Bottom Of The Ladder

by GeodesicDragon

First published

Sequel to Top Of The Charts. Freshly released from jail, Anon has returned to Ponyville. The townsponies don't want him back — but there is another, far more pressing, issue to contend with.

Released from jail for a crime he did not commit, Anonymous has returned to Ponyville to resume his life in Equestria. While some ponies - such as Vinyl Scratch and Octavia - are pleased to see him, there are many more who don't appreciate him being back amongst them.

Now Anon must try to adjust to an Equestria which has changed a lot during his five-year absence, while trying, once again, to gain the trust of the locals. Solving the mystery surrounding the disappearance of several townsponies seems like a good place to start, even if it does mean stooping to levels he never thought possible...

AUTHOR'S NOTE

Diamond Dogs are tagged, but they're not the same ones we've seen in the show.

Cover art drawn by Thy and coloured by an Anon, both of whom I found on /mlp/.

Anon thinks in this colour.
Anon's Brain thinks in this colour.

Prologue

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Day 2,428 in Equestria.

You stand before a small town, idly watching the townsponies going to and fro. They seem oblivious to your presence, which is good – you don't want them spoiling the surprise you have in store. But given how things work around here you still decide to stealth your way – as best as a six foot tall man can stealth in a town populated by three to four foot tall ponies – to your destination.

You begin your approach, sticking as close as you can to walls and alleyways, ready to dive for cover at a moments notice. You want to get to the club as soon as you can, and surprise your special somepony with your early release from jail.

As you crawl along the ground, doing your best Solid Snake impression, you begin to take notice of the several squads of guards patrolling the area.

"Shit," you whisper. "Are they here to keep an eye on me?"

You stand up and hide behind a large bin, poking your head out to watch as the guards – looking as stoic and miserable as ever – walk around with their weapons in easy reach and full view. It would seem that a lot has happened since you've been away. Now you just have to find out what.

You wait for the patrol to pass by before stepping out into the street. Sadly your attempt at resuming your stealth mission fails miserably when a sudden weight on your shoulders sends you crashing face-first into the ground.

You reach up to throw the weight off, only for it to hop off your shoulders and take the form of a bright pink pony.

"Hi, Anon!"

You get to your feet and look down at your would-be assailant. Yep, that's definitely Pinkie Pie. Seems like you can't do shit around here without her finding out about it. She is beaming from ear to ear and hopping on the spot.

"Hi, Pinkie," you groan. "Look, I was kinda hoping that I wouldn't be seen. I wanted to surprise Vinyl with my early release."

"If you wanted to surprise Vinyl, silly, then you're heading in the wrong direction!" Pinkie replies. "She lives with Octavia now."

You blink in surprise. Vinyl never mentioned this in any of her letters. Pinkie giggles at your confused expression.

"Octavia lives in her house on Saddle Street," she says, pointing a hoof in the direction. "You can't miss it, Anon, because the mailbox has her cutie mark on it. You go there, and I guarantee that you'll find Vinyl. And then you can kiss and I can throw your welcome back party! Oh, and maybe we can even get all the townsponies to start liking you again!"

"Thanks for the directions, Pinkie," You reply. "I'll head over there now and— I'm sorry, but did you say 'get the townsponies to start liking you again'?"

"Yep-a-roonie!" Pinkie exclaims. "A lot of them are a bit hung up about the fact you killed Tech Beat."

"I didn't kill him," you growl. "He killed himself, and I just happened to be holding the thing he used to do it with."

"I believe you, Anon," Pinkie says comfortingly. "But a lot of ponies don't. When word gets out that you're back, prepare yourself."

"Thanks for the warning," you mutter. "Anyway, I'll head over to Octavia's place now. Any chance you could keep my arrival a secret for now? I'll reveal myself once I'm ready."

Pinkie – quite literally – zips her mouth shut and nods enthusiastically before disappearing in a puff of streamers. After staring at where she was for a moment with a dumb look on your face, you shrug and resume your sneaking mission. It's only once you get a bit closer do you realise that you forgot to ask Pinkie about the increased Guard presence.

Entering Saddle Street you see a row of very swanky-looking houses. They're nothing compared to what you had in Canterlot, but by Ponyville standards they're the dog's bollocks.

You glance at the mailboxes, trying to find out which one is Octavia's. Thankfully it doesn't take long, as one mailbox appears to have had a sticker attached to it — which shows Vinyl's cutie mark. With a large grin on your face, and your surprise arrival probably ruined by now, you approach the door and knock.

Hoofsteps in the hall tell you that somepony is coming, so you quickly dust yourself off and straighten your hair. The door opens to reveal Octavia. Well, it is her house, so of course it would be her.

"Good morning," she says. "How can I—"

She cuts herself off when she realises she is looking at a leg instead of a pony. She raises her head and looks at you.

"Hi, Octavia," you reply. "Long time, no see."

"Anon!" she gasps. "You... you're out of jail!"

"I got out early for good behaviour," you grin. "And I figured I'd come back and see my two favourite mares."

Octavia smiles and nods, gesturing you inside with a forehoof. You take your shoes off as a mark of respect and stand in the hall. Octavia points towards the living room — and the white shape curled up on the couch.

"Vinyl hasn't heard anything from you for days, Anon," she whispers solemnly. "She's worried that something has happened."

"Yeah, I had to go a whole week without communications," you whisper back. "As you probably know, all mail sent to prisoners is read first. The last letter I got from Vinyl said something about 'clamps' — the powers that be thought this was code and revoked my mail privileges while they investigated."

"I see," Octavia nods in understanding. "Well then, I think you had better tell Vinyl that."

You slowly walk over to the couch, watching Vinyl as you do. She looks nothing like the wild party animal you met on your first day in Equestria. Instead she looks pitiful and defenceless, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a truck.

You make your way in front of her and clear your throat. She doesn't respond, so you start talking.

"Hey, Scratchie," you tease. "I was in the neighbourhood and decided that I would grace with you my presence. But if you're not going to show some appreciation then I can—"

Another weight landing on your shoulders sends you crashing to the ground – on your back this time – and you find yourself being crushed in a hug by your marefriend.

"It's been too long, Nonny," Vinyl whispers. "Far too long."

"Far too long indeed," you reply. "But I'm back now. Sorry I never wrote to inform you of my impending arrival, but your last letter to me raised a red flag. They thought you were sending me coded messages or something, so my mail privileges were suspended."

"Really?" Vinyl groans. "Sorry, Anon; I was simply trying to tell you what I was planning on doing to – and with – you when you got back. Speaking of which..." She turns to Octavia. "Hey, Octy, any chance you could make yourself scarce for a while?"

"I guess I could go shopping," Octavia replies. "After all, it would seem that I have a new house guest to take care of."

"Thanks, Octy," Vinyl beams from ear to ear. "You're the greatest." She turns back to face you and grins. "Right, Nonny, you owe me at least five years of conjugal visits."

"No, Vinyl," You reply. "I think you'll find that you owe me five years of conjugal visits."

"Can't you wait until I leave?" Octavia pleads as she puts her saddlebags on her back. "And for Celestia's sake, Vinyl, make sure you use that sound-proofing spell you learned. I can't imagine that the townsponies would be happy if they learned of Anon's return in such an... extravagant fashion."

"That reminds me," you say. "I noticed a hell of a lot of guards in town on my way here. What's up with that?"

"I'll explain everything later," Vinyl replies. "Now get your flank up and into that bedroom, mister!"

You stand up and unceremoniously dump your stuff on the floor before following Vinyl. Octavia rolls her eyes and leaves, closing the door behind her. You stand and watch Vinyl as she focuses some magic into her horn.

"Now, Nonny," she coos. "How about you come over here and open your 'Welcome Home' gift?"

With a grin that could rival Pinkie's you nod, closing the bedroom door behind you.

Situational Awareness

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After dancing the horizontal tango with Vinyl, you are now sitting in Octavia's living room with her by your side while Octavia puts away the groceries she brought back. You offered to help, but she insisted that you stay with Vinyl which, given her tight grip, you had no choice but to do.

Confined to the couch you pass the time waiting for Octavia by petting Vinyl's mane while she lies on your lap, occasionally nuzzling your leg and giggling like a filly. It's a sound you've missed a lot during your incarceration, and to hear it again fills you with a joy you haven't felt in years.

"Finally," Octavia's voice, followed by her hoofsteps as she enters the room, distracts you from your memories. "Sorry I took so long, I just had a lot of stuff to put away. Unexpected house guests tends to mean more shopping."

"Uhh, yeah," you reply sheepishly. "I wish I could have let you know of my arrival, but I didn't want to risk a certain somepony finding out." You gently poke Vinyl as you say this. "Mind you, that didn't stop Pinkie Pie from somehow finding out."

"Nothing gets past Pinkie Pie," Octavia laughs. "She has some kind of sixth sense for these sorts of things." She pauses for a moment before sighing. "But enough about that, you said you wanted to know about why the Royal Guard is out in force?"

"I do indeed," you nod. "There's far too many of them out here just to watch me, so I'm guessing there is something else to it?"

Octavia sits on her haunches and clops her forehooves together. "A few months ago, the local Diamond Dogs began raiding Ponyville for new slaves to work in their mines. Nopony knows where the poor souls have been taken, as the only entrance to the Diamond Dog den that we know of has been blocked up."

"So the Guard is here as a deterrent, to try and stop the fuckers from trying shit?" you reply, to which Octavia nods. "All right then. So... what are they doing about finding them?"

"They're sending out patrols to try and find the den," Vinyl says from her position on your lap. "And once they do, they apparently plan on storming the place to get the prisoners out. Simply put, Anon, you came back to what could very well become a war zone."

"Well, shit," you sigh and rub your temples. "Well, as long as nopony gets badly hurt, I guess. Now, moving on to other matters, how are we going to deal with the locals? As Pinkie Pie said, not all of them will be happy to see me again."

"Buck 'em," Vinyl growls. "If they don't want to accept you then so be it. They can't do anything about it, so they're just gonna have to learn to live and let live."

"Easy, Vinyl," You hold a hand out in a calming gesture. "I'm not interested in making any more enemies, so I hope to find a solution that will make everypony happy. And if that means I have to kiss the collective flanks of the entire town, then so be it."

"Oh yeah?" Vinyl snorts. "And how do you plan on doing that? These ponies are not gonna want you to get on their good side because as far as they're concerned, you're just a murdering scumbag who killed a stallion in cold blood."

"Yet I have served my time for that 'crime'," you spit the last word out. "So I have paid my 'debt to society' as it were, and should now be seen as a reformed man. And I will gladly tell that to anypony who gets in my face, as well as the fact that there is fuck all they can about me being here."

"Actually," Octavia interjects. "There is something they can do. If enough ponies were to sign a petition demanding your exile from town, then the Mayor would have no choice but to act on it."

Nothing is said as you let these words sink in. You glance at Vinyl, who has a worried look on her face. You then look at Octavia, who immediately looks away in shame.

"So basically..." you mumble. "I have to either kiss everypony's flank, or get mine kicked out of town?"

Octavia nods. "I'm sorry to have to tell you like this, Anon, but I'm pretty sure somepony else would have mentioned it to you sooner or later. But at least I did it in a... somewhat elegant fashion."

"Yeah," you chuckle. "Because if somepony else had told me, they would have done so with a lot more venom, and maybe even a little saliva thrown in for good measure."

"So just stay here then," Vinyl suggests, as she gets off your lap and sits next to you on the couch. "That way nopony can say or do anything stupid."

"I'm not going to become a recluse, Vinyl," you snap. "No, I'm going to face those ponies with all of my dignity. I won't let them rile me up, and I won't give them the satisfaction of making me do something which will give them an excuse to hate me even more. The road to reconciliation is a long one, ladies, but I intend to walk every single mile of it."

Vinyl sighs. "Not alone you're not," she says. "I'll help you with this, Nonny, even if it does mean resisting the temptation to buck somepony's head in."

"And I shall help as well," Octavia adds. "Vinyl and I are both well respected in Ponyville, despite our association with you, so if we tell the town that you mean well they will hopefully listen."

"And if all else fails, then we get Luna to come and help," you say sarcastically. "I think a speech, delivered using the Royal Canterlot Voice, would sway everypony's opinion of me."

The two mares giggle at your joke and, after a moment, you join in. For now you are content to stay here with your marefriend and best friend, but you know that sooner or later you will have to step up and look at the bigger picture.

You just hope that it's a good one.

***

The next morning brings with it something you never expected to hear in a quiet place like Ponyville — angry shouting. Sitting bolt upright in your makeshift bed, which in turns sends Vinyl crashing to the floor, you crane your neck to try and hear what's going on.

You can't make out much — but from what you can hear it would seem that somepony is venting their frustrations about something or other, while somepony else tries to calm them down. Deciding that it's none of your business you pick Vinyl up off the floor, not that she even noticed she was there to begin with, and lie back down with her snuggling into your chest.

Then the front door opens and you hear quiet hoofsteps, followed by the sight of a nervous-looking Octavia doing her best Solid Snake impersonation. Upon realising that you're awake she stops and coughs sheepishly.

"Morning, Anon," she says. "I didn't know if you'd be awake, as a lie-in would probably have been high on your list of priorities."

"It's fine, Octavia," you reply with a dismissive hand wave. "I had to be up around this time while I was in prison anyway. I guess old habits die hard." You chuckle. "So, where were you?"

"I had a morning meeting with my fellows in the Royal Canterlot Orchestra," she grumbles. "I can think of better ways to spend a Saturday afternoon." You look at her blankly and she sighs. "Some members of the orchestra don't understand the meaning of 'civilised discussion', Anon. They feel that every little thing has to be voted and agreed on by everypony."

"And I guess this causes more arguments than it's supposed to?" you offer, to which Octavia nods. "Is that what all the shouting I heard outside was all about?"

"Oh no," Octavia says with a small gasp. "That was actually something entirely different. Lyra was having an argument with a couple of the Royal Guards about something involving her friend Bon-Bon. I didn't stick around to find out what, though, as eavesdropping isn't exactly something I enjoy doing. But whatever it was, she was very upset about it."

"Yeah," you grumble. "I kinda gathered that from all the screeching she was doing. But you're right, it's no concern of ours."

Octavia nods solemnly but just as she is about to reply an all-too familiar voice fills the air as somepony comes stomping into the house, making enough noise to wake the dead — as well as Vinyl, who looks around in confusion as Lyra barges into the room.

"Octavia, I need you and Vinyl to help me find—" she stops abruptly upon noticing you. "What's he doing here?!"

"Never mind that," Vinyl snaps. "What in Tartarus are you doing barging into our house, you crazy bitch?!"

"Well, I was going to ask you to help me find Bon-Bon," Lyra replies. "But I think I'll wait, while you explain to me why this murdering bastard is back in our town."

"Nice to see you too, Lyra," you grin, which is answered with a glare. "I'll have you know that I have been released from prison on parole, so my sentence – for a crime I didn't commit – has been served, and my apparent 'debt to society' repaid in full."

Lyra's scowl darkens. "You do realise that you're not welcome here, right?" she snarls. "Once I tell everypony in town that you're back, they're not going to be best pleased about it. So enjoy your time here while you can, killer, because you won't be here for long."

Without even bothering to explain why she bothered barging in to begin with she sweeps out the door, leaving you and the girls feeling flustered — and in Vinyl's case, pissed off.

"Who the buck does she think she is?!" she yells. "Coming in here and spouting all that crap? I oughta give her a good hard—"

"You'll do nothing," you interrupt. "I've only just got back, Vinyl, so you can safely bet that I don't want to lose you again." Vinyl mutters curse words under her breath. "And even if they do start a petition, it can still be overruled by the Princesses. I'm not saying Luna will, but you never know. It'd be good if she did, though, since it would put these idiots in their place."

You start laughing, which Octavia and Vinyl join you in doing after a moment of silence between them. Looking at the three of you together, you begin to see this as the start of a new chapter in your life. You may not have the support of the town, but you do have two great mares in your life. And that fact alone is worth more than anything else.

But the simple truth is, all is not well in your comfortable little world. Between the Diamond Dog threat and the angry ponies, you've got a lot to think about.

But you decide that thinking can wait...

At least until you've finished enjoying this moment with your lover and your best friend.

Cold Reception

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It's been a few hours since she left, but it has become abundantly clear that Lyra wasn't joking when she said that she was going to tell the townsponies about you being back in town. In that small period of time, you have already had several angry residents standing at the door voicing their disapproval, only to have said door slammed in their face by either Vinyl or Octavia.

It was funny at first, all these ponies coming along and yelling at you from the doorstep, but now it is getting annoying. And as another one is tossed off the porch by Vinyl you sigh and stand up, much to Octavia's surprise.

"What's wrong, Anon?" she asks, her voice full of concern.

"I'll tell you what's wrong," you reply. "Me staying cooped up in here while these ponies come by and hurl abuse at you and Vinyl... I'm just not going to tolerate it any more. If these fuckers want to have a go at somepony, then they can have a go at me."

With those words you walk towards the door, where yet another pony is giving Vinyl their opinion of you. The door is only ajar, so you yank it open and glare at the stallion on the doorstep, cutting him off mid-rant.

"And if that murdering psycho thinks he can— eek!" he jumps a couple of feet into the air at your sudden appearance, but he quickly regains his backbone. "Oh look, you finally plucked up the courage to come and address one of us yourself, rather than get a mare to fight your battles for you." He chuckles at this. "Listen up, Anon, because I'm only going to tell you this once."

"As if I have any choice in the matter, Caramel," you reply. "By all means, go right ahead and vent your anger. Let it flow through you as you tell me exactly what's on your mind."

Caramel narrows his eyes. "Cut the crap, Anon," he growls. "I just came by to tell you that a petition calling for your immediate banishment from town has been doing the rounds, and has now been submitted to the Mayor's office for processing. But given the fact she hates you just as much as everypony else... well, I wouldn't bother unpacking my bags if I were you."

"Duly noted," you say with a roll of your eyes. "Now unless there was anything else you can piss off and tell everypony that the message has been received loud and clear, and that they can stop harassing Vinyl, Octavia and I."

"I guess I could do that," Caramel nods. "After all, it wouldn't be nice if your last day here was spent being constantly reminded of just how much of a scumbag you are." He grins at you. "Bye for now, Anon, make sure you enjoy Ponyville while you still can."

He chuckles and trots away, Vinyl slamming the door behind him with enough force to make it rattle in its frame. "Jerk!" she snarls. "I never realised it was possible for a pony to be so smug, but that just tears it." She turns to look at you. "Don't you worry, Nonny, because Octy and I are gonna make sure you don't get kicked out of town. Right, Octy?"

Octavia smiles and nods. That's good enough for you, and you sweep them both into a hug.

"Thanks, girls," you reply. "It's good to know that I have some friends here. Aside from you two, Pinkie Pie is the only other ally I have... but I doubt that even one of her mad parties could sway the opinions of an entire town."

You release the two mares from your death grip, and Octavia adjusts her cravat. "There are ways around this, Anon," she says. "We just need to know where to look for ideas."

"Yeah," you mumble. "I guess that's something we'll have to think about. Well, I really mean 'me', because it's not you two who are being threatened with eviction. If you'll excuse me, ladies, I need to go and do some pondering. Not only do I need to come up with plans to keep me from being kicked out, I also need to come up with some ideas of what to do if I am."

You walk back through the house into your and Vinyl's room and lie down on the bed, shutting your eyes and putting your arms behind your head. Ideas aren't really your strong point, but you know that you've got no choice but to think of something which will save your proverbial bacon whether the worst happens or not.

Hey, Anon, what's up?

Hi, Brain.

Let me guess: everypony found out about you being back in town, and now they're planning on kicking you out?

Got it in one.

You could always talk to Luna, see what she thinks. After all, you were sent to her jail... so maybe she's responsible for you now?

I'll try it. Anything else?

… all I can really suggest is try not to do anything to antagonise the locals any further. If that means having to put up with all the crap they're no doubt gonna sling your way, so be it. Just give 'em a smile and be on your way.

You sigh. Fine, but I don't plan on going out any time soon — unless Luna wants to see me in Canterlot, that is. But in the meantime, I'll follow your advice about keeping everypony happy.

Good man. Now, about the other thing...

In other words, what I'll do if I am expelled from town?

Yeah, that. Equestria is a big place, so hopefully there are places you can go where nopony knows about you.

If that's the case, then it'll be a huge repeat of when I first got here. The stares, the whispers, the insults...

What would you rather be called, Anon: A 'hairless minotaur runt', or 'an evil murdering bastard'?

The first one, I guess...

Right then. So if you do get kicked out, we'll just get a train to the next city on the line that isn't Canterlot.

I think it's called Manehatten.

… these ponies and their puns. Do you think that they're always hot to trot when it comes to naming new towns and cities?

Focus, brain.

Right, right. As I was thinking: if you are kicked out of town, then we will simply make a new life in Manehatten.

I can only hope that Vinyl will want to come with me. Hell, she'd probably want Octavia to come along as well.

Vinyl loves you, 'Nonny', so you bet your ass she'll do anything to keep the two of you together. As for Octavia... she's a good friend, and will no doubt try to help however she can.

Good point. So it's settled: stay here and be nice to everypony, but move to Manehatten if it all goes south.

Sounds good. Now wake up, because you're being watched.

You open your eyes to find Vinyl staring at you with a small grin on her face. "You look cute when you're thinking," she says sheepishly. "Now get up and have a shower, because we're going out for dinner." A look of worry graces your face at this statement, to which Vinyl snorts and rolls her eyes. "Seriously, Nonny, are you just going to hide here and let everypony get to you?" You meekly shake your head. "Good. Now man the buck up and let's go."

You slide out of bed and trudge unwillingly into the bathroom. As you step into the shower and turn the water on, you begin to wonder just how badly this trip is going to turn out to be. A few minutes later you step out, towel yourself off, put on your suit, splash on some cologne and brush your teeth. You step out of the bathroom to a long whistle from Vinyl. "Lookin' good, Nonny," she says. "Come on, let's go."

She grabs your arm in her magical aura and drags you out the bedroom, through the living room – where a smirking Octavia is sitting on the couch reading a magazine – and into the street. All eyes are on you in a heartbeat, and none of the looks you are getting are good ones. Vinyl stares everypony down defiantly while you fiddle with your tie nervously. Eventually, the looks stop and the townsponies resume going about their business — which now involves bumping into you every chance they get.

Ignore them, Anon, they're just trying to make you mad.

Well it's working. Make me think about something nice!

Okay, here — have Luna in a skimpy negligee.

Knock it off, you bastard!

Oh, all right, I'll throw in Vinyl as well. How do you like me now?

A small grin spreads across your face at the mental picture now taking pride of place in your mind. Vinyl, however, takes it as a sign of confidence and laughs. "That's the spirit, Nonny!" she says. "Way to put up with all the crap! Now, the restaurant is this way."

She trots off down the street with you close behind, focusing only on the wild daydream you're having. You don't know if Luna is really that flexible, but you can't fault your brain for at least trying to make you feel a little better.

***

The trip to the restaurant was an uneventful one. The manager refused to let you and Vinyl in at first, but then you reminded him about the petition. He perked up, clearly cheerful at the prospect of you leaving town, and let you both in — though he did give you the crappy table near the kitchen.

"Well this sucks," Vinyl snarls as yet another waiter barges past you, coming perilously close to upsetting your drink. "Mind you, at least they didn't turn us away... though I'm sure our bill is going to be somewhat higher than normal."

You reach over the table and take her forehooves in your hands. "Who cares?" you say. "At least we can enjoy some sense of normality before I'm forced to leave."

She pats your hands gently. "Don't be so negative, Nonny," she replies. "Hopefully you can send that letter to Luna on time and then she'll be able to help... somehow."

"I'll write it the second we get back," you smile. "And then I'll see if Pinkie Pie can convince Twilight to send it to her." You lean over the table and gently kiss Vinyl's cheek. "But let's not worry about it now, let's just enjoy our evening."

You lean back in your chair and pick up your glass, holding it in the air. Vinyl's horn glows and she takes up her own. "Agreed," she says, before clinking it with yours.

***

A few hours later, the moon is beginning to rise and the two of you are on your way back to the house. Your bill, as Vinyl predicted, was three times more expensive than the diners who had left before you — but neither of you really cared. You walk down the street with Vinyl in your arms, ignoring the stares and whispers of the few townsponies still out and about.

"You were right, Vinyl," you say cheerfully. "I just needed to get out of the house and show everypony I'm not phased by their crap."

Vinyl grins. "I told you," she replies. "I'm always right. I like to think I give good advice, and as soon as we get back, you're gonna thank me for it." She gives you a sly wink.

"Sounds like a fair trade to me," you say with a wink back. "You give me some good advice, and I give you a good f— why is the front door wide open?"

Vinyl cocks her head at you for a moment before looking in the direction you're facing. Sure enough, the front door to the house is open. It sways lightly in the breeze, clattering against the frame. You and Vinyl exchange a worried glance and she leaps out of your arms, the two of you rushing into the hall.

The inside of the house appears to be fine, so you both head upstairs. You both freeze in place upon seeing that Octavia's bedroom door has been kicked in.

Poking your heads inside you find, to your horror, that the room has been completely trashed.

And that Octavia is nowhere to be found.

Taken

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- ANON'S POV -

"Octavia?" you shout as you pick your way through the wreckage of what was once her bedroom. A lamp lies shattered, the contents of the wardrobe have been strewn everywhere and the floor is littered with rubbish. You're used to sights like this – having been to so many parties at the club back in the good old days – but even that can't prepare you for seeing something which chills the very blood in your veins — Octavia's cello, broken clean in half. The instrument, which looks more like a pile of firewood with a few strings attached, lies next to the bed.

"Octy!" Vinyl screeches, the sound of frantic hoofsteps echoing around the house. Eventually she comes into the room, tears streaming down her face. "She's not here, Nonny! Something bad must have happened to her!" You say nothing, simply pointing at the cello. "Oh, no... not her cello." Vinyl turns whiter than normal. "Who could have done this, Nonny?"

You kneel down and place a hand on the cello, immediately drawing it back at the feeling of something damp. Turning the appendage over, you see that it is covered in blood. Wiping it off, you turn to Vinyl. "I'm not sure what happened here," you say, swallowing nervously. "But whatever it was, it would seem that Octavia either went down fighting... or was beaten with her own instrument." You stand up. "Go and get the guards, Vinyl. They'll know what to do."

She nods and rushes out of the room while you sit on the bed and bury your face in your hands, letting out a choked sigh.

Why does this shit always happen to me?

***

Vinyl stands looking dejected, staring blankly at the floor while you relay the evening's events to a pegasus adorned in golden armour. Nearby, a unicorn stallion wearing a white coat is looking at the cello — or, at least, what's left of it.

"So you came back and found the door open, at which point you both went upstairs and found your friend missing?" the guard asks, glancing at a notebook he's holding in his forehoof. You and Vinyl both nod. "All right, thanks. Don't worry, folks, we'll find her."

"I hope so," Vinyl flatly replies, looking up at the pair of you. "I can't bear the thought of anything bad happening to Octy — she's my best friend, for buck sake."

The guard smiles politely and turns to the unicorn, who now has the cello encased in his magical aura. "Haywick!" he shouts. "What's the word on the blood? Any idea who it belongs to?"

Haywick looks up from his work. "I found two different blood spatters on the instrument," he replies. "One, I am sorry to say, belongs to an Earth pony — most likely your friend." He peers closer at the cello. "But the other spatter... is Diamond Dog blood."

Vinyl gasps, covering her mouth with a forehoof. "The Dogs got Tavi?!" she wails. "No, no! It can't be!"

You put your arms around the quivering unicorn. "Don't worry, Vinyl," you say gently. "Octavia is a strong mare, she can take care of herself." You point at the cello, now being put into a bag. "After all, she went down fighting — that's proof enough, right?"

Vinyl smirks, sniffling a little, and looks up at you. "Yeah, it is," she replies. "But the fact is those bastards have got their grubby little paws on her." She turns to the guard and pokes him roughly in the chest. "What are you going to do about this, huh?"

The guard swallows nervously, obviously not used to having his personal space invaded. "We still don't know where the Diamond Dogs are taking the ponies they capture," he says. "We'll ask around and find out whether or not anypony saw or heard anything last night. Perhaps we'll be able to get a few leads... but I'm not promising any miracles."

Vinyl sighs and takes a step backwards, allowing the guard to leave the room. Haywick places the ruined cello in a bag and goes to leave — but stops at the door and turns to face you. "For the record, Anon," he says. "I didn't sign the petition because I believe you when you say you didn't kill Tech Beat." You nod in thanks and he smiles sympathetically before leaving the room.

Vinyl snorts. "Well that's one more ally at least," she says. "Now we just need to convince the other three hundred that you're not as much of a scumbag as they think you are." She sits on her haunches and runs a forehoof along the floor, a few tears gathering. "But first... first we need to find Octy."

You sit down next to her and pull her in for a hug. "Don't worry, Vinyl," you whisper. "The guards will find her. And remember the fact that Octavia is a smart mare — perhaps she left some clues?" Vinyl perks up at this. "Come on, let's take another look around and see if we can find something that the guards—" You pause as something under the bed catches your eye. "—missed."

You lie on your stomach and look closer at what you saw. There, lying on the floor, is Octavia's necktie — or 'cravat', as she called it. You grab a hold of it and pick it up, dangling it in front of Vinyl's nose. She scrunches her face up for a moment, but then gasps and points at it. "There's something on the back of it," she says. "It looks like Octy's hoofwriting."

You turn the cravat over and, sure enough, there is a message scrawled across the back of it. The ink is smudged, but that doesn't stop you from making out what it says.

To Vinyl and Anon,

If you are reading this, then the Diamond Dogs were able to find me. Have no fear, for I know where they will be taking me — as I heard one of the thick-headed swine saying that they were 'expected back at the Gorge.'

Please, pass on this information to the guards and s—

"I'm guessing she was discovered before she could finish writing her message," you muse. "But at least we know where she is. Come on, Vinyl, we've gotta pass this information on."

Vinyl scoffs. "The guards will take days to do anything about this," she replies. "Seriously, Nonny, you and I would be better off taking care of this ourselves. So, come on, let's go."

"I... we... wait, what?!" you shout. "Vinyl, are you seriously suggesting that we sneak into a Diamond Dog prison camp so that we can rescue Octavia?"

"Not just Octy," Vinyl snaps. "We'll free everypony who was taken by those stinkin', no-good scumbags." She rears up and puts her forehooves on your shoulders. "You're wanting to stay in everypony's good books, aren't you?" You nod. "Right, then — what better way to do that than by rescuing all of the prisoners?"

You look into her eyes, which are shining with compassion. You can also see the slightest hint of a smug smile on her lips as well. She's right, and she knows you know it. With a deep sigh, you nod. "Okay then, Vinyl," you reply. "Let's go."

Vinyl hugs you, her smile widening, before she adopts a more serious expression and leaves the room. You follow her dutifully, not knowing what it is you're getting yourself into.

- OCTAVIA'S POV -

You let out a small groan as a tiny shaft of sunlight manages to find its way onto your face. Cracking one eye open, you take stock of your surroundings.

A small stone room, barely big enough to turn around in, appears to be your home for the moment. The bars on the door are made of solid steel, you're lying on a makeshift mattress – an empty coal sack with a mediocre stuffing of hay – and there is a bucket in one corner. You open both eyes and slowly sit up, bringing a forehoof to the stinging sensation on your head.

The events of the last few hours begin to force their way to the front of your mind, and you begin to recall how you ended up in the dismal situation you are now trapped in.

Five hours ago...

You're sitting on the couch, idly flicking through the latest issue of Concerto Monthly, when you hear Vinyl let out a long whistle. Glancing up, you notice that Anon is wearing a suit.

"Lookin' good, Nonny," Vinyl says. "Come on, let's go."

She lights her horn, grabs Anon's arm and drags him past towards the door. On the way past, you realise that he has applied a liberal coating of cologne to himself — which causes you to smirk. He probably knows as much as you do that a nice scent isn't going to make anypony think any less of him, but it's still a nice effort.

As the door slams shut you put the magazine down on the table and get off the sofa, stretching yourself with a series of satisfying pops. You then trot into the kitchen and open the fridge.

"What will I have?" you ask yourself, tapping your chin. "Oh, I know, I'll have the rocket salad and a nice glass of wine."

You take a box of salad out the fridge, pour out some wine and sit down at the table to enjoy your meal.

Two hours later...

The soft resonant sound of your cello fills your bedroom as the bow glides back and forth. You are lost in your art, swaying back and forth as you play whatever comes to mind.

A sudden smash from downstairs causes a jarring chord to fill the room. You chuckle wearily and roll your eyes. "Looks like Anon and Vinyl are back," you mutter. "I guess I'd better—"

"Find the pony!" a gruff voice shouts. "And do it quick, you mongrels, they're expectin' us back at the Gorge!"

You clamp your forehooves over your mouth to stifle a scream. Those are Diamond Dogs, though you can't help but wonder how in Celestia's name they managed to evade the guards.

Knowing that hiding is futile and that escape is impossible, you take your cravat off and quickly write a message to your friends on it. Just as you're about to finish it, your bedroom door flies open — so you quickly shove the cravat under the bed and grab your cello.

Before you stands a Diamond Dog — black fur, a torn ear, wearing scraggy clothing and carrying a club. He turns his head towards the door and shouts out. "She's in here!" he yells, before addressing you. "We know you're alone, missy, so there ain't no use in tryin' to run." He starts advancing towards you.

"You don't frighten me!" you snarl, swinging your cello at his midsection, an attack he manages to dodge. "If you want me, you'll have to make me submit first!"

The Dog grins. "You're a feisty little one, ain't ya?" he says. "Good, because I like mares what are feisty."

With those words, he lunges at you. You scream in fury as you bring your cello into sharp contact with the side of his head, sending him to the ground. His blood stains the wood, but at least you've shown him that you are not to be trifled with.

Two more Dogs enter the room and spot their friend on the ground. They exchange a look with each other, then turn to you and growl with the fierceness of a predator stalking its prey. Both of them then run at you. One grabs your forelegs and holds you while the other grabs your cello — which he then brings down on your head.

Blow after blow is rained down and you soon lose your battle with consciousness — your cravat being the last thing you see before the darkness overtakes you.

Infiltration

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- ANON'S POV -

Stealth never was one of your strong points. Hell, the number of times you were caught sneaking late into school or trying to make off with an ice cream or the biscuit tin can attest to that.

But here you are, about to sneak into a heavily guarded Diamond Dog prison slash forced labour camp — and you've suddenly released your inner ninja.

You and Vinyl both pick your way through the rocky outcroppings that make up Ghastly Gorge, a dim light from her horn being the only thing guiding your path. Huge columns of rock tower hundreds of feet above you, the air feels thick and heavy, and your mind is treating every little noise as a potential threat.

At first you thought your over-active mind would prove useful, given the gravity of the situation, but it quickly proved to be more of a hindrance than a help — that poor mouse never realised what was coming until it was too late...

I get it, Anon, I overreacted.

Shut up, dammit, and stop making me think about it.

You shake your head to clear the memories, focusing on the area in front of you. The two of you are approaching an open area, where the chances of being caught are higher, so you need to stay alert.

Slowly, you peek out from behind a rock and survey your surroundings. The first thing you see appears to be... an animal of some kind. It's reddish in colour, with purple parts on its top and bottom, as well as pink parts along its side.

It's also dead.

You cautiously approach the corpse and look at it, Vinyl grimacing and stifling a gag as she joins you.

"It's a quarray eel," she says, waving her hoof in front of her face to disperse the smell of rotting flesh. "They normally live in the many caves dotted along the Gorge, but I guess the Dogs killed them all in order to build their prison camp."

You shake your head and tut. "What the hell could they need so many slaves for?" you ask. "What could they be up to?"

Vinyl shrugs. "I dunno," she replies. "But you and I, we're gonna find out — and then we're going to put their plans on ice." She pauses. "It's either that or we blow shit up, I haven't decided yet."

You grin at each other as you both walk away from the dead eel and resume your stealth mission, Vinyl lighting the way ahead while you do your best to spot guards before they spot you.

After several minutes of walking, and some creative cursing from you when you stub a toe or two, you see a faint shimmer of light coming from near one of the caves. A Diamond Dog stands nearby, the light reflecting off his armour — and the sword he carries.

"That's gotta be the way in, Nonny," Vinyl whispers. "But we're not getting in while that bozo is still guarding the place."

You rub your chin while you ponder your next move. The Dog isn't patrolling, so watching him is a waste of time. In fact, he seems almost hell-bent on staying in the same place. An idea quickly forms in your mind, and you rub the back of your head.

"I've got an idea..." you say hesitantly. "But you're not gonna like it." Vinyl raises an eyebrow, to which you sigh. "I was thinking that I could be a slaver, and you could be my 'latest catch.'"

Vinyl narrows her eyes at you. "That's the dumbest idea I've ever heard," she snaps. "And you're talking to a DJ who tried doing remixes of Hoofton Bieber songs." She sighs. "But... I guess it's the only idea we've got." She points towards the entrance. "Let's go."

You nod once, picking her up and putting her over your shoulders. She grumbles in protest, but you ignore her and start walking towards the guard. He quickly spots you and goes to unsheathe his sword, but then he notices the pony on your shoulders.

"What do we got here, then?" he asks, his accent reminding you of old British gangster films. "A monkey caught a pony?"

"I sure did," you reply. "Word is that you fine gentlemen are in need of more... how can I put it? Oh, yes... assets."

The guard rubs his paws together eagerly. "We sure are," he says. "And I've gotta say that this one 'ere has got some fine assets."

"Glad to hear it." you nod. "So, shall we do business?"

"Yeah, yeah." the dog waves his paw dismissively. "Just give me a sec, will ya? I gotta let 'em know you're coming."

He turns around and knocks on the stone wall behind him a few times. There's a moment of silence, and then some knocks come from behind the wall. The guard knocks back once, then the Dog on the other side knocks back twice — at which point he turns to you.

"All right," he says. "They know to expect you now, so go on in and one of the boys will meet you." He narrows his eyes at you. "But don't try anythin' stupid, or you're dead. Got it?"

"I get it," you reply. "Now let me in already, it's cold out here."

The guard steps aside and you walk into the cave, both yours and Vinyl's hearts going at a thousand beats per minute.

You're in the belly of the beast, and there's no going back now...

- OCTAVIA'S POV -

You suppress a cry of pain as the whip lashes across your back, having learned already that showing weakness only gets you more of the same crappy treatment. The guard holding the whip cackles maniacally, his cold eyes locking with yours.

"Are you gonna work harder now?" he sneers. "I can do this all day long — it's just a question of how long you can put up with it."

"I get it," you whimper. "No more, please."

The dog laughs at you again and you stagger to your hooves, grabbing a nearby pickaxe between your teeth. You limp over to the rock face and start swinging, adding to a cacophony of clanging ringing out across the cave system. Every now and again, one of your fellow slaves drops with exhaustion — only to be set upon by a group of guards and beaten mercilessly before being dragged back to their cell for further punishment.

Behind you, a cart full of gems glistens in what little light there is. It's a well-known fact that Dogs love gems — but you can't help but feel there is more to the constant digging. If the dogs went to all the effort of clearing out the quarray eels and taking over the Gorge, then that means something must be hidden here.

A gruff voice on a walkway above you tears you away from your thoughts, a voice you've come to recognise as that of the overseer. He must be bringing the latest victim into this hell pit, so you risk a glance upwards to see which of your neighbours and friends has—

It's Vinyl.

- VINYL'S POV -

As soon as you and Anon got inside this place, you were snatched by a couple of guards while he was given a sack of bits. The guards applied a magic dampener, then dragged you by the mane down a tunnel — Anon's apologetic eyes being the last thing you saw.

The two guards are soon joined by another Dog, who is wearing a chiselled stone insignia depicting a paw. The guards salute him, so that tells you he must be someone important.

"Overseer Rockpaw," one guard says. "We got a new one for ya, courtesy of that 'Anon' guy."

"Anon?" Overseer Rockpaw looks perplexed. "But we've been watching that town for weeks, and we know that human lives with this mare. What's he doing making a slave out of her?"

You decide to butt in and give them something. After all, this situation has already snowballed way out of anypony's control.

"Anon betrayed me," you snap. "I thought he loved me, but it turns out he was only using me to try and get to you guys. When you took my friend, Octavia, he led me to believe that we could rescue her — and, like a fool, I believed him."

Rockpaw blinks. "Well then." he shrugs. "I guess that answers that question." You feel a stinging sensation as he slaps you. "Next time, you only speak when spoken to, got it?!" You nod meekly. "Good. All right, you two, let's take her to her 'station.'"

The four of you walk further down the tunnel. Several other tunnels are connected to it, leading to Celestia knows where. You can hear a lot of noises in the area: raised voices calling out orders, pleading voices begging for mercy, the cracking of whips... and the ever present sound of hundreds of pickaxes chipping away at stone.

You soon exit the tunnel, finding yourself in a large open area. You can see several ponies chipping away at the rock face, while several Dogs stand guard nearby. If you had to guess, you'd say there were two guards for every slave. Towers provide the guards with even more vantage points from which to oversee their operations, and the only exit seems to be the tunnel you just came through.

"Here's what's gonna happen," Rockpaw says sternly. "We're gonna give you a pickaxe, and you're gonna dig up whatever gems you can find. You get one break a day, and the amount of food and water you get depends on what you dig up. So that means if you slack off, then you starve. Got it?"

"Yes," you reply. "I understand."

Rockpaw pats you on the head. "Good pony." he hands you a pickaxe. "Here's your equipment, now get to work."

The guards unceremoniously toss you off the walkway into the pit below. You land on your face, at which point you feel somepony trying to help you up. Getting back on all fours, you shake your head to stop the room from spinning and turn to look at the one who helped you up — only to find a familiar face smiling back.

"Tavi?"

Loyalty And Planning

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- VINYL'S POV -

Octavia beams from ear to ear as she grabs you in a bone-crushing hug, tears streaming down her face. You return the hug, wincing as she hisses in pain due to you touching the wounds on her back.

"Oh, Vinyl," she says. "The Diamond Dogs grabbed you as well?"

You break away from the hug and shake your head. "Um, not exactly," you reply. "We actually came here to rescue you."

"'We?'" Octavia looks at you blankly, then gasps. "Wait, Anon is here too? Where is he? What's he planning?"

She's panicking, so you gently pat one of her hooves. "We've managed to convince the Dogs that Nonny is a gigantic asshat who wants to enslave everypony in town. He's with them now, having been given a boatload of bits, but I don't know what his plan is." Your eyes narrow in determination. "But believe me, Octy, when I say that we're gonna rescue you and everypony else from this hell."

Octavia is about to reply when a whip cracks the air beside your ear, eliciting a pained cry of shock. You look up to see one of the guards with a less-than-pleased look on his ugly face.

"Get back to work, ya useless vermin!" he shouts. "Or the next one is gonna get you right in yer pretty little faces!"

You quickly turn around and – after forgetting about the dampener on your horn – grab the pickaxe in your mouth. Soon, two more clangs are adding to hundreds of others.

- ANON'S POV -

You have no idea what you are doing.

Tell me something I don't know.

You are sitting at a table in a small room carved into the rock face, the light from a small candle flickering pitifully. In front of you is a large bag of bits, your fee for 'delivering' Vinyl, while all around you stand several boisterous Diamond Dogs.

A couple of them are beating the crap out of each other while nearby spectators place bets, most of them are bragging about what they have done to the slaves during their guard shifts — but it seems as though the majority of them are just plain drunk.

"Oi, human." a large paw on your shoulder makes you jump slightly. "Me an' the boys got a question for you, and we'd really like it if you could give us an answer."

"Ask away," you reply, trying with superhuman effort not to sweat.

The Dog nods. "Right, so... we've bin watchin' that town for ages, right, an' we've seen that you are pretty pally with that pony ya brought us — so why did you suddenly decide to bring 'er here?"

They've been watching Ponyville? That explains how they knew Octavia would be an easy target.

Yes, but it doesn't explain how they are getting past the guards.

If I play my cards right, I could probably find out.

Good plan, Anon — now answer the damn question.

"Well?" the Dog asks impatiently. "Answer the damn question."

You clear your throat. "Sorry, I was just reflecting on how good it felt to betray that stupid mare." You give what you hope is a convincing evil laugh. "She actually thought I loved her."

The Dogs cackle uproariously.

"When I realised that you had captured my other 'friend,' I realised that there was more money in slaves... so I brought Vinyl here under the pretence of rescuing her." You flash them a grin. "And I'm pretty sure you all know the rest."

The Dog who asked the question nods. "Yeah, we do." he holds out a paw. "I'm Slasher, nice to meet ya."

You shake his paw. "Anon."

"I've had a thought," Slasher says. "We'd need to speak to the boss about it, but I think it might work." He rubs his paws together. "I don't see why we can't work together on this whole 'slave' thing."

"Colour me intrigued," you reply. "Let's go and talk to him now, I'm sure he'd be interested in... whatever your idea is."

"Nah." Slasher shakes his head. "We can talk to him later — right now, though, we need ta celebrate makin' a new friend."

With those words, he grabs a nearby barrel of ale and puts it on the table in front of you. Clearly visible on the side is a stamp bearing the name of Berry's Brewery in Ponyville.

Well then, it looks like Ponyville offers much more to these scumbags than just potential slaves.

Indeed. Come on, Anon, let's drink this guy under the table.

Sounds like a plan to me.

You tap the keg and pour yourself a mug of ale, raising it to Slasher. He quickly pours one for himself and taps it with yours.

"To new friends," you say. "Now, let's drink."

***

Several hours later...

The room is spinning, you feel faint, and you can barely keep your eyes open — but it was all worth it, just to make out the blurry image of Slasher slumped over the table. He soon wakes up with a loud belch and groans, holding his head. Catching sight of you, he chuckles weakly and grins.

"Finally," he mutters. "Someone actually beat me at drinking. To tell ya the truth, I was getting bored of winning all the time."

You shrug. "What can I say?" you reply. "I'm a natural."

"Yeah." Slasher nods. "And it shows." He gets on all fours and stretches, eventually getting back on two legs. "Right then, I guess we'd better talk to the boss."

You stand up as well, wordlessly following Slasher out of the room. He leads you down a small stone corridor, which has a few other corridors branching off from it. The one you walk along is lit by torches along the walls and is barely big enough to allow you and Slasher to walk side by side.

Along the way, you hear a commotion coming from down one of the other corridors. Slasher stops and puts a paw to his ear, listening intently to the noise before sighing.

"Another slave is causing a fuss." he turns to face you, putting an arm around you and flashing you an unsettling grin. "Come on, Anon, let's see where your loyalties truly lie."

He walks off, his arm around you making sure that you are dragged along for the ride. Rounding a corner, you see one of the guards standing in front of a cell. Spotting Slasher, the guard quickly offers him a snappy salute and you a curt nod.

"Talk to me, Rex," he says. "What's going on?"

Rex? That is such a dog name.

Quiet, you.

"It's this prisoner, Captain Slasher," Rex replies. "She's refusing to work, by claiming that she can't walk."

Slasher shakes his head. "Why must these ponies lie to us?" he asks. "We give them jobs, a roof over their heads and food, and this is how they repay us?" He turns to you. "Get in there and see to it that her lies become reality."

You blink a couple of times while you process what Slasher has just said — your eyes eventually widening in shock.

Wait... is he asking me to break somepony's leg?

I think so.

Oh, shit.

Slasher takes Rex's weapon from him – a large club – and hands it to you. "Well?" he snaps. "Get on with it!"

Swallowing nervously, you slowly walk into the cell. It's a small, windowless room, with a crude bed in one corner, a bucket in the other — and an all too familiar mare in the middle who is curled up into a ball, her body shaking as she sobs into her forehooves.

Oh, dear God. Of all the ponies it could be, it had to be...

"Bon Bon?"

The sobbing stops as Bon Bon slowly peeks out from behind her hooves, letting out a gasp as she catches sight of you — a gasp that becomes a silent scream when she spots the club.

"Anon?" she whimpers. "I thought you were in jail?"

"I got out." you shrug. "I served five years – for a crime I didn't commit – and now I'm free as a bird — although that hasn't stopped most of the residents in Ponyville from starting a petition to have me exiled to the farthest corner of Equestria."

"And so you choose to spend time with Diamond Dogs." Bon Bon glares at you. "Can you really blame them for wanting you gone?"

You glance back at the cell door. Neither Slasher nor Rex are standing watching you, so you sit down on the floor.

"Believe it or not, but..." you sigh. "I'm actually here to try and rescue you and the other slaves. It was Vinyl's idea, really — in fact, we only got in because I pretended I was a slaver."

"Vinyl's here too?" Bon Bon asks. "And she's a slave too? Anon, what in Tartarus were you thinking?! You're going to get her killed!"

"Don't you think I know that?!" you snarl. "It was a spur of the moment plan, but I'm sure I'll come up with something."

Slasher's harsh voice cuts through the air. "Anon!" he yells. "I don't hear screaming in there! What are you doing?"

"Shit..." you whisper. "Look, Bon Bon, he sent me in here to break one of your legs — but I really don't want to do that. Please, you've gotta stop lying about not being able to walk and work your shift."

Bon Bon shakily stands up. "If I do that, will you get me – and the others – out of this Discord-cursed hellhole?" she queries.

You nod. "I'll do whatever it takes," you reply. "Though I will confess to having an ulterior motive — if I rescue everypony, then the others might forget about having me kicked out of Ponyville."

Bon Bon sighs. "Maybe they will, and maybe they won't," she replies. "But the fact is, you won't know until you try." She quickly nuzzles you. "But I believe in you, Anon."

You gently pat her on the head — just as Slasher and Rex storm in, both of them looking extremely pissed off.

"What the hell is wrong with you, Anon?" Slasher asks. "I send you in here to teach her a lesson, and instead I find you petting her?"

"I managed to convince her that lying wasn't the brightest thing to do," you reply. "Isn't that right, slave?"

"Yes, sir." Bon Bon catches on quite quick. "I'll do whatever is asked of me, and I apologise for my impudence."

You pat her on the head again. "That's a good little mare." you stand up and turn to Slasher and Rex. "By all means, punish her for lying, by taking away her food rations for a day or two, or something but don't physically hurt her — because, after all, broken slaves are no use to anyone."

Slasher taps his chin a few times, but soon nods. "I never thought of it like that," he says. "Good thinking, Anon — you'll go far within our little organisation." He glances at Rex. "Take this insubordinate whelp to the pit and put her to work, and make sure the others know that she isn't to be fed for two days."

Rex nods, taking his club from you before grabbing Bon Bon by the scruff of the neck. As he drags her away, she looks at you mournfully — to which you offer a brief but supportive smile.

"Right, back on track." Slasher's voice forces your attention back to him. "When we talk to the boss about my little idea, I'll mention what you said about punishing the prisoners and see if he likes it."

"I certainly hope so," you say. "After all, injured prisoners take time and resources to heal. Starving them is much better, as they suffer slowly and painfully — but without ugly bruises or broken bones."

Slasher cackles. "I like you, Anon," he says. "All the time we were watching you, we considered you to be a bit soft. But now I see that you are actually as cold and vicious as any of us." You give him a thumbs up, to which Slasher grins and pats you on the back. "Come on, we've gotta go and talk to Overseer Rockpaw."

He walks around the corner and back into the main tunnel, leaving you standing outside Bon Bon's cell.

Way to go, Mr. Voice of Reason.

Shut up. It was either talk to her, or cripple her for life.

Whoa, relax. I'm just saying. You did good, kid. Real good.

I know. And, come to think of it, I think I've got an idea about how we can rescue everypony.

That's great! What is it?

First things first — we need to get Rockpaw to approve our 'no beating of the slaves' policy. The plan I have depends on it.

I'm with you, Anon. Let's make it happen.

"Anon?" Slasher calls. "Are you coming or not?"

"Uh, yeah!" you shout back. "Be right there!"

You rush to catch up with your host, your plan to rescue the slaves already forming in your head.

The Overseer

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You follow Slasher through the twisting maze of tunnels for another fifteen minutes, before the two of you finally come to a stop in front of a door. Two things make this door different from the others you have seen: the fact it is made of solid steel that looks to be a good six inches thick, and the two guards standing outside.

While most of the guards wear mostly leather armour, with the occasional chainmail vest or helmet here and there, these guys are decked out in full plate. If it wasn't for the fact they are carrying different weapons – a large hammer and what looks to be a very sharp axe – you would never be able to tell them apart.

Looks like this is the Overseer's – ahem – 'office.'

If that's the case, then those two must be his bodyguards. You swallow nervously. Holy shit, I hope I don't have to tangle with them; I really do value my life... such as it is.

"Let us through," Slasher demands. "I wanna talk to the boss."

The guards look at each other, then at you.

"What did you bring the monkey for?" one of them asks. "He ain't supposed to be here, Slasher, you know that."

Slasher puts a paw on your shoulder. "I have an idea I want to talk to the Overseer about, and Anon here plays a part in it," he replies. "Our friend here has also had an idea of his own about how to punish the prisoners, and I want the boss to hear it. Now, are you two gonna get the boss for me, or do things have to get ugly?"

"You're already ugly, Slasher," the axe guard mutters. "Give us a minute; we'll go and let 'im know you're here."

Both guards walk over to the door and produce a key from around their necks. Each key is placed into a keyhole and turned at the same time, at which the door unlocks and opens with the shuddering screech of metal grinding on stone.

"Who are those guys?" you ask of Slasher, as the guards disappear into the newly-opened room. "They seem important."

"They're the Overseer's personal bodyguards," Slasher says. "The one with the axe is called Dicer, and the one with the hammer is called Crusher." He narrows his eyes. "I don't think I need to explain to you how they got those names... right?"

You shake your head. "No, no," you reply. "I totally understand."

I'd wager that it involved a lot of blood.

Slasher nods at you, just as Dicer and Crusher re-appear. The former takes his position at the door, while the latter beckons to you and Slasher. "Follow me, and don't do anything stupid."

"As if I would," you snort. "I really fancy the idea of keeping my internal organs internal, thank you very much."

Crusher rolls his eyes – at least, you think he did; hard to tell under the massive helmet he wears – and you follow him down the corridor, through another door, and into the Overseer's office.

Everything in the room is covered in gems, from the torch sconces to the seats and even the stone goblet on the desk. Crusher and Slasher both give the Overseer a salute by putting their right paw on their chest, then raising it into a clenched fist.

The Overseer himself seems like most of the other Dogs you've seen during your time here, except he's not wearing tatty leather armour. Instead, he's decked out in a pure silk suit with a gold trim along the shoulders. On his chest is a stone badge depicting a paw.

"Overseer Rockpaw," Slasher says. "Thank you for agreeing to see us on such short notice. I know your time is valuable, but I assure you that we are not here to waste it."

Rockpaw looks up from his desk. "Slasher, my most loyal lieutenant." he looks at you. "You are a very curious case, Anonymous, but Slasher here seems to like you. Now, please, take a seat and let us discuss these 'plans' of yours."

You and Slasher both sit down, Rockpaw dismissing Crusher with a simple wave. He pours himself a drink – from yet another keg of Berry's finest – and leans back in his chair.

"Okay, boss, here's what I was thinking," Slasher says. "As you know, Anon here brought us that new unicorn we've got working down in the pit. Now, what if we got him out there gathering up more slaves for us? Those ponies seem to trust him, so he could easily lure 'em back here for us to nab."

The ponies trust us? Yeah, and you're Celestia's long-lost son.

Rockpaw takes a sip of his drink. "I like your idea, Slasher, as having Anon doing our dirty work would make things a lot easier. The ponies have almost quadrupled the number of Royal Guards they've got patrolling Ponyville, so we need another method. We are so close to our goal, but we need more slaves."

"But not all of the ponies like me," you reply. "In fact, most of them hate my guts; there's a petition to have me exiled from town."

"Really?" Rockpaw thinks for a moment. "Not to worry, Anon, we could still use that to our advantage."

You give him a puzzled look. "Really?" you ask. "How?"

"Simple," Rockpaw replies. "All you have to do is tell them that you know where their loved ones are, and then lead them to a nice secluded part of the forest; we'll take care of the rest."

"With the greatest of respect, Overseer, I don't see how that would work. They hate me, so I doubt they'd listen to what I have to say."

Rockpaw laughs. "I think the mere fact you mentioned knowing about their loved ones would be more than enough cause for them to give you the benefit of the doubt," he replies. "And then, as an added bonus, you'll get to see the look of betrayal on their faces when we bundle them up and drag them back here by the tail."

Remember, Anon, you are trying to be as convincing as possible here. Start agreeing with him, or you'll be joining the slaves!

"That's a good point," you reply quickly. "I guess they would be more than willing to listen to me if I was to mention their loved ones; the look of betrayal only sweetens the deal even more."

"So we're agreed, then?" Rockpaw reaches into his desk and pulls out a map, marking a location on it. "You will return to Ponyville and see about getting some of those stupid ponies to follow you back to the spot I've marked, where we have a camp located." He passes the map over and you take it, folding it up and tucking it inside your jacket pocket. "Now, I understand that you would also like to discuss something regarding the prisoners."

"Yes, sir." you take a deep breath. "You need to stop beating them."

"I see..." Rockpaw forms a pyramid shape with his claws and starts tapping them together. "And why, exactly, should I agree to that?"

"Think about it, Overseer," you say. "Injured slaves need to recuperate, during which time they aren't working. Now, I don't know what it is you're looking for, but the more slaves you have out of commission, the longer you need to wait to find it. What I suggest is starving them for a day or so, instead of kicking the shit out of them. The sudden change in your attitude also has a psychological side effect; since the prisoners have more than likely grown used to beatings by now, they will be unsure of how to react to this new punishment. This in turn might make them more wary of causing trouble in the future."

"He has a point, boss," Slasher interjects. "We've got about sixty slaves recovering from their beatings just now. Raiding Ponyville is getting riskier by the day, and it could be a while before your plan for Anon bears fruit, so we're not operating as well as we could be."

Rockpaw nods slowly. "Your arguments are valid, Anon," he replies. "Very well, I will put this new idea of yours into action and let you know how it goes when you return." He stands up. "I hope to see you again soon, preferably with new 'staff' for us."

You stand up as well. "You can count on me," you reply. "In fact, I know just the pony to bring out on a little 'outing.'"

Lyra?

Lyra.

Rockpaw grins a big, toothy, grin. "Glad to hear it, Anon." he offers his paw, which you shake. "I always had my doubts about you, my boy, but now... I'm glad you're on our side."

"As am I... boss."

Rockpaw produces two more glasses and pours wine into each of them. "A toast," he says. "To new friendships!"

You and Slasher pick up a glass, raising them in the air. "To new friendships!" you say in unison.

The resulting clink of the glasses fills the room — but at that moment in time, you only have one thing on your mind.

Looks like my plan is coming along nicely...

Catching Up

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Before you left to return to Ponyville, you asked the Overseer if he could help you come up with a cover story which would explain why you were returning to town without Vinyl. After all, you wouldn't want to arouse suspicion before you could act.

Unfortunately for you, Slasher decided that he would be the one to 'give you a cover story' — by beating the crap out of you. It hurts like hell, but at least it should be somewhat believable; you only wish that he hadn't been so keen to damage your lower regions.

Sitrep.

It feels like you're keeping melons in your pants, Anon. I strongly recommend that you apply an ice pack... maybe ten.

You groan as you finally enter town, the seething eyes of the locals soon giving way to confusion — although it goes without saying that some of them look pleased to see you in such a state. Slumping onto a bench, you let out a sharp gasp as the pain in your chest becomes too much to bear. The sound of hoofsteps is the only thing that gives you the strength to sit up properly, coming eye to eye with none other than Fluttershy.

"Anon? What on Equestria happened to you?"

You sigh. "The fucking Diamond Dogs jumped Vinyl and I while we were out for a walk." you put your head in your hands. "It's all my fault, Fluttershy; I suggested we do something to take our minds off the fact Octavia was taken, and this happens."

"Oh, no!" Fluttershy gasps. "First Octavia, and now Vinyl? This is bad, Anon, very bad. Come on, we need to go and tell Twilight what's happened." She sighs. "Poor Twilight, there's not a week going by now which hasn't ended with her sending a Missing Pony report to the Guard in Canterlot."

You let Fluttershy help you to your feet and follow her to Twilight's castle, the kind little pegasus fussing over your injuries the whole way. When you reach the castle, the door opens to reveal the Princess of Friendship herself, as well as her other friends.

"Ah, there you are, Fluttershy," Twilight says. "We were just about to come out and look for— wait, why is Anon here?" She looks you up and down. "And, more to the point, what happened to him?"

Fluttershy guides you to a seat and parks you on it. "Oh, Twilight, it's horrible. Anon and Vinyl went out for a walk to try and take their minds off what happened to Octavia, but..." She looks away, tears running down her cheeks.

You sigh. "The Diamond Dogs got her," you say. "I apparently wasn't of any use to them, so they beat the crap out of me."

Twilight's face falls. "No, not another report!" she cries. "Look, Anon, I need as much information as you can give me. Where were you, how many Dogs were there, what direction they went off in... if there is anything you can tell me which might help, do so."

You shrug. "Sorry, Princess," you reply. "Those bastards beat me black and blue, so my memory is a bit shoddy right now."

"All right, we'll get you to the hospital then." Twilight puts a hoof on your shoulder. "But if you remember anything later on..."

"You'll be the first to know." you smile and nod. "Promise."

Twilight smiles and nods in return. "Glad to hear it," she says. "I'm going to apply a sleep spell to you now; it'll make getting you to hospital a bit easier. So just relax, and count backwards from ten."

You close your eyes. "Ten, nine, eight, s—"

The last thing you remember after this is the feel of the cold marble floor underneath your body.

***

"Good evening, Anonymous."

You blearily open your eyes, looking around to see nothing but darkness. You grin and sit up; you've been here before.

"Good evening, Princess Luna." you pause. "Wait, evening?"

The darkness around you begins to recede, eventually taking the form of the Princess of the Night herself.

"Yes, Anonymous, it is indeed the evening." she nods. "You are still in hospital in Ponyville; the doctors decided to keep you sedated while they worked on your injuries."

You shrug. "Fine by me," you reply. "Anyway, Princess, how have you been? I notice you are now speaking properly, for a start."

Luna chuckles. "It has been five years, my friend," she says. "I have changed a lot in that time, as have you, but..." Her brow furrows. "I must confess that I do not like the path on which you have chosen to walk since your release."

"My 'path?'" you parrot. "What 'path' would that be?"

Luna rolls her eyes. "As well as your dreams, Anonymous, I can also look into your memories; I do not like what you are doing with the Diamond Dogs, but I fear I cannot change your mind about it, given that your lover and best friend are in their custody."

You swallow nervously. "I have a plan for getting Vinyl, Octavia, Bon Bon, and all the other prisoners out of there," you say. "But it's not gonna happen overnight." You sigh." "Hell, it won't happen at all if this petition passes and I get exiled from Ponyville."

"Ah, yes, the petition," Luna replies. "I have gazed into many dreams which involve you being ejected from town; some of the methods being used were, I must admit, highly amusing. But rest assured, Anonymous, for you will not be exiled."

"How can you be so sure?" you ask. "From what I've heard, over three-quarters of the ponies in town have signed the damn thing!"

"The Mayor of Ponyville does not have the final say on exiles; she can only decide whether or not to pass it on to the Royal Court, otherwise known as Celestia and I." Luna smiles at you. "It goes without saying that neither of us would agree to such a thing. The petition will be denied, and you will be safe... although I can only imagine that it will make ponies hate you even more."

"Oh, thanks; I'm looking forward to that part already," you say sarcastically. "Seriously though, Princess, thank you. That's quite a substantial weight you've taken off my shoulders."

Luna puts a forehoof on your shoulder. "Anything to help a friend," she says. "Anyway, morning will be upon us soon, and you will be brought round from your sleep. But before you wake up, I have to say some things regarding a thought you had earlier this week."

"Oh?" you wonder. "What?"

"While it is true that I have a negligee just like the one you imagined, I must tell you that I am not that flexible." Luna gazes at you through half-lidded eyes. "Furthermore, it has been a while since I last experienced another mare like that..."

It takes a while for your brain to process what she just said; when it finally does, your jaw almost drops off.

Wait, she can even see into my daydreams?! Brain, did you get—

Yeah, Anon, I got it; I am currently devoting as much power as I can to suppressing all the lewd thoughts I've just came up with.

Luna giggles at the stupefied expression on your face. "I had a feeling you'd react like that. She ruffles her wings. "Anyway, it is time for you to wake up. Take care of yourself, Anonymous, and best of luck with your plan; remember that you can ask me for help at any time, and I shall do my best to provide you with it."

She slowly fades away before you have a chance to thank her, as the dream world gives way to terrible reality.

***

"Welcome back, Anonymous." you recognise the voice as that of Haywick, the doctor who analysed Octavia's cello. "You certainly look as though you slept well, but how do you feel?"

"I feel great, actually," you reply. "Thanks to the wonderful treatment I've been receiving from you and the other staff."

Haywick coughs nervously. "Actually, it's just me who has been tending to you," he replies. "Pretty much all of the other staff have refused to touch you, given that they've signed the petition."

"Oh..." you don't let this news get you down; you instead grin and fold your arms. "Well, I have it on good authority that they're not going to be stuck with me for a while longer." Haywick simply flashes you a smile. "Say, Doc, could you do me a favour? There's somepony in town whom I really need to speak to."

"Is it Princess Twilight?" Haywick asks. "Have you remembered anything else about when you and Vinyl were—"

"No, it's not Twilight." you shake your head.

"Oh? Then who is it you wish to speak to?"

"Nopony special." You grin. "Just Lyra..."

Plan In Motion

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After Haywick left to go and find Lyra, you realised that you forgot to mention Bon Bon to him. However, he came back with her in tow an hour later; she grins wickedly upon seeing your injuries, making you conclude that she only followed him so she could gloat.

"So the rumour is true, then; the big bad human got his flank kicked." she laughs. "Well, it couldn't have happened to a nicer scumbag, but it goes without saying that you deserve a lot more." She doesn't notice Haywick rolling his eyes as he leaves, giving you a sympathetic smile. "Anyway, why in Tartarus did you want to see me, Anon? There is nothing you have to say that can—"

"I know where Bon Bon is."

Lyra turns her gaze to meet yours so fast, you could have sworn you heard her neck cracking. "You what?" she asks. "How?!"

You put your arms behind your head. "After the Dogs shoved Vinyl into a cage and beat the shit out of me, they began talking amongst themselves. One of them said something about 'the sweet maker pony who needs to be taught a lesson in respecting her betters.' And given the fact there is only one such pony in Ponyville, I immediately guessed he was talking Bon Bon."

For the first time since you got back, you see Lyra's face take on an expression other than anger or smugness. "So the Dogs did get her..." she trails off for a moment, but it's not long before she's glaring at you again. "I don't know why you think this information is going to make me like you, Anon, because to me it's just bad news coming from a bad guy; I will always hate you for—"

"Okay, fine," you interrupt. "I guess you won't want to go and rescue her before they actually take her to the labour camp." Lyra stares at you blankly. "Oh, did I not mention that they were going to stay at their camp for a couple more days before heading back?"

"They are?" Lyra asks, prompting you to nod. "Well, that's great; I'll go get the guards to head over there and bust their skulls!"

But Bon Bon isn't even at the camp.

We know that, but Lyra doesn't. Anyway, shush; I'm deceiving.

"Oh, no." you shake your head. "While I won't deny that the Royal Guard are good at their jobs, I can safely say that they will not be tactful about this; they'll rush to the area, but the clanking of their armour will give the Dogs enough warning to clear out before they even get there." You fold your arms and give Lyra the sort of piercing look your maths teacher used to give you while you were dithering at the blackboard. "Seriously, Lyra, if you tell the guards about this, then Bon Bon is done for."

Lyra stomps a forehoof into the floor. "Then what the hell am I supposed to do, Anon?!" she shouts. "Because I'll be damned if I'm going to sit idly by while those filthy mongrels do Celestia, Luna and even Discord knows what to the mare I love!"

Ha, I knew those two were a thing!

Not now, damn it.

"I feel well enough to discharge myself from here," you reply. "I can take you to the camp, then distract the Dogs long enough for you to bust out Bon Bon. They had the element of surprise the last time, but this time it will be different; I know a few tricks of my own that will help me keep them busy."

Lyra seems to be on the verge of tears. "Y-you'd do that for me, after everything I've said and done to you?" she asks, her voice cracking with emotion. "Anon, I... I don't know what to say."

"Don't say anything." you swing your legs over the edge of the bed and climb down. "Just go and wait outside while I get ready."

Lyra nods and leaves the room; as soon as the sound of her hoofsteps fades, you make a pyramid with your fingers and smirk.

Okay, that was the easy part.

I assume the hard part is making sure she doesn't suss out what your actual plan is before you can spring the ambush?

It should be fine as long as I can keep playing on her feelings for her marefriend, by tugging at the ol' heartstrings.

I see what you did there.

Oh, shut up, it wasn't intentional.

With that out of the way, you leave the room and head to reception.

***

You trudge through the forest with Lyra following close behind, your breath turning to mist in the cold air. She took what you said to heart; nopony is following you, which is definitely the last thing you, Vinyl and Octavia need right now. You suppress a shudder as you think about what the Dogs would do to the three of you if you inadvertently led an entire division of Royal Guard to their hideout.

"How much further, Anon?" Lyra whispers.

"Just a few more minutes," you whisper back. "When we get there, I'll distract the Dogs while you run to the cages and get Bon Bon. And be quick about it; my sleeves can only hold so many tricks."

Lyra nods. "Got it," she says.

Sure enough, you get to the camp a few minutes later. There are six Dogs in the area; three are standing guard, while the other three are huddled around a small fire surrounded by three large tents decorated with the Rockpaw crest.

"Looks like the cages are behind the tents," Lyra says eagerly. "We go on three. One... two... th-RRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"

As soon as she hits three, you grab her around the waist and hoist her onto your shoulders. The squeal of shock she lets out is more than enough to attract the attention of the guards, who immediately come over to you; one of them attaches a magic dampener to Lyra, who is flailing her hind legs around in a desperate attempt to kick you in the face.

"You bastard!" she screams. "You bastard, bastard, bastard, BASTARD! I never should have listened to you!"

"Ah, shut up, ya damn pony!" one of the Dogs sticks a gag over her mouth. "Save yer strength for working!" He takes her from you and hands her to one of the others, who puts a sack over her head and proceeds to unceremoniously dump her in a cage.

You dust your hands together. "There we go, gentlemen, one freshly delivered slave," you say, trying your best to sound evil. "This particular mare has a close connection to another slave, namely the sweet maker; having the two of them together will ensure that there is no trouble, especially if you threaten to punish the other when one of them does something wrong."

"Good job, Anon," one of the guards says. "Y'know, when the Overseer said that you was workin' for us now, we was kinda sceptical." He pats your shoulder. "But now... now we can see that yous has got a knack fer this kinda work."

"What can I say?" you shrug. "Survival of the fittest, am I right?"

As the dogs cackle uproariously at your quip, you gaze into the slowly dying embers of the fire, and wonder just how much lower you'll have to sink before your plan bears fruit.

Rockpaw's Revelation

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You whistle a tune as you walk through the pit, the clanging of several pickaxes adding their own melody to the mix, while casting glances at the slaves working away. Some of them shy away from your gaze, though others glare at you with all the ferocity of a dying sun. You ignore them and carry on, returning the various high fives, thumbs up and middle fingers you get from the guards.

A few weeks have passed since you started 'working' for the Dogs, and you've been very busy during that time. You have helped gather up several more 'volunteers' for the workforce, including Blossomforth, Flitter, Cloudchaser, Thunderlane, Berry Punch and even that Haywick guy, who found you in a bush watching a couple of mares whom you were planning on taking; you had no choice but to tell him everything, and he responded by first telling you that both the mares you had your sights on were pregnant, and then by suggesting that you take him back instead.

Never mind steel, that stallion's balls are made of titanium.

I hope they're not working him too hard...

He'll be fine; they've stopped beating the prisoners, remember?

You catch sight of Haywick digging away at the imposing rock walls which loom menacingly above the pit; he keeps stopping to rub his jaw, obviously not used to holding things with his mouth for so long, but he doesn't seem too bothered. He nods at you, a gesture you return, then carries on working.

"Oi, Anon." you turn around to see Slasher approaching. "The boss sent me; he wants to talk to you, right now."

"Sure thing, Slasher," you reply. "All good, I hope?"

Slasher grins. "They must be all right," he says. "Cuz if they weren't, I'd be forcing you to dig your grave right now."

You chuckle warily; Slasher's sense of humour was something which you've always... intimidating, to say the least.

Leaving the pit, you head down the hall towards Rockpaw's office, the pickaxe overture fading to nothing behind you. Dicer and Crusher unlock the door as you approach, and you enter the lavishly decorated room where Rockpaw sits at his desk; he stands up as you approach and you salute him.

"I'm glad you're here, Anonymous." Rockpaw's eyes are practically shining with excitement. "Sit down, I've got a lot to tell you."

You sit. "Is everything okay, Overseer?"

Rockpaw chuckles. "It couldn't be better!" he exclaims. "The fresh slaves have really helped move things along, and your little idea about how to punish them has worked wonders." He leans forwards. "You see, Anon, now that the beatings have stopped, the prisoners are under the impression that anypony who does anything wrong will simply be killed." He leans back and flashes you an unsettling grin, complete with gold tooth. "This fear has made them work harder than ever before. We are much closer to our goal now, and it's all thanks to you. I trust you, Anon, so I've decided that I'm gonna tell you exactly what we're looking for."

Hell, it's about time.

Shut it; you know I have to be chewing on a cigar first, in order for that line to have maximum impact.

"Thank you, Overseer," you say. "I am honoured that you find me worthy of being made privy to this kind of information."

"You can kiss my ass later, Anon," Rockpaw retorts. "In the meantime, shut up and listen. Now, some time ago, my clan found ancient pony texts in the ruins of an old castle."

"The Castle of the Two Sisters?"

"Yeah, that one; we looked through 'em, and – quite honestly – we were about to burn them, when we found a reference to this place. It seems, Anon, that Ghastly Gorge hides an ancient treasure: the hoard of a dragon, holding enough loot to last a thousand lifetimes. That hoard, Anon, is why we killed all those stupid eels and took over; as for the ponies... well, they're here for another reason."

You tap your chin. "A dragon hoard, huh? Neat. But, what do you mean when you say the ponies are here for 'another reason?'"

"I ain't stupid, Anon," Rockpaw says. "I know that dragons can live for a very long time, and that they don't take too kindly to folk trying to steal from them. So, if the dragon this hoard belongs to is still alive – and he might very well be – then the first thing he's gonna see when he wakes up is a bunch of ponies with digging tools." He flashes you another grin; this one is wider than the last, and you even make out a diamond on a back molar. "You've got one guess as to what that dragon does next."

You don't even need to think. "He blames Equestria for 'stealing' from him and then proceeds to burn the place to the ground."

Rockpaw claps his paws together and cackles. "Exactly!" he says gleefully. "While he's doing that, we're stealing the loot and getting away before he realises what's happening. He'll most likely think that it was another dragon who stole from him; while he looks for a thief who doesn't exist, we stroll into Equestria and conquer anypony and anything that is still standing."

Ho-
-ly
SHIT.

To say that you are horrified by this would be the biggest understatement of the millennium. Rockpaw takes advantage of the stunned expression on your face to carry on talking.

"This bad boy..." he slaps the top of his head. "Can fit so many brilliant ideas." He leans back and folds his arms. "Clever, or what?"

You blink a couple of times to process what you've just heard and then, with all the grace of a coked-up howler monkey, let out the loudest and – you hope – most convincing manic laugh you've ever mustered. You keep it up for a good fifteen seconds before stopping and wiping your eyes with a finger.

"That, boss, is the most amazing idea I've ever heard," you finally say. "Truly, you are the smartest of all Diamond Dogs."

Rockpaw smirks. "Thanks, Anon," he replies. "Anyway, it's only a matter of time before we find the treasure; get back to the pit and help the rest of my boys to keep an eye on the slaves."

"What about more prisoners?" you ask. "Should I get some?"

Rockpaw shakes his head. "No, don't," he says. "My scouts report that the Royal Guard are beginning to receive additional troops from the Crystal Empire." He scoffs. "They honestly think they can even find us, let alone attack us? Wait until those disgusting little quadrupeds get a load of what I have in store for them."

"They'll sing songs of the impending slaughter for centuries to come." you stand up. "I'm proud to be a part of this, Boss, and I hope I can continue working for you when you conquer Equestria."

"Keep it up, Anon, and you'll be well rewarded in my new empire." Rockpaw waves you away. "Dismissed."

You salute and leave, ignoring Dicer and Crusher and heading straight for the pit. The pickaxe concerto starts getting louder, but you tune it out as you reach the pit and climb down into it; once inside, you pick a random direction and start 'patrolling.'

After twenty minutes, you catch sight of Vinyl and Octavia; they are both standing at a wall, chipping away at it like there's no tomorrow. Realising they need to be told what's happening, you walk over and address the guard who is watching them.

"Oi, you." you thumb in the direction you came from. "Clear off an' get some food, will ya? I'll watch these two."

"Sure thing, Anon, I was famished anyway." the guard walks away; once he's out of sight, Vinyl grabs you with her forehooves, pulls you down and smashes her lips against yours. You suck face for a good thirty seconds before a lack of oxygen forces you apart.

"I am so glad to see you, Nonny!" Vinyl says. "It's been hell down here, though I'm glad they stopped kicking the shit out of us."

"I'm happy to see you as well, Anonymous," Octavia adds. "But, I also know you wouldn't be talking to us if it wasn't important."

Vinyl perks up at this. "You found something out?" she asks.

You nod solemnly. "I did, but you're not gonna like it..."

With that, you tell them everything that's happened in the last few weeks. You explain what the Overseer asked of you, and how you gained his trust by duping several ponies into following you, but the most important thing is what you learned from him regarding his plan. By the time you finish, the colour has drained from Octavia's face, and Vinyl is looking even whiter than normal.

"A-a dragon?!" Octavia hisses. "By all that is sacred, they're going to kill us all just to get their filthy paws on some treasure?"

You nod. "That's what the Overseer told me," you reply. "But don't worry, because we're getting out of here."

"You, me and Tavi?" Vinyl asks, to which you shake your head.

"When I say 'we,' I mean 'everypony.'" your eyes flash with determination and you reach out to put a hand on Vinyl and Octavia's shoulders. "Girls..." They look back at you, and you grin.

"Let's blow this joint."

Unleashed

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We're really doing this, aren't we?

Damn right we're doing this; despite what these ponies might think of me, I'm not about to let them be killed by a frigging dragon.

As you make your way through the pit, you replay your conversation with Rockpaw in your head. As far as evil maniacs go, it's a solid plan, but if there's one thing he didn't count on, it was you not being as bad as you'd led him to believe.

If you're going to rescue the slaves, you'll need the master key for their restraints, which means you'll need to beat up the last Dog you saw carrying it; it's just your luck that Dog is Slasher. He's much bigger than you, but – as a wise man once said – 'one swift knee in the happy sack and he'll drop like anyone else.'

It's not long before you see Slasher in conversation with another guard and make your way over, but as you do you see him put the other guard in a headlock. Wondering what the fuss is about, you quicken your pace and get close enough for him to see you.

"Oi, Anon!" Slasher tightens his grip on the other guard, who is trying – with no success – to escape. "I need to talk to you, so don't go nowhere!" He looks down at his victim. "As for you, Breaker, have you learned your lesson about not pissing in my spot yet?" Breaker responds by letting out a small whine and tapping Slasher's paws. "Okay, good, but just to be sure..."

With that, he piledrives Breaker into the ground, causing you to wince as the sound of skull on rock echoes throughout the pit. The sound even makes the prisoners perk up and start digging a little bit faster; you presume it's out of fear that it was one of their own on the receiving end of some cruel punishment.

Slasher lets out a chuckle and turns his attention to you. "That takes care of that." He takes something out of his pocket. "Anyway, Anon, the reason I wanted to talk to you was this." He holds out his paw. "The boss told me to give you this; we have to keep it on the move at all times so the slaves can't get it."

You look at the object to see that – by sheer coincidence – it's the master key to the manacles. You quickly take it and put it in your own pocket, before giving Slasher a nod.

"Sure thing, Slasher," you reply. "I'll keep it nice and secure."

Slasher smirks. "I know you will, Anon," he says. "I know you will." He looks back as Breaker comes to with a groan, then sighs. "Looks like I'm not finished with this idiot yet; you go do whatever, Anon, and I'll see to it my 'friend' here gets the message."

You don't have to be told twice, quickly leaving the area as Slasher cracks his knuckles. You do hear some blows being landed, but they are soon replaced by the all-too familiar sound of pickaxes thudding against stone. With the key in your possession, and in a much easier way than you expected, you are now ready to put the next phase of your plan into action.

But as you make your way to where you last saw Vinyl and Octavia, you – and everyone else in the immediate vicinity – stop in your tracks as one of the prisoners shouts out.

"WE'VE FOUND SOMETHING!"

Almost instantly, every guard in the area starts moving to the source of the voice, shoving prisoners out of the way in their mad rush. Realising you need to keep up appearances, you decide to follow them, and join in the mayhem by running in the same direction. You are met by an enthusiastic Slasher, who takes you aside and rubs his paws together eagerly.

"They found the hoard, Anon," he says malevolently. "It's not long now before the boss' plan comes to fruition!"

You crack a smile. "Great!" you give a thumbs-up. "Can't wait."

SHIT, SHIT, SHIT!
SHIT, SHIT, SHIT!

The guards make no effort to stop curious prisoners from peeking into the hole they've made to see what all the fuss is about; in fact, they are going out of their way to avoid going anywhere it themselves, for reasons you are already all too familiar with.

"Can't wait to see what happens next, Slasher!" you say. "Sooner the better, am I right?" Slasher nods at you, and you thumb in a direction away from the hole. "I need to take a leak, and don't worry; I won't use your spot, all right?"

Slasher cackles and winks at you before turning his attention to the hole surrounded by prisoners, even going so far as to direct a couple of them towards it with an encouraging shove.

All pretence is soon abandoned as you run like a bat out of hell towards Vinyl and Octavia, both of whom have stopped working and are trying to catch a glimpse of what is going on.

"Can you see anything, Tavi?"

"No, I can't." Octavia shakes her head. "Too many prisoners."

Both of them let out a yelp as you careen around the corner with enough speed to kick up dust and pebbles, before falling flat on your face in front of them. Vinyl picks you up, at which point you fish the key out of your pocket and start undoing the manacles.

"You found the key?!" Vinyl covers her mouth to stop a scream of glee from escaping. "That's great news, Nonny!"

You nod. "That's the good news, yes, though I can't remove your dampener," you reply. "The bad news, however, is that the slaves just uncovered a certain dragon hoard, and the Dogs are actively encouraging the rest to go and look at it."

"What?" Octavia gasps. "We need to act fast, Anon!"

"I know, I know!" you reply, undoing her manacles and giving her the key. "Take this and start freeing as many prisoners as you can; the guards are more interested in getting them to look at the new discovery, so they probably won't pay you any attention. But, with that said, I'm still going to distract them myself."

Vinyl and Octavia nod once, the former kissing you before they both disappear around the corner you came from. You hear a gasp of shock from one of the other prisoners, followed by a "Thank you!" as the girls free them from their bonds.

How in the hell are we going to distract these guys?

After what I saw Slasher do to Breaker earlier, I've got an idea; use their own brute strength and ignorance to my advantage.

You head back to the hole, catching occasional glimpses of Vinyl and Octavia freeing the prisoners, whom they direct to the place where they had been working. It's safe, sure, but not for much longer; you know that time is not on your side and you quicken your pace, arriving at the hole in time to see two of the guards standing with their backs to you as they watch the prisoners still in the area peer into the hole, letting out the odd 'Ooh' and 'Ahh' as they catch sight of the treasure within.

The guards barely notice you as you walk up behind them; there's a small alcove to your left which you decide to hide in in order to enact your plan. Picking up a small rock, you throw it at one of the guards, nailing him in the butt with it. He growls and looks at the guy standing next to him with narrowed eyes and bared teeth.

"Oi!" he snaps. "Whatchoo do that for, you git?"

"You what?" the other guard replies. "I didn't do nothin'!"

Guard One gestures to the seemingly empty corridor. "It musta been you, cuz there ain't nobody else here!"

Guard Two pushes him away. "Quit yer yappin' and keep watch, will ya?" he snaps. "Yer just imaginin' things."

"Oh yeah?" Guard One says. "Well imagine this!"

He punches Guard Two in the face, and the two of them soon end up on the floor snarling and growling as they start to fight. The other guards take notice of the event and come over to watch, while one of them starts taking bets. You emerge from your hiding place and join the circle; you soon see Vinyl and Octavia taking advantage of the melee to free the prisoners.

I'm getting kinda worried here, Anon.

How so? This is going really well; first we get the key without a fuss, and now we've successfully distracted these boneheads.

Well, yeah, but... aren't you worried things are going too well?

I am now, since you've only went and made me think about it. Come on, let's get the hell out of here before—

All activity stops as the cavern begins to shake, sending prisoners and guards alike scattering as chunks of rock begin to rain down from the ceiling. The two guards who had been fighting scramble to their feet and begin to back away, their friends following suit; just as you finally begin to do the same, though, the rumbling stops.

The eerie silence is soon broken by a loud and booming voice, as though Luna was speaking through a hundred megaphones.

"WHO DARES DISTURB MY SLUMBER?"

The voice is soon joined by a pair of piercing yellow eyes at the hole, above a large mouth full of razor sharp teeth.