t tell you because you’re still technically an enemy.”

“And that’s my point,” said Clypeus, “back when Chrysalis was pretending to be that pretty pink pony princess, she told us all what the plan was so we could play our part when the time came! Now she’s off doing who knows what while we all die! But while you’re all, well, dying, Queen Mandible has ensured those who are loyal to the true queen stay nourished and healthy—and you’re going to stand for that?”

“That…is a good point,” said Ocellus, warily.

“Exactly!” the strange changeling said with glee. “See, even the grub gets it! Anyway, I suspect I’ve outstayed my welcome, so I shall take my leave. But do consider my offer—and you’re welcome to come find me back at Mandible’s current lair if you wish to take me up on it.”

“And that’s where?”

“As if you don’t already know where it is,” Clypeus scoffed. “We’re changelings! We instinctively know where our queens are, since they are the crux of the hivemind! And since there’s only one true queen and one has-been right now––”

“You mean one true queen and one pretender,” Pharanx hissed.

Clypeus shrugged, paying the bulky changeling no mind. Then a thought seemed to occur to him.“Maybe you’re right, but referring to the wrong one as pretender—after all, taking into account the truth of what I just said, why is it no changeling knows where Chrysalis is at all times? Highly suspicious given how she’s dropping in and out of the hivemind, almost as if she’s no longer fit to lead. We’re the same species, so I don’t need to explain what that means. Anyway, tootles!” And like that, Clypeus slunk back into the shadows and was gone.

“Asshole,” said Pharanx, “Does he seriously believe we’d consider that shit?”

“I dunno…” said Thorax. “I think the greater question is—are we more loyal to our queen or our hive?”

A loud ka-thunk was heard from the head end of the train, a shrill cry of the engine’s whistle sounding immediately after as the mighty machine abandoned the coaches at the platform while the engineer took the locomotive to be serviced away from the station. Given how Canterlot was so spic and span all the time, the realities of locomotive care being the complete opposite necessitated that the servicing facilities be located largely out of sight from passengers, lest they suddenly have a panic attack at the reality of how the railroad worked. But that was how pony kind, or really any kind of civilization worked—the nasty truths of what supported their lifestyle was hidden beneath facades of more calming appearances. Out of sight, out of mind.

And that was how one mare in particular was being forced to operate, as she disembarked from the parked coaches with nothing but a well travel worn saddlepack. Obviously, in the days following the news reports that now-disgraced billiards champion and suspected cultist assassin Corner Shot had blown up a train while being escorted by a full guard regiment and, after murdering a lone forest ranger pony in his sleep, was suspected of being at large and supremely dangerous, the now-disgraced billiards champion and actual cultist assassin Corner Shot could not walk around looking like herself. Especially given the importance of doing ground reconnaissance in the fleeting days before Sunset Shimmer’s coronation, Corner couldn’t afford to cause another scene (though to be fair, it wasn’t like she’d originally planned on escaping by blowing up a train—she wasn’t Platinum bucking Dunes with his obsession with pointless explosions). She also didn’t dare use her “Thunderbolt” disguise, since thanks to her rather bad streak of luck, an unidentified pegasus matching the physical description of Thunderbolt was now wanted in Harborsport for the murder of Tilled Fields.

Thus, today she wore a new hairclip—one in the shape of a smiling sun—and her appearance was now that of a golden orange mare with a two-tone mane of off-white and silver, her cutie mark matching the hair clip. “Brightshine” now looked like any other mare and her cover of being a weather factory pony taking time off to attend the coronation festivities was fairly water tight—it would simply take too long to verify on the part of the incompetent guards. In reality, she was to meet up with another Covenant pony already doing recon and provide assistance until the time came to move into position. She’d been given a brief overview of her job and while she didn’t like it in the sense it didn’t really make use of her dedicated skill sets—either of them—she was still not entirely sure of her path in life after killing Tilled Fields, the closest thing she’d had to a father figure.

I’m sure everything will be fine, she reassured herself, doing her best to look like a carefree mare and not helping plot the downfall of the government. Now, I just need to connect with my contact and get settled in. I just hope that-

“Whoa! You are large!” A loud gravelly male voice suddenly shouted down the street. “Jus’ lookit those bouncy bouncy rolls!”

“Well, I never!” suddenly exclaimed a well-to-do mare in reply, prompting some ponies—“Brightshine” included—to look to the source of commotion. The offended looking mare then slapped a stallion, and it had done nothing to wipe the shit-eating grin off the pony’s face.

“Easy there, missy! I meant it as a compliment,” the distressingly familiar disheveled stallion said. “Really, there’s lots of ponies out there who are into big, blubbery mares!”

The mare in question (who was admittedly a bit on the pudgy side) made no reply, and simply stormed off in a huff. The stallion with five o’clock shadow and a bad mustache yelled after her, “Ooooh your rolls really bounce when you move! Keep that up and you’ll find yerself a nice chubby chaser in no time!”

Had Corner been in any sort of good mood, it pretty much died at that moment because that was when she made eye contact with the stallion.

Buck. My. Life. She thought miserably as the stallion sauntered over like he owned Canterlot. She gave him a look between unenthused and tired, greeting him as deadpan as possible. “Hello, Barkeep.”

“Hey, if it isn’t my favorite mare in the whole damn world!” Barkeep said, a little too loudly. At this point, though, Corner didn’t even bother protesting—just like the first time she’d met this plothole, clearly it was Neon Lux making her life hell. This time, though, she already knew there was nothing to be done about it…and if there was one strangely positive aspect to being in the company of this pony, it was that despite his boisterous, rude behavior, somehow nopony seemed to actually suspect him of being in league with a cult that idolized Sombra. Maybe most ponies simply wanted to get away from him—Corner certainly felt that way. “How was the train trip, eh? They say it’s a safe way to travel but you never know when they might just, I dunno, explode on ya!”

Corner just gave him a flat look. “Well, this one didn’t have a major mechanical problem like the previous, so I’d say it’s pretty good. Now, what is it you want me to do this time? Take out somepony, frame theft of stolen goods, other minor shit?”

“Nah, I ain’t got anything fun for ya to do like takin’ out your stabby daddy,” said Barkeep, that infuriating rictus never leaving his muzzle. “Maybe later as we get closer to the big show, but for now I’m just to take ya to your home away from home to meet your new friends.”

Corner sighed—on the one hoof, she wasn’t due for any nasty surprises like last time. On the other, though, given the Covenant had the likes of Barkeep, there was no telling what other ponies she had yet to meet—a list of certain ponies she didn’t ever want to meet again flashed through her mind and she hoped she wouldn’t have to add to that list. One of the biggest benefits of being an assassin with a semi-cover of a pool playing professional athlete had been the necessity of her working alone. She was dearly missing that kind of autonomy. “Yeah, sounds great,” she said in her maintained disinterest. “Let’s just get out of here before somepony realizes even like this, I look way too out of your league.”

“Out of my league? Oh, please! You’re not remotely my type,” chortled Barkeep. “You aren’t drunk enough yet to know what really gets me goin…”

“And this conversation is over,” said Corner with finality and a bit of disgust. “Can we go now?”

“But of course, what kind of a gentlestallion am I, anyway, leaving you waiting here?”

I don’t think words exist to describe what kind of a “gentlestallion” you are, thought Corner.

In the small, sleepy town of Pastern Flats, all the town was celebrating both the faraway coronation and the cuteceñera of a local foal. All except one pony, who did not know the lucky young filly and what their revealed special talent was. She didn’t really care, either, as to learn that would mean having to socialize with the locals in a town that had always felt more like an open prison than anything else.

So while the population of the town was busy focusing on one thing, Skystreak stealthily made her way across town through the empty streets to busy herself with another. Out of her attention-drawing Wonderbolts uniform, nopony would have thought much of her anyway, at least until they became aware of what she was doing.

Fortunately, the pegasus was heading to a place where nopony would wander by accident—the cemetery was off in an alcove of trees behind a hill hiding it from anypony looking out from within the town. Aside from one or two slightly embellished gravestones—the markings of a noblepony whose so-called nobility meant little to a frontier community such as the Flats—only the state of deterioration and the engravings in the stones marked them different from one another. But Skystreak knew the path to take, having taken it for years, stopping in front of a particularly worn out stone. She scowled at the white stain down the left side, vandalism left by some dumb vulture or other bird.

Taking a deep breath, Skystreak allowed herself a moment of peace with her loved one before she began. “Hi, Dad. Sorry I haven’t visited in a while, but… I think you’d be proud of what I’ve accomplished. I passed the exam: I’m now a reserve Wonderbolt, and it’s only a matter of time until I’m officially on the team.” Skystreak sighed, fighting off the wave of sadness that always threatened to overtake her whenever she came here.

“I wish you were here to see me. To hear you say that… t-that you’re proud of me, and that you love me. I-I already know you are, and that you do, b-but… I really want to hear it from your own lips just one more time….” For the first time in years, Skystreak forfeited the fight against her own tears and let them wash over her. There had been times when Skystreak was mad at him for taking the easy way out: for leaving her alone in the world with nopony but her stupid mother to care for her.

But just like now, Skystreak had always cleared her head by remembering it wasn’t her father’s fault that things turned out this way. It was that bitch who had ruined his career, his marriage, and had taken everything from them both. Skystreak had tended that anger and hate over the years, much like the farmers did with their crops in this nowhere town, and now her cultivation was finally bearing fruit. Skystreak reached into her saddlepack and pulled out a sapphire orb. It was large, but not so much that it couldn’t fit in one hoof.

“It feels like poetic justice, doesn’t it? That your last gift to me will be her undoing.” Skystreak turned the orb over in her hooves, already intimately familiar with its weight. The sensation of the powerful magic within was equally familiar, dormant though it was. “I wish you had known what you really had in your possession; maybe you wouldn’t have lost all hope if you did. I know I haven’t. In fact, I’m more hopeful today than I’ve been in a very, very long time, and it’s all thanks to your last gift. Love you, Daddy.”

Skystreak rested a hoof on the gravestone and rested there for a while. “There’s still lots to do, but don’t worry, I’ve made a lot of progress. I’m in contact with a group of ponies that could help. I’ll admit, their views are a little… extreme, but I’m sure there’s a spellcaster among them who can unlock the Orb’s true power. I promise you. Daddy, I will not fail in my mission.

“Sunset Shimmer will suffer for your memory.”

“So, what is it you wanted to take me to do again?” asked Whiskey, uncertain of what was going on. About two hours prior, she’d been informed by Softwing that the two of them would be staying together in the human world. The initial reaction Whiskey had was surprise, since part of her thought she would be staying with Sunset and her family—but maybe that was in part due to how she’d lived prior to her first encounter with humans. She’d just been a retainer to Fujitsu, more an accessory than an individual.

Being entrusted to live with Sunset’s chosen seneschal was a sign of confidence in her, and it had been less than a week since she’d gone from being the shame of Inari to one of the most elite warriors in Equestria and one of the guardians of Princess-to-be Sunset Shimmer’s safety. But after Softwing had asked for Whiskey to accompany her for the day, the kitsune was not sure what to expect. Especially since the two of them were walking around Canterlot in their human guises instead of their true, natural forms of griffin and kitsune.

And wearing these clothes—what Softwing had called a t-shirt and jeans—was taking some getting used to. It wasn’t her traditional yukata, nor was it any of her SIREN uniforms. If anything, it looked very much like the clothing Princess Sunset’s entourage wore, and while she thought they looked nice, she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to wear it. Furthermore, she was told to go without any weapons, and even though she still had access to her magic if need be, being without a sword or a gun felt...disquieting.

“Oh, just…girl things,” said Softwing, with more than a hint of giddiness in her tone. “I know I’ve been grinding away at the massive backlog of stuff that’s come up simply by Sunset’s upcoming coronation—the coronation ball is tonight, and I’m looking forward to attending. And I know you’ve been the absolute model of military attentiveness in the short time you’ve been an Equestrian subject.”

“Yes, but I don’t think you brought me out and away from the other SIRENs just so I could be your bodyguard.”

“Remember what I said about our future living arrangements?” said Softwing, turning to face Whiskey, verdigris eyes looking into emerald. It really did strike Whiskey at that moment the irony—she was almost 300 years old, outstripping the average lifespan of most species on Equus save for the alicorns, yet the young adult griffin here as a human was far older looking than the actual older kitsune. “We’re basically going to be family, you being my little sister, at least on paper. So, I thought it would be in our best interest to spend time together before we arrive on Earth.”

“Is that really necessary?” asked Whiskey. “Back with my clan, before I was assigned to be Prince Fujitsu’s personal detail, the other kits and cubs my age or thereabouts were all treated equally. The clan leader and my father, Taisetsuna, has likely sired far more offspring than just me, but the only importance to any kitsune was being part of the clan. All that trainees were to each other were pretty much rivals. And, unfortunately, I think I was a bit better than my peers.”

“A bit better?” asked Softwing, confused. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”

Strangely, Whiskey laughed a little as she replied. “I mean, given where it’s gotten me? It was, but…it’s why I was the most inexperienced of Prince Fujitsu’s retainers. I am, after all, only a two-tail, and traditionally an Inari clan would allow a royal to take a bugeisha when they reach maturity which in those circles equates to a three-tail. But,” she added with a sigh, “I was told that because I showed promise, that they would bend the rules a little. Given what Prince Blueblood has told me about Inari law, though, I could have been the greatest two-tail kitsune ever and it still wouldn’t have been acceptable for what my clan or Fujitsu ultimately did, right down to me being cast out for a minor misunderstanding.”

“You were basically thrown out and weren’t expected to survive, weren’t you?” Softwing noted, her tone catching Whiskey off guard as it implied a sense of familiarity. “That’s not too dissimilar to how it works with griffins—and I wasn’t even subject to any of that but that in turn puts me in a similar boat to you.”

“But weren’t you raised by ponies? I recall overhearing you say that you consider yourself a pony at heart.”

Softwing thought about her words briefly. “I don’t know my mother,” she pointed out. “Shortly after my father found out I had magic, he separated me from her – I don’t even remember what she looks like. As for my father, since I was only an asset to him and never his child, he sent me here to live in the pony realms since ponies have a better grasp of general magic than griffins do. But even then, I was never anything more than a tool to him. Even being valedictorian of my graduating class—a griffin being deemed better than a whole herd of pony peers—meant nothing to him. Apparently my sex appeal was more valuable a bargaining chip than my brains.”

“And so began all your trouble with that other griffin with the greasy paws?”

“Yeah,” laughed Softwing, “It’s why I’m grateful for the opportunity her highness Sunset has given me. As much as I love what Goldvein and Silverleaf did for me, what they truly wanted was for me to have a happy life and I’ll never have it here on Equus. But as a human? I can finally escape the grasp of the culture that still thinks I need to serve it, while serving both a culture that values me and getting to find out who and what I am as a person. And I think you’ll like the fact you have the same opportunity as well.”

Raspberry Beryl tried to keep her temper cool as she walked down the halls of the Canterlot City Guard barracks. All things considered, the attack on Mage Guild HQ had done very little—if any—damage. The receptionist only sustained minor injuries, and even the building itself was relatively undamaged. In fact, the little incident had broken up the monotony of another long day of coronation preparation.

What truly irked Raspberry that moment was seeing another cheap imitation of her hoofiwork once again used as a weapon against Equestria. Suffice to say, Razz had acted quickly to dismantle and remove the miniature obsidian tower in the front lobby of the Guild HQ. But the incident had left Razz with more than a few questions.

“The stallion responsible surrendered to the Guild’s security immediately without a fight,” the sergeant had explained when Razz had arrived at the barracks. “We have him in the interrogation room now, but he’s being thoroughly uncooperative with our questioning.”

“Let me guess: he’s asking to see a lawyer?”

“He’s asking to see you. Claims he knows you.”

Razz wasn’t sure what to make of that, only that it probably wasn’t good. Unfortunately, there was only one way she was going to get any answers. “Well, I see no reason to deny his request. Take me to him, Learner.”

Now Razz found herself standing outside the door to the interrogation room. After assuring her that he and his compatriots would be watching from the other side of the one-way mirror, the security mage entered the room down the hall. Putting on her game face, Razz entered the room.

Seated at the table in the otherwise empty room was a rather large, muscular maroon earth pony stallion with a shaggy gray beard. His forelegs were cuffed to the table, and right away his appearance struck a cord of familiarity in Razz.

“Howdy, Miss Beryl,” he said cordially. “Been a while, hasn’t it?”

His rough voice sparked a memory in Raspberry, and all at once she remembered a tense standoff on a forest path on her way into a familiar small town.

“It’s Wallbreaker, isn’t it? Of the Lonesome Dove militia?” Razz asked, already knowing the answer. “You were one of the ponies who attacked Twilight and I as we were headed into town, back during the incident with my residual curse.”

“It was more you than Twilight we were attackin’, but yeah.” Wallbreaker gave her a friendly smile. “I’m surprised you remember.”

Razz gave him a hint of a predatory smile back. “Well, considering I saved you and the whole town, assaulting a Guild secretary with a knockoff of my black crystal is certainly an interesting way to return the favor. Wanna tell me how you got that?”

“If I answer your question, will you answer mine?”

“Depends on the question.”

Wallbreaker shrugged. Apparently that was good enough for him. “‘Bout a month ago, some truly strange pony came through town and started helpin’ out at the local waterin’ hole. Never got his name. Feller knew how to pour a good drink, but was a few bushels short of a barrel if’n you catch my meaning. Went on and on about the importance of faith. Said he was recruitin’ acolytes for a covenant of some sort. Lotta what he said sounded like hogwash, but I gotta admit the core of his ideas resonated with me.”

The Covenant of Shadows. Razz thought those crazy Sombra worshippers might have been involved as soon as she’d seen the black crystal spire.

“I have to admit: when we first met, I never would have pegged you as a cultist,” Razz quipped, hoping to find out the extent of Wallbreaker’s involvement with them.

“Gotta admit myself that when we first met, I never would’ve thought I’d be talking to you like this either. Now, you mind if I ask you my question?” Razz indicated she wouldn’t mind, and Wallbreaker leaned forward, the chain of his cuffs jingling a little as he shifted to get more comfortable. “I wanna get the measure of you, Razz. May I call you Razz?” An indifferent shrug was her answer, and Wallbreaker continued. “What do you think about the idea that it’s your destiny to bring about great change to all of ponykind?”

“What? Because of my unfortunate relation to an old mad king?” Razz asked with an annoyed flick of her tail. “I’ll be honest, it’s for that reason that I don’t think I even believe in destiny. All I want is to live my life on my own terms and protect the people that matter to me.”

That answer seemed to disappoint Wallbreaker, and he deflated a little before looking back at her. “You came back to Lonesome Dove and saved us when you were within your every right to leave us to our fate. I think that means you have a good heart. So why are you content to serve a supposedly all-powerful ruler that clearly doesn’t care about the working class pony?”

That threw Razz for a loop. “Celestia? She loves all ponies!”

“Not as much as she loves her daughter, it would seem.” Wallbreaker sighed, and there was a certain… hollowness to his entire being that Razz didn’t remember seeing in him before. “Would you like to know how things have been for Lonesome Dove after the war?

“Things had been bad enough for us already, as you probably know. That curse of yours had been draining life from the land for years. Between that and having to give most of what we had to the war effort, by the time it was over we were already starving. Things might’ve turned out okay after that—there was enough time left in the summer for one more harvest… that is, if t’weren’t for the early winter.

“You know what a proud farming community Lonesome Dove is. So imagine how it felt knowing our survival meant accepting equinetarian aid from other towns. Even so, they could only send us so much—our neighbors were on the verge of starvation themselves.” Wallbreaker gave a bitter laugh as he hissed, “We lost more in the war’s aftermath than we did in the actual fighting.”

Wallbreaker was quiet for a bit after that. It took him a minute to muster the strength to say what he said next. “Wife got sick. Didn’t have enough money to pay fer medicine and feed our foals at the same time.” The big stallion’s voice started to break into a tremor, and Razz’s heart sank when she saw his eyes grow glossy. “S-she was always so strong, she… she loved our foals so damn much. I thought if anyone could ride out that disease it’d be her, but then… then it got worse, and….”

He tried to wipe the tears from his eyes, but the cuffs on his forelegs wouldn’t allow it. “I was so… angry. Why should the entire kingdom have to suffer alongside its ruler?! T’aint right!

Razz could figure out the rest from there. “So when that strange pony appeared in town offering a chance to set things right, you jumped at it.”

With a mucusy sniff, Wallbreaker said, “I’unno. Changing the status quo sounded nice n’ all, but I think the real reason I signed up with the Covenant was… I wanted to lash out. ‘S why I came here lookin’ fer you too, I reckon. Wanted to show you what these damned alicorns did to me! What they’re doin’ to all Equestria! ‘T wasn’t jus’ me who signed up with the Covenant, y’know. There were others, like Cornfield, Sassy Silk and Checkup.”

Razz blinked her eyes at that last name. “Checkup? But she’s the town doctor!”

“Not anymore; now she’s part of the Covenant. Heck, I reckon there are broken, disenfranchised ponies all over the country who signed on for the same reason as me.”

Razz was thoughtful for a long time. She had walked into this room expecting yet another one-sided argument with a half-witted zealot. Instead, Wallbreaker had given her something to really think about. She’d been on Earth for the entirety of the Winter. She’d heard it was bad, but seeing physical proof of so much suffering made her wonder: What if Celestia loses Sunset for good? Would Equestria even survive? Do we all just live at the whim of Celestia’s melancholy?

Still, Razz knew where she stood on the matter. “You’re right about many things, but the Covenant of Shadows isn’t the force for change you think it is. King Sombra was a monster inside and out. I have a book in my quarters that’s a testament to that fact. The alicorns may be far from perfect, but they’re a hell of a lot better than the alternative.”

Wallbreaker was quiet, and Razz realized that perhaps it was his turn to question what he believed in. “I hope you’re right,” he said with a resigned tone. “With the new princess’s coronation, Equestria is approaching a crossroads. Hundreds of the disenfranchised are gathering under the banner of the Covenant, and very soon they will make their voices heard. Will Equestria continue to be ruled by fickle immortals? Or will mortal ponies forge their own destiny? We did it before, after all.”

“Yes, and as I recall, during the Warring States Era, pony slaughtered pony without even so much as a thought.”

“I was talking about the Classical Era of history. Queen Platinum and her descendants,” Wallbreaker stated.

“Yes, and even under the ancien regime there were still problems. And eventually it all ended when Discord came into the picture.” Razz then looked him in the eyes and added, “And do you know who saved us from all that? The alicorns, when they returned to power.”

“They should have never left power.”

“Perhaps, but perhaps also the nobles underneath Queen Faust shouldn’t have tried to orchestrate their little power grabs and instead guided Celestia and Luna to their destinies instead of letting them take centuries to find it.”

“Mebbe yer right, I’unno.” With a final shrug, Wallbreaker intoned, “Time will tell, I s’ppose. But what I want to know is, which side will you be on when it comes?”

“I know what side I’m on,” Razz said. Now if only she felt as confident as she sounded.

As evening encroached upon the city, dark forces gathered in the shadows.

Unfortunately, much to Corner Shot’s dismay, she ended up bunking with the one pony more annoying than Barkeep, if such a thing was possible.

“My, it’s such an honor to share quarters with one as important as a Scion,” cooed Chrysoberyl, closing the door behind Corner as she entered the room.

“Yeah, feeling’s mutual.” It had been hell trying to get through Canterlot without being recognized. Well, more hell than usual. Before, she’d had to navigate hordes of fans there to see the reigning pool champion. Now she was a wanted criminal, and for what? She had to admit, the suite Chrysoberyl had secured for them was pretty luxurious as befitting the unicorn’s station. It was the company in question that Corner couldn’t stand.

“Say, if it’s not too much to ask, what exactly is it you can do with your great powers?”

Corner looked at Chrys flatly. “I get really fucking pissed off but only if I get an arrow shoved up my ass apparently.”

Chrysoberyl looked bewildered at that...unexpected remark. “But, uh, according to the prophecy, you’re supposed to represent His skill.”

“Yeah, like I don’t do that enough with being a crack pool shot or, y’know,” droned Corner, flaring her wings out in the blink of an eye, a feather knife in each wingtip, “this whole song and dance.”

“Ah, so your power is more...passive, then?” asked the unicorn slyly.

“Okay, look, are you going to be this creepy all damn night? I don’t think I need to remind you what the plan is tomorrow, since you were one of the big proponents of it.”

“Yes, yes, I’m well aware of the plan. Though notably, I’ve not been informed as to what you will be doing during it. I presumed it was due to your unlocked abilities but, er, getting shot in the rear painfully doesn’t sound like much.”

“Yeah, this whole Scion thing is freakin’ overrated if you ask me,” groaned the pool shark, who unpacked her measly bag and pulled out her toiletries kit. “Sure, Razz is basically throwing crystals around like it’s going out of style and Lockbox apparently has powers inspired by the cover of that A Tack on Saddle novel series that’s so popular these days, what with the chains and crap. But they’re also unicorns. I got the short end of the stick with wings...and then those practically got taken away from me.”

“But you’re the Covenant’s top assassin!”

“Yeah, I also can’t fucking fly higher than a half-mile off the ground. The racks are heavy and can’t channel our innate pegasi magic. Seriously, I’m a fucking pegasus who can’t do the one goddamn thing pegasi are supposed to do right.”

“Well, you’re still kin of Sombra, and that to me is better than being an airhead.”

Corner rolled her eyes. “You’re also insane, Chrys.”

“The difference between genius and insanity is the viewpoint, y’know.”

“You keep telling yourself that,” replied Corner, before looking out the window at the castle. She’d been having second thoughts about...a lot of her decisions over the years, and something in her gut didn’t like what the coronation would bring.

Corner’s thoughts were interrupted as the door to the bedroom burst open and Barkeep strode in, looking unusually miffed.

“Really Barkeep? You couldn’t have knocked first?” Chrysoberyl asked, giving the stallion a distasteful glare.

“Sorry if I’m interrupting the hate fuckin’ you two were no doubt enjoying, but something just came up that requires our immediate attention,” Barkeep said.

He skittered over to Corner’s bed and quickly passed her a dossier. Corner opened it while giving him an unamused look, then proceeded to review its contents. A picture of a reedy, disheveled stallion was clipped next to what appeared to be a hastily put together file with his name: Simple Science.

“And just what did this poor sonovvabitch do to earn a visit from me?” Corner asked.

“He was holdin’ onto a little surprise I had prepared for the coronation. A very literal butterfly effect to cause maximum confusion before our attack. Unfortunately, it all amounts to shit now. Our boy Science here seriously dropped the ball. Let our secret weapon shoot its load prematurely if ya get what I mean.”

“You’d better not be jerking me around again like you did with Tilled Fields, Barkeep.”

Chrysoberyl airily cleared her throat and said, “Need I remind you how imperative it is for our lovely Scion here to keep a low profile until the coronation? The last thing we need is for the Covenant as a whole to ‘shoot its load prematurely’ as you oh so eloquently put it.”

Turning to Chrysoberyl with a flourishing, mocking bow, Barkeep said, “My lady doth moan and bitch too much.” He then dropped the haughty parody just as quickly and continued normally (by his standards), “I have it on good authority from my ponies inside the castle that a major event just transpired as a result of my secret weapon directly affecting the big star of the event we’re all here to see!

“Come the morning the guards who have our boy Science in custody are going to want to know who gave him an Allucinor Wing, and seeing as I doubt he has the same faith in our Lord that we do, he’s gonna sing like a canary. That will lead them to me, and by extension all of us. Then our game’ll be over before we even get a chance to play!”

Chrysoberyl sniffed distastefully. “You should have known this would have turned out badly and just stuck to Father Lux’s original plan.”

“For once we agree on something,” Corner said.

Barkeep put a hoof to his chest in mock hurt (Corner wondered if he was even capable of feeling a genuine emotion that wasn’t overtly sarcastic). “Well excuuuuse me, milady, for tryin’ to take a little Sombra-damned initiative! Not my fault I had reasonable expectations of the good doctor’s competence.”

“Right, and if this guy is already in Guard custody like you said, trying to take him out now might point ponies to us just as quickly as if he talked.”

Barkeep wiggled a dirty hoof close to Corner’s face as he replied, “Not if we do this the right way.”

Barkeep then went over his plan to acquire a specific untraceable poison that would ensure Simple Science’s death would look like an accident. All Corner had to do was find a way to infiltrate the barracks they were holding him in the dead of night and slip it to him. Chrysoberyl quickly got to work enchanting Corner’s hairclip with a new disguise to that end.

All the while Corner wondered to herself whether this was just the way her life was going to be from now on: Always the hunted one. Never catching a moment’s rest in the struggle to keep her head above water. She found her thoughts going back to Tilled Fields as it had many times since their final meeting. She wondered how different her life would have been if she’d accepted his offer to leave the Covenant with him. To lead a simple life in some far away land with the stallion who she’d thought of as her own father. It hurt to think about how nice that would have been.

Too late for that now, though. I burned that bridge pretty damn thoroughly. That’s all it seems I’m good for. Corner forced her thoughts back to the present, where she needed to add yet another innocent pony to the long list of bodies that paved the road of her life.

What could go wrong? Internally wondered Corner. Well, that’s easy—EVERYTHING.

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