• Published 7th Oct 2012
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Dusk's Dangerous Game - Airstream

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Black and White

Luna contemplated the scorpion on her chest. The variety was one she was familiar with, the Blackwood Whiptail. The bite was said to cause intense pain, and the claws of the creature were able to cut through some of the softer metals. But it was the tail, and the venomous sting concealed within, that Luna was wary of. Though not deadly, the venom of the Whiptail was prone to causing hallucinations, psychosis, and extreme, excruciating pain. In all, a nasty creature to encounter even when properly prepared. The only question that remained was one that had haunted her for two years. Was what she was seeing real?

Celestia had left a werelight in the cell for her, an gesture she had thought oddly kind until she had seen the carapace of this creature glistening in its light. Her panicked thrashing had only served to attract the attention of the creature, which had climbed up one leg and onto her chest with singleminded determination. It was only upon feeling the loathsome weight of the creature on her body that Luna had forced herself to calm down. Further movement would only serve to aggravate the arachnid, and that was something she did not want. Breathing slowly and steadily, she focused her consciousness down to a single point.

It had been four years, one month, fourteen days, eight hours, and twenty-four seconds since she had first awoken in her prison after giving all of her magic to Twilight Sparkle. She knew because she had been keeping track, second by second, just like she had done for one thousand years on the moon. In this time, she had been subject to quite a few tortures, some physical, and others mental. For ones like these, she merely needed to decide which was which. She focused mostly on ignoring her senses, while simultaneously allowing her mind to focus on the task at hand, which was deciding on wether or not the creature on her chest was real. After achieving total neutrality in both body and mind, she began to restore her senses, namely her sense of touch.

The weight on her chest was perceived as that of the scorpion, true, but a cold and distant part of herself reminded her that Celestia likely did not have ready access to one, and that there was really no way she would have been able to conceal it upon walking into the cell. Luna idly ran the odds of this particular Whiptail being real, and gave herself a three to one chance of it simply being another illusion set to torture her. Luna allowed her senses to return in full, and looked at the scorpion once more. Brow furrowed in concentration, she decided to test her theory. She shook herself slightly, feeling the scorpion respond in kind. She shook herself again, and this time the scorpion became fully alert, stinger sliding out of its tail. Luna placed her hooves behind her, and swung out from the wall, jarring herself against it quite badly. The scorpion struck, and she clearly felt the barb sink into her flesh, pumping venom into her. She gasped in pain, as it withdrew its tail and stung her again. She had chosen poorly.

Cadance trotted down the cold stone steps toward Luna's cell, checking each ward as she did so. They were all intact, magic flowing through them uninterrupted by the hooves of anypony besides herself and Princess Celestia. She had been ordered to tend to Luna after the scorpion had done its work, and to collect the creature and bring it back to Celestia's garden once again. For this purpose, she had the small wire cage it rode in, as well as some soothing ointment and a wet rag to clean her off with. Reaching the cell door, she focused slightly, a brief spark from her horn disengaging the lock and allowing her entry.

"Hello, Aunt Luna! I'm here to collect Sandy. How was she?"

Luna groaned, her eyes bloodshot and dilated from the effects of the venom. Her voice was hoarse, clearly she had been screaming for a while. Cadance didn't blame her, after all, the Whiptail had been in here for a full day, plenty of time for it to do all sorts of damage. Were it any other pony involved, they would likely have died. Luna, however, did not have that option, though she might have wished it.

Cadance located the scorpion in a dark corner, scooping it up neatly with her magic and stowing it inside the case. She looked the Alicorn over, checking her for the telltale welts left by the stinger. She counted eight, five on the chest, two on the neck, and one on her wing, which hung limp and disheveled from underuse. Wincing sympathetically, she began to apply the rag.

"Eight stings, Aunt Luna. You agitated her, didn't you? No wonder you were screaming. I'll see about getting you something for your throat, we don't want you losing your voice." She sniffed the air, wrinkling her nose. "And possibly a bath. You smell to high heaven."

Luna mumbled something, flecks of blood spattering her coat.

Cadance leaned in close. "What was that, Aunt Luna?"

"Keep your damned ointment. Apply it to the mark Twilight left on your face, may it remain forever."

Cadance gathered up her supplies. "That was rude and unnecessary. We're close to getting her, you know. Before this time next year she'll be back in the castle. But you wouldn't be able to appreciate that, seeing as there's no way to be aware of time down here. How long do you think you've been down here?"

"Four years, one month, fifteen days, four hours, eighteen minutes, and forty eight seconds. I have been keeping track, just like I did for one thousand years, child. And believe me when I say that a millennia in the cold darkness of space, on my own with only my fractured, tortured mind to keep me company, was an eternal torment that you could only begin to comprehend."

Cadance backed up a bit, out of Luna's reach. The dark Alicorn looked up, eyes glinting malevolently. "You can tell my sister that she can offer me Harmony all she wants. I have spent a thousand years devising all sorts of tortures to apply to myself, each of them worse than any petty cruelty she could perform on me. She is a rank amateur at this game, and I consider her efforts childish. And she will have to do a lot better than scorpions to cause me lasting pain."

Cadance opened her mouth to say something, but Luna cut her off. "I grow weary of your presence, Mi Amore di Cadenza, she who killed the mare that bore her. You are the product of hundreds of years of sorrow, yet you dare to pretend mastery over Love? I name you Heartbreak, and Strife. You are no more worthy to rule Emotion than I. Now, BEGONE!"

Cadance fled before the raw fury of the Royal Voice, slamming the door behind her, and leaving Luna alone in the dark once more.

"Hello, and thank you for tuning in to CBC At Dark, I'm your host, Sweetie Belle. We have a long string of old and new favorites coming up for you, but first we have your news report, every hour on the hour.

Our top story tonight, today marks the second anniversary of the Battle of the Whitetail Woods, a decisive victory for Equestrian forces against the rebel group known as the Ever Free ponies, and the first of two major conflicts in the ongoing struggle between Princess Celestia's loyal ponies and those who have chosen to follow her student Twilight Sparkle in what has been the first internal conflict between ponies since the Celestial Wars over one thousand years ago. A memorial service was held at the site of the battle today, commemorating those who lost their lives on both sides. The ceremony was attended by Princess Celestia herself, who insisted that both sides 'be treated not as Equestrians or Ever Free rebels, but as ponies'. Nearly five thousand lives, the majority of them belonging to Ever Free fighters, were lost in the day long battle. When confronted about claims of Changeling involvement, the Princess assured the populace that the Changelings had not been seen since the assault on the Royal Wedding, and she suspected that they had fled Equestria.

Rainbow Dash, Captain of the newly formed Pegasus strike group 'The Solar Wing', was available for comment earlier today. Asked about the ongoing conflict, she expressed total support of Celestia's cause, calling for the complete and unconditional surrender of the Ever Free ponies, and the capture and imprisonment of their leader Twilight Sparkle.

This comes in contrast to the statements given earlier today in Ponyville by the Bearers of Honesty and Laughter, Applejack and Pinkie Pie. Both have called for peace talks between both sides, and have begun serious campaigning to attract leadership from both sides to the negotiating table, with little success.

Bearer of Generosity Rarity, as well as Bearer of Kindness Fluttershy were both unavailable for comment.

In other news, prominent Gryphon diplomat Vagadar az Gavipashnepah and his contingent of followers left the city today in protest over perceived harassment by the populace of Canterlot, leaving only the envoys from King Balmas and King Cheshmsevegat to engage in diplomatic discourse with Equestrian officials. This reflects the current political climate between Equestria and the Oligarchy, as several prominent nobles have accused the nation of Avians of providing covert support to the Ever Free resistance group, as well as conducting night raids into Equestrian lands. The nation itself is officially neutral in the conflict, and has stated several times that the raids would be less frequent if land were ceded to the Oligarchy in order to contain its growing population.

In other news, a volunteer group has been formed in order to combat the seasonal migration of Windigos, a task that was until recently performed by the Condottieri group "il Fiato Danzatore", better known as the "Gale Dancers". This group has deserted their posting in the north of Equestria, and are believed to have fled south in order to join the Ever Free movement. They are the only Pegasus Condottieri group to have done so. A reward has been offered for information as to their whereabouts.

Tonight's curfew times are as follows. Canterlot will have clear streets by midnight, as will Manehatten. Detrot's curfew has been pushed back to ten o'clock. Fillydelphia's curfew remains rescinded. Los Pegasus will be cleared by ten, and the cities of Trottingham and Hoofington will be in lockdown by nine as per usual. If your city or community has not been listed, please check with your nearest government office or Regular post.

Finally, incentives for military service have gone up. Enlistment contracts for four years and above now garner a guaranteed stipend after service, as well as free academic and technical training when not deployed to a combat zone. Officers are desperately needed in both the Regulars and Air Corps, and enlisted soldiers are needed in all services. Again, visit your nearest military post for information.

Up next, we have the new release from Java Cup, "Ain't it Love?" We'll be right back after these commercial messages, I'm your host, Sweetie Belle, here on CBC."

The rest of the broadcast went off without a hitch, and Sweetie Belle completed her shift without incident. She had the perfect voice for radio, mellow and sweet, and her boss, Silver Chip, reported a forty percent increase in listening during her program, even though it went well past midnight. "Stick to broadcasting, Sweetie!" he said, shoving her increased paycheck at her. "You've got the talent for it, and ponies love you! You're made for it, mare!"

She'd smile and thank him, of course, and the extra bits didn't hurt. But her real passion, one that she'd loved even since she had began to get into journalism in college, was reporting. She loved chasing down leads, arranging interviews, snapping candid pictures. She loved finding truth among the lies, and she was also extremely good at finding the information she needed to make a story out of it. Of course, eventually ponies knew her, and knew of her reputation. So, she had began to study illusion magic. She changed her voice, she changed her coat and mane, she even managed to pass herself off as an Earth pony once or twice.

The only problem was one that plagued all good reporters eventually. She had exposed something she probably shouldn't have. In a debacle she had privately taken to calling "The Buffalo Incident", she had exposed an extramarital relationship between the owner of CBC and...another. It was completely unintentional, of course, but she had accidentally managed to blow the whole thing wide open. Their rival station, Equestrian Broadcasting Network, had gotten ahold of the story somehow and ran with it. So here she was, officially relegated to broadcasting.

It wasn't that she minded, really. She was lucky to have kept her job, she knew that much. And broadcasting was better pay, easier work, and higher recognition. EBN wouldn't have kept her on as a reporter, she knew that much. She had a reputation for finding out too much, and she was sure that EBN had a few skeletons in their closet as well. So, she was stuck in broadcasting, a wonderful honeyed trap tailor made for her.

Of course, what she did off of the clock was up to her. And she had twelve hours until she was expected to be back in to prepare for her next broadcast. So, it was off to bed for a few hours of rest, and then up for another round of "clandestine reporting". She would get back into reporting, she was sure of it. She just needed something big enough and public enough to make sure that her superiors couldn't retaliate against her. And since the Ever Free were big news right now, it was them she'd been asking about. Leads had been...less than forthcoming, however.

Sweetie Belle sighed as she trotted home through the streets of Canterlot. She lived a good twenty blocks away from the studio, halfway across town. Normally she could catch a trolley or similar to the station. That was one of Canterlot's improvements she was particularly fond of, only installed last year. But they shut off after curfew, and Sweetie Belle was out several hours past curfew. Luckily, she had all the necessary paperwork with her. She saw a light in the distance, and opened the clasp on her saddlebags, ready to withdraw the documents. Sure enough, a challenge rang out through the dark.

"Halt! You are violating curfew! Remain where you are!"

Sweetie Belle complied. The light approached, revealing two Guardsponies, one Pegasus and one unicorn. She rummaged through the contents of her saddlebags, and withdrew the small card identifying herself as a nighttime worker, as well as her identification paperwork, stamped with a rendering of her Cutie Mark and a small picture of herself. She held them out, and the unicorn took hold of them, checking them over carefully.

"Evening, gentlecolts. How's the patrol going?" she asked, dropping the saddlebags in order to allow the Pegasus easier access to them.

The unicorn smiled, handing the papers back to her. "A quiet night, Ms. Belle. And warm enough for the end of fall. Your paperwork appears to be in order, would you like an escort home? Nimbus and I have to be over that way as it is."

The Pegasus looked up from her bags, holding them open widely in order to allow her easier access inside. "Indeed we do, ma'am. It would be relatively little trouble for us to get you there."

Sweetie Belle slid her documents back inside carefully, being sure not to rumple them. Fastening the clasp on her bags, she slung them over her back once more. "Well, I normally take this part of the evening to walk alone, but if you are both heading that way as it is, I see no reason not to tag along."

She fell in alongside the duo, and together they walked into the dark and mist of the Canterlot night.

"Well, here we are, Ms. Belle!" the unicorn, whose name was Bronzeback, said.

She smiled at the pair of Guardsponies in front of her. "Thank you very much, sirs. I enjoyed the company very much."

Nimbus bowed slightly. "Any time, Miss. We're just doing our jobs. The next time you see your sister, let her know that her new line is wonderful. My wife is a huge fan. And to be honest, so is my bank account."

Sweetie Belle laughed. "I'll be sure to do that. Have a good night, gentlecolts."

The unicorn bowed as well. "And you, Ms. Belle." And with that, the duo trotted off into the dark once more, leaving Sweetie Belle to climb the steps to her front door, withdrawing a key from her saddlebags and fumbling with the lock. At last, the door clicked and swung open, as Sweetie Belle walked inside, closing the door behind her and locking it once again. She turned her lights on, illuminating the cheap table in her hallway, the door to the kitchen, the hooks for her saddlebags, and the stairs to her bedroom. She hung her bags, and trotted into the kitchen, grabbing half of a daisy sandwich from the icebox and sitting down to eat and relax for a bit before heading upstairs to bed. She had to be up in six hours if she wanted to get anything done tomorrow.

The empty plate lay in front of her, crumbs dotting its surface. She sighed. Shopping would have to be done soon, if she could find the time. She ran the plate under some water, drying it off and setting it to one side for later use. She shut the water off just in time to hear a *click* from the hallway. Frowning, she walked cautiously over to her kitchen door, pushing it open slightly. Nothing appeared to be out of place. She pushed it open wider, and her eyes widened. Something was different about her door, that was for sure. The lock had been locked, she was sure of it. Now it wasn't. Her horn lit up, and she snuck into the hallway. She sent a pulse of magic through her home, one that would reveal anypony else still inside. There was nopony inside, but outside...there was somepony moving through the garden.

She rushed to her window. The darkness concealed anything concrete, but she thought she could see a tail disappearing around the corner wall of her garden, fleeing into the night. She considered pursuing it. Trotting over to the door, she laid one hoof on the handle, before taking it off and locking her door. The idea even sounded foolish in her own head. She swept the hallway, and noticed something else out of place. A white envelope lay on her hallway table, with her name printed on the front in neat, plain letters. Curious, she opened it up. Inside were two things. One was a sketch of a Cutie Mark, a rose with thorns. The second was a note.

"We heard you were asking about us. If you wish to know more, a representative of the EF will be waiting for you tomorrow at noon, by the fountain of Shimmerstone the Wise near the great Forum. She has information for you. This is her Talent Mark. Be warned, this information is highly sensitive, and will likely put you at risk. She will wait for you for exactly fifteen minutes. If you do not wish to know more, simply do not arrive. This is perfectly understandable, and we shall not pursue you. If you choose to accept this information, know that you will be considered treasonous for not turning it in. Therefore, we shall be watching you to ensure that you do not. The choice is yours. Do you want the truth? Or are you better off not knowing?"

Sweetie Belle immediately took the envelope, note, and sketch over to her fireplace. She memorized the time and place, as well as the Mark. Placing them inside the hearth, she let a small stream of flame flow for her horn, watching as the evidence was consumed by fire. At last, the papers were reduced to nothing but ash. Sweetie Belle sat there for a while, weighing the options. If what was being offered was true, this could make her career. But it was bigger than that. Nopony really knew anything about the Ever Free movement. This wasn't just a story, this was truth. And the truth was something she couldn't resist. Sweetie Belle had made up her mind. Tomorrow, she would go to the fountain. And consequences be damned.

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