• Published 29th Dec 2011
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Night's Favoured Child - Municipal Engines



With her new apprenticeship under Nightmare Moon, Empress of Equestria and Queen of the Eternal Night, the orphan filly Twilight Sparkle plunges head-first into the conspiracies, secrets and intrigues of the Empire.

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Prospects

Chapter Three:
Prospects

The first rays of the Bright Moon streaming in through the window alerted Twilight Sparkle that she had been reading all night long. Even she usually fell asleep at some point during a marathon study session, but every time she closed her eyes, the Eclipse flared in its full radiance once more behind her eyelids. Who could possibly sleep when the world held such glory? She was binging, she knew it, and she didn’t care. What else was she supposed to do?

As if brought on by her realising the time, a wide yawn came close to dislocating Twilight’s jaw. Okay, maybe I should sleep after all. The little unicorn closed her book and finally sallied forth from the tottering tome towers of her personal palace of parchment to undertake the epic journey across the barren Hardwood Plains to the inviting, softly rolling hills of Featherdown.

Squirming into the warmth of her bed, Twilight looked over at Orion, who was still asleep and snoring lightly. He wouldn’t be awake for another hour or so. Even then, he would have little to do. This was their second week of being grounded together, and it had taken a mighty bit of convincing on Twilight’s part to get Miss Loch to reconsider separating them. Twilight smiled softly in the darkness as she mused at how accustomed she had grown to having a roommate – to having a friend. Soon, her higher-pitched snores were playing counterpoint to Orion’s.

The unicorn awoke from a dreamless sleep sometime in the noon, judging from the position of the moon in the night sky. Yawning, she stretched her legs and got out of bed. Orion looked up from the essay he was writing at the desk across from Twilight’s. Unlike Twilight, the white colt focused his serious mind on his schoolwork as though every assignment were a matter of life and death. Twilight mostly just read through class time, and could still ace the exams half-asleep – a fact that never failed to draw the ire of her classmates. The teachers who rotated through the foster home’s school room had long since stopped trying to catch her out for not paying attention, since she always got the right answer anyway once they repeated the question.

“Good afternoon, sleepy head,” her roommate offered as he turned back to his work.

“Morning, Orion,” Twilight murmured the reply. “Or whatever it is now.”

She wobbled over to the mirror that hung on the wall just below the star chart, scrubbing the sleep out of her eyes with a hoof while the grogginess faded. Staring at a hairbrush that sat on the table, the filly began to reach out and slip her hoof through the brush’s ring to pick it up, stopped. She had an idea. Putting her hoof back down, she bent her head and pointed her small horn at the brush.

Twilight focused on the brush, trying to lift it through sheer force of will. Nothing. She concentrated harder, clenching her teeth, staring at it until her eyes burned, her neck straining as if that would produce better results. Still nothing. Then, like her telescope suddenly bringing the moon into focus, she found it: an odd sort of “empty space” in her thoughts, within which she could feel the shape of the brush when she concentrated on it. There was a strange tension in her head, like a muscle she hadn’t even known was there. She mentally pressed against it, and a faint purple aura sprung up around her horn, matched by an even dimmer glow around the brush. It twitched into the air, fell again, then rose and steadied.

I did it! I’m using magic! I’m–

Doing the same thing every other unicorn in the world does every single night, the cynic of her subconscious quipped. Woohoo.

After a few seconds of practice, she managed to run the brush through her mane, flattening the bed-head that had built up in the past few hours. Somehow, it should have been more satisfying. She should have been showing off to Orion or running to show Miss Loch what she could do. But really, why would they care? It just wasn’t anything special. It was...

An image came to life in her mind; the eclipse burning in the sky, crowned with fire and glory.

...normal, she concluded dispassionately.

When she returned to the room after having attended to all of the pressing needs of hygiene, Twilight trotted back over to her cushion and sat down. The filly searched her pillars of knowledge until she found The Biology of Pony Magic, carefully exhumed it from the stack, and flipped through until she found the page with the cross-section of a unicorn’s head.

The horn is commonly mistaken for an extension of a unicorn’s brain. However, this is not the case. Indeed, if this were so, there would be many more cases of unicorns who have lost their horns in unfortunate circumstances suffering severe repercussions from the loss of so much neural tissue. Rather, the horn is another organ entirely.

A unicorn’s horn is a complex and varied organ whose precise characteristics vary by individual, but its general structure consists of three main layers (fig. 1). The outermost layer of the horn is a coating of keratin (A) secreted by a thin layer of epithelial tissue (B, see p.78). This material protects the horn against incidental damage. Beneath the outer coating is a hollow layer of magically conductive bone (C, see p.140) which serves as the horn’s primary structural component and permits the flow of magical energies from the corpus arcanum (D) within. The corpus arcanum consists of a softer tissue which, while osseous, is both highly porous and heavily permeated with nerve fibers. Were one to cut away a unicorn’s horn (fig. 2), a distinctive pattern of rings would be revealed, not unlike a cross-section of a tree trunk. This is where the magic happens, as it were.


The pores of the corpus arcanum channel magical energy from the ignis minorum (E), which resides at the proximal end of—

A loud rapping at the door tore Twilight’s attention away from the text. Sighing in irritation, she stood back up and marched reluctantly towards the door. She tugged open the door to admit the chocolate-coloured matron of the foster home, Loch Mare.

“Good afternoon, Twilight,” she said, crowding into the already cramped apartment. “I’m glad to see that you’re still making the most of your punishment,” she indicated the piles of books scattered about the room.

“Oh, I am Miss Loch; magic is fascinating,” the filly nodded in keen affirmation.

“Of course,” Miss Loch smiled indulgently. “From what Orion told me earlier tonight, you found it so fascinating that you stayed up to the early hours of the morning studying.”

The little purple unicorn blushed and looked at the ground with her ears folded, grinning awkwardly at the subtle accusatory tone Miss Loch had used. “Heh, yeah… I do kinda get a bit carried away at times.”

Still smiling, the brown mare raised her brow. “Indeed you do. I hope this sort of thing won’t happen too often – it’s an unhealthy lifestyle.”

“Yes miss, it won’t happen again,” Twilight mumbled, shooting a betrayed glare at the oblivious Orion. Tattle-tale.

“Well that’s good,” the mare closed the door behind her as she moved deeper into Twilight’s abode. “Now, about that little thing you’ve been pestering me for over the past week...”

All Twilight’s annoyance at the interruption and scolding instantly evaporated. Even Orion peered over the edge of his textbook, investing attention into the matron’s words. The Imperial Academy for Gifted Unicorns! It took a supreme level of restraint from Twilight to keep from erupting in squealing glee. Ever since reading about it in a biography of the Great Hoofdini, Twilight had been fascinated with the greatest of all unicorn-centric schools in Equestria (or, as some claimed, the entire world). She had placed it to the forefront of her studying for several nights. It had not been long until the filly had begged Miss Loch to put her up for a placement in the school. She had taken a test for it only several nights before.Twilight knew that if she had any chance at the Imperial Academy, she would need not only a pass, but a high enough mark to achieve the scholarship to attend.

“How did I do?” she blurted. “What mark did I get? Did they like me? Did they say whether I was the kind of pupil they were looking for? Did I pass?”

Taken aback by the sudden outburst, Loch Mare flinched. “Twilight, calm down,” she said, staring down at the filly, who was slowly going an even darker hue of purple. “And please take a breath.”

Twilight took a gulp of air, and was just about to continue her interrogation when Miss Loch put up a pre-emptive, silencing hoof. The mare cleared her throat before replying.
“Twilight, please remember that whatever mark you get, you did your best in that theory test.”

“Please, Miss Loch,” Twilight groaned. “Show me the results.”

“Very well, since you insist,” the mare huffed.

Miss Loch floated the envelope out from behind her and unsealed the flap while Twilight restrained the urge to bounce up and try to catch the first glimpse of its contents. The letter slid out of the envelope and unfolded. Three sets of eyes tracked to the red ink in the upper corner.

“An A-plus!” she cried, springing up and hopping joyfully around the room. “An A-plus! An A-plus!” She didn’t notice Loch Mare’s shocked double take or the waver in her normally rock-solid telekinesis.

“Congratulations, Twi!” Orion grinned. “You passed.”

“I did, didn’t I?” the filly bounced higher than ever. “I passed! I passed! I’m going to the Academy! This is the best night ever!”

The old mare, meanwhile, had been reading the letter more deeply. “Twilight, there’s something else.”

The solemn voice of Miss Loch brought Twilight to an abrupt halt right in front of the mare. She looked up with wide, eager eyes and leaned forward in anticipation. Something else? The possibility of more wonderful things from a simple piece of paper excited her. Oh, I know; they’re gonna give me a scholarship! And they’re gonna beg for me to talk with the head of the Academy. They’ll want me to meet the Empress, I know it!

“What is it? What is it?!” she asked, her voice pitched to explode into shrieks of joy again.

“Manners, young lady,” the matron eyed her sternly, drawing a penitent look from Twilight. Loch turned her eyes to the paper and pointed a hoof at the red markings at the bottom. “There’s one more thing you will have to do before you’re accepted.”

Twilight’s heart sunk. Her elated mood died in the instant Miss Loch uttered those words.

First disappointment welled up within her, but she made a conscious effort to replace it with frustration.

“What do I have to do, Miss Loch?” she asked with trepidation.

“The Academy has invited you back for an entrance exam.”

“But I just did one!” the filly protested.

“That was just the preliminary theory test, Twilight. This is the practical exam,” the mare sounded almost apologetic. “One is designed to test your knowledge and the other is designed to test your magical capabilities.”

Twilight’s good mood now was completely gone. She had jumped through hoops for the Academy; that theory exam was two hours long and very hard. Now they want me to do another exam? She felt a pout coming on.

“Two exams before I even get considered for a spot!” the lavender pony snorted, blowing a gust of angry air out of her nostrils. “That’s not fair!”

“It is a very prestigious school, Twilight,” Miss Loch leaned down to meet with the filly at eye level, giving her an encouraging smile. “All the applicants have to go through this. Unicorns from all over the world come and they fight tooth and hoof for a placement.”

Seeing that this only worsened Twilight’s disposition, the elder unicorn quickly changed her approach: “Besides, you might get in regardless of how well you perform at the practical. You saw how good those test results were; they would want a smart young mare like you regardless of power, right?”

“I… guess so.”

“Please don’t get worked up over it, Twilight.” Loch gave the filly a quick hug. “It’s a couple of nights from now. I’m sure that’s plenty of time to prepare.”

“Yeah…”

The mare sighed and began to walk towards the door. “I have to go and work now. Please think about it. And be positive, okay?”

Twilight barely mumbled a response as the matron left, closing the door behind her. Sinking to the floor, sitting dejectedly, she felt a hoof on her shoulder. Turning to her side, she found Orion looking down at her, his face plastered with concern. It was a look that almost made her burst into frustrated tears.

“Oh, Orion, I can’t do it!” she cried.

“What do you mean, Twi?” the white colt furrowed his brow.

“This practical exam! I’m gonna fail it, I just know it,” she sniffed. “I have to focus so much when lifting something as stupid as a brush. It’s an effort to do that sort of stuff, and they’ll probably want me to do some spell that only destined mages can do!”

“What about what Miss Loch said?”

“What, that I might get in on the theory alone?” she practically growled the answer, drawing a weak nod from Orion. “She also said that it’s a ‘very prestigious’ school. They’ll only want ponies with smarts and skills, and I’m nowhere near as powerful as they’ll want me to be!”

“Twilight, look at me.”

He planted his hooves firmly on her shoulders and turned her to face him. She reluctantly met his eyes, which were filled with an unyielding wisdom that would not usually belong in a colt of his age. In his stern but sympathetic gaze, Twilight felt safe; protected from the troubles of the world.

“You’re smart, so very smart. Smarter than me even – I can tell that much. But you’re still young and you can be a real fool sometimes,” Orion managed a small smirk and continued in his soft voice. “You got to be confident in yourself, and in your abilities. I’ve been living with you for over half a year now, and I’ve seen what you can do if you put your mind to it. You can overcome any obstacle if you put your mind to it. Trust me on this, Twi. Now say it: ‘I can do this’.”

“I… can do this,” she murmured.

Orion raised his voice only slightly. “Louder.”

“I can do this.”

“Louder!”

“I can do this!” she declared, jumping up, beaming. “I can do this.”

The blue-maned colt nodded. “You have a couple of nights till the exam. What are you going to do until then?”

“Practice!” she cried.

“Good,” Orion beamed. “You’re going to get through it, Twilight. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen?”

============

Dear Glitter,

I’m afraid I’ve made a terrible miscalculation, and now I must call upon you to ensure that all our hopes do not go awry.

I indulged Sparks in her desire to apply to the Academy, and while I knew she was intelligent, her performance in the preliminary was (no pun intended) stellar. She is in danger of not only being accepted, but achieving a scholarship as well! As much as it pains me to do this to her, you must ensure that she fails in the practical. And as much as it pains me to ask it of you, this must be done even at the risk of exposure. You know what is at stake.


Secondnight, 10:00, Rm. 501. At all costs.


The Dawn will come.

Your friend and comrade, Wake.

============

Basking in the noontime glow of her moon, the Empress strolled casually through the palace grounds. She often took these sorts of walks. Delegating a fair portion of government responsibility had allowed her an abundance of leisure time. Night-to-night affairs were handled by a parliament supervised by a council of loyal ministers. While they were all involved equally in the decision-making in theory, the Empress had a feeling that the head of the Imperial Overwatch had them all answering to him. This, of course, was something to be corrected at some point, but the results were sufficient to justify the means. She could leave that lay for a decade or so.

The Inquisitor – the aforementioned commander of what the public had dubbed ‘Blackcloaks’, and her closest advisor – had first come to her a very long time ago. His service to her was so long and flawless that he blurred into her memory, making it hard to pinpoint how long ago he actually arrived at her court. It almost felt as if he had been with her since the beginning. Nightmare Moon had no idea whether he was young or old, but she felt that by now at least a few bones in the pony’s body should be getting weaker, but he was as busy and tireless as ever. That should have unsettled her more than it did. He never even offered a name, saying that he had none and used only titles. The strange stallion had forsaken his name to be known as ‘The Inquisitor’ upon becoming the head of the Overwatch; symbolically fusing himself to the state by stripping his very identity and replacing it with a function. How long ago had that been? Decades, certainly. She couldn't even remember what the stallion's name had been. Even back then, he seemed curiously confident in front of the closest thing Equestria had to a living god.

Not that Nightmare Moon demanded grovelling reverence from her staff. All the bowing and scraping had gratified her for the first couple of decades, but it was terribly inefficient. The Empress of Equestria had more important things to do than scold her subjects merely for growing accustomed to her presence. A gardener – Amber something-or-other, she noted – dipped her head gracefully as Nightmare passed, then turned back to her work. A few years ago, when she was presented for royal service, the self-same mare had bowed so hard she knocked herself silly on the floor of the throne room. Fear and awe had their place, but even the sweetest fruit grew monotonous without variety. The sense of familiarity was... comforting.

The alicorn looked up into the sky, as she so often did. A content smile came to her lips. Her country was prosperous under her watchful and firm rule, and despite a certain few restrictions, the populace was generally happy. The peace of the night was eternal, and the beauty of the dark, star-filled sky was constant. So she smiled, knowing that this all was just the way she wanted it to be, the way it should be. Then, without warning, the night’s peace shattered.

A deafening explosion swept the calm aside and a massive wave of colour rippled across the sky. Even without sensing the flow of the magic, Nightmare Moon could tell that the explosion originated from Cloudsdale. I know what that is, she thought. Some pegasus has performed a sonic rainboom! It had been three centuries since she had last heard of anypony performing such a stunt.

Hard on the heels of the blast, another surge of magical energy washed over the Empress. It was raw and powerful and completely out of control; a magical presence unlike anything she had ever known before. Certainly no normal pony could have produced that? Her deepest fears immediately sprang to mind, before Nightmare Moon buried them. This was a new aura, with a different ‘flavour’ from that of her ancient nemesis. Powerful, but not as powerful as her own magic. A unicorn after all, then, but one more capable than any mage she had ever encountered. As she rationalised her worries away, a voice called to her in her mind.

‘Your Majesty,’ came the silky sound of the Inquisitor’s speech. ‘I know you felt that too.’

‘Yes, Inquisitor, I did. It is from the academic wing. I will meet you there.’

She was only a heartbeat away. The obsidian-black pony transformed into an indigo cloud and streamed toward the Imperial Academy for Gifted Unicorns with the speed of the wind itself. The Inquisitor, in his usual inscrutable way, was already waiting for her there. He wore his usual uniform and goggles, but he stared up at the Laboratory Tower with an expression of shock she had never seen on his normally impassive face. A large, fairly innocent-looking dragon’s head poked out through a fresh hole in the roof. Flashes of light came within and arcs of energy shot out from the windows and holes in the roof. The two magically-inclined ponies could feel the energy radiating from the Academy like some mysterious form of heat that was undetectable to most ponies. The hair on their bodies stood on end at the energies gushing from the building.

Narrowing her eyes, Nightmare launched into a sprint, racing into the maelstrom of untamed magic. She burst through the entrance and plunged down the halls of the Academy, rounding corners at full speed and rocketing up stairwells in full flight. She dared not teleport into the room without a clearer idea of what she would find there.

When she rounded the last corner, she slowed down cautiously. A set of doors at the end of the hall hung open, spilling brilliant light and bolts of arcane energy into the hallway. The alicorn crept to the doorway and peeked around the corner, her horn glowing with a prepared shielding spell. It was a lecture hall, half occupied by the dragon she had seen from outside. A humming aura of purple energy held four ponies and their belongings suspended in the air, and another surrounded a potted fern. The centre of the chaos, though, was only a small, purple unicorn filly.

Such ability at such a young age was unheard of. This unicorn, Nightmare Moon contemplated, could be a valuable asset or a dangerous enemy. Whether she would be one or the other would depend on how she was raised, and how she learned to control this raw power inside of her. The Empress smiled slyly. After a few moments of thought, she knew exactly what to do with the filly. But first things first, she needed to gain control of the situation.

Stepping fully into the room, Nightmare Moon strode through the waves of energy, parting them past her like the tide around a cliff. She reached out and touched the wild pony’s shoulder with a hoof. The filly turned her head around and stared with shining white eyes like burning windows into infinity as the pure, untamed magic swirling in her head sought any means of escape. Time stretched into an eternal instant for the Empress and the foal. She could feel the filly, tiny, helpless before the raging flood of magic. Nightmare had to be careful how she handled this. She pressed her mighty will against the filly’s, gently but firmly shoring up the unicorn’s control while being careful not to simply crush her mind. After a few subjective seconds, the filly realised what she was doing and leaned against the Empress’s support as she began to close off the flow of power. Time resumed its usual course and Nightmare Moon smiled encouragingly at the filly, the little unicorn returning a look of terrified embarrassment as the blinding light faded from behind her eyes. With a flash, the aura vanished from around her and the pony dropped to the ground. Three more flashes around the room revealed a dazzled and petrified group of ponies returning to normal – one in much more of a daze from her brief stint as a plant – and an oblivious baby dragon, now sucking its own tail.

“What is your name?” she asked, a firmer and more formal tone slipping back into place.

“I… I’m so sorry. I didn’t–”

“What is your name?” the Empress repeated, softer in tone this time.

“Twilight Sparkle, Your Majesty,” she answered sheepishly, looking down at the floor.

Twilight? That’s not a word I should be hearing. The lack of a day had banished words like ‘dawn’, ‘dusk’ and ‘twilight’ from the lexicon. "Day" was a word only used by the more learned or world-aware of ponies who realised that the rest of the planet had a sun and used the term to describe a twenty-four hour period. It was considered fashionable by the intelligentsia to use the word in everyday conversation, though most others had adopted "night" in its stead. This filly's parents must have been familiar with the day, or they must have come from the sun-touched lands beyond Equestria. Her interest piqued, Nightmare Moon slowly crouched to the unicorn’s level.

“Who are your parents, Miss Sparkle?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Twilight winced slightly. “I don’t have any.”

An orphan then; perhaps her parents named her, or others did. No matter, it’s a mystery that can be resolved at a later time. She stood back up and smiled knowingly.

“I don’t think I’ve ever come across a unicorn with your raw abilities before,” she said in a regal voice. “It is a very special gift that you have, but one that must be controlled and tamed if you are to use it properly.”

The young pony looked up at the Empress with a confused expression plastered across her face and let out an equally confused “huh?” The innocent little filly drew shocked looks from the other adult ponies in the room, surprised by what they saw as callousness in front of the ruler of Equestria.

“Twilight Sparkle, I want you to study as my personal protégée here at the Academy,” Nightmare said.

Twilight was speechless. Her eyes were wide as she took in what the Empress had said. She looked over at the unicorn mare to the side, whose face was still locked in an expression of horror as she stared at Twilight Sparkle. Turning back to the starry-haired alicorn, the filly hastily nodded with barely contained excitement.

“Excellent, now wait outside while I talk to your guardian,” Nightmare Moon said. When the filly left, the Empress turned to the four adjudicators at the back of the room. “You may all leave. Your work here is done.”

They sprinted for the door, very visibly relieved at their escape. Walking up to the other pony left in the room, Nightmare Moon looked down at the mare. She cleared her throat.

“You are the guardian of Twilight Sparkle, correct?” she said.

The unicorn shook herself out of her shock and quickly bowed low before the Empress. “Yes, Your Majesty, my name is Loch Mare and I’m the head of a foster home at the edge of the city.”

“Good. I intend to take Twilight to live with me at the palace. Make the arrangements.”

“The palace?! Um, is that really necessary?” Loch Mare answered in a timid voice.

Nightmare Moon lost some of her reserved demeanour at this; “Do you question my orders?”

“N-no Your Majesty!” the mare blurted in a rush and bowed her head a little lower.

“Consider it an official Royal Edict,” she boomed, then slightly softened her tone. “Besides, where do you think Twilight would prefer to live, at your orphanage or at the Imperial Palace?”

“Well, she–”

This unicorn was either slow or a stickler for procedure, and it was beginning to grate the alicorn. “If you like, you can think of this as an adoption,” the Empress said in a faux-cheerful tone before letting her smile drop. “One in which you have no say.”

“Of course,” the mare bit her lip.

“Oh come now, I am sure that you can visit from time to time, if Twilight wants you,” she said, turning away and walking towards the exit. “And if I allow it.”

The blasted mare made one last effort to assert some measure of authority. “We’ll need some time to prepare the paperwork and pack her things...” she offered carefully.

Nightmare Moon paused, suppressing a flash of anger from colouring her tone. “I will send the Lord Commander of the Overwatch to collect her tomorrow at noon,” she said flatly without looking back.

“The Overwatch...” the matron breathed, stark terror in her voice.

“See that all goes smoothly.”

She strode out with a maliciously pleased smile. Waiting, in a happily jittery state, was the little purple unicorn filly. She had been staring at her own flank until Nightmare Moon came out of the room. Arching an eyebrow, the Empress looked at the spot that had occupied so much of Twilight’s attention. It was her cutie mark, a large six-pointed star – the same pink as the streak in her mane – circled by several smaller, white stars.

“That’s new, I take it?” she asked.

“Oh yes, it is!” Twilight replied enthusiastically, before furrowing her brow. “What does it mean though?”

“Given your little display this morning, I would guess that it represents the spark of magic,” the Empress rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “And that’s magic in general, not a specific kind. Your talent is extremely rare.”

“Really?”

“It is. That is why I have decided to help you nurture it.”

“Thank you Your Majesty,” the filly smiled sweetly.

“Don’t mention it,” she smiled back and walked away.

“Yes Your Majesty!” the excited filly replied, dashing off into the ruined room.

As she made for the exit, Nightmare Moon thought about the future and what it held for her and little Twilight Sparkle. She had never had an apprentice before, but she felt that she could handle it. Twilight would be an excellent asset when she came of age. What’s more, the filly seemed to actually like Nightmare, in an awestruck sort of way. Very rarely did the Empress get to experience a foal’s admiration. All in all, the immortal pony ruler of Equestria felt that this would be the beginning of something new and exciting for both herself and Twilight.

============

Dear Wake,

I have no idea what happened! I enchanted the test item myself, and our mutual acquaintance double-checked the work, and you know how strong he is. Sparks just overwhelmed the counterspell like it wasn't there! Why didn't you warn me she was that powerful? What is she? Actually, don't answer that. In fact, don't reply to this letter. Use Overcast if you need to contact me.

I don't know what to do now. Keep your head down, await instructions from S. I will do the same.

The Dawn will come... eventually.

Your friend and comrade, Glitter.

============

Questions, Comments, Concerns and Criticisms are welcome!

Written by Municipal Engines, Assisted and Edited by LordOfTheWrongs