• 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 15 - By The Numbers

Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 15—By The Numbers

46th Day of Spring—8:02AM

A crystal gavel hammered into the striking board, a sharp ringing sound issued forth, echoing in the room. A deep, bassy voice called with it, “ORDER! ORDER, I SAY!”

Brigadier Stonehammer, the senior officer present, looked at the assembly of various commanding officers and representatives from the flight squadrons belonging to the Army, the Navy, the Guard and even the two Agency squadrons. He’d been tasked by Gen. Halberd to do this unsavory deed and so here he was.

He didn’t want to be here. Nor, for that matter, did the others. But that mattered little compared to the severity of what was being discussed.

Looking at the various faces around the room, Stonehammer said simply, “We have a traitor.” Seeing the look of shock on the faces of every pony and otherwise present, he said, “As many of you are aware, the security plans for Princess Sunset Shimmer’s coronation were compromised by somepony from one of the military flight divisions. In the past few days, four military fliers have been arrested for conspiring with the Covenant. All of them stated the same thing: that they received their orders from a flyer known as Empty. None of them can identify the individual, but at least one of them shows signs of magical mental tampering.”

“What?” a voice in the crowd shouted and Stonehammer held up his gavel once more. The speaker piped down and Stonehammer continued.

“Unfortunately for Empty, she or he was spotted leaving the area by a civilian, who stated the perpetrator was wearing blue flight armor.” Stonehammer looked at all the ponies around the room. “I don’t have to tell you what that means.”

The various other officers looked at one another, thinking about their flight armor. Granted, while the armor, when active, was enchanted to imitate its environment in order to provide some amount of protection, the squadron colors were represented when the armor was off.

And all seventeen officers represented squadrons whose primary color was blue.

One of the two Agency officers raised her hoof. “With all due respect, Brigadier, I fail to see why my associate and I are here. Our flight armor is black, as is the standard for all Agency gear.”

One of the Guard squadron leaders looked at the senior officer. “That goes for us as well—although it is lighter barding than regular Guard units since we have to be airborne, the fact remains that we wear barding just like the rest of the Guard while on field duty, and none of it is blue.”

The brigadier tapped his forehooves together impatiently. “Agent Nightfire, while you and Lt. Shining Sword might be correct about that, do not mistake me for a foal. I know that as part of your annual flight certification, you are required to do at least a two-week detail with an active duty Army or Navy combat squadron every three years. And as a result of that duty, those personnel were issued flight uniforms for each of the squadrons you were detailed to.” He gave Nightfire a lidded look. “Or did you forget the color of the uniform you were wearing when you completed your triennial certification three weeks ago, Agent?”

Nightfire immediately recalled the blue-and-lilac Starsong squadron uniform she’d been issued during that time and had kept as a memento of the time. “No, sir,” she said thickly.

He nodded tersely. “I see we are in agreement, then. Or do I need to pass out the reports from the Agency that lists all the uniforms your personnel wear or have worn during their details?”

Shining Sword gulped. “That, er, won’t be necessary, sir,” he demurred.

“A wise stallion, indeed. Now, I know that not all of you are commanders of your respective squadrons and that you were sent here to represent your COs. For example, Lt. Black Tar, most of your unit is in the field serving as scouts for the anti-Covenant operations, correct? And given that the Wonderbolts are tied up in Cloudsdale, Ens. Skystreak is representing Capt. Spitfire, is that not so?” The two officers nodded, and Stonehammer paused for effect.

“Be that as it may, you two are both active in your squadrons and likely have seen things as well, so I am expecting you to speak up if you have seen or heard anything, am I clear?” Not waiting for an answer, the brigadier looked at all of those gathered once more. “So on behalf of Princess Luna, I would like to make this very clear, ladies and gentleponies: think. We have a traitor in our midst, and that traitor is doing the military—and thus the Crown—a grave injustice. So I want you to think, and think carefully—about who might just be the culprit.”

The officers were quiet and looked at each other, as if sizing up suspects.

The brigadier smiled. “Oh, let me add an extra wrinkle for all of you, in case any of you—Celestia perish the thought—are protecting a suspect, even perhaps Empty. Lt. Rainbow Dash of the Wonderbolts will be here later today. Except...she will not be here in her military capacity, but instead as the Bearer of Loyalty. I don’t think I have to explain further, do I?”

The officers looked at each other once again. Rainbow Dash, as a military officer, was capable, even if sometimes a hothead. Rainbow Dash in her capacity as a member of the Court of Friendship and Knight Bearer of Loyalty, was something very different. In that role, she had more authority than any other individual in the room, the brigadier included.

“I don’t believe Lady Dash knows anything about this meeting,” Stonehammer added lightly. “I would think you’d want to keep it that way.”

A wing went up. It was Capt. Gallard, the CO of the Thunderheads, the all-griffin naval combat squadron. “With all due respect, sir, I don’t think any of my fliers could be Empty. I think a witness would have focused less on the outfit color and more on the fact that the flier was a griffin.”

Stonehammer nodded in agreement. “That is correct, Captain. And for the record, even despite your squadron colors, none of your regular flyers are suspected. However, you have had ponies fly with you during certification and that is the main reason why you’re here.” At that, Gallard nodded, and fell silent.

Standing amongst the other officers, her heart hammering in her chest like a minotaur throwing a tantrum, Skystreak looked at all of them and desperately tried to keep a calm look on her face. They knew about her activities and even her Covenant codename. The only reason she wasn’t in hobbles at the moment was because they couldn’t clearly identify her.

I need to think of a scapegoat and fast, she concluded. Otherwise, somepony’s going to figure it out fairly quickly!

Fortunately for her, somepony else gave her the out she was looking for.

A hoof was raised—this time it was Midnight Shade, the batpony leader of the 37th Lunar Guard Flight Detachment. “With all due respect, Brigadier, what if it was a stolen uniform? Or even a damaged uniform that was thrown away and taken by another pony?”

The look in Stonehammer’s eyes indicated that he had not thought of that.

Inspiration immediately hit Skystreak, and she went with it: “Or...what about a transferee? Somepony who was originally with another squadron, one with the suspected colors, and then moved on?”

Stonehammer looked at her. “Would you clarify, Ensign?”

“Yes, sir. Originally, I was with Domino Squadron before the war, and I still have my black and white uniform from those days. It’s entirely possible that somepony could have started out with one of our squadrons and then moved on to….” She paused, as if in thought.

“You have something in mind?”

“Sir, I’m not sure it would be a good idea to—”

“Speak, Ensign.” That was an order, clear as day.

“Yes, sir. I’m thinking about Ens. Rainbud, sir.”

“Rainbud? The name doesn’t sound familiar.”

A second pony spoke up, an Army squadron leader named Gray Ghost. “It does to me, sir: Ens. Rainbud is an Army flier, for Lowball Squadron, as I recall. They’re out in the field right now, so I’m representing both my squadron and Col. Long March’s.” He turned to Skystreak. “But the Lowballs wear green-and-black.”

“Yes, but she used to wear Wonderbolt blue-and-yellow.”

Another voice spoke up from behind. “An Army flyer, in a Navy squadron? You’ve got to be kidding, Ensign.”

Skystreak turned to look at the speaker. “I’m afraid not. During the beginning of the war, a lot of fliers with potential got sent to various squadrons and even for elite squadrons like the ‘Bolts, we still got some run of the mill folks, or pegasi whose talents really didn’t work for us. In Rainbud’s case, she’s a low-flier, which really doesn’t suit the Wonderbolt combat specialty. Capt. Spitfire spoke with Col. March and they made a trade—we transferred Rainbud in return for one of theirs. The pony we got, Hailstorm, was a better fit for us, anyway.” She looked around the room, as if confiding a secret. “In more ways than one, to be honest.”

Stonehammer noticed that. “In what way, Ensign?”

Skystreak sighed. “To be honest, Ens. Rainbud was...difficult to work with. She was a prima donna, because she was originally a star at buckball.” At that, various ponies spoke with murmurs of agreement; many celebrities or famous athletes who had joined the military due to the war did not adjust well, and most had either left after the war of their own volition or had been cashiered in disgrace. “She claimed that she did it to protect her family, but she didn’t seem to care about the war otherwise. With all due respect, I think if there hadn’t been a need for fliers due to the war, she probably would have been drummed out of the service.”

“I see. Thank you, Ensign.” He looked at the others. “Is there anypony else that has any potential suspects?”

A throat cleared and all eyes turned to a Guard pegasus wearing the duty uniform of the 86th Crystal Guard Flight Detachment. “I...don’t know about others, but I think I can corroborate Ens. Skystreak’s testimony, sir. I’ve had run-ins with this Ens. Rainbud as well.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“It was in mid-Winter, and we were assigned to strike at a remainder of Tirek’s forces outside of Snowfallton. Because they were well-hidden, we requested assistance from the Army and they sent two scouts from Lowball Squadron: Lt. Hail Raiser and Ens. Rainbud. We split our forces in two and while Lt. Raiser scouted for the other element, Ens. Rainbud scouted for ours. She was....a problem, to put it plainly. Constantly complained about how her family in Torontrot was killed because ‘Celestia didn’t give a damn and let ponies in the town die’ and how she was wasting her time in military service when she could be making a fortune in buckball, that sort of thing. I finally told her to shut up or else I would be issuing a report to her commanding officer. She finally did her job and the rest of the operation went without a hitch, but I sent a letter of reprimand with Lt. Raiser to take to their CO.”

“I see. Anyone else?” A third hoof went up—it was Black Tar. “Yes, Lieutenant?”

The look on her face was filled with emotions. “I hate doing this, sir. I really do. I...I have reason to believe that Ens. Rainbud may be Empty.”

“Start speaking, Lieutenant.”

“Sir, I—”

“That’s an order, Lieutenant.”

Black Tar’s ears cantilevered; it was clear that this was not going to be an easy story to tell. She looked around at the rest of those assembled, and winced before continuing. “She told me…. She told me this the night we slept together. I...I kinda liked her, and while I knew she didn’t like me, she was drunk and looking for some emotional support, since her lover had just been killed the week before in a skirmish with Tirek remainders.” Tar fell silent. “That lover was Lt. Raiser.

“Rain...she’s filled with a lot of hatred, sir. She blames Her Majesty for what happened to her family and to her squadron. She stated that if Lowball had been trained better, there would have been more than just four of them left—”

“Four of them?” Stonehammer asked.

Gray Ghost spoke up. “After the Winter, the only surviving members of the original Lowball Squadron were Col. Long March, Maj. First Knight, Ens. Rainbud and Cnt. Groundsail. The squadron is currently in reserve while they train new replacements, even though the squadron members are being seconded to other units.”

“I see. You may continue, Lt. Tar.”

“Yes, sir. She...she said that in a fair world, it would have been the alicorns fighting, since they're all-powerful and can’t die, but instead, Celestia didn’t want to dirty her pretty white coat with blood, so she sacrificed countless lives just to keep her hooves clean. She...she said that in a world that was truly fair, the….” She trailed off.

Stonehammer’s eyes softened. “I know this must be hard for you, Lieutenant.”

Tears formed in Tar’s gray eyes. “She said that if there was any justice in the world, the Covenant would show the Crown how things are really supposed to be.” At that, the mare broke down, crying. In a selfless display of solidarity, Skystreak moved to her side to help her.

“Thank you, Lieutenant, I know that was difficult,” Stonehammer stated. “Ens. Skystreak, will you take Lt. Tar to the infirmary? I think she would like some time to recuperate.”

Silently thankful that she’d managed to escape the noose, at least temporarily, Skystreak nodded. “Will do, sir.”

“Thank you.” He then looked at the others. “Col. Ghost, as soon as you can, fly back to your base. I want Col. March informed and more importantly, I want Ens. Rainbud arrested until we can find out just what she has done. As for the rest of you, continue to be vigilant. We may have just captured Empty, but that does not mean that there aren’t other Covenant sympathizers amongst our ranks. We cannot let this continue. Dismissed.”

The short walk to the infirmary was a silent one. For Black Tar, this was likely because all she could think of was that somepony she was close with had betrayed Equestria. Skystreak’s silence, however, could be attributed to just one thought: What the hell is my next move?

It was only after dropping Black Tar off at the infirmary and rounding the corner that Skystreak let out the huge breath that she’d involuntarily been holding. More heavy breaths came as her heart raced, and Skystreak had to lean on the wall for support while she let her anxiety attack run its course, keeping an alert ear for approaching hoofsteps. Things in there had gotten too close; that they were aware of her activities and even her codename was definitely an unpleasant surprise, but then Skystreak had surprised herself with her inspired decision to pin it on Rainbud.

It was, of course, only a temporary solution. Inevitably the investigation into Rainbud would turn up no concrete evidence (though Black Tar’s testimony had been a pleasant surprise, and was sure to extend the process), and the military’s changeling hunt would be back to square one. Naturally, every possible suspect would be questioned, and Skystreak wasn’t sure she’d be able to come up with a strong enough alibi when the time came. But she had bought herself precious time, and she was going to put it to use to answer that question: What’s my next move?

She had assumed—hastily, it turned out—that Sunset Shimmer was the primary target of the Covenant’s attack on the coronation. It was the whole reason she had even agreed to help them in the first place (well, that and she had been hoping to find a spellcaster among their ranks strong enough to power up her dormant “family heirloom”). Had that been the case, Skystreak could have lived with being caught so long as her father’s revenge had been carried out. But Sunset Shimmer yet lived, now a princess seated on a throne of lies and corruption, and Skystreak needed to avoid detection just long enough to finish what she started.

But what’s my next move? She asked herself. Think!

It occurred to Skystreak with some despair that she may not get another chance to avenge herself on Sunset while the bitch was still in Equestria. This meant she would have to keep one step ahead of the military’s investigation into her activities for likely years until another opportunity presented itself… a frightfully bleak possibility.

Another much more positive thought suddenly occurred to her then. Rather than wait years for Sunset Shimmer to maybe return, Skystreak could always go after her where she lived instead. And thanks to her father’s last gift to her, Skystreak would actually have the power to cross dimensions to do it. That is, once she found a spellcaster strong enough to power it up.

So, with her breathing under control, Skystreak made her way to the break room with a smile on her face.

“Well, somepony’s sure in a good mood,” said Gray Ghost, who sat brooding over a coffee as bitter as his expression. “Can’t see how a pony can be so cheerful after that meeting.”

“I just had a little epiphany, is all,” Skystreak said. She wasn’t going to let his attitude ruin her good mood. “No matter what happens, everything is going to work out the way it’s supposed to!”

“You think so?”

“Definitely, sir—those rotten to the core always get what they deserve in the end.”

45th Day of Spring—3:15AM

Even though it was getting closer and closer to the moment the Covenant had been seemingly formed to bring about, the need for ensuring safety of the base was paramount. And so, two-pony patrols were still required to go around. One such pair was slowly making their circuit around the outer areas of the subterranean lair.

“Ugh, this totally sucks,” groaned the first of the two stallions. “Why do we even need to worry about security? Canterlot is so far up its own ass that there’s no way they could even mount an investigation to where the Scions went!”

“We can’t let our guard down,” said the second stallion. “Those damn alicorns haven’t been in charge as long as they have without having some tricks hidden in their wings. And with the threat of Sombra’s return—”

“Are we sure that we’re actually resurrecting him?”

“That’s what the Oracle said. Do you doubt her wisdom?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Then we have to stay vigilant! Sombra himself fought against the will of reality itself to bring about a new order, who is to say lesser beings will not try the same?”


The two stallions snapped their heads in the direction of the noise, which made a closer sounding clink before the source revealed itself to them in the dim magical torchlight lining the walls—a black metal cylinder.

“What the?” asked the first stallion, lighting up his horn. A pale lavender aura appeared around the cylinder as it flew to just before his eyesight. “What exactly is this?”

The cylinder promptly answered by exploding in a bright flash of light. At the same time, a massive, ear-shattering boom sounded out, enough to bathe the stone-carved hallway in a ringing, riotous echo.

“AAAAAGGHHHH!!” he wailed, not expecting the full force of the sun to imprint upon his retinas, combined with the full brunt of the explosion so close to his ears rupturing his eardrums. He immediately collapsed, his forehooves instinctively rubbing at his bleeding, damaged ears and at the same time, desperately trying to recall some—any—spell that would take away the retina-searing blindness he was feeling.

The second stallion, who hadn’t been looking directly at the cylinder, but instead farther down the otherwise empty passage they’d just come through, was not as strongly affected—but he still couldn’t see clearly. It was enough, however, for him to make out the silhouette of a tall unicorn stallion rushing right at him out of the blue.

The humans and phoenix quickly followed up after a minute or two, finding Blueblood using the first stallion’s own cloak as impromptu bandages to tend to his mangled eyes and ears, but only after having knocked him out cold. The other stallion was hogtied with his own cloak—except for the part Blueblood had ripped off and turned into a gag.

“Well, color me impressed,” said Aria, glancing down the dimly-lit hallway. She grimaced and added “Looks like the path splits ahead.”

“We’re gonna have to choose one path,” said Adagio.

“What if we split up?” suggested Blu.

“Here,” said Sonata, pulling out some radios, “over in the human world, we have these things called—”

“Radios, yes,” drawled Blu. “The pony world may be behind yours in technology, but we are familiar with radio waves.”

“We’ll need to figure out who’s going with who,” said Sable. “I recommend that we break into three elements. Capt. Dazzle, you and Cmdr. Blaze will take that pathway, while Cmdr. Dusk and I will go the middle route. Director, I suggest you take Petty Officer Foxtrot and go down the last path.”

“I concur,” Blu agreed. “You’re all used to working with each other while I’m used to working with teams of mix-n-match abilities, so that would be the best course of action.”

“Are you sure about this?” Whiskey asked.

“Absolutely—I don’t know how humans do it, but I’m not the Agency Director for nothing. The Agency doesn’t allow ponies without plenty of field experience to be in my position after all. Plus, they have Tavi,” he turned and looked down into the darkening abyss that awaited him, “And I’m her knight.”

45th Day of Spring—3:18AM

“FATHER LUX!” the stallion shouted, running into the atrium in a panic. “FATHER LUX!”

“WHAT?!” shouted the leader of the Covenant, clearly irate at the interruption. “We are in the middle of final preparations for the ritual! What reason do you have for bothering us now?!”

The stallion approached Lux and those gathered around him, among them the Oracle, and he was clearly out of breath. “We’re...we’re under attack!”

Lux exchanged a glance of momentary worry with the Oracle before turning back and laughing. “Oh, please, you think Canterlot could manage a response this quickly? They couldn’t even find their asses in the dark!”

Suddenly, a loud sharp percussive noise rang through the atrium, even though the pitch indicated it had come from far within the tunnels.

“No, it’s not Canterlot—it’s the humans!

“Impossible!” scoffed Oracle Dynamine, before turning to Lux.

“Impossible or not, they’re here!” the guard stated.

“We have no choice, then—rally the Covenant, the ritual must not be prevented! Not when we’re this close!” Dynamine suggested.

“Indeed,” Lux said through gritted teeth. He then reared to make himself look more imposing. “My brothers and sisters! The foul humans seek to stop the march of Destiny! Show them the futility of such hubris!”

Numerous cloaked ponies silently and efficiently did as they were bid, leaving for the armory while a few remained, continuing to draw arcane runes around the mirror in the atrium’s center.

“We need not hold them off for long,” Dynamine said calmly. “Just long enough for the work to be done.”

“Too right,” Lux agreed, but moved closer to his Oracle to speak without the other ponies hearing. “Though, I can’t help but be concerned about how the enemy managed to find us. We may have a traitor in our midst!”

“Perhaps,” Dynamine said indifferently. “It matters little at this juncture. Victory is certain.”

Father Lux studied her curiously. “Do you know something I don’t?” he asked, feeling small and insignificant next to Sombra’s all-knowing Oracle as he all too often did. But not for much longer. Your usefulness is about to reach an end, Oracle.

Dynamine sighed. “If you must know, one of our ponies guarding the Scions reported that he had seen what appeared to be an ethereal strand of red thread emanating from the human, but I didn’t think….”

“Too right, Oracle. You didn’t think!” Lux all but shouted, briefly drawing curious looks from the ponies working to complete the ritual space. He quietly hissed, “Why was I not informed of this?!”

“Quite simply, the thread didn’t match up with any known tracking spell, and further investigation yielded nothing: there was no trace of the thread when we next checked on the Scions.”

Lux sulked for a few moments. “You should still have informed me of the situation.”

“What’s done is done. And like I said, it makes no difference anyway. Once King Sombra is resurrected, the alicorns’ toy soldiers will be just that: mere playthings before his might!” ”

45th Day of Spring—5:31PM

Even from the sky, the trio in the carriage could tell that Dodge Junction was preparing for a big celebration.

“Ah wasn’t aware that th’ Country Cacophony Music Festival had gotten so dang big,” said Applejack, surprised.

“Well, as far as I know, this is the first time it's been held ever since the end of the Winter,” said Sunny. “Ponies want to get out and celebrate.”

“Maybe this could be good for our purpose here as well?” suggested Fluttershy.

“Yeah, aren’t you supposed to have been some kinda big hit as a music star? You and Miss Octavia? Obviously she can’t be here but you can play guitar and sing, right?”

Fluttershy nodded, patting the guitar case she’d brought along just in case—she didn’t know if it was her inherent magic or what, but her music seemed to bring a calming effect, especially around ponies. She knew if Rainbow—the one she knew—was here, she would make some comparison to some 80s movie that involved music bringing world peace. And time travel. And likely it would have been a reference that only Pinkie would have caught.

The sudden thought of her dying friend made Fluttershy wince inwardly, but she brushed it aside. She needed to be stronger than ever right now, especially for Pinkie’s sake—so that her sacrifice wouldn’t have been in vain.

Unaware of the teen’s thoughts, Applejack asked, “Can you do country? Ah’ll admit Ah never caught one of yer concerts back in Ponyville. Ah wuz...doin’ other stuff on th’ farm.”

Not catching the self-guilt trip, Fluttershy responded by simply pulling out her guitar and strumming a few notes, along with some lyrics:

“Comes the morning and the dreams all fade away
Hundred thousand changes, everything’s the same
I’ve been waiting long for one of us to say,
Save the light and let it never fade away”

As she played the final notes, the phaeton began to alight in front of their accommodations for the next two days: The Resort at Cherry Groves. Had either of the Raritys been among their number, they would have insisted it was more something along the lines of a timeshare than a true resort, but as the three that were in the group didn’t have exotic tastes, it was more than enough for them.

As the resort was still quite new, there weren’t accomodations for arriving air travelers, so the pegasi pulling the phaeton had to land on the adjacent street. As she helped Fluttershy down from the phaeton, Sunny’s heart skipped a beat when she heard the sound of a familiar filly’s voice.

“Daddy, look! That one kinda looks like Sunny!”

A little ways down the street was a gray earth pony stallion with a toeheaded mane and tail pulling along a cart full of food and supplies. Riding at the front of the cart was a tiny sky-blue filly with a blonde mane and tail nearly identical to Sunny’s own. What are the odds? Sunny thought with a joyful smile before remembering where she was and returning her attention to her charges.

But Applejack was looking up at her with a smile of her own, clearly understanding what was happening. “Go on an’ say hi, Sugarcube. We got time.”

Smiling appreciatively at her and Fluttershy both, Sunny turned and sprinted towards the other ponies. “Dad! Bright!

It was only when she noticed her little sister instinctively recoil and her father take a nervous step back that Sunny Side remembered what she looked like. She stopped a few feet away from the cart and two ponies, awkwardly rubbing her neck and waving.

“Hey guys, it’s me!” she exclaimed, adding a nervous, “Surpriiiiiiiiiise….”

Finally a spark of recognition entered her father’s eyes, and he said in his familiar deep twang, “Sunny?”

Sunny nodded. “Yep! I’m, uh… trying a new look!”

Starting to realize who the big human was as well, the little filly hopped down from the cart and took a few stubby steps forward, gasping, “Whoa… you’re rilly tall, Big Sis!”

Sunny giggled. She had missed her baby sister’s wide-eyed innocence.

Her father, on the other hoof, was still looking at her skeptically. “Yeah, it’s, uh… it’s nice to see you Sunny, but I gotta ask: what are you doing here and why do you look… like this?”

“And you haven’t written in a rilly rilly long time!” her little sister added.

“I know, and I’m sorry about that, but things have been crazy. We have a lot to catch up on!” Sunny explained. “I’m now part of the new Special Initiative set up by the new princess.” She then gestured back to where Applejack and Fluttershy were watching at a respectful distance. “I’m in town escorting Lady Bearer Applejack and Miss Fluttershy, one of Princess Sunset Shimmer’s court.”

Sunny then waved the two of them over, and when they approached she introduced them in turn before doing the same for her family. “This is my father, Iron Side….”

The strong stallion dipped his head towards Applejack. “Ma’am.”

Applejack took his foreleg in hers and shook it with gusto. “Howdy!”

“...and this is my baby sister, Bright Side.”

The tiny filly puffed her cheeks up in a pout. “Hey! I’m not a baby! I’m eight years old!”

“Yep, and I won’t care when you’re eighty. You’ll always be my baby sister!” Sunny exclaimed, ruffling Bright’s mane. The relatively recent addition of fingers allowed Sunny to apply some tactical massaging to the tiny filly’s noggin, and a little extra scratching behind her ears caused Bright to lean so far into her hand that she nearly fell over when Sunny took it away.

Whoa…” Bright exclaimed breathlessly, looking at Sunny’s new appendages like she was seeing the face of Faust. “Can you do that again?”

Unable to restrain herself any longer, Fluttershy bent down and started administering head scratches which the filly all too eagerly leaned into.

“We’re here as part of the ‘Charm Tour’ set up by Princess Sunset and Princess Twilight,” Sunny said, returning her attention to her father.

“Eeyup. Fluttershy here’ll be performin’ a short concert here at th’ resort t’morrow,” Applejack said, glancing at the girl in question who was now speaking in increasingly high-pitched gibberish to Bright Side as they continued to play. “Which Ah’m sure she’d love ta tell y'all about when she’s less… distracted.”

The stoic Iron Side couldn’t help but crack a smile at how easily the human girl was getting along with his daughter. “Well, I’d be happy to hear all about it,” he said. “Any chance the three of you might want to join us for dinner?”

“Actually, maybe you and Bright would like to join us,” said Sunny. “Apparently this resort has a five-star restaurant.”

“I’d like that.”

46th Day of Spring—5:48 PM

Her attention razor-focused on the two pegasi in front of her, Rainbow bellowed, “I WANT TO KNOW WHO IS IN CHARGE OF THIS CHICKEN COOP—NOW!” She knew she had the eyes of the others on her—she wanted it that way.

After all, their flight, for the most part had been good, until just before the phaeton pegasi began making their descent approach to Royal Naval Airfield Vanhoofer. That was when a flight of pegasi buzzed by too fast, causing turbulence hard enough to rock the vehicle, and had Moonblazer not been fast enough, Twilight would have fallen over the side. Immediately recognizing the offenders as members of Dust Devil squadron, Rainbow told the tow team to gently land behind her and then took off after her quarry, hurling herself at them fast enough that she nearly landed before them. The moment they were all on the ground however, she let loose.

“You got a problem with this operation?” came a very distinctly accented voice, one that was from the southern reaches of Equestria. Sure enough, a mare in a red and beige flight suit approached, and from her attitude, she certainly seemed to be cut from the same cloth as Rainbow in her early years. Her build was taller and leaner, with less muscles than Rainbow; and she had a deep violet coat which accented her cornflower and gray mane and tail. Her cyan eyes had a familiarly cocky look to them, though the mare also sported a noticeable X-shaped facial scar over her left eye. But the thing that caught Rainbow’s attention most was the fact she was limping with bandages around a lame right hind leg.

“Lt. Rolling Thunder—I’m the flight leader of Dust Devil Flight Three,” said the mare, introducing herself. “And I guess you must be Lt. Rainbow Dash, yeah?”

Rainbow’s eyes narrowed. “Normally, yes—but right now, you can address me as Lady Knight Rainbow Dash, Bearer of the Element of Loyalty, Lieutenant. And then after that, you can explain why the hell you just buzzed a Crown VIP phaeton.”

Thunder’s eyes widened. “What?” As if on cue, the phaeton immediately came to a landing right behind Rainbow. The look of panic on her face widened as it was clear the VIPs in question...were humans, the strange new species that had come to Equestria as part of Princess Sunset’s entourage.

“So, start explaining,” Rainbow told her.

Thunder sighed. “I...have no excuse,” she said, gesturing to her injuries. “I should be up there, teaching them, but as you can see, I’m not flightworthy right now, milady. And had I known there was going to be a VIP approach, I would’ve kept these low-wingers on the ground. As it is, I’m busting my tail to get them their flight quals!”

Rainbow realized at that point that it was just the four flight pegasi, plus a couple of members of the support crew “Where’s your CO? Your XO?”

“Out in town supporting the Guard with the riots,” Thunder explained. “As for the SMO, they left me behind to train our newest recruits.” That made sense to Rainbow; Squadron Maneuver Officers—or SMOs for short—were charged with the training of squadron flight personnel. “But as you can see, we’re short on qualified candidates.” The taller pegasus sighed. “Unlike the Wonderbolts who have an Academy just to be able to make it into the squadron, we’re a regular combat squadron, which means we evaluate and take on anypony who signs up. Unfortunately, with so many qualified ponies already gone for one reason or another, well….” She shrugged her wings, as if the gesture explained everything.

“You make it sound as if they can’t do the complex calculations that are required for aerobatics and combat maneuvers,” Rainbow stated.

“They can’t!” Thunder shouted back, pointing to a dark-gray mare. “Rollover there? You know what she used to do for a living? Let’s just say it involved counting to one, and making sure where inputs and outputs go. She signed up because the recruiter she was sleeping with told her it was a good way to make quick money for her family back home.” She then pointed to a stallion who looked very much out of place in a uniform. “Sh’Oab over there grew up in Sibearia! He can barely speak Equish! The reason he joined was that he wanted to ‘protect his kind’—" she did air quotes with her forehooves "—and a member of the Sibearean military referred him to Equestria’s military! And don’t get me started on Wipeout!”

Hearing her name, Wipeout, a white pegasus with a green-and-brown mane and tail, waved to Rainbow. She had the same strabismus issue as Derpy, Rainbow noted, but where Derpy had intelligence in her eyes, with Wipeout, it was clear that the stars in her eyes shone through the hole in the back of her head.

“So you’re saying that—”

“I need to teach them complex flight calculations, because somehow all three of them managed to avoid getting them in their life. Hell, it’s a wonder they can even fly! Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they can pick it up, but I’m an SMO, not a flight school teacher. This is stuff they should have learned as foals—and with all the crises going on, I don’t have time to turn them down or turn them away!”

“Then maybe I can help.” All eyes turned to one of the humans, who had gotten out of the phaeton. To Thunder, she looked a lot like a human version of Princess Twilight Sparkle, though that obviously didn’t make any sense.

Rainbow looked at Twilight and grinned. “Egghead stuff, huh?”

“If I can be a substitute teacher for foals, I can probably teach these ponies. And, as my sister would say, that’s probably the most important thing, right?”

Thunder looked at the newcomer. “Uh, sorry, Miss Human, no offense intended, but I don’t think you know the first thing about fli—”

L=Cl*A*5*r*V^2,” Twilight rattled off the top of her head.

Thunder’s eyes threatened to pop out of her own head. “How in Tartarus do you know the basic equation for flight?”

Twilight said nothing, but instead just crossed her arms and smirked.

Rainbow stifled a laugh and said, “Think you can help them?”

“Not a problem.”

Rainbow turned back to Thunder. “Will you accept the help? Or do I need to make it an order?”

Thunder got the point immediately. “Well, Miss Human, if you follow me, I’ve got a chalkboard and some other things that you can use to teach these low-wingers. Celestia knows they’ll need every bit of it.”

As Twilight followed Thunder and the others, Moonblazer went up to Rainbow. “Time to go,” she told the senior officer.

Rainbow looked at her. “You stay with Twilight. I’ll go rustle up the base commander and find out what else is going on.”

“You don’t have to.” Moonblazer pointed at an earth pony wearing a naval uniform, talking to an Army brigadier. To Rainbow, that spelled trouble.

“They came looking for you the moment we landed,” Moonblazer explained. “They want to speak to you and me. You because of your higher rank, if you get my drift.”

And you?”

“Because I’m a SIREN—and the moment they realized the Special Initiative was available, they made it clear to involve me. I’ve already detailed one of the tow team to stay with Twilight.”

“Fine,” Rainbow said, not liking this at all. “Let’s get going then.”

46th Day of Spring—7:00AM

Sunset yawned as she got out of bed. As they arrived late yesterday, the first thing they did was check into their hotel rooms at the Golden Tiara Resort & Spa, the grandest hotel in all of Fillydelphia and only a stone’s throw from the Faust Memorial Library. In fact, her penthouse had a clear view of it.

As she set her legs on the floor, she looked at the bed. The staff had apologized profusely for not having a minotaur-sized bed available for her, and while she could have taken care of that herself via magic, she didn’t want them to think that she didn’t respect them or the care they’d taken in making sure they felt at home, here in the ancient capital and “cradle of ponykind”. Besides, she reasoned, she rarely had the opportunity to sleep at home in her normal form, and while she was long used to sleeping as a human, there were some advantages to sleeping as an alicorn.

For one, I can cover myself with my own wings. Can’t say I come with built-in blankets in my daily form, she thought, mentally chuckling at the image in her head.

No sooner had she exhaled than had a furious banging began to sound at her door. Shaking her head at what she already knew was likely to happen, she reached out to the door handle with her magic and pulled it open, only to find that the door had been one second short of being bulldozed by Pinkie, wearing a toque and pushing in a cart loaded with more pancakes, syrup and various confections that any being in any universe had a right to be pushing.

“Hi!” the pink pony squealed. “I figured you were going to sleep in, so I thought I’d bring you breakfast! I figure your sweetie usually does this, but since she’s out of…” Pinkie realized she was about to make a verbal faux pas and quickly amended with, “Unavailable! Yes, let’s go with that! Anyway, since she can’t do it, I thought I’d bring a little Pinkieness into your life and make you breakfast in bed or something!”

“Pinkie, you really don’t have to,” Sunset pled.

“Oh, it’s never a problem, Sunny!”

“No, I meant it—you really don’t have to.”

“Again, no problemo!” With that, Pinkie pulled the cover off one of the serving trays, letting a dozen balloons gaily float into the air. “I thought we’d start off with some pretty balloons!” Pinkie chirped, apparently far too in her idea to realize that Sunset was already giving her a lidded look. “I love balloons, don’t you?”

Sunset facehoofed and seriously debated banishing Pinkie to the moon, but then reconsidered as she’d likely have to answer to her aunt for that. I swear, you’re not my Pinkie, she thought, ignoring the possessive term and all it implied. At least she wouldn’t be this...this….this!

A knock sounded at the door, and Ushanka poked her head in. “Apologies, Your Highness,” she said. “If I had known she had planned to do this, I would have….” The rest of the sentence was lost in a stoic Slavic-like nature that was Ushanka’s normal demeanor.

“Good, Ushanka, you’re here. Now I can lose my sanity in relative peace.”

“Is there something you need me to get for you, Your Highness?”

Sunset shook her head.

“Bring me the Disco King!” Pinkie said to Ushanka.

Ushanka, in return, blinked in confusion.

Sunset groaned. “Fuck this,” she hissed. “I’m going to go get some breakfast. I’ll meet you girls in thirty minutes by the phaeton.” With that, she started to depart the room.

“Where are you going?” Ushanka asked.

“Paris! At least I’ll get some peace and quiet!” With that, she teleported away.

Pinkie watched as the alicorn departed. She then turned to Ushanka and asked, “Would you like breakfast? Got a ton of pancakes and some syrup, whipped cream, chocolate syrup, caramel, and a whole bunch of other stuff! Even I can’t eat it all!”

Ushanka just stared in disbelief. “Do you realize what you’ve done, Lady Pie?”

Pinkie nodded. “Yup. She’s worried about her fillyfriend, but she’s not going to admit it. Sunny’s not that kind of mare. Hopefully, by getting her to go out, maybe it’ll help her to get her mind off her worry. She’s not me, but I don’t think Pinkie...well, the other Pinkie, obviously...would like it if Sunny worried constantly.”

“You could have just told her that, you know.”

“No. She’s too headstrong to listen. You can see that. Besides, I’ll have plenty of time to talk to her later. But for now….” She held up a plate with a stack of pancakes on it. “Care for some crystalberry pancakes? Just made ‘em!”

45th Day of Spring—1:59PM

Normally, the halls of Nobility House were generally welcoming, even if the majority of those it served were anything but. After all, this had once been Celestia’s home—her original one in Canterlot, before the current palace was built. So whenever she came here for various reasons, in some ways, it always felt like a homecoming of sorts.

Now, however, the expanses before her seemed to be imposing—imperialistic even—and it unnerved the ruling princess. For a mare of her extremely advanced age, to have what was once her own home turned into a virtual place of judgement felt like a former sanctuary having turned against her.

But the nobility can not be denied, she thought glumly, passing through the doorways. At least she had Luna to accompany her on what felt like a perpetrator’s march to the gallows.

“I honestly can not fathom what the nobility wants,” Luna nickered. “Are they grumpy because the coronation’s gone south and it took all night to figure out what happened? We barely had any time to lower the moon and raise the sun!”

“Leaving the nobility intact was part of the agreement we made with their ancestors thousands of years ago,” sighed Celestia. “Though the ponies back then would be offended to learn how...disagreeable their descendents are. Most of them, at least.”

“Let’s just get this over with.”

But Luna also felt trepidation when they entered the main atrium. The glare of virtually all the nobles—the only ones not in attendance most likely having been hit by the Allucinor Wings—seemed to bore through her soul. With nothing being said, the two princesses took their seats in front of the gathered crowd. Shortly afterward, Riven Oak appeared at the dais.

“Princess Celestia,” he intoned, sounding as if he thought he embodied the will of all the other nobles—and at that moment, he probably did. “I’m sure you and your sister have plenty enough to handle at the moment, but the gathered nobles here are all in concordance and we wish to enact...L'Équilibre de la Noblesse.”

Luna had a puzzled look on her muzzle. “I’m...not familiar with that, I’m afraid.”

Celestia said in an aside to her sister, “It’s old Prench. It means—”

“I know what it means, Cellie,” Luna whispered back. “I just don’t know what it pertains to.”

Celestia looked at her sister with a non-expression, but Luna knew her sister well enough to see the deep worry in her eyes. “That’s because it only came about after your...episode. I passed it after the Civil War saw Nightmare Moon banished, so that ponies would always have the means to legally prevent another such as her.”

“That still doesn’t explain what it is, sister.”

“It is impeachment,” said Oak, clearly enjoying the ability to even state what was probably a wet dream of the greedy, power hungry nobles. “And after everything that has happened in the past year, we believe it is in ponykind’s best interest that you, Princess Celestia, are removed from your position as High Ruler of Equestria. And while...regrettable...we have to think of the safety and welfare of the citizenry in the long run.”

Luna gasped. “You...you can’t do that!”

“They can, sister,” said Celestia, keeping an even look on her face. “In fact, they tried to invoke it on you immediately after your return, fearing you were still Nightmare Moon. Fortunately, your...inexperience with the modern world proved you were not.” She then turned to Riven Oak, “I trust I will be allowed the customary time to form my defense.”

“Of course,” Oak stated. “That is what the law requires and that is what we agreed upon.”

“Very well then. Is that all or is there other business to attend to?”

“No, that is all.”

No sooner had the two left the room than did Luna let her feelings be known.

“Those intolerable bastards!” she whinnied in anger. “Those plotholes will see this country burned to the ground if it means more bits in their coffers!”

“Not all of us, at least,” came a new voice, and as the two sisters turned, they found none other than Fancy Pants having followed them out. “I trust you aren’t including me among my, ahem, more notorious peers?”

“Of course not,” said Luna, favoring him with a smile. “You’re one of the few nobles that truly engender the term.”

Fancy Pants bowed. “Well, if it means anything, I have taken the liberty to proffer to the impeachment group that I shall be representing you as your legal counsel. That is, of course, if you should desire that, Your Majesty.”

“Thank you, Fancy Pants,” said Celestia, genuinely touched by the gesture.

“Though with that now established…” he tugged at his collar nervously, “as your legal counsel, I would recommend you turn over full control of the government to your sister, at least for the moment.”

“What?” The suggestion clearly caught Celestia off guard.

“Given that the case against you stems from mismanagement of the government, it would be wise to step away from the throne, if only temporarily, to prevent them from trying to use anything else against you that they don’t already have.”

“...you’re right,” the solar matriarch finally said in agreement, before turning to Luna. “I’m sorry, sister, but I must ask—”

“Consider it done,” said Luna. “You’ll need some time away from all this, anyway. We should have Kibbitz’s office draft the accords as soon as possible.”

46th Day of Spring—7:03PM

The meeting now over, Rainbow and Moonblazer departed the building, both disquieted by the revelation. Rainbow was the first to speak. “I remember Rainbud,” she said simply. “She was a helluva pain in the plot, but I never thought she’d turn traitor!”

“I don’t believe it,” was all Moonblazer said.

“Yeah, it’s hard to believe, but these are the times we live in, I guess.” Rainbow Dash scowled. It seemed that loyalty was especially hard to come by these days.

Moonblazer stopped in place. “No, I mean I don’t believe it.”

Rainbow looked over her shoulder at the once-batpony. “You don’t think Rainbud’s really a traitor?” she asked, and when Moonblazer shook her head, Rainbow followed her question with another. “Why? You know her?”

Moonblazer shook her head again. “Well no, but….”

“C’mon, Moonblazer. You heard the report in there! She all but admitted it to Black Tar!”

“She admitted to losing faith in the princesses, but that doesn’t mean she’s a traitor!” Moonblazer argued, on the cusp of raising her voice. “Way I hear it, that kind of sentiment has been pretty popular these days.”

Rainbow cocked her head and looked at the humanized batpony like she was simple. “Yeah, popular with traitors!”

Rainbow knew she didn’t like Moonblazer the moment they first met. An egghead like Twilight might suggest that it was because she reminded Rainbow of her own worst qualities—her hotheadedness and her ego—but Rainbow knew that wasn’t it. Now, she believed she had finally figured it out: Moonblazer clearly didn’t value the virtue of loyalty!

With a petulant scowl (that most definitely didn’t remind Rainbow of herself!) Moonblazer said, “Not everyone who looks like a traitor is one, you know!”

Rainbow flew up so that the two were eye-to-eye. “And what do you know about that sort of thing, huh?”

Rainbow expected yet another petulant outburst from the mercurial batpony. But instead, Moonblazer looked at her with eyes filled with...sorrow?

“I know that sort of thing because I’m from a tribe that many ponies still don’t trust because my ancestors sided with Nightmare Moon during the civil war. A war that happened centuries ago, and yet ponies still think we're Nightmare Moon worshippers! Hell, I even got it from my own sister!”

Rainbow looked at her, confused. “What, your own sister’s a Nightmare Moon worshipper?”

“Kinda weird for a pegasus to be that—and my parents wouldn’t have let her in any case, given that they’re pegasi as well.”

“Wait—your parents are pegasi?” Now Rainbow was really confused. “You adopted or something?”

“Not even.” Moonblazer rolled her eyes. “Look, clearly my family had a batpony ancestor and I got the luck of the draw; you make it sound as if that’s not common. But that’s not the point. Anyway, it’s bad enough that I get it as a batpony, but when your sister’s Lemonburst, well, then you really get shit.”

Rainbow’s jaw dropped. “Lemonburst? The famous actress?”

“Yes Lemonburst, who hates her sister for being a batpony and thus ‘dragging down her career,’ despite there being no proof of that. Lemonburst, who didn’t listen to my parents when they explained that yes, I was born to our mother and no, I wasn’t adopted and definitely no, they weren’t going to send me to batpony jail or whatever. And I’ve put up with shit all my life.” She then gestured to herself. “I even heard from Cmdr. Blaze that the human tribe I’m now a part of also gets shit back in the human world. So yes, I know what it’s like to be accused of shit you didn’t do.

“Now, I have no clue whether or not Ens. Rainbud is guilty and frankly, it’s none of my business. And with all due respect, lieutenant, I don’t think it’s yours, either. It isn’t our job to pass judgement on Rainbud—especially when all of the facts aren’t clear yet. So maybe we shouldn’t abandon our loyalty to our fellow serviceponies until they are.”

Moonblazer remained silent for a moment after, and for the life of her Rainbow couldn’t quite bring herself to fill it. She thought she had the measure of Moonblazer right up until she used that word. Loyalty.

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Moonblazer said with a confident tone of finality that seemed at odds with her apparent human age, “I need to go meet up with Lady Sparkle and do my job.” Nothing more to say, she walked off, leaving the pegasus behind with a whole lot of confusion and far more questions than answers.

45th Day of Spring—3:20AM

Down in the cavernous lair’s dungeon cells, the loud percussive echoes suddenly sounded out, putting the conscious occupants on edge.

“What was that?” asked Lock, concerned.

Razz, of course knew; she’d been around guns just long enough to recognize the noise. “I think the SIRENs are here.”

Then, the sound of a much closer struggle sounded and the Covenant guard that was supposed to be watching the imprisoned Scions flew across the room, crashing into the opposite wall and collapsing in a heap. A fresh line of blood was evident on his neck, which telegraphed the arrival of Corner Shot rushing over and, surprisingly, grabbing the keys off the still warm corpse. Noticeably, Corner was now sporting what looked to be a hastily-packed saddlebag.

“Oh, great, you’re back,” drolled Lock, clearly none too thrilled to see the one Scion who had embraced Sombra the most.

“What do you want now, Corner?” asked Razz suspiciously. “We’re not about to start worshiping Sombra like you if that’s what you’re here for.”

“Fuck Sombra, Fuck the Covenant, Fuck everything!” spat out Corner, clearly fretting over something upsetting. Finally prying the keys off the dead guard, she raced over to the cell containing the other three Scions and began trying to figure out which key would unlock it. “Long story short: they’re going to kill me and your human friend if they get their way, and I doubt you two will last much longer after that. So I’m willing to make a deal: I set you all free and we work together to get out of this minotaurshit fuckhole filled with morons as far as the eye can see, you get the law off my ass so I can fuck off to some other part of the world and live a solitary life.”

“And you expect us to belie—" began Lock, before Razz interrupted.

“Deal,” the darker unicorn answered, silencing any further retort from Lock with a stern look.

“Okay, fine, we’ll trust the literal backstabber for now,” the blacksmith grumbled. “But what are we going to do about her?” She gestured to the still slumbering form of Octavia. “We wake her up, she’s going to start screaming her head off, but she’s too big to effectively carry out on our own!”

“Got you covered,” said Corner, who used her good wing to reach into the saddlebag and pulled out a bottle of a sickly green-blue looking mixture. She then shoved it into the bars of the cell, allowing Razz to pick it up with her telekinesis and bring it close to read.

“Healthy Hearth’s Hale and Hearty Herbal,” she read, eyes opening wide as she realized what it was: an expensive brand of magical elixir that even Princess Twilight said was hard to come by for her uses. “This shit is expensive! Where did you—"

“I hit the base infirmary on the way here,” said Corner, grunting as the fifth key she tried wouldn’t even fit into the hole in the lock.

“Pity this cell is magically suppressive,” said Lockbox. “Given that I probably could have picked it from here if only—"

“Shut up!” whinnied Corner.

Ignoring Lock for the moment, Razz looked at the healing remedy and the sleeping form of Octavia. She would have greatly preferred keeping the teen asleep so the pain would pass naturally, but...there was no choice.

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