• Published 2nd Feb 2024
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Fury of the Storm - HK-FortySeven



Anon escapes captivity with his new evil apprentice and takes revenge on the world. And has a great time doing it.

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Hard Knock Life


Present Day


Dear Princess Twilight,

I apologize for taking so long to respond to your letters: I have been occupied with serious matters in my homeland, and could not spare any time to bring your request before the Elders. Fortunately, that has now changed, and you will be pleased to hear that after careful consideration, they and my fellow Princes have agreed to evaluate the statue of this strange “Anonymous” creature of yours, and determine if he should indeed be interred within our special prison, reserved only for rogue Princes and hoofcrafted to block all use of their powers.

Don’t be concerned: from what you have told me of this battle you waged with him, I have little doubt that he will be given a place in the deepest depths of the prison.

However, this also means that the statue must be transported to the Quaternary Palace in Zebrat to be evaluated. Given what you have told me of the resourcefulness and forward thinking of this “Anonymous”, I am sure you agree that simply shipping it here without special protection is a terrible idea. To that end, I will be personally travelling to Equestria with both my fellow Prince, Zabraxas, and a retinue of our finest honourguards, to aid in the safe transit of his statue. With our combined powers and experience, I believe we will be able to help provide the utmost protection against any attempts to steal the statue, or worse yet, to liberate the creature within.

I plan to embark on my journey in a few days, pending our arrival at the port of Nanga. From there, it will be a month’s journey by sea. I would greatly appreciate any input you may have that may further increase the security of the statue, or better yet, will expedite the process without compromising that security.

And I will admit, I am very much looking forward to not only meeting you in zebra pony person, but to seeing your land of Equestria with my own eyes. I have never set hoof outside of Zebrica before, and I must confess that I find myself rather excited with the prospect of visiting such a faraway land, especially that of fellow equines. With any luck, I hope that this endeavour will herald the beginning of a newfound and friendly understanding between our peoples.

May you remain safe,
Prince Zakurai of the First Line


Princess Celestia and Princess Luna look up from the letter and down towards Twilight Sparkle, who was currently preoccupied with vibrating in place, wearing a smile large enough to rival Pinkie Pie’s as she looked back up towards the two elder monarchs upon their thrones. The actual Pinkie Pie and the rest of the Element Bearers, along with the ever-present Spike, look on at the elated Princess with amusement, and Celestia adds her own look to the visual chorus. Luna, however, does not.

Finally, Twilight could contain herself no more. With a tiny little neigh, she reared back and kicked her forelegs out, extended her wings, and her horn glowed with power. By the time she came back down onto all fours, she had teleported a small pile of other letters in front of her, and all but shoved them towards the two elder alicorns.

“I know, it’s amazing!” she squealed, her words coming out in rapid fire. “But that’s only the first letter I got from him, and that was a few days ago! We talked and talked about the details, I got the girls to write some letters to him as well, and I even asked Captain Celaeno to head down and pick them up, so they won’t have to sail all the way here! That way, it’ll only take them a week to get here! Or it will, once she gets back to me about—”

As if providence itself were listening, Spike burped up another letter, causing Twilight to cut herself off and immediately take the scroll with her magic. After quickly reading it’s contents, she squeed with delight again, rearing back and kicking once again.

“She said yes!” she squeals, getting some cheers from the other Element Bearers. “They’re heading there right now!”

Twilight adds the letter to the bottom of the stack, now suspended in Celestia and Luna’s magical auras. Right away, she has Spike dictate a letter to the faraway Prince informing him of this change to their plans. And after using a spell to duplicate the scroll’s contents to a fresh sheet of parchment, Twilight has Spike send the letter right away. She, of course, adds that letter to the stack as well.

“Yeah, she’s been like this for a few days now,” Spike says to the two sisters, chuckling a little.

Twilight briefly glares down at Spike, but doesn’t stay mad for very long, going right back to looking at the Princesses expectantly. “Well? Well? Isn’t this exciting?!”

“Think of the parties!” Pinkie interjects, popping up in front of Twilight in a shower of confetti.

Twilight’s excitement at these developments threatened to eclipse Pinkie’s. While it was true that this represented a chance to finally rid themselves of him for good, she was far more taken with the idea of forging more friendships across the world. Indeed, the idea she had to create a school of friendship was already being enhanced in her mind with the possible addition of students from the faraway land. A long shot, to be sure, but she hoped beyond hope that it might just happen! Already her thoughts were awash with the possibilities!

“This is quite the development, Twilight,” Celestia finally said after reading some of the many scrolls, wearing a proud little smile. “And you all volunteered to help protect the statue yourselves?”

“We did,” Applejack replies, nodding her head. “We beat that mean piece’a work before. Stands ‘ta reason we oughta be there in case he tries anythin’ funny.”

“Heck yeah!” Rainbow Dash boasts, kicking her forelegs as she continued flying in place.

“Fair enough,” Celestia continues, “Though I have a few suggestions of my own, if you would like to—”

Yes!” Twilight immediately bleats.

Celestia tittered into her hoof before proceeding. “I believe we should involve the hippogriffs in this, too.”

“Ah, yes,” Luna finally pipes up. “They suffered greatly under the boot of Anonymous as well. They would have a vested interest in ensuring he is sealed away for good.”

If anypony noticed the ever-present concern etched into Luna’s tone and expression, they didn’t comment on it. But Celestia certainly did, and she had a sneaking suspicion she knew what that concern was. But it was a matter she would discuss with her later.

“Oh, no!” Twilight gasped, covering her mouth with her hooves. “I-I completely forgot about them! I just—”

“It’s quite all right, Twilight,” Celestia reassures her former pupil. “Why don’t you let me handle that part? I’m sure Queen Novo would look forward to visiting us again, if nothing else.”

“Yes!” And just like that, Twilight perked right back up. “That’s a great idea!”

“My other suggestion,” Celestia continues, “Is that I can’t help but notice that you’ve made no mention of bringing any guards with you.”

“Oh! Guards!” This time, she was more embarrassed than shocked. “R-right, heh heh, that might be a little important.”

“I’ll have my finest guards accompany you all,” Celestia declares with a small nod.

“And mine as well,” Luna concurs.

“I certainly hope there will be room on the ship for all those ponies,” Rarity wonders aloud.

“There totally will be, Rares!” Rainbow reassures her friend. “They used to haul cargo on that thing: there’ll be plenty of space!”

“Besides, that Prince feller is bringin’ his own guards too,” Applejack adds. “Nothin’ wrong with pitchin’ in some of our own.”

“Then it’s settled,” Celestia states with a smile.

“I’ll let him know about this right away!” Twilight cheered, clopping her hooves together. “Spike, take a letter!”

“Here we go again,” he mutters.

With a spring in her step, Twilight cantered out of the throne room, her friends following suit and promising to return once they got a reply. Now that they were alone, Luna gave a tired exhale.

“It’s about the zebras, isn’t it?” Celestia asked with a knowing tone.

“Tia, you remember as well as I do how poorly their ancient king treated his subjects, nevermind the two of us,” Luna replied, the sourness apparent in her tone. “And I know you remember how rude and haughty their people were, too, in spite of their squalor.”

“That was well over a millennia ago, you know that,” Celestia reminds her. “And according to this Prince, that throne has been abolished for nearly half a millennia now. Their people would surely have changed to reflect this.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Luna hums. “Either way, I do not like this. Even if this Zakurai is genuine in his peaceful intentions, how am I to know his ilk, or his people, are truly different than the zebras of that time?”

“We don’t,” came her simple reply, a flash of surprise crossing Luna’s expression when she hears it. “We will have to judge for ourselves when we see them in pony.”

“Mmm.” Luna’s hum of agreement quickly moves into her making a further point. “I will not lie, sister. Those Princes being cyphers still sits very badly with me.”

“I know. It makes me uneasy, too. But again, we can’t do much but judge the matter for ourselves once we finally meet them.”

“I will make certain to practice Magical Equilibrium before they arrive, in the event of a worst case scenario.”

“I don’t think it will come to that.” Celestia then leans down to speak quietly into her sister’s ear. “All the same, we should practice together.”

“Hah! Like our magic lessons under Starswirl?”

“This time without the failing grades.”

Luna allowed herself to laugh as Celestia stuck her tongue out at her. But as quickly as the moment came, it left.

“I think Twilight should be practising that spell as well,” Luna adds, back to her more serious tone of voice.

“I hardly think she of all ponies needs the practice,” Celestia titters. “In fact, last I heard, she was teaching Rarity and Cadance how to use it themselves.”

“Truly?”

“I think it was more to protect against his possible return, but yes.”

Luna rolls her eyes. “Anonymous has a name, dear sister.”

Celestia’s brow knits and her smile falls. “And Anonymous’s name has a way of compromising my calm.”

“If the compromise you speak of involves anger bright enough to melt steel, then I share your distaste. Regardless, withholding it only gives him power he ought not have.”

“I know. It’s just...” She trails off with a sigh.

In truth, Anonymous angered Celestia the most of all the princesses. This one creature had come out of nowhere, with no history, no past, and no warning. And yet, in the span of only a single week, had threatened to undo all of Equestria, all of Harmony itself, accomplishing more in that week than even the likes of Tirek or Chrysalis had achieved over far longer spans of time. But most wounding and infuriating for her was the harm he had inflicted onto Twilight. Harm she should have been there to prevent. That was reason alone for her to hate the stallion, but when all of his misdeeds were combined together, it left her with a figure that, for the first time in many centuries, she truly despised.

She would be beyond happy to see him gone for good. Discord’s creative and repeated vandalism of his statue could only do so much for her anger, even if he involved her in it on several occasions. He was in a similar position to her when it came to his opinion of Anonymous, only his ire stemmed from how he had harmed Fluttershy.

Giving her head a light shake, she attempts to push the thought of Anonymous from her head by starting on that letter to Queen Novo, summoning her parchment and utensils. Perhaps she should join Discord later on today to help work out some stress—

“Sister.” Now it was Luna’s turn to use a knowing tone with Celestia. “You’ve every right to be angry with Anonymous for what he’s done. But believe me when I say you do not want to feed that emotion.”

“I know. It’s...” She lets out another sigh as she sends the letter with her magic. “I’ve never been so... angry with another creature before. I’m not sure how to handle it.”

“I wish I had a good answer for you, Tia. Just know that I am always here to talk about it, should you need to.”

The sisters’ brief nuzzling is interrupted by the throne room doors flying open and Twilight flying through, holding a new letter in her magical grasp.

“He just wrote back,” she squealed. “He’s okay with all of it! I did the math, and he should be here sometime in the next two weeks!”

“That’s wonderful news, Twilight,” said Celestia, her smile returned. “I’m just waiting to hear back from Queen Novo now.”

“Speaking of hearing back,” Luna adds, “We should address the matter of guards now, while we are thinking of it.”

Nodding her agreement, Celestia and Luna both summon their own parchment and quill, and begin writing letters to their guard commanders to requisition their finest guards for this endeavour. As they write, Twilight’s friends rush in to catch back up with her, and laugh among themselves over her sudden outburst of excitement. But mere moments after the two sisters send their letters, Spike coughs up yet another one that Twilight is quick to seize and metaphorically tear into.

The elder princesses do not like how their junior’s expression is falling as she reads the words.

“What...?” Twilight mutters, more confused than anything.

“Darling, whatever’s the matter?” Rarity inquires.

She shows them the letter, and as they read it, their expressions fall as well, the primary emotion shared between them all being that of annoyance.

“Really?” Applejack deadpans. “That feller couldn’t wait until after this whole thing to do this?”

“Ugh,” Rainbow Dash groaned through a facehoof. “This poor guy. I know some flyers that act like this.”

“Hmph, seems that ‘compromise’ is not a word in his vocabulary,” Rarity huffs.

“Do not keep us in suspense!” Luna calls out. “What is in that letter?”

The letter is floated over to the two sisters next, and they waste no time in perusing it’s content.


Princess Twilight,

I am afraid that there will be an additional complication to our handling of your ‘Anonymous’, and unfortunately, it lies on my end, despite my efforts to resolve it. I mentioned earlier that I enlisted the aid of my fellow prince Zabraxas to aid us in the safe transit of your statue. He is a Prince that concerns himself in matters of justice, and is thoroughly uncompromising on the matter. In most other situations, I would laud this as a positive thing, but unfortunately, it has now introduced that aforementioned complication.

Prince Zabraxas, on occasion, visits prisons across Zebrica to give a select few inmates a chance to redeem themselves, bringing them with him on his journeys to benefit from his experience and see the error of their ways. And he has decided that our international journey is the perfect time to bring a fresh batch of inmates with him on another such tour.

As you would expect, this poses a serious and significant security risk. Unfortunately, Prince Zabraxas has categorically refused to delay his reformation tour until our return, in spite of my requests and arguments. He sees this as a matter of both duty and principle, and he is unwilling to be flexible on the matter.

As such, I have requested more honourguards to compensate for this development. I am thankful to hear that you are bringing guards of your own, as this will help greatly to offset any potential issues this may cause us. But I am not at all pleased with this turn of events.

I can only offer you my sincerest apologies for this inconvenience, and my hope that this will not affect the transport of the statue, nor reflect poorly on our relations going forward.

Yours,
Prince Zakurai of the First Line


Celestia regarded the letter with a unamused stare. Luna, on the other hoof, was having her instincts on the Zebrican people vindicated before her eyes.

“That’s... quite unfortunate,” Celestia finally said.

It was only Luna’s diplomatic experience that kept her ‘I told you so’ contained.


INTERVAL I
Prison Architects


RING-RING-RING

“All right, you maggots,” the forestallion bellows above his ringing of the work bell, “Shift’s over for the day! Now get your worthless tails out of my mine!”

My buck against the green-streaked walls of the copper mine completed just as the stallion began his proclamation, and I held the pose as he spoke, the studs in the mining horseshoes keeping my hind hooves anchored into the wall. Indeed, all of the other labourers—each of them inmates like myself—stopped the moment he began speaking as well, not daring to risk the wrath of the guards overseeing them.

With a twist of my hindlegs, my hooves came free from the walls, just in time for the guard assigned to my small group to tug at the chain attached to our yokes. He leads us like dogs out of the hot, dusty, candle- and lantern-lit mine shaft, travelling through tight, cramped, and winding tunnels occasionally broken up with rickety ladders. Eventually, however, we arrive at a massive, wide-open cavern full of other inmates, waiting in line at the heavily guarded prisoner processing facility in the middle of the cavern that gated access to the sole cargo lift that led back up to the prison complex. The lineups of work groups at the facility’s doors—three prisoners to one guard—were long as expected, but our turn came soon enough. The guards there had the routine down to a science at this point: place us in a crush, remove our mining equipment and yokes, peel the filthy and damp cloth face masks off of our muzzles, inspect us for any stolen material, and once all was in order, funnel us towards the elevator.

It was deequinizing, and I expected no less from prison; this was far from the first time I’d been to one, but it was the first time I had been sent to one of those much-rumoured work prisons. It was honestly impressive, seeing just how efficiently they used zebras like myself for hard labour like this. The tough, routine work bled out most of the dumber criminals’ aggression, and put real fear into the minds of the self-styled “intelligent” criminals for once in their pampered, slovenly lives, motivating them to work lest their assigned guard beat them, or informed the administration to have their meal for the day outright revoked as a punishment.

I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the yelps from some of the stallions stuck in inspection, caught trying to smuggle out some ore and subjecting both themselves and their group members to a mandatory cavity search. I don’t know why some of them think smuggling out worthless copper ore is a good idea, but I suppose that it’s further proof that for some zebras, there’s simply no end to their stupidity.

I’m just thankful the idiot wasn’t in my group. The inspections are swift, but they are not gentle.

A loud buzzer cuts through the sound of the chatter, indicating that the elevator has reached capacity. Mine guards armed with shock-prods and teargas splash potions step onto the elevator next, forming a ring around our little group of prisoners and dissuading any escape attempts. Not that you could escape from the deepest depths of a mine, but I had seen plenty of dense zebras try regardless. The guard leader blows a whistle to signal their readiness, and moments later, the elevator platform lurches underhoof, the thick chains connecting it to the prison above pulling taut with a sudden CLINK as they begin to raise us to the surface.

My eyes naturally travel upwards, observing each level of the mine as it comes. We worked in one of the lower levels today, so there was nearly five minutes of travel time to look forward to. Each mine level was separated by tens of metres of solid stone, presumably to avoid any chances of caving in, and the roughly cut vertical tunnel the elevator occupied was much wider than the elevator itself, requiring a drawbridge at each level to even board the thing. The platform gently swayed as it rose, unsupported by any kind of guide rail. That was the true reason the shaft was much wider than the elevator: such rails were expensive, and prisoners weren’t worth that expense. Indeed, they deserved to swing about, or so the justification goes. Though the mine guards certainly didn’t appreciate it, either.

Eventually, the natural stone of the vertical shaft gives way to the grey mountcrete walls of the prison facility proper, with the shaft becoming a nice, even cylinder to show for it. We pass the cargo level, the processing level, and one of the maintenance levels before finally arriving at the prisoner level, the elevator coming to a sudden stop as usual once the platform was parallel with the floor. The drawbridge was extended, and we were shooed across it and into the spacious elevator room as per usual, where we were then swiftly herded into the prison’s enclosed common hall by the proper prison guards.

In most other prisons, this would be an open-air courtyard. But not here. Not at the infamous Greenstone Prison, second only in infamy to Jela back on Farasi. I wonder how it’s been doing since that damned Prince had...

I close my eyes and inhale sharply through my nose, lightly shaking my head as I exhale to sweep the anger-inducing thought of him from my head before it causes me to act very unwisely.

Refocusing, I allow myself to stretch my legs and crack my joints a few times before heading for the shower. There was no way I was about to go about my day’s activities without cleaning the disgusting mixture of rock dust and sweat that clung to my coat, and most of the other inmates had the same idea. We move as a group towards the large common shower room, wasting no time in finding a showerhead and getting to work cleaning ourselves off.

I savour the feeling of rinsing the filth from my body, one of the few highlights of my days here. As usual, some of the stallions take the opportunity to become quite intimate with one another. That in itself was common across most prisons I had been to. Hells, I’ve indulged in such debauchery in other prisons before. What made my eyes roll was how often they didn’t even bother to clean themselves off completely before getting down to business. I don’t even want to know what kind of issues and diseases that’s going to cause.

I quickly finish my shower and trot back towards the common hall, passing by a few crowds and groups as I head for the prison’s small library to resume my reading. The daily paper was a given, though it revealed nothing interesting, as per usual; the Empire’s censors were true masters of saying much without saying anything. With that waste of time behind me, I grab the trashy romance novel I was partway through and pick a very specific open table to read the book. The book only has a small sliver of my attention: the rest was devoted to listening in on the nearby staff break room to eavesdrop on both the current state of the prison’s office politics, and any other noteworthy events. I don’t hear anything useful, but that suits me just fine: it means my escape plans were still good to go.

The tension between the mine guards and the prison guards was thick enough to cut with a knife, and that was the linchpin of this plan. At Greenstone, they shuffled prisoners around their cells at complete random, and had zero tolerance for smuggling items in: anyzebra caught with contraband received a very thorough beating. Combine that with the guards’ ready access to military weapons, plus the prisoners being worn down with daily mine work, and it meant that my most reliable method of escape via supplying and then sparking a riot was, sadly, off the table. So I had to get... creative.

Imperial prisons were owned by the Empire’s military, and their guards were all soldiers, usually here as trainees, or more commonly, on punishment detail. However, since this is also a functional mine and an ore processing facility as well, that means business is involved here, too. Civilian business. That means contractors, and an entirely different class of staff at play. It was precisely that class difference that I was in the process of exploiting.

The actual mine itself, as well as the processing levels, were owned and operated by a business, which meant that the mine guards were not proper soldiers of the Empire, but were instead private security, no different than mercenary warships hired by merchants to escort their cargo ships. And they lived like kings compared to the soldiers. Of course, they worked in the much more dangerous mines—with dangerous prisoners, no less—to earn that pay, too. But the prison guards don’t see that part, and they feel so very, deeply envious over how good they think the mine guards have it.

Once I realized that a few weeks into my imprisonment here, it was a simple yet lengthy matter to... arrange for the deepening of this divide. A rumour here and there. A misplaced supervisor’s lunch during my shifts in processing or maintenance. A broken machine every now and then. An innocuous ‘mistake’ on my part, chalked up to orders from the mine or prison guards. A slow drip-feed of small things, poisoning the rank-and-file workers of this confluence between business and military. And now, the contractors and soldiers were fuming, and on the verge of holding a strike. One I was steadily working towards setting off at just the right moment.

If I couldn’t cause a riot, I could certainly cause a strike instead. When triggered in the right time and place? Just as potent a distraction for my escape.

Every prison had it’s weaknesses, and this one was certainly no exception. And I was exceedingly efficient at escaping prison at this point. And while a part of me was quite taken with the unique challenge this place posed for me, another part was frustrated that it was taking so long: it may well be time that Cinder didn’t have.

I smile a bit at hearing the complaints about the other workers, helping to wash away the horribly predictable plot point in the book. Honestly, the way some of these mares write, one would think they’ve never met a stallion in their lives. Let alone a real stallion, for that matter. Regardless, I’m careful to watch my time, and leave the library at the right moment, preempting the dinner bell. I attempt to enjoy tonight’s dinner of oat gruel before the curfew bell rings next. And once I’m shown to my entirely different cell, I take twenty minutes to stretch and decompress before flopping onto the uncomfortable and dirty cot for the night.

As usual, sleep claims me quickly.


My hoofsteps echo throughout the cave as I continue my journey into it’s depths. Held in my mouth is the lantern that illuminates my journey, containing a miniature version of the burning yellow sun. Despite it’s size, it still shines it’s scorching light as brightly as ever, warming me to my very bones and illuminating the dull, dark grey stone of the cave for a great distance.

The cave opens into the bottom of a massive open ravine, the stars of the night sky twinkling above. The taste of the fresh, cool night air is downright delicious after all of that musty cave air, and I take a few moments to just savour the next few refreshing breaths of it, all while peering up at the starlit sky.

I see the light of day begin to break overhead, but the light isn’t from the yellow sun. Indeed, it’s still with me in the lantern, but it begins to shrink in on itself, as if trying to hide. Eyes widening in recollection, I look back up to the sky, noticing right away that the morning light was a harsh, metallic blue, and seemed to sap the very heat from the surroundings.

Instantly, I realized what this meant. And instantly, I was on the move.

I bolt back into the cave I came out of, determined to avoid being detected by the blue sun. With the much fainter light of the yellow sun to guide me, I flee deeper and deeper into the earth’s bowels until I re-emerge at the intersection my journey began at, the mouths of the other caves lining the walls. Spurred on by the encroaching blue light from behind, I bolt for one of the smaller caves, winding my way down the narrow passage before coming to a dead end in the form of a small, uneven chamber full of stalactites, stalagmites, boulders, and a myriad of other places to hide. Though the blue light wasn’t yet at my back, I decided not to take a chance at going back, and set about finding myself a suitable hiding spot.

I find a good spot in the far back, behind a cluster of tall, wide stalagmites that had a good view of the chamber’s entrance. I quickly nestle into place, laying prone and covering the already quite dim light of the lantern with my body, plunging the chamber into darkness. And from there, I wait, watching the entrance like a hawk.

The occasional flicker of blue light comes from the entrance, along with the sound of stone being destroyed. Then, after many agonizing moments of waiting, the one thing I didn’t want to see happen, happened: the blue light began to grow brighter, indicating the sun’s approach. I lay my head flat to the ground and minimize my profile and breathing as much as I possibly could, praying that the blue sun would leave quickly and wouldn’t spot me.

It’s intense, freezing light fully enters the chamber, coating the surfaces with frost. I can hear hollow, ephemeral hoofsteps as it floats around, the frost from the light creeping out to cover all the other unexposed surfaces. The hairs of my coat stand on end as I become the next subject of the cold, and the temperature causes my breath to steam, forcing me to take a quiet breath and hold it. The lantern with the yellow sun keeps my core warm, but my limbs aren’t so fortunate, pricking with pain as time dragged on. My eyes widen as I see my body beginning to steam from the temperature difference, right as the dancing of the shadows and the intensity of the light and cold tells me the sun is mere hooves away from me, separated only by my cover.

I begin to sweat from both fear and a lack of air, making the steaming even worse. This is the end for me, isn’t it? It—he—is going to find me again. And he’ll finish what he started back on Farasi. He’ll find me, and he’ll kill me. Or worse.

But then, at the zenith of my fear, when I screw my eyes shut and feel the ice on my eyelids threatening to seal them shut, I feel... something else. Something new. Warm air begins breezing through the chamber, and I feel the frost beginning to thaw. And I swear I can feel... annoyance in the air. The freezing sensation lessens, and I reopen an eye, seeing the blue light of the sun retreating. And I can see a second, red light, casting it’s own set of flickering shadows.

Confused, I very slowly and carefully exhale, and take in a slow, controlled breath of fresh, life-giving air. All the while, my eyes remain fixed on the ceiling, observing the sharp shadows of the cold blue light and the now prominent red-hot light, trying to glean their location. I think they’ve moved to the mouth of the cave, far away from me. And so, weighing my options for a moment, I risk a small look, peeking just above my cover to see the entrance.

Shockingly, I see not one, but two miniature suns at the chamber’s entrance: one of them the same blue one from before, and the other an unfamiliar, brilliantly bright red sun. The latter one burned with intense power, it’s core a much darker red than the surrounding bright red mass. A constant stream of angry flames radiated from it’s surface, flowing upwards into the air as if it were a normal fire, reminiscent of a large candle flame. Though it looked extremely dangerous in it’s own right, it felt nowhere near as hostile as the blue sun. Indeed, it almost felt... friendly.

Stranger still was the presence of two shadowy, grey, and almost ghostly stallions that sat directly beneath their respective suns, their outlines and features faded and blurry as if not properly in focus. Connected to their backs was a thick cord of power that linked each stallion to their sun, much like the cord the yellow one used to anchor itself. The two figures appeared to be having a discussion, but I couldn’t hear anything beyond unintelligible whispers. The blue sun’s stallion seemed stoic and uncompromising, while the red sun’s stallion, aside from being noticeably more animated during his conversation, was becoming increasingly annoyed and exasperated at whatever the other was saying.

But eventually, after whatever discussion they had comes to it’s conclusion, the two begin leaving back down the passageway, taking their suns with them. I don’t dare exhale until their light has vanished for well over a minute. Flipping onto my back, I hold the lantern tight to my chest, thankful that me and the sun within had evaded detection. It tenders it’s thanks by way of igniting my body with that familiar yellow flame, melting away all of the pain and tension. Even after my vision fills with yellow, then white, I continue to hold the lantern close.


I wake with a start, a cold sheen of sweat covering my coat and staining my bedding. No trace of exhaustion was present in my system, all of it flushed out by a surge of adrenaline, a tidal wave of dread, and a sense of impending doom.

“Shit, shit!” I mutter to myself, cupping my face with my hooves. “No, no, come on. This can’t be happening!”

He can’t be back! There can’t be two of them!

And yet, the dream didn’t lie. The icy sun of Zabraxas was there, the vanguard of his arrival. Just as it was on Farasi. Already my mind’s eye fills in the blanks of the dream, the unfocused and ghostly stallion linked to the sun coming into focus and revealing itself as the damnable Prince himself. But the second stallion remained blurry and unknown. I didn’t know who that second sun belonged to. And I didn’t want to find out.

My ears perk up at the sound of the guards moving. I quickly get to my hooves and move towards the bars of my cell door, seeing the morning detail heading towards the morning bell. Both the light from the skylights and the clocks on the walls show that it’s far too early for us to work. And if I saw them in my dream, that must mean...!

Oh, gods, no.

RING-A-RING-A-RING

“Rise and shine, prisoners!” I could detect excitement, or perhaps terror, in the voice of the guard making the announcement, lending confirmation to my fears. “You are to proceed to the courtyard at once!”

More guards filter in to ensure compliance, especially from the mouthier and lazier inmates. The varying states of stress, fear, and excitement were plain as day on their expressions and in their motions, and they did not spare the shock-prods on the usual troublemakers. Every fibre of my being doesn’t want to go to that courtyard. But I already know I’ll either go there willingly, or I’ll be dragged there after being beaten senseless. Nozebra sat out a proclamation by the Princes.

“Relax, Zobachi,” I breathe, trying to calm myself. “They didn’t see you. They don’t know you’re here this time.”

When they come to open my cell, I leave willingly: I want my legs functional and my energy high in case something happens. We are all funnelled into the massive courtyard, normally used for cargo transport and prisoner processing and just barely lit by the deep orange light of the approaching dawn. Even the mares from the female prison block are assembling here as well, looking just as confused as the stallions. But even if they didn’t know why they were here, the confusion and anxiety in the room was thick. I was just ahead of the curve on knowing it’s source.

Many agonizing minutes pass after everyzebra is assembled. My eyes remain fixed forward on the stage that had been hastily set up, looking for any signs of movement, ignoring the chatter and speculation all around me. And then, I see them: Imperial Guard members, many of them with brass horns, marching onto the stage. Those closer to the front already begin falling silent upon seeing them, but everyzebra follows suit once they play their short tune for all to hear. One of the guards, an imperial mare from the look of it, approaches the front of the stage with a loudspeaker in her hold.

“Kneel in supplication before your Imperial sovereigns,” she demanded more than she announced, “And provide respectful silence towards the mighty Prince Zabraxas of the Third Line, and the honourable Prince Zakurai of the First Line!”

Wait. Zakurai?

That brief moment of surprise is the only thing that cuts into my feelings of dread that by now is quickly becoming mutual with my fellow criminals. The moment the two Princes step onto that stage, everyzebra bows. I follow suit. I have no choice in the matter. But my eyes never once leave them.

Zabraxas was unchanged from the last time I had seen him, and the very sight of him filled me with the same burning anger I felt from before, galvanizing my nerves. But tempering that rage was my surprise at the sight of Zakurai, of all the Princes. I had thought he was a homebody at Zebrat, doing little more than frolicking about the Quaternary Palace and pleasing tourists and outlanders alike. Indeed, the two Princes were nothing alike, and by all accounts, had nothing in common. One was severe, unbending, and dealt in matters of conflict and war, as I saw first-hoof. But the other, at least according to my knowledge on the Princes, was affable, welcoming, and dealt in matters of peace and diplomacy.

Realistically, one of the other two Princes should be standing with Zabraxas right now: Either Prince Zakarot or Zedillian—no, Zalman now; I had forgotten that Zedillian retired and become an Elder, hoofing the reins of his Line to the new blood. I was endlessly thankful that Zakarot was not here, but I knew next to nothing about the newest Prince. But I did know about Zakurai, and that didn’t change that he was woefully out of place here.

And yet, here he was, far from his comforts and perhaps even his element. The plains-mountain hybrid was, as expected, quite a bit smaller than his imperial-blooded cohort, but he was still physically fit and well-built in his own right, adding to his admittedly very attractive facial structure. Forgoing the worn battle armour of his fellow Prince, Zakurai chose instead to display his body with very little coverings, as was more normal. In true mountain zebra fashion, he wore golden rings, but much fewer than their ostentatious norm: only one ring occupied each of his forelegs, one ring pierced each of his ears, one ring was clasped around his neck, and strangely enough, he wore one more as a coronet, helping to keep the bangs of his long, well-maintained, and slightly wavy mane out of his eyes. Of note especially was his signature article of clothing: the bright blue and luxurious scarf he wore around his neck, partially obscuring the golden neck ring and complementing the vibrant orange colour of his eyes.

Indeed, through the haze of my fears and confusion, it was those eyes and the rest of his expression that I was drawn to as the memory of the second stallion in my dream was filled out with his appearance. I remembered the frustration he expressed there, and sure enough, I could read frustration in his features as well. It was hidden well, to be sure, but there all the same. The two must have been arguing about something before they came here, possibly in that very dream.

The idea of the two Princes butting heads over something is not nearly amusing enough to make me smile in this situation. Rather, it only makes me deeply nervous about what’s to come.

“Criminals.” Zabraxas spoke bluntly and with little intonation, and with even less room for argument. “Five of your number shall accompany me and my fellow Prince on our quest to bring security and prosperity to Zebrica.”

Wait, what? That’s what he’s here for? This sanctimonious bastard was here for one of his oh-so-famous rehabilitation tours? No wonder Zakurai looked so frustrated.

But at least now I knew neither of them saw me in the dream. They would be tearing this prison apart by now if they had. Well, Zabraxas would, at any rate.

It’s amazing, really, just how little comfort that knowledge brings me.

“You will submit yourselves to our party, that you might benefit from our wisdom and experience. Through your service, you will have the chance to atone for your crimes. Should we deem you worthy through your deeds, you shall have your sentence commuted, perhaps even forgiven. Do not squander the opportunity we offer.”

Without so much as moving a muscle, a quintet of blue energy shortswords stream out from his back, one after the other, levitating into the air. Everyzebra stared at the display of his Gift with wide eyes and naked awe, as did most of the guards. I, knowing full well what kind of damage his Gift was capable of, had to struggle to control my instincts to run.

Despite the depths of my hatred for Zabraxas in particular, he still held all of the power here. And right now, with no way out, that old fear of the Princes was beginning to overtake my relatively newfound anger towards them. Once again, self-preservation was at the top of my agenda: I couldn’t rescue Cinder if I was dead.

My internal struggles worsened as those blades pointed outwards above the crowd and flew forth, travelling in lazy, circular patterns far over our heads as if deciding who to pick. One such blade hovered over my group. Hushed, hopeful murmurs came from the other inmates, but all I could do was stare up at the blade as my breathing became heavier, my legs began to tremble, and sweat started to bead across my body.

“Remain kneeling,” the guard from before barked, “Lest you incur the wrath of your sovereigns!”

I never stopped. I was too frozen to stop. But everyzebra who had stood in awe of the blades quickly resumed kneeling, though kept murmuring. The blades slowed their pace, their decisions now seemingly made, and began to slowly descend in a spiral towards whoever they had picked. One of them was coming straight towards my little group. The murmuring turned to hopeful exclamations, with some begging to be picked. It’s then that a horrifying possibility occurs to me.

He might pick me.

The blade finally stops spiralling downwards above a small ring of zebras, including myself. However, it doesn’t stop moving, spinning around by it’s pommel instead and slowly angling downwards, as if it were an arrow affixed to a spinning wheel. By this point my teeth were gritting and my ears were splayed back, but I dared not look away from the blade.

Don’t pick me.

The blade begins to slow.

Don’t pick me.

I do not like the trajectory of that final, slow spin.

For the love of Elysium and all that is holy, do not pick me!

The blade floats down as if falling over, laying across my back. I’m too shocked, too blindsided, to properly note how it was causing me no harm.

“Rejoice, chosen ones,” Zabraxas announces. “Through your good fortunes, you have been granted a chance at a fresh beginning. Your journey to redemption begins now.”

Cheers and exclamations ring out all around. If they were meant for me and the other chosen zebras, I barely noticed. The gears of my mind were well and truly stuck, and only began to loosen as the reality of the situation began to dawn upon me.

“Chosen ones!” the guardsmare from before ordered. “Remain where you are, and follow your guards when ordered.”

Her words forcefully cleared the jam in my mental clockwork. I was terrified, to be sure. But less than I thought. Rather, it was a much more even split between my fear, my hatred, and a new, rising sense of brazen, galling indignation.

“This has got to be a joke,” I fume under my breath.

Sure enough, the guards come to take me somewhere. It would be stupid beyond measure not to comply, so I do. But that growing anger continued to fester as they led me towards the prison’s gates, along with the other chosen zebras.

What in the hells happens to me now?!