by Longtooth

First published

I am not Twilight Sparkle. We share one body, one past, but not our souls. I do not know why I am here, or why I have done these terrible things. This is my story.

I am not Twilight Sparkle.

I have her body, I have her memories, I have her power. I am not her, and I have done such terrible things. This is my story.


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I am not Twilight Sparkle. I think I should get that out of the way first, before we start to get confused. This is the truth. The absolute truth. The only real thing that I can point to and say ‘this is above reproach! This is not in question!’ Even if the rest of the world doesn’t acknowledge it, even if all else is just… shadows and lies made to trick me, I know this. I am not her.

But I look like her. Perfectly, absolutely, down to every detail. Okay, admittedly there are some differences right now, but that’s a result of me trying to differentiate myself from her. I didn’t start out with this mane style or these piercings. Certainly not the scars. No, I started out exactly as she ended off. If she ended. I don’t even know.

If that were all it was, if I was just a bizarre doppelganger who was somehow inserted into her life without knowing how or why, that would be something I could deal with. It was certainly something I wanted to believe. But that’s not the case. I’m not just her double in body, you see, I’ve got her memories too. I remember her life from behind her eyes. I remember her thoughts and her feelings and her hopes and her dreams and her prejudices. What’s worse? I have no other memories to compare to, no second life to difinitively call my own. All her memories are all my memories. No more, no less.

Yet I still am not her. I do not think her thoughts, I do not feel her feelings. I… I do not share her soul.

But what does that mean? How can I be made up of the same body and memories as another pony, down to every exacting detail, yet be somepony completely different? Is a pony not the sum of her experiences? I can’t even imagine an answer. It’s too thick with importance, too burdened with desperate hopes and blind theories. If a pony really is the sum of their past, then I have added up Twilight Sparkle's life and come to a different answer than she did.

And that just doesn't make sense.

Which is why I’m here, talking to you. I figure if anypony can understand, if anypony could possibly help, it would be you. I know Twilight would go to her friends, or Celestia, or… well, it doesn’t matter what she’d do. It’s not what I’d do. It’s not what I’m doing. I know you might not be able to do anything, I know this could all be just a way of venting steam. But even if it is just me ranting I feel like it has to be said, and it has to be said to you.

The events of the past few weeks have shown me that I can’t do this alone. Twilight Sparkle knew that friendship was magic, that the bonds we share with each other can strengthen us enough to face and overcome any challenge. But her friends are not mine, and so far I have been terrible at making my own. I need that magic, that strength, but I have no way to get it without calling on ponies who think they know me. Ponies who are sure they know me, but do not.

How could I explain it to them? I already tried once, and that ended… well, that ended so poorly that even if Twilight were to come back she might have one friend less than she had when she left. And I still couldn’t get through to her! Trying to talk to them is like… like knitting a sweater from a brick wall! Getting away with murder was easier!

...Right. I haven’t told you about that part yet. Well, it gets a little complicated, and it ties into all the other things I wanted to talk to you about.

Here, perhaps I should start at the beginning.


The first memory I have that I know for certain is mine and not Twilight’s is from a morning two months ago. I know this was me, because the first thing I was aware of was a kind of deep confusion. Something was wrong, something important, and I knew it immediately, but I could not place my hoof on what it could possibly be. My alarm was ringing loudly, an insistent clatter that I couldn’t ignore, no matter how much I wanted to. I groaned and curled the pillow about my head, blocking my ears, but the obstruction couldn't block out the sound that interrupted my thoughts and made it impossible to focus.

So I smashed it. A blast of telekinetic magic lashed out from my horn and crushed the clock into a sphere of metal about an inch and a half across. The more delicate components melted under the pressure and heat, splattering metal across the surface of my nightstand as I dropped the ex-clock from my telekinetic grip.

Then I rolled over and went back to sleep.

This was not normal Twilight Sparkle behavior, but it would be a while before I got into the habit of analyzing all of my reactions to determine if they were genuinely mine or some vestigial habit from Twilight’s memories. At the time, all I knew was that I was still tired, and I didn’t care that the alarm had gone off.

I didn’t wake until again I felt Spike’s sharp claw poking me in the side.

“Hey, Twilight?” Spike crooned in my ear, making it twitch in annoyance. “Earth to Twilight! Are you awake yet?”

“What if I said I wasn’t?” I grumbled in reply, swatting his claw away.

“I’d say you’re a pretty lively sleeping pony,” Spike said, grinning. “Come on, breakfast is getting cold.”

“Right, right. Breakfast.” I tugged the covers over my head and burrowed deeper into the pillow. “Wake me when breakfast becomes lunch.”

“Come on, Twilight!” Spike protested. “You can’t stay in bed all day!”

“Can’t I?”

“Um. No?”

I sighed and grudgingly threw the covers off of me. “Fine. If this day wants to be faced so much, then here I go, facing it.”

“Cool, I’ll see you downstairs,” Spike said, oblivious to my irritation. I had the sudden urge to kick him as he left, but held myself back. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but this should have been a warning sign.

Getting myself through Twilight’s morning routine was a chore. And why wouldn’t it have been? I didn’t even know I wasn’t her yet. I walked through the practiced motions of brushing my mane and teeth, ensuring that my coat was presentable and the entire time I felt like a marionette whose puppeteer had grown bored and was just half-assing their way through the show.

I stomped downstairs in the foulest mood I could ever remember being in. Spike was never so blind that he wouldn’t notice, and I felt like I owed him some courtesy. So I forced the black feelings down and tried to put on an expression that, if not happy, was at least neutral.

“Hey, Twilight, are you feeling okay?” he asked as I made my way to the table. Clearly my attempts at neutrality had failed.

“I…” I contemplated telling him exactly how I felt, but the words that sprang to mind caught in my throat. I wanted to tell him how much I hated being woken up this early, but it was nearly an hour after I usually got up. I wanted to tell him how annoying he was, but he had barely interacted with me. It didn’t made sense, and it brought me up short. I shuddered and told myself I was just in a worse mood than I had thought. “I kinda got up on the wrong side of the bed,” I told him, forcing a smile.

“Yeah, I get that way too,” Spike commiserated. “Except I sleep in a basket.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at that last bit. He was so earnest about it, he wasn’t even making a joke. That made it all the funnier for reasons that I didn’t even know at the time. I laughed all the way to the table, magically picking up a fork and knife and cutting into the pancakes Spike had made for me.

With the first bite I knew something was wrong. The flavor was like I remembered it. A little cold, but that was easily explained by my extended stay in bed. No, this was something else. Something new, something irrefutably different from what all my memories had brought me to expect.

I hated these pancakes. They tasted just like always, and I hated them.

This is where the first break really happened. I’d been feeling my own emotions and thinking my own thoughts since I woke up, but this was the first point that I actually became aware of the disconnect between who I had been when I went to sleep the previous night, and who I was now.

Can you imagine that feeling? Can you even conceive of it? I don’t know, maybe you can. I guess that’s why I’m talking to you. I can tell you for certain that Twilight would never have been capable of understanding it. To suddenly know you are not who you think you are? To be made aware that your existence as you knew it was a lie? Not as a rational, logical proof, but as a certainty so deep it was as fundamental as breathing. Just as I knew Celestia raised the sun, in that moment I knew that I was not Twilight Sparkle. And that realization broke me like a dry twig.

I rejected the thought, of course. It was a ridiculous notion at the time, but its impact was so strong that I was feeling the aftershocks of it even through the hours of confusion and fear that came next. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Right then, with the pancake sitting in my mouth, I panicked. I grabbed the table with my magic and shoved the entire thing away from me. If you think I overreacted, you’re right. I did. If you think just shoving a table was the extent of the overreaction, you’re wrong.

Twilight Sparkle is one of the most powerful unicorns to ever live. She knew this, but she didn’t put much stock in it. She was young and talented, but not yet as skilled or knowledgeable as she could be, and knowledge was always how she measured strength. I have all of her power, all of her skill. What I don’t have is her even temper. Which, considering how crazy she got over some of the dumbest things, should tell you something about my own base state of mind. When I threw that table, it was with all of the magical strength I had available. It went through the kitchen wall like a softball through a window, exploding into a thousand shards as the pressure crushed it.

I stared in open-mouthed shock at the new hole in my house. I thought about the renovation costs that previous injuries to the library had incurred. Celestia pays for all of that, of course, but I still see the bill and I still know how much of the treasury I’m taking up just living in the disaster-area that is Ponyville. I just sat there and thought about repair bills and didn’t even see what I had done, what I had really done, until I heard the sobbing whimper from out in the wreckage. Then the realization hit me, and the bottom dropped out of my world for the second time in less than a minute.

Spike had been between the table and the wall.


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I teleported to Spike’s side without thinking. In retrospect I’m really surprised that I was able to do that. Teleportation isn’t exactly an easy spell, it requires a lot of on-the-spot calculations to deal with the fact that everything is moving all the time. Twilight could practically do that stuff in her sleep, of course, but while I’d like to think I’m as smart as she was, I know that I’m not smart in the same way. I guess she had just become so casual with her teleporting that the skill carried over to me. I’m kinda glad for that, it made some of the stuff that came later a lot easier to get away with.

Of course, it also makes me question why I have any difference in skills at all, but I’ll get to that.

Spike was… hurt. I don’t know if I can fully describe it. I’d hit him with a table using enough force to smash him through the thick wood of the library walls, as well as the drawers, the piping, and part of the oven. If I had done that to a normal pony they’d… well, there wouldn’t be much left of them. The only thing that saved his life was the fact that dragons are nigh indestructible, even as babies.

He looked so terrified. That’s what I remember most. The way his scales had split open in dozens of places, the strange angles that his limbs were contorted into, all of that is just kind of a blur to me. When I think about that moment all I can really see are his eyes. They looked at me with such shock, such fear. His mouth moved, he couldn’t draw the breath to make a sound, but I knew he wanted to scream.

I’d been around for maybe an hour. Conscious, at least. An hour in Twilight Sparkle’s life and I’d already nearly killed her oldest and closest friend. Kinda set the tone for everything that came after it, really. I should have… well, no use in should-haves. I didn’t know what was going on at the time. I didn’t realize who I wasn’t yet. All I knew was that Spike was hurt, and that it was my fault.

I remember crying out his name. Screaming it, really. Tears made everything I looked at seem like it was seen through distorted glass. I dropped next to him, frantically nuzzling him. I don’t know what I thought that’d accomplish, but I think we’ve established that I wasn’t thinking very clearly right then.

Other ponies came to help immediately. They called for a stretcher, something to take Spike to the hospital with. I can’t recall exact words, but they were all ready and willing to do their part to make sure the baby dragon was alright.

It’s the best part of ponykind, really. They see someone hurt and they immediately want to help. I’ve got some issues with my species, but that isn’t one of them.

In some ways it was a good thing that I was still reeling from my breakfast-table self-discovery. I don’t think I would be nearly as co-operative with the ponies trying to help me nowadays. I don’t think Twilight would have been either, but for entirely different reasons. Still, before I could really register what was happening we were being carried to the local hospital, a crowd of concerned ponies sharing the burden to let us go all the faster.

Ponyville hospital is, like many things about that town, bizarrely out of place. Ponyville itself isn’t that big, and while the surrounding countryside has many more ponies living it, the hospital is sized for a much larger population than the town and the area require. I know why, of course: Ponyville is a powderkeg that blows up every few weeks. They need the bed space. The expansion of the original clinic into a full hospital was prompted by a ‘baked bads’ incident soon after I arrived in the town. Yes, that’s what it’s been called, at Pinkie’s insistence. Twilight didn’t get it, but I think it’s kind of funny. Anyways, Celestia was more than happy to pour funds into my new home town, and so we have a hospital. And a hydroelectric dam. And, you know what? I think I’ll just continue the story.

The hospital staff were just as worried by the sight of the injured dragon as everyone else was, but they were more interested in my state. I followed Spike as they lay him on a bed in the emergency room, and they kept asking me questions. I don’t know what I answered, honestly. I think they got the very true impression that I wasn’t in my right mind.

“What happened?” a unicorn doctor asked me, shining a light in my eyes.

I slapped the light away. “I don’t know!” I said, glaring at him before snapping my gaze back to Spike. He was twitching and writhing on the bed, every motion obviously painful, but unable to stay still. He’d begun making a keening noise at some point in the journey over here. I remember wishing he’d stop it. That noise was almost worse than seeing the mangled legs flopping around. I lay my ears flat to dull the noise and looked back to the doctor. “Help him!”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’m a doctor.”

“And he’s a patient! Help him!”

“I’m a doctor,” he repeated. “I work with ponies!”

“I don’t care,” I snarled. “You can give him something for the pain until a real doctor gets here.”

He sighed. “No, I can’t.”

Rage hit me like a screaming bludgeon, hammering my tenuous self-control flat and continuing on to the doctor. Before I even knew what I was doing I had grabbed him with my magic and slammed him against the wall hard enough to rattle the windows. Ponies around me gasped, shocked by the sudden violence. “Help him!” I screamed in the doctor’s face.

His eyes were wide, his legs shuddering against the wall, his horn burned with his own magic as he tried to counter my power, but he couldn’t break my grip. “I can’t,” he wheezed out, the pressure on him enough to make breathing a task. “I don’t know his physiology, giving him a sedative or anesthetic could do more harm than good.”

“I don’t believe you,” I hissed, and increased the pressure. He tried to say something but he was already too constricted to breathe. I watched as the whites of his eyes began to turn red, his struggles intensifying with frantic need, but getting him nowhere. I had to have held him like that for at least half a minute. Maybe more. If anyone tried to stop me, I don’t remember it.

Before you think to ask: no, I wasn’t trying to kill him. The thought that I might never even crossed my mind. I didn’t want him dead, I wanted him punished. He had given me an answer I didn’t like that left a friend in pain, and I was going to make him hurt for it. Not exactly a rational chain of thought. You could say it was the second in a long series of mistakes that led me here, but I actually think it was the first. Throwing the table was a moment of panic, of intense, existential fear. A massive overreaction, yes, but understandable. Crushing the life out of an innocent doctor? That was… that was all me. The first real indicator of who I am. I wasn’t trying to kill that doctor, but I think I would have.

It was Twilight’s friends that saved me from that.

“Twilight!” Applejack’s voice cut through my rage and shifted my focus away from the asphyxiating doctor. She was shoving her way through the horrified crowd, excusing herself for every pony she displaced, but cutting through them like the prow of an orange ship. Behind her were Rarity and Fluttershy, both looking quite concerned.

“Applejack!” I called back to her, unceremoniously dropping the doctor to the floor. “Spike’s hurt!”

“I heard, sugarcube,” Applejack said, finally making her way to me. I threw my forelegs around her, hugging her tightly. She gently smoothed down my mane and let me hold on to her. Applejack has a strange quality of solidity. She’s a stable pony, both in physical and psychological terms. When all else is confusion, she can be the rock you cling to. Even when she does something crazy, she’s usually doing it in a more sane manner than any of Twilight’s other friends would have. She’s not my favorite pony, but I… well, I connect with her better than I do most of the others.

“Oh, Spike!” Fluttershy cried out, a sentiment echoed by a gasp from Rarity. In an instant the two of them were by his bed, fussing over him.

“Can you help him?” I asked Fluttershy, my voice hitched with broken sobs.

“I’ll try,” Fluttershy said, then looked around until she spotted a nurse. “Could you, um, could you please bring the strongest painkillers you have? They’ll need to be, um, you need to be able to swallow them.” The nurse gave a wary look to me, and I swear if she had said no I would have ripped her head from her body right there and then. Instead she nodded and rushed off through the crowd. “It’s okay, Spike,” Fluttershy cooed to the dragon. “I’m going to make sure you get all better.”

Spike’s eyes rolled towards her, and there was such hope and relief in them that I nearly collapsed from seeing it. Applejack may be solid, but Fluttershy is the one to go to for comfort. It’s almost enough to make me overlook her other qualities. Almost.

“Oh, Spikey-wikey,” Rarity moaned.

Rarity. Rarity, Rarity, Rarity. Of all of Twilight’s friends I think I actually hate her the most. I still don’t understand how Twilight got along so well with her. Oh, I know that she’s got more to her than her public persona, but that persona is such a vain, whiny, selfish, conceited… sorry. I guess it’s a bit of the pot calling the kettle black, you know? I’m not up to her levels of malignant narcissism, but I’m no stranger to any of those qualities. Do I hate her because she reminds me of myself? Or more specifically, who I am not? Or do I...

Ugh, sorry. Getting sidetracked again. I just need to make it clear that I didn’t like Rarity from the beginning, but I didn’t really think about it until much later, and at the time I was too focused on Spike to control my own reactions.

“Stop simpering!” I snapped at her. She gave me this look of utter shock, like I had physically slapped her. “Give Fluttershy some room.” She stepped back from the bed, still watching me carefully.

“I think that’s good advice for everypony,” Applejack said, craning her neck to look out over all the gathered ponies. “Thank y’all kindly for helpin’ Twilight and Spike get here, but it’s probably best if y’all get along now. Fluttershy needs some peace to help, and Twilight’s not doing so well either.” The crowd started to move, sluggishly at first, but when they didn’t go fast enough I hurried them up with a wall of telekinesis that shoved the lot them bodily through the door and down the hall. Applejack gave me a concerned look. “That’s enough, sugarcube. You should probably sit down and let yourself get looked at.”

I nodded, disengaging from her and stumbling over to a chair. I sat down heavily while Applejack had some quiet words with the doctor who I had nearly killed. He shook his head emphatically, though it didn’t look like he was up to much talking himself. I don’t remember their conversation because I wasn’t paying attention to it, too focused on Spike and how Fluttershy was feeling out his broken legs. She wasn’t being too gentle, but I figured that you had to be rough with a dragon if you wanted to do any kind of examination.

The doctor left, all too eager to get out of the room, and Applejack and Rarity exchanged a few quiet words of their own before turning to me.

“Twilight, what happened?” Rarity asked. The tone of voice she used was concerned, calm, controlled. More of what I like to think of as ‘true Rarity’, the one buried under all the stuff that makes me want to toss her out the nearest window.

“I don’t know,” I said. I don’t think I was intentionally lying at this point. I think this was just the first attempt at repressing what I had discovered. Deny everything, and maybe it won’t be real the next time I look. You can see how well that tactic went. Just don’t say I didn’t try.

“The side of the library’s got a great big hole right through it,” Applejack said. “We passed it while we ran here. Were you attacked?” I shook my head. “Was it an experiment gone wrong?” Again, I shook my head. There were tears falling freely from me now, and I was shivering. Adrenaline is a funny thing, it lets you face your greatest fear and do more than you ever thought possible, but when it’s done its work it leaves you feeling raw, hollow, and cold. I was feeling that now. I stared at Spike and I shook in my seat and I tried desperately not to think about why he was in that condition.

And failed spectacularly, I might add.

“Darling, please,” Rarity said, crouching in front of me so that she could look directly into my eyes. “Tell us what happened.”

I could have lied. I could have made up a story that sounded plausible but would be impossible to check for. If this had happened yesterday, I would have. Easily. That day, my first day? I was too new, too unpracticed, and I still thought Rarity was my friend, and that I could trust her. I looked into her eyes, and I told the truth.

“I didn’t like my pancakes.”


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You can imagine how well that went over. No, they didn’t get it. How could they? From their perspective it was a random statement, a complete non-sequitur. Rarity and Applejack decided that I was too distraught to answer their questions, and insisted that I be looked at by a doctor. A different doctor, not the one that I had… well, okay, yes I guess that part’s obvious.

I wasn’t a good patient. I mean, I didn’t try to kill this one, but I wasn’t very good at following the doctor’s instructions. They did, with some cajoling from Twilight’s friends, manage to get me to swallow some pills that calmed me down. Further attempts to question me only continued the stream of very-true nonsense that no one but me understood. I’m very lucky they didn’t decide to keep me overnight for observation.

Fluttershy got Spike to swallow a dangerously large amount of painkillers and he was finally able to relax. The message was sent up to Canterlot for a pony specializing in draconic physiology to come and help take care of him. All this happened while I sat in mildly-drugged shock, my thoughts spiralling inwards.

I didn’t eat anything the whole day. They tried to make me, but the memory of my panic that morning was too fresh, too dangerous. I refused anything solid, though I did gulp down water and coffee by the cup. Before I knew it, it was night. The whole day lost because of a moment of fear. I cannot tell you how pissed off that makes me now. The first day I can actually call my own, wasted.

Yes, I’m bitter. Why wouldn’t I be? At least I’m not blaming Spike or anything. I know whose fault this was.

The doctor wanted me to stay at the hospital. Applejack wanted me to come to Sweet Apple Acres, and Rarity agreed, though she offered a room at her own place if I didn’t feel like going that far. I refused them all. They just wanted to keep an eye on me, to make sure I was okay. No, actually that’s not true. They wanted to make sure Twilight was okay.

I didn’t want to be looked after. I didn’t want friends or comfort or forgiveness or understanding. I wanted to be alone, and I got what I wanted.

I was probably pretty rude to Twilight’s friends. I honestly don’t recall. They never brought up my behaviour that night, so I don’t think I was all that horrible. In any case I ditched them and went home.

The library looked… well, okay from most angles. There was a big hole punched through the trunk of the tree where the kitchen was, but some helpful ponies had already boarded it up, which looked like weird bandage. Like one of those adhesive ones, that are supposed to be colored like your coat, but since they have to be generic they’re just off enough that it looks strange and obvious? That kind. It was disconcerting, but someone once told Twilight that it was better to have a lampshade than a bare bulb, and I guess this was something similar.

Inside, there were hoofprints all over my floor. I spent an inordinate amount of time staring at them. The kitchen had been swept up, everything broken removed. It was odd. I felt a sense of loss to see my kitchen so broken. But I also felt somehow invigorated by it.

I’d put a hole in my wall. I’d made a mess, and I didn’t feel the slightest need to clean it up. I’d put a hole in my wall over pancakes. The absurdity of it can’t be understated.

So I laughed. I stared at the dirty floor and the broken library and I laughed, and laughed, and laughed. I laughed my way up the stairs to my bedroom. I laughed as I went to the washroom and I laughed as I looked at my stupid, grinning face in the mirror.

Then I screamed. My horn pulsed with light and the mirror shattered. I fell to the floor, curled up around myself and began to sob.

What? Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me. Yes, it sounds all dramatic and overblown when I tell it now, but at the time it was… real. I felt like my world was ending. I felt like I was losing my mind. Twilight wasn’t a stranger to despair, or to having loved ones hurt.

One time, soon after she had become Celestia’s student, Twilight’s brother was injured in a training accident with the Royal Guard. She was brought to the hospital by her parents. She saw him, her BBBFF, lying in a bed with tubes in his nostrils and a dozen beeping devices scattered around him. The adults around her said that he was going to be okay, but she was old enough to know then that adults often lied to spare the feelings of children. She saw him, unconscious, hurt, and she was sure that he was going to die.

She cried then. For hours, inconsolable. It took Celestia herself coming to the hospital to calm her down. It got turned into a lesson. A bit of pony biology so that Twilight could understand exactly how Shining Armor was hurt and why it wasn’t that bad.

I remember that as clearly as she did. I remember that as if it happened to me. I have to make a conscious effort to recognize that Shining Armor isn’t my brother, that Celestia was never my teacher, that… that I’m just an observer. It’s a hard habit to get into.

The pain and fear I was feeling curled up on the bathroom floor, it felt nothing like what Twilight had experienced in that Canterlot hospital. It was at once both more intimate and more impersonal. I had hurt Spike, but that was like I had hurt someone else’s friend. An acquaintance I knew but hadn’t formed close attachments with. And that distance from the relationship I knew I should have, that’s what hurt most. I felt like I was betraying him by not feeling as bad as I should. And I knew that it was because I was not who I should be.

I was coming apart. If I had still been Twilight, then it would have probably devolved into another round of neurotic breakdown. A few days of acting like a lunatic and delusions of guilt, the friends would rally and the hugs would be given, then capped off with a letter to Celestia and all would be well.

I don’t deal with things the same way as she did, though. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I don’t take to this meltdown stuff as easily as she did. And I know I keep saying it, but this was my first day ever. I didn’t even know there was a different way for me to react. So it came as a complete surprise to me when I grabbed a shard of broken mirror and stabbed it into my leg.

Yes. Of course it hurt. That was the point. My brain was running in pointless circles, and it was getting me nowhere. The pain focused me. It was an urgent problem, one that could be dealt with immediately, and one that was unambiguous. The pain broke the cycle, got me thinking rationally again. I really should have done something like it a lot sooner.

So, there I was, lying on my bathroom floor, surrounded by shards of my mirror, in my broken house, with a jagged piece of glass sticking out of my leg, just below the cutie mark. Yes, right here, where the coat’s greyed a bit from the scarring. I probably could have avoided the scar if I had just gone back to the hospital to have it cleaned and stitched by a professional, but there was no way I was going back there that night. The wound wasn’t dangerous, anyway, I know enough about biology to be able to hurt myself without fear of doing any real damage. Anyways, the stab wound did what it was supposed to do, and my mind took the opportunity to reset itself.

Twilight is a fairly rational mare when she’s not being a wide-eyed innocent or a babbling neurotic. One of the qualities we share is a penchant for thinking things out. So, I thought about it. I pulled the glass out of my leg and I bound the wound and I thought about it. I cleaned the wound out with a wet face towel and I stitched it closed with a magically sterilized needle and some dental floss and I thought about it. I tested the injured leg by sweeping up the broken mirror shards without magic, and I thought about it.

Finally, I picked up one of the larger shards from the neat pile I had made and looked at myself again. Dishevelled, tear-stained, baggy-eyed and haunted. I looked terrible, yes, but that wasn’t what made me stare hard into the silvered glass. No, I was searching for something. Something I couldn’t quite define at the time. I know what it was now, though. I was looking for a sign. Some indication that I was possessed or that I was brainwashed or that something, anything could explain the conclusion I was drawing.

There was nothing there, of course. There wasn’t then, and there hasn’t been every time I’ve looked. I don’t know why I’m here. I just am.

“I am not who I should be,” I told my reflection. “But if I’m not who I should be, then who am I?” I didn’t know. I still don’t, not fully, but that was moment I made my decisions. The ones that led me here, to you, to this. The first was to find out who I was, by the simple procedure of trial and error. I resolved to discover what kind of pony I was, and by any means figure out my origins. I had a vague notion that I would find out what had happened to the real Twilight Sparkle somewhere along the line, but I was honestly more concerned with figuring out who I am than where she went. Second, I decided to hide this from Twilight’s friends.

I thought I was acting rationally, doing my best to figure it all out and leave the possibility for Twilight’s smooth return to her life. Maybe I was, or maybe this all could have been avoided if I had been open with them from the beginning. It certainly would have made trying to tell them now a lot simpler. I definitely could have avoided the whole thing with… okay, I’m getting ahead of myself again.

My decision made, I put the mirror shard down and set about figuring out what to do next. I was exhausted. The day had been so wearing on me, despite spending most of it sitting down and not moving. So going to bed was an option. However, my stomach growled to remind me that I had also not eaten anything in over twenty-four hours. I could either go to sleep and deal with the hunger in the morning, or I could find something to eat now. Even with my kitchen in shambles there was probably something there I could throw together for a quick late-night snack.

But I didn’t want a late night snack, and I didn’t want to just put off my problems, and my resolution, until morning. I wanted to take action now. So I trotted downstairs and out the door, limping a bit on my injured leg, and set off to find some place in Ponyville that served food this late, if there was such a place.

It turns out, such a place does exist, but it’s somewhere that Twilight had never been to before, and likely never would have gone on her own initiative.

In other words, exactly what I wanted.


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Barring some of the more interesting festivals and events, Ponyville is not exactly a very lively place after dark. There's the occasional Pinkie Pie party that will last until everyone leaves, but even they tend to be over around midnight. That lack of a nightlife means that there's also a distinct lack of places where you can get a hot bite to eat. Distinct, but not total.

I wandered around the streets of Ponyville, getting into the center of the town where the buildings were built closer together and there were some actual alleys for places to be hidden in. I didn't know what I was looking for, really, but I knew that there had to be something. Then I saw the sign.

It was a little red neon sign that flickered and buzzed above a door that was half-hidden by the walkdown to get to it. In the day, with the sign off, you wouldn't even notice that the door was there. 'Heather's' it said.

Twilight had heard of the place. She'd done plenty of work for the mayor in organizing taxes and zoning permits and, well, everything the mayor thought she could get away with dumping on her. So I knew that Heather's had a food license. And a liquor license. And a half-dozen citations on its health report.

All I cared about was that I could get hay fries and grilled asparagus, so I trotted down the stairs and pushed my way into the bar. Music hit me the moment the door opened, a raucous country ditty full of fiddles and banjos and somepony blowing on a jug. Twilight had heard similar stuff while visiting Applejack, and at least one western-themed party that Pinkie had thrown. Probably more than one. They tend to blur together after a while.

This music wasn't coming from a live band, but from a jukebox that glowed with stored magic in the corner of the room, and its volume wasn't nearly what it had seemed when I had opened the door. It was just so quiet outside that the sudden noise had seemed extraordinarily loud. For the moment, though, it was all I could hear, and thus the first thing I focused on.

Stepping into that bar was a little like stepping into another world. A world where the lights were dim, the music was loud, and a dozen ponies sat in near silence, cups in front of them and dull looks on their faces. Not that they looked unhappy, just introspective, like they all had deep thoughts they were intent on. the walls of the bar were decorated with pictures and posters so thick that there was practically no place where you could see the actual wood of the wall. A mirror behind the bar reflected two shelves full of bottles, labels declaring various kinds of alcohol and salted drinks.

The place smelled of sweat and smoke, the tables and the bar saturated with it. I took a deep breath, tasting the air and soaking in the strangely intimate atmosphere of the place.

"Twilight Sparkle," an earth pony mare behind the bar said, shaking me out of my reverie. She had a chocolate brown coat that provided a dark compliment to her red mane. I couldn't see her cutie mark then, but I soon found out that it was a torch. Representing hospitality or something. I never asked. This was Green Heather, owner and operator of the bar. "Are ya lost, dear?"

I shook my head. "Hungry," I replied. "Do you have, uh, a menu or something?"

"Sure thing," she said, pulling a piece of paper with a clearly mouth-written menu on it. "Sit down, dear, ya look a fright."

I obliged her, sliding into one of the stools before the bar. Berry Punch, a local who was a notorious lush, was to my left, and she gave me a sympathetic look. "I heard what happened to Spike," she said. "Is he doing okay?"

"He'll be fine," I said. It was an automatic response, no real feeling or direction behind it. I didn't want to think about Spike.

"Yeah, I heard about that," Heather said, laying the menu in front of me. "What happened there?"

"I wish I knew," I said, pointedly avoiding eye contact with either mare. I looked at the menu, more than happy to see hay fries prominently displayed. Everything else was just as healthy, and probably less so. "Can I get two orders of fries? With, um, with a lot of ketchup?"

"Sure thing, dear," Heather said, pulling the menu back and walking to a door from the bar to the kitchen, she yelled my order to whoever was cooking things and returned to her place. "Do you want a drink, dear? I know you're not much of a drinker, but with a day like you've had, I know you could use a bit of burnin' comfort."

Well, she was right that Twilight didn't like to get drunk. Maybe I'll tell you why, later, it's a pretty funny story. Not being Twilight, and very much in need of some comfort that didn't involve talking to other ponies much, I decided to go with the alcohol option. "Um, yeah," I said. "I don't know what's good."

"I do," Berry Punch said.

"Recommend away," I told her. She told Heather to get me some mixed drink, I can't remember what it was. I do know that when I took my first sip of it, I nearly choked. It was strong. Strong and disgusting. It was cold in my mouth, but burned all the way down to my stomach. The aftertaste coated my tongue, lingering well after the time a more conscientious flavor would have politely faded away. It was trying to bludgeon me into intoxication. It hurt to drink.

I'm a bit more practiced now, and I can tell you that Berry wasn't lying. She knew what was good, and she knew exactly what I needed right then. The warmth of the drink hit my belly and started to spread at a prodigious rate, a consequence of my having eaten nothing for quite some time. I’m not saying that I was drunk instantly or anything. Twilight was a lightweight, but not that lightweight. A couple sips, even of something as heavy as this, wouldn’t even get her to the warm, glowy stage of inebriation. Which is why I decided to gulp the thing down and ask for another.

Yes, I was trying to get drunk. Of course I was. I’d never experienced it before. Twilight had, but not me. I still hadn’t fully formed my ideas of where Twilight left off and I began, but I had admitted there was a divide and had decided to explore what it meant. Would it be different for me? Would it be the same? We have the same body, so alcohol should affect us the same way, but how would I really know until I tried? So when presented with the opportunity to get plastered on my first disastrous night of existence, I took it.

The fries, by the way, were amazing.

Emotional Range

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The advantages to getting drunk on your first night alive are not to be overstated. I mean that, if I had to do it all over again, well, I’d aim the table away from Twilight’s sidekick. But after that I’d still go drinking. Alcohol strips away the rational you. It takes logic and reason and folds it in together with emotion and desire. Get drunk enough, and the most absurd things will make perfect sense. When you don’t know who you are, getting drunk can show you quicker than anything else.

After two glasses of whatever it was that Berry had ordered me, I was much more willing to engage in some social interaction. A plate of the best hay fries I have ever had also helped. I mean that. They were crisp and lightly salted and warm and starchy. The flavor exploded in my mouth. It got rid of the aftertaste of the drinks, and that would have been enough all on its own. I tell you right now, Twilight never had any hay fries that good, and I haven’t found their equal since. These fries were magic.

So, with a buzz in my head and a plate full of digestively dubious heaven, I engaged in a conversation with Heather and Berry.

“You might want to go easy with the drinks,” Heather said as I emptied my second glass.

“Okay,” I agreed. I wasn’t going to, of course, but it’s always good policy to look like you’re listening to your barmare. That was a lesson I didn’t need to learn. “Berry, what kind of drink suits ‘going easy’?” I asked, deferring to the expert. Berry gave me this strange smile. Bemused, like she thought she was dreaming. But she gamely named something that sounded innocuous enough.

“Dear, if you’re not used to it, ya don’t know your limits,” Heather said. “Maybe some water would be best for ya.”

“No,” I replied, looking steadily into her eyes, trying to convey how much I was determined to throw caution to the wind. “Go with what Berry said.”

She nodded. “Well, alright. But don’t ya make a scene, or I’ll have you out of here.”

“Cross my heart and hope to fly,” I began the promise on automatic, but stopped myself quickly. The last thing I wanted was for Pinkie to show up. It would be awkward, confusing.

“This your first time out drinking?” Berry asked as Heather mixed the drink.

I nodded slowly. “You could say that. I didn’t really come out here for that, I was just hungry.” I punctuated this by chomping down on another hay fry, savoring its unhealthy goodness.

“Well, since you’ve decided to sample the sauce, I think I’ll give you a proper introduction to the joys of getting soused.”

“Was that a pun?” I asked. Because I honestly didn’t know, and the Twilight parts of my brain were insisting that I had to find out.

Berry shrugged. “Heck if I know. Now, what to have you try next…”

Heather placed a new drink in front of me, giving a stern glare to Berry. “Now, don’t go pushing her. The poor dear’s just had a terrible day. She’s not lookin’ for one of your wild nights, Berry.”

I took a sip from the drink. It was red and smelled like cherry cough syrup. It had nowhere near the kick of the last one, and I suspect Heather had watered it down considerably. I could still taste the alcohol under the cherry flavoring, though, so at least she wasn’t completely cutting me off. “I don’t know what I’m looking for,” I admitted, catching the attention of both mares. “Today was… no, you’re right, it was terrible. But it… it was a wake-up call. It was a slap in the face.”

“O, my dear girl, I can’t imagine what you’re goin’ through,” Heather said, laying a hoof atop mine. “Do ya want to talk about it?”

If she had asked three drinks later, I might have. Instead I shook my head. “I don’t think talking will help. I don’t need to talk about what I’m feeling. I need to find out who I am, what I want. I just… Okay,” I nodded, a split-second decision made, and turned to Berry. “You want to get me acquainted with drinking? Show me the ropes? I’m up for that. Let’s do it.”

“Ya might find you regret it in the mornin’,” Heather warned.

I smiled at her, probably the first sincere smile I had ever given. Maybe the first smile period. “As a friend once told me,” I said, taking a long gulp from my cherry-syrup drink. “That’s future-me’s problem.”

What? Yes, that was Spike, and yes that was Twilight he told that to. Look, it’s confusing enough as it is without the extra effort of keeping it perfectly straight whose memories are who's. Anyway, I shouldn’t have to, because it’s obvious. Anything before that morning is Twilight’s memories, everything after is mine. If you catch me referring to Twilight’s memories as my own, it’s because, well, they are my own.

That night was… memorable. Nothing amazing happened, you understand. The real fun didn’t begin until I took my show on the road, so to speak. But still, this was an important time for me. Berry ordered drinks from across the alcoholic spectrum. I even tried out some of the salt-water available. Let me tell you, it is hard to compare between the two. I prefer alcohol to drink, and salt on my food. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, salty food doesn’t mess me up as much. Salt water makes my insides feel like they’re being squeezed up into my head, expanding my skull like a water balloon full of viscera. I walk around afraid to bump into sharp corners as if my swelled-up head would just burst and then my brain would splatter all over… dammit, I got sidetracked again. I blame you. Where was I going with this again?

Oh, right. Berry showed me a lot of different drinks. Some I liked, some I hated, more than a few I absolutely adored. It didn’t take long before I was drunk and having a blast. We played a few bar games. Pool, darts, trivia, that kind of thing. Some of the other patrons of Heather’s got into it too. It was a party, and it was all for me.

I found out a lot that night. I found out that I lacked a lot of the social anxiety that plagued Twilight. I don’t deny that the alcohol was a factor, but when Twilight got drunk it only made her fears worse. With me, it flattened them, made them distant and not so scary. I also learned that I felt things differently than Twilight had. I could have discovered that merely by examining my reactions from earlier in the day, true, but that was panic and guilt and fear skewing any sort of analysis. This… this was something more stable to make conclusions on.

I feel more than she did. Not more deeply, but more in general. Twilight’s emotional range was fairly narrow, only extreme situations could push her beyond a comfortable norm. Or Pinkie Pie. Who I guess counts as a mobile extreme situation. I'm not so stable as that. I feel the whole range, and it takes much less to provoke a shift in what I'm feeling.

What? No, I'm not 'over-emotional'. I'm just more emotional than Twilight. That's not saying a lot. Okay, yes, as I admitted earlier, I'm a bit of a drama queen. Oh, ha-ha, very funny. I can see you mocking me with your eyes. I bet you're just laughing all of this up, aren't you? I bet you think I'm just...

Sorry. That was a just straying a little close to the last conversation I had with Rainbow Dash. The one that ended… Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. One consequence of being super self-reflective is that I have bouts of super self-consciousness too. Doesn’t help that I've got a temper. It didn't come out that first night, thank Celestia, but you've probably already noticed it from what I had done earlier.

Of course I know all about it now. I've spent so much time on introspection there's barely a part of myself I'm not aware of. That’s not me bragging or anything. The point isn't that I figured it all out, but that I had to in the first place. I managed it, but there have been… setbacks.

No. I’ll get to those soon enough. That night, though, Berry Punch and Heather helped me with a crucial time. A first blush of self-discovery. I'm... thankful to them for that, and I don't think I could leave it out of the story without feeling like I was ignoring them and what they did. I mean, I could have just said 'I went to a bar and got drunk', but that would fail to capture the significance of it. It would trivialize something precious. I don't want to do that, I don't want to make moment of my life less important than it is. I deserve that. I deserve to treasure even moments like these.

I damn well earned them.

Well, like all things, the night eventually had to end. Berry walked me to the library, her tolerance for booze orders of magnitude above my own. I probably wouldn't have made it all the way up the stairs to the street without her. As it was, I barely managed to make it to my bed, and collapsed.

I woke up around noon, my head pounding with a hangover from Tartarus and my heart surging with the sudden realization that I was still me. I hadn't been sure, that first night, exactly who would wake up in the morning. I hadn't thought about it, hadn't even wanted to consider the possibility, but I've got all the critical thinking training that Twilight does, and that meant that I'm going to consider all the possibilities, even if I don't want to. Especially if I don't want to.

So waking up still me was a relief. Not enough of one to drown out the hangover, sure, but a relief all the same. I had just started life, I wasn't ready to give it up yet. I'm still not.

The day was… boring, honestly. I spent it cleaning myself up, taking stock of the remaining stores in my broken kitchen and hitting the books. I only went out once. I intended to go to the hospital, check on Spike, but... I couldn’t do it. When I was standing there, looking at the doors, thinking of how he would look at me, what I could say to him that might even begin to apologize for what I'd done... I just couldn't do it. I couldn't face him. So I turned tail and ran.

It's not like Twilight would have done any better! I'm not a coward because of that! I'm not! Anypony would have reacted the same way. Anypony.

…I’m alright. Anyways, there was no way I was opening the library. Not only was there still a gaping hole in the side of the building, but I have no interest in sorting books or helping clueless ponies trying to find their way around Twilight's filing system.

Not that Twilight is any good at navigating her own byzantine book code. She had Spike for that. I freely admit that I'm no better there, either. Which was a problem because I wanted to research what was happening to me.

I didn't find anything that night. So it shouldn't surprise you that I went out drinking again. The next day was the same, essentially. I went shopping, got a few foodstuffs that didn't require an oven to prepare. I avoided Applejack’s stall in the market, was careful to go when Twilight’s other friends were least likely to be about, and ignored every knock at my door. I wasn't ready to see any of Twilight's friends, and ponies coming over to express their sympathy were just... infuriating. So I avoided them all. I searched the books in the library during the day, and I went to Heather's and tried to find myself in a glass by night.

Yes, I am aware of how this behaviour would be unhelpful in the long run. I was stewing in myself, looking so hard inward that I was completely ignoring the consequences of my actions in the outside world. As you'll see, this policy came back to bite me, and hard.

Three days after I woke up and Twilight didn't, I was starting to find possible answers. All of which I've discarded in the weeks since, but they all looked pretty convincing at the time.

The first, easiest solution was a mental break. Twilight was no stranger to cracking under stress, and it turns out there are a lot of very interesting and unique ways a pony can go crazy. She could have created a second personality, one that came to the forefront and took control. There were and are a lot of inconsistencies between this theory and my reality. It's still a possibility, that I'm just some splinter personality that took over because Twilight's real mind wasn't able to handle life, or something equally pathetic. I don't think so, though. We share a lot, but not enough to convince me we're the same mare deep down.

The second, more disturbing possibility is that I'm some sort of imposter. Changeling, Mirror-Pool clone, etcetera. There are a half-dozen options that could create a physically identical creature with a markedly different mentality. The memories thing... I don't know. Nothing really explained that. An imposter that could completely absorb your life's experiences? It's a scary thought. But why didn't I have memories of my own then? Why am I limited to her past? It doesn't' add up.

A third possibility is that I am the result of something that was done to Twilight. An invasive spell, a Poison Joke-like effect, heck, even some mundane poisons and drugs have been known to cause disassociation and radical personality shifts. I don't think it's a spell, I would have discovered any traces of such magic by now. I really don't think it was some sort of 'super-naturals' effect, for much the same reason. Mundane explanations are... problematic. Honestly, this is possible, but I would actually countenance the idea that I was some kind of Changeling with brain damage before I looked to poisoning for causing this.

There are other options, each more unlikely than the last. Near the bottom of the list, right around involuntary dimensional soul-exchange, is actually the one that I want the most. And that explanation is essentially a non-explanation. It could be that there is no reason for me to be here, no reason why Twilight is gone. It just happened. I popped in, she popped out, and that's the way it's going to be from now on. It's not a satisfying option, by far, but it has the advantage of being non-reversible. It means that I'm here to stay, and that I don't have to worry about Celestia deciding she wants her student back and... and I don't know what, but it ends with me dead.

Of course I understand that this means the exact same thing for twilight. Of course I know that! Do you think I'm happy about it? Do you think I wanted to have my own existence predicated on the annihilation of another? No. I would never want that. But if given the choice? I think I would take it. No, not think. I know I would take it. If it's her or me, I will always choose me. I... I have evidence for why this is the only rational response. I have done the math. I...

I'm trying to justify something that may not even be true. Heh. Sorry, again. Back to the story.

Where was I? Oh, yes. The day Celestia came to visit.


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I was just finishing up a series of notes from one of the many thick tomes Twilight had brought to the library. Something about multi-dimensional interactions. Nothing that could help me, really, but fascinating stuff. Yes, I was getting sidetracked. No it’s not funny, stop laughing.

Anyways, I was jotting down a few thoughts that I had some idea might be important later, but never were. Then there was a knock at the front door. As I had been doing for the past couple of days, I ignored it. Ponies had been coming by regularly, and I just did not want to talk to them. At all.

This knock wasn’t as insistent as some of the others had been. It was loud, solid, but somehow held a certain quality. I don’t know how to describe it, but the pony knocking was absolutely certain that the door would open for them, and conveyed it through that firm rap on the wood. It was distinct. I should have recognized it right away, but I was… not in the best attention-paying mentality at the time. Too focused on my examination of books that only held an extremely tangential relationship to my predicament. Too focused on the possibilities of another comforting night at the bar. Not nearly focused enough on what was happening right there and then.

“Twilight, I’d like to speak with you,” she said, her voice coming through clearly.

Yes, I recognized the voice. As I said, I wasn’t focused on then-and-there, but I wasn’t dead, either. That voice forms the basis for so much of Twilight's memories, her thoughts and feelings and wants and… everything. Since she was a little filly, watching her first Summer Sun celebration, she has dedicated so much of her life to the promise of a kind word spoken by that voice. How could I not recognize it? How could I not react?

Of course, reaction, in this case, consisted of a panicked teleport up to my bedroom. Where I proceeded to freeze in indecision and fear. You see, I was sure she was going to kill me.

It’s not so strange. I’m an interloper. A foreign entity that has assumed the life of her student without so much as asking. By so many standards of right, I should not be. Celestia has power. More than she’s ever displayed publicly, even when her own life could have been in danger. She also has over a thousand years of experience and a greater understanding of… well, everything, than practically anypony else. What is she capable of, really? I don’t know. Twilight didn’t. Nopony does, save maybe her sister and… well.

So, yeah, I was frightened. So, yeah, I panicked. It might have been what saved me in the end.

When Celestia wants into a place, she gets in. She sensed my teleport, of course, and rightly assumed that I was trying to avoid her. Then, as far as I can tell, she simply asked the door to be open and walked right in. Would it have been simpler to just magic the lock open? I don’t know, because she didn’t bucking do that. From the way she hurried up to me, looking worried, I don’t think it even crossed her mind to try something so mundane.

Sorry, it’s not important. But it bugs me.

I was in the process of trying to hide under the bed when she came into the room. The moment she stepped into view, her eyes soft with concern, her wings open and welcoming, her mane drifting about and glowing like the dawn…

Heh. Twilight and I have a lot in common. Why wouldn’t we? We share everything up until the moment I took over. I pick at the differences like a pony obsessively scratching a half-healed scab, but even I’m forced to admit that we are probably more alike than apart. One of those things that aligns, albeit imperfectly, between us is how we react to Celestia.

She makes me feel… safe. Happy. Loved. I don’t have the right words for it. It’s like a dozen different things melted into an amalgam of emotion. I am in awe of her. Utterly in awe. Twilight loved her, in a way that doesn’t map to how she feels about anypony else, a way I don’t think I have the right to describe. I don’t love her, but I think… I think I could. As a ruler, as a teacher, as a friend.

I still thought she was going to kill me, but with her standing there, staring at me with those eyes that have seen the birth and death of millennia, I couldn’t run.

“Twilight,” Celestia said, her voice concerned, but also stern. She wasn’t happy with me. The memories from Twilight were screaming in neurotic implosion at that, but me, the real me? I was… surprisingly okay with it. That split calmed me down, for some reason. I think the reaffirmation of my separate identity when faced with a figure of such immense importance to Twilight’s life sparked a bit of my inborn defiance. I wanted to establish myself as a distinct being, had been spending the past few nights trying to do that. This… this was a place to show that.

But, and this is key, there was also the issue of the decision I had made to keep my existence secret from Twilight’s friends. I was determined to hold to that decision, as well as the perfectly contradictory one of creating my own identity. So I put on my best insane-Twilight smile and tried my damndest to pretend nothing was wrong. “Princess Celestia!” I gasped. “I didn’t know you were coming! Oh, no! This place is a mess why didn’t anyone tell me you were coming please don’t mind I’ve been studying!”

“Twilight,” Celestia said again, in that gentle tone of admonishment she always uses when Twilight’s getting overly worked up about something. That was good. That meant she hadn’t immediately spotted the impostor and decided to remove me like scraping so much grime from a favourite dish. I took a few deep breaths and toned down the grin. “You’re friends have been worried about you, Twilight. They say you have barely been out of this place for days.”

“Oh, um,” I looked at the ground, scraping a hoof across the floor in a good approximation of embarrassment. “I’ve been… trying to figure something out.”

“I see,” she said. “And why have you not visited Spike? He’s been missing you terribly. You should be by his side, helping him get better.”

“I…” I stopped without continuing. This genuinely got to me. I didn’t care one whit about Twilight’s friends being worried. They could worry, I’d find a way to set them at ease when I was more comfortable with myself. Spike, though? Everything he was going through was my fault, and my fault alone. “I can’t.”

“And why not?”

I hung my head. If Spike was talking, there was no point in lying. “I hurt him.”

“You did? How?”

I nodded. “The kitchen table. I… my magic, I…”

Celestia sighed. “You blame yourself for his condition.”

“It’s my fault. I hurt him.” She reached out with a wing and caressed my face. My reactions to that are tangled up in all of Twilight’s memories. Even now, when it comes to her, I don’t think I’d be able to separate what’s Twilight and what’s wholly me. I don’t know if I ever will be. I wanted to lean into that wing, to drink in the comfort and security it offered. But I didn’t. I pulled back and shook my head. “I hurt him,” I repeated. “I can’t see him now… not like that… not after… not until I’ve figured things out.”

“And why are you avoiding your friends?”

I thought about that for several long seconds before responding with an answer that wasn’t a lie, but also wasn’t entirely honest: “I don’t want them to know.”

“Twilight, sometimes the hardest thing we can do is own up to our mistakes,” she said. “Especially when those mistakes hurt those close to us. But it is only when we do so that we can be truly forgiven for them. I know you did not intend for this to happen. Spike will forgive you, and so will your friends.”

“I don’t deserve it,” I said. “Not yet.”

Celestia sighed. “I am worried about you, Twilight. Just like they are. You can’t stay hidden in your room. The pain will not go away, it will only fester and grow into something terrible. To heal, you must look beyond yourself.”

“I understand, Princess,” I said. “I really do, but… but it was my fault. It was me. I need to… to fix what went wrong.”

“And is sitting here, alone in your library accomplishing that?”

“No,” I admitted. “But…” I was struck with an idea. A good one, a simple one. One that could possibly be the second greatest mistake I made in those first few days. “Princess, can I come back?”

“What do you mean?”

“To Canterlot? Can I… take a vacation? Away from my friendship studies, just go back to Canterlot for a few weeks? Have access to the library there? Try to work through this?”

She frowned. “Twilight, I’m afraid that might just be another form of isolation. Removing you from your friends…”

“No!” I cut in, interrupting her for what might be the first time in Twilight’s life. “I don’t mean like that. I mean seeing my parents again. I mean getting back to the places I went when I was young and learning to control my magic. I don’t want to cut myself off from my friends, I just want… I just don’t want to be around here for a bit. Please. I just need some time.”

I could see her mind working. The way her jaw tightened and relaxed, the twitches of her wings, the cascading sheets of sparkling magic that constantly whirled and eddied about her body, all of it could be used by a pony who knew her well to discern the direction of her thoughts. Twilight knew her very well indeed, and therefore so did I.

“Alright,” she said finally. “But on one condition. You talk to all of your friends first, tell them what happened, and why you are going to be spending some time in Canterlot. And I want you to listen to their responses and take them to heart.”

“I can do that,” I said, though I didn’t relish the prospect.

“And you have to go see Spike as well.” That was the hard one. I winced. “You’ve overcome fear before, Twilight. I know you will be able to do it again.”

“I… thank you, Princess,” I said.

Now the next bit is probably either boring or painful to listen to, so I’ll go through it quickly to… wait.

Damn. Somepony’s coming. I’ve got to go. I’ll be back as soon as I can.


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There, that should keep them busy for a while. Sorry about the wait, I went over to the airship docks and made a mess of things. They probably think I stole a balloon and hightailed it out of here. I hope they think that, at least. Taking the pressure off of me here can only lead to good things.

Right, right, I get that you're curious. Don't worry, I'll get to it eventually. Skipping straight to the exciting parts is all well and good, but without the context all it will be is meaningless action. Fun, but empty. This is my story, this is my life. I'm not going to trivialize any part of it.

Except, maybe, my farewells to Twilight's friends. Celestia had mandated it, so it had to be done, but that doesn't mean I looked forward to or enjoyed the experience.

On the plus side, I was riding high on the fact that I'd fooled Celestia herself. If Twilight's beloved monarch and teacher couldn't tell that I wasn't her, then I had a good shot of pulling it off with the rest of them. I had the vague notion that I would talk to each of them alone, explain that I needed to take some 'me time' in Canterlot, and head out without making a big deal of it. That plan didn't last past my front door, because they were all waiting for me.

Say what you will about Twilight's friends –and I intend to, at length– but they do care about her. They were all as worried as Celestia had said, and in their own way they each wanted to help. How that help manifests, however, is where the trouble lies.

Pinkie had strung a banner proclaiming 'happy house-leaving' across the street and had organized a parade complete with confetti, fireworks and a marching band. Yes. Thought you'd like that.

There are levels of embarrassment where you just stop caring, sit back and enjoy the ride. Then there are levels where you are trapped, caged by the outrageous circumstances into utter inaction, furious and terrified and unable to express any of it. Pinkie is a past master of bringing ponies to these depths. I thought Twilight had known all there was to know about it, but the problem with having a greater range of emotion than her is that, well, none of my emotional expectations are true.

I did not enjoy that parade. I started crying by the time the float shaped like my head with a big glass smile plastered on its face went by. I couldn't help it, I just wanted to curl up and disappear. I couldn't bring myself to stop it all from happening, either. I was paralyzed

On the up side, Celestia was apparently as surprised as I was by Pinkie's exuberance, and when she noticed the state I was in she draped a wing over me and drew me close. There's a feeling of safety in that, the strength of her wings, the warmth of her side. I balk at describing Celestia as 'motherly' considering neither I nor Twilight have that kind of relationship with her, but there's very few other places one can go with that description. Fluttershy saw my distress too, and pressed in to give me a hug. Applejack, well, she knew. So did Rarity. They gave me space and let the comfort experts handle it. I don't think Dash noticed how I was doing, she was busy arguing something with Pinkie.

Pinkie... when she noticed I was crying she practically freaked out. I'll give her credit for this: her ability to think ahead may be stunted to the point of non-existence, but when she accidentally hurts somepony she catches on quick and does everything in her power to make it better.

At that point, though, I didn't want her to make it better. I took the whole thing as a personal assault, as if the parade was a barb aimed specifically at me. As if Pinkie knew my insecurities and had decided to lay them out for the entire world to see. I hated her for that.

I don't hate her anymore. I've grown since then, and I've forgiven her. But that's kind of a recent development. Right then and for a long time afterwards, every time I thought about her all I could feel was a vengeful rage. In the black corners of my heart, I wanted her dead. It's surprising I didn't act on that. Maybe it was some vestige of Twilight's friendship holding me back. Or maybe the better angels of my own nature won out.

If so, it's too bad they didn't keep up the good work.

The parade was broken up in short order. Confused ponies were thanked for their efforts in cheering me up and sent on their way. Then it was me and Celestia and Twilight's five closest friends.

"Hey," I said, sniffing back the last few tears. "Sorry."

"It's okay, Twilight," Applejack offered. "We know you've been in a bad way."

"Yeah, Spike said you're the one who knocked him through the wall," Dash said, brash and insensitive and wonderful for it. There's no caution with her, no pretension or falsity. She doesn't put on airs or masks. She's learned to be a bit more polite and less self-centered over the past few years, but she's still so beautifully her.

Yes. No, don't even give me that look. I know exactly what you're thinking. And you're not wrong. But you're not completely right either. Just let me tell the story, okay? It'll all come out. Everything.

Where was I? Oh, right. Dash was asking me: "What's up with that?"

"Something happened," I said. "I lost control. I didn't even think about it. I hurt Spike."

"But you didn't want to," Fluttershy said.

It hadn't been a question, but I answered anyway. "No I didn't. I didn't even realize he'd been hurt for... I didn't want to hurt him. But I did."

"And y'all thought you couldn't tell us?" Applejack asked, incredulous. "You know we wouldn't blame you, sugarcube."

"I... I didn't think about it," I replied. "I just... I feel so bad about it. And what if it happened again? I could hurt somepony else. I could hurt you."

"You wouldn't hurt us, Twilight," Pinkie said, with a big, friendly, forgiving smile on her face. I felt like she was leering at me, could barely suppress the urge to flinch back. "I know you wouldn't."

"I understand," Fluttershy said softly in my ear. "I've felt the same way before."

"Oh, darling, how terrible it must have been!" Rarity bleated at me. Yes, I know, that's an unfair description, but that damned tone of voice! I wanted to smash her stupid face into the ground until I got all the fake off of her. "I simply cannot imagine awfulness of the past couple of days for you."

"I... I'll be okay," I told them, forcing a smile. "But... but I need to take some time. I'm going to visit Canterlot for a few weeks. See my family, just... just relax for a bit."

"Sounds good to me," Applejack said. The rock of sensibility. She was probably also swayed by the mention of family. She puts a lot of stock in that stuff.

"But... what if you need us? Like, for a big group hug of friendship to remind you that you're not a bad pony?" Pinkie asked, the question comically serious coming from her.

"I'll know where to find you," I replied.

"Yeah, if Twilight wants some space, she can have it," Dash said. "Just a couple weeks, right?" I nodded. "Great, it's about time you took a vacation." I could have hugged her. I mean, it wouldn't have been awkward or anything, since that's kind of what Twilight would have done too. I didn't, but it wasn't because I didn't want to, it was because I was already getting hugged by Celestia and Fluttershy. Why am I rambling about this? Never mind.

"Of course, darling," Rarity simpered. "Anything you need, just say it and we shall jump to provide!"

Augh. Gag. Just remembering it makes me want to... Okay, enough about Rarity. Heck, enough with that entire conversation. It only gets sappier from there. Besides, the actual important part came later, when I went to see Spike.


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Spike had his own room in the hospital. It was as much for the safety of others as it was for his comfort, his fire-breath could come at inopportune times and would be a real issue if it hit some of the equipment monitoring another pony. I stood outside that room for a long time, willing myself the courage to go in.

After everything I've done, after everything I've see, this is still what gets to me. Spike didn't deserve what happened to him, and her certainly didn't deserve it being done by what he thought was the pony he trusted most. Spike... he really deserves better. Maybe he'll understand that, someday. Maybe...

Getting ahead of myself again. I was telling you about seeing him in the hospital. When I finally managed to force myself into the room, he was awake. He was covered in bandages, a little chubby mummy with claws. One of his arms hadn't been broken and he was using it to scratch at the edges of one of those bandages as I came in. When he saw me his eyes lit up and he smiled the widest, most innocent smile...

He's a baby dragon, but Spike's not a baby. His mind developed a lot faster than his body, and being around ponies his whole life has given him a maturity that others of his kind don't reach for centuries. That makes it so easy to forget that for all of that, he's still a child.

He looked at me with that childish innocence and called Twilight's name. There was no anger there, no recrimination. He didn't blame her.

He didn't blame me.

Shut up. Shut up! I'm allowed to cry. I'm allowed. So you can take that laughter and shove it!

...I'm okay now. It's just... things only get worse from here.

Spike called Twilight's name, and I rushed over to him, put my head on the bed beside him, and bawled like a foal. He combed my mane with his one good claw and tried to make me feel better. The kid in the body cast was trying to make the adult who put him there feel better. How's that for irony, huh?

Or compassion. It's something I struggle with. I want it, but it always seems I have so little to give. Fluttershy may be the bearer of Kindness, but for me? Spike was the really kind one.

When I'd calmed down, we actually managed to have a conversation. I apologized profusely, of course, but he waved it all away. He said that if I didn't know exactly why it happened, then I should probably find out. Heh, he was completely on board with the Canterlot plan, too.

"Wow, Twilight, abandoning the library for weeks? You really must need it," he said.

"Well, the library does have a big hole in it," I demurred.

"Never stopped you before." I didn't really have an answer to that. "So, what'cha planning on doing in Canterlot?"

I shrugged. "Visit my parents, do research in the library..."

Spike threw up his working arm. "Come on, Twi! This is your first vacation in, like, ever, that doesn't involve looming disaster. Don't tell me you're not going to do anything fun!"

I contemplated this for a moment. "Well..."

"Yeah!" He leaned forward, eyes wide and eager to hear more.

"I've been thinking... maybe, um, maybe I should explore some of the nightlife in Canterlot. You know... um, restaurants?"

"And!" he prompted, sensing there was more.

"And... bars?"


"Dance... clubs?"

"Holy cow, Twilight!" Spike crowed, grinning. "Are you sure you're not the one who was hit by the table?"

"Pretty sure."

"Oh gosh!" He looked around frantically. "Why is there never a scroll and quill around when you need it!"

I blinked at him in confusion. "Why would you want a scroll?" A sudden chill went down my back as I imagined him writing a letter to Celestia, exposing me as an impostor.

"I gotta make a list, Twi! I gotta make a list of all the places you should go party at!"

My fear drained away as my confusion increased. "What? But you never went out to clubs or anything, right?"

"No, too young," Spike sighed. "But I hung out with college ponies, Twilight! I know all the best places! Moondancer always said she'd take me as soon as I was, you know, legal drinking age."

"Can you even get drunk?" I wondered aloud. I hadn't meant to, really, but the thought slipped out there. I was genuinely curious. Spike's draconic physiology made his reactions to chemicals hard to predict. I keep flashing back to Fluttershy making him swallow a whole hoof full of high-powered pain pills. Theoretically Spike can get drunk, but the amount of alcohol needed would almost certainly kill a pony, and would be way more than his stomach and bladder can handle in standard liquor concentrations. The interactions with his fire-breathing would be... spectacular. I'm not going to induce a minor to drink to intoxication, but wow do I want to find a slightly older dragon and feed them a couple barrels of good quality booze just to see if their fire does what I think it would do. No practical applications for it, of course, I'm just curious.

The funny thing about that little ramble there? I said it out loud.

"Wow, Twi, I didn't know you were that interested," Spike said, tapping his chin. "What do you think it would do to my fire?"

"I have no idea," I lied. "So you think you know all the good places?"

"I'm sure I do," he said.

"Well, then, we need some paper! Spike, let's make me a night-out checklist!"

So I got some paper and a quill and started writing down all the things Spike knew about clubbing in Canterlot. Which was a lot. I don't think... no, I know he didn't understand many of the things he was telling me. He was just repeating the slang terms and descriptions he'd heard from overenthusiastic students at Canterlot University. There were some things... I can't believe they talked about this stuff around him. Places to get drugs, places to have quick sex without being bothered, how much to pay and what questions to ask to find 'private' shows... Spike had the keys to a whole world of debauchery in his head, and all he knew about it was that they were places ponies went to dance and have fun.

I’m kind of glad he had no idea. He wouldn’t have understood the taboo nature of it, and he might have blabbed it where the wrong ears would hear. Or worse, asked Twilight about it. If he'd done that then I know I wouldn't exist, because Twilight would have died from embarrassment a long time ago. Heck, if it weren’t for my having spent the past few nights in the company of Heather and Berry Punch’s encyclopedic knowledge of alcoholic beverages, I would probably have died a little myself.

As it was, I just ended up taking notes. A lot of notes.

By the time he was done, I had a small stack of ideas to go and be naughty with in my free time. Spike was excited, making me promise to take pictures and tell him all about these places he’d heard about but never been able to get into. I had no problems lying about that, though I resolved to give him any of the details that wouldn’t be… um… scandalous.

Spike’s excitement is infectious. Most of Twilight’s friends have qualities that seem to spread from them, subtly influencing everyone around them. Spike’s excitement, Pinkie’s unholy cheerfulness, Dash’s confidence. They radiate these things like bonfires give off heat. I’m especially receptive to them, picking up the emotions and letting them blaze in me too. Even with Pinkie, though she grates on me horribly, if I spend enough time around her I can’t help but have my mood lifted. With Spike it’s like everything we talk about becomes a wondrous thing, ripe with adventure and possibility. And Dash… I can bask forever in that absolute certainty, that courage and determination and…

Off topic. Sorry, it’s early and I’ve been up all night. What this just boils down to is that the more Spike and I talked about this trip, the better it all seemed to me. Which was good, since it had been a mad whim and I had no idea what I was going to do with it.

You see, at this point I was lost in my own ignorance. I’d figured out some of who I was, but it wasn’t a picture of the complete person, just a sketchy outline so I knew where the edges were. But that barely told me anything important. I was defining myself through contrast with memories that weren’t my own. My whole existence consisted of negatives. Twilight is this, but I am not. Twilight was that, but I am not. I’d barely begun the groping, blind struggle to learn something positive about myself, something that didn’t rely on testing against the memories of a different mare. I didn’t know it at the time, too caught up in the emotion and ennui of it all to notice, but what I was really missing was something that serves as the lynchpin in making us who we are: a purpose.

A lot of ponies would say that they don’t have a purpose. A lot would say that they are always searching for it, that perfect goal, guided by their cutie marks and their special talents towards some imagined ultimate destiny. Of course, that just means that most ponies don’t have a clue what the word ‘purpose’ means. They have their purposes, their desires and their goals. They just refer to that as ‘living their lives’ and refuse to recognize it for what it is because it isn’t unusual enough to catch their attention.

To this point my purpose had been discovering who I was. But self-discovery can only take you so far. ‘Who am I’ as a purpose will stall out fairly quickly, falling into circular logic and a lack of anything to work with. Eventually you’re going to need to ask ‘what am I doing?’ That is a better question to ask, but still not where you want to be. No, the real goal is to get to ‘why am I doing it?’ Once you start asking that question, then you can really find the answer to ‘who am I’, because who we are, ultimately, is the reason why we do what we do. But you have to be doing something in order for the question to have meaning.

I wasn’t doing anything. I was marking time, fumbling around and being inquisitive but without drive and without focus. I needed a purpose, one that would get me active, working. I needed to be passionate about something.

I didn’t think this at the time. I didn’t even realize that I’d been so idle. I thought I was making tremendous progress, and the trip to Canterlot was just a way to do that without tripping over Twilight Sparkle every time I turned around. Yet, a purpose was what I was looking for, and like all things in those days I think I was turning to Twilight’s memories to inform me what I should do.

Twilight found her first purpose in watching Celestia raise the sun. It had ignited in her a passion for power that drove her to become the emotionally stunted, neurotic powerhouse she ended up as. Yes, power. She would couch it in different terms, of course, but that was what she was really after. She wanted knowledge, she wanted magic. She wanted to impress Celestia. She wanted power. It’s just her luck that she happens to be the most magically talented unicorn since the days of Starswirl the Bearded.

She found her second purpose in the defeat of Nightmare Moon and the discovery of the magic of friendship. It enthralled her like no power before or since. To have friends, other ponies relying on her, her relying on them… Well, words fail me there. I’d just end up sounding like one of those friendship reports she used to write Celestia. The point is that this purpose started in the same place her dedication to learning and power started: Canterlot.

Twilight’s memories were telling me that the place to find one’s calling was Canterlot, so that’s where I instinctively knew I had to go. I would find the key to myself there, somewhere in the narrow streets and spires of that shining place. And with Spike’s list, I was going to have a whole lot of fun doing it.

“So, you’re leaving right away?” Spike asked when I’d told him I had more than enough to occupy myself in Canterlot.

“Princess Celestia’s taking me back with her,” I said. “I just don’t want to spend more time in the library until I’ve got some solid ground under my hooves, you know?”

“I guess,” he said, but I could tell he didn’t really understand. “I’m gonna be stuck here for at least a week. Will you write to me? Tell me how it’s going?”

I nodded, smiling as warmly as I could manage and holding back tears. If our positions had been reversed I would be mad with jealousy… and just mad, I guess. I don’t take getting hit by loved ones as well as Spike does. Not. At. All. “Of course I’ll write,” I said. “Every day, when I get the chance. Even if it’s only to say how sorry I am.”

“Come on, Twilight! You don’t have to keep apologizing! I forgive you already.”

“I know, but I haven’t forgiven myself.” Ah, the sappy things we say. I meant it, though. I still haven’t forgiven myself. It’s important that I don’t. I need that shame, that guilt to keep me grounded.

“I’m gonna miss you,” he said, giving me a little one-armed hug.

“With Rarity fawning all over you?” I laughed at the image. He blushed hard enough that you could see the color right through his scales. Which shouldn’t, technically, be possible. Still happened.

“I didn’t say it was going to be all bad,” he said. “Just that I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too,” I said. Again, surprisingly, I meant it. Spike is a fixture in Twilight’s memories. He’s always around. Always has been since she got her cutie mark. Whether being in the background while she took her first lessons with Celestia, or as a permanent fixture in her rooms as her assistant, he’s been there for her. I wasn’t going to miss him like she would have, of course, but in a more nostalgic sense. He’s a part of the only past I know, an integral part. He’s also very important to my life, though not in the same way.

“And you’ll tell me everything that happens in those clubs, right?” he demanded, eager excitement back in his voice.

“Pinkie promise,” I said, carefully not going through the motions or saying the words, to avoid actually having to follow through. “You get better quickly, okay? Maybe you can join me in Canterlot.”

He snorted. “Are you kidding me? I’m getting all the free ice cream with gem shavings I can handle here. I’m going to milk it for everything it’s worth! I’ll be on crutches until it’s not even believable anymore!” We laughed at that. It was a joke with only a drop of truth to it, no more. “Are you going to invite any of the others to join you?”

“Well, I wouldn’t pull Rarity away from her job here.”

“But she loves Canterlot! And she always gets more business whenever she goes there.”

“I meant her job of doting over you, you silly little dragon,” I said, bopping him on the nose.

He blushed again, rubbing at his nose. “Jeeze, Twi. I’ve got a crush on her, but I’m not that pathetic.”

I giggled at that. “Sure you aren’t. No, I wasn’t planning on inviting any of my friends up. I need this time for me. But, you know, maybe once I check out this list I might decide I need to share it.”

“I hope you do,” he said. “Take it easy, Twilight. Relax. Enjoy yourself!”

“I will, I promise,” I said, and took my leave.

I felt a lot better leaving the hospital than I had going in. Lighter. Emotional catharsis, talking things over, confronting my fears, the magic of friendship. Call it what you want, it was exactly what I needed. Celestia was waiting for me by her carriage, her mane glowing with the light of dusk as she gently guided the sun to its rest. Twilight’s friends were arrayed beside it. A gauntlet I’d have to pass through before I could make my escape from Ponyville.

“Are you ready to go, Twilight?” she asked.

“Yes, Princess,” I replied, as proper as her true student had ever been. I turned to Twilight’s friends. “So, uh… I’ll be back.”

“Take care, sugarcube,” Applejack said with a tip of her hat.

“Yeah, don’t study too hard, or whatever,” Dash said next. “Remember to get out of whatever library you end up in, too. It would suck if you just did the same thing there that you were doing here.”

“I won’t shut myself in, I promise,” I said.

“Will you write?” Pinkie asked, with a wide-eyed bounce.

“To Spike,” I said quickly. “And I’m adopting a one-letter a day policy.”

“Oh! Oh! Will you take pictures of all the stuff you eat because food is an important part of feeling better, and then you can send it to us with commentary so that we know what you’re eating and if it’s healthy or not and if we should try out the same places when we visit Canterlot because we absolutely will once you’re feeling better and we can throw a ‘glad you’re feeling better’ party and we can have all the best stuff you ate while you were getting better so you can feel even better-er!”

“Sounds great,” I said, turning to the next pony in line. Which happened to be Rarity. Joy.

“Oh, Twilight, darling, I’m so sorry all this happened to you,” she said, and my smile grew more fake by the word. “If ever you need anything during your stay in Canterlot, such as the name of a good spa or mane-dresser’s… or a place to buy a decent dress… or–”

“I know who to ask,” I said, taking her by the hoof and wondering if it was possible to have an insincerity contest between us, and who would win. “Thank you, Rarity. I’ll keep an eye out for any interesting fashions I see.”

She caught on that I wasn’t genuine, I think, but her eyes brightened at the promise of fashion news direct from the capital. “Thank you, Twilight. And I’m sure that you will resolve whatever you need to as soon as possible.”

I didn’t reply to that, but nodded and turned to the last pony in line. Fluttershy watched me with her characteristic quiet. “I, um, have fun, Twilight,” she said, smiling sheepishly at me.

I drew her into a tight hug. She let out a strangled ‘eep’, but soon relaxed into the embrace. “Thanks for helping Spike,” I said. “I owe you one.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I hope you’re okay.”

“I will be,” I said, letting her go. I stood so I faced all of them at once. “Well, um, see you guys in two weeks?” Yeah, it was an awful farewell line, but even Twilight can’t come up with a speech on the spot every time.

“Come along, Twilight, we have far to fly,” Celestia said, and together we stepped onto the chariot. The two pegasi guards began to pull us away from Ponyville, and all of Twilight’s friends waved and cheered their goodbyes.

I waved back, but I couldn’t put my heart into it. My attention was caught by the city on the mountain, just beginning to be lit for the coming night. Everything was going to change soon, and I was eager for it. It was time to find my purpose.


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Canterlot. What can be said about this city that hasn’t already been said a million times over by every poet who ever decided to say anything about a city? I don’t know, I’m not that big on poetry. I know that Twilight lived here all of her life until she moved to Ponyville, and she hadn’t seen a quarter of what the city has to offer. I know that in what time I’ve spent here that I’ve barely expanded on that knowledge, though I have dug a lot deeper than she ever did.

Canterlot is a jewel. Not a rough one, either, not some gem freshly pulled from the ground, but a polished, cut, shaped and beautifully set jewel. It gleams. It shimmers and glistens and glows from the side of the tallest mountain. In the day it is a brilliant white star, in the night it is a sea of a thousand lights, each a compliment to the eternal glory of its resident princesses.

Radiant. That’s the word for it. And it’s no accident that it was built where it is, no quirk of fate and economics that saw it become what it is. No, Canterlot is the result of deliberate and concerted action by Celestia over a thousand years. It is her city, one she built to share.

And like her, its brilliance casts some of the darkest shadows. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Seeing Canterlot growing larger and brighter as the day faded and the chariot came closer, I felt a deep surge of emotions. It was like a still pool that was suddenly swirled into motion. Hope and fear and joy and anger all flowing together and washing through me. I felt dizzy with it, giddy and groundless.

Celestia took note of my shifting mood, and she stepped closer to me, draping one wing around me. Peace. Fears fell away and excitement remained. I looked to the glowing city ahead of us and smiled.

I felt like a foal. I kept flashing to that memory of Twilight’s, the first time she saw the summer sun celebration. There had been so many ponies. She felt lost. Shining Armor had vanished when she hadn’t been looking, enthralled by a display of marching guards, probably. Her parents… I don’t know. Maybe they were still watching her, but I can’t remember. It was dark, and she was lost. So many strange faces, so many new things. Always precocious, she thought that she could be on her own. She was wrong, and she was scared. She had been up all night enjoying the festival with her family, and she was tired. The tiredness fed the fear, they made cackling monsters of laughing ponies. It was… heh. It was nightmarish, I guess. But it didn’t last. A little bit at first, but with growing speed and power the world began to get brighter. Bit by bit, the sky lost its stars and the ponies around her lost their terrifying aspect. She went to where the light was coming from, instinctively seeking the source of the comforting glow.

I saw that stage and I just had to get closer. I wormed my way between ponies, through long legs and swishing tails to the front of the crowd. Then I saw her. She was glory itself, the farthest thing from the imagined monsters of before as could exist. She stepped up onto that stage and I was nothing but wonder in a filly’s form. Overwhelmed. Then, she rose into the air, an angel of light and power, and the sun rose with her. I saw her, burning, glowing, bathed in the light. It was like some gate had opened and it wasn’t only the darkness of the world that had been banished, but a darkness inside of me that I hadn’t even known was there. I knew, then, what I had to do.

Or, actually, Twilight knew. But that was the moment I was looking for, that instant of absolute clarity in which I could find my reason to be. I looked at Canterlot, and I was filled with the certainty that it was coming, and soon.

After that moment of flying glory, landing and going to a room for the night is kind of mundane. Sure I said a few things to Celestia, but it wasn’t important. Idle conversation. I didn’t see Luna anywhere, but I’ve come to realize that that’s hardly unusual. She has been described to me as ‘barely present’. Nothing I’ve seen in Canterlot has contradicted that summation of her impact on the city.

In any case, the night went by. That morning I did what any good daughter would do and visited Twilight’s parents.

Ugh. That was a hard visit. They were worried about her, certainly. But… I couldn’t connect with them. I’ve had that problem a lot, but it’s heightened for the people closest to Twilight. Spike, well, he’s one thing. Her friends in Ponyville are another. I thought I could handle her parents just as well, but… no. No, I couldn’t.

I sat down with Twilight’s mother and father, and I couldn’t for the life of me care anything about them. They were there, throughout Twilight’s memories, but they were… out of focus. I don’t know how to really describe it in a way that doesn’t seem crazy or callous. They were background in Twilight’s life. A lot of things were, especially after she found her calling. She was dedicated to her studies, absolutely focused with only a few intrusions by very select ponies and one dragon that made her take note of them. Her parents were supportive, but that support took the form of letting her do what she was going to do. That doesn’t lend to them being terribly important in forming her into the mare she became.

Don’t get me wrong, she loved them, and dearly. But me? No. The whole problem is that I have her memories but am divorced from her emotions. The clearest example of this might be in my reaction to her parents. I’m not going to bore you with the nitty-gritty details of it. Essentially, it went like this:

Me: “Hello, parents. I would like to inform you that while I am technically in a bad way, emotionally, I need no help from you and am going to be okay.”

Them: “Are you alright?”

Me: “As I have previously indicated, I am not alright, but I shall be given time alone to do my own thing.”

Them: “How can we help?”

Me: “Again, as previously indicated I do not require your assistance. Thank you for your understanding.”

Them: “Are you doing okay?”

Me: “I just told you.”

Them: “What can we do to help you?”

Me: “Are you even listening?”

Them: “How have you been feeling?”

Etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. I admit I screamed at them. I might have thrown some things, then stormed out. I might have broken their door on the way out, before teleporting halfway across the city to get away from them. I certainly didn’t make a good exit, and I know I failed utterly to convince them that I was going to be okay and that I needed to be alone.

I wonder how it must have seemed from their perspective. I mean, I was essentially acting like a teenager, rejecting their help and wanting them out of my life and insisting I could do it all on my own. At least, acting like teenagers Twilight has read and heard about. She didn’t have a lot of direct experience with teenagers when she was one, and my own interactions with them haven’t exactly been in a manner that would promote my understanding of their home life and familial relationships.

Twilight had never been a rebellious teenager. She had been a neurotic, study-obsessed, anti-social mess, but never rebellious. Shining Armor had a bit of rebellion in him, but he was also desperate to get into the Guard, so he had a lot of discipline to go along with it. Did they even know how to deal with somepony like that? I don’t know.

Maybe I am a rebellious teenager. Or was. Maybe I was growing up very fast and very strangely. It wouldn’t surprise me. I changed a lot in those first few weeks.

Well, no matter what I was or am, I was not a good replacement for their daughter. They knew something was wrong, they knew I wasn’t admitting it. They knew that they were never going to get any answers from me. Which is why they called in Shining Armor and Cadance, which is what eventually led directly to the predicament I’m in right now.

I didn’t know that was what they were doing at the time, of course. I was too busy venting my frustrations on terrified library clerks who were trying to keep up with the demands of a rapid-teleporting favored student of Celestia’s while she looked up the most obscure volumes on possession, mental illness and shapeshifters they had. I didn’t find anything I didn’t already know, but that was okay. I was determined to keep up the research until I did find something that explained my existence.

I was also looking forward to that night, and crossing one of the items off of Spike’s list. I didn’t know a lot of things then. I didn’t know who I would meet at that club. I didn’t know where that would lead me. I didn’t know what I would do that night. If I had… I probably would have gone ahead with it anyway. I have my regrets, and big ones, but I have learned so much.

Well, for the moment it can suffice to say that I was about to get myself into a lot of trouble. But the sun’s going to be up soon and I can’t be sure that trick at the docks is going to throw them off enough. I’ll be back after sunset, if I’m not caught. Wish me luck.


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And here we are again. You know I’ve always loved the nights up here. The air is… clearer than it is down the mountain. At least, for the purposes of looking at the stars. Actually, I should say that Twilight has always loved the nights up here. It’s accurate to say that I do too, but it’s for entirely different reasons.

Today wasn’t a good day, but it wasn’t a bad one either. The good bits were very good, and the bad bits… well, things went about as I expected them to. They bought my balloon trick, thankfully, but the fact that it was a ruse was well known by the time I woke up. Yes, I’m sleeping through the day so we can have these meetings at night. I suppose I could come during the daylight hours, but, honestly, why take the chance? The night is so much easier to hide in, and I need to hide now. And the stars are so very beautiful up here.

Sorry, rambling a bit. I’ve been thinking about what I’ve told you so far, what I want to get out of this whole thing. I can’t say I expect your help. Or, not much of it at least. Is it truly just for myself? To grasp at what pale catharsis can come of sharing my tale with another?

I think it is. I think my reasons for doing this are as shallow and empty as they can get. A distraction to keep me from doing the things I swore I would do. Yet… I am not certain. I know that there is a possibility that there could be more to this, that this isn’t some venal impulse, but an act of meaning. I’m very big on acts of meaning right now.

I don’t know. Is this the hoof of destiny guiding me, or just my own desire for dramatics?

What is this impulse that we ponies have to share things? I don’t mean things like food and water and space, that’s just reasonable behaviour. I mean things like what I’m telling you. Stories about our life. Rambling, boring, tangential… no. I was going to say ‘meaningless’, but I know that it isn’t. Not to me. That’s the answer, then. So simple, and all I had to do was voice the question in order to come to it.

If only everything was that easy.

...Not as profound as you were looking for, huh? I’d apologize, but I don’t think it matters. I’ve been thinking about these things for a while, running them in circles through my head. Nopony to talk to about them, nopony to care.

Damn, I’m getting maudlin. I was going to tell you about the good parts of the day. Well, after I woke up and did a bit of my usual scouting, I discovered a bunch of my targets all gathered together and hunkered down in a bunker under one of the antique shops in the Sidesaddle Market. Seems they hadn’t gotten the memo that the balloon thing was fake, lowered their defenses just enough.

Let me tell you, that adds a certain spring to my step. It’s some forward motion, a bit more of my purpose fulfilled. I am practically walking on moonbeams.

On the downside, the next group isn’t going to be as obvious. Too bad, but I can put in the effort. I don’t mind. It’s dodging the damn Guard all the time that is torquing me off. I need to come up with a permanent solution for that. I’d ask you for advice, but… yeah.

In any case, I’m going to continue my story. I believe we left off after my disastrous meeting with Twilight’s parents.


Picking a club from Spike’s list wasn’t easy. They all had some tantalizing features to recommend them. Yet… I didn’t know if I was capable of handling some of the things Spike had talked about, coded as they were. I was savvy enough to recognize some of what had been said, but Twilight’s memories were woefully unable to provide the meaning behind some of the phrases. For instance: a ‘salad bar’? I didn’t think the literal meaning was intended, but I had no clue what foul deed it was truly referring to.

I found out later. A salad bar is where the dancing mares are given vegetables and they… okay… yes… right. Sorry. Extraneous information. It’s not the only term of its kind that was in there, but I’m just using it as an illustration. I had no idea what a lot of them were. Heck, some of them actually could be as innocuous as Spike thought they were. I had no idea. At the time. I’ve learned a lot since then.

With this lack of knowledge in mind, I chose the most innocuous place I could that still might be fun to explore myself with. In honesty, I don’t think ‘exploring myself’ was more than an excuse at this point. Those first few nights at Heather’s were absolutely informative and necessary. Maybe a few more daring forays into the Canterlot nightlife would have been educational. But the whole list? Pfeh, no. That was… immature rebellion, I suppose. More attempts to set myself against Twilight and see where we split from each other. Maybe an attempt to force the issue. She would never have gone to any of these places, so I would make myself go and like it.

Hmm. Actually, now that I dwell on it, that might not have been so fruitless for my purposes after all. Well, pointless in itself, but in the resolution to do these things I was asserting my own character. Still couched in terms of opposition, of course, but actually asserting something individual.

Still, it was a negative assertion. I could have used the time better by looking for positive associations. Really trying to get a fresh perspective instead of repeating the rounds of drunken self-discovery that had already grown stale after less than a week of life.

...No, I’m not stalling. But I am trying to think of how to word this properly. The night itself was fun and memorable and interesting, but the most important event happened at the tail end of it. A truly pivotal moment in my life. Something… something I actually wish I could take back.

Some ponies, when speaking of morality and ethics, talk about a ‘slippery slope’ effect. They say that once you take the first step down a course of action, especially a negative one, it becomes easier to take the next, and the next, and eventually you go so far down a path that it becomes nigh-impossible to return to where you began. This is generally applied to the spread of evil. You start by stealing a little bit, or telling white lies for convenience. Eventually you’ve become so callous you are robbing banks, or are lying all the time to just to cover up the previous lies. It’s meant to show ponies that it’s a bad idea to even start on these behaviors.

It’s how tyrants are made. Sombra didn’t start as a psychopathic monster. Luna didn’t just turn into Nightmare Moon overnight. A few steps down that slippery slope, and before they knew it they were barreling downhill faster than they could comprehend.

Well, I’d started at Heather’s. A single step, a tentative hoof on the first, gentle slopes down to utter depravity. By the end of the night at that club, I’d pretty much leapt off that slippery slope and embraced my fall wholeheartedly.

Well, not precisely, but we’ll get to that. I didn’t find my purpose that night, but it gave me the tools to carry it out. It showed me that I had the power and the will to make it happen.

I kind of wish I had found out another way.

Look, I’m going to give you the context, so you can understand why I was in the position I ended up in. I’ll give you the short version, but that’s still got a bit of telling to it. So relax.

It all started with a pony named Vinyl Scratch...

Rainbow Junction

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The club was called the Rainbow Junction. It had a theme to match its name, the walls painted with swirling arcs of color and the lights switching filters to create a constantly shifting array of prismatic hues. The effect actually deadened some of the differences in the coat colors of the ponies present, reducing the pastel wonderland of gathered Equestrians to a muted, undifferentiated herd. Music pumped out of large speakers that surrounded the dance floor, a heavy bassline almost visibly thrumming through the ponies swaying on the multicolored tiles.

Honestly? I kind of liked it.

Getting in had been a matter of waiting in line for half an hour and then being passingly pretty. I knew in some vague, distant sense that some places required a little something extra to get through the door, whether it be bits or connections, but this wasn’t nearly so exclusive a place. I had brought a good bit of money with me, I had the vague notion that I was going to get drunk and dance, so even if there had been a cover charge I don’t think I would have had a problem.

I waded through the crowd of ponies milling about, skirting the dance floor and heading to a bar that glowed in a half-dozen neon shades. I slid onto a stool and waited for the bartender to get to me, scanning the crowd and trying to get the lay of the land. The Rainbow Junction wasn’t packed to the gills, but it was crowded enough to make differentiating groups of friends difficult.

I don’t know what I was looking for. I know what I would be looking for now, but I didn’t have any reason for it then. Still, remembering it now I can pick out a few things that should have been obvious. As an example, the door to the washrooms that sometimes ponies entered and left one at a time, and sometimes in hushed groups. I noted the behaviour, but didn’t have a context for it.

Oh, I knew about drugs and all the illegal activities that could be going on in a place like this. Twilight wasn’t completely naive. But she’d never experienced it. Never seen it in action, and thus neither had I. Heather ran a clean bar, alcohol only, and Ponyville didn’t exactly have a thriving drug culture anyways, so there had been no opportunities in my forays there. Here? In the heart of Equestrian civilization? It was rampant. Far more than Twilight could have ever imagined.

I think that the wide variety of recreational drug use isn’t actually a problem. Yes, I know how this contradicts a lot of what I’m doing, but you don’t know everything yet. At least, I don’t think you do. In any case, that’s a later part of the story. For now, I’ll make my opinion clear: I don’t mind the ‘soft’ drugs that get passed around frequently. As it turns out, a little psychedelia is good for the soul. It’s the hard stuff that pisses me off. Especially the black crystal.

I’m getting ahead of myself again. What you need to know now is that black crystal is bad news, and it’s definitely what led to my later actions.

I hadn’t been at the bar for more than a minute when I’m approached by this white unicorn mare with a wild blue mane and purple sunglasses. She sat down next to me, a smile on her face. “Wow, I never expected you of all ponies to show up at a place like this!” She had to raise her voice to be heard over the music. This was Vinyl Scratch.

Twilight knew her. Not personally, mind you, but she occasionally did shows in Ponyville, which meant Twilight had seen her around and knew of her talents. She’d also been the DJ at Shining Armor and Cadance’s wedding, now that I think about it. Definitely a friend of Pinkie Pie’s, but then again who isn’t?

The point is that Twilight knew who she was, so I knew who she was. I cursed silently at this, I was hoping to remain completely anonymous. Still, since she wasn’t a close friend of Twilight’s I felt I could relax my pretense and be more natural… whatever that turned out to be.

“Trying something new,” I told her.

“That’s cool,” she said with a knowing grin. It was kind of annoying, not being able to see her eyes. I couldn’t tell if her expression was genuine or if she was being sarcastic. Worse yet, she didn’t seem to want to say anything beyond that, leaving the conversation infuriatingly hanging.

“We haven’t been formally introduced,” I said, searching for something to work with.

“Right. Name’s Vinyl, but out here and on stage I’m DJ-PON3,” she said, pronouncing the stage name with the number. “Everypony knows who you are, Twilight Sparkle.”

I snorted. “Everypony? I doubt it.” I hoped not.

She laughed. “Sure, some of these kids might not recognize you right away, but you get your face in the paper often enough and you’re gonna get noticed. You saved the frickin’ world, gal. I’m kinda shocked you haven’t got a drink yet.”

She’s was kind of right, actually. Twilight and her friends lived relatively quiet lives in Ponyville, well as quiet as lives in that disaster-pit could be, but they had been instrumental in a great deal of Equestria-saving. They were a kind of celebrity, the kind that wasn’t in the news every other week, but were every time something major happened. Ponyville, again, didn’t much care as a whole, but the rest of the world? Oh, we were known. More so than Rarity ever let on from her forays into high society. Had Twilight been told, I would have factored it into my plans, done the disguise thing a lot earlier. As it was? I hadn’t expected to be noticed by anypony.

I kind of sat there with my mouth open for a bit, unable to say anything. Vinyl laughed again, slapping me on the back in a gesture of camaraderie that she hadn’t earned. “You really didn’t know? Wow, man, I’m completely spaced by that. What made you come out here?”

I shrugged. “Needed a change of scenery,” I said. “Thought this one sounded, uh, cool.”

“Yeah, this place is chill,” she said. “Got a great sound system. Can’t put the levels too high because of some structural crap, but the acoustics make up for it. Good for dancing and wicked trips, but the drinks are way overpriced.”

“Really? Huh.”

“Yeah, super jacked-up. Here, I’ll get first round, alright?”

“If you want to,” I said. She had a kind of energy to her. A frenetic charm that I associated with Pinkie, but without the psychotic obliviousness. I could actually feel myself getting caught up in it, letting my guard down. “This is kind of my first time in a club like this.” I admitted.

“No shit?” She didn’t seem too surprised, but again those damn sunglasses made reading her true mood difficult. I had the distinct impression she was being sarcastic again. She probably was. “Just a change of scenery, huh?”

“Maybe a bit more than just that,” I said. “I’m kind of on unfamiliar ground here.”

She let her hidden eyes linger on me for a long moment. The rest of her face had gone into a neutral stillness that told me nothing. “Well, okay then. Tell you what. Stick with me, Twilight, and I’ll make sure you know the territory. And I guarantee you a night like you’ve never had before.”

“I…” I paused, thinking it over. It seemed as if my streak of finding accommodating ponies to help me with my journey was continuing. Yet, my first instinct was to turn her down. I examined where that feeling came from, and it stemmed from my overall uncomfortableness with the whole situation. I’m not just talking about the club, though that was a big part of it. I’m talking about the fight with Twilight’s parents, the days of cooping myself up and drinking to stupor every night. I wasn’t going to turn her down because I didn’t think she would be a good pony to give me the ins and outs of clubbing, but because Twilight’s memories and remembered emotions said that I should be leaving. Getting out of a situation with so many new ponies and secluding myself in a library. It’s what she would have done. She would have found it all confusing and tiring. Small, intimate parties she could get. A packed, impersonal, bass-thumping dance club like this? She wouldn’t have seen the point, and it would make her uncomfortable and awkward. I was remembering that discomfort and echoing it. It wasn’t mine.

The moment I came to that conclusion, of course, was the moment I couldn’t stand to give in to it. “I’d love that,” I told Vinyl. And so my night began.

Five Types

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“The first thing you’ve gotta know are the five ponies who come to a club,” Vinyl said, taking a sip from the drink she’d ordered us both. I sampled it as well, finding it to be something Berry had introduced me to as a good starter. Not too alcohol-heavy, more tasty like juice than anything else, but deceptively effective. I approved.

“There are a lot more than five ponies here,” I pointed out.

“Five types of ponies,” Vinyl amended. “You got your party animals.” She indicated a group of ponies who were thrashing about on the dancefloor with little to no semblance of rhythm. “They’re here to cut loose and do whatever. These guys’ll go all night, but only as long as they’re having fun. You give them too long of a lull and they’ll bounce. They’ll drink and maybe do some of the other stuff, but that’s not what they’re here for. Give ‘em some cranked bass and they’ll be the first on the dance floor and the last to leave.”

“Alright,” I said, a distant part of me wishing I had a notebook.

“Then you got your socializers.” This time she cocked her head to a table full of ponies drinking and chatting. They didn’t look like anything special to me. “They just want to be around friends. They’ll stick around if their buddies stick around, and that’s it. Yeah, they’ll drink; yeah, they’ll smoke up or take some of the light drugs, but only because everypony else is doing it. Get too many of them together and they’re this frikkin hive-mind, true creepy. If they’re broken up into little groups, like here? They’re cool. They’ll dance to whatever, but they work best with something they can get a groove goin’ to. Slow music’s good with them, they like to pair up.

“After that you got the addicts. They’re here because they need to be, they got something driving them to it. Some are here for the booze, some are here for the hard stuff. Some just can’t get the music out of their blood. These guys can look like party animals or socializers, but watch them long enough and you can tell. These guys will be the ones pushing the socializers into buying another round or staying later. But their first concern is that they get their fix. Hard to pick a playlist for, you gotta know their drug of choice to get their preferences.

“Then there’s ponies like me,” Vinyl chuckled. “I’m a watcher. I’m here for the scene. I get my kicks by watching them get theirs. A lot of DJ’s are watchers, except those who are strictly in it for the music, and they’re addicts. We work the bar like the socializers, but we’ll dance like a party animal, and leave when things get too boring. We’ll like any beat that plays to the crowd.

“The trick for you is figuring out which of these groups is yours. Once you get that down, you’ll start to see some real fun.”

“You said there were five types,” I pointed out. “What’s the fifth?”

Vinyl snorted. “That’d be the wolves.” She bobbed her drink towards a pony wearing a black hooded sweatshirt with the hood up stood talking to another pony. As they watched, the other pony gave the hooded one a few bits, and received a small white package in turn. “They’re in here to make money, and screw the music.”

“Was that a drug deal?” I asked.

“Yeah, and a pretty brassy one,” Vinyl confirmed. “Probably selling some fizz or something else practically innocent. Still, one off-duty Guard in here and he’d be shafted.”

“Does that happen a lot in clubs?” From Spike’s list I knew that drugs could be had, but I’d assumed it was a much more involved process. That had looked almost like any transaction in the Ponyville market. I wondered if it really was that easy.

“Depends on the club,” Vinyl replied. “This one? Yeah, it’s got a bit of that. You go down to Jack Trade’s and you practically can’t walk three steps without somepony trying to sell you some black crystal. Don’t worry about it, they won’t bother you here.”

“No,” I said quickly. “I think… you said it’s almost innocent? Maybe I could try some.”

She let out a low whistle. “Diving into it whole hog, huh? Watch out, girl, a change of pace can always mean going from a run to a dead stop, and that usually only happens when you hit a wall.”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Chill. You want to try something? I’ll hook you up, but don’t go looking for it until you know what you’re doing, alright?” She seemed genuinely concerned, even lifting up her shades so she could look me in the eye.

I nodded. “No problem. I’ll take it slow.”

She smiled. “Just had to warn you, ya know? Not that I thought Twilight Sparkle would get into that kind of trouble.” Which meant, of course, that now I had to.


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Memory. So much of what I am is based on memories that aren’t mine. It sickens me to think of it, but who would I be if I hadn’t had Twilight’s memories to fall back on? Worse, who might I have become? I can tell you that I probably would have been more careful that night. But I wasn’t. Somehow, having Vinyl there made me want to prove how far from Twilight Sparkle I really was, to claim some uncharted territory for my own.

Negative. All so damned negative. I was such a fool. Ha! But that’s learned wisdom, the benefit of hindsight. If you’d told me all this back then, I would have dismissed it and gone ahead with it anyway. Well, maybe if you were the one to tell me I’d have listened. I certainly would have taken notice.

Anyways, I was talking about memory. My memory is eidetic, what some ponies call a ‘photographic’ memory. It means that I can remember things perfectly, as if they were right in front of me all over again. It’s not natural to me, it’s something that was learned, another of those carryover skills from Twilight. What that means is that I only perfectly remember the things I was actively paying attention to. That’s why I can get specific on who said what in conversations, but have no idea what was going on around me when I started slipping into navel-gazing depression.

I tell you this because whatever Vinyl gave me, it left me with a crystal-clear recollection of everything in sporadic bursts that have absolutely no context to them, and this lasted maybe four hours. These periods of lucidity are interspersed with the most bizarre emotional impressions and hallucinatory ramblings. Here, I’ll see if I can go through what I remember without sounding like I am currently on drugs.

Vinyl had bought something, not from the pony in the sweatshirt, somepony else, and brought it back to the bar. The bartender had to see what she was doing, but apparently didn’t care because absolutely no comment was made. “Alrighty, girl,” Vinyl said, laying out a pair of pink and green striped candies. “This is usually called ‘bubble’. It’s as smooth as it gets, a real calm ride, but you still get to see all the wacky stuff that gets ponies excited. It’s made for unicorns like us, so if you get your hooves on more of it don’t pass it out to your pegasus friends. They’ll get sick.”

“What about earth ponies?” I asked.

Vinyl snorted. “Right, right, you don’t know. This stuff doesn’t have enough kick to make an earth pony feel it. Trust me, you want to try some hard drugs? Do a pinch of the stuff earth ponies use to get a mild buzz goin’. It’ll knock your eyeballs out.” She laughed, then sobered. “Except don’t. Because some of it could actually knock your eyeballs out.”

I nodded sagely, taking her advice to heart, and picked up one of the candies. “So I just eat this?” I asked, popping it into my mouth.

She followed suit. “Yup, just suck on it, let it dissolve slowly.”

“I swallowed it,” I admitted.

She stared at me for a moment, a lopsided grin spreading across her face. “Oops,” she said, half-laughing.

“Is that bad?”

“Depends, were you planning on going anywhere else tonight?” I shook my head. “Then you’re gold, girl. Enjoy the ride.”

I thought about it for a moment. “I don’t feel anything.” I said.

“Yeah, you swallowed it, so it’s gonna sneak up on you,” Vinyl said. “Usually it gets into your system slowly as it dissolves and you swallow a bit at a time. I’ve got a tingle in my lips and it’s working towards my teeth. I can track it as it rolls down my mouth and up to my horn. I can savor every moment until this bubble pops, then I’m ridin’ the wave.”

“That sounds… kind of nice,” I said. It reminded me of getting drunk, actually. The lightheaded buzz that built until it crashed into total incoherence. I liked that sensation.

“Eh, it’s got a nice flow, and I was thinking of taking it easy tonight,” she said with a shrug. “You? Yeah, all of it’s in your bloodstream by now. When it hits, it’ll hit hard.” She grinned. “This is gonna be fun.”

I would have replied, but the drug started kicking in right about then. I know this because I remember all the flat surfaces in the club were suddenly covered in beads of water that were giving everything a slick, pebbled texture. I distinctly recall informing Vinyl of this and then proceeding to explore this strange change in surfaces in minute detail. It wasn’t like getting drunk at all. I wasn’t confused. I wasn’t stupid. I was aware of everything around me. It’s just that my senses had started collecting improbable data that my brain was processing as truth, without regard for the rational likelihood of it being so.

This is where things get… sporadic. I talked with Vinyl, but because I wasn’t paying particularly close attention to the conversation, I can’t remember what was said. I know we discussed Ponyville, and Twilight’s friends. I know we talked about music and… boys? I think. Romance, at the very least. Maybe just a recent romantic book or movie. I just remember staring into a bathroom mirror and feeling acutely aware of my appearance, and feeling that it was of utmost importance that I improve it. Whether this had any subconscious influence over my decision to alter that appearance is… debatable.

The next moment of eidetic clarity I have, I was on the dance floor. Vinyl and I were in a group of other ponies, all dancing to a wild, heavy beat and some sort of harsh, repetitive series of notes that I hesitate to call a melody. I must have liked it, though, because my coat was damp with sweat and I had a huge smile on my face.

“Damn, girl, you got crazy moves!” Vinyl said.

I laughed at that. I was feeling… amazing. “Do you do this all the time?” I asked her, having to shout over the noise of the music and the crowd.

“Nah, I usually get my kicks in the booth!” she yelled back. I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but something about it struck me as terribly funny. I laughed, hard. “Not gonna lie, you’re kinda a lot more fun than I was expecting!”

There were ponies all around me, crowding in, touching. The smell of sweat and flesh and salt and alcohol was thick in the air. Everything was so close, like it was all pressing down on me. I didn’t feel afraid. I didn’t feel oppressed by it. All of Twilight’s social anxiety was absent. I felt so damned good. Like some barrier that I hadn’t even realized had been separating me from other ponies had vanished.

I know I’ve talked about intoxication before, but this was intoxicating. I could drink it in for days and still be thirsty for more. I know how dangerous that night could have been. Addictions start much easier than this, with much more stable personalities. I’m lucky the drug Vinyl chose doesn’t form physical dependencies, or I might have fallen into that trap completely. As it is… well, I avoided addiction, at least.

I was about to say something to Vinyl when a pony grabbed me and kissed me, full on the lips. I don’t know who this mare was, but she was definitely higher than I was. Had I been in my normal state of mind, I would have recoiled. As it was, I felt so open to the world that I wholeheartedly reciprocated the kiss. That let her slip her tongue into my mouth. When she did, I tasted something on it that set off all the warning bells in my head, and shoved her away. The mare stumbled back giving me the most devastated, hurt look I have ever seen, and then she disappeared into the crowd.

“Whoa!” Vinyl laughed. “Not feelin’ the love, are you?”

“There was something wrong with her,” I said, frowning at the place I had lost sight of the mare. I could still taste her tongue on mine, and the sharp sensation of magic that had accompanied it. Dangerous magic. Familiar magic.

“Yeah, she’s blasted out of her frikkin mind!” Vinyl said. “Forget her, come on, let’s dance!”

That was enough of a distraction that I was swept up in the wash of minutiae and sensation for a long time afterwards. I danced with the ponies in the crowd, and with Vinyl specifically. I remember talking with her, whispering something into her ear, some mad insight brought on by the drug. I remember cradling her head and carefully tracing the spiral of her horn. I remember exploring the colors and textures of her mane. I think… okay, no, there was some possibly embarrassing stuff that went on, but it’s not relevant. Vinyl never brought it up again, so I can’t be sure if it was a hallucination or really happened. Though if it did, it might have contributed to my later decisions regarding Rainbow Dash.

Eventually the club closed, and we left. I was still in the throes of the drug, and when I caught sight of the mare that had kissed me wandering down the street I had a sudden and undeniable urge to follow her. Vinyl tried to stop me.

“Whoa,” she said, hooking a hoof around me and turning me towards her. “Where are you going?”

I spun at her direction. I was smiling. Not a big, wide smile like I had been earlier. This was a slow, lazy smile. I felt almost sated, like a cat that’s found a warm place to lie. There was a general feeling of being lighter, of practically floating. I’ve actually floated, and that feeling and what ponies usually associate with floating? Not the same at all. It’s kind of weird. This feeling was the feeling-like-floating feeling, not the actual-floating feeling. It’s important to distinguish because… right.

“There’s something wrong with her,” I said, as if hours had not passed since the scene on the dance floor. “I want to go find out what.”

“Not a cool move, Twilight,” Vinyl said. “Come on, you want to head back to my place, right?”

“Yeah, don’t want to go back to my rooms tonight,” I said.

“So come on, I’ll put on some jazzy records and we can talk more.”

“I’d like that,” I said. Yet, my head turned back to where the mare was stumbling into an alley. I curled my tongue in my mouth, remembering the spark of dark magic that had flashed across it. The familiarity was too enticing. “I’ll meet you there, alright? I just have to check on this.”

“She’s heading to a bad neighborhood,” Vinyl warned, but she dropped her hoof and let me step away from her.

I laughed. “There’s no bad neighborhoods in Canterlot,” I said.

“Sure there are,” Vinyl said, shaking her head. “You just can’t see them from the castle.”

“Then I want to see them up close,” I said. It was dumb, but I stand behind that particular reasoning. Exploring something new to both me and Twilight, but not in specific denial of some part of Twilight’s personality. It was as close to a positive move I had made so far.

Vinyl sighed. “Sure. But let’s do it in the morning, ‘kay?”

“I won’t be long,” I promised with no intention of keeping my word. Then, before she could say anything else, I teleported away. I didn’t go far, only to the roof of a nearby building, and I could hear Vinyl swear as soon as she had realized what I’d done. I wasn’t paying attention to her anymore, though, so I don’t know what she did afterwards. My focus was on the mare who was making her shaky way down the alley and into another street.

I kept pace with her, teleporting from rooftop to rooftop, keeping her in sight. We travelled into parts of the city that Twilight knew of, but had never been to. Contrary to what Vinyl was saying, they don’t really qualify as ‘bad’ neighborhoods, at least not compared to some of the slummier places in Manehattan and Las Pegasus. The streets were clean and the buildings were in good repair. Still, it was the quality of the residents that made this neighborhood one of the poorer ones. I’m not saying they were all bad ponies, but this was where the bad ponies liked to set up shop.

I tracked her to a wide four-story apartment building. There was a burly earth pony sitting by the door, his coat darkened with tattoos. She said something to him that I was too far away to hear, and he rapped on the door. A moment later it was opened and the mare went inside. There was something about this place that piqued my curiosity even further, and I knew I had to get inside, to see what was happening.

I could have teleported in. I could have cut a hole in the wall or opened a window with telekinesis or done any number of other things. Instead I took myself to ground level and walked right up to the door pony, assuming he’d just let me past. If I hadn’t been so hyper-focused by the drug, I would have thought past that. I would have done something smarter. Maybe. Right now? I’d probably do the exact same thing, but I know what I’m doing now and I didn’t then.

Of course, right now I’d also notice all the Guards beginning to gather and throwing the place suspicious looks, but, well… drugs are bad, okay?

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The door-pony was a brute of a stallion. His muscles bulged and his jaw was thick and he had practically no neck. I’d seen a few ponies like this around Ponyville, looking like they’d eaten two other ponies and stuffed them into their forelegs. They tended to be the loud, brash type that would try to impress others with their strength and sheer size. I actually kind of liked them. They were simple, easy to figure out, easy to ignore. They wouldn’t bother you unless you put yourself in their line of fire. Or, of course, if their business was to bother you.

This one’s business was clearly to stop other ponies from getting into the building. He was going to bother me. Something about the drug I’d taken had convinced me in its late hours of activity that I was a brilliant conversationalist who could talk my way past any obstacle. You can see where this is going.

“Hey,” I said as I walked up to the door.

He moved into my way, a rolling motion that showed off more of his muscles flexing than was strictly necessary. “You don’t got no invite,” he growled.

“Don’t need one,” I said, imitating his gruff speech. “I just want to talk to a friend. She came through about half a minute ago?”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “You look familiar…”

“Yes!” I said, latching on to that. “Because I’ve been here before. You should let me by.”

“I ain’t never seen you come through here,” he replied. “Go away.”

“No,” I stomped my hoof. “I want to go in, you should let me by.”

He took a threatening step forward, but I held my ground. “I told you to go away, girly. You ain’t got no invite, and I never seen you here before. You ain’t getting in.”

“Stop saying ‘ain’t’!” I snapped. “Let me in!”

“Alright, girly. You asked for it,” he snarled, then reached for me.

I slammed him into the wall hard enough to rattle the windows. He strained against my telekinetic hold but… well, in her first year in Ponyville Twilight was capable of magically carrying a twenty ton bear, an upended and nearly full water-tower and doing a dozen other things besides all at once. She has only gotten stronger since. I have that power as well, so even this brute of an earth pony was not going anywhere I didn’t want him to.

“I asked to be let in,” I said. I admit that I sounded like a petulant filly. I don’t know if this is more indicative of a childish mindset at the time or just a consequence of the hard-headedness of my actions. Either way, the stallion reacted with fear. His eyes bulged and he struggled to say something.

I eased off on the pressure enough to let him talk. “I know you!” he gasped out. “You’re… you’re Twilight Sparkle!”

I stomped my hoof again. “Be quiet!” I hissed at him.

He shrank back as much as he was able. “Okay, okay. I won’t tell no one you’re here, alright? I won’t tell no one, just let me go.”

“What?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. The implications of it all hadn’t sunk in for obvious reasons. I just stared dumbly at him and tried to parse why he would think I wanted him to not tell anyone.

“I ain’t gonna talk, I swear!”

“I told you not to say ‘ain’t’!” I snapped, and teleported him away. Across the city, actually. I dumped him in the castle’s gardens. Can’t imagine the look of the groundskeeper when this enormous ox of a pony suddenly flashes into existence in the middle of the rose bed. It was probably priceless. Funny thing? That teleport likely saved him from getting arrested. Funnier thing: he would probably have preferred that outcome.

The door now free, I made my way up and tried the handle. It was locked, of course. I knocked politely, and an eye-slot opened up, a red-eyed pony staring back at me from the other side. “Where’s Meat?” he asked.

“Stopping to smell the roses,” I replied. “I’m looking for a mare who just came through. Can you let me in?”

The pony frowned. “No. Go away.”

I teleported inside. The interior was darker than I had expected, barely lit by a red lamp that threw everything into stark, harsh shadows with difficult-to distinguish highlights. The flare from my teleport stunned the two other ponies who had been waiting in the entrance hall, sending them reeling back. The one who had been at the door was similarly blinded by the flash from outside, but kept his wits. He wheeled on me, and I picked up all three ponies. I set them rotating around me, the residual hallucinations of the bubble still in my system making the motion fascinating.

“Where can I find her?” I asked. “The one who came through before I did?”

The red-eyed pony looked at me with fear. One of the others was a unicorn, and he began casting a spell, but I shut his magic down. Which is a nifty trick, if you know how to do it. Twilight did, but she had to put way more effort into it than I did. Which, actually, should have told me something about the nasty surprise waiting for me later. At the time it didn’t seem important. The third pony was struggling against my hold, not getting anywhere, but not giving up either.

“Come on,” I urged. “I’ve got to be at a friend’s place soon. She’s expecting me.” Silently, the red-eyed pony pointed a hoof down the hall. “Okay, but more specificity would be appreciated.”

“Up the stairs,” he said. “Third floor. Room 14.”

“Thanks!” I chirped, dropping all three of them.
The one who had been struggling tried to leap at me, but the other two grabbed him. “Are you insane?" the red-eyed pony hissed. “Don’t you recognize who that is?”

I frowned at them. I was getting recognized far too often tonight when I wanted to remain anonymous. Yet I didn’t dwell on it then. The tantalizing sensation of dark magic was thick in the air. I turned away from the three guards and started up the stairs, completely oblivious. Not that awareness would have changed what happened next. Not at that point. I’d gone too far.


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Canterlot is an old city. Not the oldest, not even in the top ten, but old. It’s also a city with a strictly limited space in which to grow and a lot of difficulties in getting materials suitable for construction. That means that a lot of Canterlot is built on top of and out of, well, Canterlot. There are a lot of things that result from this, and the building I had entered was one of them. It was made of a hodge-podge of different buildings that had been renovated, partially destroyed, connected and just generally incorporated into each other to create a single structure. Twilight had spent most of her life in the carefully designed and maintained environs of the palace and the university, and even her parent’s home had been mostly a single construction, so this was my first real experience of true Canterlot interiors.

The result was… disturbing. Especially with the bubble still fizzing along the edges of my perceptions, making things like strange textures and odd angles pop out and demand attention. The main hall ran directly through the building with the walls showing a strange amalgam of interior wood paneling and exterior brickwork until it terminated at what was clearly meant to be the front door for a house of yesteryear. Doors were set into the wall at uneven intervals, their styles and settings wildly different. Some needed steps to reach them, others were flush with the floor. A few were actually off-kilter, the result of a settling building that hadn’t been corrected when it had been folded into the new construction.

The floor itself wasn’t even. Every other hoofstep was at a different height than before, the ground rolling and twisting deceptively, each new dip hidden by the poor lighting. I stumbled. Of course I did. I tripped and shuffled my way down the hall to the stairs the thug at the door had indicated to me. Those, at least, had been crafted all at once and made to work together. I was glad when I had them under me. Yet even though they weren’t the crazy mixture of the rest of the building, they were still old and in ill-repair. They creaked threateningly under my weight, but I ignored the sound, figuring that if heavy stallions could use them with relative frequency, then a slight mare like myself wouldn’t have any problems.

The second floor was much like the first, but I could hear things through these walls. The sounds were… strange to me then. I recognized music, much like what had been playing at the Rainbow Junction. A heavy, fast beat and jarring, jangling noise to serve as melody. My head bobbed along with it as I passed, my thoughts flashing to the dance floor and the dark-magic-tainted kiss. I also heard other things from beyond the wall. Laughter, groaning, the sounds of exertion and the low, mewling moans of pleasure from dozens of throats.

Twilight may have lived a sheltered life, but she, and therefore I, was not innocent of the concept of sex. She’d been a teenager, just like everypony else. A bookish, shut in, neurotic teenager, but that doesn’t stop the hormones from working. She’d suppressed her desires by focusing on magic and studies, just like she had with everything else, but she was by no means successful in eliminating them. There was a phase she went through where she learned everything there was to know about equine sexuality… discreetly, of course. With a creative and obsessive mind like hers, you can probably imagine how… interesting some of her fantasies got.

So I knew exactly what those sounds meant, and it was the first time I began to realize exactly what kind of place I had bullied my way into. The realization wasn’t alarming, sadly. No, just the opposite. I found the idea… exciting.

I rounded the entrance to the second staircase when a thin blue unicorn stallion moved out of the shadows to block my path. I stopped and regarded him as he did the same to me. I could see something in his eyes, a kind of hunger that struck me as both dangerous and familiar. There was lust there, yes, undisguised, displayed brazenly, in fact. He licked his lips as his gaze traveled the curve of my hip, his leer only getting wider as I failed to react to him.

“Pretty thing,” he said. His voice was barely a whisper, almost lost in the muffled pounding of music through the walls. “I’ll give you a hit for a chance at lifting that tail.”

The presumption was amusing, so I laughed. The reaction was instant and shocking. He snarled in rage, lashing out at me with magic and lunging for me physically. The magic I blocked on reflex, but I was unprepared for the assault and he bowled into me. I tried to get away, but he was fast, and despite being thin enough that I could see his ribs standing clear through his coat he moved with incredible strength.

He threw me to the floor, my horn bouncing painfully off the edge of the stairs. He was on top of me in an instant, breath hot in my face. “You will be mine,” he hissed. “You will give me what I want.” I bucked and he was tossed away, his emaciated body too light to really hold me down. We both scrambled to our hooves, our horns lighting with our magic.

Despite the suddenness of the attack and his clearly vile intentions, I wasn’t afraid. It might have been the bubble keeping me buoyed, but I like to believe that it was a natural reaction. I have certainly faced danger since and found myself relishing the experience. Fear itself is not foreign to me, but fear of combat, of violence? No, I don’t fear these things.

I lashed out before he could, wrapping him in telekinetic power and lifting him into the air, twisting the power so that he was held with limbs splayed out and strained. “Sorry,” I said, smirking in victory. “You’re not my type.”

He snarled a curse at me, his horn lighting up and trying to break my hold. It was useless. “You dog-faced bitch!” he growled, still not raising his voice to a normal speech volume. I wondered if his vocal cords were damaged. “Let go. Let go! You should be bowing to me you dull slut! Worshipping me!”

I blinked in confused surprise as his rant continued. Delusions of grandeur were one thing, but to carry on like that when I had him bound as securely as I did? It was a puzzle, but not one I cared to work out right then. I teleported him to just outside the front door, where I later learned he was promptly arrested by a group of surprised Guards who were just about to bash down the door.

My way once again clear I walked up to the third floor. This was where I stepped into something I really didn’t recognize. There were mares and stallions sitting or lying against the wall all the way along the third floor hallway. Enough of them that I had to pick my way carefully through the tangle of their limbs. A pair rutted openly, but quietly, near the stairs, their fierce grins were identical and hardly equine, almost bloodthirsty. The ponies were in a variety of states of health, but many of them looked like the stallion I had just dealt with: emaciated and with a feverish hunger gleaming in their eyes. They all looked at me with a need that went beyond the sexual.

It was almost dreamlike, walking among them. They reached out for me, mares and stallions both. Not with the violence of the stallion from before, but with the same possessiveness. They touched me, and there were so many that if I shied away from one, I just pressed myself into another. Their pawing hooves were not gentle, but not hard enough to bruise either. I was afraid for a moment that they were going to swarm me, but it seemed like the touch was all they wanted and after they had done so they went back to sitting or lying on the floor. Their eyes still followed me, though, dragging at me with their desire, clawing at my confidence.

I searched the mismatched doors for number fourteen, and found it a ways down the hall. I made slow, uncomfortable walk to the door and tried to ignore the constant feel of hooves dragging themselves over me. Some of them were trying to touch me in… very inappropriate places. I managed to stop them from going that far, but it wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to teleport to the door, not knowing what might set them off into violence. Due to my experience at Heather’s and being on drugs myself, I was acutely aware of how quickly moods can shift when intoxicated.

The door to room fourteen was slightly ajar. Enough that I could see some of the interior before opening it. There were more ponies inside, splayed about much like the ones out in the hall. A soft yellow glow lit the room beyond, too diffused to be an electric light, not bright enough to be a standard magic one. I was put in mind of the fairy lights used at festivals and sometimes in ponyville.

I opened the door and walked into the apartments beyond. The first room was probably meant to be a living room or foyer, but had been stripped of furniture some time ago. The floor and walls were stained with the grime of years of neglect. Mold covered the ceiling and parts of the walls, adding a musty odor to the scent of sweat and urine and blood that permeated the air. A pair of mattresses had been pushed up against two walls, each host to at least three ponies who were engaged in sexual foreplay that was violent in its intensity. One of the mares, lying on her back and being alternatively fought over and serviced by a pair of quietly snarling stallions, looked up at me and met my eyes. A smile spread across her face, similar to the vicious grins that I had seen in the hall. She reached out one hoof and beckoned to me.

Her eyes sparkled with… something. Magic, yes, but nothing I could identify at the time. I was three steps closer to her before I realized I was even moving. I shook off the effect and stopped in my tracks, but I could still feel the pull of her, a sudden urge to join the stallions in fighting over a piece of her, an urge to satisfy her need. I stared at her in horror for a long moment before she was distracted by the ministrations of one of her suitors and the magic was directed back to them. It wasn’t the invasion of my mind that horrified me, not what she had wanted to do to me. I… Twilight Sparkle has faced worse violation and overcome it. No, what truly shocked me was the fact that she was an earth pony.

I shuddered, trying to throw off the creeping wrongness of what I was seeing. I managed to remember my purpose there and walked past the carnal scene and to one of the bedrooms. My target sat in the middle of the room, sobbing quietly and whispering things to herself. There were four other ponies in the room, but they all seemed asleep. I stepped into the room, not being particularly quiet, but she didn’t notice anyways.

“Not enough,” she was whispering between hitched breaths. She wrapped her forelegs around herself, hugging tightly and rocking slightly back and forth. “Not enough. No. No. Not more. Can’t have more. Too much. Not enough. Eyes in the black and cold blood. Need it. No. Not enough, but too much already.”

“Why?” I asked her.

She whipped around, moving with startling suddenness. She stared at me, her eyes wide and dilated all the way out so her irises were barely visible as a halo around the black pits of her pupils. “You,” she said. “You hate me.” The statement was so non sequitur that I was caught dumbfounded for a moment. Which she apparently took as acknowledgement. “Of course, of course you hate me. Of course you do. Not good enough. Never good enough. Not enough. Not enough tonight. Need more.” She dipped her head, squeezing her eyes shut and sobbing again. “Too much. Too much.”

“I don’t hate you,” I said, sitting down next to her. I saw that her forelegs weren’t just wrapped around her barrel, there was something she was hugging to herself. A package made out of black paper, I could see a slash of colour, a red emblem of some kind, embossed onto it.

“You don’t?” she asked, her voice small, childlike. “But you pushed me… I thought…”

“I was surprised,” I assured her. As different as I am from Twilight I am not devoid of the compassion that she held in her heart, and what I was seeing then was a mare in desperate need of a measure of kindness. “I don’t hate you.”

She set the package down gingerly, as if afraid it would shatter like brittle glass, and reached up to touch my face. I let her, unsure if letting discomfort show would convince her once again that she was hated. She stared into my eyes, and I saw glimmers of magic move through the depths of her pupils. “I knew you were strong,” she said. A change rolled over her, her entire demeanor shifting in a shudder that reminded me of the ecstatic throes of the writhing orgies in the outer room. A smile appeared on her face. No, not a smile. Smiles have good connotations. This was a sneer, dripping with malice and arrogance. “I could taste the power in you. You deserve a place at the top, too.” Her voice had deepened, becoming confident, strong.

She reached down and gently opened the package to reveal a fine powder of glinting black crystals. They looked like crushed obsidian, reflecting the pale light coming through the window from mirror-like facets. “What…?” I began, but her hoof came up to my face again, shutting my mouth with a painful click of teeth snapping together.

“I will share this with you,” she said, her voice soft and enticing. Seductive. “Give you the heights you crave, the will you need to take what you desire most.” Her hoof traced down my jawline to my neck, running along a pulsing vein to brush over my collarbone and finally come to a stop on my chest, laid over my heart. “I can sense the power in you, and the need.”

I found it hard to swallow, my mouth suddenly very dry. There was something terribly wrong here, I knew, something at work more than simple drugs. There had been magic in her kiss before and I saw it now in her eyes. Magic she was directing at me. The tug of that power was strong, and I didn’t have any defenses set for it, hadn’t even considered the need for them. Twilight could have fought it off. Her mind was disciplined and very strong, the only danger to it came from within. I was already compromised with trying to discover who I was, I’m not sure I would have been able to fight it off even if I did have defenses ready. So I was suddenly very hot and very, very attracted to the mare in front of me.

“Yes,” she said, drawing out the word into a serpentine hiss. “You’ve tasted it before, but don’t remember the rush.”

“I don’t…” I said, shaking my head in a failed attempt to clear it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Her sneer ratcheted up a notch. “Shh. Don’t talk. Don’t try to rationalize or logic your way through it. Feel. Feel it in you. Feel the pounding of your heart and the heat in your skin. Hear the rush of your blood in your ears. Breathe, and you can smell your desire in the air. You can taste it.”

I couldn’t help but do as she said. My heart was racing like I had just sprinted a mile, my legs shaking with the intensity of the feelings hitting me. The damn bubble was still giving everything an extra edge, sharpening the sensations that the mare was feeding me. She dipped her head down, and in a slow gesture that was somehow lewd in its presentation, she licked up half of the crystals. When she raised her head to me again her eyes were emitting streamers of shadow, magic burning in her so strong as to leak out.

Twilight had seen the effect before.

“Your turn,” she said, her whispered voice promising pleasure and violence in equal measure. I had a flash of how the rest of this night could go, and it looked a lot like the orgies on the filthy mattresses in the first room. Me and this mare entwined together, using the magic imparted by the crystals to entice others to join us. One? Two? A dozen? I had so few limits already, magically speaking, there was no telling what I would do.

That thought, on its own, was enough to cut through the haze of sex and magic and bring me back to a measure of control. I stared at the crystals left on the open package. I could feel the magic crackling from the mare, more power by far than she should have been able to use. Dangerous magic, it could burn you out. I could only imagine that most if not all of the ponies on this floor had been exposed to it. I didn’t want to end up like them.

The mare seized my face between her hooves, dragging my eyes up roughly until they met hers. “Do not disappoint me,” she snarled. Like the stallion downstairs her anger was not accompanied by a rise in volume, only in intensity. “You have the chance to become a creature of power! Do not set yourself among the weak herd that surrounds you. You are above them! Greater!” She shoved my head down until she was almost rubbing my nose in the crystals. “Take it. Share in my glory.”

I might have. I honestly don’t know. I had gained some will back, but would it have been enough? I… I want to believe I would have fought back, would have escaped the trap somehow. I like to think that, but if I’m going to be honest with myself, and you, then I have to say that I probably would have licked up those crystals.

Knowing what I know now about them, that would have had terrible consequences. More terrible by far than what actually happened, and I have regrets enough about that as it is.

...No, I’m okay. I can continue. I’m just trying to think of how to tell you what happened next. It wasn’t… agh! I don’t want to sugarcoat it, but I feel like I have to make excuses, like I have to justify what I did. There is no justification. There isn’t. I… I crossed a line. I… This is so hard. I didn’t think it would be, but it is. I guess, of all the terrible things I’ve done, this is… not the worst. No. But the first. The point where things truly changed for me. Withdrawing from Twilight’s friends, lying to everypony, drinking, and drugs? Nothing compared to this. And yet, the worst part? I’m not ashamed. I regret it, but that’s because it was unnecessary. It was wrong, deeply wrong, but I don’t feel bad about it.

I was there, poised above the black crystal, when the Guard raid reached the third floor. They had been going up through the building, floor by floor, using magic to muffle the sounds of their attack so that the upper floors weren’t alerted until they were already there. The Guard knew that there were illegal substances being sold in the building, not to mention the illicit sex trade and other nefarious deeds taking place that I didn’t even notice, but they were unprepared for the sudden violence the addicts on the third floor were capable of.

The noise outside became a series of blasts and shouts as magic and muscle contended with a hallway-full of ponies charged with dark magic. My head rose as the mare’s hooves lost their grip. She sat, staring at the door, and I felt the grip of the magic fade, letting me come back to my senses. I panted, sweating heavily and shaking from the power of the emotions I had been filled with. I could barely move, let alone try to get away.

The door burst open and three Guards rushed in, two pegasi and a unicorn. The crystal-empowered mare bared her teeth in a vicious snarl, and I saw that her teeth had grown points, becoming brutal weapons. She lunged at the Guards and they began to fight. The violence roused the other ponies who had been asleep, and they joined the fray almost as soon as their eyes had opened.

I dragged myself away from the center of the room, trying to keep free of the fight. It was chaotic, blurs of motion and screams that left me confused. My heart was still pounding so hard it felt like it was going to burst, and the rest of me felt like I had suddenly been left out in a blizzard, cold and pelted all over with stinging sleet. I can’t tell you who was winning the fight. I wish I could give you a better idea of how it went, but I was so distracted by everything I was feeling that I didn’t, couldn’t pay attention to it.

All I know is that at some point the addicts got the better of the guards in the room, and the unicorn was thrown into me. He landed heavily, the weight of his body and armor crushing the breath out of me. I reacted on instinct and teleported. He was too close, and I was too distracted to discriminate, so I took us both.

We appeared in an alley a block and a half away, dropping ten feet to hit the cobblestones hard. I rolled with the impact, able to soften the landing, but the Guard broke a leg as he fell. He took the injury well, barely crying out, quickly moving into a position that wouldn’t aggravate the break. I was in worse shape, emotionally at least, and scrambled to put my back against a wall, panting heavily.

We stayed like that for a long time. Minutes, maybe? My sense of time isn’t as good as Twilight’s, and this was… not a good moment for me in any case. Finally I calmed enough to stagger to my hooves and take note of my surroundings. I could hear the battle going on in the building we had escaped. It sounded horrible. I learned later that it actually went fairly well for the Guards, but that they were unprepared for the viciousness of the black crystal addicts, and so many of them managed to escape.

The unicorn Guard I had taken with me was staring at me, anger making his face red. I turned to him, and he spat at my hooves. “What?” I asked, surprised.

“You… I expected better of you,” he said, shaking his head. I stepped closer and got a better look at him. There was disgust in his eyes, as well as betrayal and disillusionment on a vast scale. “But there you were, the best of us, with them.” He turned his head away, refusing to look at me any more. “You make me sick.”

The realization hit me hard. “You know who I am,” I said.

“Of course I know, Twilight,” he said, and I could see sadness creeping through the anger. “I never would have thought… you were such a sweet filly…” Another shake of his head. “The Princess is going to be so disappointed.”

The Princess. He was going to tell her. She would investigate, of course. She would look deeper into my behavior, into the events of the past few days. She would ask the right questions, use the right magic eventually, I knew. She would find out. She would know. She would kill me to get her student back. Maybe it was the drugs, maybe it was the lateness of the hour and maybe it was the emotional rollercoaster I had just gone through, but that thought suddenly was all I could focus on. Celestia would find out I wasn’t Twilight, and she would kill me to bring her student back.

I couldn’t allow that. I reached out with my magic, wrapping it around the Guard. He noticed what I was doing, his own horn igniting with sapphire light as he tried to counter me. So futile. He didn’t think I would do anything drastic, probably expected me to hold him so I could run. Maybe I should have. I didn’t.

I twisted my magic, and he twisted with it. Then, with an ease that still shocks me every time I think of it, I snapped his neck.


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Sociopath. That’s a word that’s found its way into my reflections more than once, and with great emphasis each time. Am I a sociopath? I certainly fit the definition in many ways. For a time I entertained the notion that I was the result of Twilight losing her soul, or her conscience. It was such an integral part of her that of course she would then feel like a completely different pony, and it could certainly lead to situations like this. Impulsive decisions, violence. Deaths. Foolishness, in the end. If only it were so simple. I have a soul of my own, and I am not merely Twilight minus something essential. It’s simpler to just believe that I’m a sociopath on my own merit.

But I don’t believe it. More accurately, I don’t want to believe it. I don’t think I’m a sociopath, I still care about other ponies, I still empathize and… and I feel. I regret. I’m not a monster. I don’t want to be a bad pony… but I don’t want to be a good pony either. That is my conundrum, my paradox.

How to describe this? How to convey how important this it to me? How to get anypony to believe it when I just admitted to murdering an innocent? I know that isn’t a problem for you, but for the others? No. I can guess what they think of me now, and they don’t even know about this. They don’t know how it all began. If they knew? If they knew half of what I’ve done since? Monster would be the most pleasant of names that they’d call me.

And yet, I would do most of it all over again, given the chance. Not killing that Guard, obviously, but the rest?

…It bears some thinking on. I have my regrets. I am not perfect, nor are all my decisions flawless. The whole reason I am here telling you this is because of the trouble some of those decisions have gotten me into. Trapped in the city with the whole of Equestria hunting for me, only you to listen as I try to put it all into some form of coherent perspective.

Could my self-assessment be just as flawed as my choices? Could my empathy be a vestige of Twilight, a veneer of conscience over the blood soaked creature within? It could be. I can’t say. I guess it’ll be up to you to decide, once you hear it all. Am I just a monster in pony shape, butchering her way across Equestria with only some imagined purpose to justify her violent impulses? Or am I what I think myself to be: a pony like any other who has made mistakes, but tries to do the best she can nonetheless?

I don’t expect your final decision will be kind to me, but I hope that it will at least be fair.

The Guard’s body hit the ground with a dull thud. I looked at it, stared, for a long time. I felt a creeping numbness in my limbs, a vague sense of wonder at how easy it had been. I hadn’t even intended him to die, I don’t think. Or, I did, but I hadn’t thought about what it had meant. He was so still, his eyes open and staring blankly at the wall, head twisted at a clearly unnatural angle. I expected him to twitch at any moment, to blink or cough or just breathe in a little so that his chest rose that fraction of an inch that would show he still lived.

Nothing. I could still hear the sounds of fighting from the apartment building, but it might as well have been static for all I was listening. I’d killed a pony, and the realization of it sunk in with a terrible slowness. I didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t want to have to deal with it. Yet there it was, the result of my brash action and instinctive violence. I could barely move myself, barely breathe as I watched him fail to do the same.

Then, like a rubber band that has been pulled beyond its ability to stretch, the tension snapped, and I came back to my senses in a rush. I shook my head to clear it, took in a lungful of the night air, and began to decide on priorities. I had a dead body in front of me that I certainly couldn’t leave there, and a Guard raid behind me that I really should avoid running into. I also needed to deal with situation A before situation B caught up to me and made the whole thing moot. That meant I needed to find a way to dispose of a body quietly and tracelessly and get out of this part of Canterlot as soon as possible.

The first, easiest solution was the judicious use of teleportation magic. As talented as I am with that spell, I could probably have dumped the Guard on the other side of the mountain and gotten myself to bed with only a day of fatigue to show for it. I ruled that option out when I recalled that forensic magic would be able to trace any magic of the power necessary to send him that far. The magical residue left by my telekinesis would fade soon enough, but a long-range teleport was much too strong to avoid leaving a permanent mark.

So the easy way was out. Alternatives sprang to mind: an incinerator, a freezer, a tub full of caustic substances, etcetera. These were not useful thoughts on their own, seeing as I had no ready access to these things, nor any idea where I could safely and surreptitiously acquire them. I discarded most of those possibilities, focusing on less optimal but actually actionable plans.

Dump sites presented themselves for consideration. I could just toss him in a dumpster or in a different alley, or even just leave him where he was, but the point of this was to make him disappear. I didn’t want a body left behind on the off chance that it could lead back to me. He had to go away for long enough that any traces I may have left, magically of physically, would have decayed to uselessness. Anywhere trafficked was a bad idea, the smell of decomposition would prompt ponies to investigate long before the evidence had vanished.

A flash of memory caught me. Twilight, staring at hundreds of reflections of a sneering pony, telling her that she’d be trapped forever. The caves under Canterlot. They were practically forgotten still, and the crystals that lined them prevented a lot of divination magic from getting through. I could conceivably dump the body in there and it would never be found.

That was a good start, but it presented some problems. The caves were hard to access, for one. Only a few entrances existed, and they weren’t exactly easy to reach from where I was, and the same crystals that prevented divinations also stopped me from simply teleporting in. I would have to walk there, toting the dead Guard, and make my way on hoof to somewhere I could put him. It was a task full of dangers all its own.

The fighting was spilling out into the street, and an authoritarian shout uncomfortably close to the alley I stood in made me jump into motion. I didn’t have time to debate it any further. I went to the Guard, quickly stripping the armor from his still body. It was harder than I expected. I’d heard the term ‘dead weight’ before, but it wasn’t until I hefted him up to unbuckle his breastplate that I fully understood what it meant. There’s a certain extra heft to a body that is completely dead, something that even unconscious ponies don’t have. It wasn’t a terrible problem for me, though. I wasn’t going to be able to carry him across my back in any case, he was far too large, so I was already going to have to carry him telekinetically.

I picked him up, draping him with one foreleg thrown over my back. It took a little doing, but I managed to get his legs moving as I moved to make it look like he was staggering along with me, only helped to stay upright by my magic. It wouldn’t fool anypony for close inspection, but from a distance he might just look drunk.

I almost walked out of the alley without addressing the thing that would break the illusion at any distance. The Guard’s neck was still at that obscene angle, his eyes staring and mouth drooping open. “Yeesh, sorry,” I said. It was inane, but I felt like I had to vocalize some sort of apology, and that weak fare would have to suffice. I quickly readjusted his head, only to have it flop into a new and equally terrible position. I cursed and fidgeted as I got his head nestled over my shoulders. It was an uncomfortably intimate position and I felt a creeping embarrassment that made me quicken my steps as I finally left the alley and began heading towards the closest entrance to the deep mines.

I could regale you with every nerve-wracking step there. I could tell you about the other ponies I passed, and how sure I was that they were watching me, seeing everything. I imagined Celestia swooping down to personally smite me from the face of the world. It wasn’t an image that held much power, actually. Another vestige of Twilight’s memories, maybe. I felt that I should be thinking about it. No, what was worried about was a subtler death. A loss of self, a self I was only beginning to discover.

Whatever my worries, I don’t think I’ll bore you with the long march. It took time, and I ran into several other ponies on the way. No Guards, though. They were all too busy trying to deal with the black crystal addicts that had begun to rampage in the part of the city I had just left. I didn’t even look behind me as I went, or I would have noticed the fires they started.

The only really sticky place was when I got close to the cave entrance and I had to bypass a pair of guards patrolling the area. Not Royal Guards, just normal hired ponies keeping an eye on the place. Even then, it wasn’t difficult. I just waited until they were between their rounds, and did a short-range teleport to get into the cave entrance. After that it was a lot of walking in dark and treacherous conditions until I came to a deep pit near where Cadance had been trapped before the Changeling attack.

“Well, uh,” I said, holding the body over the pit. “Well. I’m sorry I killed you. I’m also sorry that I have to hide your body. I just… can’t believe I’m explaining myself to a corpse.” And with that brilliant eulogy, I dropped him, turned, and walked back to where I could teleport out.

Once I was back in my rooms, I just stood and stared into space for a long, long time. I don’t remember much about what I was thinking of then. I might not have been thinking about anything. What I do remember is what I was feeling: nothing. I wasn’t shocked at what I had done. I wasn’t sickened. I wasn’t angry at myself. I wasn’t afraid of what I was capable of. I wasn’t remorseful at all.

I recognized pretty quickly that resorting to murder as my first solution was a bad idea. Alternatives came to mind readily. I could have lied, made up a story that could have had me plausibly where I was without the implications of personal drug abuse. Heck, it would have been close enough to the reality that it might even have held up to truth-detection magic. I could have just told him that I was on personal business, and that he was not to interfere or report it. I could have talked to Celestia and headed off any suspicions… so many choices, but I had just jumped to death.

And I wasn’t sorry. I regretted it, yes. I wasn’t happy with what I had done, but I wasn’t precisely unhappy either. If anything I was annoyed that it had happened at all. A little more clarity, a little more care on my part and I would never have been put into that situation.

I found myself giggling, a little smile forcing its way through my determination to be stoic in the face of my crime. I had killed somepony, and gotten away with it. As far as the world was concerned, Twilight Sparkle had killed somepony and gotten away with it. And all she felt was annoyed, like murder was the equivalent of somepony making her wait a little too long in a lineup. The sheer absurdity of it hit me with a sudden burst of hilarity, and I laughed.

The laughter didn’t last. It was a fleeting thing, a bit of levity that masked the deeper situation, the more important aspect of what I had seen that night. The murder looms large, and it deserves to, but it isn’t the most important thing that happened to me. No, the truly important part of that night was being introduced to the black crystal, and seeing the shadows trailing from the eyes of the mare who had tried to seduce me. The memory of that sight settled into me, and I knew that I had to get to the bottom of it. That power was dangerous, far too dangerous to be passed around in such an accessible form. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and I was determined to make sure it was a disaster that would not happen.

I didn’t realize it then, I didn’t even know it was what I had been looking for, but I had found my purpose. Ironically, for somepony who had spent her existence defining herself in opposition to Twilight Sparkle, I was about to dedicate myself to doing exactly what she would have done: I was going to save Equestria.

Experience Zone

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Saving the world isn’t a journey one generally embarks upon intentionally. Oh, you’ll set out with a vague idea of helping, maybe even a concrete goal in the making things better department. But to consciously, wilfully set out to save the entire world? Not the standard hero M.O. Even Twilight Sparkle, twice saviour of the world itself, was playing a reactive role when she did her thing. The danger was imminent, the path to victory dangerous, but clear. She merely had to follow the trail that had been set out for her, and not lose heart when things seemed darkest. When I decided to save the world? I did it deliberately, and I had to forge that trail for myself.

I was exhausted from my long night, but I couldn’t sleep. Too much had happened, too much was still running through my head for me to relax that far. I paced and mumbled and talked to myself until well after the sun was up. I was working out what I had seen, the possibilities, the potential. I was building a map of a catastrophe.

The black crystal was evil. That was certain. It was also powerful, much more so than its form would suggest. I knew practically nothing about magical drugs, so I would need to find out more on them, see if black crystal something that had appeared before. I doubted it, but I needed confirmation. I needed information in general. I had an idea of what I was up against, but without access to more knowledge I wouldn’t be able to fight it. I knew nothing, or next to it, about how the underworld distributed their illegal substances. I would need to seek out that information as well.

I was, however, certain about the potential for disaster. Black crystal was a magical drug that actually gave its users the power to influence others. Including influencing them to take the drug themselves. It also affected radical personality shifts, and even physical deformation. If there was enough of it, if it could be produced and distributed fast enough, it would become a plague. That was what I had to stop, the potential for the drug to become an epidemic.

I couldn’t do it by myself. The information wouldn’t be in any library, and I had no idea how to get it own my own. I could theoretically gain access to the Guard records and police files, they would give me a better picture, but not the one I needed. No. I had to go to somepony who would be willing to talk to me, would know their way around the underworld but wouldn’t be too corrupted by it.

The only pony I knew that fit the bill was Vinyl Scratch.

Canterlot was wide awake and well into its day by the time I left my rooms and headed to Vinyl’s apartment, remembering the address that she had given me in a moment of lucidity. I felt like there were a thousand eyes on me as I walked through he streets. I would like to think it was a guilty conscience, but I know the truth is more likely that it was the after-effects of the bubble, and the fact that there were a lot of ponies in fact looking at me. Except they weren't looking at me with any interest, their eyes passing over, empty of intent. They saw me but didn't notice me, and I felt like they should have.

My knocking on Vinyl's door was somewhat insistent, and when she opened with bleary eyes and a mane even more wild than her usual style, I just walked right in.

"Uh, morning?" Vinyl said, watching me pass by her in a rush, but not making any move to stop me.

"Vinyl, I need your help," I said, cutting straight to the heart of it. Whichs was, probably, a pretty poor thing to do to a mare who had been up the entire night, and was probably worried about me until just then.

"You in trouble?"

"Yes. No. Yes, but not in a personal sense."

Vinyl started blearily in my direction, then slammed the door shut. "Want some coffee?"

"By Celestia's golden shoes, yes," I replied.

She went to make the coffee in the kitchen and I took the opportunity to look around her apartment. It was a place of contrasts. She clearly had a roommate, possibly more than one, as evidenced by the eclectic collection of furniture and decorations that cluttered the place. A music stand stood in one corner, the score to a piece of chamber music lying open on it. A turntable was shoved up against the wall opposite the music stand, stacks of records piled in a seemingly haphazard arrangement next to and around it. Posters and playbills were tacked up on every available wall space, some advertising clubs and events, others for symphony performances and musicals.

I recognized Fluttershy from one of the posters, a remnant of her brief but extremely successful modelling career. It left a strange sense of incongruity with me. She looked so stern in that poster, aloof. Completely unlike her. I wonder if she had felt then what I was feeling now: like a stranger living somepony else's life. I wish I had taken the time to ask her, maybe she would have understood.

Most likely she wouldn't have, though. Most likely there's no one who could ever understand, really. The best I can ever hope for is acceptance, and that's probably well out of reach now.

Vinyl came back with two cups of sweet caffeine and set them down on the low coffee table that took up some space between the magazine-covered couch and the empty fireplace. With no free chairs she just lay on the floor next to the table, and I followed suit.

Vinyl took a long drink from her mug, clearly savouring it, before looking back to me. "So. Trouble."

"Trouble," I said.

"What kind?"

"Fate of the world."

Her eyes widened and she let out an incredulous laugh. "Wow. Okay, not what I was expecting."

"What were you expecting?" I asked, too curious to leave it alone.

"Well, you take off after a clearly stoned girl heading into the bad side of the river? I kinda expected you to get yourself robbed or tossed in jail for the night."

"Ah," I nodded. "Reasonable."

"But 'fate of the world'? Yeah, a little out of my experience zone, you get me?"

"I don't think it's in anyone's, uh, 'experience zone'," I said, then thought about it for a moment. "Well, except mine, I guess. And my friends'. And the Princesses', of course."

"Of course."

"Look, I don't expect you to save the world or anything," I said shifting uncomfortably as I realized I had no idea how I was going to ask what I needed to ask. "It's just... I ran into something last night that's got doomsday potential written all over it. I need to stop it, and to do that I need your help."

"Well, okay!" Vinyl said, then took another long drink, draining her mug. "How am I supposed to do that?"

"I need you to tell me everything about black crystal," I said.

She let out a low whistle. "Not good stuff. Black crystal will really mess a pony up."

"I know," I said, remembering all I had seen. "What do you know?"

"Well, I don't touch the stuff, and I don't really want to. I've seen what it does, though." She closed her eyes, laying her head on her folded forelegs. "I knew this guy in the scene. He wasn't as well known as I am, but he could spin a good set and knew how to work the crowd right up to the line, keep 'em there until they were begging him to just drop the bass and let 'em riot."

"You liked him?"

"As a DJ, yeah. As a pony? Not really. He had problems with keeping his nose out of whatever was being passed around. It made him kinda sloppy sometimes, but he was more into the scene than the music, you know?"

"An addict."

"A socialiser. He'd do whatever came around. Wasn't much of a personality, wasn't much of a standout. As I said, good enough behind the table, but never really memorable. Well, one time what was coming around was black crystal."

"When was this?"

Vinyl shrugged. "A couple months ago. Black crystal's new, you know? One of those designer drugs that hits the streets, makes a big splash and then vanishes."

"Black crystal isn't going to vanish that easily," I said, forming a timeline in my head. It fit with what I already suspected about the drug.

"You think? Yeah that would be a shame," Vinyl sighed. "Anywho, this guy, right, he takes a hit of this stuff, and it's like he's an entirely different pony."

I tensed up at that, but force myself to relax. "What do you mean?"

"Well, he started acting crazy, and not just doped-up crazy. I mean laughing and ranting and demanding everyone do what he wanted. A real pushy jerk. Worst part was, he didn't like it when anypony stood up to him, got kinda violent. We all knew it was the crystal, but we couldn't get him off of it. His buddies, the good ones, they tried, but, well, I guess they weren't so good after all."

"They started doing it too, didn't they?" I asked.

Vinyl nodded. "Became total whack-jobs. I knew bad news when I saw it, so I got away from them. I wasn't good friends, but it still spooked me, seeing them change like that. He stopped being a good DJ too, it really sucked."

"You were lucky," I said. "Have you seen ponies on black crystal doing anything, um, bizarre?"

"I did just mention the ranting and stuff, right?"

"No, I mean magically bizarre."

Vinyl was silent for a long moment. "Yeah," she said eventually, her voice gone very quiet.

I didn’t press her for details. “So it’s consistent,” I said, more to myself than her. “Do you know who started distributing it?”

“Nah, man. I’m down for getting my buzz on, but I know a bad trip when I see one. I didn’t go looking, and I don’t want to.”

“Too bad,” I said, again more to myself than to her. “A known origin point would have made tracking it easier.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Vinyl said, opening her eyes again. “You think this black crystal stuff is ‘fate of the world’ worthy, and you’re going to… what? Take down the drug trade?”

“Not exactly,” I said. “I don’t even know what I’m going to do yet. I need to know more before I make any plans. I need to know distributions, timelines. I need to study the effect more to be sure.”

“And you think I know all of this stuff?”

I shrugged. “You’re the only pony I know who might be able to.”

“You could ask Pinkie Pie, you know,” Vinyl said. I quirked an eyebrow at her, silently questioning. “She could probably tell you.”

“Are we thinking of the same Pinkie Pie here?” I had to ask. “Way too pink? Frizzed-up mane? Manic obsession with parties?”

“That’s the one,” Vinyl confirmed, smirking at the look I was giving her. “Look, like you said, Pinkie’s all about parties, right?” I nodded along. “So she knows everything that’s anything about what goes on at them. That includes every kind of recreational substance under the sun or moon.”

“But… drugs?” I shook my head. “Unless it’s the massive amounts of sugar or caffeine she has to ingest every day to stay that perky, I don’t think she’d know anything.”

“She doesn’t let any of that stuff get into her parties, but trust me, she knows all about them.”

I thought about that for a moment. It made sense, in a strange way. Put like Vinyl had, it was obvious that Pinkie would at least know about the things that would be passed around, if only so she knew what to look for in order to put a stop to it. Of course, considering the idea of asking Pinkie also showed me exactly why I wasn’t going to. “No,” I said. “I don’t want her involved. I don’t want any of them involved.”

“If this is saving-the-world stuff, they’re kinda the only team with experience,” Vinyl pointed out.

I shook my head. “Not the same thing. I’m not dumb, I don’t think something like this can be solved by firing a friendship rainbow at it.”

“Whoa, wait. You actually do that?”

“I don’t want them getting mixed up in this. It’s not something they know how to handle.”

“And you do?”

“I…” I paused, mouth hanging open. I was about to say that I did, but I had to stop myself and really look at that thought. What made me think I could pull this off? Why was I so confident that I could do something alone that Twilight’s friends couldn’t handle? Was it just another thing I was doing to distance myself from Twilight Sparkle?

The truth came to me with a sound. The brittle snap of bone. The thud of a lifeless body against the cobblestones. So fresh in my memory, but somehow so distant as well. An event of monumental importance that I had simply filed away as just another ordinary occurrence.

“I think I do,” I said, and found myself smiling and confident. “I just don’t know where to start.”

Vinyl rolled onto her side and gave me a thoughtful look. “Well, I don’t really know any of the stuff you want.”

“I understand,” I said, but she held up a hoof to cut me off.

I don’t know. But I might know somepony who does.”

My smile widened into a grin. Vinyl stared at me with an unreadable expression, a mix of curiosity and something else that defied my ability to parse. “Excellent,” I said. “When can I meet them?”

“I know where he’s gonna be tonight,” Vinyl said. “But the place he’ll be at is, uh, kinda specific in its clients.”

“So I’ll need to get a dress?”

Vinyl’s blank expression broke as she smirked at me. It did not bode well. “Something like that.”


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There's something about dressing up that appeals to me. Perhaps its the connotations associated with it. A changing appearance to change the pony you present to the world. A dress and some makeup and you can be an entirely different pony. I don't need to explain how that would be an attractive prospect.

It could simply be the feel of it. To have a strange fabric over your coat, moving and rubbing and weighing on you in new ways, making you aware of your body and how it moves in a way that wouldn't get on your own, or with simple saddlebags. It is sensuous in the literal meaning of the term. A fine fabric, a good cut, a quality outfit can be luxurious, and in turn makes you feel worthy of that luxury.

And, of course, there is the basest and most primal of motivators: sex and power. To dress up to display yourself to best effect, highlighting beauty and drawing attention to you, it can have a profound affect on you. If you think you look strong and confident and sexy you will feel strong and confident and sexy. And you will be desired, and that conveys a realm of power all its own. To be wanted, no, to be lusted after, it gives you a kind of control that is as intoxicating as any drug. Even farther, to look into a mirror and see a you that is not you, a you that is beautiful and sultry and clearly in control of herself and all around her... to see yourself as desirable can ignite a desire all its own.

Twilight Sparkle would have seen none of this. She understood looking good, but it was a matter of abstract aesthetics to her. She didn't feel it. She didn't... couldn't truly experience it. I am glad beyond words that I can.

Of course, some things are beyond even my hedonistic impulses, and the place Vinyl was taking me to just happened to hinge on one of those things: leather.

Both Twilight and I are united in that we do not understand the appeal behind leather. Well, that's not precisely true, I can appreciate it, enjoy it even. No, what I cannot understand is that any creature would be okay with giving up its skin. I know the economics of it, Twilight even once wrote a paper on the cultural impulses behind the bovine willingness to have their corpses made into tools. Tribal insistence on making a use out of everything that could be used coupled with a very rational dislike of waste, etcetera, etcetera. I still find the thought of somepony curing my hide so another could wear it disturbing.

Because this unease is understandably widespread among ponies, you don't usually find us wearing anything made out of leather. Applejack has several items made out of the stuff, I know, but she's lived around cattle her whole life, some of their culture has no doubt influenced her. Twilight has a few leatherbound books, but that is generally for magical reasons. I can't imagine Fluttershy being able to stand the stuff, and I know that Rarity prefers to work with fabrics. Demand for leather among ponies is anemic, so supply is also limited, and prices are high.

Fortunately there are a few fetish shops in Canterlot that cater to that particular taste. Vinyl took me to one and we spent two hours trying to pick something out for me. Vinyl herself didn't need anything, she already had the requisite outfit. I spent most of the time trying not to think about the previous creature that would have worn the leather that I was modelling. It wasn't easy, my mind tends to wander when not given something specific to focus on, and Vinyl's opinions of what made me look 'sexay' weren't sufficient to my needs.

I won't bore you with the details of that. Suffice it to say that some of the outfits I tried on were insanely indecent, and I learned more about the sexual fetish community than I had ever imagined existed. Educational time. For reference, this was when I found out what a 'salad bar' was. I have rarely been more glad for my dark coloration. I can only imagine how I would have looked with a coat as light as Vinyl's.

We settled on a leather and rubber harness that crossed over my torso and hugged over my hips before being strapped down my legs with a series of small belts. It felt extremely strange as I moved, but it didn't hamper me any and it hid my cutie mark completely. Going to the bathroom would be a chore, but I didn't think it was going to become an issue. Over the harness I wore a black leather jacket that had strategically placed steel studs so that it clicked and glittered as I walked without being gaudy.

We finished up with more makeup than Twilight had ever worn, outside of an experiment with her mother's makeup that had quickly become disastrous. It was certainly more than I'd even considered wearing. Not what I had imagined it would be either. No trashy lipstick, no overabundant eyeshadow. I'd seen the results of that, or rather, Twilight had in one of Rarity's crazier moments. Instead all the product that Vinyl carefully applied to my face and mane served only to create a subtle, but shocking effect.

I didn't look like myself. My mane was cut and slicked back, held in place by magic-infused gel that made it look almost wet as it hung behind my ears and down my neck. The area around my eyes had been darkened, a subtle shading that blended easily at the edges into my natural color, and it made my eyes pop out, appearing far more intense than I had ever seen them in a mirror. The lipstick was dark, but not black, something that gave them definition without screaming for attention. This wasn’t the makeup of some blushing ingenue, this was something else altogether. Something I had never considered.

When it was all done and I looked at myself in the mirror, makeup, leather clothing and all, I was astounded by the change. I almost wouldn’t have recognized myself. I looked dangerous. Predatory. I loved it.

“Nice,” was all that Vinyl said as she admired her own handiwork. It was enough, there was plenty of meaning put into that one word. “How do you feel?”

Truthfully, I had been exhausted. The activities of the night before, the lack of sleep and the long shopping trip all contributed to sapping my reserves of energy. Looking at myself, though? I felt it all come rushing back to me, as if I were ready to run a marathon. The mare who looked back at me from the mirror smiled, and it wasn’t the open, friendly smiles I was so used to. No, this was a smile that showed hunger, that displayed power and confidence. I thought of what Twilight’s friends would say if they could see me now, and settled on what I thought was the most appropriate response: “Awesome.”

It was practically torture to wait until we went to the fetish club. I couldn’t go out and do anything, and I was too excited to actually get some rest. I found that reading didn’t hold my attention either, another marked departure from Twilight. So I fell back on introspection. I worried over the questions that drove me again and again. Why I was here, what did it mean to be me, etcetera. Everything I’ve laid out to you before and more besides. I didn’t make any headway in those hours, but they were nonetheless essential to my growth as an individual.

When the hour finally came, I felt like I was vibrating in a thousand different directions at once. I was jumping at every little sound, my heart pounding and my magic sparking on the edge of an uncontrolled burst. Vinyl did her best to calm me, but the walk down to the club was still more harrowing than it had any right to be.

The club itself didn’t advertise. There was no sign, no music that leaked to the outside, no glaring neon, no bouncer, no line. It was just a door, like any other in a row of houses that were just like every other row of cobbled-together houses in the lower sections of Canterlot. Invitation only, and it just so happened that Vinyl had an invitation with an attached plus-one that she could use. The name of the club on the invitation was ‘The Ranch’, which was just groan-worthy enough that I noticed it even through my agitation.

“You gonna be okay?” Vinyl asked. “We don’t have to go in there tonight, you know. You can, I don’t know, check the city records or something? I bet there’s lots of news stories about this stuff you could get info from.”

I shook my head, clenching my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. “You said this guy, Shady Deal, he knows what I need.”

“Or he’ll know somepony who does,” Vinyl confirmed. “But be careful. If the name wasn’t a tipoff enough this guy isn’t exactly an honest citizen.”

“Good,” I said. Then took a deep breath to steel my resolve and entered The Ranch, passing through the short hallway that blocked the full club from being seen by a pony just glancing in from the street. The moment I stepped inside I felt the nervousness fall away. I had committed. I was in this until it was done. Whatever happened from this point on I would handle as it came to me, and move forward no matter what. I stepped inside, I was a predator.

The club was dark, in sharp contrast to the previous night’s Rainbow Junction. The music was similar to what I had heard there, though. Pounding bass, shrieking rhythms. I was honestly beginning to enjoy that music, at this point, and I welcomed the sound of it. The subdued lighting created soft shadows that rippled and crept in deceiving depths about the sleek, leather-covered decor. The floor was carpeted, making hoofsteps dull thuds instead of the common clip-clop I’d become so used to in the stone streets of the city. The interior was a converted home, the second story floor removed, but the beams that had held it remaining, only to be anchors for chains and leather straps that draped to the floor. Some were in use, and I got my first view of what went on in a private club like this, where nopony had to worry about the outside world and its laws and norms.

I stalked forward, my hips twitching from side to side in a motion that was almost feline. I felt like I was on fire, every part of me aware and tingling and soaking in the atmosphere of The Ranch and its clientele. I weaved between them, passing close enough to brush against a few of the leather-clad ponies who were either bound in compromising positions or were taking full advantage of those that were. The curious and appreciative stares this earned me just heightened the strange state of mind I found myself falling into.

No, I wasn’t scandalized. I wasn’t even shocked. I had known, somewhere in the back of my mind, that something like this was what I was going to find. As I’ve said before, Twilight wasn’t a complete innocent, far from it, she just was never interested in actually experiencing any of this. Besides, what was going on there in The Ranch? It was nothing compared to what I had found in the drug den less than twenty-four hours before. This was at least consensual. This was at least… normal. The dominance games and sex play were just that, games and play. What the black crystal addicts had been doing was in no way a game. It had been brutally, deadly serious.

I can see what you’re thinking. In the interests of full disclosure, yes, I was titillated by what I saw. Not so much the blatant sex on display as the way they reacted to me, though. Those looks, the desire, the naked, unashamed nature of it all… that’s what turned me on. My sexuality is something I’ve explored significantly, but I think it was already close to fully formed at that point. The Ranch didn’t influence me in any direction, it just showed me what I already liked but hadn’t realized yet.

Vinyl caught up to me in a clear space and leaned in so that she didn’t have to shout to be heard. Her own outfit was a jacket of pale leather with a high collar and a wide ‘DJ PON-3’ patch sewn into the back. She had her sunglasses on again, making me wonder exactly how she could see in the dim lighting. “I gotta say hi to the owner,” she said. “See if he wants me to spin a set, price of entry and everything.”

I nodded. “And Shady Deal?”

“He’s usually up there,” Vinyl gestured with her horn up towards a second-story area that still had its floor, where ponies watched the dominance orgy of the first floor with lascivious grins. “You remember the description?”

I nodded again. “You’re sure he’ll speak to me?”

“Looking like that?” Vinyl said with a smirk. “Assuming he can pull his tongue back into his head? Damn, girl, he’ll be all over you. You’re gonna have to work to get him to stop talking.”

I grinned at the compliment, and we parted ways. I made my way to the stairs, climbing them with careful steps. The second floor was a lounge for those who liked to watch, and the railing was crowded with ponies doing just that. Each one of them had some kind of leather clothing, some that were far more blatantly indecent than even the bound ponies on the first floor. This truly was a place where anything went.

I found Shady Deal sitting on a couch, doing something filthy to a mare on each side of him. The two mares were staring at him in a way that told me immediately that something was wrong. He was dressed in a harness similar to my own, but his was designed to emphasize his musculature and draw attention down the lines of his flanks. His gray coat glistened with sweat and his wings twitched with every breath, flicking feathers across the sides of the mares to their coos of delight. When his eyes turned to me, they left contrails of shadow lingering in the air. He was on black crystal.

My entrance was subtle, but enticing even so. I felt my power here, my confidence and hunger radiating in a way that the other ponies could sense. Some of them were predators themselves, and they acknowledged me with nods or appreciative looks. Others were here for the thrill of being prey, and they had a hunger in their eyes to match my own. Shady Deal was one of the predators, but the way his gaze latched onto me told me that it was more than simply an acknowledgement of similar natures that made him stare.

I swayed my way over to him, maintaining eye contact the entire way. With a flick of his wings he sent the two mares scuttling away from him. I could see them giving me venomous looks in my peripheral vision, but I ignored them. I was focused too strongly on my target, my quarry. I stopped just in front of him, looking down at his sitting form. He leaned back, displaying himself to me. It was a challenge and an invitation all wrapped into one.

If I was just a little less tired, or perhaps not so high on my own sexuality, I might have played it differently. More conservative, less… crazy. As it was, I decided the best way to get him talking was to be as direct as possible and play into the scene around us. So I accepted his challenge and invitation both. I climbed on top of him, pressing him back into the couch, letting his hips slide forward on the leather seat until I was practically lying on top of him, holding him in place with the pressure of my thighs. It had to be incredibly uncomfortable for him, especially with his wings splayed out as wide as they could go, but he just grinned up at me.

I brought my mouth to his in a ferocious kiss. I’m not sure why I did that, honestly. I would like to say that I was confirming that he was using the same things the addict the night before had been, but I was already sure of that. Maybe it was a bit of the influence the black crystal gave him leaking through my defenses. It’s certainly possible that my judgement had been compromised the moment he had laid eyes on me. I hadn’t yet figured out how to detect and counter their influence. Either way, I kissed him and I tasted the sparking remnants of dark magic coating his mouth and tongue. It wasn’t as strong as it had been with the addicted mare, but still noticeable.

We parted lips, breathing heavily. He was hot under me, his muscles straining with insistent energy, but his eyes were cold and calculating as he regarded me. “Who are you?” he asked.

“An interested party,” I replied, keeping my voice low and sultry. “And I can see I came to the right pony.”

He tilted his head to the side and his wings twitched. “You’ve tasted it,” he said. It wasn’t a question. I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I stayed silent. He grinned, lips stretching to show more teeth than was strictly necessary. “You’ve held the power.” His hooves grabbed my head, forcing it down. I thought he was going to kiss me again, so I let him. Instead he pressed my chin close to my chest and brought his muzzle close to my horn, inhaling deeply. “Oh, yes. You’ve held the power, and more. You’ve made it.” He laughed, letting me go. I raised my head to lock gazes with him again, lifting one eyebrow in question.

He brought his wings forward, the long primary feathers brushing distractingly along the sides of my face. A light caress that in other circumstances would have been exciting. “What’s wrong, did the little dark princess lose her nerve?” he asked. “Too afraid to walk that path on your own, you want something to push you along?”

“Something like that,” I said, keeping my voice even. I wasn’t following what he was saying, but I didn’t want to give him the impression of weakness. I had a feeling showing any vulnerability to him would end badly for me.

“Well, I think I could spare a hit or two,” he said, leering as he ran his eyes down my body and pressed his lower reaches harder into mine. “For the right price.”

“Not looking for a hit,” I said. “I’m looking for information.”

He laughed. “That costs more.”

“I can pay.”

He leered again. “I bet you can,” he said, then leaned forward, using his wings as leverage against the back of the couch. I couldn’t do much but pull back as he went forward, but he wrapped a foreleg around my shoulders and drew me close. His other forehoof reached out and grabbed at my rump, pulling me up until I was held off the ground, pinned to his body much as I had pinned him to the couch. A reversal of position, a display of power, and a hot reminder of what he wanted from me. “I bet you can,” he repeated. “But will you?”

I didn’t shudder, didn’t struggle or pull away. I was actually enjoying this, the back-and-forth. The threat and counter-threat. The power plays and dominance games. I was walking the edge of promise and disaster, and it felt good. Very good. It was like being drunk, feeling free to express everything, having almost no control on how that expression came out. Caution and planning gone to the wind.

“Right here, right now?” I asked, tilting my horn towards the ponies who were now watching us. “Or do you want me all to yourself?”

He growled, expression twisting for a moment into a possessive anger so fierce I thought he was going to hit me. Then his face relaxed into a mad grin, a look eerily similar to the one the mare had worn the previous night when she was trying to get me to taking the black crystal myself. A sneer full of arrogance and ill-intent. “Oh, you will be all mine,” he said, quiet and dangerous.

I’m actually rather glad he said that. In the state I was in at the time, I have no idea how I would have reacted if he’d chosen the ‘right here, right now’ option. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have gone through with it, but… I can’t say for sure. It was all so new to me still. I was overworked already, exhausted even though I wasn’t feeling it, and he was probably using the magic of the black crystal to heighten the lust I was already feeling even more. It would have been a struggle to say no at that point. I’m not sure if I could have managed it.

But he chose the route he did, and so my recklessness provided me an answer to many problems simultaneously. “Then I have just the place,” I whispered into his ear, then wrapped us both in my magic and teleported us. To the roof.

First Strike

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Teleporting can be very disorienting for those who aren't used to it, and I used that fact to my advantage as we appeared a few feet above the flat roof of The Ranch. I twisted, controlling our short fall so that I was on top when we hit, and I made no effort to land lightly. The breath was forced out of Shady Deal in a wheezing grunt. His eyes narrowed at me, glistening with magic.

"You have bad taste in bedrooms," he growled.

"I don't intend to sleep here," I replied. "Black crystal."

"What of it?"

"I want to know where it comes from."

He laughed. "Sure you do. Payment first, or if you really want it, we can talk during."

The night air was cool and there was a breeze that ruffled his feathers and tugged at my mane. The scent of sex and sweat and power was clearing, and my head along with it. The black crystal-imparted magic might have still been having an effect on me, but I was more willing to resist it now. "Just talk," I said.

His expression twisted into anger. "You think you can deny me!" he hissed, his voice taking on that oddly quiet quality I had seen from the addicts before. He threw me off him, easily able to overcome my weight. I hit the roof in a roll, coming to my hooves and facing him as he flipped upright and charged me. I ducked to the side, but wasn't nearly fast enough to dodge a pegasus, so he clipped me with a striking hoof. It hit the jacket, the leather absorbing the force of the blow and keeping it from doing more than bruising damage. Still, I tumbled to my side, and he was on me in an instant.

"You cannot deny me," he snapped, kicking me in the side. Again, the leather softened the blow, but I still felt like I was going to puke as I curled up around the injury. Once again I had been caught off guard by the sudden violence of a black crystal user. "I will take what I want! I will throw you to my hooves and make you lick the dirt from them, begging me to let you do it!" He punctuated the rant with a few more kicks. I was charging up my magic to retaliate, but I was brought up short by the pain and not really knowing how I planned to fight back. I couldn't just teleport him away, not if I wanted information, and I wasn't completely sure that my telekinesis could hold him still so long as he had black crystal magic running through his system.

I was so busy covering my vitals and thinking about how to deal with this that I missed the fact that the attacks had stopped for a few long seconds. When I finally did realize it, I sneaked a look at Shady Deal. He was looking at me with a stricken expression, like somepony had told him his dog had just died. His eyes were clear, no trailing shadows in them. "I... I," he stuttered out, then without completing the thought he launched himself from the roof and into the night sky.

This was not a good thing. I cursed and leapt to my hooves, following after him. Shady Deal was no Rainbow Dash, and the leather harness he was wearing actually interfered with his flight, slowing him down. Still, he was a pegasus on the wing and I was a unicorn stumbling across a rooftop, so I clearly wasn't going to catch him that way.

I teleported ahead of him, trying to cut him off, but he avoided me, swerving and dodging as I tried the same tactic a few more times. He didn't go too far up, staying close to the rooftops, which was good because I wouldn't have been able to follow him if he had. Of course, it was probably a good move for him as well, since going up would also guarantee that he'd be spotted. As high on black crystal as he was, he couldn't afford to be stopped by the Guard.

He ducked into the alleys, forcing him to slow down even more, but also making it harder for me to follow his movements. I kept up as best I could with a series of short-range teleports that kept me close enough to spot what turns he was taking. It was a losing proposition for me, though. I would run out of energy for my magic long before he got too tired of flying, and all the time he would be taking any and all opportunities to lose me. I needed to change my strategy. I needed to end his ability to move through the air.

A solution presented itself in the washing lines that were strung between buildings, giving ponies living in them a place to hang clothes and towels to dry. I switched from teleporting to running and leaping between buildings. It wasn't as easy as it may sometimes seem in the movies. Rooftops are not exactly designed with safe footing in mind. Hooves don't grip very well, either, making it a matter of keeping my balance and using my magic to compensate every time I slipped so that I didn't fall or otherwise lose all my momentum. As I went I grabbed the clotheslines that I passed, tearing them from their mountings and weaving them together into a net. By the time I had one of sufficient strength, I was only barely keeping shady in sight. With a burst of energy I teleported above him, taking the improvised net with me, and flung it on him.

His wings tangled immediately and he dropped into the alley he had been skimming through. He hit the ground with a bone-jarring thud, tumbling end over end. That roll turned out to be a way for him to minimize the impact of his unplanned landing, because he was back on his hooves the moment he came to a stop, pulling the net away. I teleported into the alley and rushed at him, trying to stop him from escaping. I wasn't fast enough, and he was jumping back into the air before I was able to reach him.

As frustrated as I was with the chase, the next move I made was only natural, and quite effective. I grabbed a garbage can that was sitting in the alley and bludgeoned him with it. He let out a startled cry, and dropped back to the ground. I didn't let him get up again, smacking him twice more to keep him down.

I trotted up to his prone and moaning body, the thoroughly crushed metal can held threateningly above him. When I reached him, I saw that he was bleeding from where a sharp edge had caught him.

"Bitch!" he hissed, glaring at me as I approached. "I will end you for that! I will..." he trailed off and a change came over him. He shivered, as if he had been caught in a sudden icy breeze, and in the wake of his trembling his entire demeanor changed. His eyes widened with fear and he shrank away from me, cowering. "I'm sorry," he whined. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to hit you, I swear I didn't mean to."

I didn't know exactly how to respond to such a rapid shift in emotion, so I may have seemed quite cold to anypony who might have been watching, though none were at this point. "Black crystal," I said. "Tell me where it comes from."

"It, it came out of the Crystal Empire," he stammered. "Right after it came back, as soon as the rail lines were finished."

"I figured that much on my own," I said. Which I had, there was no way that kind of crystal with those properties could have come from anywhere else. "I was looking for something more local. Who is making and selling it in Canterlot?"

"I don't know."

"I don't believe you."

"It's true, I swear!" he protested, crawling towards me. I gestured with the broken trash can and he stopped. "I don't know who is the main guy. I don't! I just know some of the smaller dealers. They're pushing it hard, asking a lot less than something like this would usually go for."


"I don't know. To get more ponies hooked?"

"Ponies like you?"

He cringed, but nodded eagerly. "Yes, ponies like me. Everypony. They don't care. Once you start, you just want more, and it makes you so strong, so powerful..." he trailed off again and I saw another change take hold. It rolled through him, changing his entire attitude in a wave that ran from his legs up his body until he closed his eyes and sucked in a gasping breath. Then he wasn’t cowering, but lounging on the ground, seemingly completely at ease. He opened his eyes and they were trailing shadows again. “You’ve felt it,” he whispered, and I could feel the magic poking at my brain, trying to incite some dark and hungry emotion into action. I could feel it working. “You know what this is. The truth of it. Don’t deny that you want more.”

“What I want,” I said, shaking off the compulsion with more than a little annoyance. “Is for you to stop it with the tricks and tell me where you’ve been getting it.” It wasn’t an approach I wanted to take, working my way up from the bottom, but if it was all I had to go with then it was all I could do.

Shady Deal switched again, falling back into cowering with barely any transition time. It was disconcerting. I felt a kind of emotional dizziness just watching him. He babbled out the names of ponies and I repeated them to ensure I’d gotten them right. “Please, I’ve told you what you want, let me go, please!” he begged me with the kind of pitiful kicked-dog whimper that I wouldn’t have expected from him. I didn’t yet know the full extent of what black crystal does to ponies, how it forces them through cycles of emotions. Every high followed by a low that only leads to the next high, each cycle becoming shorter as the drug spends its energy. Shorter, but more powerful too. I would have taken more precautions had I known.

“The rest of your stash,” I said. “Give it to me.” He gave me a stricken look, but I hovered the trash can closer and he quickly capitulated. Two packets, like the one I had seen the night before, both black and marked with the red slash. “Do they all come like this?” I asked him.

He nodded. “That’s how all the dealers get them. Sold by the package, not by weight. I don’t know why, please believe me. I don’t know.”

I considered that, taking the drugs and tucking them into a spot in my harness where they wouldn’t fall out. They were reacting to my magic. I could feel it, a kind of subtle frisson, a vague sense of feedback as they absorbed a portion of the power I was using to levitate them. I believed him, he didn’t seem to know as much as I had hoped. Certainly not as much as Vinyl had said he would. I trusted that Vinyl knew what she was talking about, though, so that meant that whoever was behind the black crystal was keeping themselves very concealed.

I sighed. I would need to figure something out. I clearly wasn’t just going to be able to ask someone who the pony in charge was. I needed to either work my way up the supply chain, or force them into action somehow. First, however, I had another problem to deal with. “What do I do with you now?”

“Let me go, please, let me go!” he pleaded.

He was just so… weak. Lying there, covering his head with one foreleg. The leather harness that had seemed so intimidating, so arrogant and daring in The Ranch, only served to make him look like a foal playing at stallionhood. Dressing up in ill-fitting clothes and making big noises. It was so easy to just pity him, to discard him. To ignore him. To forget what he could be capable of.

“Get lost,” I said, turning around to head back down the alley.

Pegasi move so damned fast. Even Fluttershy has lightning-quick reflexes she can pull out whenever sufficiently motivated. He was on me before I realized what was happening. He put one hoof against the side of my head, and slammed my face into the wall. I’ve taken hits before, some of them pretty bad. Nothing compares to being blindsided like that, though. It disorients you completely, and not just because of the head injury. I lost my hold on the trash can, and it fell to the ground with a clatter. I bounced from the wall, reeling, and he spun and bucked me hard enough that I flew a dozen feet before crashing down.

It was hard to think, hard to decipher what was happening. My eyes wouldn’t focus and I couldn’t get my lungs to draw in more than a wheezing, shallow breath. I knew I was in danger, but I couldn’t figure out where that danger was coming from.

I remember him talking as he stalked towards me. “Bitch,” he snarled. “Whore. You think you can humiliate me with impunity? I will show you your place. I will make you decide what parts of you I annihilate first, and then I will make you beg to do it yourself. You will cut your own horn off in desperation to please me, and if you grovel well enough while doing it, I might consider merely killing and forgetting you.”

It was that threat that got me to focus. Cutting my horn off. It’s a thought that terrifies unicorns. As much as the loss of wings for a pegasi. I don’t know if earth ponies have an equivalent. Maybe they do. Maybe having their legs broken would be a similar fate, but I don’t see it. So when somepony threatens to make me cut off my own horn? I take notice. And I take action.

My brain was still too addled for complex spellcasting, but telekinesis is the simplest of magics. I grabbed him and threw him up against the wall. He hissed and began struggling. The magic given to him by the black crystal was eroding my hold, allowing him to wriggle free bit by bit. I staggered upright, still unable to focus my eyes, but my mind was clearing, and I was feeling a terrible rage well up inside me. I turned to Shady Deal and I increased the pressure of my magic. My horn burst into brilliant light as I shored up my spell, forcing him back, spread-eagle against the dirty stone of the alley wall. I wanted him punished. I had given him mercy and he had repaid it by attacking and threatening me. He deserved whatever I did to him.

“You simpering slave,” he hissed, his eyes burning with shadows. “You have no idea of my power!”

“You want to see power, Shady?” I asked, smirking. “Watch this.” I opened the floodgates. My horn burned with light enough to make the day seem dark for only a moment. There was a noise, like a cannon shot. Then it went dark, and the alley was silent.

I regret what I did to the Guard. I didn’t want to do that, I didn’t have to. It was an uncontrolled reaction, a decision made without thought. I would take it back, if I could. Find a better way. This time? This time I am confident in saying that I would do it all over again, only I would smile much wider. This was my first strike against the darkness.

I fell to a sitting position, heaving deep breaths and trying to keep myself from throwing up. It took a long time before I felt strong enough to look at what I had done. A strangely long time, actually. It’s a near-miracle that nopony showed up to investigate what had gone on in the alley. It would have started some of my present awkwardness with the authorities much earlier, that’s for certain.

When I had pulled myself together, I looked up. The wall looked like it had taken a light hit from a wrecking ball, cratered inward by about a foot. In the center of it, Shady’s crushed body was practically melded into the stone. His blood covered the depression in sprays of red. I found the pattern it made… artful, I guess you could say. It took my attention, at least. Perhaps I was just avoiding looking at the body. This was not a clean break of a neck like the Guard. This was ugly. I wasn’t going to be able to just dump this one down a hole and forget about it.

I thought about it for a long moment before drawing out one of the packets of black crystal. I tore it open and sprinkled the hateful stuff around the body and the ground, before dropping the half-empty packet. I could actually feel the crystals soaking up the traces of violent magic, growing ever so slightly, ever so subtly, in size and potency. Yes, they are really that dangerous.

I coughed a lot as I walked out of the alley, my balance barely recovered enough to keep me from falling over. I wondered about a concussion, but I ruled out going to a hospital. Not having anywhere else to go at the moment, I made my way back to The Ranch. Teleporting inside once I’d gotten my bearings well enough. There were some shocked looks at my flashy entrance, but I ignored them, making a beeline for where Vinyl was standing, nursing a drink in a frosted glass.

She frowned as she saw me. “Hey, you look roughed up. What happened?”

“Talked to Shady,” I said, coughing as I tried to take a breath my lungs decided was too deep. “It got kinda physical.”

“You alright?”

I shrugged. “Could do with a nap.”

She seemed to take my nonchalance as a sign that everything was fine, so she smiled. “Cool. You get what you want?”

“Not really,” I replied. “But you were right, he did know a few names. Ponies I can ask for more info.”

“That’s cool. Look, I don’t have to do a set here tonight, so we can leave if you want.” She raised her shades and gave me a knowing look that told me in no uncertain terms that she had seen where my eyes had been wandering earlier. “Or we can stay for a while.”

I managed a smile. I think she saw blood on my teeth or something because her eyes suddenly widened and she pulled back, dropping the sunglasses back into place. I took this as a definite sign of what the right answer to her question was. “I’m thinking I should go,” I said.

“Hey,” she said in a quiet, concerned voice as she stepped close. “You sure you’re alright?”


She gave me a long look that I couldn’t read through her shades. “Okay. Gotcha. You’re coming back to my place.”

“I do have some pretty good rooms,” I said, but she put a hoof up to stop me.

“Don’t care,” she said. “You missed out on the booze and music last night, I’m determined to have a hero of Equestria hanging out with me. Plus, my roommate doesn’t come back until tomorrow, and I want you to meet her.” I could tell she was throwing justifications my way, giving me an out without having to admit that I was hurt. I could tell that she was worried about me. She thought I needed company. I thought… well, I thought I didn’t. In the end I went with her. I think that was the best decision I could have made, even when it did lead to problems.

Those problems didn’t rear their ugly head until the next morning, when that aforementioned roommate finally put in an appearance.


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I admit that I leaned on Vinyl a lot in those first few days. It was a lot of factors coming together that made her ideal for helping me with both of my purposes. She was uniquely positioned to help me with my search for myself, knowing the ins and outs of the Canterlot nightside, and her those same connections afforded her a way into the underworld without getting herself immersed, which was something I dearly needed for my war against black crystal. Most importantly, she didn't question what I was doing. She just trusted me to be doing the right thing and helped out where she could. Sometimes it took the form of getting me access to places I would have no idea how to get into otherwise, like with The Ranch. Other times it was a more personal assistance, like what she offered me that night.

I don't remember going to bed. It was probably a bad idea to sleep, actually, considering the possible concussion. But she didn't know and I didn't tell her, and so my exhaustion and my injuries finally caught up with me, and at some point after we had returned to her apartment Vinyl had put me to bed.

I woke to the sounds of an argument. My entire body ached, but nowhere more than in my head. I felt nauseous as I tried to open my eyes and found the light stabbing into them like needles. This was worse by far than the hangovers I had suffered after a raucous night at Heather's. The places where Shady Deal had hit me ached with every movement, no matter how small, and my neck was so stiff it was a chore to just turn my head.

I took a mental stock of myself as I brought my aching brain to full consciousness. I was hurt, but not seriously. The nausea was a bad sign, but it wasn't severe enough that I was worried about it yet. I shifted my limbs and found that the ache wasn't enough to keep me from moving if I had to, and from the sounds of the argument going on in the living room, I would have to soon.

"In my bed?" an unfamiliar voice was saying. It had a high-class Canterlot accent that sounded as much practiced as natural. Too clear, too smooth, but not completely artificial.

"Well, yeah. You weren't home and I wasn't going to make her sleep on the couch." That was Vinyl, sounding defensive and worried.

"You could have put her in your bed!"

"Uh, would that really be any better?"

There was a pause. "No. No it wouldn't have. Why are you bringing strange mares home anyways?"

"Hey, chill. She needed it."

"She 'needed' it? What kind of an explanation is that?"

"I dunno? A simple one."

There was an exasperated sigh. "Vinyl, can you understand why I'm a little upset here?"

"Walk me through it, babe."

"I come home after a gruelling tour, hoping to spend a relaxing day at home, starting with getting a nap in my own bed. When I get home after an all-night train ride, I find not only that my dear roommate has not cleaned up like she said she would, she has rather made an entirely new mess with her most vulgar clubwear. Worse than that, she has another mare sleeping in my bed. Worse than that is that this mare appears to be a dangerous drug addict!"

"Whoa!" Vinyl said. I jerked out of the bed, trying to force my body to limber up enough to get to the door. "What do you mean, drug addict?"

"I found this in your pile of skins." I tripped over my own hooves, falling heavily to the ground. Thankfully the roommate was much more tidy than Vinyl, so there wasn't anything but floor for me to fall on. "I know what this is, Vinyl. I know for all of your... experimentation, you wouldn't go as far as using something like this. So it has to be hers. Did you know what your little leather-friend was into?"

I dragged myself upright again, my head pounding like a massive snare drum with every beat of my heart.

"She wouldn't do that," Vinyl said, though she sounded unsure.

"Do you even have any notion of who she is? Or did you just think she was fun and so you brought her home?"

"Nah, it's not like that. She wouldn't."

"Are you sure?"

I finally reached the door, falling against it and trying to open it, only to discover that it opened inwards. The two ponies in the living room went silent, obviously hearing my struggles to get out. I finally managed to wrench the door open, and leaned against the frame as I took in the scene.

Vinyl was sitting down, looking at me with concern, and a small pulse of suspicion. the other mare was a brown/gray earth pony with an elegantly styled black mane and a treble-clef cutie mark. I had seen her before, Twilight's memories supplying her name from a list of performers at the Grand Galloping Gala, as well as several symphony concerts she had attended. Octavia.

"Well, look who's up," Octavia said, giving me a glare. "Would you care to explain yourself to..." she trailed off as she really looked at me. From my tousled mane down to my clearly displayed cutie mark. I could see the realization dawn on her in slow motion. If I had been in a better mood I would have laughed. "By the princesses! You're Twilight Sparkle!"

I winced, and not just from the way the sudden volume spiked my headache. "Or a very clever facsimile," I said, my voice rasping from a very dry throat.

"What..." Octavia stammered. "What are you...?"

"The drugs are mine," I said. "But I have no intention of taking them. I need that sample to study. Vinyl, can I get some water?"

"Sure," Vinyl replied, getting up. She was obviously enjoying her roommate's stumbling at the sight of me, and I hated to deprive her of that, but I really did need something to alleviate the painful aridness of my throat if I was going to do any more talking, which I clearly was.

"Twilight Sparkle?" Octavia repeated, with added incredulity.

"Still here," I said, accepting a glass from Vinyl and greedily swallowing the soothing water. "Sorry to use your bed. Didn't think it would be an issue."

"No... no of course it's not an issue," she lied. "I was simply startled." She composed herself, forcing her legs to relax a bit. "If you don't mind me asking, why are you staying here? Surely you have rooms in the palace?"

"I do," I said. "Vinyl insisted I stay here last night. I'm glad she did. Thank you." I gave Vinyl a nod.

"No prob," she replied. "How you feeling now?"

"Sore," I said. "But better than I could be."

"Sore?" Octavia asked. I could see her mind churning through possibilities. Her eyes flickered to the bruises that wouldn't be wholly hidden by my coat's color. "What happened?"

"Twilight just got in a little fight," Vinyl said.

"A fight," Octavia repeated, deadpan.

"Yeah, you know, hero stuff," Vinyl sat back down.

Octavia's eyes went to the packet of black crystal she had drawn out to confront Vinyl with. Then they went back to me, and I saw some unfolding knowledge in them. "Vinyl," she said, quiet and focused, she wanted every word she said to carry weight. "In the papers this morning there was a story of a drug deal gone bad." I forced myself not to react, but I met Octavia's eyes and held her stare. "A stallion was killed."

"Ouch, that sucks," Vinyl said, wincing. "I told you this stuff was bad news," she said to me. I didn't so much as glance her way, fixated on the mare who was figuring it all out. "I'm glad you're taking care of it."

"Trying to," I said, barely more than a whisper, but enough for them to hear.

"He was crushed into a wall," Octavia said, her tone shifting towards accusation. "They wouldn't even describe the state of the body. Only said it was horrific."

"That's pretty considerate of the Canterlot rags," Vinyl mused. "Must have been really bad."

"It was," I said. I could have stayed silent, but Octavia was already suspicious, already putting it all together. As more information came out and as Vinyl inevitably told her the story of what had happened the night before she would become more and more certain. Eventually it would come to a head. Either she would confront me, or she’d go to the authorities. I could deal with the first, could conceivably talk my way around it. I would have considerably more trouble dealing with the second. Because of that, and because I was probably still a little concussed, I decided to give them the truth here and now.

Octavia took in a sharp breath, stepping back from me. Vinyl frowned, but she caught up quickly enough. She was on her feet in an instant, and the look she gave me was hurt, betrayed, even. "No," she said. "Tell me I didn't just hear that right. Tell me that you don't mean what I think you mean!"

I shrugged. "I wish I could."

"Dear Celestia," Octavia breathed.

"It was self defense, right?" Vinyl stepped towards me, her entire body pleading with me to say yes.

I couldn’t deny that need she had for her faith in me to be vindicated. “It was,” I said. It was the best kind of lie, one that was technically true. “He was on black crystal.” I nodded to the packet. “I took that off of him after he attacked me. I didn’t want to hurt him, but…” I let myself trail off, dropping my gaze to the floor. I would like to say it was genuine contrition, but I didn’t feel anything for the stallion I had killed. Satisfaction, perhaps, but certainly no guilt.

“Oh, man, Twilight,” Vinyl said, and I could hear the sympathy drowning out the hurt in her voice. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know how you would react. You knew him.”

“Yeah, but… this has to be killing you, Twilight. I can’t even imagine how you’re feeling.”

I silently concurred with her. She wouldn’t in a thousand years imagine a pony feeling the way I was about a murder. It’d probably blow her mind to find out it was my second within twenty four hours.

“Why didn’t you go to the Guard?” Octavia asked, staying sensible. It was both a quality that I enjoyed with her and also found incredibly frustrating. Knowing a pony that could stay rational in emotional situations is a wonderful thing. Knowing a pony who will ask hard questions and pick holes in your hastily constructed lies is aggravating in the extreme. To be perfectly clear: the second outweighs the first by a fair margin. It’s no wonder I avoided spending much time with her when I could. Vinyl was much more my speed. Fun, energetic, and trusting.

“It’s complicated,” I said, in far too much pain to come up with a proper reason.

“Explain it to us,” she demanded.

I nearly snapped at her. My horn began to glow as my magic began to gather. I don’t know if I would have lashed out at her, but some sort of explosion was coming. I had to release some of my anger before I did something stupid and escalated the situation. Fortunately, I knew exactly what I could do.

I reached out and plucked the packet of black crystal into the air. I opened it and drew a few grains of the dark crystal out. They were bigger than I expected, but I knew why that would be. I set the rest of the packet aside, making sure it was closed again, and floated the crystal up where the other two ponies could easily see it. “This is not a drug,” I said. “It looks like one, and it sort of acts like one, but it isn’t.”

“What is it, then?” Octavia asked.

“A latticed mana-induction conduit designed for capacitance and release of black-scale perturbation along equine-specific wavelengths.”

Ha! Yes, I see that look. No, I didn’t make that up, that is an actual thing, and it actually is what black crystal is. Well, most of what black crystal is. There’s a little something extra included, but I didn’t find out exactly what until much later.

Octavia gave me a flat look, and Vinyl tentatively raised a hoof. “Uh, that’s cool and all, but I didn’t understand any of that. Could you, you know, dumb it down for the rest of the class?”

I smirked a little at that. “It means that this is magic bound in crystal form. Specifically black magic. It stores dark power and when a pony swallows it, it releases that power until its empty. Like a battery.”

“So it gives its users black magic?” Octavia asked.

I nodded. “As well as all the emotions that go into creating and sustaining the dark powers. Fear, anger, lust, jealousy, dominance, despair. Things like that. A pony takes this stuff and it feeds them power, they feel like they could do anything. They gain all the arrogance and desire for power of a master black mage, but none of the discipline or control. The power runs wild in them, and that’s why their moods swing so suddenly. They can’t stand to be opposed because the magic is telling them they should dominate everything around them. If they’re overmatched they suddenly become terrified. It’s… it can make them crazy. Most ponies are steeped in good magic, the power of friendship and life. They don’t know how to handle dark power. They drown in it, and when the magic runs out they feel like their insides have been gouged out. Emotionally drained and yearning for a taste of the confidence, the power they had while the crystal was working. They become lost, hopelessly addicted.”

“Damn,” Vinyl said. “Good thing I stayed away from that stuff.”

I nodded in agreement. “That’s not the worst part,” I said.

“There’s worse?” Octavia asked, looking horrified already.

“There’s this.” I closed my eyes and concentrated, dredging up all the blackest feelings I could. It was easy. The power came to me eagerly, soaking in my confusion over my own existence and the targetless anger I felt at being put in the situation I was in. I remembered hurting Spike, and the power surged into my horn. Black bubbles of twisted magic formed around the spirals of my horn, and I directed the magic into the floating crystals. It went in a roaring beam of shadows and flickering green light, completely unlike my normal magical aura. Octavia and Vinyl jumped back at the display, eyes wide and mouth hanging open as the light in the room was sucked out, leaving things in an eerie-half light. A temporary twilight where the brightest thing in the room was the burning glow of my eyes, streamers of light and shadow trailing off them as I moved.

The crystals soaked up the dark magic, flaring with a shadowy aura of their own and swelling until each was as large as an equestrian bit. They spun in the air, growing in fits and starts as the magic filled them to the point where they burst out a new spike of black crystal, then filling that new reservoir until the process repeated itself. I cut off the dark magic before the crystals got too large, letting the light of the day back into the room and letting the darkness fade from my eyes.

“They aren’t inert,” I said. “After they’ve expended their charge of magic, they will collect the dark feelings of the pony who swallowed them, growing and expanding and integrating with their host. They will drain them of strength, creating increasing weakness and depression. The only cure for it would be another infusion of dark magic from a new set of crystals, but those will just add to the problem. A two-pronged addiction, ever growing, never sated. Until…”

“Until what?” Vinyl asked. “You can’t just stop talking in the middle of important stuff like that!”

I shook my head. “I’m not sure. They would hit a critical mass at some point, the crystals would become self-sustaining, creating a feedback loop with their host. A permanent high, if you will. That would last for a while. If the pony has a way of using the dark magic, like I do, then they could survive indefinitely. If not? Well, they’d only have so long before they’d be utterly consumed.”

That statement hung in the air for a long moment before Octavia spoke. “How did you learn to do that?”

“Celestia taught me,” I said. They relaxed immediately, their trust in their princess far outweighing their trepidation. I felt a twinge of annoyance at that, but let it pass. I trusted Celestia to do the right thing just as much as they did, I was just certain that the right thing would likely include my personal annihilation. “I figured this much out just by watching the effects of the black crystals,” I continued, carefully drawing the enlarged crystals towards myself, letting them orbit my head slowly. “But I don’t know the full nature of their power. I needed samples. I also wanted to get the source of them, but Shady was too far gone. He attacked me. Hurt me. I defended myself, and he ended up dead.”

There was a long moment of silence. “But the Guard–” Octavia began, but I cut her off.

“Can’t handle it,” I said with a certainty that surprised even me at the time. “I can. But it won’t be pretty.”

“You mean more ponies could die,” Octavia said. She was frowning, distressed at the very thought of it.

“Yes.” I didn’t sugarcoat it. Didn’t feel like coddling her feelings. I don’t dislike Octavia, quite the opposite, but she sometimes hits the buttons that make me a less than cordial pony. Maybe she reminds me too much of Rarity.

“Damn,” Vinyl said, shaking her head. “This is heavy stuff, Twilight. I never figured being a hero meant having to hurt somepony.”

“It usually doesn’t,” I said. Lying about that was fairly easy. Twilight’s regular activities didn’t hurt anyone at all. Usually. The hero stuff, though? Usually there was something that got hurt. Whether it was her, her friends, or whatever enemy put themselves against her. Nightmare Moon, the Changelings, Sombra, the list goes on. Sure, they deserved it, but that doesn’t change the fact that violence is part and parcel of saving the world. Twilight had accepted that fairly readily, and I wasn’t having any problems with the concept either.

“Are you sure this the way to stop the… the black crystal?” Octavia asked. “Couldn’t there be a way to save the ponies addicted to it?”

“There probably is,” I replied. “But until I know what the source of the crystal is, who is distributing it and why, I don’t think I’ll be able to do any more than provide stopgap measures. I’m fairly certain I can cleanse the crystals out of a pony, but that won’t stop them from wanting more, from seeking them out and getting hooked all over again. A two-part addiction, like I said. Physical and psychological.”

“And to stop it you have to cut off the supply completely,” Octavia reasoned. I just nodded. “And you’re sure the Guard can’t handle this?”

I thought back to the raid on the addicts I had witnessed. “They will try. Their methods aren’t… sufficient. They won’t be able to get to the root of the problem before it becomes epidemic. If I’m right about some of the tactics the ponies behind this are using, then the Guards will be compromised themselves long before they become effective.”

“That’s pretty crazy,” Vinyl said. “And you can stop them by yourself?”

“I can stop them,” I confirmed. I was confident in that much. I still am, and I have made such great strides to that end. “But,” I continued, raising my head to look her in the eye. “I can’t do it by myself.”

I saw the idea connect with her. I was asking for her support, and she wanted to do it. The best part of ponykind at work: they see someone in need and they immediately want to help. Octavia would be harder to convince, but I knew that if I could get Vinyl on board, then she would go along just to stick with her roommate. It’s what friends did, after all.

Vinyl nodded, slowly at first, but quickly gaining in enthusiasm. “Yeah. Yeah! Alright, I’m totally feeling the vigilante crime-fighter vibe. I’m in, but I gotta warn you I’m not much good in a fight.”

“I wouldn’t want to put you in danger anyways,” I said, smiling. “But you know Canterlot’s streets better than I do. You know ponies who know ponies, and you know who to ask to get just about anything. You can give me something much better than another pair of hooves in a fight. You can give me access.”

“I don’t like this,” Octavia said.

“Aw, come on, she needs us,” Vinyl said, giving Octavia a look that would have battered at my resolve.

Octavia sighed, refusing to acknowledge the big, pleading eyes of her roommate. “You’ll keep her, us, out of any direct danger?” she asked me.

I nodded. “I’ll protect you. This is all my responsibility. No matter what happens, I won’t let any of it come back to you.”

She thought about it for another long moment before giving a curt nod. “Very well. I’ll be a part of this so long as you keep that promise.”

“Thank you,” I said giving them my best smile. My head still hurt and my body still ached, but I felt a thousand times better. They were both backing me now, and I wasn’t alone. I wouldn’t call them friends. I know friendship better than perhaps any other pony in the world, Twilight had seen to that. As much as I enjoyed Vinyl’s company, as much as I appreciated Octavia’s calm poise, I never connected with them as Twilight had with her friends. No, they weren’t friends. But they were allies.

For the time being, it was enough.


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Recovering from my injuries took a few days. I wasn't actually hurt that badly, all things considered, but I was hurt enough that I didn't want to walk into any more dangerous situations until I was sure the possible concussion wouldn't slow me down. In that time I studied the black crystal, looking for clues as to how it was being manufactured.

It was certainly a unicorn creating it, the magic that was infused in them couldn't have been created by any of the other pony races. That unicorn had to have some pretty deep knowledge of both dark magic and the unique properties of Crystal Empire crystals. A little bit of research turned up very few candidates on both fronts, Celestia had curtailed studies into the dark arts for a long time, only those most trusted were given the leeway to delve into their mysteries. The Crystal Empire hadn't even been back for a year, so the only ponies who knew much about it were historians specializing in the time before Celestia's solo rule. Or Crystal ponies themselves.

You can imagine how little overlap there was to work with. I was left with no real suspects, but a better idea of what I would have to look for. Which was progress, I suppose, though not nearly as much as I wanted there to be.

I visited Vinyl often, we went out to a few clubs and she continued to show me around, though now she was doing so with an eye to informing me of the various factions and etiquette of the drug traders and other peddlers of the illicit and the extreme. I began to pick out the black crystal addicts from the crowd. It was a disheartening exercise. There were many, many more of them than I had hoped, though most hadn't progressed to the level of addiction I had seen in that first mare or Shady Deal.

It was a motivator, if nothing else. I worked out a rough model of when the addiction would become too widespread to contain, and if I took my observations as representative then we were dangerously close to that threshold. I needed to work more quickly, and I needed to seriously consider exactly how I planned to succeed.

It was Vinyl's comment about vigilante crime fighting that actually caught my attention. Twilight had gone that route before, in a way, being part of the team behind the 'mysterious Mare-Do-Well'. Canterlot wasn't Ponyville, and I wasn't planning on saving anyone from random building collapses, but the basic principle behind the costumed adventurer held true. It was a way to protect my identity while also accomplishing my goals.

I wasn't going to pull out the old Mare-Do-Well costume, of course. That would reveal me just as much as walking in and announcing myself as Twilight Sparkle would. Instead I spun the idea by Vinyl and Octavia one night while more than a little inebriated. Vinyl was enthusiastic, of course, but it was surprisingly Octavia who took the greatest shine to it. Anything to provide some measure of distance between them and whatever crimes I ended up committing was good in her books.

In an annoying twist, none of us knew the first thing about creating costumes. Twilight had always relied on Rarity for these sorts of things, and Vinyl and Octavia just bought things in a store or had them tailored. After wracking our collective brains for ideas, it turned out that Octavia knew a few theatre costumers that could be persuaded to work on off-the-books projects. It wasn't perfect, but it would have to do. Vinyl took it on herself to design the costume, though I reserved the right to veto anything I thought wasn't useful. And I worked out ways to minimize the deficiencies I had discovered in my short fight with Shady Deal.

The first issue to address was the fact that any pegasus could outmaneuver me by simply flying away. As useful as teleportation is, it lacks the sheer efficiency of flight, and the ability to use three dimensions for movement and positioning. To illustrate what I mean: I can teleport straight up, but I can't stay there once I arrive. Yes, you see where this could become a problem.

My first attempt to solve that issue was... frightening. I tried to cast the spell that would give a pony wings. I knew it wasn't something that would be at all useful in combat, taking far too much time and energy to cast, but I was thinking of storing the spell in something that could cast it quickly, a wand or a bell of some kind, perhaps. But when I tried casting the spell, it simply failed. I tried again and again, with the same result each time, I exhausted myself with it, but eventually I had to face the truth: it was beyond my ability.

I had been so used to just being capable of everything Twilight had been that this realization shocked me to my core. It was a split from Twilight, something I was usually happy about, but it wasn't simply a difference in how we did things. This was the first time I discovered something that Twilight could do that I couldn't. A place where I was less than her.

And it had to be magic. I have Twilight's cutie mark, it hasn't changed any. I should have her talent too. I'm as powerful as she was. Maybe even stronger. But... but spells that she could do with some effort are completely beyond me. Not just the wings spell, but anything of similar complexity. Transmutations, selective abjurations, the time spells... whole lists of powerful magic, gone.

I... did not take that well. Vinyl was able to pull me out of the funk that it put me in, though she didn't know why I was in such a foul mood. She knew enough to know that some spells I was trying weren't working, though, and she convinced me to try to find alternatives, to think of it from a different angle. It didn't cheer me up, but it did give me something to focus on other than why I was so much less than I should be.

The fruits of that refocusing was the final costume design. Twilight hasn't been an expert in enchantments, and thus neither was I, but she knew enough that I could work out a way to infuse an object with simple magics. I took that and ran with it, and the result was… well, as you can see, it’s rather impressive.

The thing about the wings spell that makes it so complicated isn’t that the actual wings it creates, those are just gossamer and dew, easily pulled together. What makes it really powerful, and intensely complicated, is that it allows the pony it’s cast on to emulate pegasus magic. Their speed, their flight, their ability to command the weather, etcetera. A similar spell exists to grant earth pony magic, giving its recipient great strength and a green hoof. A figurative green hoof, not a literal one. Usually. There isn’t an equivalent spell to grant unicorn magic. Which, given that the ones who would be able to cast the spell in the first place were already unicorns, makes some sense.

I am not capable of casting the level of magic necessary to grant a pony the magic of a different tribe. It galls me, but it’s true. I am, however, quite capable of creatively applying the magic that I am very, very good at. For instance, a basic rule of telekinesis is that it is exorbitantly draining to lift yourself. It has to do with the way the magic begins trying to lift itself, and the way the forces act against each other. It is a well-known cheat to use another object that you are either holding or standing on as a proxy. Lift it, and it lifts you as well. This trick isn’t perfectly useful, the magic is very inefficient, but it’s easier than picking yourself up. Balance the forces just right, though, and the inefficiencies disappear.

And so my costume has this long jacket that drapes itself all the way down my back and hang down my legs, almost like a cloak. Leather, of course, for protection, durability and because it looks terrifying when fully activated. Energized with my magic it splits open into two wide ‘wings’ that are independently controlled, each infused with several sets of telekinetic spells that allow me to, for all intents and purposes, fly. They’re patterned to look like a dragon’s wings, with a little influence from Luna’s Night Guards, their outline glowing faintly with my magic. I even took a page from the drug I would be fighting and I set small studs of a more benign crystal at key points to channel my power and give me greater fine control. It doesn’t work as well as the wings spell would, I won’t be competing in any best flyer competitions, but enough to give chase or deal with combat in three dimensions.

The particular problems of using my magic this way required another addition to the costume: a hood. To get the greatest reaction time and control from my ad-hoc wings I would need to keep the material in constant contact with my horn. The hood has a ring of metal set in it that locks around my horn, holding it in place and making sure I don’t lose my hold on the wings at the worst possible moment. Vinyl also insisted that I have holes for my ears to poke through because, and I quote: ‘it looks adorable’.

The harness I had gotten for my visit to The Ranch serves as the underpinnings of the whole thing. Attached by some very strong means to the jacket, it allows the wings to take my weight as a balanced, distributed load. A pair of pockets serving as saddlebags, and well, you can see the result. Not quite as concealing as the Mare-Do-Well costume, I’ll grant, but considerably more intimidating. I’ve modified it a bit from its original design, but I think you can see that even before I added the blades, it would have been a fearsome sight for your average pony.

After the fiasco with the wings, I was reluctant to try to tackle the second problem: my vulnerability. Steady had hit me, hard. Harder than he should have been able to, really. The addicts from that first night had also seemed much stronger than their appearance would indicate. It was the black crystal, empowering their bodies and removing the usual limits a pony isn’t even aware they obey to keep them from injuring themselves. Limits that normally take years of training or utter desperation to ignore.

I wasn’t arrogant enough to assume that I’d be able to dodge or counter all attacks coming my way. Shady Deal had proven that I could be surprised, that I could make poor decisions and open myself to attack. I could do my best to minimize it, but I knew there would be some point where somepony got through. When they did, they would be hitting harder and faster than a normal pony would. A single blow from an earth pony could kill me, and pegasi with their speed weren’t any less dangerous. Unicorns, well, a physical fight was the least of my worries with them. I had to prepare for that blow.

The leather had already proven its ability to soften an impact, but it wasn’t enough. The solution was easy to think of: create a shield, a bubble of magic that could turn aside even the strongest of attacks. Shining Armor’s specialty, and he had taught Twilight a lot of what he knew. I balked at trying it at first, afraid to find that I was incapable in yet another area, but eventually I saw the necessity and tried the shield spells.

Fortunately, they worked fine. Better than they had before, even. Perhaps with a more focused repertoire of magic also came a greater ease at using what I had. Not a fair trade. Not by far, but I will take what I can get.

I am not Shining Armor, though, so keeping a bubble of magic up for even the relatively short duration of a fight would be taxing. The system I eventually set up would create an angled shield only for a fraction of a second. Enough to turn aside a blow or protect me from an arrow, not enough to tire me out too fast. It was contingent on my feeding magic into the costume in a steady supply, but that was a drawback I could handle.

The two major problems I could foresee having been dealt with, I turned my attention to working out a plan to eliminate the black crystal from the streets of Canterlot and eventually the entirety of Equestria. Vinyl and Octavia helped where they could, in their own particular way, and I threw myself into the project, happily ignoring every part of Twilight Sparkle’s life that threatened to intrude. Sadly, there are some parts of that life that cannot be ignored.

I was not ready when Celestia paid me a visit. She showed up at the door to my rooms one night unannounced, no guards accompanying her. I was diagramming everything I knew about drug distribution networks in Canterlot to look for possible choke points, and I had to scramble to hide all the material before she saw it. I don’t know if she would have noticed if I hadn’t. She was worried, distracted.

“Twilight,” she said, smiling in that brutally pleasant way she has. So much older and more powerful than us, but that smile is just so… motherly. She loves us, all of us, and she wants the best for us, but she will also let us make our own decisions and mistakes. And that smile tells the whole world about it.

I can’t stand up to her. I’m powerless against that smile, against those eyes that have seen so much… I’m so afraid of her, and I can’t even articulate it. If she finds out what I am… who I am not, then I won’t even be able to defend myself. Not against her.

...Sorry. You don’t want to hear me moaning about how Celestia’s going to kill me. I bet you couldn’t care less about that. No, sorry, I was getting off track again. I was telling you about our conversation.

“Princess, is something wrong?” I asked. A bit direct, but probing questions with her are best masked with as much innocence as I could fake.

“Yes, Twilight, there has been some things recently that have made me worried for you,” Celestia replied. “Would you like to walk with me? The night is beautiful, and I’d like to spend some time with you.”

I could do nothing but agree with her. We walked together in silence for a long time, she with a stoic strength that tried to tell me that everything was going to be okay, and me with a hidden nervousness that I had to work very hard to keep from slipping out. Eventually we came to a place in the castle gardens that had many times served as a picnic ground for a young Twilight Sparkle and her royal mentor.

Celestia took a deep breath. “Ah, so many happy memories,” she said. I nodded dumbly, unsure of what to say, if I was even supposed to say anything. “Do you ever regret becoming my student, Twilight?”

The question caught me off guard. “No,” I said. “Of course not, Princess.”

“Sometimes I wonder if I did you a disservice,” she continued. “I wonder if it was my selecting you as a personal student that prevented you from forming true friendships for so long.”

I couldn’t suppress a scoffing laugh at that. She gave me a questioning look. “I’m sorry, Princess,” I said, quickly adopting a more serious expression. “But if you hadn’t taken me under your wing, I think I still wouldn’t have friends.”

She smiled again, this one a more personal expression than the universal benevolence she had displayed earlier. “I suppose it is possible,” she said. “But I think you’d have eventually come out of your shell. Like you’re doing now.”


“The trips to the nightclubs, your association with, what was her stage name? Ah, yes, ‘DJ PON-3’.” I went cold. She knew. But how much did she know? Visions of her striking me down flew through my head. Dragging out the corpses I had made and demanding I explain myself. I couldn’t move, frozen like a small prey animal when they hear the howls of wolves. Celestia saw my expression and her smile widened. “Oh, Twilight, there’s no need to be worried,” she said. I couldn’t relax, though I did my best to fake it. “You are still a young pony, and it’s perfectly all right for you to associate with who you want and spend your evenings as you wish. I just hope that they are providing what you need to heal, and I trust you to know where your limits are.”

“Thank you?”

“I am, however, concerned for your safety.”

I thought quickly. If she knew about the deaths, then she wouldn’t be handling it like this. Which meant she didn’t know, which meant that there was something entirely else going on that I wasn’t yet aware of. I decided to play naive. “Vinyl’s not a bad pony, Princess!”

“I know, she’s being a good friend to you,” Celestia said. “But some of the places she’s been taking you… well, it is rather difficult to explain.”

“You mean the fetish clubs?” I asked, probing again.

She chuckled, shaking her head. “No, while I do not approve of everything that goes on inside those places, my disapproval does not make them dangerous. When I say it is difficult to explain, I mean in that it pains me to have to say it at all. Twilight, Canterlot is on the cusp of a violent conflict, one that I am not sure I can avert.”

“Violent? Princess, what do you mean?”

“You heard about the murder several days ago, I presume?” I nodded, no use playing dumb with information that had been splattered over every newspaper in town. “We, my sister and I, believe that it was not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last.”

“A serial murderer?”

“No, such a thing would be easier to handle,” Celestia sighed. “I’m sure that Vinyl Scratch has shown you something of the drug culture in Canterlot.” I nodded, again seeing no use in denying something she probably already knew all about. “There is a new drug that is causing… problems. The Guard are doing what they can, but it is spreading like a plague. An officer of the Guard went missing several days ago during a raid, and then this poor pony was killed. The two are definitely related, considering both had to do with this new drug. We think that this is merely the opening salvo in a conflict that will spill over into the lives of ponies throughout Canterlot, perhaps spreading to the rest of Equestria.”

“A drug war,” I said.

She nodded. “I’ve kept my kingdom free from such bloody violence for so long. To fail now, after having come so far... Twilight, this war will begin in the places you and Vinyl Scratch have been frequenting. In the nightclubs and bars and dance-halls. I know you are a capable mare, but if the violence comes it promises to be indiscriminate. I cannot guarantee your safety, and it worries me.”

“Princess,” I began, but trailed off. She looked at me expectantly, always attentive to her student. I shook off a sudden, irrational surge of jealousy and forced myself to complete the thought. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

She smiled that perfect, omnibenevolent smile again. “Oh, my little pony, I knew you would offer. But this is not your duty. I have another task for you and your friends in ponyville that will take all of your attention soon.”

“A task?” That was something surprising.

“I’m afraid I can’t say more now,” she said. “So much will have to be prepared, decisions weighed. I will have to convince my sister to allow something she is vehemently against, for one, and that has never been a simple trial. No, I want you to rest and have fun while you’re in Canterlot. I’m sorry to have burdened you with this knowledge, but I would be more sorry to find you had been hurt when a word from me could have prevented it.”

I thought about it for a long moment before deciding what to do next. “Princess, I’m really enjoying the time I spend with Vinyl. I don’t think I’m going to stop going out.” Celestia nodded, accepting but clearly unhappy. “I will be careful,” I assured her. “And I’ll make sure Vinyl is careful too. And if any trouble starts, I won’t stick around. I’ll teleport us and anypony I can reach out and far away.”

Her smile turned personal again. It wasn’t more genuine, but it was more directed. I could tell she wasn't smiling at the whole of ponykind, but at me, or, rather, Twilight. “I suppose that’s the best I could ever hope for. But you must promise me that you won’t try and fight. I know you have a strong sense of justice, of right and wrong, and a need to help those in need, but this will be a duty of those trained for it.”

“I promise,” I lied. It was a smooth lie. Easy. I would have believed it if I was anypony but myself.

“Thank you, Twilight. I can rest a little easier now,” she said.

We chatted a bit after that. Not much. By the time she left my head was dancing with the possibilities. The Guard thought there was going to be a drug war. That meant that things were even farther along than my observations had indicated. I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to strike hard, fast, and immediately to have any impact.

The moment I shut the door to my rooms I was teleporting across the city and into Vinyl’s apartment. Octavia and Vinyl were just finishing a shared meal, and they both jumped at my sudden arrival. I ignored them for the moment, turning instead to the ponyquin that had my nearly finished costume draped over it. I gave it a quick look over, ensuring that it was ready enough to do what I needed, then turned to the other two mares. “Things are worse than I thought,” I said, and their eyes hardened at the realization of what that meant. “It’s time.”


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Haste can make for mistakes, and the more dangerous the situation the more devastating a mistake can be. I had expected to have a lot more time to plan, to work out every step in the process and every conceivable contingency before making my move. As it was, I had the groundwork for everything, but none of the specifics put in place. This attack is a perfect example of that. I had found out places where black crystal dealers and addicts congregated, worked out the numbers of ponies I might run into and the potential of each to deal substantive damage to the distribution network if I took it down. I had even worked out who would be the target most likely to know about the next level up in the production of black crystal.

What I hadn’t worked out was exactly how I would accomplish this. I had my costume, I had a place to go, but no clue as to what I would do once I got there. I had been researching spells that might help me get what I needed: mind reading, clairvoyance, compulsions, etcetera. The ones that would have been most useful were, unfortunately, in the region of complexity that made them impossible for me to cast. I could cast a spell that gave me a general sense of whether a pony was telling the truth or not, but very little in the way of magic that could compel them to talk.

I hate being caught unprepared. It frustrates me, a frustration that can quickly morph into anger, and you’ve already heard about how clearly I think while angry. But there was no help for it. I had to disrupt the black crystal now, before the addicts got in a war with the Guard and made everything a thousand times more difficult. So I swallowed my frustration, threw the few sketchy and unfinished plans I had to the wind, and fell back on the easiest, most reliable method for getting information from a recalcitrant pony that I knew.

I approached the warehouse in the open, walking down the street in my costume. Anypony who cared to look could see me, and that was exactly what I wanted. The moon was high, but clouds scudded by, partially obscuring it and lending a ghostly feel to its light. I stepped through light and shadow, my hooves covered in soft shoes that masked their sound against the cobblestones. I kept my head down, the hood throwing all but the tip of my muzzle into darkness, the jacket falling low enough to almost scrape the ground.

There were guards on the door to the warehouse. They looked just like ponies idling in a sheltered spot, smoking and chatting amiably. I knew them for what they were, though. I’d seen both act as couriers for various drug deals over the past few days. They spotted me as I approached, watching quietly at first, unsure of what to make of me. When it was clear that I was heading straight for them they stood, setting themselves in a threatening pose.

I stopped, watching to see what they would do. They looked at each other, silently asking the question of what to do next. The moment their eyes were off of me I teleported, making the effort to ensure the magic didn’t have its usual characteristic flash. I was beside them in an instant, and they reared up, shocked and fearful. I let them be surprised for a moment before I reached out with my magic and smashed them both up against the door.

The door buckled, but held. The guards reeled from the impact, too stunned to even cry out. Not one to be denied, I rammed them into the door again, this time smashing the heavy wooden portal off its frame and into the warehouse beyond. Blood flew as the impacts broke bone and tore skin. The guards cried out this time, and I threw them aside, striding into the warehouse with purpose.

The interior had three separate sections to it. The first, where I entered, was a loading and unloading area, where carts, trailers and trucks could park fully inside the building. This area was mostly clear and offered very little in the way of cover. A table had been set up in the middle of the floor there, covered in bits and black crystal packets and half-eaten food. A half-dozen ponies sat around the table, a few already reaching for weapons but most staring at me in surprise. A quick look told me that none of them were the pony I knew would have information, the one Shady had named.

Beyond the loading area were stacks of boxes and shelves arranged in aisles that stretched most of the length of the warehouse. These were half-empty, the use of the place as a drug-terminal superseding its purpose of storing goods. I could see bedding and personal effects scattered around those aisles, a place for dealers and addicts to sleep where they wouldn’t be bothered by the Guard or any other nosy pony who might want to know why their eyes were trailing shadows.

The third section was also the smallest: a series of offices that were clustered in one corner of the warehouse. I surmised that those offices were the place I would find my quarry. First, however, I’d have to deal with the ponies out here.

They were all moving by the time I had turned my attention back to them. They were drawing weapons, knives, clubs and one axe. No bows that I saw, which was a good thing, since I wasn’t entirely sure the protections I’d put on the jacket were up to stopping a projectile I wasn’t aware of yet. I quickly assessed how many of them would be a problem.

There were a pair of pegasus mares, their eyes hard but not showing the trailing shadows of black crystal use. Each had a dagger in their mouths, and were just spreading their wings to leap at me. A large earth-pony stallion dragged a heavy-looking wooden club up from the ground beside him. It looked like it had been studded with badly hammered nails, some of which were stained a brown-red color. Pleasant. Two other earth ponies were getting out of their chairs, not holding any weapons but looking menacing. The last pony at the table was a unicorn stallion floating an honest-to-Celestia battleaxe next to him. His eyes were darkened with black magic. He would be the most difficult of them to deal with.

Before they could get into motion I grabbed the table with my telekinesis and gave it a couple good spins. The table was too flimsy to make a good weapon, sadly, but it made for an excellent disruption. The two smaller earth ponies and the unicorn were struck and thrown back, sprawling. The pegasi both jumped out of the way, too quick to be caught. The larger earth pony let the table hit him and it shattered to flinders, with no appreciable effect on him. Drugs and money went flying, scattering all over the loading bay.

“Who the heck are you!?” one of the pegasi called out. I didn’t bother to answer. Instead I grabbed a bunch of the splintered pieces of table and threw them at her as a field of flechettes. Her eyes went wide as the wooden spikes went for her, trying to dive to the side but finding the attack covered too wide an area to dodge. I turned my attention to the others as she fell to the ground, screaming and bleeding.

The big pony roared and charged me. I tracked him in my peripheral vision, focusing on the other pegasus who was already in the air, swooping around to come at me from the side. The two were moving in concert, aiming to hit me at the same time so I couldn’t defend for both at once. They had obviously worked together before and knew how to use their strengths to compliment the other’s. I might have grinned.

I waited as the big pony reached me and the pegasus began her dive. I held myself still as the stallion raised his blood-stained bludgeon and the mare set herself to strafe by and slice at my hamstrings. Then, just as they both were committed to their attacks, I teleported away, allowing the flash this time to blind them for just a moment.

I reappeared above them, watching in satisfaction as the stallion swung his club directly into the place where I wasn’t anymore, overreaching enough that he instead caught his companion full in the face as she was sweeping by. There was a brutal crunching noise, and a second pegasus fell to the floor, her momentum rolling her hard up against the wall, where she curled her forelegs around her face and screamed.

The stallion was so dumbfounded that he didn’t see me until I had almost landed. Far too late to react. My lead hoof hit his head with a wonderfully solid feeling. He made sound, somewhere between a swallow and a yelp. I curled forward, rolling down his back and stretching a telekinetic field around him as I went. With a deft flip of magic I continued my roll and took him with me, lifting him above my head as I came upright, and then hurling him into the standing aisles of shelves. He crashed into a steel support beam, snapping it and sending the shelves attached to it tumbling down on top of him as he fell. Three down.

Some instinct that I wasn’t fully aware of told me to duck, and I didn’t question it. The battleaxe swished through the air right where my head had just been, spinning so fast it looked like a solid disc of sharp metal. I rolled to my side, coming upright again to see the unicorn addict snarling something quietly incoherent at me, his horn bubbling with black power. I reached out to grab him with my magic, but his horn flared and my telekinesis melted away, unable to get a grip.

“You dare?” he said, bringing the axe back to his side where it spun threateningly. He took a step to the side, and I was obliged to match him to keep him from flanking me. “Who are you to walk into this place as if you have a right? Who are you to challenge me?”

His eyes flared with shadows, as if his words weren’t enough to tell me how far gone he was into the dark power. I had to take care of him quickly. Without saying a word I charged him. He sent the battleaxe spinning towards me, ready to change its direction if I tried to duck or dodge. I teleported up, but he was ready for that, a blast of dark magic firing towards me. I twisted in midair, bringing my jacket in the path of the beam. The dark spell hit the leather and erupted into coarse lightning, tendrils of it shocking at my exposed skin and dancing across the jacket. It hurt, but the protections held, preventing the bulk of the spell from finding purchase.

I continued towards the unicorn, my jacket flaring behind me as I used some of the enchantment I’d laid into it to direct my fall. The unicorn watched me with wide eyes, looking shocked. But I saw the small smirk that trembled on the edges of his lips, and I knew there was something up. I didn’t complete my fall, teleporting to the ground right behind the unicorn, looking back. The battleaxe had been whirling to intercept me, ready to cut me in half just before I had reached my target. It would have killed me.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to escalate, but I felt a sudden surge of anger at the thought that he would try to kill me. I hadn’t killed the others I’d dropped, only hurt them. Yet here he was, trying to flat-out end my life. Can you imagine? Can you even fathom the pure temerity of that move? The others might be saved, but this one? He had given up his right to exist. I know you agree.

Calling on what Twilight had seen of Applejack on her farm, I delivered a vicious two-legged kick to the unicorn. I’m not nearly as strong as Applejack, but I’m no weakling either, and my kick sent him flying into his own spinning weapon. With how fast the axe had been spinning, I had expected a noise like a buzzsaw, high-pitched and whining. Instead all there was, was a dull thunk and a sharp crack as the axe sunk in. Blood splattered all around me, and I was delighted to see that the protections on my coat actually kept the spray from hitting me, allowing me to stand dry and dark in a field of wet red. Four down.

The other two ponies stared at me, fear stark in their eyes. At some ephemeral cue they took off for the door together. I grabbed them both before they had made it halfway, slamming them into each other and floating the pair a few feet off the ground to prevent them from getting any leverage against my spell. I considered what to do with them, but hadn’t made it very far when the door to one of the offices burst open and another shadow-eyed pony glared out.

He was a cornflower-blue earth pony, but his coat had a strange shine to it, catching the light and throwing it back in a manner that made him seem almost transparent. I could have mistaken him for a crystal pony if not for the fact that Twilight had met many crystal ponies, and he did not look like they looked. He looked sick. His cutie mark stood out like an infection on his flank, the coat around it matted, showing red and puffy skin beneath. His mane and tail were patchy, twitching in places they shouldn’t have been able to, encrusted with little black spots that slid like oil along the hairs but didn’t drip or ever move as you would expect them to. Worst of all was his head. Black crystals had actually burst from the skin between his eyes, forming a horrific pseudo-horn.

This was something I hadn’t expected. I knew that the crystals would stay resident in an addict, I had told Vinyl and Octavia that they would eventually form a critical mass in a pony, become self-sustaining, feeding both into and from the dark emotions of their host. I had never imagined it would look anything like this.

“Who are you?” the sick pony asked. His voice was quiet, barely more than a whisper, but it carried clearly across the whole warehouse. I could feel the residual magic in that sound, the compulsive power that pushed at my mind. It wasn’t terribly fair, that he could get that kind of magic just from eating evil crystals and I couldn’t use similar magic despite my special talent being magic.

I sublimated my annoyance with a vicious grin. “The last pony to ask me that is over there,” I said, indicating the body of the unicorn. “Perhaps you should ask a different question?”

His eyes narrowed at me, and the crystals on his head pulsed with a dark aura. I was suddenly very sure I had underestimated what I was up against. In a blink he had crossed the space between us. No, not exactly the whole distance, he had pulled me to him just as he was moving forward. In a burst of dark power he had somehow circumvented every protection against hostile magic I had laid on myself and my costume.

I couldn’t suppress a squeak of surprise as he suddenly loomed before me, glaring with malevolent power. I tried to teleport, but the magic didn’t take me as far as it should have, dumping me only a dozen feet away when I should have been clear across the warehouse. I could feel my spell being weakened even as it was cast, the black crystal that had suffused him drawing my magic in to empower him.

He stalked forward and I panicked, grabbing the entire set of shelves next to him and tearing it down on top of him. I needed the information he had, but I needed to survive more. He didn’t dodge, didn’t even flinch as the falling metal caught him. His skin tore, but he didn’t bleed, and I saw the muscle underneath his coat was glittering with obsidian, protected. He tore his way out of the pile of debris, showing off that he also had enhanced strength.

I scrambled away as he approached, trying a stunning spell that simply bounced off of him, then a complex binding spell that disintegrated as soon as it touched him. Twilight’s memory presented me options that I couldn’t even use because I’m not the mage she was.

“You cost me a lieutenant,” he said. He didn’t even sound angry. He moved suddenly, and then he was on me, grabbing my jacket and hauling me up to slam me against the shelves with one foreleg, making the whole structure shiver. My jacket protected me from most of the impact, but the slow pressure he was applying wasn’t what the defenses were designed to withstand, and their attempts to do so were only draining my magic faster. “What did you hope to accomplish? You aren’t a Guard, so what petty motivation could possibly have you assault me alone? Some misguided nobility? Greed? Revenge? Jealousy?”

“Information,” I said, and I knew it was because his power was compelling me to answer. I wasn’t even able to fight him off in my own mind. It was… infuriating. “I want… to know… who is making the black crystal.”

He frowned at me, the motion pulling at the skin around his pseudo-horn, letting little beads of black liquid drip out that quickly solidified into small buds of crystal. “Truly? And you thought I knew?” He chuckled, and I felt my rage rise as he sounded so casual about all of this. He wasn’t taking me seriously at all. “I wish I did, because then I could kill them and take the source of the crystal for myself. But they are too canny for that, they know all too well what it is they are giving out so cheaply. Ah, well my little hero, it was a good try, but you’d have to be Twilight Sparkle herself if you wanted to challenge the power I’ve gained.”

Something inside me snapped at that. The fury surged through me, hot and brutal and seeking only his blood. I let it have free reign, and power poured through my horn. Dark bubbles of power burst from me, and I could see the surprise on his face. A haze fell over my vision, not obscuring it but muting the colors and making the textures and edges stand out more clearly. I couldn’t see it, but I knew my eyes had begun shedding shadows of their own. He fell back, and with a laugh I realized his weakness. The crystals in him had become self-sustaining, saturated completely with dark magic. They could absorb normal magic like a sponge, converting it into energy for their host to use, but he had no natural way of expelling the dark power from his body. It just built up until he was overflowing, and once that happened he couldn’t absorb more of it. He was vulnerable to the very thing that made him strong.

I blasted him with a ray of dark magic, the shadows blooming around me as my power drove the light away. He went tumbling end over end, crashing through more shelves that collapsed in his wake. I sent power into my jacket and it flared into a pair of wings, a single flap taking me up and over the debris, diving down at him. I let the shadows flare around me, a shroud of darkness that he would see as a demonic shape of coiling tentacles and reaching, grasping talons.

His eyes widened in fear, and I could see him fighting the magic inside him. It was no use, he’d gone too far. The black crystals gave power, yes, but they also left their host at the mercy of the emotions that powered their magic. Arrogance, confidence, anger, lust, these were all hallmarks of black magic. But there was a flipside, the low that follows the high: depression, loneliness, paranoia and fear. I had given him reason to fear me, and he wasn’t angry enough to override it.

He cowered as I came to a stop, floating above him. The wings of my jacket sparked and glowed with their own bubbles of black magic as I channeled all my hate and rage into a spell that formed a ball of absolute darkness at the tip of my horn.

“What are you?” he squeaked. “An Alicorn? A fourth Alicorn?”

“You should be so lucky,” I snarled. “Who is creating the black crystal?”

“I don’t know!”

“Who does?”

“I don’t know!”

“Then you’re of no use to me,” I said. I let the black ball detach from my horn and begin drifting in his direction.

“No! Please! I will serve you, I will do whatever you want!” he pleaded. I ignored him, pushing the dark spell closer. “They have a backer!” I paused the spell, waiting for more. “It can’t be cheap to make this stuff, it’s too powerful, but they’re practically giving it away to distributors like me. We set the prices, but they only ask for a fraction of our take. Not even as much as I pay one of my guys.”

“Where do you get it?”

“There’s a drop. We get a case and we leave the money. We never see anypony.”

I snarled in annoyance. “How are you contacted?”

“A case just appeared one day,” he said. “Instructions were inside.”

“And you just started selling it? Without knowing what it was?”

“No,” he said. “It was already on the market, but not widespread. I knew what it was.”

That was something I could use. If there was black crystal on the market before distributors like this guy had gotten ahold of it, that meant that whoever was making it had at least contacted someone to sell it first before they came upon their current distribution method. It meant my first target hadn’t been the right one, but it told me that there probably was a right one out there. I could work with that. I grinned at the cowering addict. “There you go. Was that so hard? That’s all I wanted.” He relaxed, his fear abating as he thought he was safe. I dropped the spell into him.

He convulsed a few times as my magic burrowed into his body, spreading along the channels the black crystal had carved into him. It filled him up, touching every cell and facet of his body, before reducing it all to fine ash.

...I couldn’t let him live. He was far too dangerous, far too powerful. Creatures like what he had become had no hope of returning to normal, of overcoming their addiction. There was no saving them. Perhaps the Elements of Harmony could accomplish it, but I certainly couldn’t. Had I left him alive, his fear would have vanished and been replaced with anger, rage. No. I couldn’t let him live. I couldn’t.

I gathered all the black crystal packets together and burned them to dust. I didn’t want anypony getting exposed to them when I could have prevented it here. Then I burned a message into the wall and left, using teleportation, rooftops and dark alleys to hide my travel as I made my way back to Vinyl’s apartment.

When I arrived she was pacing nervously, ignoring Octavia’s exhortations to sit down and try to stay calm. They both jumped again when I appeared, but I could see the worry fall away like unwanted clothing.

“Twilight!” Vinyl cried out, making me wince. “You look kinda… dusty. How’d it go?”

“As well as can be expected,” I replied.

“So you found what you wanted to?” Octavia asked.

I shook my head. “No, but I found something that will get me closer. And there’s one less black crystal dealer on the streets.”

“Did you…” Octavia trailed off, but her meaning was clear.

“I did what I had to do,” I said, and that settled that.

“So what’s the next step?” Vinyl asked, eager in her relief.

“I get some sleep,” I said, stifling a yawn. “Then I figure out what dealer to hit next. It’ll be different next time. They’ll know I’m coming.”

“They will? Why?”

I grinned. “Because I left a message,” I said. “They will know I’m coming, and they will be frightened. I learned something tonight, girls. I learned that they can be made to fear, and that the only way I’m going to win this is if they’re more afraid of me than I am of them.” I met each of their gazes in turn, letting them see the strength of my will, assuring them of how afraid I wasn’t. I chuckled as I thought about the way the crystal-saturated pony had cringed away from me. “I intend to make them very, very afraid.”

They may have pulled back from me then, fear standing out clearly in their own eyes. They might have. I wasn’t particularly paying attention. I was too busy looking forward to my next attack. The hunt was on, and I was determined to catch my prey, no matter what it took.

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The next few days were... exciting. I didn't let them rest. I kept the pressure up. I hounded those bastards until they bled from fear.

The first night had shown me that I couldn't go easy. I couldn't expect hesitation or mercy, and I couldn't show any either. I had to be swift and decisive. I had to start with them off balance and push until they fell over, then stomp their faces in. Metaphorically and literally if I could get away with it. Most of all, I had to be careful about the addicts who had gone too far, who had become saturated with the black crystal. They are... dangerous, and not all of them are as obvious as that first one.

Here's how the problem works: black crystal absorbs dark energies, growing in size and strength the more power its fed. This means that your average addict will soak up dark magic, absorbing the bulk of any black magic you direct against them and using it to empower their high. Annoying, but the same is not true for regular, white magic. I can use my normal compliment of spells against them, and while the crystal gives them some level of resistance, it doesn't make them immune. The same cannot be said for the terminal addicts. The crystal has become ubiquitous in them, empowering itself and empowering them. The saturation of dark power reverses the relationship. They are nearly immune to normal magic, but vulnerable to dark magic. Pick the wrong type of spell to lob at an addict and they will just be made stronger by it.

I've become very good at differentiating the terminal cases from the standard addicts, but, as I said, they aren't always obvious, so it isn't always easy. The worst, though, the absolute worst, are the terminal unicorns. If they catch on soon enough they can control the dark energies, avoid becoming saturated by releasing the power. A common way for them to do that is by strengthening their minions, which I don't have to tell you is immensely annoying. They also have access to abilities far beyond what most unicorns can claim, making them even more dangerous.

Not beyond me, though. I can do what they do and more, and I don't need any magical drug to give me that power. Of course I'm proud of that. Keep listening, and I'll tell you all about what being a master of black magic can get you. The good and the bad.

My second assault took place the night after my first, and worked in much the same way. I approached in the open, used a few tactical teleports to scare the dealers and their thugs, and then dismantled them. They didn't put up much of a fight, still too caught up in their magically induced arrogance to conceive of someone attacking them so brazenly. I eliminated the worst of them and left the ones who could be saved to the dubious mercies of their fellow addicts or the Guard, whoever got to them first.

That morning the news finally broke through to the media. 'Gang Violence Claims Lives' the headline of the Canterlot Gazette read. Not exactly what I was going for, but for the moment it would suffice. The news was getting out, a spotlight was being shone on black crystal. It wouldn't be long until everypony knew what I did about the drug and how it worked. The mysterious suppliers would have a much harder time expanding their empire once that happened. Just another way to put pressure on them, to force them to make a mistake, reveal themselves. I was aching to strike, but it would be a while before they gave me a target.

The Guard had certainly taken notice of my message. Their forensics teams were analyzing the traces I'd left behind, piecing together what had happened. It's almost too bad that Celestia refused my offer to help. I could have taken over that part of the investigation, made it much harder for them to figure out who I was. Not that it mattered. By the time they knew, it was too late to stop me.

The third target, well, it was a little more tricky. This gang had gotten my message and taken it to heart. I discovered this as I was casing their hideout with Vinyl over lunch. The hideout was a trio of third floor apartments not too far away from the place I had followed the addict mare that first night. We were across the street, munching on some street vendor food and holding down a quiet conversation while I scanned the place with my magic.

"So I took the bass to the max, I mean so high I had to levitate my entire table or it'd skip the records," Vinyl was saying, relating another story of her long and mystifyingly varied career. "And this guy just kept bobbing his head completely out of sequence. Even if he was deaf he shoulda at least felt the beat. It was driving me insane. So I got the lights flashing, all right in sequence, just totally flowing with the music, right? Nothing! He’s not even just nodding on the wrong beat, it’s like he’s listening to an entirely different song. The crowd is goin’ nuts and I think a few ears are starting to bleed and the club manager is waving like crazy trying to get me to cut it out, but this guy won’t quit so like hay I’m giving up either! He just keeps on going like I’m not shaking the club down on his head trying to make him listen to the beat I’m actually playing. I’m about to go up and physically force him to bob his frickin’ head right, I mean leave the table in the middle of a set and everything. So this guy, and I mean this, he looks right at me and gives me this grin. And then he winks and I can tell he was just doing all of it specifically to mess with me.” She finished the story with a wild laugh.

“Did you kill him?” I asked idly, still probing the apartments.

“Nah, man. He got me, fair and square. I wasn’t even mad. Well, okay, we did date for a while, so you could say I gave him his comeuppance.” She leaned close, her smile becoming conspiratorial. “Get it? Co–”

“I get it,” I cut her off before she could explain it to me in full, probably messy, detail.

“Whoa, hey, why all the cranky?” she asked, not seeming too put off by it if I was being more terse than usual.

“Worried about things,” I replied.

“Like?" Vinyl prompted. "Come on, I’m helping you save Equestria, I can help you with whatever’s making you frown too.”

I considered that statement for a while, before deciding that she was probably right. I wasn’t going to give her the full story, of course. A lot of her assistance and good attitude towards what I was doing was predicated on her thinking that I really was Twilight Sparkle. Disabusing her of that notion would not only lead to unnecessary confusion, but might also get her to rethink the entire notion of assisting me at all. I could, however, bring up some entirely legitimate concerns that had only a tangential relationship to my status as an anomaly.

“Ponyville,” I said finally, sighing. “I’ve got to go back soon.”

“Hey, I’ll come visit,” she said with a smile and what I took to be a friendly slap on my shoulder.

“Ha. No. Not my issue. What is my issue is that I won’t be done my work here by then. Not unless I get spectacularly lucky tonight, and I do not think that will happen.”

“You worried the bad guys will get ahead of you?”

I nodded. “I’m thinking of ways to mitigate it. Making it so that my absence won’t be so… well, won’t be an absence. But Celestia has a task for me when I get back, something she hasn’t said anything else about yet. Except that for some reason she needs to consult with Luna before giving it to me. She sounded like she needed permission. I don’t understand what that might mean, but it could be… detrimental to my work here.”

“Can't you tell her no?” Vinyl asked. I gave her a look that told her everything she needed to know about that idea. “Oookay. So you’re worried you’re not gonna be able to keep up your crime-fighting with whatever world-saving task the Princess wants you to do.”

“That’s the general sense of it, yes,” I said. “I’m going to have to rely on you for a lot of the legwork when I’m in Ponyville.”

“But you think you’ll still be able to pull off the ‘mare of the night’ schtick?”


“How does that work?”

“Simultaneity based trans-location via the Amber Rose consequent and its interactions with symbolic entanglement, abusing a mathematical necessity of ley formulae to spike transmission rates to beyond ranges detectable by any non-irrational difference lattice, and being the most powerful unicorn alive.”

“But mostly that last one, right?”

I nodded. “Mostly the last one.”

“Mind dumbing the first part down?”

“Magic circles help me teleport long distances, and if I do it right nopony will notice,” I replied.

“Cool. So you’ll be, like what? Spending your days in Ponyville and your nights beating up druggies in Canterlot?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

She was silent for a long moment, expression unreadable under her sunglasses. Finally a grin broke out on her face. “This is so awesome.”

“It is,” I agreed, but frowned. “You know what would make it more awesome? If I knew what was up with this damned apartment!” I stomped a hoof in anger. “I’ve been throwing detection spells at it for ten minutes now and I’ve got nothing!”

“That’s weird.”

“You’re damn right it’s weird!” I snipped, then took a deep breath to calm myself. “They’ve got some kind of warding up, but I can’t sense it.”

“Is that going to be a problem?”

I thought about it, but eventually shook my head. “No. It’s nice to know the layout, but I’ve already got the building plans from the city records. I’ll have to watch out for furniture if I have to go in blind, but that’s about it.”

“Okay, so you’re just going to take this one extra careful, right?”

I was about to nod, but something caught my eye. A family was moving a couch out of the building, old and beaten and obviously meant for a junkyard. I stared at this scene for a long moment, my mind turning an idea over in my head. A smile crept onto my face. “No. No, I think this one calls for something a little more… extravagant.”

Dynamic Entry

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The night was as beautifully clear as it could get. The moon shone with a delicate silver light that edged the white towers of Canterlot in an otherworldly glow. It was quiet out, ponies worried by the news of a potential 'gang war' staying inside for safety. That included, thankfully, the dealers and addicts who were my targets. They had a lookout on top of the building, but he'd been easy to dispatch. I stood on the roof the building across the street from my target, unseen, unhurried. I took a deep breath of the night air, and slowly let it out as I focused on the task at hoof.

Then I picked up the discarded couch and telekinetically rammed it through the wall of the dealer's hideout. Brick and mortar exploded into the converted apartment, showering whoever was inside with debris. I heard the screams of surprise and fear from where I was, and it brought a smile to my face.

I teleported across the street, dropping onto the part of the couch that stuck out of the broken wall and bounced through the hole, bypassing the wards that had been laid across the walls to prevent me from just going straight inside. The oppressive weight of dark magic hit me immediately, and I saw what they had been using to protect their lair. The walls were covered in black crystal, the tiny grains of the drug grown to sharp clumps the size of a hoof by feeding them on black magic. No wonder my probing spells had been ineffective, I was just feeding these growths.

It was clever, and it showed a level of understanding of the black crystal that the other hadn't possessed. I was dealing with a pony who knew what he was doing.

I couldn't spend time admiring the defenses, though, as the ponies inside reacted to my presence with immediate violence. An emaciated earth pony launched herself at me with a scream. I dodged out of the way, flaring my coat to disorient her and hide my exact position from the others. The addict mare slammed a hoof into the arm of the couch, shattering it where the impact through the wall hadn't. I took the opportunity to raise a hoof to each side of her head, my horn bursting to light as I cast a simple electricity spell, and passed a current through her skull.

As the first attacker was dropping in convulsions another was already rushing at me, an iron crowbar clutched in his teeth. He swung hard at me, but his approach had been painfully obvious and I was ready. My coat snapped out, striking the swinging bar hard enough to completely reverse its momentum. Physics did its work, and the pony who had swung at me found his jaw completely dislocated, teeth shattered. The now-uncontrolled crowbar completed its spin against the pony's head, and he dropped as well.

I grabbed the bar with my magic and stepped past my downed assailants, taking stock of the room I found myself in. It was dark inside, no lights that I could see at all, but the moonlight coming through the hole in the wall was enough to give me a good look. It was a fairly decent living room size for a Canterlot apartment. I can imagine that it would work well for a family of four, with plenty of room for a couches, a table, and a few sitting chairs. I could see stains on the wall of long use, and the lighter areas that had once been covered by furniture or hung pictures. Those were gone now, stripped away to leave a filthy squat for the addicts to ride their highs uninterrupted. Five dirty cots were the only furniture now, the smell attesting to all the things that had been done on them and then not washed off. There were boxes arrayed haphazardly along the walls, some open to show that they were canned food and other imperishables. Bottles of alcohol littered the floor by the cots, along with empty fast-food packages and what I could only take to be the meager personal effects of the cot's regular occupants.

A pegasus stallion was curled up in one of the cots, shivering in terror and mumbling to himself as he stared at me with wide, unblinking eyes. I regarded him quietly for a moment, then cracked the crowbar across his head. He yelped and whined, so I hit him several more times in key locations, disabling his body. The magic of the black crystal could reverse his terror into rage at any moment, and I couldn't afford to leave a possible attacker behind me.

I stepped farther in, but stopped as I noticed something I had nearly walked into. It took a moment to focus on it, but once I did I saw that not only were the walls covered with nodes of black crystal, they had also hung them from the ceiling. Very clever indeed. It would limit the range of my magic, make it as impossible to teleport within the apartment as it was to teleport into or out of it. I wasn't worried about it sapping my powers, I'm too strong for that, but these nodes could act as power sources for any terminal addict to draw from. I couldn't just smash them, either, as that would probably fill the air with black crystal dust, and I would be breathing it in and infecting myself. I was dealing with a thinker here.

I heard movement from another room, and sidled up to the wall, laying my ear against it to hear what was going on. There was talking, but it was too quiet for me to make out what was being said even through the thin interior walls of the apartment. They were gathering in the next room, preparing for me to come through the door, which was the only way there.

Well, almost the only way. I covered my face with my coat, then picked up my ruined couch and once more used it as a battering ram, this time dragging it through the exterior wall so that it tore open a hole into the next room. The couch didn't survive the maneuver, but it did give me a clear way in. It also crushed several of the crystal nodes, sending black crystal dust into the air. I held my breath and stuck my head out of the apartment. Once I had a clear line to the open air I called down a gust of wind that blew into the apartment, sweeping all the black crystal dust into the next room and the ponies who had been waiting to ambush me there.

They hacked and coughed and snarled in surprise and breathed in far more of the stuff than most of them were probably used to at one time. I stepped in after the wind had died down, and the fight began.

Six ponies waited in the next room, which at one point must have been a master bedroom. They had removed a wall between it and the next apartment over, linking the two into one large space. It looked much like the first room I had attacked in the hideout, but this one had added a table where packets of black crystal and cases full of bits were stacked. A card game had also been going on, interrupted by my dynamic entry. More black crystal covered the walls and hung from the ceiling. This was going to be interesting.

I attacked first, taking full advantage of the way the influx of dark magic in the dust they inhaled had stunned them. I sent my acquired crowbar in first, spinning it into their legs. There was the satisfying crunch of bone breaking and two of the addicts went down in a heap. I leapt forward, keeping low to avoid hitting any of the hanging crystal nodes. At the same time I charged my horn and let loose a blast of undirected magic. It was absorbed into the hanging crystals quickly, but the purpose had been to create a blinding light and noise, and that I accomplished quite well.

I struck the first one with a hoof, sending another electrical charge through my metal shoe and into the addict's body. He jerked and spasmed, but it wouldn't do more than slow him down. That was okay, I didn't think it was going to be a problem. My coat flared, slamming into a unicorn mare and sending her flipping through the air and into the table. the usual equal and opposite reactions didn't apply to my telekinesis-driven coat so I was able to immediately bring the leather pseudo-wing around to block the kick from an earth pony who had already recovered enough to strike back.

I got to the middle of them and ducked low, drawing a small pouch from its place hanging on my harness and quickly opening it up. I gave the bag a short kick that I had practiced for hours earlier in the day, knocking the contents, dozens of small iron caltrops, up into the air above my head. My horn was already charged and ready to go. A burst of undirected telekinesis blasted the caltrops outwards in all directions. A couple bounced off of my jacket, but most found their place in the hides of the addicts all around me. They jerked and hissed at the pain, but the tiny weapons weren't capable of doing enough damage to slow them down. Of course, slowing them down wasn't the point.

I had been using electricity magic for a reason, it takes a while to build up a really good charge with that stuff, especially if you're not under a properly charged cloud. It's closer to pegasus magic to be able to summon lightning, but I can simulate the effect as long as I'm willing to follow the normal rules for electricity. That is, it will seek to equalize charges and ground itself out. If I wanted to use it as a weapon I either needed to be able to set up opposing terminals, like I had with the first mare I had downed in the previous room, or make sure that my targets had something on them that would draw the charge, like a lighting rod. Which they all now did.

I shut my eyes tightly and slammed my forehooves together as I released the lightning spell I had been building since before I had started my assault. Energy lashed out from my horn, a blinding, flashing coil of electrical power that sang through the air with a ripping snap. It was loud, louder than I had expected, and it was just as effective as I had hoped it would be. The lightning flowed straight to the opposite-charged caltrops stuck like burrs in the hides of the addicts. Two dozen strikes in the span of three seconds, and the charge I had built up was exhausted. I opened my eyes and found myself in a circle of fallen ponies, their bodies twitching spastically and their coats showing fern-like burn patterns.


I licked a forehoof and touched it to the tip of my horn, hearing the sizzle as the waste-heat from the release of power evaporated the water instantly. I would need to be a little more circumspect with my next foe, but other than that this was going better than the last two nights had.

I grabbed a downed unicorn and floated him into the air, holding him before me as I moved to the door that would take me into the next part of the hideout. I opened the door with a blast of magic that blew it off its hinges, then hovered the unicorn’s body through. A crossbow bolt slammed into him immediately, followed by a blast of concussive magic that ripped him from my grip and threw his limp form all the way across the room. I chuckled at that, though in retrospect I don’t know what was so funny about it.

I stepped into the next room, which turned out to be a hallway that led deeper into the second apartment. A pair of ponies, a pegasus and a unicorn, were crouched behind a table that had been pushed onto its side to provide some rudimentary cover. They weren’t looking at me, too busy yelling towards somepony else farther in, which was their mistake. I used my jacket to lift off, sliding through the air soundlessly and pressing myself against the table, waiting. The unicorn was the first one to come into my view, leaning over the table as he wondered aloud if they had gotten me. As if I would have been that easy to stop.

The wings of my jacket whipped up, wrapping around his head and dragging him over the table top and down next to me. I left his horn free, and as soon as he started struggling it lit up with his magic. I leaned forward and touched my horn to his, letting the usual barriers against accidental contact down and allowing my magic to cycle through him.

What? No, I didn’t eat his magic. I’m not a Changeling. I just hijacked his nervous system for a bit. If he hadn’t panicked and started charging magic without a stable spell in mind I wouldn’t have been able to do it, but, well, black crystal heightens fear, remember? Anyways, I wasn’t capable of using any of the really good magic that could take advantage of this kind of connection. I could, however, brute force a few things.

I let him stand up and forced him to use that concussive blast spell against the table at point-blank range. It exploded into splinters that flew down the length of the hallway, shredding the pegasus who had been behind it and clearing my path. I couldn’t keep control of the unicorn for long, sadly, so I concentrated the magic I had left in him in his brain, interrupting some of the electrical activity there enough to give him a grand mal seizure. Sure that he was out of commission I walked past the downed pegasus and towards the door at the far end of the hallway.

Halfway down the hall I passed by another door that burst open, a shadow-eyed addict leaping at me with a knife in his mouth. I actually hadn’t been expecting the attack, so I barely managed to jump back before he impaled me. As it was I still came away with a long cut down my left foreleg. I hissed in anger, my horn flaring as I ripped the knife from his grip, reversing it and plunging it into his neck, right above the collarbone and angled down into his chest. He gurgled, falling back and futilely tugging at the handle of the knife. I snarled and shoved the knife deeper so that there was no part of it sticking out. He went quite still after that.

The room beyond him wasn’t empty. It had another two ponies, mares who stared at me with crystal-augmented fear. I considered eliminating them as I had the terrified stallion earlier, but something stopped me. Some shred of compassion, perhaps. Maybe it was their youth, they looked barely out of school. Clearly addicts, yes, but they weren’t attacking me right then. I decided not to hurt them, but I couldn’t simply leave them to come up behind me. So I slammed the door closed and focused on a spell that caused plants to grow. It was, thankfully, still in the range of spells that I could caste, and it quickly made the door swell to the point where it was stuck fast in its frame. I could only hope that it would hold them.

The delay might have cost me, because when I finally came to the last door in the hallway there was nopony in the next room. Its had been a bathroom at one point, the walls had been stripped and the plumbing was visible. There was a hole into the last apartment of the hideout, but I was more interested in the space between the pipes. Wide enough for a pony, going all the way to the cellar. A clear escape route.

I took a quick look down the space and saw two pairs of shadow-filled eyes looking back at me. Dark magic roared up the crawlspace, a bubble of malice that sought to eat the flesh from my bones. My horn lit up and I sent fire down at them in answer. The two magics met somewhere between us, and I matched my power against the addicted caster.

He was clever. Oh, yes, very clever. He had lined that crawlspace with more of his crystal nodes, and he drew power from them as he battled me. It gave him something like five times the power he would have had normally. That doesn’t even include whatever dark magic boost his addiction had given him. The result was that he was strong, immensely, unequinely strong.

Not, it turns out, strong enough. I opened the floodgates of magic, pouring power through my horn and into my fire. I consumed his spell like so much tinder, breaking his magic and using it to fuel mine as it roared towards him. I didn’t see what happened, but I knew when he cut off his spell and channeled his magic into escaping. My fire hit his companion, who absorbed as much power as her crystal-saturated body could handle before she exploded with the overload.

I was thrown back by that detonation, slamming into the remains of the wall, barely able to keep my head from cracking against an exposed pipe by using my jacket’s defenses. I dropped to the ground coughing at the sudden burst of dust in the air. I had a moment of panic as I imagined inhaling a few lungfuls of black crystal, but thankfully my target had drained the crystals in the crawlspace completely in his attempt to overpower me, and what fragments got to me were empty of magic, inert.

I got to my hooves and took another tentative look down the crawlspace. It was destroyed. A hole was blown through the middle of the building, shattered bathrooms on the second and first floors now open to the crawlspace, water cascading down from destroyed pipes. A very surprised earth pony stallion with fragments of tile in his mane sat on a cracked toilet and stared back up at me, miraculously unharmed save for the shredded newspaper he had been reading. I paid him no mind and leapt into the now much wider passageway. My coat flared and smacked at the walls to control my fall, sending enough debris down on the earth pony, making him close his eyes and flinch back as I passed. It was enough to ensure that he wouldn’t be able to clearly identify me to the authorities that were undoubtedly already on their way.

I dropped into the basement in a clatter of debris and the clang of my metal shoes crashing against wet concrete. I stood slowly, looking around, wary of any attack. A trio of large boilers heated the water for the building, a garbage incinerator was set into one wall, a thick glass window in its door filling the room with an orange glow that cast flickering shadows from the mess of pipes and ducts that criss-crossed the space.

“Magnificent,” a hoarse whisper came from a dark corner of the room. I turned that way, my jacket swirling about me to deflect any surprise attack. I saw what I could only presume was my target sitting slouched against the wall. Half his body was burned badly, the coat completely gone and the flesh charred. Every move he made flaked bits of blackened skin off, showing the crystals that had grown through the muscle tissue underneath. He was a unicorn, and obviously knew how to use black magic to avoid becoming terminally addicted, but for some reason he had still allowed the saturation to progress to this point. He grinned at me, and I saw how his teeth had been replaced by obsidian-black crystal, sharp and cruel. “Simply magnificent,” he said again.

I lit my horn, ready to counter any attack, but he raised his good forehoof to wave the action off. “I’m not going to fight you, Shadow Slayer,” he said with a dry chuckle. “Though if you’d like to finish the job, I will go down swinging.” I backed off, a little thankful, actually. I had used a lot of power in that blast of fire, more than I should have.

“Shadow Slayer,” I repeated, the question implicit in my tone.

“Something I heard you called: The Shadow Slayer.” He chuckled again, and it turned into a cough that brought blood to his lips. “Though now that I see you I can tell you’re as much a shadow as we are. I thought the other shadows were exaggerating when they said what you could do. Two of my fellows annihilated in as many nights, all their power and minions nothing but wheat before the thresher. You have us worried.”

“Shadows. Is that what you call yourselves?”

He shrugged. “A little overwrought, but the masters love their drama.”

“Masters,” I relished the word. “You know the ones manufacturing the black crystal.”

He grinned black and bloody. “I do.”

“Tell me.”


I stepped closer, my jacket opening into dark wings. “I’m not going to give you the choice.”

“I didn’t think you would,” he said with another chuckle. “So much power. Who are you, Shadow Slayer? An avenging angel? Or a devil come for my black soul?”

“A mare with a mission,” I replied. “And you are in my way.”

He laughed, not the chuckle from before but a full-throated cackle. Then he lunged at me, his injuries were real, but he had been faking how much they really debilitated him. He struck out with a hoof, and I caught it on my jacket. I’d miscalculated a bit, though. He’d drained the black crystal inside him of its magic when he had attacked me in the crawlspace, but he was still saturated enough that it would drain normal magic. It would also greedily suck up black magic until it was full again, which meant that any power I used against him would just make him stronger. The telekinesis that moved my jacket was one such power, and as he touched the leather it went limp, my spell temporarily broken.

The blow landed, softened a bit but still with a lot of power behind it. It knocked the wind out of me, and left me open for his follow-up which cracked across my head and sent me reeling back. He tried to follow, but his burned leg crumpled and gave me enough time to recover from the hit. I was rattled, but not so badly I couldn’t think, and I started looking for ways to hurt the dealer.

I grabbed a hot pipe heading from one of the boilers and wrenched it out of its place, letting hot steam gush into the room. I backed away from it, but he followed me through, uncaring of how the scalding water aggravated his burns and raised blisters wherever it fell. He struck me again, fast and heavy. He’d had training in hoof-to-hoof combat. More than I had, at the very least. I scrambled back, using my superior maneuverability to get away from him. Still, we were in a small room and there weren’t a lot of places I could go. Less now that I had created a cloud of scalding steam that would hurt me a lot more than it apparently hurt him.

He cackled with mad laughter as he followed me, his injuries weeping blood. He was beyond pain, probably dying, but he might as well have been perfectly healthy for all that it was slowing him down. I couldn’t match him physically, and attempting to use my magic on him would be futile. He was a juggernaut. I had to find a way to hurt him or I was dead.

The idea that saved my life came to me as I was watching the glint of the crystals in his exposed muscle. I remembered the nodes he had strewn about his hideout, and I thought about how I could grow them the same way. I called up black magic, filling my eyes with power and letting it bubble along my horn.

“That’s the spirit!” the dealer said, closing the distance between us in long strides.

I aimed carefully and sent a pencil-thin beam of darkness into the open muscle of his leg. It struck a crystal that poked out of his muscle, and quickly charged it to beyond its capacity. Then, with a high squealing sound that was like glass being cut, the crystal began to grow. It thrust new shards both out and in, expanding so fast that it burst through the back of his leg in a spray of blood. His bone cracked and then shattered as the crystal squeezed it beyond its ability to hold, and he toppled to the ground. I changed the target of my beam, slicing through all of his legs until I found new crystals to force-grow until each of his legs was a mangled mess, unable to move. Unable to hurt me.

I slowly stepped up to him, my eyes still trailing darkness. He laughed again, uncaring that he was defeated. I spat blood, feeling the ache of where he had hit me. It could have been worse, a lot worse. I’d gotten off much better this time than I had against Shady Deal. “Now,” I said. “Tell me who manufactures black crystal.”

“Oh? Are you asking? Come now, little shadow, you know that when you want something you do not ask! You take!”

“I’m not one of your shadows,” I said. “Now tell me. Tell me or I will take it!”

“Do it!” he snarled, grinning like a black-toothed maniac. “Don’t be like them! Don’t be held back by the petty qualms of morality. Don’t grovel like a worm when you can command like a queen!”

I admit, I gave in to his taunts. I touched my horn to his, and sent my power into him. It was similar to what I had done upstairs, but with structure to it. The spell I cast was similar to the memory spell Twilight had once used to return her friends to themselves, but modified to pull memories out instead of putting them in. I had worked out just how to do it when I was preparing for my attack on the black crystal trade. The problem had been that I actually couldn’t cast it, it was one of those spells that were inexplicably beyond my abilities. I tried it anyway.

I have great facility with magic. My cutie mark is the same as Twilight’s and I’ve never felt like it should be anything else. I’m good with magic, good at using it, good at sensing it, good at manipulating it on the fly. I’m powerful, terribly so. But there is an entire area of magic that I hadn’t really explored, a side to the power that Twilight barely touched. Black magic, the power of the negative, the antithesis of the magic of friendship. It was this dark power that I used to cast my memory spell, and it responded with eager hunger.

The spell ripped into the dealer’s mind, scouring his neurons for what I wanted. He screamed, reliving moments in such rapid succession that they must have blurred together into a nightmarish eternity of being locked in his memories. The dark magic wasn’t as easy to control as normal magic is, however, and I felt the spell slipping from my control long before I had what I needed. I tried to force it, snarling as I attempted to will the power into line. The black crystal in the dealer’s body hampered me there, eating at the edges of my magic, eroding my control of the spell. It slipped from my grasp far too soon, burning through the addict’s brain, stripping him of his past and feeding me disjointed pieces of his life too fast for me to process.

I broke the spell, reeling back. The images I had received faded quickly, never meant to belong to me, but I managed to pull a few important bits of information out and memorize them for myself before the effects of the spell were completely gone. I sat for a minute, breathing heavily in the aftermath of the power, trying to clear my thoughts.

Eventually I was brought back to my senses by the hitching laughter of the dealer. I looked at him, and he stared back at me with dead eyes, the pupils having become a sightless white from the way the spell had burned in him. “Magnificent,” he breathed, his breath coming in shuddering gasps. “I… knew you... had it in you. He… will be… delighted... if you reach him…”

“Who?” I asked, but I knew he couldn’t hear me anymore.

“You… will make… such a magnificent… queen… of… shadows…” His breath stilled.

I shook my head. “I’m not one of your shadows,” I repeated. “And what is it with you ponies and your ‘join me and we will rule’ crap? I understand the megalomania, but wanting to share it? Weird.”

Yes, I was talking to a corpse again. I talk to corpses sometimes. When they’re handy. It’s actually kind of soothing. Nevermind. Forget I said anything about it.

Anyways! I dumped the dealer’s body in the incinerator and made my escape before the Guard could discover me. I would have liked to start working on making sense of the information I had gained, but I was too exhausted from the power I had spent, and fell asleep as soon as I was in a bed. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had been able to stay awake, though. I had preparations to make first, and they couldn’t be put off. I would be returning to Ponyville in two days.

Ah, I can see the sky getting lighter. I must have talked all night. Well, that’s good, I guess. I’m getting the story out, at least. Better than nopony ever knowing what I’ve done. I’ll be back tomorrow night with the next part of my story and hopefully some good news too. See you then!

And… thank you.


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I’ve become so distanced from everypony in my life that I didn’t think it was possible for them to hurt me any more than they already have. I took solace in that thought, wrapped it around myself like a blanket. A cold comfort is better than none, after all. I should have known it was a lie.

They brought Twilight's friends in to help look for me. They... I don't even know what they were thinking! Subjecting Fluttershy to what I've done? Forcing her to… And Applejack! She took me in, treated me like family. How much has it hurt her to see what I really was, under the lie I presented to her? It's cruelty. The basest form of manipulation, meant to target my friendship with them, forcing me to feel guilt. Guilt! Hah! As if I'd ever let something as banal as guilt stop me. They’re just hurting innocent ponies for no reason!

I could stay away from them, keep more than a couple steps ahead. Pinkie didn’t participate in the hunt, fortunately. I don’t know why, but I’m just glad she is nowhere near this. Dash, though... she caught up with me. Actually managed to... She got to me. Made me lose my focus. Gave Shining Armor enough time to trap me in one of his spells. She set me up. So much for loyalty.

...No. No I can't blame her for what she did. She knows I'm not Twilight. She knows what I've done and what I've lied about since the beginning. I betrayed her long before she betrayed me.

Anyways, I'm here, so you can see that I managed to get away. It wasn't easy, and I might have hurt a few ponies who didn't deserve it. I don't know. I'll probably find out later. I couldn't let them stop me, I'm too close to ending all of this. So close I can see the end of it.

But I can't do anything more right now, so I guess it's a good time to continue my story.


The last couple of days I had to myself before heading back to Ponyville were taken up by preparations for my continued vigilante activities. I’d been doing very well, but that last hideout had shown me that I was far from invulnerable. My creativity was enough to keep me ahead of my opponents for now, but I was too reliant on direct magical attacks. Tricks like those black crystal nodes could limit my usual options severely, and in the proper circumstances an addict could render themselves all but immune to my powers. I needed to come up with ways of attacking obliquely. I needed better tactics.

I also set up a teleportation circle, like I had told Vinyl I would. I had her hunt down a cheap but secure apartment for me, and spent a long night putting everything together. Very interesting business, actually, but only if you care about the hours of absolutely fascinating mathematics I had to do to get it all exactly right. Short version: I did it right, it worked fine.

The night before I left Canterlot I spent with Vinyl and Octavia out on the town. Spike's list hadn't seen as much use as I had been expecting, but it did have several options that would suit both mares and perhaps provide me with a distraction from my own worries. I selected a cabaret show, one that Spike’s notes indicated was probably racy enough to hold my attention.

We sat at a table lit by a pair of candles and talked over a simple dinner while watching the show. Vinyl loved the costumes and the dancing, and Octavia appreciated the surprisingly high-brow sophistication of it all. I was bored. After some of the sex-soaked places I’d visited with Vinyl over the past week searching for information on black crystal, this was almost amusingly tame. I don’t know if it’s just a side-effect of going to all those places or just me growing into my own sexuality, but I definitely prefer the brutal in-your-face approach of places like The Ranch to the tongue-in-cheek cleverness of the cabaret.

Bored as I was, my mind wandered far afield. I tried to keep from focusing on my personal situation, the constant existential crisis that I have lived since I had nearly killed Spike. I knew that it would only upset my companions to see me that maudlin. Instead I spent a lot of time contemplating the impact I was having on Canterlot. I can tell you that the papers were going wild. My last attack especially had been excellent fodder for the media to scream about. Gang wars they were calling it, and using language more appropriate to an actual war than to what was essentially a small, contained policing action.

The Guard were scrambling to find me, of course, and failing wonderfully. I'd taken the time to surreptitiously ask Celestia about it, but she had rebuffed my efforts, determined to keep me out of it. I managed to talk a few guards into giving me more information, though, and I found out that they knew so little I could probably have walked past one in full costume and they wouldn’t have known me from any other pony.

In the end, though, I was more interested in what the addicts were thinking of my actions. I wanted to know if I was managing to dissuade some of the more lightly addicted ponies from continuing with their abuse of the drug. If I could do that, if I could save them from that mistake without having to beat their heads against a wall for it? That would be the best thing. Knowing what I do about black crystal, though? I doubt it would happen. Once you start using it, once it gets its obsidian hooks in you, that's it. It only ever gets worse from there.

Speaking of, I was a little paranoid about what had happened at the hideout. The amount of crushed black crystal in the air could have easily become a problem for me. I ran myself through a battery of detection and cleansing spells, but if any of the drug had gotten into me, it was powerless and easily removed. I had gotten lucky. But I couldn’t rely on that luck forever, and thoughts of how to prevent my own infection by the drug were a constant nagging worry for quite a while.

It was because of those worries that I wasn’t exactly paying my best attention to the conversation. The part I remember most about it begins with Octavia asking me: "So you're heading back to Ponyville? Are you ready for that?"

"No," I answered her truthfully. "I feel like it's probably the worst thing I could do right now. but it's not something I can get away from. I have to see my friends again, I have to at least give the appearance of picking up my life and getting on with things."

"You've taken on quite the task," Octavia pointed out. "I already think you're biting off more than you can chew."

"Nah, Twi's got this down," Vinyl said, jumping to my defense. "You see what she did to that place the other night? Pow! Right through the wall!"

"I don't doubt her power," Octavia said. "But Twilight, you're still just a pony. You shouldn't try to do too much or you'll hurt yourself. Perhaps going home and living a double life is too much. Perhaps you should consider taking this at a more measured pace."

“I know my limits,” I assured her. She didn’t look convinced. “This is too important to slow down.”


The question tripped me up for several reasons, not the least of which was that I didn’t know exactly what she was asking about. I decided to play it safe. “You know why, Octavia. The black crystal has to be stopped before it gets out of control.”

“I understand your reasoning,” Octavia said. “But what I am wondering is if this is just another form of running away.”

“What are you talking about?” I demanded, frowning at her.

“Vinyl,” Octavia prompted.

Vinyl sighed. “Yeah, sorry Twilight. I totally talked to Pinkie Pie about hanging out with you. Got the whole story from her about what happened in Ponyville.”

I cringed at that, but fought down a surge of anger that they would go behind my back. It made sense. If Twilight had been confronted with a powerful mare raving about black magic and wanting to go on a vigilante crusade, she’d have done a background check too. It still stung, but I understood why it happened.

“You hurt one friend, and were afraid to face the others,” Octavia pressed. “That’s why you came to Canterlot, to get yourself together and move beyond that. I fail see how what you will be doing now is going to be any better than hiding in your library. You will still be refusing to face your friends with the truth.”

“It’s for their protection,” I insisted. “And yours. You want me to keep you safe from what’s going on in Canterlot? Then the fewer ponies that know about what I’m doing the better.”

“Yes. But if anypony is worthy to trust with this secret, your friends are,” Octavia said.

“Not yet,” I said. “I’m not running away from anything, Octavia. Not my friends, and not fighting the black crystal.” I gave her my most confident smile. “Princess Celestia taught me how to deal with these kinds of problems. Trust me, I know what my limits are and I’ll make sure I don’t go past them.”

I don’t know if that set her at ease, but she did drop the subject for the night. Either way, the rest of the night passed in comfortable camaraderie. We ate, drank, and stumbled back to Vinyl and Octavia’s apartment where I crashed on their couch. One last bit of revelry.

The next day I was on the train platform before noon, saying goodbye to Twilight’s parents. Princess Celestia didn’t come to see me off. I was both disappointed and grateful for that. The mess of feelings she stirs in me would have been bad baggage to carry with me all the long ride back to Ponyville. As it was, Twilight’s parents were bad enough. Their lack of understanding continued, with a touch of added anger at how I had avoided them for most of this visit. I didn’t much care, but I did my level best to soothe them.

Soon enough I was off, back to Ponyville, back to Twilight’s life. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I had no idea how hard it would get.

Group Hug

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They were waiting for me, of course. Just the six of them, Twilight’s five friends and Spike. I was actually a little surprised at this. Not that they were there, but that it was only them. I had kind of expected that Pinkie would throw a massive ‘welcome back to Ponyville’ party for me. The fact that she hadn’t should have been a warning sign, but at the time I wasn’t focusing enough on Pinkie to catch the significance. Actually, to be perfectly frank? Even if I had been thinking about Pinkie, I would have missed it.

There were smiles and hugs the moment I stepped onto the platform. Fluttershy was first, giving me a fierce hug and whispering about how glad she was to have me back in my ear. It was pleasant, a little uncomfortably so. Rarity was next, and for her hug she whispered a quick, “I’m here if you need it, dear,” and I nearly bit her. It wasn’t insincere, but it sounded so perfectly rehearsed… More about that later, I suppose.

Dash and Applejack approached me as one, eschewing a hug for a simple touch with their hooves. Somehow that gesture was more meaningful than Fluttershy and Rarity’s full-body contact. “Good to have you back,” Applejack said. “We got the library all fixed up for you.”

“Thanks,” I said, smiling for my part in this farce.

“You got your magic under control, right?” Rainbow Dash asked, as brusque as ever.

My smile for her was more genuine. “Totally under control,” I told her. “No chance of any more accidents.”

“Good,” she said, grinning. “I knew you could do it.”

“Hey, Twilight,” Spike said, toddling up to me. His lower legs were still in casts, but he had a pair of tiny crutches that he was using to propel himself along. I felt a stab of feeling at that sight, but I swallowed it down.

“Hey, Spike, how are you doing?” I asked, crouching down to be more level with him.

“Glad to be out of bed,” he replied, enthusiastic and without a single hint of reproach. He still didn’t blame me. “They say I can get the casts off in a few days. Until then I’m kinda making the best out of it, you know?”

“I get you,” I said, giving him a conspiratorial wink and nodding slightly in Rarity’s direction.

“Come on, Twi,” he groused, cheeks heating. “Don’t make it too obvious!”

I chuckled, looking up to the last of Twilight’s friends. Pinkie stood in uncharacteristic stillness, watching me with her bright, inquisitive eyes. Something about that look unnerved me. Perhaps it was the intensity of focus she was employing, as if she were examining me in minute detail. I didn’t like being examined. I had too much to hide.

“Hey, Pinkie,” I said, if only to get this part over with.

“Hmm,” she said, stepping right into my personal space in a way that was not friendly. I backed up a bit, and she followed me, keeping her face bare inches from mine. “Did you forget something, Twilight?” she asked, accusation in every word.

“Forget something?” I asked, searching my memory for what she could be referring to.

“Yup!” she continued, getting even closer. I looked to the other ponies for some help, but saw that they were resigned to whatever it was Pinkie was doing. Rainbow Dash was rolling her eyes, Applejack was hiding her eyes behind her hat. Rarity and Fluttershy were looking on with the desperate interest of gossips sighting something juicy. Spike just looked embarrassed. “Something important, maybe?”

“You’ve lost me,” I admitted.

“Something small?” I shook my head. “Something in the shape of a little tube?” I shook my head again. “Something daily?”

“Daily?” I repeated, utterly perplexed.

“Letters!” Pinkie shrieked. I don’t know if you realize exactly how high her voice gets when she’s upset. I think she could qualify as an ultrasonic weapon. Actually, that’s an interesting thought. If I could get her properly classified, I could have her banned under at least two arms treaties Equestria keeps with neighboring kingdoms. Wouldn’t that be funny? I’m sure she’d appreciate the prank value.

“Letters?” I repeated again, then recalled the foolish promise I had made to her upon my leaving Ponyville. “Oh! Right. Letters. Well, Pinkie, I, uh… didn’t write any.”

“I know!” Pinkie screamed, flapping her limbs in the air like some kind of demented pink hummingbird. I mean she literally hovered in the air from the motion. Twilight had become complacent with Pinkie’s… eccentricities, but they make my skin crawl. “You didn’t even write a single one! You said you’d write every day, Twilight! Every. Day.” She was gone from in front of me in a blink, grabbing Spike in her forelegs and squeezing him close like he was a large, scaly teddy bear. “Poor Spike! Waiting every day for that one fateful belch that would tell him you cared!”

“Actually, I was cool with not–” Spike began, but she squeezed him into silence.

“But none ever came!” Pinkie sighed dramatically, releasing the baby dragon and returning to being far too close. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself, missy?”

I stared at her for a long moment, struggling with myself. A sudden, incoherent rage bubbled in my gut. I looked at this vapid creature shoving herself in my face and I knew that she did not have the right to demand anything of me. The fact that she even tried was an affront to everything I had done over the past week. All the good I had accomplished, all the pain I had taken, all the effort, and she was berating me for not writing my assistant? I could have crushed the life out of her right then.

But… she was Twilight’s friend. I remembered that friendship. Her joy had been my joy. Her whimsy had delighted me. Even this, the insistence on communication and keeping promises, even this was something Twilight loved about her. She was right, I had said I was going to write to Spike, and I hadn’t followed through.

I hung my head. “I’m sorry, Spike,” I said. “I’m sorry, all of you. I… have excuses, but that’s all they are.”

“You don’t need to excuse yourself, sugarcube,” Applejack said. “We all know this couldn’t have been easy for you.”

“Quite right, darling,” Rarity put in.

“I’m okay, Twilight,” Spike said. “Letter or no letter, I was more worried about how you were doing.”

“I… I…” I didn’t know what to say. The forgiveness was in all their eyes, even Pinkie’s as she lifted my chin to look at her.

“You said you’re sorry,” she said, nodding smartly. “And that’s what’s important.”

“You guys,” I said, forcing myself to tear up because it was expected of me.

“Group hug!” Pinkie cried, latching on to me like a parasite intent on draining me of every drop of blood I had. The others either didn’t see my uncomfortable expression or I was actually doing a good job of hiding it, because they piled on and I was surrounded in a big, furry ball of smiling, giggling friendship.

Getting home after that was just a matter of moving the herd from the train station to the library. It took a while, but wasn’t particularly difficult. Ponies stopped to give their greetings and well-wishes as they saw me, but it wasn’t an onerous thing. If they had kept it up for days, then it would have become a problem. As it was… it was nice to have been missed, even if it wasn’t me they were missing.

Disentangling myself from Twilight’s friends was hard. I don’t know exactly why. Perhaps the forgiveness and love they showed me was something I needed. Craved. It wouldn’t be odd. I am a pony, after all, and we need these things.

Yet… no. I’ve done just fine without it. I don’t need those things. I’m beyond needing the affirmation of any other pony now. I am within myself contained, whole and complete. I need no other.

But still, it was nice. And parting from that warmth felt like it was as difficult as assaulting a lair of addicts without preparation. I made it, though, bid my good-nights to them and made my way inside. Spike was going back to the hospital, at least until he got the casts off, which gave me the entire place to myself.

I had much to do. I had to set up my end of the teleportation circle and test it to make sure it worked. I had to contact Vinyl and find out what, if anything, had happened during my long train ride. I had to continue sifting through the memories I had stolen, finding information I could use. So much to do.

I did none of it that night. I trudged up the stairs to my room… Twilight’s room. And with no further ceremony I fell onto the bed and into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Slice Of Life

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They weren't going to leave me alone, I'm not naive enough to believe that they would ever leave me alone. I'd gotten a fortnight's respite, but that was it. Now it was back to the land of friendship reports and near-weekly disasters. My resolution to hide the situation from Twilight's friends was, surprisingly, just as strong as the night I had decided on it. That meant that I would have to spend my time pretending to be Twilight for the benefit of a bunch of mares, half of whom I didn't even like.

My first morning back in Ponyville, that meant making the rounds. I got up several hours later than Twilight would have, made myself a simple breakfast of fruits and toast and absolutely nothing made with batter. Then I packed a saddlebag with all the things I'd need to construct a teleportation circle, as well as a few other items to keep me occupied, and headed out.

My first stop was Sugarcube Corner, because I had to run into Pinkie at some point and I thought it was better to get it out of the way as soon as possible. The sweet shop was bustling as I got there, a line stretching out the door as ponies picked up their snacks and treats. I'm not the most patient of mares, but since Twilight wouldn't have jumped the queue then I wasn't going to either. I busied myself with sketching out a design for a weapon I could use in a place like that last hideout I had raided. It was a kind of spinning blade that I could tie closely to my telekinesis, useful without being too draining. I needed a magical anchor to make it work, but I already had a few ideas of how I could accomplish it.

I was so absorbed in my work that I completely missed when I got to the front of the line. Another unfortunate trait I share with Twilight Sparkle. My attention was thoroughly gotten when Pinkie decided to interject herself between me and my notebook.

"Whatcha doing?" she chirped.

I snapped the book shut. "Considering the feasibility of bonded telekinetics in a low-energy environment," I replied. It was a truthful answer, but technical enough that it was not likely to get me into trouble later.

"Cool!" Pinkie said. "Are you also considering one of our delicious cupcakes or maybe another of our many delectable dishes of delicate desserts?"

I got the hint. "I was hoping for a bag of cookies, actually," I said. "How are you doing, Pinkie?"

"Oh, you know, working the sugary bellows of the pastry economy," she replied in what I assume was a facetious answer as she relayed the order to the kitchen. "Did you have good dreams last night?"

I don't really dream much in general, and I hadn't that night, but I wasn't going to get into it with Pinkie. "As good as they get," I told her.

She grinned. I felt some of her saccharine energy invading my system. I don't know how the Cakes can stand being around her all the time. "Are you gonna come to my party tonight?"


"Aww, come on, Twilight!" she whined, flopping on the counter like an irritated cat. "It's your party for coming back from Canterlot! I can't throw a party for you coming back from Canterlot if you're not there to show that you actually came back from Canterlot!"

"I've got a lot of catching up to do with my studies," I lied. "I'm sorry, Pinkie, but we'll have to schedule my coming back party for some other time."

"How about tomorrow!" she suggested with a perky flip that set her back on her hooves.

"How about instead of a big party we just all get together for an extra-special picnic?" I replied.

She tapped her chin as she thought about that for a long moment. "Well... So long as it's some sort of occasion."

I sighed, knowing that there was no chance of getting her to make it a quiet affair. "Why don't we make it a community thing?" I offered, hoping to direct her party-obsessed mind down a path I could predict. "Get Cheerilee to let the children out for it and have a big potluck lunch for Ponyville."

Her eyes widened and I almost felt bad at how easy it was to manipulate her. Almost. The levers of her personality were so obvious they were practically screaming for somepony to use them. "Twilight!" she gasped. "That's an amazing idea! I gotta go!" And with that she was gone.

"What about my cookies?" I asked, frowning after the pink streak that led past the surprised ponies in the line and out the door.

"Oh, don't worry," Mrs. Cake said, setting my asked-for bag of cookies on the counter. "We're always ready in case she takes off like that. Have you paid yet?"

I shrugged, then tossed a couple bits to her. "If I haven't, I have now. Thanks." I took my cookies and walked away.

"See you at the party!" Mrs Cake trilled after me. I cringed, realizing that now I'd actually have to attend. Of course, a party in the middle of the day would be far, far better than something at night. I had things to do at night, ponies to kill.

My next stop was Rarity's. I hefted the cookies in front of me and walked into the Carousel Boutique, my entrance announced by the jingle of the bell above her door. The interior was as clean and colorful as usual, but showing the signs that one of Rarity's inspiration bursts had happened recently. There were bolts of cloth stacked in haphazard pyramids, and bits of ribbon and glitter littered the floor. A chest was open, displaying several trays of gemstones gleaming like the thief-bait they were. It was a good thing Rarity's fashion sense outweighed her business sense, or she'd have flooded the market with jewels long ago.

Looking at the gems actually gave me an idea, and out came my notebook again. Gems can hold magic, though crystals are better. A gemstone of the proper type could serve as a magical anchor that would be difficult to interfere with. Of course, I'd need to find a very specific kind of jewel that would resonate properly with my own magic, and then have the proper cut and solidity to withstand the energies I'd force through it. Not many lived up to those specifications, and I wasn't studied enough in minerology to know right away wich one would serve.

"Twilight, darling!" Rarity cried upon spying me. "How wonderful to see you today!"

I snapped the notebook shut, but not before making a final notation. I didn't know much about gems, but Rarity was quite versed in their properties, if only to know which ones would work best with what kind of dress. It shouldn't be too hard to get her assistance. Well, not too hard theoretically, the real difficulty would come in standing her presence for the amount of time it would take to get what I needed from her.

"Rarity, good to see you too," I said, plastering a smile on my face. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything."

"From you, dear, it's never an interruption," she said. As blatant a lie as I've ever heard, spoken with just the right amount of conviction to let me know that she didn't mean it literally, but did mean the sentiment behind it. I couldn't tell how much of that was artifice and how much was skilled politeness. "What brings you by today?"

"A couple things, actually," I replied, walking further into her shop and taking a look at the various dresses and bits of clothing she had on display. It was all very elegant, I'll give her that. Far too busy for my tastes, though. Like dressing up in a fancy tent. "First off, I'm checking up with all my friends, making sure they know I'm alright." That was true enough, I didn't want them getting worried and starting to pry into what I was going to be doing at night.

Rarity smiled and walked over to give me a soft hug. "Thank you, Twilight. I was worried."

"Well, no need to be worried about me," I said, extricating myself from the hug. "I also need your advice."

"Oh? Whatever for?"

"When I was in Canterlot I got interested in enchantments," I began, only for Rarity to dramatically throw her head back in an exasperated moan.

"Twilight!" she snapped. "You were supposed to be relaxing, not studying!"

"I was relaxing," I protested. "Studying can be relaxing."


"Look, I know Pinkie talked to Vinyl, and I'd bet good money that Pinkie told you and the others all about it. You know I wasn't just studying."

Rarity considered this for a moment. "Well, I suppose. I do apologize, Twilight, I was jumping to conclusions. Do go on."

"Right," I had to take a moment to collect myself and remember what I had been asking her. "Enchantments. I'm looking for a gem that can act as a solid magic anchor for me."

Rarity frowned at that. "Wouldn't a crystal be better, Twilight? You can grow them to your purposes, after all."

I shook my head. "I need something more resilient than a grown crystal, less prone to cracking or shattering."

She hummed in thought. "I might have a few ideas for you, how much magic will it need to take?"

"As much as I can put into it."

She snorted. "I'm sorry, dear, but that just doesn't exist. Except the Elements of Harmony, and I can tell you right now they aren't really gems in the first place. You're simply too powerful."

"Alright, how about something as close as I can get?"

"Something that can handle a lot of your particular magic? I know of a couple gems that might work, but we won't know which ones will be most effective until we test them out. Matching them to your colors is going to be quite a challenge, too."

"My colors?"

"Of course, darling!" she said with an infuriating titter. "We must consider the aesthetics of the resulting magical gemstone. It won't do to have your anchor clash horribly with your magic."

"Of... course not," I said, and searched for a way out. "I don't suppose you have any of these gems on hoof, do you?"

"Oh, my no. I'm sorry, Twilight, but anything that has a hope of keeping up with you is going to be quite rare. And very expensive if I'm not lucky enough to find them locally."

"I can pay," I said. "Could you start looking soon?"

"For you, darling, I'll start today! But if you don't mind me asking, what kind of magic do you need an anchor like this for?"

"An experiment in acute telekinetic control in a magic-starved environment," I replied with as much truth as possible.

Her eyes glazed over by the fourth word. "Ah, I see. Well, good luck, Twilight. I'll let you know if I manage to find anything useful!"

"Thank you, Rarity," I replied, and beat a hasty retreat from her presence.

In all honesty, that conversation went quite well with her. Perhaps I was becoming less disgusted by her false outward persona, or perhaps I had become more able to stand such things after my time in Canterlot, but she didn't grate on me quite so harshly. She still grated, mind, just not to the point where I wanted to do terrible violence to her.

I wanted to visit Rainbow Dash next, a pleasant contrast to the ponies I'd gone to first, but she wasn't in town, and none of the pegasi that I talked to knew where she was. So, with heavy hooves I made my way to Fluttershy's cottage. It's not that I didn't like Fluttershy, per se, it's more that she is incredibly tiring to be around.

I occupied myself during the walk with more work in my notebook. I began designing the blade I would create, working out the tolerances I'd need, the shape and sharpness of it. It couldn't be something that a pony could catch, so there could be no dull edges. That required a circular shape, but I also wanted it to be used for piercing attacks when necessary. I eventually settled on a curving swirl shape with two points extending in opposite directions from a thicker middle section that could house the anchor gem.

Fluttershy was out caring for the many, many animals that called her home their own. She smiled and waved as I arrived, but didn't rush over to me immediately, instead finishing what she had been doing before flitting my way.

I will admit some jealousy at the grace of pegasi in the air. My costume lets me 'fly' in a rudimentary manner, but since it basically runs on telekinetics it's all about direct movement. Powerful, but hardly graceful. If I was still capable of the wings spell, I might spend some time refining it so that I could have a pair of proper wings. The energy draw and response time could certainly be an improvement over my current capabilities.

Ah, right. I'm rambling again. Back to Fluttershy.

She landed in front of me, clearly happy that I was there but also unsure of herself. I don’t know what she wanted to do or say, probably give me another hug or something, but she was just so uneasy with herself that she couldn’t follow through with the impulse. Twilight was uptight, but I think it’s Fluttershy who really needs to unclench.

“Hi, Fluttershy, how are you doing today?” I asked, grin set in place and what I hoped was the right level of softness to keep her from locking up.

“Oh, um, I’m pretty good, I guess,” she said, kicking at the dirt. “How are… how are you?”

“I’m great,” I said. “Happy to see all my friends again!”

“Oh, um, that’s good. It’s just…”

Of course she would trail off like that. “Just what?”

“Just… um. Nothing.”

I wasn’t going to let her get away with that, even though it would have probably made my life much easier. “Come on, Fluttershy, you know you can tell me anything, right?”

“Oh, yes!” she eagerly agreed, nodding with graceful vigor. “I know that, Twilight.”

“So why don’t you tell me what’s bugging you?”

“Oh, um…” She mumbled something unintelligible.

“Fluttershy,” I said with all the assertive authority I could muster. “Spit it out.”

“Your smile!” she squeaked. I was taken aback, unable to respond. She seemed encouraged by this silence. “You’re just, um, smiling in a way, that’s, um, well, not good.”

At which point I came to the realization that I can’t fake a smile worth a damn. The harder I try, the more I look like Twilight at her most neurotic. I did some tests with a mirror later that night and, well, it’s a scary sight.

I sighed and dropped the grin. “Trying too hard?” I asked her.

Fluttershy nodded. “Much too hard, that looked like it hurt.” I laughed at that, a harsh chuckle. “Are you really okay, Twilight? If I can tell you anything, you know you can do the same with me, right?”

Ah, the spirit of kindness itself. If only. Yet there are some burdens that I can still share. “It’s hard, Fluttershy. Hard to be back in Ponyville, to act like everything’s okay and that nothing has changed.”

She stepped close, nuzzling me with a quick dip of her head. It’s surprising how effective such a small gesture can be. “You don’t have to pretend, Twilight. Not for us.”

“I do,” I said. “Trust me, you do not want to know some of the things that go through my head.”

“Nothing can be that bad,” Fluttershy said. Beautiful and beautifully naive, as always. I didn’t disabuse her of that notion, but I didn’t tell her any more of my problems, either. I spent about an hour with her, helping with her animals and chatting about the things I’d missed in Ponyville while I was gone. I left her house feeling both lighter than I had left it, and emotionally drained. She’s just so… paradoxically weak. I feel like I have to walk on eggshells around her, like she’s some fragile doll that could shatter at the slightest pressure. Yet she insists on taking on the burdens of others, and has proved that her back is strong enough to bear them. Her own worst enemy. Very difficult to deal with.

I ventured to Sweet Apple Acres next, and it was late enough in the day that Applejack was done working in the orchards and doing the chores that kept her closer to home. I found her drawing water for the various animals that populated her various barns. Which they seemed to have a new one of every few weeks. I don’t know what keeps happening to the old ones. No, scratch that, I do. They get Cutie-Mark Crusadered. Or they die in one of Ponyville’s many disasters. Which, come to think of it, could easily include the Crusaders. So there you go.

“Howdy, Twi!” Applejack called out as I came up the road. “Great idea about that town picnic! I’m lookin’ forward to it!”

That gave me pause. “You know about the picnic?”

“First stop for Pinkie,” she said in explanation. “Gonna need a lot of food for a picnic that big.”

“I was thinking it’d be more of a pot-luck thing,” I said.

“Well, looks like Sweet Apple Acres is in luck, then!” Applejack laughed. “‘Cause we’ll be catering a table or two.”

“Bet I’m paying for that, too,” I grumbled under my breath. “Thanks, Pinkie. As if my royal expense reports won’t be bad enough this month.” I shook off the thought. I had much bigger things to care about than paying for a picnic. Considering everything else Celestia was willing to hoof the bill for, I doubt this would worry her. “I’m glad you’re happy with it. How have you been doing, otherwise?”

“Otherwise?” Applejack repeated, raising an eyebrow in some question that I didn’t get. “I’m doin’ mighty fine. More curious how you’re settlin’ back in, though. Throwin’ big parties just ain’t like you.”

“It was a spur of the moment thing,” I admitted. “I wasn’t planning on it until I was right in front of Pinkie Pie. I probably panicked.”

“Eyup, I’ve done that myself,” she said. “But that ain’t answerin’ my question.”

Direct, astute. No artifice or dissembling. Rarity’s polar opposite, and a joy to work with. A genuine smile touched my lips. “No. I guess not. I’m having a tough time, honestly. I hope it’ll get easier after a few days, but…”

Applejack nodded in understanding. “Well, you need anythin’, anythin’ at all, you just ask, ya hear?”

“I hear,” I said. “Actually, do you happen to know where Rainbow Dash is? I’m trying to see all my friends today, but nopony knows where she is.”

“She’s out by Whitetail Woods,” Applejack said. “Dealin’ with some kinda weird weather emergency.”

The best news I’d heard yet. I perked up immediately. “Thanks, AJ. I’ll see you at the picnic.”

“Yes you will,” she replied, waving goodbye. “And remember, Twilight, anythin’ you need, I’m here.”

“I will,” I promised her, and left for the Whitetail Woods.


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The Whitetail Woods are the pleasant alternative to the Everfree Forest. Miles and miles of pristine wilderness broken only by a few paths tread into the ground by ponies passing from town to town, or, in the fall, by the annual Running of the Leaves. A proud memory of Twilight's but I would probably have been more interested in the antics of her two friends than keeping good running form.

Right now the woods were full of green leaves and singing birds. A shady paradise within trotting distance of Ponyville. I only had to take one look at them before I decided that they weren't for me. Nothing against a peaceful forest, of course, I just prefer the city. The million bugs that thought they could eat me alive might have had something to do with it.

I had worried for a bit whether I'd be able to find Dash amongst all that lush insect-filled greenery, but I needn't have worried. She was quite obvious, as was the heavy, black, lightning-spitting cloud she was battling.

The cloud roiled like a living thing, twisting and billowing as if caught in the throes of a tempest wind that did not touch the branches of the trees beneath it. Half a dozen pegasi circled it, diving in to deliver kicks and bursts of wind, trying to break it apart and drive it away from the forest below. Chief among them was the darting form of Rainbow Dash, her signature prismatic trail creating ribbons of light that encircled the monstrous cloud. The efforts of the weather ponies were making headway, but I could tell immediately that it was slow going, and they were tiring.

I came as close to the battle as I felt was safe and watched. I noted how some of the weaker pegasi were flagging, not dodging quite as fast as they should have, and the lightning strikes from the cloud were getting closer and closer to hitting them. When one inevitably wasn't fast enough I caught the injured pony in my magic and lowered them gently to the ground. It wasn't long before my efforts were noticed, and I was graced with a burst of colors as Dash zipped up to me.

"Hey, Twilight," she said, sounding casual despite the fight she had just been leading. "How's it going?"

"I'm good," I replied. "What the hay is that?"

"Dunno. It just appeared this morning. I figure it wandered out of the Everfree Forest or something."

"You look like you're having a lot of trouble with it," I noted.

She shrugged. "It was twice as big an hour ago. We'll get it eventually. So, have you seen any of the others today?"

I nodded. "You're the last one I was able to find. By the way, Pinkie might be stopping by inviting you to a picnic party tomorrow. Just warning you."

Dash smirked. "Figured she'd do something."

"Dash!" a pegasus called from above. "If you're done chatting can you please get back to work?"

"Hey, Cloudkicker, why don't you go and live up to your name?" Dash retorted, but her tone was one of good-natured ribbing, no real malice in it. She turned back to Twilight with an apologetic smile. "Sorry, gotta fly."

"Can I help?" I asked, the impulse to stay and watch her too strong to resist. Not that I was trying.

She frowned at the request. "I don't know, Twilight. Unicorns aren't really known for their weather finesse, you know?"

"I can help protect you guys from the lightning," I offered. "And I can probably carve it up into smaller clouds."

"Nuh-uh on the last one," Dash said, shaking her head. "We tried that already. That just makes a bunch of little clouds with as much kick as one big one. Trust me, it's easier when it's all in one place and we can hit it together." She paused for a moment as another pegasus was struck and sent spiraling down before recovering and winging her way back into the air. "The lightning stuff sounds pretty good, though."

There are a couple ways to make a pony resistant to electricity. The weather ponies were already not grounded, so they had that advantage, but the lightning still had enough kick to stun them, and the heat could burn badly if they weren't careful. I could use my magic to give them a shield against the heat and shock, but it might interfere with their flight and would probably prevent their strikes from being so effective on the cloud.

I decided to go with something that would draw the lightning away from the weather team. Fortunately, this was the same magic that I had weaponized against the addicts at that last hideout, so I'd studied up on it recently. I found a relatively clear area close to the cloud, pruning away any tree branches that might interfere. Then I began working a charge into the soil, being careful to keep myself well away from it.

Static lifted my mane into a frizzy mess, and I tasted ozone on my tongue as I let my magic work. It didn't take long to see results. Lightning flashed down from the cloud, striking the place that I had set up the opposing charge in. The strike jolted me, magic feeding back into my horn form the connection I had made. It was in that jolt that I felt something familiar: black magic.

I narrowed my eyes and snarled a curse under my breath. I didn't know who, but somepony had created this cloud, and infused it with dark powers. It wasn't impossible that this was the work of a rogue unicorn, but I knew even then that it was black crystal powering this monstrosity. It would be too much of a coincidence otherwise.

Fury rose in me as the realization took hold, Ponyville should have been beyond the reach of the drug, but this showed me it was not. Twilight's life and Ponyville in general were hardly peaceful and idyllic, but this? None of them were ready for this. They couldn't fight it, not like I could. It would overwhelm them from the inside, and if whoever had created this cloud was in Ponyville, it already was. Whatever else Ponyville was to me, it was the place I was ‘born’. It was where I had the first memories I could call my own. It was home.

They were threatening my home.

I poured magic into the ground, overcoming the equalization of charge that the lightning had accomplished. Soon there were strikes falling every few seconds, draining the unnatural cloud of its power. It wasn't enough. I needed to confront it directly, to lay my hooves into it and rend it. If only clouds could bleed, I would paint the forest with it.


Dash’s cry knocked me free of my enraged reverie. I was stunned for a moment, completely overwhelmed by the power of the anger that had filled me. It was clear that the cloud was not just created by dark magic, but actively being powered by it. The lightning had interacted with my own magic to create a conduit from me to that power source, and it had reached out to influence me. Just like every damn time I encounter black crystal. Seriously, it’s like my brain’s got a Pinkie-esque ‘welcome dark magic’ banner on it. Not a problem anymore, of course, but that took a lot of effort and a… Sorry, not relevant.

“Twilight, stop it!” Dash shouted from somewhere just above me.

I glanced up and saw the wide-eyed panic on her face, then back to the cloud to find that my efforts had not gone unnoticed by the black magic animating it. The entirety of the cloud’s lightning output was flashing down into the ground where I had directed it, but while that threat was neutralized it had come up with an entirely new one. The cloud had gone from one solid mass of roiling vapors to a tentacled monstrosity, near-solid whips of cloud-stuff stretching out and lashing at the ponies desperately trying to evade it. As I watched one of those tendrils hit a tree, shearing through branches and leaving spot fires behind. I cut off the magic to my lightning-trap, but the damage was already done.

“Get away from it!” I screamed, teleporting myself and Dash half a mile away. She came out of the teleport looking dazed, but quickly shook it off and dropped down to me. The weather ponies wisely heeded my warning, scattering in all directions as the unnatural cloud attacked anything that came close to it.

“That,” Dash said. “Is one angry cumulonimbus.”

“We have to stop it,” I said, trying to think of all the ways I would create a beast like this, and how it could be defeated.

“Well, it’s not heading towards Ponyville anymore,” Dash pointed out. “So that’s good.”

“When you broke it up before, did it act strangely?”

“You mean stranger than sprouting tentacles and going all sky-kraken on us?”

I paused at that. “Sky-kraken?”

“Daring Do and the Oyster of Omens,” was Dash’s reply.

I nodded in understanding. “Right. Yes. I mean, no. Not stranger than… sky-kraken. I mean, did you have to push them back into one big lump, or did the little clouds come back together on their own?”

Dash thought about it for a moment. “I guess after we gave up on separating them, they kinda drifted back together. It was easier to get them bunched up than to pull them apart, that’s for sure.”

“Good,” I said, closing my eyes to better visualize the engineering that would go into it. “That means there’s a core.”

“A what?”

“A central place where all the magic is emanating from,” I said. “The heart of the sky-kraken. If I can reach that, I can shut it all down before it does more damage.” I looked at the cloud again, watching how its tendrils stretched. “It isn’t in the center of mass, and judging from the differing lengths that those limbs stretch, I’d say it’s… there.” I flared my horn, sending a beam of simple light-making magic into the storm. The dark cloud lit up except for a single spot where the magic was absorbed.

“Whoa. Cool,” Dash said. “So, how do we get it?”

“I need to get close,” I said. “Very close.”

“You can’t just, you know, magic it out?”

I shook my head. “It would resist. I’d get it eventually, but who knows what dangerous stuff it would do first?”

Dash took another look at the cloud, and a cocky smile lit up her features. Her wings flared out as she straightened, flexing her legs to limber them up. “Oh yeah,” she said. “We got this.”

I stared at her, thoughts of how to fight the cloud completely gone. All I could focus on was her. Standing there, pride and confidence coming off her like heat from a furnace. There was no doubt in her, no compromise, no hesitation. I wanted to bask in that. I wanted to wrap myself around her and let the fury of the storm be an appropriate backdrop.

Infatuation. I’d felt the edges of it before, on the day I left for Canterlot, but I was too wrapped up in myself then to fully realize it. Or, more accurately, too wrapped up in what wasn’t myself. I had separated myself from Twilight more completely now, I had learned that my desires were not echoes of hers. Twilight had liked Rainbow Dash as a friend, but saw her arrogance as both endearing and annoying. I found it sexy.

“Have you eaten lunch yet, Twilight?” Dash asked me. I answered with something unintelligible. “Uh, okay. Hope you can keep it down!” Then she pounced on top of me, wrapping her legs around my barrel and lifted us both into the sky.

I might have screamed at the sudden takeoff. Maybe. My memories are not the most accurate during those first few seconds. Contradictory impulses warred for supremacy. From the anger at being touched without permission to a raw spike of desire at who was doing the touching, and from panic at the sudden acceleration and altitude to the stark bliss of flight. In the end, my will won out over all and I focused on the sky-kraken.

“The tendrils are kept together with heavy electrostatic charges!” I shouted over the wind. “Any interaction will be catastrophic!”


“Don’t let the tentacles hit us!”


Rainbow Dash took us high, then dove towards the storm. The acceleration alone was enough to make me feel like I was going to be sick, but I managed to keep it together. The cloud reacted to our approach, sending whirling tentacles of dark cloud-stuff whipping at us in chaotic patterns. Dash responded by becoming extremely erratic in her flight. She dodged and weaved through the tendrils like she was navigating an obstacle course, moving so fast that we left a twisting pathway of light wherever we went. There were some close calls, but Rainbow Dash is the fastest pegasus in all of Equestria, and even with a passenger she was more than a match for any cloud, powered by black magic or not.

The speed, the danger, the g-forces that threatened to black me out every time Dash took a hairpin turn to avoid colliding with a deadly tentacle, all of it combined into a vicious joy within me. A visceral sense of being alive. A joy that I could see mirrored in Dash’s eyes.

With one final, pulse-pounding turn we were close to the center of the storm. The tendrils twisted above and around us, trying to close in. I spotted the place where the core was, its position clear as I scattered more magic into the cloud.

“How are you going to get it out?” Dash asked.

“You’ll have to toss me at it!” I yelled back, calculating how deep in the cloud the core was.

“Wouldn’t that be, uh, bad?”

“I can handle it!”

“Are you sure?”

I twisted in her grip turning to look her in the eye. “Dash. Trust me.”

She stared at me for a moment. I don’t know what she was thinking then, what she saw, but as the moment ended her cocky grin was back. “You got it! Just say when!” Then she accelerated at the storm.

I had only a moment to finish my calculations before I had to yell out: “Now!”

“Bomb’s away!” Dash cried, laughing as she released me and shot backwards between the encroaching tendrils.

I knew immediately that I was aimed wrong, so I called forth my magic and used my telekinesis to bump me onto a proper course. Then I surrounded myself with a bubble of power, blocking out the dangerous heat and charge of the cloud as I hit it. There was a moment of almost peaceful quiet as I entered the storm. It was dark, save for the glow of my horn, and without any external references I felt very still. The power raged around me, held at bay by my magic, and something in that felt right.

I hit the core a second after entering the cloud. Physically hit it, I mean. It was a chunk of black crystal about the size of my head, full of spiky protrusions and sharp edges. I slammed into it, parts of it piercing my skin, and grabbed hold. I carried it all the way out the other side of the storm, where I started the much-less-fun process of falling.

The cloud was still drawing its energy from the core, so I used my far too close contact with it to drain its power. That entailed magically reaching into the core and subduing whatever spells had been laid into it. That part was, surprisingly, very easy. The hard part was when the feedback threw a bunch of dark energy into me through the connection.

My horn bubbled with black power, my eyes trailed shadows that I could actually see as I fell. Rage and fear hit me in equal measure, making me want to lash out at anything and everything. I had been planning to do a quick teleport to bleed momentum before I hit the ground, but the turmoil of emotions the dark magic created destroyed my concentration. I fell, and probably would have been very badly hurt if it were not for Rainbow Dash.

She swooped in, catching me bare feet from the ground, swinging us up into the air before spiraling down for a gentle landing. She let go and smirked. “Told you we got this,” she said.

I leapt on her, crushing my mouth to hers in a passionate kiss that took her, and me, completely by surprise. It only lasted a moment before I was able to reassert my will and pull away from her. “Sorry!” I said. “Getting some magic feedback. Makes me do weird things.”

“Uh,” Dash’s slack expression said it all. “Huh?”

I felt my cheeks burn with embarrassment and I looked away, choosing instead to focus on the sky-kraken. I had successfully ended the spells animating it, and the result was immediate and spectacular. Electricity bled from the cloud in a torrent of lightning, most of it going to where I had set up my magical lighting-trap. The rest struck trees or discharged harmlessly into the air. It was all over in a moment, thunder shaking the trees from the force of the discharge. Then, the power holding it together gone, it began to rain.

“I, uh,” Dash said, then shook her head hard to clear it. “Twilight! You’re bleeding!”

I looked down, seeing the cuts the core had made. “Yes, I am,” I mused. I absently sent a cleansing spell into the wounds, distantly worried about getting some of the black crystal into my system. Then I turned to the core. It lay there, quiescent, but still filled with dark power. This hadn’t been the work of some addict, this had been a deliberate act of engineering. Somepony with power and the knowledge of how to manipulate black crystal had done this, set a monster storm heading for Ponyville.

“Twilight, we’ve got to get you to the hospital.”

“It’s not that bad,” I replied. I looked up to see Dash’s worried eyes locked on me. “It’s not.”

“You’re hurt, Twilight,” Dash said, a steel resolve in her voice. “You’re going to the hospital, and that’s final.”

“I…” I trailed off as I realized the angry retort that I was about to say. I could argue that I was a grown mare and would make my own decisions, but she was just looking out for me. She cared, at least about who she thought I was. “You’re right,” I admitted, hanging my head. “Look, I’ll teleport over to the hospital and get looked at. You should make sure the other weather ponies are okay.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. “You’re not going to pass out mid-teleport or something?”

“I won’t,” I assured. “I will make it to the hospital. Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.”

She relaxed at my invoking of the inviolable promise. “Well, okay. I’ll see you there.” She turned to go, wings spread and legs bent for takeoff, but paused and looked back at me. I wish I had a camera to capture that image, sometimes it seems that memories are not enough. “Hey, Twilight?” she said.


That smile again. That beautiful, confident smile. She was the master of her domain and she would not even allow the thought of failure to slow her. “You were awesome back there.” Then she launched herself up and vanished into the sky, trailing a shining rainbow all the way.

I let her go, feeling my heart pounding from more than just the fading adrenaline high, and took a deep, cleansing breath. That breath pulled at my wounds, reminding me that I was actually injured. I shrugged off the pain, it wasn’t worse than what I’d already felt in the past couple weeks. I picked up the core, quiet now, but full of such devastating potential. I considered it for a moment, and made a decision. I had promised to make it to the hospital, and therefore I’d have to go there, but I hadn’t promised that I would go there first. So I brought to mind the place I had decided to put my teleportation circle and, in a burst of light, I left.


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The Everfree Forest is probably a lot more dangerous than we give it credit for, and that's saying something considering most ponies are terrified of the place. It's unnatural, in the truest sense of the word. Left without supervision by ponykind, it has become the emblem of the world beyond pony civilization. There are things in that wood that could trample armies and crush our fragile cities beneath star-strewn claws.

Which didn't mean that Twilight and her friends wouldn't traipse through it whenever something gave them the slightest of cause to. Ever since that first long night, when they became friends and defeated Nightmare Moon, the Everfree doesn't hold the same fear for them as it does for the rest of Ponyville's citizens. Which means that it holds even less fear for me.

Deep in the forest lies the ancient, forgotten castle of the Royal Pony Sisters. Neither I nor Twilight have looked too deeply into the origins or abandonment of that castle, or why it's in the middle of the Everfree, but I figure that it had something to do with Luna's fall to darkness. That theory makes sense, at least. There's a lot of dark power bound up in the forest, a lot of hidden, bitter malice. The castle itself is strangely free from that dark energy, perhaps the after-effects of having once held the Elements of Harmony for a thousand years.

Since practically nopony goes into the forest, and certainly not to the castle, it served as the perfect place to set up my teleportation circle. The path to the castle was a couple hours long normally, but with a judicious use of teleportation and I could be there from the library in ten minutes. This would become my primary base to study black crystal and refine my techniques to fight it. A 'secret lair' as Vinyl would come to refer to it.

At this point all I did was drop off the materials to make the circle and the core before returning to Ponyville. I would come back later that night to really begin my work.

I made it to the hospital before Dash did, thankfully. It might have raised questions I was certainly not ready for if I hadn't. Not that those questions didn't come up eventually anyway, but they would have been much more disastrous to my efforts then.

My wounds were seen to. The doctors were still wary of me, but professional enough, and I had no reason to be angry with them this time. It turned out that some of the weather ponies were hurt much worse than I was. The lightning the cloud had initially been attacking with hadn't hurt them much, but the tentacles of the sky-kraken had left burns and nerve damage in their wake. Three of them would be out of commission for weeks, one was even in danger of losing a leg.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the sky-kraken form of the cloud was its true function. It was an engine of destruction, probably set to go off when it reached Ponyville, and my interference activated it early. I didn't know for sure until I examined the core, but it made sense then, and my later investigations confirmed the hypothesis. I set myself to the task of thinking out why somepony would create and loose such a thing while I waited to be released from the hospital.

The conclusion I reached at the time was that it was a test. The cloud could have been a prototype weapon, something that needed refinement. It was sent to Ponyville to see it in action because, honestly, nopony would notice yet another bizarre disaster befalling the town.

This turned out to not be entirely accurate, but at the time it was the best I could come up with.

I saw Spike before I left, making sure he was healing comfortably. He wanted to hear all about what I had done in Canterlot, but I was eager to return to the castle and complete my link to Canterlot, so I brushed off the request. A little rude, perhaps, but considering he didn't mention it later I don't think he was too hurt.

Dash was harder to get by. She kept trying to corner me, but I didn't want to talk to her. No, that's not entirely accurate. I didn't want to talk to her, and that difference was where I was having problems. I didn't want to expose Dash to that side of myself. It was too close to the violence, too wrapped up in the predator within. I had promised to be as much Twilight as I could be for them, and the things I wanted to do were very much un-Twilight. With the vestiges of dark magic in my system, I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to stop myself.

I guess, eventually, I couldn't.

Regardless, when Dash wants to talk to you, there are very few ways to avoid her. She managed to catch me as I came out of Spike's room, prepared to just teleport out. That wasn't something Twilight would do to her friend, though. So I grudgingly allowed the conversation to happen.

"What the hay was that back there?" she demanded.

I winced. "Look, that thing was full of black magic," I explained as fast as I could talk. "It kinda got into me and there was some weird interactions and I didn't mean to kiss you but I'm not really responsible for what happened and you should probably just forget it because I know that's what I'm going to do! Yup! Just forget it!"

"What?" Dash gave me a frozen look of perplexion before shaking herself. "Okay, whatever. I'm talking about that cloud. You sure looked like you knew some stuff about it, and I want to know what the hay was up with it."

I blinked, heat rising to my cheeks at my presumption. "Oh. Right. That. Um, well, it was acting really weird."

"No duh, Twilight. You said it was full of black magic, right? So how’d that happen?"

I took a deep breath. "I don't know," I lied. "I was able to figure out how to shut it down with my magic, but until I do some research I'm as in the dark as you are on this one. Sorry."

Her shoulders slumped. "Aw, man. I was hoping you'd know. The weather patrol doesn't have the numbers or the budget to fight something like that every day. I hope it was the only one."

"Me too."

"And what the heck was with you kissing me?" I could have smacked her. Hard. "I know I'm awesome and had just saved your life and all, but you kinda looked freaked out about it."

"Black magic," I said in a flat deadpan. "Makes you loopy."

She nodded as if she understood. "Kay. Look, I gotta fly, we're way behind on today's weather. Take care of yourself, Twilight. And, uh, try not to get into any more black magic stuff, okay? Especially around ponies who don't know you."

"Will do," I said with a roll of my eyes. She was off without a backwards glance. I did, however, manage to catch her smile as she was turning away, which made it clear she had been needling me the entire time. I had no doubts that this little incident would be making the rounds with the rest of the girls, and I would be lucky if all I got were a few hidden giggles when they saw me.

I returned to the ancient castle as quickly as I could without raising suspicions. The work to create a proper teleportation circle isn’t actually all that hard, but it does require precision and attention over a long period of time, so it is tiring. By the time I was done it the moon was rising and I was feeling the strain. Yet I was also eager to get to work, so I wasted no time in activating my circle and sending myself straight to Canterlot.

Teleporting this way is very different from doing it normally. There's a kind of hang time between disappearing one place and reappearing another, a span of bodiless stasis where your mind is still active, but lacking any of the usual physical inputs that define our existence. It doesn't last long, objectively, but from within the effect it can stretch for as long as you care to want.

I'd experienced this before. Or, rather, Twilight had during her training with Celestia. She found the experience peaceful, almost satisfying. I found it unnerving, aggravating. It was an enforced state of uselessness, and I craved the ability to act. In retrospect, it could have been a good opportunity to examine my thoughts and motivations without the distractions of my baser instincts and carnal needs.

No, on second thought it would have been a mistake. The physical is heavily intertwined with my psyche, attempting to remove it as a factor would have resulted in a deeply flawed analysis.

I popped back into the world exactly where I expected to, in the little apartment that was the second half of my secret lair. I held still for several long, tense minutes as I waited to see if my attempt to overcome the detection wards laid around the city had been similarly successful. Eventually I was sure that I had arrived unnoticed, and I set to work.

The apartment was all but bare of furnishings, only a cot in the corner and a small table without a chair adorning it. My costume hung up on one wall and a few supplies in case I needed a quick snack or some water were left in the kitchen. The sparseness suited me just fine. This was a place for focus, a place to work, not a home to be comfortable in.

I donned the costume quickly, running my magic into the purpose-grown crystals that studded the leather. Immediately I felt different, more confident, more in control. The power of dressing up.

I left with a quick teleport and made my way to Vinyl's apartment. I found Octavia there, practicing with her cello.

She jumped as I arrived, letting out a high-pitched shriek. I waited for her to calm down before speaking. "Where's Vinyl?"

"At one of her shows," Octavia answered, shooting me an annoyed look. "You could have warned me you would be by tonight."

"Not without leaving a trail," I replied. It wasn't exactly true, I could think of three different options to get a message to her without it being traceable, but I didn't particularly want to go through the effort just to salve Octavia's temper. "Has anything new been discovered?"

Octavia shook her head. "You've done quite a lot of damage to the black crystal trade. Vinyl says they're running scared of you."

I smiled at that. "Good."

"Satisfying, perhaps," Octavia said, but I could tell she found it distasteful. "But it's forced them to go to ground. All the sources of information Vinyl generally relies on for this sort of thing have dried up. And I'm not going to let her dig any deeper than is safe for her."

I mumbled an acknowledgement, already considering what I could do. "They have an agenda," I said, thinking out loud. "Not just making money, no. They're going about things too strangely for that. I've disrupted that agenda, but they won't just abandon it entirely because of the interference of one mare. So, what will they do next?"

"That depends on their goal, doesn't it?" Octavia said. I looked at her, almost having forgotten she was in the room. "If it's not money, then what? At their most refined, ponies only do things for a few reasons: survival, love, luxury and–"

"Power," I finished for her. "Yes. It's about power. It's always been about power. Dark power, dominance. Control the populace through addiction, translate that into control of the government. They want to stage a coup."

Octavia shuddered at that. "If that is the case, then what would be the thing to do to get them closer to staging that coup?"

I fell silent, frowning as I thought about it. "They'd need more than just a popular revolt. They'd need a way to neutralize the ponies who don't get addicted. Not only them, but the Guard as well. They're already on to the spread of black crystal, they'll be watching to ensure none of their own are addicted, so they won't be betrayed from the inside. No. They can't do it all with addicts. They need an actual fighting force to counter the military."

"Even if they have that, there's still the Elements of Harmony," Octavia said.

I snorted at the thought. "Blocking them will be easier than you think," I told her, still naive in so many ways.

"What about the Princesses?"

I sighed. "That's the big one. What would they do about the Princesses? They can be defeated, but you'd need overwhelming power to accomplish it."

"How would you do it?"

"I wouldn't," I said, my pride stinging even while I found myself unable to deny the truth. "I couldn't. But if I were crazy enough to try..." I trailed off.

"If you were, then what?"

I shook my head. "I don't know. Everything I can think of right now would leave the power in the hooves of somepony else, and that's not going to be the goal of the black crystal's masters. I'll have to think about it."

"Well, once you find out, then you should have a better idea of what to do to stop it," Octavia said. "And maybe leave Vinyl and I out of it," she continued under her breath. I almost didn't catch it, but my ears had been pointed in her direction and she hadn't been as quiet about it as she could have. Perhaps she was baiting me, trying to goad me into either arguing with her or agreeing and leaving them alone. It didn't matter, I wasn't going to do that. I needed them for a while yet, and I wasn't going to let that advantage go because she was getting squeamish about the danger.

I didn’t say anything about it, acted like I hadn’t heard. “They’re going to be trying something else. Something they can aim at the upper echelons of power.”

“Like you.”


She let out a delicate snort and turned away from me. “I think perhaps you’ve had your sights set too low.”

“What do you mean?”

She walked over to the turntable, laying a hoof gently on it as she turned her head to look at me again. “You’ve been working at this level so far, correct? Going around to all the clubs with Vinyl and tackling the drug from the street.”

“Yes.” I could already see where she was going, and she was right. It just wasn’t news to me.

“That’s all well and good, but if this is a conspiracy as grand as you say, with the goal you say it has, then, well, you might try turning your eyes towards the more refined atmospheres of the moneyed class.” She crossed the room to stand beside her cello. “If they are manufacturing this drug without worrying about the costs, then it stands to reason that they already have all the financial backing they’ll need for their venture. That means that whoever is behind this, the money, is at this level.”

I nodded. I had thought of this angle soon after my first attack on the addicts. The manufacturer was barely making any money on their wares, and what they did make seemed like a token. A nod to the way things were ‘supposed’ to be done so as not to create too much paranoia. The problem with investigating it was that I had no idea where to start. As Octavia was now reminding me, though, that’s why heroes had sidekicks.

“Octavia, that’s brilliant!” I tried to put as much legitimate compliment into that as possible. I may not have been entirely successful. “You’re absolutely right! We need to start looking at this from a new perspective. I’ll need you to dig up anything you can find on any strange activity from anypony with enough bits to put together something like this in the past three months.”

“I… wait. You want me to–?”

“Who else?” I gave her my most sincere expression. “I can’t investigate openly, so you’re the best mare I know for dealing with the upper class.”

She glared at me, but her shoulders slumped in defeat. “I… fine. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you,” I smiled. It was a genuine smile, if not for all the reasons I wanted her to think it was for, and it seemed to put her at ease. “So, what else for tonight? Vinyl won’t be back until well after midnight. Do you think you’ll head back to Ponyville?”

It was tempting. I was tired and hurt and wanted nothing more than a good night’s sleep. I shook my head, though. “I have them scared, but I have to keep them scared. They need to know I’m still out here, waiting, watching. Waiting in every alley, hiding in every shadow. It will slow the street-level advance, maybe make them slip up elsewhere so you can spot it.”

“But you don’t know where any of their bases are,” she pointed out. “What are you going to do?”

I grinned. “Find some trouble.” Then I was gone.

I love a good exit.

Finding Trouble

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Trouble, as it turns out, is not that hard to find once you go looking for it. I didn't have any good leads on anypony who might know more about the manufacturers of black crystal, but I did know where a few more drug dens were, and I figured keeping my presence felt could only be a positive for Canterlot.

The Guard were out in force, armored pegasi patrolling the skies while squads of unicorns and earth ponies searched the streets. They were good at their jobs, and very wary, but their presence only made it marginally more difficult for me to get around. I can only imagine that they were having a similarly minor impact on the locals, who knew the sleazy side of the city far better than I did.

I hit the first place I came to at a run, teleporting into the midst of a circle of ponies passing a smoking bowl around. A quick flash of diagnostic magic only revealed two black crystal addicts. The rest were addicts too, perhaps, but of a much more benign sort. I took the two who interested me, lifting them up with my magic and teleporting all of us into an alley I had scoped out earlier.

I slammed them into separate walls, quickly casting a warding spell that would keep the sounds from carrying far. They struggled in my telekinetic grip, but were clearly not up to the challenge. I spent a moment studying them, gauging how far their addictions had progressed. Neither of them were terminal addicts, thankfully, and only one had really begun the downward spiral to that sorry state. The other was the equivalent of a casual user, he'd probably been doing it for no more than two weeks, probably less.

"Who sold you the black crystal?" I demanded, keeping my voice low and dangerous.

They both stared at me with wide, fear-filled eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about," the less addicted one babbled. "I've never heard of black crystal! Why do you think I would know anything? I didn't do anything! Let me go!"

I forced his mouth shut, making him bite off the tip of his tongue. He let out a muffled screech as blood began to leak out between his clenched teeth. "Do not think that I will believe a lie," I told the other one. "Again, who?"

"I got it from Alley Cat," he said, going very still.


"Last night," he said, swallowing hard.

I nodded at that, it was good information. Yesterday meant it wasn't one of the distributors I had already taken out. I doubted this 'Alley Cat' would have any important information themselves, but thought that any way I could hit the network was good. Ah, hindsight.

"Where is Alley Cat?"

"She usually hangs out around Jack Trade's," he gasped. I realized that I had been unconsciously squeezing both addicts and let up enough to let them both suck in deep breaths. I recognized the name of the place from the first time I had met Vinyl, she had called it a notorious black crystal hang out even then.

"Describe her."

"Orange unicorn, peach mane, cat's-eye cutie mark–"

"Enough," I shut his mouth like I had the other, only he was quick enough to avoid any damage to his tongue. I ran my magic over them, pulling out two packets of black crystal. I held them up to their faces. "These are killing you," I said, knowing they wouldn't care. "Keep using them and I will accelerate that process." I could see the understanding in their eyes. "For now you get to live." I dropped the sound ward, hearing the tell-tale clip-clop of approaching Guards. "When you get to the hospital tell them about your addiction, they might be able to help." The fear turned to confusion. This they didn't understand.

I snapped their rear legs, breaking them clean in two places each. They screamed, attracting the attention of the approaching patrol. I released them from my hold and teleported away, I didn't care to stick around and see what the guard would do with them. It didn't matter. I had a start for the night.

Jack Trade's was a dark place nestled into one of those strange features of a city built on the side of a mountain. It was called the Sky Promenade, and took the form of a kind of wide, long balcony that stretched out along the hanging edge of the city, open to air on one side and containing a row of shops and other attractions on the other. The Promenade was actually completely suspended, set over the long fall with glass strips in the street that ponies could walk on top of and admire the way they didn't plunge to their deaths. A particular draw for those who wanted to know what life was like for the pegasi, in the day it was a favourite destination of lovers, poets and tourists. At night most of the shops closed down and it was haunted by different sort of thrill-seeker.

Thus Jack Trade's was a club that, like me, lived a double life. By day it was a breezy tourist eatery, decked out in an eclectic assortment of decor from around the world ostensibly gathered by the eponymous Jack in his equally eponymous trades. By night the shutters closed on the windows and it morphed into a den of vice built around the idea that everything and anything was for sale, and prices were rarely set in bits.

Ha! Now that's a fancy bit of pathos. To liken myself to a place like Jack Trade's. Well, it says a lot about me, doesn't it? Putting forward a respectable front for the people who it doesn't really care for, pretending as hard as it can to be something it's not. Then, as soon as the eyes are off it, it reveals the degenerate truth.

In a place like Jack Trade's you can have a lot more fun after dark. You can also get a lot more dead. It's the danger that makes it exciting, the violence just under the surface. Running like poisoned blood, tainting everything it touches.

You can see why I make the comparison. I can only hope that it's not as apt as it appears on the surface.

There weren't any alleys along the Promenade, necessitating an open approach to my destination. That risked scaring away my quarry, but for the moment impact was more important than efficiency, so I forwent any sort of concealment or disguise for the brutally direct approach.

Like any shady bar, Jack Trade's had a burly bouncer watching over the door. Unlike most others, this bouncer was a pegasus. Where they had come up with a pony that thick from the avian tribe I do not know. I've seen large pegasi before in Ponyville, but that was obviously the result of some, ah, extra-natural enhancements. This pony didn't have that kind of disproportionate bulk, his wings were just as massive as the rest of him. He eyed the star-lit street with rough red eyes and waited like a guardian golem, nearly motionless.

I had no doubt that this bouncer was a pony to be reckoned with, his size providing strength, his pegasus magic providing speed. If he was anything other than dumb as a post, he was wasted guarding doors.

He saw me coming and I could see his enormous muscles tensing. The critical work-over wasn't the usual thuggish dismissal, though. I'd seen similar looks in the eyes of the Guard. He looked like he had some training.

He held up a hoof to stop me as I got close to the door. "Sorry, bar's closed for the night."

I tilted my head, as if confused about his statement. "Alley Cat," I said. "Is she inside?"

He gave no reaction, nothing I could use to infer a yes or no to my question. Definitely wasted guarding doors. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he said again, with just the right touches of authority and deference. "I'll have to ask you to move along."

"Now why would you do that?" I mused, more to myself than to him. "Jack Trade's is certainly open, or you wouldn't be here, but you're denying me entrance. What could it mean?"

"Ma'am, if you don't leave I will be forced to call the Guard."

"No you won't," I said. He blinked at this, the first real reaction I had got out of him. "So, what's happening in there that I'm not supposed to see?"

"Ma'am, I have--"

"Let me rephrase." I grabbed him in my magic, lifting him from the ground and constricting the telekinetic field like a vise. "Tell me what's going on inside."

He struggled for a few moments, long enough for him to realize that for all his bulk he was not going to get anywhere against my power. Then he went slack, conserving energy. "You're the vigilante."

"Astute, but not an answer to my question," I said. "Please to not make me add a threat to it. I assure you, it will not be as empty as your bluff about calling the Guard."

"I don't know," he said, remaining calm, though I could see the fear spark in his eyes. "I was hired to watch the door and keep everypony away for the next hour. I'm not involved with whatever's going on inside."

"Did you see any of the ponies inside?"

"A few."

"Orange unicorn mare? Cat's eye cutie mark?"


I smiled, pleased, though from the shadows of my hood he probably only saw a predatory grin. "Thank you. Do not struggle or you will lose a limb." I wrapped a binding spell around him, n elastic thing that would allow him to breath and shift position a little, but would constrict quickly and messily if he put too much effort into moving. "Sit tight, I'll be back." I told him as I set him to the side of the door and walked into Jack Trade's.

Okay, you are going to love this next bit. Remember, I didn't have a plan this night. I wasn't after a particular target, had no real idea of where I could strike to seriously hamper my quarry. I was injured, tired, and just looking to scare a dealer and blow off some steam from a long day of pretending to still be Twilight Sparkle. So when I stepped into Jack Trade's I had no idea what I was in for.

Inside was what I later learned was a full-on war meeting of the gang leaders of Canterlot. I hadn't even been aware that there were organized gangs. Not in the Manehattan street-thug sense, at least. But there were, and they all had a representative in Jack Trade's when I walked in looking for trouble. They were seated at several tables, glaring at each other while the big names in the underworld sat around one large, round table and hashed out what they were going to do about the Guard crackdown and, for an extra burst of amusement, me.

Among those ponies, sitting quietly and innocuously among the ranks of enforcers and lieutenants, was Alley Cat.

Alley Cat. What can I say about her? She is a piece of work. Well, for starters she's a terminally addicted black crystal user, but she doesn't look like one at all. She's one of the extra dangerous ones, one of those who has learned how to control the levels of dark magic in her body to keep from the downward slide that had claimed so many others. She runs on a permanent high that she can pull on to increase her already significant powers and simultaneously keep her addiction from becoming deadly. She's smart, manipulative, and, most surprising, fully in control of the emotions and impulses the black crystal instilled in her.

Dangerous. Oh, yes. Very dangerous.

Heads turned and eyes bulged as the gathered underworld of Canterlot took me in. There was a moment of shocked silence, and it slowly dawned on me that I was terribly, horrifically outnumbered and quite possibly overmatched. I should have run. I should have teleported out that instant and escaped before the mayhem could begin. But I didn't. Instead, a smile crept onto my face, the grin of a predator eager for the sudden challenge, ready to take on all comers. A wild energy coiled in my stomach, and I wanted to laugh.

"Shadow Slayer," Alley Cat breathed, an answering smile forming on her own lips.

As the weapons came out and the first shouts of combat broke the silence, I had only one thought going through my head: This was going to be fun.


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I wonder, sometimes, about the way danger excites me. It isn’t sexual, no. I know that particular feeling well enough to recognize it. It’s distinct from other forms of excitement, too. I remember all the things Twilight would get that special rush over. New avenues of research, doing well on a test, literally every time Celestia would compliment her… yes. Those things I remember well. There’s the anticipatory excitement of waiting to see one of Rarity’s new designs, or a new trick Dash had perfected. There’s the confused excitement of one of Pinkie’s escapades. The wondrous excitement of trying a spell for the first time. All of these are unique, each a feast of sensation all its own.

And there is fear. The pulsing blood, the taste of adrenaline in the back of your throat, the sensation of being on the ragged edge of control and the desperate need to assert your will. I remember this. An excitement all its own. Enticing, in a way. Twilight rarely felt more alive than those moments where her life was threatened. But it was not what I feel. I do feel fear, but that kind of existential terror is something only Celestia has managed to bring out in me.

I’m not afraid of fighting. I don’t feel that terror, that loss of control. Just the opposite. In fact, even when my life is legitimately in danger the fear I feel is subdued. It’s more frustration than anything else. Anger. No. I feel in control when in danger. When flesh, steel and magic are flashing all around me, trying to cut, bash or burn me down.

Is it the violence, perhaps? I don’t think so. I do not flinch from violence, but neither do I enjoy it for its own sake. I feel satisfaction at an opponent dispatched, at a threat removed, but to chain somepony up and whip them like a submissive at The Ranch? No. That would not entice me. So it’s not merely the violence.

Perhaps it is the danger itself, the threat of harm. It makes sense, you know. Dash would understand, her daredevil impulses are plain for the world to see. I may not fear it, but it does heighten the contrasts of life and death, highlighting the very fact of my existence to painful sharpness.

Yes. I think that comes closest to how I feel. I relish those moments of blood and danger because they are the times I feel most… myself.

When I’m fighting I don’t have the nagging thoughts of another mare clamoring for attention. I don’t examine every choice for the tangled strands of its origins, tracing everything to see if it leads back to Twilight Sparkle or is truly, wholly of my own making. I just act and react, caught in the moment, riding the power.

Whatever the origins of my enjoyment, from the moment the first kick was made I was fighting for my life, and loving it.

There were something on the order of thirty ponies in Jack Trade’s that night. Three were staff, handing out drinks to the thugs and trying to stay out of the way. They scattered as soon as the weapons came out, ducking behind the bar or scurrying for the back rooms. Eight were the gang leaders and underworld luminaries holding their summit. Each of those eight had brought along two guards, in case somepony decided to break the peace. Somepony like me.

Alley Cat was there as a representative of the black crystal manufacturer. I didn’t know her connection to them at the time, but the name she had called me as soon as she saw me was a pretty good hint. She had brought with her two of her own guards, though I couldn’t have picked them out from the rest of the crowd if you held a sword to my throat.

All of them moved in a disorganized unison at my appearance. Some were confused by me, others alarmed. There were probably a few who didn’t see what kind of threat I could be, and others who had heard of what I’d done and were overestimating my prowess. Still others had no idea what was going on and were just moving because everypony else was. Apparently the various gangs of Canterlot didn’t get along with each other –shocking, I know– and were already on edge from being in the same room for so long.

All this is to say that while a few of them managed to direct their aggression more or less appropriately at me, most of the others were caught in a chaotic tangle of inter-gang grievances, escape attempts and confused indecision. The result was a melee of all-versus-all, where ally and enemy blurred into a whirling incomprehensible universe of ‘attacking’ and ‘being attacked’.

A good, old-fashioned bar-brawl, in other words.

I ducked the first attack aimed at me essentially by instinct, my attention still locked on Alley Cat. A moment later my view of the unicorn was blocked by an earth pony thug trying very hard to smash my head in. I shifted to the side just enough to let his hoof pass me by, the impact splintering the floorboards as it struck ground. He flinched as the wood chips flew, and I used the distraction to slide up beside him. Then I lashed my coat out, flipping him over the bar and into the shelves full of liquor bottles and glasses.

I couldn’t pause to admire my work, though, as three other ponies descended on me at once. I spun in place, whipping my coat out at them to distract while I charged my horn with a concussive spell. One of them managed to dodge the flailing wings and attacked with a chain. The defenses of my costume flared, creating an angled pane of magic that deflected the chain into the knees of another of my assailants. The struck pony swore, staggering back and clutching his bruised limb.

My spell went off with a sound like a bomb exploding. Which, technically, it kind of was. A blast of undirected kinetic energy flashed out from my horn, slamming into my attackers and tossing them into the struggling crowd. It also knocked several of that crowd down, a position where they were quickly trampled by the other combatants.

I tried to get a view of the situation, but my display of power only drew the attentions of those with decent threat-assessment skills and I very suddenly had to fend off a pair of unicorns firing spells at me. My costume’s defenses activated, but were only able to take so much before they buckled. I reached out with my magic, tracing the attacks back to their sources. One of them realized what I was doing before I got to him and he cut his magic off. The other, though, wasn’t so bright.

I sent a surge of magic back along the path of her spell, grounding the energy into her horn, filling it to so far beyond capacity that it flared like burning magnesium. The unicorn mare attached to that horn screamed, I can only imagine the pain she was experiencing. I felt a burst of satisfied glee at her pain. I sent another blast of magic to her, and her horn exploded sending white-hot shards of magical bone into the ponies surrounding her.

“Brutal,” a voice whispered from my shoulder. I spun in surprise, horn flaring with a wave of telekinetic force, only to find that there was nopony there. My attack ripped through a supporting pillar, sending even more debris flying into the melee. “And touchy, I see.”

I spun again, head lowered and on guard. I found myself facing Alley Cat, who was crouching on the bar and grinning at me like her cheshire namesake. There was no fear in how she was looking at me, only an eager excitement that disturbs me more in reflection than it ever did in the heat of the moment. I was about to respond. I don’t quite remember what I was going to say. Something quippy, I hope. Instead I was tackled by a pegasus who had managed to get enough room to charge me.

We went down together, tumbling up against the wall. He kicked and battered me with his wings, the flurry of blows so quick that I didn’t have time to counter or retaliate between them. All I could do was try to protect myself as best as possible and wait for an opening, so I wrapped my coat around myself and curled into a ball. Another thug took the opportunity to come over and start laying into me. This was an earth pony, which meant that my magically hardened leather costume was much less effective against his attacks. I gasped and bit back on a cry as one of his kicks landed solidly on my ribs, breaking two of them.

It was suddenly very, very hard to breathe. There is a particular panic that comes from being unable to draw breath, a frantic need that pushes all other thought aside. Twilight has felt this panic before, and therefore so have I. In a normal fight, with a normal pony, this would be the point where the mare on the floor is doomed. An earth pony might have weathered the pain, a pegasus could use their uncanny speed to escape on instinct alone. A unicorn, however, doesn’t have those physical advantages. As coherent thought goes, so does magic. A normal unicorn would have been stomped into the hospital, at the very least.

I am not a normal unicorn.

As I said before, I don’t fear injury or danger, and when my lungs were paralysed by the injury to my ribs I didn’t feel the panic that would have been the end of another pony. Instead all I felt was a vicious rage that boiled away the pain and focused my mind into a laser of retributive anger. My horn flared and I cast three spells in quick succession. The first was a protective bubble around my horn itself. It wouldn’t do to have my recovery cut short by one of my attackers getting smart and kicking me there. The second spell was an anaesthetic spell that freed my body from the freezing grip of the pain in my chest. The third was a strong telekinetic hold that I used to grab the two ponies kicking me.

I dragged them off of me, hoisting them up to the ceiling as I rose from the floor. The anger still seethed in me, demanding action. I wasn’t about to deny myself. No, not for them. I didn’t know who they were, but their tattoos and rough look told me all I needed to about their place in society. Their families might miss them, but nopony else would bother.

I fed power into my magic, turning my one telekinetic spell into two, then three, then a dozen. The spell took the shape of a sphere surrounding the two ponies, sectioned into twelve different parts like longitude lines on a globe. Then I set those sections rotating in alternating directions. There was resistance at first, the ponies trapped in the spell struggling against the tearing motions of it. Those struggles didn’t last long.

I watched all the way through. It was fascinating, in a detached, medical-studies sort of way. I don’t even know where the idea for that particular application of magic came from. Perhaps I had been working on it subconsciously for a while. I’d been looking for new weapons, after all, and I could see the potential applications of this immediately. It was relatively cheap, power-wise, and while it took some mental gymnastics to make it work, that wasn’t something I had any particular difficulty with. Fairly merciful, too. The subjects do not suffer much. They don’t have time to.

Oh, and then there’s the intimidation factor. Very little can cause a pony to fear you quite as quickly as watching you literally tear another pony apart in front of them. So there is that, too.

There was a sudden and complete silence in Jack Trade’s. I let my spell lapse and my costume’s defenses kept the resulting mess from touching me. Which I am still quite happy about, by the way. I had seriously not planned that in, it just worked out that way.

“Wow,” Alley Cat said from the bar. She’d poured herself a drink while I had been taking care of my assailants and was sipping from it while looking on with rapt interest. “How did you do that? That was incredible!”

“You,” I hissed at her, narrowing my eyes. It was then that I noticed the shadows leaking from them, I hadn’t even realized that I was calling upon dark magic. It had come so fluidly, so naturally it barely registered. I didn’t spare a thought for that at the time, too focused on my quarry. “I have questions for you.”

“I bet you do,” she replied, unconcerned.

“She’s a whisperer!” one of the thugs said. I curtailed my confused reaction. It was a bit of slang I hadn’t heard before, but the context made it pretty clear that he was referring to me as a black crystal addict. I turned my attention to the gathered gangsters, and found that the general melee had stopped and every eye in the bar was focused on me.

“Cat,” said a scarred unicorn dressed in clothes that would have been passably respectable in the better parts of the city. “Is this one of yours?”

“No, she’s not,” Alley Cat said. “She’s the Shadow Slayer.” There were murmurs of shock and fear from those who hadn’t already figured out who I was.

“She killed–” a pony called out, but was silenced by the scarred unicorn raising his hoof. That gesture, and the way it was obeyed immediately, made me focus on him.

“You’ve made trouble for us, filly,” he growled at me. “But you’ve shown us what you can do, what you’re willing to do. So, in the interests of letting everypony here go home tonight, I want to try and talk first. See if we can’t work out something mutually beneficial. So? What do you want?”

I considered him for a long moment, then swept my eyes across the rest of the room. There were still sixteen of them up and able to fight, not counting Alley Cat smirking off to the side. I didn’t know their capabilities and I hadn’t come prepared for a mass fight in any case. My ribs felt wrong and my breathing was labored even through the anaesthetic spell. I knew that I could fight them and win, but it would require me to kill most of them. I didn’t want to do that. As far as I knew most of these ponies were just local toughs and petty criminals, not the threat to Equestria the black crystal addicts could be. They didn’t deserve to die.

I shouldn’t have stayed. I had other options, of course. I could have left. Teleported somewhere else and limped my way back to Octavia. I could have… I don’t know. There are so many ‘could haves’ and ‘should haves’. I dwell enough on other mistakes, I shouldn’t give so much thought to this one. It isn’t even one of the worst. Still, they didn’t deserve to die.

“I want black crystal gone,” I said, keeping my voice low and even as I charged my horn and began sending tendrils of magic through the room. Quiet and slow, not even a proper spell. Just threads of power to the key points I had decided on.

“Not happening,” Alley Cat said.

“Come on, filly,” the scarred unicorn said, ignoring Alley Cat. “Ponies are going to do what they want, and some of them want to stuff themselves with dark magic. Nothing me or my associates here can do about that. Even if we stopped all black crystal trade, it’d be a day before somepony else was filling the market.”

I gave him a steady look. “I don’t care,” I said. “If you sell or buy black crystal, you are my enemy.”

He snarled at me, shaking his head. “Listen, you jumped up little filly! You. Can’t. Stop. It. Neither can we, and neither could Princess Celestia herself. It’s out there, there’s a market for it, a big one! You want a cut? You want us to avoid your neighborhood? We can do that. But you come after us, and we’ll come after you right back. And trust me, filly, you do not want us coming after you.” I opened my mouth to retort, but he pressed on, cutting me off. “And what’s more? Even if you can win against us, even if you’ve got the power and the luck to pull that miracle off, there’ll be others. Ponies who’ll see how we went down, and decide they don’t have to be as nice as we are. Understand? I’m talking escalation. The papers are talking about a gang war now, but they haven’t seen anything yet. You’ve taken it up a level with what you’ve done here, but it doesn’t need to go any further. We can end this right here, right now.”

I paused, considering what he had said. It was true. I didn’t want this to actually escalate into open warfare in the streets. Too many innocents could be hurt. Of course, if I let black crystal continue to flood the city, innocents would be hurt then as well. Possibly worse. My gaze tracked to where Alley Cat was still watching me.

“We’re all waiting,” she said, her voice pitched so that it was barely audible to me. “How strong is your conviction?”

I knew whatever choice I made would end with ponies hurt. But… but it didn’t matter. Black crystal was a threat to all of Equestria. I had made it my purpose to stop that threat, to protect my home. It was one part of me that I could truly call my own. I wasn’t going to give up on it, not even a little bit. Not for anything. I think my current situation is proof positive that when I say that, I mean it.

“No,” I said. “If you don’t stop dealing black crystal, I will end you.”

The scarred unicorn’s shoulders slumped and he shook his head again. “Sorry, filly. I tried.” Then he gestured towards me and turned away. There was a screaming war cry, and suddenly the entire room was surging at me.

I sent power through the threads of magic I had woven through the room, igniting them into full-fledged spell status. I didn’t target the ponies with this spell, they would have felt it and some of them could have countered it if I had. Instead I directed all of my energy at the supporting pillars that dotted the room, and with a burst of power I snapped them.

The fun thing about Jack Trade’s is that, like all of the places along the Sky Promenade, it is a hanging building. That is, the pillars weren't supporting the ceiling, they were holding up the floor.

There was a moment of confusion as the surging wave of ponies suddenly sank down a foot and a half as the floor sagged. The scarred unicorn whipped his head around to look at me, horror in his eyes. I smirked back, I couldn’t help it. He’d thought mere threats would deter me, and now I was showing him what those threats were worth.

Then the floor gave way and they fell. Pegasi spread their wings, some flying away, others diving for friends and allies. But there were far too many for the few pegasi to save them all. I saw the scarred unicorn get caught, and he was out of my sight in an instant. Most of the others, though…

I stood on the remains of the floor, a path a few feet wide that extended around the walls of the room. A few lucky ponies were hanging off that lip, whinnying in terror and scrambling to stable ground. The floor had a strange give to it, now. Like walking on a thick trampoline. I ignored it, more than capable of dealing with the unsteady floor and unconcerned with the potential fall if it gave way.

Alley Cat burst out in laughter, staring down the hole. The bar had survived, its connection to the stable ceiling having been reinforced to account for its greater weight. She stood on the counter-top and giggled like a school-filly as she watched ponies plummet to their deaths. “You really are something else,” she said, turning my way. “Are you taking students? Because I would love to learn how you did all that.”

“Keep paying attention, then,” I said, flaring my coat and igniting my horn into brilliant light. “Because you’re next.”


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Of all the things I can say about Alley Cat, I will give her this: she is never out of control. She saw what I had done, had felt the amount of power I could bring to bear, and she did not allow herself even a moment of fear. She looked at me with an infuriating calm, not unwary but not worried either. “You don’t have to be our enemy,” she said, though her tone made it clear that she wasn’t expecting this line of argument to bear fruit.

“Yes I do,” I replied. “Who is manufacturing black crystal?”

“Who are you?” she asked in turn. “Beneath the hood and the cloak?”

I ignored her, stepping closer. “You will tell me what you know.”

“One way or another,” she said. “I guess I’ll have to.” I was caught off guard by her attitude. None of the other addicts acted like her, and I didn’t yet know how strong she was. I was so used to fear and anger and brutal attempts at dominance, her casual demeanor was… off-putting.

“Answer now and I will have no reason to hurt you,” I lied. There was no way I was letting a terminal addict live.

I don’t know whether she picked up on the lie or if she was planning to toy with me the entire time, but she smiled in that maddening ‘I know something you don’t’ way and laughed. “You’ll have to catch me first!” she cried, and leapt back.

I lashed out with my magic, wrapping telekinesis around her. Only to find that I had caught nothing but air. She slipped behind the bar, her own horn glowing with a yellow light. I went to leap at her, but my ribs protested the movement, bringing me up short. Instead I focused on the bar itself, tearing a chunk out of it to reveal what was behind. A terrified bartender still crouched there, shaking and crying as he saw me. Alley Cat was nowhere to be seen. I barely had to narrow my eyes at the bartender before he pointed a hoof. I followed the gesture to find Alley Cat slinking around the open end of the counter.

Our eyes met and I saw for the first time the cool control she was exerting over herself. I hesitated from that look, I’m sorry to say. By the time I was sending a blast of destructive magic she was already moving. She dove towards the gaping hole that was once the floor. Shocked at the suicidal maneuver, I didn’t try to stop her. But suicide wasn’t her aim. She grabbed a protruding floorboard, spinning around it and launching herself right back into the room. Right at me.

I brought my coat around for defense as she came at me in a flying kick. Except it wasn’t a kick, not really. She landed on me. On me. She used my defense as a platform and clung for a moment. Just long enough for me to realize that I was being outmaneuvered. Then she rolled off and kicked me in my broken ribs.

That hurt. Even through the anesthetic magic, it hurt like crazy, knocking the breath from me. I blasted magic at her again, not even a formed spell, just raw power. It obliterated a piece of flooring, but she was already moving. She has reflexes like her namesake, and the physical grace of a gymnast. Combined with the power boost given by her black crystal addiction, it makes her incredibly hard to hit.

I snarled in anger, unable to do much more than that because of the sudden lack of air in my lungs. She leapt at me again, her magic forming into telekinetic claws at the ends of her forehooves. Those claws hit the automatic defenses of my costume, and were shattered. That, at least, got a surprised reaction out of her. I took advantage of that, ripping up a loosened section of the rapidly-shrinking floor and slamming it into her. She took the hit with all the resilience that a terminal addict could bring to bear, shrugging it off and squirming away from my telekinetic bludgeon before I could use it to crush her against a wall.

We paused for a moment in our fight, me fighting for breath and her regarding me with a quizzical air. “How did you get so powerful?” she asked. “You aren’t even one of us, but I can taste the darkness in you.”

“Going to ask me to join you?” I managed to growl out. I was already working my magic, as I had before when facing the roomful of thugs. I was sending tendrils out, ready to be charged to life. I was building a cage around her, one she couldn’t just slip out of.

“No,” she said with a slight shake of her head. “I know a lost cause when I see one.” Her eyes twitched, focusing on something other than me. “I also know a losing fight.” I slammed power into my incomplete spell-cage, belatedly realizing that what she had been focusing on were the tendrils of magic I was weaving around her.

Alley Cat’s horn went dark, her eyes pulsing with shadow. She seemed to fall apart, becoming a cloud of billowing darkness that streamed through the holes in my cage. The living shadow rushed across the open floor, becoming a pony again once it had reached the other side and the ledge of remaining floor there. “Another time, Shadow Slayer!” she called out, before discorporating again and flowing into an air vent.

I watched her go. I could have followed, could have torn apart half the Sky Promenade trying to catch her. Maybe I would have succeeded. But I was injured and unprepared, and she’d already shown me that my usual brute-force approach would be wasted against her. If I was going to catch Alley Cat, I would have to be clever about it.

Fortunately, the method of her escape gave me a way to go about it. I had seen that kind of magic before, a couple times, actually. It wasn’t something that was easy to pull off by any means. Even with the power boost provided by the black crystal, it still required a lot of knowledge and training in magic. Which meant that Alley Cat, at some point, had been a student of high-level magic. And the best place for that kind of learning was Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. Which, it just so happens, Twilight Sparkle had full access to.

The next time I faced Alley Cat, I would know everything she had ever studied, and I would be ready to counter it.

For now, though, I was left wheezing and staring at a place I had thoroughly wrecked. I turned to the cowering bartender. “You,” I snapped. “Two drinks, something hard.”

He looked up at the smashed bottles that had once been displayed behind the bar. I grabbed him with my magic and dragged him to his hooves, giving him a very look that spoke very clearly about how little whining I was prepared to tolerate. “Yes, ma’am,” he stammered, and began searching for intact glasses. I stomped outside and found the pegasus bouncer, who had followed my instructions and was resting as comfortably as he could.

“You’re a mercenary,” I said. He nodded, though it hadn’t been a question. “You’ve had guard training?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Your previous clients are unable to retain your contract. Would you be willing to entertain a new offer?”

He swallowed at the implications and gave me a steady look that said everything I needed to know about his stallion’s courage. “Do I have a choice?”

“Not an enviable one,” I said, looking pointedly at the edge of the Promenade.

“In that case, I’m always willing to listen,” he said with a forced smile.

I smiled back, telekinetically picking him up and floating him back into the remains of Jack Trade’s. His eyes bulged as he saw the empty chasm that had once been a shady, but profitable, bar. There were still a couple thugs edging their way towards the closest exit that didn’t have me in front of it. I considered them for a moment, then gave them all a shove towards their chosen exits. I didn’t want any of them to overhear what I was going to task the mercenary with.

I magically fused a portion of the floor into a new shape, setting up stools and giving us a place to sit at the bar. I released his forehooves from my binding spell and thanked the bartender when he set a pair of drinks in front of us. He took that as permission to leave and scurried towards the exit. I let him go. He was effectively an innocent.

We sat in silence for a long moment, and I took a few slow sips at the hastily-prepared drink. It wasn’t a good drink by any of the standards I had been introduced to, but it burned all the way down and took my mind off of the squeezing pressure on my lung. I’d have to fix that soon, but I wanted to do this first.

In all honesty, I had no idea what I was going to do with this pony. I had the vague notion that he could be put to use, but I had no clue as to what that use could be. It was an impulsive decision, made after a long and wearying day. Yet it turned out to be the right one, in the end.

“Equestria is in danger,” I began. “I’m trying to save it.”

“With all respect, ma’am,” he said. “That’s the Guard’s job.”

“They don’t know how to win this fight.”

“And you do?”

I nodded. “I do.”

“Then why don’t you go to them and show them how?”

I snorted back a painful laugh. “Why did you leave the Guard?”

He frowned at the change in subject, but answered quickly enough. “I made some mistakes,” he said.

“Such as?”

“Such as none of your business.”

I shook my head. “Not a good answer.”

“It’s not meant to be, ma’am.”

I regarded him quietly for a minute. He was scared. I could see that in the tremble of his wings and the shortness of his breath. I could practically smell it in the sweat that glistened on his coat. He was scared for his life, but strong enough to overcome it. “I can’t go to the Guard,” I said. “Even if they knew how to win, they wouldn’t do it. It’s not in their nature.”

“And you think you can do it all on your own?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “But it will take too long. That’s why I want your help.”

“I don’t work for murderers.”

“But you’ll work for criminals and traitors instead?” I asked. He flinched at that. “Black crystal. It’s more than just a drug, it’s the opening salvo in a war. A war designed to destroy Equestria. Your former employers were working with the architects of this war. Working with them is just as bad as working for them, and that’s where you stand.”

“And you’re any better?” he demanded, angry now. “How many did you kill tonight?”

“Many,” I replied. “Though not as many as I would have liked. The truth is, I am better than them. I kill, yes, but they destroy. They corrupt. They will take everything good in this world and twist it until it fulfills their purposes. I won’t.”

“And what do you want me for? To be your sidekick?”

“No, I’ve got sidekicks,” I answered. “I need a soldier. I need somepony who I can count on when things get bloody to do what is needed.”

“And what makes you think that pony is me?”

I smiled and took another drink. “Just a feeling.”

He sighed. “Can we get this over with? You don’t need to justify yourself. For one I’m not going to believe you, and second we both know how it’s going to end. Whatever you want, I’m going to say yes. It’s either that or you toss me down that hole, right?”

I shrugged. “I admit that I considered it. But, no. I’m not going to kill you, regardless of what you answer.”

“Then I’m going to say no.”

I smiled again. “No. You’re going to say ‘maybe’. You’re going to go home and you’re going to think about it. You’re going to do your research and you’re going to figure out that what I’ve been saying is the truth. Then, you’re going to come and find me, and you’re going to say ‘yes’.”

“What makes you so sure of that?” he asked.

What I did next was a gamble. Something I maybe wouldn’t have done if I had planned this whole thing out. But I was running on intuition now, trusting instinct instead of reason. Heh, of course I was. It was about as far from Twilight Sparkle as I could get, riding the ragged edge of true self-determination. And yet, even here I couldn’t escape her. Even this moment of being as opposite her as I could, I was tied to her by that very act of opposition. The ironies and paradoxes of my existence are never-ending.

I reached up and unclasped my hood from my horn, lifting it off and lowering it, revealing my features to him. His eyes widened, he gasped and his mouth went slack. “You know who I am,” I said. He nodded in mute astonishment. “I promise you, I have always done my best to protect Equestria, and that’s exactly what I’m doing now.”

His mouth worked in silence a few times before he managed to get out a single question: “Why?”

“Because it has to be done,” I replied. “What’s your name?”

“Gale Force,” he said.

“Pleased to meet you.” I dispelled the bindings I had placed on him. “Think about it, Gale Force. Equestria needs you. When you’ve decided, you know where to find me.”

And since that was a really good exit line, I launched myself backwards and out of the hole. My coat stretched out to lift me up and I flew away into the night. Which, by the way, only made my broken ribs hurt worse. The things I do for drama.


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I suppose I should tell you about the party Pinkie threw the next day. Not that I particularly want to, but I mentioned it before so I might as well. That party… it was just one humiliation after another, spearheaded by an overactive pink maniac who I can’t even get properly angry at because she didn’t know how much it hurt me.

The teasing about my indiscretion with Rainbow Dash was one thing. I had expected it, braced myself for it. Even my broken ribs weren’t an issue. Much. Well, in the interests of full disclosure, they were an issue. A big one. I was running the day without painkillers, I couldn’t afford to be doped up and let my act slip. The pain and the difficulty breathing were stressful enough that my tolerance for the rest of it might have been affected. Still, they weren’t the real problem.

Remember how I’m most myself when I’m in a fight? Well, there, surrounded by ponies and trying my best to smile and pretend at happiness… that’s when I feel least myself. That’s when the doubts of my identity and worries about whether my will is truly my own come to the fore. I drown in these moments, and I can’t get free, because in them I cannot be myself. I cannot! I have to be Twilight Sparkle.

That party, surrounded by a whole town of ponies, all talking and smiling and laughing and hugging and sharing. And they say it’s for me, but it’s not. They don’t know who I am, they don’t know what I’ve done, what I’m capable of. They don’t see it, and I am hiding behind a mask that isn’t a mask. Twilight’s face is my face. I have never known any other.

It’s not the hiding, it’s that disconnect. The immense gulf between myself and others that only I can see. They laugh and they smile and they say “hello, Twilight! How are you doing?” and they have no idea! Not the first clue that I am not her and… and I can’t let them know.

How does one scream without making a sound? By turning that scream inward. That was the entirety of Pinkie’s Ponyville picnic for me. Screaming in anger and frustration. Smiling and screaming, all at once.

The day kicked off with Pinkie jumping on me in bed. Yeah. That particular scream was out loud, but it was the only one I got that day. Plus, it was a bad scream, since jumping on me did interesting and indescribable things to my broken ribs. Not the full-throated wail I wanted to let loose, more of a high-pitched tea-kettle hissing while I thrashed and kicked.

“Wow,” Pinkie chirped, bouncing to the other side of the room. “Somepony must have been having bad dreams! I’m glad I saved you from them!”

Oh, to be able to kill her. “I bruised my side last night, Pinkie,” I growled at her as soon as I could. “You just kicked me there!”

“Oh! Oopsie!” Death would be too kind a fate. “Do you want me to take a look at it? I always liked playing doctor!”

She had to know what she was saying. Twilight knew what she was saying. But the innocence in those big, crazy eyes of hers meant that my snarky comeback withered before it could get past my lips. “No, I’ll be fine,” I said. “How did you get into my room?”

“Through the skylight,” she said. To be clear: there is no skylight in my room.

“Skylight?” I repeated, never to receive an explanation.

“Come on, sleepyhead! You can’t miss the party!” Pinkie bounced over and tugged at my hoof, thankfully being gentle about her efforts this time.

“The party’s not ‘till noon, Pinkie,” I said. I looked around for my alarm clock, only to belatedly remember that I had reduced it to a fancy paperweight.

“It is noon, silly!” Pinkie chortled. “Come on!”

“Pinkie!” I snapped. “Give me ten minutes to get ready, at least!”

“Oh!” she said, ducking her head in a poor imitation of contrition. “Sorry, I’ll, uh, just let you do that.” She grinned at me, backing out of the room as she spoke. Then, with a final titter she left.

I knew that she wouldn’t be gone for long. She never, ever is. So I gingerly maneuvered myself into the washroom and went through the quickest, easiest morning routine I could manage. Which was a little difficult since I still hadn’t replaced my mirror.

I was soon out and greeting Pinkie with a subdued smile. My practice before going to bed having told me in no uncertain terms that trying to show all my teeth at once was not the way to go. “So, picnic?”

“Picnic!” she joyfully screamed, and then I was whisked outside.

I won’t bore you with all the details. Just a few of them. The entire town was decorated to the extreme, streamers and balloons and confetti and all the things Pinkie likes best. I’m not sure if she realizes that a good party can be a subtle party. No, scratch that, I know she doesn’t realize that. The Grand Galloping Gala disaster showed that. Ponies don’t seem to mind. At least, the Ponyville ponies don’t. It almost hurt to look at all the clashing colors and wild explosions of sparkles.

Heh, sparkles. I just got that. Maybe Pinkie can be subtle, if only obliquely.

The entire town was out, enjoying the festivities. Applejack had laid out a dozen tables full of food and drink. Fluttershy was supervising a bunch of fillies and colts playing with some of her more cuddly animal friends. Rarity, for some reason, had set up her own table and was crafting friendship bracelets and other shiny little trinkets. Pinkie Pie was everywhere, of course. Seeming to be in a dozen places at once, making sure everypony was smiling and happy with the picnic.

I wandered through the throngs of happy ponies and wished dearly to go back to bed. I greeted everypony I could with a smile and a kind word. Or, what I hope were kind words. I knew who all of them were, but I couldn’t care less about the banal minutiae of their lives. I think it stretched me thin. I’ve already told you what agony this was, I don’t think I want to revisit it anymore than that. In any case, it’s not that important. I started just using the same rote compliments and questions over and over again, barely paying attention to who I was talking to. I was busy looking for the last of Twilight’s friends.

“Hey Twilight!” Pinkie said, appearing beside me so suddenly that I think she might have actually emerged from my mane. “Who are you looking for? Is it Rainbow Dash?” The way she said the name, drawn out and heavy with emphasis, left no doubt in my mind that she had heard of yesterday’s incident and was not shy about making the most of it.

“What?” I sputtered. “No! I mean, yes! She’s my friend!”

Pinkie laughed, bouncing to the other side of me and pointing a hoof. I looked past a few balloons and a pony on stilts to find Rainbow Dash competing in an impromptu race with a half-dozen of the more adventurous pegasus stallions. None of whom had any chance to beat her, of course. I let a genuine smile cross my face as I saw that. I watched and admired the best qualities about her. Her athleticism, her strength, and most importantly, her drive. Always the best, showing no pity or mercy for those who couldn’t keep up. Everything that excited me about her, on display.

Of course, this did not escape Pinkie’s remarkable and remarkably fickle perceptions. “Hey! Rainbow Dash!” she shouted. Dash ignored her, focused on the race. “Twilight wants more smoochies!” That got her attention, causing her to come to a sudden and complete stop, staring wide-eyed in our direction.

My face went hot with embarrassment. “Pinkie,” I growled. “Why would you say that?”

She shrugged. “I wanted her attention,” she said, then raised her voice back to a shout. “She’s really, really blushing! I mean, wow is she getting red!”

“I need a drink,” I moaned.

“She’s also really thirsty!” Pinkie bellowed. “Could you grab some punch on your way over!?”

Dash abandoned the failed race and zipped over to us, doing as requested and grabbing a few glasses of punch. I took the offered glass as she touched down in front of us, desperately hoping that somepony had been conscientious enough to spike the crap out of it. “Hey, Pinkie, hey, Twi,” Dash said, apparently not as embarrassed as I was.

“Hi, Dashie!” Pinkie said. “I hope you’re having fun!”

“A blast,” Dash assured her. “How are you doing, Twilight?”

“Exceptional,” I hissed out, taking a gulp of my blasphemously non-alcoholic punch. “Have there been any more weather problems?”

“Not since yesterday. Did you figure anything out about that thing you grabbed?”

I shook my head. “Haven’t had the time yet.”

“I sent a report to Cloudsdale,” Dash said. “Maybe they know something.”

I cursed silently at that. I hadn’t thought about how Dash might actually have information sources other than me. That meant I couldn’t study the crystal node in private, I’d have to eventually let somepony else see it. Which carried risks. Outwardly I nodded. “I hope so.”

“Hey, Twilight, do you wanna–” Dash began, only to be interrupted by Pinkie leaning in and whispering into my ear.

“–go out to dinner sometime?” she said in a horrifyingly good imitation of Dash’s voice.

“Pinkie!” I growled. I wanted to snap at her, but broken ribs make it hard to quickly suck in enough breath to snap. If I wanted an outburst, I would have to plan ahead. “Are you going to keep this up all day?”

“Yup!” she said.

“At least she’s honest about it,” Dash offered. I rolled my eyes, but didn’t really have a proper response to this situation. It wasn’t in Twilight’s experience, so I didn’t really know how she would react. Very frustrating. “I was going to ask,” Dash continued. “If you wanted to judge the race.”

“I don’t see what there is to judge,” I said. “You win, hooves down.”

“Yeah, but I wanna to know how much I win by,” Dash said. “Gotta keep improving my times!”

I mused on that for a moment. “Huh. Well, if you want to do timed laps, I guess I could help with that.”

“Awesome,” she said, and dragged me to the field the pegasi had annexed for their speed games.

That was the most pleasant part of the entire day. I was allowed to sit and didn’t have to talk to anypony and got to watch the object of my infatuation show off. If the whole picnic had been like this, then I might have actually enjoyed it. Like all good things, however, it couldn’t last. Dash was called away on weather duties and I was forced back into the social melee.

There are only two other highlights of the day. One of which isn’t so much a highlight as a reminder, and the other… was about Spike. The first happened when I bumped into Berry Punch hanging out, where else, by the punch bowl. I wanted to berate her for not applying her prodigious knowledge of good spirits to that selfsame punch bowl, but while she is an inebriant, even she has limits.

“Hey, nice to see you back,” she said. “How was Canterlot?”

“Fun,” I said.

“Go to any good parties?”

I remembered my raids on the addict hideouts, blood and magic thick in the air. I smiled and nodded. “Oh, yes. Some very good parties indeed.”

“Good to hear. We missed you down at Heather’s, but we’re glad you’re feeling better.”

The same platitudes I’d heard all day. But this time it actually meant something to me. “Thanks,” I said. “I, uh, I’ll try to make it to Heather’s some night.”

“You don’t have to,” she said.

I shook my head. “I want to. It was fun hanging out with all of you, and I’d like to do it again.”

Her smile was wide and beautiful. She had honestly thought that I would never come back to that little bar. “Well, see you soon then!”

I promised her I would. Maybe if I had kept that promise things would have gone better. Maybe it would only have delayed the inevitable. Either way, it would be more than a week before I saw Berry Punch again, and by that time things had gone too far.

As the picnic was winding down and ponies were going back to their lives, I was sitting in the park and hoping desperately for an escape route. Twilight wouldn’t just leave, though, so I couldn’t either. I prayed for one of Ponyville’s signature disasters to happen. I would accept anything: flood, monster attack, ancient evil, Cutie Mark Crusaders, anything!

“Want some company?”

An over-repeated answer was halfway past my lips before I recognized the voice that had spoken. I turned around to find Spike standing behind me, a big, toothy grin on his face. “Spike!” I gasped. “Your casts are off!”

“Yeah!” he said, then wiggled each leg in turn to show that they were good. “Just this morning.”

“And you’re walking already?”

He shrugged. “Dragons are tough. They said I shouldn’t run or dance for a while, but it doesn’t hurt or anything, so I’m good.”

“I… I’m so glad,” I said, the emotion genuine. “Come here.” I grabbed him with magic and dragged him over for a tight hug. He hugged me back and I held on all the more fiercely. “I’m so sorry.”

“Come on, Twilight,” he replied. “We’ve been through this. I’m okay, and you got your first vacation in, well, ever! Sounds like a win-win to me.”

“Can you just… let me be miserable for hurting you, for once?”

He chuckled. “Nope. I’m your number one assistant, and part of that job is keeping you happy. So you’re gonna be happy whether you like it or not!”

I managed a smile at that one. “Will you be home tonight?”

“Sure, as long as, you know, you don’t have any other company,” he nudged me with an elbow, waggling his eyebrows.

I got the picture. “Does everypony know about that?”

“Everypony who knows Pinkie Pie,” he said. “So, uh, yeah. Everypony.”

For some reason that struck me as funny. So I laughed. Which, as you can imagine, was not a good thing for my ribs. It just added to the moment, really. Pain and relief, anger and uncertainty, contradiction and complementation. I hugged Spike and I laughed and it hurt. It hurt so badly, because I knew that this would be my life from now on. I would be lying to Spike every minute we were together, and it was going to hurt him when he found out, and it hurt me to do that to him. And through that hurt there was a fierce joy, because I cared about Spike. Maybe as a result of Twilight’s memories, maybe as the one shred of a conscience I had managed to salvage, but still me. He was an attachment wasn’t afraid to share with Twilight, and that meant more to me in that moment than all the pain in the world.

I… I’m going to go for a walk. I’ll be back, there’s one more part I want to get to before tonight’s done, but I need to calm down first. I don’t want to be crying for this next bit. I need you to understand the decision I made, and why. I need… I need to be centered or I won’t be able to explain it right. If I can explain it at all.

I’ll just… I’ll be back.


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Two days passed without any incident worth speaking of. I used a bit of magic to speed my healing, a spell thankfully still within my capabilities. I spent a lot of time studying the crystal core of the sky-kraken and working out new and better techniques to fight with. Rarity came up with the gemstones I had asked her for, and we found a couple that worked within tolerances I could use, so I put together a few of my staple weapons. I also upgraded my costume, finally finishing a few of the enhancements that I hadn’t had time for in my initial attack on the black crystal addicts.

All of this is to say that I did practically nothing of substance. My trips to Canterlot were short, and only for updates on what Octavia and Vinyl had discovered. Nothing useful came up then. Well, nothing that would play out for a while, so it doesn’t need to be mentioned now. I didn’t make any more attacks, didn’t bother hunting down any more low-level dealers. I couldn’t afford to be caught in another situation like at Jack Trade’s.

That particular incident had only made things hotter in the burgeoning gang-war in the city. Killing a good sixty percent of the underworld’s leadership left power vacuums that just begged to be filled. The warning given to me by the scarred unicorn would prove true. The situation was escalating, the thugs had heard of what I had done and were going to get mean in the vain hope that cruelty would save them from the fate of their predecessors. I would show them different.

But none of this is important. Not really, not in the grand scheme of things. Not in the sequence of events that led me here. No, the important things didn’t start until the third day after the picnic. That was the day Celestia finally revealed the task she had for me.

The letter that Spike belched up was astoundingly uninformative. All it said was to be out in the park with Twilight’s friends to wait for the Princess herself, and that she was bringing a very important visitor. That lack of information should have been a tipoff. It was uncharacteristically secretive, deliberately vague. I should have been more suspicious. I should have considered… no. I couldn’t have imagined what was coming.

Not that I was in any shape to be thinking clearly in the first place. Celestia was going to be there, and I was going to have to put on my best Twilight Sparkle act. I couldn’t hide behind panic or some ill-defined mental breakdown. I was supposed to be better, I had no excuses. The terror of that was… distracting.

When Spike saw her coming, and what her guards were towing behind her, I didn’t believe it. My shock at the reality of it all was… well, very well contained, I think.

“Why did you bring Discord here?” I asked her, trying very, very hard to think of reasons. Sane reasons. Reasons that wouldn’t immediately out me as the imposter that I am. It’s telling, I think, that I completely forgot to address her with the deference Twilight would have used.

“I have a use for Discord’s magic if it can be reformed to serve good instead of evil,” she said. As if that made sense. “I believe you are the ponies who can help him do just that.”

I can see you laughing. I know, it’s ridiculous, right? I would have laughed myself, if I wasn’t forced by my fear to react as Twilight would have, and she would have taken it all seriously. Instead I had to stand there and act like it was all possible, like I didn’t know where this was going. Condemning myself with silence.

Spike went into adorable panic, immediately grasping all the problems with this plan. “This will never work! This is a disaster! We’ll never be able to control him!” He looked like he wanted to run away, but his body was too recently healed for that. He was as stuck as I was.

“Need I remind you that you are the ponies who turned him back into stone?” Celestia asked, as if we could have forgotten. I should have said something then. I knew what was coming. I couldn’t, though, I had to focus all my efforts on keeping an outward appearance of calm. “If he gets too unruly, you will use the Elements to return him to his stone prison, and I believe the threat of that should be enough to keep him under control while you work to reform him.” At her nod a chest was brought forth, opened to show the gleaming forms of the elements within. “I have cast a spell on them so that Discord can’t take them and hide them again.”

I wanted to ask her if this was similar to the ‘lock only I can open’ that worked so well last time. I wanted to know exactly what uses she had in mind. I wanted a lot of things. Mostly, I wanted that crown gone. I wanted it as far away from me as possible. It sat there, innocuous in form but so laden with meaning and power that I felt its presence like the heat of a furnace. It frightened me, in the same way that Celestia frightened me. I knew that if I was discovered, it was very possible that this crown would be the instrument of my ultimate destruction. It had killed before, after all.

“Where is Fluttershy?” Celestia asked. “I believe she may know best how to begin reforming Discord.”

That set off a round of questions from Rainbow Dash and Rarity, which I paid little attention to. I was still fixated on the Element of Magic. I was somehow more aware of it than Twilight had ever been. Maybe it was just my fear. Maybe it was what I was now, whatever that is. I don’t know, but I could feel it. And it nearly made me sick.

Strange, isn’t it? I love the feeling of power, of strength. I love to be able to manifest my will however I deem fit, with no limits. Here, in front of me, was the greatest power known to ponykind. The Elements of Harmony, able to bring down gods and reshape the world. Yet… I didn’t want that power. I didn’t want anything to do with it. Can this make sense to you? Can you understand why? I can’t describe it, can’t seem to grasp it. My relationship to that crown is so tangled and incomprehensible… maybe you’re the only one who can understand it. I certainly can’t.

Eventually Fluttershy and Applejack were located. I had been so caught up in my terror that I hadn’t even noticed they were missing. Celestia had decided, somehow, that Fluttershy would be taking the lead role in this task. Not that I would have minded, anything to keep Celestia’s spotlight off of me was good. For an even greater stroke of luck, she didn’t stick around to watch us work. I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t left. She would have seen through what I did, I’m certain.

Once she was gone, though, all eyes turned to me. I desperately tried to think of an excuse, some reason to put this off or reject it. I could have done it, but Twilight Sparkle? She wouldn’t have. She would have wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. She wouldn’t shirk from a task Celestia gave her, no matter how much she feared it. So how could I do any different?

“All right, lets… let’s do this,” I said, unable to keep the quaver form my voice. I passed out the Elements, feeling a strange resonance from them every time my magic touched them. I hesitated over the crown, but finally put it on my head. It felt heavy, in a way that was different from Twilight’s memories of it. Psychosomatic or actual change, I couldn’t tell you. All I can say is that it felt a lot more solid, more real than it ever had before. Finally, with no excuse that would seem plausible coming from Twilight, I activated the Elements of Harmony.

I don’t know what I expected to happen. I can’t remember if I had thought that far ahead or if I was so focused on my immediate fears that I was ignoring anything else. I know… I think I was hoping it would just fail. I was hoping that the Element of Magic would shut down and we would be left standing around a statue wearing dumb bits of jewellery and confused frowns. I was hoping I could spin it somehow, make it seem like I was devastated at the failure. I could buy a lot of sympathy with such an act.

Instead, it worked. The Element of Magic shone with a blinding light, and we were lifted from the ground, floating. That’s actual floating, not feeling-of-floating, and I know the difference well. The Elements chimed, bursting with magic. A rainbow stretched between Twilight’s friends, reaching out to me, enveloping me.

I could feel them, her friends. For an instant there I knew them. I knew them. Like Twilight had, like they knew each other. As friends. As loved ones. Like pieces of myself that slotted in perfectly. I could see their hopes and their dreams and their fears and their faults, and I could see mine through their eyes.

Twilight never understood what the Elements really are. I don’t presume to know, either. They didn’t reject me when I was sure they would. They didn’t even seem to judge my worst actions, and offered their full power to my desires. But not for free. I can’t guess at why they do the things they do, at what secret intelligence must drive them. I just know that for me, in that moment, they held the mirror of friendship up to what I was, and what I was becoming. I saw it all. They offered me everything, and the only price I’d have to pay was to accept the friendship of these mares, to fully and completely give myself to them as they were giving themselves to me.

I recoiled.

The power of the Elements shut off with a flash of blinding light, and they went quiet. They weren’t completely dead, and I could feel that their offer was still open, but for now they would not work. We were blasted back from our floating circle, falling to the ground. My ribs screamed in pain at the impact, but I was too shocked to care. The things the Elements showed me… they haunt me. Even now… even here.

For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to be trapped, to be unable to move and unable to scream. If I had my choice, even if I could have, I wouldn’t have gone through with it. You’re too dangerous to let loose, for any reason. But still, I’m sorry.

I lied to them. I told Twilight’s friends that the spell had simply failed. They hadn’t seen what I’d seen, hadn’t felt what I’d felt. They knew something wasn’t right, but they trusted Twilight. They accepted what I said, and believed me when I told them we’d have to tell Celestia that we’d failed. Spike was relieved, as was Dash, I think. They knew the fire we’d been playing with.

I barely paid attention as we went back to the library to compose our apology letter. Too wrapped up in what I had seen. Too lost in my own thoughts. The day passed in a blur, and I locked myself in my bedroom as soon as I could, then teleported out to the old castle.

I spent hours destroying things. Trees, mostly. I ripped through the thick foliage around the castle with a maniacal determination. I needed to scrape what the Elements had shown me away, to dull its wicked edge with time and exhaustion. I let loose my rage and my fear, screaming at the uncaring forest and pulping anything that seemed remotely alive.

It didn’t work. I couldn’t forget, and in the end I was left a wreck, sobbing to myself on the cold stone floor of the ancient castle and desperately promising myself that it would get better. It was… not one of my best moments. Ironic, in a way, that to have this breakdown I went to the very first place Twilight had used the Elements. In a way, they have ruled my life as much as hers. In a way, I think, they are the reason for all of this.

Eventually, of course, I managed to control myself. Either I had successfully exhausted all of my raging emotions or I had managed to contain them. I honestly don’t know which it was, or which I want it to be. Either way, I was able to transport myself back to Ponyville. The sun was already down, and Spike was already in his basket. He’d left a few letters out. One was from Twilight’s friends all trying to encourage her. They knew how she would react to failure, and were all adamant that they didn’t blame me for what had happened. As if I needed their reassurance. The second was from Celestia herself, expressing her disappointment, but also saying she didn’t blame me. The last letter was from Spike, and… and he must have worked very hard to get the courage to say the things he did. I don’t think I’ll repeat them here, they were too personal, for him and for me. Suffice it to say he did not join in the chorus of not-blaming me, but he didn’t exactly lay fault at my hooves either. It’s complicated.

I got something to eat, and I was about to head to bed myself when I was stopped by a knock on the door. As I have said, it was late, very late. Past midnight. Nopony should have been trying to get into the library, but since I was up and I have no fear of any potential aggressor, I went and opened it.

Gale Force stood there, looking huge and terrified. We stared at each other for a long, silent moment before he spoke. “Yes,” he said. “Damn you, my answer is yes.”

Job Interview

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“Took you long enough,” I said, stepping aside. “Come in. Don’t be too loud, my assistant is sleeping and I don’t want him hearing any of this.”

He walked into the library. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he muttered.

“Unbelievable things are par for the course in Ponyville,” I replied. “I assume you've done your homework. So tell me, what do you know?"

He stopped for a moment, looking around the library before turning back to me. "I know that you're Twilight Sparkle, Celestia's favourite student and wielder of the Element of Magic." I suppressed a shudder at that mention, the events of earlier in the day too raw to be ignored yet. "You saved the world from Nightmare Moon and Discord, your brother married Princess Cadance and you helped free the Crystal Empire, which they now rule. I know that you're also the Canterlot Vigilante, the one the whisperers are calling Shadow Slayer. You've killed a lot of ponies, crippled others."

"All true," I said, not wanting to confuse him with quibbles about my identity and actual history. "But that's not the important part."

"Really? Because I think it's really damn important," he retorted.

"If that was all of it, you'd have gone to the Guard and I'd be having a different conversation with a different soldier," I said, as casually as I could manage. I was fairly certain he hadn't sold me out, but it was clear he needed more convincing. Or, rather, he needed to finish convincing himself. "Keep going."

He snorted. "I know you've been killing black crystal dealers and I know... I know you were right. They are bad news. Really bad news. I still have friends in the Guard, and they say that Princess Celestia's all but put them on a war footing to deal with it. That it's scary black magic that has been spreading like a plague, and that what you've done has made the biggest dent in it, that everything the Guard has tried isn't working."

"They have to obey the laws they enforce," I said, stepping closer to him. He tensed, his wings stretching slightly, ready to take flight. He was afraid of me. Good, very good. "I can go beyond those laws. I can fight the addicts in a way that actually deals with the problem, instead of stop-gap measures that will fail to stem the coming tide."

"Does the Princess know what you're doing?"

I shook my head, deciding to be honest on this point. With him, at least. "She would have to become somepony other than who she is to sanction this."

"Somepony more like you, you mean?"

I shrugged. Somepony with my outlook on necessary and unnecessary morality, certainly, but 'like me' was debateable. "Celestia doesn't know, and I'm hoping to keep it that way."

He held his ground as I came closer, but I could see the way his body wanted to run, to fight. "And you just want to get rid of black crystal? No taking over Equestria or something like that?"

"I want to protect Equestria," I said, stopping just in front of him. "From anything that would threaten it. You said you were in, do you mean it?" He swallowed, but nodded. "Then what else do you know?"

"I don't know what you want me to say!"

"Yes you do," I said, keeping my voice cold and level, making no threatening move, but not backing off either. "You wouldn't be here otherwise, and I wouldn't have made the offer if I didn't think you were smart enough to figure out what I want. What I need. I don’t think you’re about to disappoint me."

He stared at me, working his mouth for a moment as if it had suddenly gone very dry. "I know... I know ponies in the Canterlot underground. Thugs, bookies, dealers, thieves."

"Good. Keep going."

"I know all the major players, and I know the ponies who have been approached to deal black crystal to replace the ones you've killed. I... I know how to find their hideouts. I know ponies in the Guard. I know their tactics, I know how to avoid them or draw them off. I know how to set up an assault on a fortified position. I know I can help you."

I smiled a little, relishing the sweating terror of the stallion. I hadn't made a threatening move, hadn't lit my horn, hadn't so much as frowned. And here he was, practically shaking from my mere presence. It should have been the highlight of the day, but the Elements still weighed on me too much. As it was, it was still a nice pick-me-up. "That is something I can use. Thank you, Gale Force, welcome to the team."

He relaxed a little at that, his limbs drawing in from their flight-or-fight tension and settling into a practiced military rest. "Okay, what do you want me to do, ma'am?"

I quickly formed a mental checklist for him, listing off the points as I was able to determine their priority. "First, I'm going to need a list of all those ponies you know, as well as their connections to the underworld. I need to know what we have to work with before I can direct you where to start looking. The new dealers are important too, as are the locations of their hangouts. Once you have that down, I want you to put your ear to the ground in Canterlot, stay out of trouble yourself, but start feeling out your contacts, see if anypony is getting ready for something really major, something out of line for what's going on there. Whoever is behind black crystal is building up to make their move, and I think they'll do it sooner rather than later. Best case scenario, I stop them before they can do that."

"What's the worst case?"

I paused, thinking about how far I should take the hyperbole. "Open warfare, a revolution against Celestia spreading throughout all of Equestria, blood running like rivers in the streets, tens of thousands of ponies dead. It probably won't get any worse than that."

"There's worse?" Gale Force swallowed hard.

"There's always worse," I said, walking away from him and towards a stack of books to give him some room to relax. I didn't tell him that I considered the situation I described as something of a step in the right direction. It would at least force the Guard to act in a more permanently decisive manner. It would also make it much easier to find out who was backing the black crystal dealers, which nobles were working against their own Princess. The worst case scenario, the real worst case scenario, involved me getting infected by the black crystal to the point where I couldn't escape from the addiction, becoming one of their 'shadows'. It wasn't likely to happen, but it was a possibility I had to accept and account for.

"Okay," he said, though he didn't sound like he fully meant it. "I can do all of that. What happens if I find something out? I can't keep commuting to Ponyville every day."

"I'll come to you, set up a secure drop for any information."

"So you'll be commuting?" I gave him a sly smile. "Right, you're Twilight Sparkle. Of course you can do that."

While I was less than pleased by his reference to Twilight, I managed to keep that displeasure from showing. "I'm also going to need your skills while I'm destroying addict hideouts," I said. "I don't expect you to jump into the thick of the fighting with me, but I'm going to need some external support. At the very least I need a lookout to tell me if they're bringing reinforcements or if the Guard is on its way."

"I can do that."

"Good. We’ll work out tactics later. You'll need something to conceal your identity. Your size will make that an issue, but I'm sure we can come up with something that will work. It will have to be armored and spell-linked to me so I can find you immediately if I need you.”

“I have an old suit of Guard armor,” he said, but I waved that off.

“No. Too heavy, too distinctive. They’d figure you out without even trying hard. You need something light, something that will let you be quick in a getaway.” I smirked as a thought came to me. “How do you feel about leather?” The look of disgust on his face was more than enough to convince me that it was the way to go. “Good. I’ll set it up.” I grabbed a clipboard and a pen, simultaneously running a simple scan over him to get his measurements.

His discomfort only intensified as the searching light of my magic washed over him. “What’s your endgame in all of this?”

“End the black crystal trade at its source,” I said, making a few notes.

“And then?”

I paused, looking up at him with a slight frown. “I’m not sure,” I admitted. “Take on the next threat to Equestria, I suppose.”

“And you’re just going to keep doing that? Fighting anything you see as a threat over and over again?”

My frown deepened. “Why are you asking?”

“I want to know what I’ve gotten myself into,” he said.

I shrugged, going back to my notes. “Well, to answer your question, I’m hoping to be effective enough that I won’t have to repeat myself too many times.”

“If you don’t mind, ma’am,” he began. It looked like he was going to continue whether or not I actually minded, so I didn’t bother to stop him. “There’s a saying they teach the Guard: violence only breeds violence. If you keep killing ponies like this, it’s only going make whatever comes after worse.”

I nodded at that, as if I agreed with the sentiment. “I’ve thought about it,” I told him, quite honestly. “Escalation is always a problem, and I’ve already seen it happening in Canterlot. The thing is, I didn’t start this. I’m not the active force pushing this escalation, I’m part of the response to it. Things were going to get bloody eventually, I’m just a little ahead of the curve. Hopefully, I’m ahead enough to stop it before everypony else gets there.”

We spent the next dozen minutes going over what his training was, figuring out the best place to put a secure drop box and other minor details of how we were going to interact. I let him know that I could teleport between Canterlot and Ponyville with ease, and made it clear that while he was not the only member of the team, he would not be meeting the others. I was beginning to think of Vinyl and Octavia as the support side of my efforts, and I wanted Gale Force to be on the operations end. Isolating them from each other also protected them from revealing identities if one got captured or turned, and let me control the information each gained. For instance, I didn’t want Octavia finding out I wasn’t doing this with Celestia’s blessing. That would… complicate things.

In the course of our discussion Gale Force somehow got onto the subject of gathering more allies. I was, understandably, against the idea, though it did have merit. The substance of most of the discussion is unimportant, except for one very important part.

“Maybe you can talk to the Captain when he gets to Canterlot?” he suggested. “If you can convince me to help you, you could absolutely convince him.”

I shook my head. “I asked you to help because you were already working on the dark side of things. You had already made the decision to dirty your hooves. My team is exclusive for a very good reason, and I’m not going to just ask anypony to join.”

“Right,” he said, looking down. “I knew that. It’s just…”

“Go on,” I prompted when he stayed silent.”

“Some of the things they’re saying about the whisperers, about the ones who’ve started… changing.” Gale Force shivered. “They scare me, ma’am.”

I couldn’t blame him. “They should,” I said. “If you spot one of them, you run. You aren’t equipped to fight them. I am.”

“That’s what I mean, ma’am,” he said. “I’d feel a lot better if there were two like you fighting with me instead of just one.”

I snorted at the thought. “If only. There aren’t many ponies who can even come close to matching me…” I trailed off as a thought clamored for attention. “Gale Force, when you say ‘Captain’, who do you mean?”

“Captain, sorry, Prince Shining Armor, of course,” he replied.

“The Crystal Empire is a lot farther away than Canterlot,” I said. “I can’t just teleport there.”

“You don’t know?” he asked. Clearly he was a pony who has not thought through that question, and never will. If I knew, I wouldn’t be confused about it, now would I?

I controlled my irritation, however, keeping it down to a low growl. “What should I know?”

“Princess Celestia called Prince Shining Armor back to Canterlot,” he said, smiling with the earnest happiness of somepony who thinks this is a good thing. “He’s going to take over the guard to deal with the gang war. He’s supposed to be coming in the next day or two, but the guards I talked to said he was probably going to stop off here in Ponyville to see, uh, you.”

“Oh,” I said. Then, because it didn’t seem that this was sufficient to capture my full emotional reaction, I felt compelled to include an addendum: “Crap.”

Marital Strife

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Shining Armor was something I had never factored into my plans. I had, stupidly, assumed he would remain in the Crystal Empire where he had plenty to occupy his attention while I dealt with everything in Canterlot. He had a new wife,a new title and a new kingdom to go with it, why would he come back?

Well, obviously, because a gang war threatened to tear apart his home city. Twilight would have done the same thing. I probably wouldn't have, but I've got a better sense of responsibility than they do.

In any case, he was on his way, and I was woefully unprepared for his arrival. I was fooling Twilight's friends just fine, but Shining Armor was family, and as I'd shown with my parents, I wasn't so good at keeping up the act around family. They were just so... pushy. Worse yet, if Shining took over the guard in Canterlot he would bring to it all his experience, training and, most importantly, power. He could shield the entire city if he wanted to, and the least effect of that would be to make my little teleportation setup worthless.

No, I wasn't prepared for him, but Gale Force had given me enough forewarning that I was able to throw together a loose plan. Actually, I could see where having my brother in charge of the Guard would be a good thing. Celestia had denied me an opportunity to get into the inner workings of the Guard's efforts, but Shining would be easier to persuade. I'd wheedle my way into investigating myself yet!

Or, rather, I wouldn't. But at the time I didn't know exactly how bad it would get. How bad it's gotten. I was being optimistic, and for a while I even convinced myself that my optimism was true. More fool, I.

Shining Armor arrived at noon the next day. I'd gotten word through Spike that morning, and I'd consciously failed to gather all of Twilight's friends for the visit. I didn't need their antics distracting me from convincing Shining that I was the same little sister as always.

Spike was with me, though. He hadn't mentioned what he had written in his letter, but I could see it in his thoughts. In the way he watched me when he thought I wasn't looking and the way he was quieter than usual. I didn't bring it up either. I don't think either of us needed to. I almost wish I had.

The train pulled up, the doors opened, and all of a sudden there were Guards everywhere. Ponies, both crystal and regular flesh, were swarming across the tiny train station, checking over every nook and cranny. I stood in dumbfounded silence, reigning in my instinctual response, which would have left most of those guards broken and bleeding.

"Whoa," Spike said, watching the activity from his place at my side. "Major security."

"Ma'am," a unicorn guard said as he walked up to us, a magical sensor floating in front of him. "If you could hold still, this will just take a moment."

The sensor turned towards me, running it's detection magic over my body. I didn't know what they were looking for, but I didn't particularly want my nominal privacy invaded either. I sent a surreptitious jolt of magic into the device, causing it to spit sparks and burst into shards. The Guard stared in shock at the broken equipment. I gave him a smile that I hoped was more sheepish than wicked. "Oops."

"Stand down, soldier," Shining Armor called out as he finally exited the train.

"But sir!" the Guard protested. "She broke the magic scanner!"

Shining chuckled. "Twilight is the Element of Magic, soldier. There isn't a scanner made that can test her power."

"Actually..." I began, at least three magical rating devices that could properly judge my abilities coming to mind immediately. I was interrupted in what would have been a very suspicion-divertingly Twilight speech by another pony emerging from the train.

"Twilight!" she cried, rushing towards me with the fluffy pink inevitability of an oncoming train with a poor paint scheme. Cadance, the greatest foal-sitter who ever lived. Princess of the Crystal Empire, wife of Shining Armor, sister in law. If I was unprepared for Shining Armor, Cadance was a curve ball heading straight towards me from a game I wasn’t even playing. The sparkle in her too-pretty eyes alone could power a home for weeks. They were filled with such honest delight that I was overwhelmed with an anger that froze my limbs. She wasn’t really happy to see me. But I wanted her to be.

Heh. You’d think I would be beyond such petty reactions by this point. That I would have habituated myself to subsuming them under a false persona. But, no, I’ve never really been able to get the hang of it.

You might be wondering why I felt this way, why I was so angry that Cadance was seeing exactly who I wanted her to see instead of the real me. Well, to answer that I’ll have to go back to the fact that I have all of Twilight’s memories, including her time with the greatest foal-sitter ever. I remember Twilight's feelings as if they were my own, and every time I remember Cadance those emotions come to the fore.

There's a kind of deep-seated reaction that Cadance brings out in me. It's something rooted in her time as Twilight's foal-sitter, in that magical period before she was Celestia's student, before she had fully vanished into her studies. Cadance was a friend, I suppose, but she was something more too. It's more than that she was part of my childhood. My feelings for her are stronger than they are for Shining Armor or Twilight's parents.

Perhaps it is the fact that she's an Alicorn. Winged unicorn, whatever. Perhaps in my mind she has been twisted up with Celestia, and all the intensity of that relationship. I wouldn't be surprised. But I don't fear Cadance like I do Celestia. I don't think she wants to kill me.

No, what I feel when Cadance is around is jealousy. Not of her, but of Twilight. Of Twilight's relationship with her, that I can only imprecisely mimic. I can't have that kind of... closeness. I am doomed to be held at length, a mirage of someone she used to know.

It's strange, I know, but it's not the only thing I envy Twilight for. And it doesn't hurt nearly as much as her greater skill with magic. Oh, yes. Nothing else hurts that much.

All of this flashed through my head in the moments it took for her to run up to me. When she suddenly dropped low to the ground, I was so caught up in the shock of the moment that I almost forgot the ancient ritual of greeting that failure to observe had, not so long ago, started the outing of another impostor.

Fortunately, I did manage to remember myself in time.

"Sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs awake," we said in rough tandem. The steps of the dance came easily to me, a fortunate side-effect of the persistence of muscle memory. "Clap your hooves and do a little shake!"

Cadance laughed with the childish glee of doing something that violated her refined image, and I managed a nervous giggle of my own. "Cadance!" I said, then paused because I had no idea what to continue with. A standard-issue Twilight response was soon available. "I can't believe you're here!" Ugh, what a non-statement. The ultimate placeholder, banal in every respect. Yet it was definitely what Twilight would have led with, and it worked like a charm.

"Princess Celestia thought it would be best if I saw what was going on first hand," Cadance said, her smile dropping away.

"What is going on?" I asked, keenly interested in exactly how much they would tell me.

"We don't really know yet," Shining Armor said, giving his wife a significant look. "But we were hoping you could help us, Twiley."

The look Cadance gave Shining back spoke of more than a little marital strife, but she didn't contradict him. "Of course I'll help. Any way I can," I assured them.

"We got a report that there was some kind of dangerous, unnatural storm that nearly hit Ponyville a few days ago," Shining said.

"The report also said that you single-hoofedly saved Ponyville," Cadance said. The emphasis was clear, but I couldn't quite parse the meaning behind it.

Shining, however, knew exactly what the subtext was and the frown on his face said volumes about how much he cared for it. "Yes, you're always willing to dive head first into any problems."

"It's a good thing you're so resourceful that you can handle anything," Cadance said. They were barely looking at me anymore, too intent on their little not-so-private spat.

"But you really should be relaxing," Shining Armor replied.

"Am I missing something here?" Spike asked, leaning over to whisper in my ear.

"You and me both," I assured him.

"I'm sure you would relax, if it didn't leave ponies in danger!" Cadance snapped.

"It's a good thing it's under control then!" Shining practically shouted back at her.

As funny as this was, an emotional eruption here could only delay getting the two of them out of my mane. So I took a gamble. "Is this about the gang war in Canterlot?"

They froze mid-shout, giving me a worried look. "You... you heard about that?" Shining Armor asked.

"I just spent two weeks there," I said. "And I read the papers. It's kind of hard to miss."

Cadance gave Shining Armor another pointed look and he sighed in defeat. "It's about that," he admitted. "I'm sorry about dancing about the topic, Twilight, but I didn't want you to worry."

"I wasn't worrying," I said, deciding to apply a bit of pressure. "But now I'm not so sure. What's so bad that you and Cadance are getting into an argument over it?" This time both of them wore guilty little frowns, hesitating for way too long. "It's because of me, isn't it?"

"It's not your fault, Twilight!" Cadance rushed to assure me. "It's just... well we heard about how you had... um..."

"A mental breakdown?" I supplied.

She smiled apologetically and nodded. "We're worried about putting any more on you when you're already recovering from that."

"Cadance thought you would feel better helping," Shining Armor said. "But you're my little sister and I don't want you getting involved in some of this stuff. Especially with a murderer on the loose."

"The vigilante," I said. "You're afraid she'll come after me if I help?"

"We don't know what she'll do," he said. "Or how far this is going to go. If it's serious enough for Princess Celestia to ask for Cadance and I to help, you can imagine how bad she thinks it might get."

"I do want to help," I said, as earnest as I could be without looking too gleefully eager.

"You can help," he said. "By making sure you and your friends are alright."

"I... what? Are my friends in danger?"

There was another shared silence. Spike, of course, jumped straight to the inevitable conclusion. "We're in danger!" he cried out, his eyes darting about as if he was going to spot an assassin creeping up on us right then and there, in the middle of a trainful of the Guard.

"No, no! Of course not," Shining said. I gave him an incredulous look and he caved. "Maybe?"

"What kind of danger?" I asked.

"Remember the unnatural weather?" Cadance asked.

"You think that was a targeted attack," I said.

"We don't know," Shining said. "But there's a good bet it could have been. The report said you pulled a black crystal from the heart of the attacking cloud. Do you still have it?" I nodded. "We brought an expert on crystal magic. I want him to take a look at what you found before we leave."

"You think whoever sent that cloud will send others?"

"We don't know, Twilight," Cadance said, shaking her head. "I wish we did, then we could put you at ease or let you get prepared. All we can say is that Princess Celestia has asked that you stay in Ponyville with the other bearers of the Elements of Harmony."

"The Elements," I repeated. "She's protecting her trump card."

While Cadance and shining Armor were clearly unhappy with that statement, neither argued it. "There's a dark power in Canterlot," Shining Armor said. "The Princesses have sensed it, and they said it was getting stronger. Princess Celestia said that if we can't stop it, the Elements might be the only thing that can."

"I see," I said. This, at least, told me that Celestia had recognized the black crystal for the threat it was, even if she didn't yet realize how it had to be fought. It was a baby step, but at least it was in the right direction. I let out a dramatic sigh. "Well, I still want to help. I can help with organizing patrols, or researching evidence, and I can do a real mean data-analysis!"

They chuckled at that. "Just take it easy, Twiley," Shining Armor said. "I'm not too proud to ask for my little sister's help when I need it, but let's wait until I actually need it, okay?"

I gave him a disappointed little nod. "Okay, I'll try to not worry about you now."

"I didn't want..." he began, but Cadance gave him a light smack with her wing. "I mean, thank you, Twilight."

"You're welcome. Now, I've got the crystal back at the library. I'll teleport ahead and get it ready. Spike, can you make sure they make it to the library without getting Pinkie Pie’d?"

"Oh, sure, give me the hard job," Spike snarked. "No promises."

"Do your best," I said, then teleported away without another word.

Sage Advice

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Grabbing the crystal core from the Everfree castle took me all of two minutes. Rushing back to the library took a little longer due to the way the core kept trying to absorb my magic. I was able to keep it from taking anything, but it was a distraction that I did not care for. If I had known then how to shut it off, I probably would have. Unfortunately I hadn't gotten too far with my own examination of it, having been too focused on the other areas I had to look after every day.

I had, at the very least, worked out a bit more of its structure and purpose. Like I had supposed, it had been created to intentionally manifest a sky-kraken which would then lay waste to anything and everything in its reach, targeting living beings specifically. This particular chunk of crystal could only hold enough energy to maintain such a form for about half an hour before it would be exhausted. Not that it couldn't completely destroy a place the size of Ponyville in that time.

One of the most interesting properties it had was the capability to network with other crystals of the same kind. That is, if a pony was sadistic enough they could seed a cloud with dozens of these cores to create a vaporous juggernaut that would take a legion of pegasi to fight. It was a weapon of war. Or, more precisely, a prototype. I could see where the design had serious flaws that could be corrected, where the energy discharges could be streamlined, where it could be retooled into something smaller, more efficient, harder to detect and defeat.

The only major downside to this kind of magic is that it took an enormous amount of power to create. A hundred unicorns working for over a week. Or a couple days if I was doing it myself. I've seen Luna manifest similar magic spur-of-the-moment, but, well, Alicorns to oranges, you know? Regardless, the very effort of putting something like this together would leave traces. I had Octavia and Vinyl looking for those traces, but they hadn't come up with anything at this point.

I beat Shining Armor and Cadance to the library by a comfortable margin, clearing a space out and setting up the core in a low-magic field where it couldn't start absorbing energy on its own. I had the vague idea of setting up a chalkboard or something and writing down some significant calculations that I had already done, but I didn't know if I had enough time, and I decided that a simple deception was better than a complex one in this case.

I heard them coming before the door opened, Shining and Spike talking loudly about something that I can't remember. Sports or something. Really, it didn't have anything to do with me, so I wasn't paying attention. I was more interested in making sure I could keep it together as my exposure to Shining and Cadance continued.

I stood by the core and practiced controlled breathing as they made their way into the library. The guards set themselves up at the exits and an old crystal pony followed his rulers in, his face scrunching up in a sour frown as he laid eyes on the crystal core. I paid special attention to him, he was clearly the expert they had been talking about.

"Is this it?" he asked, walking up to the core without even glancing at me.

I didn't particularly like being ignored. "I pulled it out of a cloud that was trying to kill me," I said. I saw Shining Armor and Cadance react to this statement, but I was more focused on the old pony whose eyes slowly tracked away from the core to me. "I've done a complete analysis of the spellwork on it, if you'd like to see."

"No," he said. His voice sounded like dust, dry and thin. "I can feel it from here. I don't need any more." He shuddered as he turned to Cadance. "Your highness, it is as I feared. This device bears the dark power of Sombra within it."

There were gasps in the room. I could see panic rising in the eyes of some of the crystal pony guards, and Spike wasn't taking the news too well either. "Sombra!? But he got blown up, didn't he?" Spike fretted, turning to me.

"He was destroyed," I said, working hard to keep the dark amusement from my voice. "We were all there."

"As if he hasn't survived certain doom before," the old pony wheezed. "Mark me well, this is the work of Sombra, and no doubt."

"And you know this, how?" I asked him.

"Twilight, this is Sage Advice," Cadance said. "He's the best expert on crystal magic that the Empire has. He studied the corrupted crystals that Sombra used a thousand years ago, before the Empire was banished in time."

"Yes, and I would not mistake that foul shadow for anything else," Sage Advice snorted. "I would ask who you are to question my words."

"Twilight Sparkle," I replied, though not without a touch of irony. "Most powerful unicorn in the world, and probably also the most magically knowledgeable pony alive, barring Alicorns. That's who."

"Twilight!" Cadance said, wide-eyed with shock at my rudeness.

I reined myself in with some effort. I was already slipping in my act. "Sorry."

"Well," Sage Advice huffed. "As knowledgeable as you may be about the magic in this time, I know the dark power in that crystal. Truly, how could I forget? His evil magic enslaved me as it did all the crystal ponies. I hear his voice whispering in my nightmares still."

"Do you?" I mused. That was an interesting way to put it. "I'm sorry, Mr Advice, I don't mean to be rude, I just find it difficult to believe that Sombra could have survived. The magic of the Crystal Heart is very powerful."

"Sombra was more than mortal," Sage Advice insisted. "Even before he became a living shadow, his body had been transformed by the dark power, making him like the crystals he so coveted."

And where had I seen something like that before? "And that could have saved him?"

"If even a piece of that tyrant had survived it could feed on dark magics, growing and spreading until Sombra himself was reborn."

Spike swallowed noisily. Cadance and Shining Armor shared a worried look. I tried to maintain a sober look myself, but I could barely keep the smile from curling my lips. I knew that Sombra wasn't back, it didn't make sense with what I was seeing in Canterlot, and the spell-work on the core was all modern, nothing like Sombra would have used. But the idea that something of his crystal magic had survived? That was much more likely, and would explain some of the symptoms I was seeing. Sage Advice might have been blinded by his fear of Sombra returning, but he had provided me with more information. Information I could use to track down the source of the black crystal.

"Could Sombra be responsible for what's going on in Canterlot?" Shining Armor asked

"I cannot say, your highness," Sage Advice said. "I can only tell you what I know of this crystal abomination."

"Thank you, Sage Advice," Cadance said after another shared look with her husband. "Please wait outside." The old pony bowed low and made his slow way out the door. The moment that door was shut she turned to me. "You don't believe him?"

"I believe he meant every word he said," I replied. "I just don't think he's right."

"It's not that farfetched an idea," Shining pointed out.

"No," I said. "But it doesn't fit with what I've been reading in the papers and what I saw when I was in Canterlot."

"What did you see?"

I hesitated for a moment before deciding to tell them a bit more than I would have otherwise. "There's this street drug called black crystal," I said. "It floods the body with dark magic. Very addictive. I saw a few ponies on this drug, and the magic they were emanating is the same kind that was in this core. Also, if this really was Sombra, he wouldn't be sharing out his power like that, he'd be trying to enslave others again, hoard all the power for himself."

"Could that be part of his plan? To addict ponies and enslave them that way?"

I shrugged. "I don't think this is like him. Not from everything I've researched about him since we freed the Crystal Empire."

"Twilight, why didn't you tell Princess Celestia about this?" Cadance asked.

"I thought she knew," I said. "She asked me not to get involved, and I wasn't really in a good place to argue."

"We know about black crystal," Shining said. "And what it does to the ponies who use it. What we didn't know is that this device had the same magic they were using. If they're creating things like this and sending them after small towns like Ponyville, it could mean that the gang war is bigger than we thought."

The dark look on his face did him credit. He wasn't a stupid pony, he was seeing the same connections I had weeks ago. He might even arrive at the same conclusions I did, though he would never follow my methods. "I want to help," I said.

"You are helping, Twilight," Cadance said. I resisted the natural response of rolling my eyes to an answer so clearly designed to mollify and sideline me. "I would love to have you come to Canterlot and help Shining and I, but if Ponyville is getting attacked like this... then I think Princes Celestia might be right. You need to stay here and protect your friends."

Well, at least she had some justification for the sidelining. "I agree," Shining Armor said. Of course he would, it was what he wanted to do from the beginning. Save me from overprotective big brothers.

Well, with all of that it wasn't like I could argue too vehemently, not without raising suspicions. So I nodded my head sadly and shuffled my hooves and said I'd be a good girl and look after my friends and blah, blah, blah.

Spike knew I was lying. I could see it in the way he watched me, in his silence. I still don't know how much he had figured out at this point. More than he ever let on, I'm sure. He never outed me, never asked about it, not until... well, that's for later. The important thing is that whatever he knew, he never judged me for it.

"It'll be fine," Shining said. "You'll see. I'll have this mess in Canterlot cleaned up in a week!"

"And if it is Sombra back again, he's going to have to deal with all of us," Cadance promised.

"It's not Sombra," I said. "But thanks." Shining motioned for his soldiers to take the core, but I teleported in front of them. "Actually, um, could you let me hold on to this?"

"We need to study it," Shining said.

"Well, I've already started that," I replied. "And I still want to help more than just being in Ponyville. I'll study it here. It'll be perfectly safe. Please?"

Shining hesitated as he thought about it. I wasn't too worried if he said no, I'd just steal it back from him once they got it to Canterlot. I just wanted an excuse to do my research openly. "Okay," he said finally, calling off his guards. "But if there's still dark energy in this thing you should be careful with it."

"I will, I promise," I said.

They made their goodbyes quickly, very apologetic that they couldn't stay longer. I told them that I understood, and I did. They really were needed in Canterlot as soon as possible. Spending the afternoon loafing about a country town was not good use of their time. They told me to give their regards to my friends, I mumbled something about how I would, there were hugs and smiles and then they were gone.

Once the library was quiet again Spike came up to me. "You're sure it's not Sombra?" he asked.

I nodded. "It's not."

"So why does it use his magic?"

I looked at the core It sat in quiet malevolence, still guarding its most valuable secrets. "That," I said, allowing an excited smile curve my lips. "Is a very good question."

Damn, someone's close. I have to go.

Mistaken Reasoning

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Sorry I had to leave so abruptly. I don't think we'll have any interruptions tonight, the Guard is focusing their attention on the fringe neighbourhoods tonight. I'm more than a little responsible for that, I admit. I've made sure to be seen there for the past several days. Nothing too showy, of course, but enough to focus some attention elsewhere. You know, blasting a few addicts out of their lairs, collapsing a building or two, starting a few fires.

Heh, yes. I thought you’d find that funny.

I haven't had much time to think. Events are catching up to me, I guess. Every night I come closer to the source. I’ve narrowed down their hiding places, cornered them at every opportunity. It won’t be long before I’ve found the masters of the black crystal, and then this will all be over. One way or another.

I don't know how I feel about that. I started telling you this story to kill time, to get it out. It’s become something more. I think the catharsis of getting it all out is one of the few things keeping me sane.

… Thank you for listening. No matter how little say you had in it, thank you.

Now, I had just finished talking about Shining's surprise visit, right?


I actually beat the train to Canterlot that night, teleporting in a good half-hour before it arrived, though I didn't find that out until later. I donned my costume quickly, letting my magic flow into the improvements I had made. My new bonded blades attached to the underside of my coat, resting against my flanks with a cool, deadly weight. The finished costume was much stronger than it had been, protections laced in and powered both by my own active magic and enchantments that would basically run themselves. My flight abilities were still, sadly, a poor imitation of a pegasus’ grace, but they were no longer as taxing on my reserves.

I spent a moment admiring myself in the mirror. The coat didn’t move like normal clothing would, instead it shifted and twitched like a living thing. A surreal umbra that revealed only tantalizing glimpses of the pony beneath. Enchantments in the hood deepened the darkness around my face, channelling the light to my eyes so that they seemed to shine with an amethyst glow. The same effect also enhanced my vision in darkness in a wonderful bit of multi-purpose magic. I grinned, wicked and bright. I looked beautiful and merciless. I felt dangerous.

It was good to be back.

Gale Force met me on the roof of the building I'd built my teleport circle in. He didn't know about that apartment, but I figured it was just easier to teleport the short distance to the roof than across the city to some other location. Much less chance of interception that way, too.

"Ponyfeathers!" Gale Force snapped as I popped in next to him. The costume absorbed most of the flash and noise of the teleport, so all the warning he would have gotten was a few guttering sparks. "Do you have to do that?"

I graced him with a sly smile and let out a derisive snort before utterly ignoring his question. "What have you learned?"

"I haven't exactly had a lot of time to work, here."

"But you have had enough time to learn something," I pointed out.

He sighed. "Yeah, and it's all bad. I’m still working on getting close to the dealers, but I know that the suppliers have upped the amount of product they want moved. They're on some kind of recruitment drive or something. I've heard stories of them grabbing ponies and forcing them to take black crystal. Big doses of the stuff, too. I heard one pony got hospitalized because of it, then went off on the nurse staff and almost killed three ponies. The Guard's getting spread too thin trying to deal with it, and on top of that they're all messed up because of the switchover to your brother's command."

One part of that jumped out immediately. "Hospitalized?" I asked.

"Yeah, so I heard. Skin rotting off and crystals growing in open wounds, they said. Creepy stuff."

I closed my eyes and thought through the implications, visualizing the scenario as I imagined the possibilities. Why give a pony enough that they ended up in a hospital? That wasn't a normal effect of black crystal, it didn't cause gross physical side effects like that until the addiction became terminal. The most likely response to an overdose, if such a thing was possible, would be a rampage. That was consistent with attacking the nurses, but actually getting such a pony to the hospital in the first place would have required such violence that he would have been in no position to ‘almost kill’ anypony. No, something else was going on.

I considered the problem from a tactical standpoint. What was there to gain by sending somepony to the hospital? A terminal addict, stuffed full of black crystal, in the middle of a place full of the weak and the sick. The vulnerable. No, not just the vulnerable, the healers. The nursing staff.

I could see it, could put together the sequence as it most likely happened. A pony comes in to the hospital, sick. Clearly suffering from an overload of dark magic. The nurses try to do what they were trained to do: bleed off the excess power. They would have to be unicorn nurses, of course. The patient becomes agitated, attacking the staff. The nurses are injured in the struggle and they’re taken elsewhere in the hospital for treatment. Somewhere outside of whatever security is watching the violent pony. Nopony tests these nurses for traces of dark magic because they were just siphoning it from a patient, of course they’d be covered in it.

The infection could have happened any number of ways during the fight. Maybe the addict had been hiding packets of black crystal on him. From the description he was clearly a terminal addict, it was entirely possible that he simply excreted the stuff into his hooves and implanted some with every kick that landed. It didn’t matter how. All that did matter was that those three nurses were now compromised.

But why infect them with black crystal? That question was tougher. Addicting three nurses was cruel, but hardly good strategy. Unless, of course, addicting them wasn’t the point. I’d already seen that black crystal could be used to house spells, and all addicts seemed to gain an affinity for mind magic. Simple instructions would be all that was necessary. Let a few ponies in through back entrances, past security. Distract others at just the right moment. A trio of nurses, their mental defenses compromised by the black magic surging inside of them, overlooked because they were injured, still with access to anywhere in the hospital they cared to go… I think you can see where this could be a problem.

I would like to say that my brilliant reasoning was completely accurate, but of course it wasn’t. I never even considered alternative explanations, and that mistake cost me. Though perhaps, in the end, it was necessary.

"How long ago was this?" I demanded.

"I don't know, a couple hours at most?"

"Damn." I flared open my coat, lifting off. "Come on! we have to get there right now!"

"What's going on?" Gale Force asked, taking wing and easily keeping up with me.

"If I'm right, black crystal addicts have taken over the hospital."

"Why would the whisperers want to do that?" he asked. I noted the use of the slang word for the addicts again, idly weighing the utility of it against my desire for technical accuracy. As you can tell, I never did get into the habit, though I have been known to use the terminology at times.

"They have no sense of honor or empathy," I replied, choosing my words carefully and watching Gale Force’s reaction to them. "To somepony like that, taking out the enemy's healers is a very, very smart move." I didn't add that I would have done the same to them had I thought they had any healers to eliminate. Gale Force’s eyes hardened at my words, and I couldn’t help a small smile at judging him correctly. For all that he’d been discharged, for all that he’d been reduced to working for criminals and vigilantes, Gale Force was still a Guardspony at heart. Honor moved him more than reason, and he would understand the simple rules of chivalry much better than the complexities of a world that valued efficiency and expediency above adhering to a code, regardless of how noble. It meant I could never share the true depths of my motivations with him, but I could use that tarnished nobility to manipulate him into actions he wouldn’t otherwise take.

"Those bastards," he growled. "The Guard will come down on them like an avalanche for something like this."

"They probably see that as a side benefit," I told him. "Anger, outrage, dark magic feeds on emotions like those. Pissing off the Guard will only make them stronger."

"You're kidding me."

"If only I was."

He shook his head. "You can't even get mad at them! How do you fight something like that?"

"You know how," I said, softly enough that it might have gotten lost in the wind. The way he looked at me, wide eyed and suddenly fearful, told me that he had heard, and understood.

We came upon the hospital to find it deceptively peaceful. I signalled for Gale Force to follow me and landed on a roof across the street. I scanned the windows of the tall building, my horn glowing as I sent probing magic out, only to have it vanish in a disturbingly familiar way as soon as it hit the wall.

"Already?" I asked, frowning. I should have been more alarmed. Had I been considering alternate possibilities to the narrative I’d already constructed, I would have been. As it was, I was just confused.

Ah, hindsight.

"Already what?" Gale Force asked

"It's worse than I thought," I said. "They must have been preparing for this for a long time."

He squinted at the hospital. "It doesn't look bad to me. Looks like nothing's going on at all."

"Look closer," I urged him. He obliged, squinting as he regarded the building before shaking his head again. "The windows," I prompted. "Every window with a light on has the curtain closed, every window that doesn't have a curtain closed doesn't have a light on."

"What does that mean?"

"Nothing by itself. It's just the most noticeable discrepancy. There's more. The ponies having a talk by the side door aren't looking at each other. They’re watching the street. The pegasus landing area on the roof isn't lit. The emergency room entrance has nopony outside it. Nopony coming, nopony going, nopony just stepping out to get some air. In fact, the entire area is very, very quiet."

"It is the dead of night," Gale Force pointed out.

"In a city the size of Canterlot the hospital is busy at all hours," I replied. "Taken together it all points to somepony trying to give the appearance of normality while denying information to anypony watching. What clinches the entire setup, however, is the way my spells are being absorbed by the walls. Hospital wards don't do that, but black crystal nodes do."

"So they're waiting for us," Gale Force said.

"For the Guard, certainly," I said.

He accepted that without comment. "So what's the plan?"

"You need to be out here," I said. "I need you to tail any escapees, hopefully they'll lead you to their home base."

"Just follow?"

I nodded. "That's all I want you to do for now. I can't let them know you're an asset for me yet. At least, not until you get your own costume."

"And if I manage to find their hideout?"

"Meet me back at the rendezvous point."

"Okay, I've got all that. What happens if they spot me?"

"You get away as quickly as you can,” I said, fixing him with my gaze to ensure he knew how serious that statement was. “Don't get too close, and do not under any circumstances engage an addict in conversation."

He nodded slowly. "Understood. What will you be doing?"

"Me?" I chuckled, looking over the quiet hospital. "I'm going to do what I always do. Stop them, save the ponies trapped inside."

"Are you sure that's wise? If they’re ready for the Guard, they’re probably ready for you too."

"Then that's their mistake,” I said, throwing him a cocky grin while my horn charged with power. “No one is ready for me." Then I teleported across the street, onto the hospital roof, and began my assault.

Dark Hospital part 1: Terminal Exposure

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I ripped the roof-access doors out of their frames, holding them in my magic and spinning them around. A pair of shocked earth ponies stared with wide-eyed terror at me from within. I wasted no time on deciding if these were addicts or not. The nodes of black crystal they were surrounded by told me all I needed to know. So without a word I sent the doors through the opening, one for each of my targets.

The ponies didn't even have time to shout before the door slammed into them, hurling them back and into the wall beside the elevator hard enough to leave imprints. The door windows shattered, coating the ground with sharp pebbles of glass. I stalked forward as the two ponies were picking themselves up, shadows leaking from their eyes. I called magic to create heat as I stepped into the field of silicon gravel, melting the glass into a red-glowing sludge at my hooves. It didn't burn me, I was far too smart to have neglected mere convection from my protections. I stood in the puddle of molten glass and opened the wings of my coat, glaring imperiously with luminous eyes at my quarry.

The addicts glared at me. "Shadow Slayer," one of them said, a cruel smile curling at his lips. The other wasn't nearly as sure of himself, and his eyes were filled with fear. Either response suited me. I would just need to make an example of one to make use of the other.

I sent a wave of glass at the cocky one. He screamed as it hit him, igniting parts of his coat and searing into his flesh. He thrashed and shook, succeeding in spreading droplets of glass around. I took some of the remaining glass and telekinetically forged it into a long, thin spike. Then, using my magic to hold its shape, I speared the pony through. He froze, pain and rage overcome by the existential terror that naturally comes from having a spear of very, very hot glass puncturing a lung.

I turned to the other pony, who was stilled by similar fear, and with just as much reason. "You will tell me everything that is going on," I said. "Everything."

"I... I..." the stallion gulped. "Please, don't kill me, please."

"I'm considering it," I warned. "But the more time you waste in telling me what I want to hear, the more weight the 'killing you' option has."

"Its a trap!" he gasped, thankfully catching my meaning with no need to further explain. "The hospital is set up to–"

He never got to finish, his throat exploding with a gush of blood as spectral claws tore his trachea completely out. My eyes flashed to behind the dying pony, where Alley Cat was giving me a taunting grin. I hadn't even noticed her arrival, all my enhanced senses practically blind to her until she chose to act. A quality of hers that I find extremely frustrating. "Uh-uh," she chided the stallion. "No spoiling the fun!"

I snarled, leaping at Alley Cat. She laughed and darted away into the stairwell. I followed, ignoring the choked scream that the remaining addict made as I stopped magically holding the glass spear in its shape and it started cooking him from the inside. It didn't matter. All that mattered was catching up to Alley Cat. She knew her masters, and I was determined to make her tell me.

Of course, the stairwell was pitch black, the black crystal nodes growing like mold on the walls sucking in what light my horn was giving off. I stumbled a bit at first, but quickly began levitating, skipping lightly down the steps, following the mocking sounds of Alley Cat's laughter.

I heard the sounds of a door, and saw a flash of light and the silhouette of a lithe figure darting into a hallway. Of course I followed, the possibility that it was a trick of some kind outweighed by the futility of continuing to search in the darkness of the stairs.

I didn't blindly barrel through the door, though. Instead I stopped and took a calming breath. I couldn't afford to let Alley Cat toy with me, and blindly rushing after her like this was only playing to her strengths. No, I needed to be more calm, methodical. I had to remind myself that even if she escaped now I would find her eventually.

I opened the door slowly, using my magic to do the work while I stood back a ways and observed. When nothing immediately attacked, I decided it was safe enough and stepped out into the hospital hallway. It was a strange, almost surreal scene. The hall was empty of ponies, all the doors along the walls standing closed. Wheeled beds, IV stands and wheelchairs were scattered along the length of the hall, one particular wheelchair sitting at the start of a trail of blood that led into a connecting hallway. The lights were on, but the nodes of black crystal that had been stuck haphazardly about the walls, floor and ceiling dimmed that lighting to an anemic blue-white glow. As I watched, a shiver of dark power flowed through the building, making the crystals vibrate with the energy and sending the light shuddering between magnesium-flare brilliance and stygian shadow for a few seconds.

That flare of power had been a signal of some kind, and the moment it had passed voices began whispering from behind the doors. It sounded like they were coming from all around me, unintelligible, barely at the level that they could be consciously heard. Half formed words and alarming fragments of sentences rose above the low-level din to be heard, but while they encouraged the listener to pay more attention to the voices, they never resolved into something comprehensible.

It was an attack. A psychic and emotional strike designed to set ponies off balance, to make them nervous and anxious. I would like to say that I was immune, but I have never been in iron control of my emotions and I am forced to admit that it was at least partially effective. It certainly distracted me from the door opening until a pony was already stepping through it.

"Terminal exposure," the stallion whispered, staggering into the hall like a drunk. He wore a lab coat that was covered in unidentifiable filth, and I could see from his cutie mark that he was probably one of the doctors. Shadows were trailing from his eyes and power thrummed from him. "Beyond safe limits. But what is safe? Who decides?" he rambled as he took slow steps, nearly tripping over himself. "Who has the authority? No one! No one! I decide what is too much, no other!"

I stepped back from him, my coat opening slightly. The sound of my hooves against the ground was muffled by the costume, but still loud enough to attract his attention. His eyes snapped to me and his lips curled in a vicious snarl. "Ignorant child," he hissed. "Respect your betters!" He leapt at me, but I telekinetically grabbed him and slammed him up against the wall before he got close. He struggled against my hold, but I was far too strong for him. I stepped close, looking into his shadowed eyes. "Whelp! I have more training in my left hoof than you've ever seen in your life!" Spittle flew from his mouth as he talked, rage making his eyes bulge.

"They did this to you," I said. I could feel the dark magic surging in him, corrupting his mind and body. The contrast between the invasive power of the black crystal and his natural purity was stark. This was no addict, this was a victim. Maddened and violent, but not responsible for his actions. "They're using innocents against me." I shook my head and began to constrict my magic around the doctor's throat, cutting off his air. "Fools."

The doctor had just lost consciousness when I became aware of other doors opening. The whispering grew louder and more distinct as other ponies began to shuffle into the hallway. I looked away from the slumped doctor to see dozens of ponies, some clearly patients, others probably staff, looking at me with a hunger that reminded me of the first night I had learned of black crystal. The same look had been in the eyes of the addicts in that broken tenement.

"So strong," one of them said, stalking forward with a hip-swaying strut that I found myself unexpectedly reacting to. Black magic thickened in the air, created by the doses of crystal forced on these ponies and magnified by the crystal nodes that also sapped my power. "I want it."

That sentiment was echoed by the other victims, and as one they lurched at me. I reared back and let loose a blast of power that knocked the front lines back. This didn't deter them, in fact it only seemed to energize them. My horn flared and I readied a spell that would rend limbs and cut through anything in its path. But on the cusp of releasing it I paused.

They were on me a moment later, before I could resolve my indecision, and by then it was too late. The spell died and I was forced to fight.

They didn't fight with any coordination or technique. They weren't even trying to hurt me, not really. I don't even think they understood the needs that drove them to attack. What I do know is that the dark magic in them somehow allowed them to sense my own power, and they wanted to possess it for themselves. No matter how impossible that was. No matter that they would rip me apart in their futile attempts to get at it.

I was overwhelmed by sheer numbers. I kicked out, but deep in the hold of the black crystal they weren't feeling pain. Answering kicks knocked me to the ground. Hooves took hold, pressing down on me, crushing and stomping. My costume protected me, both magically and with the natural resistance of the leather, but it wasn't enough. I wasn't strong enough to fight them off.

Or, rather, I wasn't physically strong enough. My magic, on the other hoof, was more than up for the task.

My coat flared, throwing four ponies into the ceiling. A bubble of telekinesis expanded from me, bulldozing the rest back from me. The unicorns among them lit their horns, trying to counter my power. They might as well have been swallows trying to fight a hurricane. I brushed their magic aside, lashing out with tendrils of light to wrap around their necks and limbs, dragging them all to hang in the air.

With a snarl of effort I slammed the lot of them into the ground, dazing them. Then before they could recover I grabbed them again and threw them bodily through the walls into the rooms that they had so recently vacated. Even through the pain-deadening effects of the black crystal, they couldn't help but feel that.

I didn't have time to gloat, though, as a snickering laugh brought my attention to Alley Cat, who was standing at the other end of the hallway. She beckoned me with a wave of her hoof and disappeared around a corner. I was after her before I'd made the conscious decision to move, my magic throwing me down the corridor with a speed that Rainbow Dash would approve of. I rounded the corner, barely avoiding slamming into the wall, just in time to see Alley Cat's tail vanish into a room. More victims stood in this hall, between me and where the elusive addict had gone. I decided that I wouldn't wait for them to attack as I had before, grabbing them and shoving them to the walls as I roared past.

The door Alley Cat had went through was closed and, surprisingly, locked. As if a lock would do any more than slow me for a second. I smashed through the lock, running full tilt into the room.

Heh. On reflection, this next bit went surprisingly well. It would have been much, much worse if they hadn't decided to get clever. Ah, the beautiful arrogance of dark magic.

The room was a simple hospital room, but the beds and other furniture had been cleared out. In their place there were six black crystal cores, like the one I had pulled out of the sky-kraken. They were arranged around the edges of a pattern that had been cut into the floor: a magic circle. A magic circle that I had just run right into the middle of.

Alley Cat grinned from beyond the edge of the circle. "Surprise!" she said, and darkness exploded from the cores, drowning me in an ocean of black magic.

Dark Hospital part 2: Incendiary Attraction

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I didn't have a lot of time, but the fraction of an instant between realizing what was happening and the impact of the spell was enough for me to put up some protections. It helped that the spell they had set up wasn't meant to kill me. Instead, it was meant to batter down my resistance, to fill me with its own brand of dark magic and force me to submit to the will of whoever had created the spell. Presumably that would be the black crystal manufacturer, since Alley Cat didn't have the needed skills to set up something like this on her own.

The black magic bore down on me. It felt like I was being crushed, my will bending under the weight of a command. The strength of my protections buckled; they had put so much power into this spell that even my best wouldn’t hold out long. Any other pony would have been destroyed in moments. Celestia herself might have had difficulty fending off an attack with this amount of power. But though they were strained to their limit, the barriers I had erected held. Not enough to defeat the spell, but enough to give me a moment to figure out some other way out.

I couldn't push back against the spell directly, they had designed the magic circle so that all force I directed outwards would instead spiral inwards, turning back on me. I could still move physically, and thus I could simply walk out of the circle. Unfortunately, in the middle of all that magic I couldn't see or hear at all and Alley Cat would be waiting for me if I left. There would be ample opportunity for her to make an attack that I wouldn't be able to protect myself from while I was leaving the circle. I couldn't teleport with all those damned crystal nodes they had covering the walls, either. Oh, yes, I was well and truly trapped.

Ah, but I am the most powerful unicorn in the world, with all of Twilight Sparkle's very extensive education backing that power up with the knowledge of exactly how to apply it. I was trapped, but not beaten. I sent a thin line of telekinetic power out into the maelstrom of black magic surrounding me. Like I had expected, it went to the edge of the circle and then began to spiral inward until it returned to me. I kept the stream steady, feeding power into it even as my defenses began to crack and the whispering need to submit built in my mind.

With the steady control that Twilight had trained for years to achieve, I began pushing the endpoint of that spiral downward. It wasn't easy, the will it required took away from resisting the invading spell, and I shuddered at the sudden warm feeling as thoughts of surrender and supplication intruded on my concentration. Finally, after a period of time that I could not name but felt like a solid year of effort, the spiralling line of telekinesis touched the floor.

I leapt straight up into the air and let loose my magic, empowering that thin line of telekinesis with as much energy as I could spare. Magenta light burned away the darkness and I saw Alley Cat's shocked expression as her own magic circle turned my magic from a straightforward push into a spinning, spiralling drill.

There is very little as sweet as outplaying an opponent who thought they held all the cards. I'm sure you understand the attraction.

The floor was utterly destroyed. Flinders of wood and linoleum blasted through the room, the shrapnel making Alley Cat flinch back. It would have been the perfect time to attack her, but, sadly, I was still caught in the magic coming from the six cores, and also falling through the brand new hole in the floor. So I missed that opportunity. Once I was through that hole, though, the pressure was suddenly gone and my mind was wholly my own. Or, rather, as much my own as it ever has been.

I hit the ground hard, and had to roll immediately as two of the cores fell through after me, shattering into thousands of shards. My costume protected me from the sharp, magic charged remnants of the cores, just as it was designed to do. I felt like I had been on the receiving end of an enthusiastic hug from Applejack, squeezed out like an old tube of toothpaste. I didn't waste any time collecting myself, though, I knew I had only moments to act. I aimed my horn up to the hole in the ceiling and sent forth a wave of fire that filled the upper room with an eldritch inferno.

I didn't see how Alley Cat escaped that fire, but even then I didn't doubt that she had. The flames burst down through the hole, so I quickly turned to one of the interior walls and tore a pony-sized hole in it. I jumped through into the next room over, catching my breath and getting out of the way as heat blasted the room I had just vacated.

I found myself in another hospital room. A set of beds had been pushed up against the door and the window, blocking them. A small, frightened squeak alerted me to the fact that I was not alone in this room. My coat swirled defensively as I rounded on the source of that sound, and came face to face with a trio of ponies. Two wore the uniforms of hospital staff, the last had a cutie mark in the shape of a tuba, so I had to assume he had been a patient. They were huddled together in the corner of the room, staring at me with fearful eyes that leaked damning shadows into the pale light of the flickering fluorescents in the ceiling. More victims of Alley Cat and her fellow addicts.

"Don't hurt us," said one of them, the pale green earth pony stallion with the tuba cutie mark. His flank was shaved bare, and displayed a puckered wound that had been inexpertly stitched shut. It looked infected, with ugly black veins radiating out from it. A quick scan of the other two showed similar lines of infection crawling out from under their uniforms. I’d seen similar, on the terminal addicts. These three were certainly not addicts –at least, not intentionally– and I wondered at what this could mean.

"What did they do to you?" I asked aloud. I hadn’t actually meant to engage them in conversation, they were a distraction from hunting down Alley Cat and her compatriots and spreading their blood through the corridors until they told me what I wanted to know.

"They tried to make us eat… eat these crystals, but when we wouldn’t," the stallion gulped, shivering.

One of the nurses continued for him. "They held us down. Cut us open and... and..."

I waved her to silence. I had figured as much after seeing the wound on the stallion. “You resisted the compulsion?”

They looked to each other, confused. “There was a… a pressure to do what they wanted. I fought it. We fought it. He was an earth pony, though… they can’t… that’s unicorn magic!”

I shrugged. I didn’t care enough to explain the fascinating properties of black crystal addiction to them. I was, however impressed with their mental fortitude. "Good news. Your wills were strong enough to resist, that gives you a chance. How many more resisted?"

"Just... just us, as far as I know," the stallion answered. They were still afraid of me, and I could see the black crystal working behind their eyes, taking all the darkness in them and feeding it. If they weren’t helped soon they would end up like all the other victims I had seen on the floor above, regardless of how strong their wills were. "They left us alone after they put… that stuff in us. We were hiding in here, but something’s wrong with us. Are you… are you going to help us?"

I shook my head. "No. I'm here to stop them. I don't have time to help you."

The three of them looked crestfallen at that answer. "What... what do we do?"

I considered for a moment what their best strategy for survival would be. "Stay here, focus on keeping calm. When help comes tell them you've been poisoned with black magic. They'll know what to do."

“I…” he looked at me with fear and disappointment, and I could already hear the protest he was about to make. I considered taking them with me, but the thought only lasted half a second before it was gone, the absurdity of the idea making me smirk. That smile seemed to kill whatever argument he was about to make, because he just gave me a resigned nod.

I didn’t spare them any more thought, instead magically dragging the beds away from the door and making my way into the hallway. I did, however, replace their barricade once I was through. They had resisted this far, and that was no mean feat.

The hallway was dark. A good three quarters of the lights had been smashed, littering the floor with shards of glass. I paused and gathered up a large amount of this glass. The fluorescent coating lit as my magic imparted a charge to it, and I continued down the hallway carrying the shards around me in a cloud of luminous flechettes.

The first ponies I came across were more victims, a pair of patients engrossed in each other’s bodies. They took no notice of me, so I didn’t bother them.

A mad cackle echoed off the walls, coming from somewhere deeper into the building, accompanied by a deep, booming thwump that rattled the walls for a moment. It sounded like a detonation of some sort. I considered whether my arcane fire could have caused the explosion, but discarded the thought. My magic may have ignited the room, but with the black crystal nodes drawing power out of spells it wouldn’t have stayed lit. The fire suppression system didn’t run on magic, so it would have taken care of any leftover nonmagical fire. Though the fact that no alarms had sounded as a result of my incendiary attack did bother me.

I decided that the direction of the explosion was probably my best bet. I checked my protections, making sure that I would be unharmed if another explosion happened at close range, and set off.

Once, long ago, Twilight had visited this hospital with her family. The reason why isn’t important, merely that Twilight was forced to sit in a waiting room for hours with only months-old magazines to read, and thus she became quite bored. The upshot of this is that she had memorized the entire layout of the hospital, as well as what could be found in each particular ward. As a result, I knew exactly where I was going and what I was getting into.

Specifically, I was going to the burn ward. Where I could expect to find horribly injured ponies who would be terribly susceptible to the effects of black crystal. As well as oxygen-rich environments and lots of delightfully explosive canisters of compressed O2.

Another insane laugh preceded a second detonation, and this time I felt the air pressure shock wave blow past me, flapping my coat as it went. I couldn’t suppress an excited smile. This sounded like fun.

Dark Hospital part 3: Mercy

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I prowled forward, my hooves as silent as dust on the tiled hospital floor. Figures crossed the hallway in front of me, darting shadows that merged with the darkness like pools of ink joining together. I didn’t slow my advance, the constellation of glowing glass shards lighting me in flashes of pale illumination. I caught sight of myself in an intact window as I passed it, and I liked what I saw.

The first one rushed out of the black with a scream, wings bereft of feathers buzzing uselessly at his sides. I created an angled plane of magic beneath his feet, tripping him so that he fell at my hooves, staring up at me with fearful, shadowed eyes. I stepped past him without even glancing down. Then, before he could even think of standing and attacking my flank, my jacket reached out and wrapped around his head. A simple flick of magic sent him smashing into the window I had just been admiring myself in. The glass cracked like a crazed spider web, but didn’t shatter. It was enough, though, the pony wasn’t going to be fighting anytime soon, so I let him go and didn’t lose so much as a step.

The next was a unicorn with half her face bandaged and clearly bleeding. She levitated a fireaxe beside her, and I remember wondering exactly where she managed to find such a thing. I found out later that there was a supply closet full of all sorts of things that could be repurposed into weapons not far from there, but at the time I didn’t worry about it. I had much more fun things to focus on.

I could have ripped the axe from her magic. Heh, it would have been easy. Instead, I let her come to me, swinging the weapon with all the force her magic could muster. I ducked the clumsy swing, then rose inside the reach of the axe and stared the mare in her one good eye. She shrieked, her mouth wide enough to reveal residual burns that went all the way to her throat. It must have been incredibly painful. I reached my magic down that ruined throat, using the damage of the burn as a vector to force my power into her nervous system, then I activated every damaged nerve in her face at once.

Her eyes rolled up and she collapsed in a dead faint immediately, her axe clattering to the floor. I felt a twinge of annoyance at that, I had been hoping for something a little more dramatic. I was being creative, after all, and that effort deserved more of a reaction than instant unconsciousness. Had I just wanted to knock her out, there are much easier ways to do it. Regardless, I didn’t have time to dwell on it because a pair of ponies were advancing on me. I picked up the discarded axe and sent it whirling into them. Bones broke and skulls cracked as I used the blunt handle of the axe to bludgeon them both to the ground before they even had a chance to make a move on me.

I didn’t look at them as I moved past, and so I saw a new shadow appear at the end of the corridor, right at the entrance to the burn ward. This one gleamed in the partial light, and I could feel a sudden tension in the air: his magic probing and clashing against mine. I sent a trio of my fluorescent shards flying at him. He didn’t flinch at the incoming projectiles, either because he didn’t see them as a threat, or because he somehow knew I wasn’t trying to attack him with them. The shards stopped around him, one above and one to each side, and I bent more energy into the magic I held them with to brighten their light and show me my new opponent.

He was a pegasus pony, bald, but with jagged spurs of black crystal jutting from his head and neck in an obsidian mockery of a mane. Blood, both fresh and old, trailed down from the tears these shards made in his skin, mottling his grey coat with patches that looked like wet rust in the poor light. His wings were half-coated in solid crystal, I doubt he could still fly. He had only one eye, which burned red and green and leaked a trail of shadows that my little lights could do nothing to banish. The other eye had been destroyed by a spike of crystal that had pushed out of his eye socket and taken a good chunk of his skull out to make room. A terminal addict, in the last stages of his decline.

He cackled at me, his insane laughter echoing strangely in the hallway. Then the crystal shard jutting out of his eye socket flared with bubbling power and he fired a coherent beam of dark magic at me.

I was, to say the least, shocked. I’d seen some strange magic from the addicts before, but emotion-controlling abilities and actual magical blasts are two entirely different realms of power. I should have anticipated it. Should have remembered my first fight with a terminal addict. He had moved me telekinetically, despite being an earth pony. I should have expected that the ones who had gone that far were capable of impossible things.

At the time, of course, I wasn’t contemplating such things. Instead I reacted on instinct, charging my horn and throwing my own magic against his. The beams met between us, closer to me than to him. For a moment we were locked in a combat of wills. Of course, such a combat could have only one outcome, and the difference in our strengths became obvious quickly.

As my stream of energy overcame his, he intentionally destabilized his magic, turning it from a coherent beam into an unfocused explosion of dark power. The windows shattered and the walls rattled as his magic burst outwards. My jacket’s protections weathered the blast easily, and I was already galloping forward, ready to crush the addict. But that explosion had been a distraction, and it succeeded in blinding me to his position for a critical instant. By the time I had cleared the lingering shadows of his power, he was gone, sprinting into the burn ward and laughing at the top of his lungs.

I barrelled after him, which was a mistake, of course. The moment I was through the door, two blasts of magic lanced out. I put up a quick barrier, but the dark magic wasn’t aimed at me. Instead it was directed at the canisters of compressed oxygen that had been set up on either side of the door. They detonated with a sound like close thunder, ripping the doorway to pieces and quite nearly tearing me apart as well. Only the automatic shields I had built into my jacket saved me from injury, but the sudden pressure changes were still enough to rattle me.

I staggered away from the destroyed door, my ears flat against my hood as my head rang with the force of the blast. I coughed on air that was suddenly supersaturated with oxygen, feeling the light-headed rush of it, as if I had been hyperventilating. It wouldn’t last long, and since the room wasn’t in a sealed environment I wasn’t in any danger of hyperoxia, but it was still a problem in the midst of combat with a powerful, dangerous opponent.

He hit me while I was reeling, his crystal-encrusted wing slapping into my right foreleg. My jacket put up a barrier, the magical protections fortunately unaffected by my own impairment. I’m proud of my spellwork, and this showed that I was right to be proud, as the blow that should have snapped my leg instead merely swept my hooves out from under me. I went down, flailing and still confused, but I kept my wits enough to lash out at the addict. My attack was clumsy, a lash of telekinetic magic drawn out like a glowing magenta whip, swung around without direction or finesse. Still, it was effective, and it forced the addict back for a moment.

I took the opportunity to enact a shield spell, putting myself in a bubble of power that even a terminal addict couldn’t easily break through. It was a waste of power, but, well, I hadn’t exactly been frugal up to this point, and I had no idea that I would be needing every scrap of power I could muster later.

The shield gave me a moment to recover from the blast, and I spent as long as I dared just breathing and letting the ringing in my ears fade to a background buzz. When I let down the shield I almost expected to be attacked immediately, or for the addict to have prepared a nasty surprise for me. Instead the ward was eerily quiet and black as a deep cave.

The lights in the room were gone. Either smashed in the oxygen explosion or taken out by the addict earlier. My shards of fluorescent glass had been mostly crushed to powder, but I managed to find a couple that I could still use, fortunately. I could have just conjured light from my horn, of course, but the little glass lights served as a something that didn’t illuminate me more than they did anything I wanted to see. They didn’t glow much, but with the vision enhancements of my costume, a little was all I needed.

I waited for a moment, listening carefully for any sound that could betray where the addict had gone. I heard many noises, the sounds of rasping breath, of squeaking beds and the insistent hiss of gas escaping a pressurized environment. Nothing overtly threatening, though, and nothing that pointed me in the right direction. Absent any other course, I decided that deeper into the ward was the only option.

I passed by the nurses station, the desk covered in dirty bandages. More were pooled on the floor, the rank stench of infection and the iron tang of fresh blood curling my nose. I levitated myself over the mess, and continued to the beds.

I was surprised to find ponies in those beds. I had assumed that all the patients would be roaming the halls, driven by the dark urges the black crystal had forced on them. Apparently there were injuries too great for even that much black magic to allow a pony to ignore. I hovered a luminous shard close to one of the patients, and what I saw brought bile up my throat.

Black magic feeds on pain. Preferably emotional pain, but physical pain will do just fine, too. Very little hurts as much and for as long as being burned.

They couldn’t have been infected for more than a hoofful of hours. Even if they had fed large amounts of black crystal, it should still have taken time to go as far as I saw with them. Crystal shards jutted out of their flesh at odd angles, growing on them like some onyx fungus. With the terminal addicts I had fought, the crystal had always enmeshed itself in ways that were horrifying, but still fit with the pony. Enhancing them, strengthening them. Not so with these ponies. They had become gardens of black crystal, their bodies spurting growths that would have made it impossible to move even if their injuries had allowed it. Eyes tracked my lights, mouths worked to make sounds that never came. They were alive. They were aware.

I’m sure you can sympathise. I know that I am not without empathy because in that moment I felt for them. And what I felt was rage.

It choked me, cutting off my air and sending my heart pounding with a coherent need to do damage. My anger channelled into my horn, and it lit with my power, banishing the darkness of the ward. I didn’t care if I was seen anymore. I wanted the addict to see me. I wanted him to know exactly what what he had called forth before I crushed him.

I saw him standing at the far end of the ward, a maniacal grin on his face and a wicked-looking knife clutched in his grinding teeth. He didn’t look afraid. “Shadow Slayer,” he said, his words slurred by the knife in his mouth. “They say… you are without… mercy.” He stopped every few words to swallow noisily. I suppose the crystal growth in his skull had damaged the roof of his mouth or something similar. “I don’t… think that’s… true. I wonder… would you save… these ponies?”

“Mercy,” I said, my voice coming out as a harsh rasp as I forced the words through my fury-tightened throat. “Is not about saving anyone.”

The light shining from my horn was more than enough for me to locate the source of the hissing noise: another oxygen cylinder that had been punctured. I grabbed it and tore it open with my magic, flooding the already oxygen rich room with even more of the gas. Then, without another word I teleported out, leaving behind a simple spell used to light candles.

I reappeared in the hallway outside the burn ward just as the spell went off and the whole ward went up in flames. The sound was… satisfying. Deep and powerful, final and cleansing, like the fire that created it. I threw up a barrier that channelled the blast away from the rest of the hospital and out the window into the night. The spear of fire lanced out over the city, momentarily lighting the area as bright as the day. If the Guard didn’t know something was happening at the hospital before, they certainly would now.

I was so busy admiring that flare that I almost missed the addict rushing through the flames at me. He was on fire, of course, but that didn’t seem to bother him at all as he crashed into, and through, my barrier and hit me as hard as a bucking earth pony.

I went rolling backwards. This time I wasn’t stunned by an explosion, so I was able to right myself immediately and respond when he made an immediate follow-up attack. He’d lost the knife somewhere, which I guess was a good thing, but it didn’t seem like he really needed it. He swung his crystal-sheathed wing at me, aiming for my horn. I intercepted with my jacket, but fighting pegasi is about speed and he had lost none of his to the crystal invading his system. He jabbed out with his forehooves, hitting me once, twice, three times before I could defend myself. The protections of my costume dulled the impacts, but did not entirely negate them, forcing me to fight through sudden pain and breathlessness.

He spun, flicking his wings at me in snapping blows that I could barely register coming. Useless for flight, those wings had become formidable weapons. Worse yet, the sheath of black crystal was draining my magic with every strike that landed. I ducked under one hit only to be caught by another, thrown into the wall hard enough to feel it. More punches came at me, but I curled down and let my jacket take the brunt of it.

I lashed out with a burst of magic that threw him back, but was quickly absorbed into the crystal. He responded by firing a beam of dark power at me before I’d had a chance to recover. I dodged to the side, rolling away as he turned his head to track me with that deadly beam. I wasn’t fast enough.

The magic cut into me, a cold sensation of leaching, sucking emptiness. I lost sight of the world around me for a moment. When I came to I was flying down the hallway, my jacket unresponsive and a fresh agony blooming in my shoulder. I hit the floor face-down in a sprawl, falling into a rather undignified position. Were I not fighting for my life, I would likely have been embarrassed. I know Twilight would have been.

He fell on me, wrapping one forehoof around my middle and the other around my neck, squeezing tight enough to hurt. It was immediately clear that he wasn’t trying to kill me, and that made the contact shockingly intimate. His breath, gurgling with the saliva he had to swallow every few seconds, was hot on my ear. He smelled of burnt meat and the cloying stench of sweat. He was warm. Warm enough for me to feel it through the leather of my costume.

“No mercy,” he whispered as I struggled beneath him. “No fear... Whose shadow… are you?”

“I’m not one of your shadows,” I snarled. My mind raced as I searched for a way to end him. Preferably as messily as possible. My jacket had been knocked out of order by the magic he had hit me with, but it was already repairing itself. I’d have it working in moments. I could blast him, but to fully affect him I’d need to call upon black magic myself. That wasn’t a bad idea, but I preferred to keep my facility with dark power as a surprise. If I used it now, I might miss my chance to see Alley Cat’s shocked expression the moment before I made her skull explode. I still had my other trump cards, too, but I was just as reluctant to reveal them. I opted to let him talk and see if I could win without breaking out the big guns.

“No,” he said, his ugly voice so close it was like spiders crawling on my skin. “You are… worse.” His wings swept forward and gently, almost lovingly, touched his crystal feathers to my horn.

I gasped as a shock of power went through my system. It spread from my horn through my body, lightning in my veins. I opened my mouth to scream, but it came out as a moan. A base, savage need flooded me, making me feel warm and sticky in all the right places.

Black magic flowed in from his touch, every pulse of it drawing white magic out of me in equal measure. I couldn’t stop it. The power of the black crystal forced its way through my mental defenses with infuriating ease. Again.

My back arched up against him, and I felt a feline desire to rub myself all over the crystal spurs that jutted from his diseased flesh. There was power in those crystals, and I like power. I couldn’t deny that then, and I certainly can’t now. However, tainting the energy towards lust gave me an opening. I have my preferences, and my lust has targets. Broken, half-dead addicts are not among them. I channelled the energy, and kept my thoughts my own as my jacket came to life again.

“Give yourself… to me,” he said. “There is… so much… to feel.”

“Yes,” I hissed, and I felt him relax as he misinterpreted my answer as acquiescence. “Like pain!”

Not the best line, I’ll admit, but I still like it.

My coat flared with all the telekinetic strength I could give it. It pushed his forelegs aside to let it move, but didn’t throw him off. I had a better plan. The wings of my coat wrapped around his wings, closing tightly. The black crystal was absorbing my magic, but I had more than enough to do what I needed to do here. I yanked his wings out to either side, stretching him out painfully. Then, after a moments pause to let him realize exactly what I was about to do, I jerked hard, and tore his wings from his back.

He reeled back, hissing a whispered scream as he writhed, letting me go as he flopped around the floor. I rose slowly, still feeling the full effects of the dark magic he had poured into me. I couldn’t help but throw a sultry smile his way as I turned on him. I still held his dismembered wings with my jacket, and a delicious thought struck me as I watched him writhing.

“Was that enough?” I asked him. He stared up at me, suddenly going still. His good eye was wide with terror and agony, easily visible through the leaking shadows. I love that look. I want to wrap it around me and feel it against my coat like the leather of my costume. It’s a look that tells me everything is right with the world. “Of course not.” I grinned at him, watching the fear increase as I raised his severed wings above my head. “After all, there is so much to feel, right?”

I brought the wings down, and using their crystal-solid edges as a pair of blunt cleavers, I hacked his remaining limbs off.

It took several blows apiece, I wasn’t working with the greatest clarity or precision. I kept grinning as I did it, and I think I was chuckling to myself as well. I’d like to think that I was exacting vengeance for what he had done to the ponies in the burn ward, but, well, I wasn’t thinking of them at the time. Perhaps it was vengeance still, if not intended as such.

When I was done I threw the broken wings aside. I stomped down on his head, smashing the crystal that grew from his missing eye. He looked up at me with the kind of helpless plea that makes it all worthwhile. “You are not going to survive this,” I told him. “But if you tell me what I want to know, it doesn’t have to get any worse before it ends.”

“You are… everything… they hoped,” he said, and I could hear the defeat-tinged awe in his voice.

“I don’t care what they think,” I said. “What was your plan here? Why take over the hospital?”

“A… trap.”

My eyes narrowed. “I know that. What kind of trap?”

“A trap… for the… Guard.”

“The Guard. How? Details!”

“They have… a new commander,” he said, and I felt the unnatural lust of the dark power burn away in a flash, replaced by a new sensation. I would not call it fear, no, but it was stronger than concern. Understanding, and worry. Terrible worry. “Just arrived… He will… come to see… what we… have done… take charge… Nodes of… black crystal… will detonate… and infect… the Guards… We will… make sure… most goes… to him.”

“Celestia’s light!” The invocation felt like ashes in my mouth. The Princess wasn’t going to save Twilight’s brother. She didn’t know what was happening, what we were fighting. There was only me. Alone.

“Will you… give him… the same mercy… you gave… them?” he asked, his eyes flicking to the burned doorway of the burn ward. I growled at him as he laughed quietly as he saw my distress.

“I won’t have to,” I snarled, then wrapped my jacket around his head and twisted until it joined the rest of his extremities. “Because he’s not going to end up like them. Or like you. I’m going to stop you. Not just here, not just now, but everywhere and forever! I will not let you poison Equestria!” I threw his head to the side and turned back towards the rest of the hospital.

“I will stop you,” I said, no longer just speaking to the dead addict. “No matter what it takes.” Then I set off, my determination renewed. I should have been more careful. I should have left. I should have found another way to protect Twilight’s brother. But I didn’t. I didn’t even consider it. I was riding high on an infusion of dark power that served to obfuscate a fact that should have been foremost in my mind:

I was running out of magic.

Dark Hospital part 4: The Trap

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The things that go through my mind while channeling black magic are difficult to describe in words. I suppose, to be a touch poetic, it is as if I become void, being possessed of a hunger that does not know limit or satiation. My every desire is magnified, taking on twisted form as the worst sort of gluttonous impulse. It's not exactly an overwhelming sensation, since I can still think and act normally, but more of a constant background noise. It drowns out the details and leaves me with only the most immediate of sensations, magnifying their importance. Preoccupation becomes obsession, desire becomes lust, annoyance becomes anger. And it all feels natural. It feels right.

Self reflection is, of course, something I obsess over normally. So you can imagine that, with my head buzzing from the dark power infecting it, I was lost enough in my own thoughts that I have no reliable memory of the next several minutes. I know that I wandered the hallways of the hospital, heading downwards in the vague understanding that I would find more terminal addicts waiting for the Guard closer to the ground level. I passed by other infected patients and staff, dispatching several with an entirely foolish expenditure of my remaining energies.

I was thinking of the ponies in the burn ward, of how I had set fire to them with not even a flinch of hesitation. Twilight Sparkle wouldn't have been able to do that. She would have fought the addict, certainly. Perhaps she would have even found a way to win. But to give a quick death to those ponies? No. She would have tried to save them. Could she have succeeded? I don't know. I do know that her compassion would have left her vulnerable and distracted. It would have made her easy prey for Alley Cat and her ilk. My own brand of compassion was far superior, then. A swift end that left me able to deal with the ones who had forced them into such a sorry state. Yes. Far better for everypony.

At least, that is the conclusion I came to. A conclusion that I still come to, every time I revisit the thought, which I do, and often. I think there is something in me, some remnant of Twilight Sparkle perhaps, that wants me to be wrong. I am never disappointed in being right, but sometimes I will admit that I am not overjoyed either. It would be a much better world if I was wrong more often.

Ah, but I'm wandering from the action. As I said, I was meandering towards the ground floor. I didn't take a direct path, much as that would have been the logical thing to do. Instead, I zig-zagged through the hallways, making my way from one dark staircase to another, seeking the addicts at the heart of this horror. It was somewhere around the third floor that I realized things had changed outside.

I pulled my thoughts out of themselves and focused my conscious attention on the world. I walked up to one of the blacked out windows and shattered it with a thought. Outside the world was painted bright with the searching lights shining from the horns of dozens of Guard unicorns. I winced at that light, the flare compensation magic in my hood taking a moment to shade my vision. That delay was a warning sign that actually got through the black magic high, telling me how low my reserves really were.

I looked down on the street and I saw that the hospital was surrounded by the Guard; cordons and barricades already going up to keep a gawking public at a safe distance. Several teams were forming up, weapons being distributed and harsh warnings going out. At the center of activity, giving orders like one born to command, was Shining Armor. At his side stood Cadance, looking as stern as I had ever seen her. Her pretty mouth was compressed into a thin, angry line and her eyes flared with pulses of her own not-inconsiderable power.

There was a cry, and Twilight’s brother followed a pointing hoof to look right at me. I wasn't worried about him recognizing me. I would have barely recognized myself in my costume. I was, however, worried about him deciding that the mysterious vigilante being on the scene meant he should send in his troops now.

I had to think fast, and, sadly, the first idea that sprang to mind was as energy-intensive as it was effective. My horn burst to brilliant incandescence, completely outshining the spotlights that were trained on me and blinding onlookers. Magic poured from me, twisting into a spell that fell to the ground and looped around the entire hospital, creating a barrier of magenta light that rippled in sheets of sparkling power.

I’m actually quite proud of that bit of quick spellwork. It wasn’t terribly complex, actually, but very effective. A dozen layers, each composed of alternating hard planes and elastic netting, moving at different rates along the path I had set for the spell. Any force applied to the spell would cause the elastic layers to draw the hard planes together, solidifying the barrier only at points where somepony was trying to break through. An individual plane could be shattered, a single net could be cut, but the alternating layers meant that attacking one in either way would only harden the barrier, quite possibly negating the intended attack altogether.

Of course, there were ways around it. For instance, I had completely neglected to protect against aerial incursion. Pegasi could just fly over the barrier. It was also very vulnerable to a pony with decent observational skills and the patience to wait until the layers were properly aligned and then use the appropriate tactic to remove them all at once. I didn’t consider it at the time, but I suppose I was counting on the Guard not thinking outside of the ‘smash it’ box. Regardless, it wasn't exactly a perfect deterrent, and certainly not one that would stop a pony as powerful as Shining Armor for long, but it was something that could delay him and his forces. That was all I thought I needed.

… Yes, I know. I was a fool.

The loss of magic hit me immediately. I staggered back from the window, suddenly overwhelmed with the aching emptiness that comes from overextending my magic. My jacket, so recently compromised, failed again, going dead and heavy around me. Some of the enchantments still functioned, specifically some of the more important protective measures, but anything that required active input from my horn was shut off. My shoes felt like lead on my hooves, and I tripped as my legs refused to coordinate. I went down, hitting the ground and scrambling to a sitting position as I began sucking in quick, shallow breaths.

I’ve never run dry before. I’ve come close, a couple times, but never been completely, utterly, out of magic. The feeling was… terrifying. I felt like some fundamental part of me had been stripped away… Of course I felt that way. It had. Magic is a part of me, so deeply ingrained that… well, cutie marks don’t lie, right? Have you ever felt something so… so… I don’t even know if you can run out of magic. I know what it takes to beat you, though, and I don’t ever want to test their limits, so there you go.

Panic is a poison. It eats at you, eroding the very thing that can save you: rational thought. I am ashamed to admit how badly my thinking had already degraded from the black magic high, and you can imagine how much worse that all got when I felt my power run out and I began to panic.

I screamed. I remember that. Pain or fear, I don’t recall which prompted it. It hurt to be so empty. I wanted to tear open my chest, terrified that I’d find a yawning void there instead of my heart. The only reason I knew I still had a heart at all was that I could hear it pounding in my ears. I wanted to run, to get away from something that was coming from within me. Yet I couldn’t move, my limbs filled with burning static that my desires failed to pierce.

I was, in short, an absolute wreck.

Heh. It’s funny. I think, in one way or another, I’ve been a wreck for my whole existence. From that first horrible morning right up until now. This was, perhaps, just the first time I really felt it.

Regardless, I didn’t have long to wallow in my private agony. The addicts came for me, attracted by my spell or by my screaming, I couldn’t say. I can say that the first I knew of them was when a chain made out of links of black crystal was wrapped around my neck and I was thrown with enough force to send me crashing into a wall.

I will say this for being blindsided: it really helps me focus. The panic fell away as I realized I was in immediate, mortal danger. I twisted, trying to loosen the chain. A length of the chain was stretched out to an earth pony with a dark yellow coat and a messy orange mane. She smiled at me, her lips pulling too far back, turning her face into a death’s-head rictus. My instincts told me to lash out with magic, and I foolishly did not reign them in. Pain blinded me. It was like trying to walk on four broken legs, you’re punished for merely attempting it.

When my senses returned, I was being flung down the corridor, the chain still wrapped around my throat. Impacting the wall was practically soothing compared to the screaming agony of trying to use magic when I had none left. My jacket’s remaining protections kept me from taking serious damage from it, at least.

I dragged at the chain, but it writhed like a living thing, slipping out of my hooves and only gripping me tighter. A twitch from the earth pony addict and the chain whipped me across the hall again. Then again. And again. I believe at around this point I lost consciousness. I know this because the next thing I can remember is being dragged along the hall, my legs securely tied together and a heavy, full-body ache warring with the agony of my missing magic for my attention.

I would like to say that I was plotting how to escape during that slow, rough trip down to the ground floor emergency room entrance. I would like to talk about how I analyzed each of the seven terminal addicts as, one by one, they joined my captor. I would absolutely love to declare how I had it all figured out by the time Alley Cat showed up and they turned their attention to me.

I would like to say these things, but you would not be fooled.

I lay where I was put and I wallowed in my own pathetic failure. I berated myself for not keeping track of my magic use. I moaned over the pain in my body. Heh, bruises only. The addict had been practically gentle with me. I thought of home, and nearly cried at the thought that it wasn’t really mine. Just another place where nopony had yet realized I was an impostor. As my mind ventured into self-pitying thoughts of Ponyville and the mare whose life I inherited, I paid very little attention to what was going on around me.

Not my lowest point, but close.

I was deposited in the emergency room lobby. Chairs for waiting ponies had been ripped up from the floor and shoved up against the doors, an extra level of barricade that would not stop the Guards from coming in through the large, very breakable windows. Those windows were painted the same black as the others, blocking any view of how Shining Armor and his troops were dealing with my barrier spell. Nodes of black crystal were everywhere, growing on the walls and ceiling like moss. Patches of them had even been deposited on the floor, crystalline projections pulsing with dark energy as they absorbed the enormous well of negative emotion that the hospital had become.

My captor sat down and waited, staring at me with her death’s-head grin. She didn’t say a word, though her eyes roamed over me in a way that I find more disturbing in retrospect than I had the wherewithal to feel at the time. When the others began arriving, they sat down as well, staying silent. One by one, quietly taking places around me in a circle. Their eyes were bleeding shadows and faintly luminous with a green tinge, the sickness in them made all-too visible.

I still wonder about that, the silence. I would have expected boasting, threats, the usual ranting and raving that black magic brings on. They were eager for what was to come, the excitement was plain in their faces, but not a single word of gloating triumph escaped them. Was it significant? Was it something I missed? Something that could have made it all so much easier?

I don’t know. Speculation at this point would be an exercise in pointlessness. Perhaps I will find out when this is all over… Perhaps.

As I said, there were seven, plus Alley Cat and the one who had caught me. If you include the mad pegasus in the burn ward, that meant there were ten terminal addicts sent to take the hospital. Ten. Every time I fought them before, I had my hooves full with just one. If they hadn’t decided to get clever with me, they could have easily overwhelmed me with numbers alone. Still, as it was I was in no shape to fight off a single normal addict, let alone nine powerful and experienced ones.

The wait for all of them to arrive did have one good side-effect, though. It allowed me to recover the barest sliver of my magic. Not enough for any useful spell, but enough to draw me out of the grave of self-pity I had dug for myself.

When Alley Cat arrived, the change in atmosphere was palpable. Nine terminal addicts in the same room, the weight of their combined power was a pressure on my mind. One I was in no shape to resist. She took up a place in the circle around me, smirking as her eyes found mine. “Shadow Slayer,” she said, the name they had given me dripping like honey from her lips.

“Shadow Slayer,” the others repeated in unison. Unlike Alley Cat, none of the rest of the addicts could have passed for a normal pony anymore. Infected wounds filled with spikes of black crystal dripped oily fluids down their hides. Eyes burned with green light and trailed shadows like smoke in the air. Two earth pony addicts even had hideous pseudo-horns similar to the first terminal addict I had fought, a proverbial lifetime ago. Most of these ponies would not survive much longer. Until their addiction killed them, however, they would only get more dangerous. “Shadow Slayer,” they said again, and with each repetition of the name their dark magic came more and more into sync.

I realized where I was: in the center of a magic circle made out of nine wells of black magic. I recalled the trap they had laid for me upstairs. This would not be the same, nor would I have the same avenue of escape. What they were planning I couldn’t figure out. In retrospect, I should have known. The signs were everywhere, after all. From the moment I had burst my way into the dark hospital I had known it was a trap. I was simply never concerned that it could be a trap for me. Or what form that trap might take.

Spectral claws formed at the end of Alley Cat’s hoof as she reached out for me. They touched my horn with a light caress, sending a frisson of dark power into me. I couldn’t contain the shudder as my starved soul drank in the magic. “The Masters were hoping you’d succumb to the command spell,” she said. “I told them you were too canny for that. There was no way you’d fall without casualties.”

Her flattery had no real effect on me, but the rising swirl of dark magic around me certainly did. I could feel the hairs of my mane crackle with static, my legs twitching with nervous energy. The repeating chant rose in volume as the power circulating through the addicts surged, drawing magic from the crystal nodes they had seeded throughout the hospital.

“Personally, I thought you’d make it harder on us,” Alley Cat continued, her claws tracing the spiral of my horn, feeding a thread of dark magic into me. It was like swallowing bitter water, I knew it was dangerous, but I wanted it so badly I couldn’t stop myself from sucking eagerly at the offered power. “I guess we got lucky. Or you got sloppy. Either way, cheers to us, huh?” She grinned. I glared back at her. “Oh, don’t feel too bad. This whole place is a trap, you know?”

Of course I knew. Shining Armor was outside, and they were going to target him for infection. With Cadance as the perfect target of opportunity at his side. Of course I hadn’t even been thinking about that. I was too busy pouting over my own misfortune to remember what was at stake here.

My eyes flicked to the blacked-out windows as I suddenly recalled who was waiting outside, horribly ignorant of what was waiting for them. “Yes,” Alley Cat said, not missing my glance. “A trap for the Guard, but more importantly, a trap for you.” She chuckled, and I felt the flow of magic from her increase. I should have been alarmed at that, but, well, I was not at my best. “The Masters have got it into their heads that you’re something special.” She shrugged, smirking. “Honestly, I think the same thing. They think that if we could sway you to us, you could become the most powerful shadow of all. Again, I’m inclined to agree. Unlike them, however, I know it’ll take more than shoving a hoofful of black crystal down your throat and promising you more if you behave.”

... Yes, I am aware of the irony of the statement. That’s exactly the situation I most feared, because it would be the one I can guarantee you would work. Thank Celestia for small mercies, right?

“You need something to push you to our side. Something that suits your beautiful power.” She leaned close. “I can smell the shadows on you, I can taste your lust and feel the heat of your rage. It’s exactly like ours while at the same time being so fundamentally different. Making you into another shadow would not suit. Oh, no. So I cooked up this little drama for you. I’m sure you’ll like it. You see, instead of making you one of us, we’re going to make you more of yourself.”

That got through to me, and suddenly I knew what was happening. The chanting, the gathering of dark magic from the entire hospital, the stream of power Alley Cat was feeding into me, all of it clicked into place. I tried to block the flow of her power, but it was too late. She had those claws in my soul, now, and it would take more strength than I could muster to dislodge them. I struggled against the chains holding me, but they constricted tightly enough to cut off circulation. I lit my horn in a feeble attempt at magic, and the magenta light was barely brighter than a candle. I was caught.

Alley Cat saw my understanding, and her eyes burned with evil green light. Her horn bubbled with dark power as she took the magic the other addicts were raising and prepared to channel it straight into me.

I didn’t know what an influx of that much black magic would do to me. Insanity was only one option, and one of the more pleasant ones. At the very least I would lose all self control while at the same time being empowered to near the height of my peak ability. This would be terminally dangerous for the addicts around me, certainly, but it would also certainly spell doom for many of the ponies outside. I understood the full extent of their plan, now. The hospital was the trap for me, but I was the trap for the Guard. Shining Armor could survive my rampage, but he would be weakened and easy prey for black crystal infection. The rest of the Guard would be devastated, a blow from which they would never recover in time to save Equestria from the Masters.

I knew all this, and I could do nothing to stop it.

Or, rather, almost nothing. I still had one trump card left, but it would require perfect timing. Worse, it would require that I keep my focus even as dark magic was flooding my mind with distractions that it has been consistently proven I could not shut out. It was a huge gamble, but it was my... it was Equestria’s only hope.

“I’m going to kill you,” I snarled at Alley Cat.

“That’s the spirit!” she replied with a dark chuckle. “Now, Shadow Slayer, let’s see what you can really do.”

With that she opened the connection full blast, and the whirlpool of dark power around me was funnelled through my horn and straight into the core of my being. My eyes poured shadows, my horn burned with black light. I could feel it coating me inside, a stain of darkness that would never, ever come clean.

It felt so very, very good. I couldn’t help but grin, laughter bubbling up my throat. They didn’t understand what they had done. They didn’t quite realize who they were dealing with.

It was time to show them

Dark Hospital part 5: A Lesson

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There was a hurricane of magic around me. In me. It was exactly what I wanted. The power to fight them, the power to win. There was one problem with it: it was all raw dark magic, siphoned from the pain, fear and misery of a hospital full of ponies. Stained as it was with the weight of so many emotions not my own, it would have overwhelmed me. Especially considering, as I have shown, I’m not exactly in full control of my emotions as it is. Not that I couldn’t use it, of course. Had I wanted to I could have seized that power for myself and shattered half of Canterlot. The main reason I didn’t want to take it was because I would have shattered half of Canterlot.

Oh, it wouldn’t have been intentional, I’m sure. Just collateral damage as I sought out every black crystal addict I could find and crushed them into paste. It would have hurt Alley Cat and her ilk, sure, but it would also have played right into their hooves.

To be honest, actually, I have to admit that it was this reason, more than the destruction I would cause, that made me refuse the power they were shoving down my throat. I didn’t want Alley Cat to get her way. I could just imagine the smirk on her face as she watched me indiscriminately annihilate the city, and I knew I would do anything to wipe that smile away. I wasn’t going to let her win.

Regardless, I couldn’t use the magic they were giving me until I had stopped their ritual. Not and stay sane. Once I had disrupted things enough, though, the gloves would come off.

So I reached for my magic. Not the black power she was feeding me, but my magic. There wasn’t much, a trickle that had recovered since I had foolishly squandered it all. It was barely enough to pick up a quill.

It was enough for me.

You see, as insipid as she is, Rarity does know the gem trade. She’d come through for me, and just in time for me to have my two little trump cards ready for this. Designed to function in an environment where magic was being actively drained, keyed to respond as perfect extensions of my will, my blades detached from their hiding places in my jacket. I grinned up at Alley Cat, locking eyes with her. She smirked back down at me, a delicious misinterpretation of exactly why I was smiling. Then I slashed one of my blades across, and the hoof touching my horn fell away from her leg.

Oh, the look in her eyes! The surprise and the confusion as her mind tried to understand what I had done. Then the dawning horror as she realized just how badly she had underestimated me! I will keep the memory of that expression with me forever. I will hold it close and use it to warm me on cold nights. If I had it as a picture, I would wallpaper my house with it!

Blood spurted from her stump, splashing over my face. Delightfully warm. I could see the way the black crystal had integrated with her bones and muscle. It looked neat, orderly. Intentional, rather than the mostly random growths I had encountered before. I suppose that’s the difference between the normal terminal addicts and the ones like Alley Cat. I’ve only had the chance to look at the insides of another like her, but I wasn’t really in a position to do a proper examination at the time.

Her horn spat dark sparks as she shifted her magic into the spell to become smoke. I had done my research on her, though, and I knew every trick she could pull out. I knew what she was doing and I wasn’t about to let her get away with it. I twisted in my bonds, reaching out and clamping my teeth down on the stump of her leg. The sudden pain inturrupted her spell, and I let out a muffled laugh as she jerked back in panic.

The other addicts were reacting to what had happened, but slowly. They were too invested in their ritual, too focused on being a channel for the dark magic they had accumulated. It left them slow, unaware.

My blades found the earth pony who had captured me first. I slashed her throat, but it turned out there wasn’t much flesh left there. She flinched at the attack, her chains rattling as she filled them with whatever pseudo-telekinesis her addiction granted her. I didn’t give her the chance to do anything with them. My blades spun like buzzsaws as I sent them into either side of her head. Blood and brains spattered the walls as I reduced her to a gruesome caricature of the headless horse. The chains binding me loosened.

Alley Cat managed to pull her leg from my teeth. “Kill her!” she shrieked, fear finally singing out in her voice. “Kill her now!”

They heard her, and three of them lurched towards me. Two earth ponies and a unicorn. My jacket was still out of commission, so I had very few options. I sent my blades at two of them. One earth pony didn’t move in time, and I cut into his side, sending bits of meat and crystal flying. The unicorn saw my attack coming and dodged out of the way. I would have compensated for his move, but I was too busy with the second earth pony, who raised up hooves that flared with greasy green flames, ready to stomp me to death.

I rolled, barely fast enough to avoid the attack. Even through the leather of my jacket I could feel the heat as he stomped the floor tiles, melting them into molten hoofprints. I kicked out, using the motion to shake more of the binding chain loose as well as get an attack in on the pony. That was a bit of a mistake, as kicking him felt like kicking concrete.

He lashed out, and this time I wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way. His kick landed on a foreleg, thankfully at the wrong angle to break anything. It did leave a nasty burn. This scar, here. You would not believe the trouble I had to go to so that none of Twilight’s friends noticed it.

Anyways, while it hadn’t done much damage, that kick had hurt. So I responded by using my blades to remove both his forelegs. The dull surprise he showed at that was nowhere near as satisfying as the look Alley Cat had given me.

All the addicts were on the move, now. The three attacking me were joined by two others, while the last two were desperately trying to regain control of the whirlwind of power that the others had abandoned to focus on me. I shook off the last of the chains and rolled to my hooves, facing all my opponents with a mad, bloody grin plastered on my face.

Now, weeks later, I understand that I was in a bad situation. My blades had surprised them, and I could do phenomenal damage with them, but I was still going to be overwhelmed. All they would have to do is rush me, and that would be it. Rationally, I understand that my best option would have been to use the blades as cover and run. I could disappear into the hospital, wait and recover while the Guard broke through my barrier and forced the addicts to enact their plan, then escape in the confusion. The Guard might even be more cautious than usual thanks to my display of power, saving them from the trap.

At the time? I wasn’t quite so rational. I suppose, in the heat of the moment, I never am. Ah, well, I can’t change the past. All I can do is accept the consequences for my actions.

Faced with overwhelming odds, I just laughed, then took hold of the power in me. The power they had given me. Black magic surged through my veins, bubbling around my horn and energizing my costume back to full life. It writhed and twitched, spilling shadows like water that pooled at my hooves. The addicts paused as they saw me, uncertainty and fear flashing in their eyes. “Shadow Slayer,” I said, relishing the words. “Well, if that’s the name you’ve given me, I might as well start living up to it.”

I lashed out with a spell of pure darkness, invested with a large portion of dark power. Twin serpents of shadow lanced from my horn and struck at their targets. Not to the five addicts arrayed against me, but against the two who were corralling the wild power they had raised. They foolishly thought I would focus on the immediate threats, and so they were unprepared for the attack, and succumbed immediately. They should have known, why do a straight-up fight when there were so many more interesting options.

I was already flying high from beating Alley Cat, couple that with the misery laced through the dark magic I was channelling, and you can see why I wanted them to suffer. I wanted them to hurt, and know that they were hurt. I wanted them to be seen hurting. I wanted to make a show of it.

So I killed the two ponies trying to contain the storm of dark power. My magic bored into them and consumed them from the inside, melting away their flesh and leaving only the black crystal that had infested them. Their efforts brought to a rude end, the power exploded.

I admit, I am still a little surprised at how… vigorous an explosion it was. You see it… well… Okay, there’s not any other way to say this: it tore the front of the hospital right off.

The dark power had surged towards the strongest source of similar power around. Which happened to be the clustered addicts. It washed past them, forming the first part of the explosion. Then it hit my barrier outside and backlashed, forming the second part. The two parts met in the middle and decided the only way to continue was sideways and up. The result was a blast like a knife, slicing the first few feet of the hospital off and flinging it up into the air.

Ponies as far away as Ponyville were woken by the sound of the explosion. Some of the more sensitive Pegasi in Cloudsdale have reported being able to feel the pressure wave roll through. Unicorns throughout Canterlot were bombarded with the released black magic, causing headaches and sickness for days after. Pieces of debris were scattered so far that some of them smashed windows in the castle, and broken medical equipment is still being found in the strangest of places. Pictures of the resulting smoke cloud spreading out over the city, lit from below by searchlights and fire, have been used in almost every newspaper article about the supposed ‘gang war’ ever since.

The Guard, standing right in front of the explosion, were saved from harm by my barrier spell. A fortunate coincidence. It was also fortunate that the addicts had drained most of their black crystal nodes in their attempt to corrupt me, rendering them mostly inert and not infecting every pony in the city.

Really, it could have been a whole lot worse.

I admit to being knocked senseless. My energized costume protected me from the more destructive effects of the explosion, but even I can only take so much when I’m at ground zero of a blast that powerful. I had been thrown through the windows and into my own barrier, which allowed me to avoid the hassle of being buried under a building that had half-collapsed. I got up, wobbling a little, and surveyed what remained.

The innards of the hospital lay exposed. All floors open, lights flickering sporadically inside. Parts of the building were collapsing, but not enough to threaten the whole structure. Frightened, infected ponies looked out from the rooms and hallways. Behind me I could hear the guard rallying, Shining Armor ordering his troops to charge up some kind of shield-breaker spell that would likely defeat my weakened barrier.

I spotted one of the terminal addicts as he dragged himself out of a pile of rubble. One of the pseudo-horned earth ponies. I could see remnants of others, but it seemed like not many of them had survived the explosion intact. I stumbled over to my one remaining opponent.

He saw me coming. His false horn pulsed with darkness and released a swarm of screeching, fluttering insects made out of shadows and fear. They attacked me, finding bare places to bite. I screamed in indignation and let loose a burst of power that threw the little things away. My horn roared with power as I grabbed the offending addict and held him up in front of me. A pulse of searching magic allowed me to find where my blades had fallen, and I brought them back to my side, setting them orbiting around me in lazy circles.

“You really thought you could get away with it?” I asked, stretching his limbs out wide. “You really thought you could do that to me and get away with it?” I felt rage boiling up in me, a fire I had neither the ability nor desire to control. “You are nothing. Your entire pathetic conspiracy is nothing! I am coming for all of you, and I will see you all broken at my hooves.”

“You live in the darkness,” the addict growled out, trying to meet my eyes but unable to hold my gaze. “I can feel it in you. You are already one of us. No, more than us. You are a beacon of shadows. You will join us eventually. You just haven’t realized the power the Masters are offering you. Think about it, you could rule with us!”

“Oh, I know,” I said, flashing him a vicious grin as I crushed his throat enough to prevent him from speaking. “I just don’t like sharing.”

The Guard unicorns hit my barrier with something complicated and overpowered, and my fancy bit of spell-work fell apart with a flash of light and a rush of ozone-scented air. I turned, and search lights trained on me. The flare compensation in my hood worked perfectly, and I got a good look at the staring, terrified faces of the Royal Guard as they got their first good look at the Canterlot vigilante.

Shining Armor and Cadance stood near the back, both their horns lit and ready to shield the troops from any attack that might come out of the broken hospital. I have to give them credit, they were prepared for a trap. It wouldn’t have been enough had Alley Cat succeeded in her plan, but it might have slowed me down for a few minutes. As it was, they were ready for action, and if I didn’t do something soon, that action would be ordering my arrest.

They all gawked at me. I knew they couldn’t see through the enchanted shadows of my hood to my true identity, but it still felt a like being exposed. I tried to speak, but found my mouth had gone dry. I took a deep breath, feeling the heightened emotions the black magic was generating. I couldn’t let myself be afraid, it would only destroy me. I couldn’t let them see the insecure, unstable pony that had replaced Twilight Sparkle. Instead, I had to be what they were expecting. I had to be the unstoppable vigilante they had heard whispers of, only seeing the destruction and death that came in her wake. I had to be the Shadow Slayer.

I worked up some spit and swallowed. Then I raised my voice, allowing my costume’s magic to amplify it to be heard over all the other noise. “This is what you fight!” I shouted, bringing the addict forward. “This is the plague that has infested Canterlot! This is the face of Equestria’s enemy!”

There was a reaction from my audience. Ponies looked on the deformed, crystal-ravaged body of the addict and recoiled. He sneered back at them, uncaring of their disgusted stares. I saw Cadance whisper something in Shining Armor’s ear, to which he gave a grim nod.

“They laid a trap for you this night!” I gestured back at the hospital. “They corrupted hundreds, perhaps thousands of good, innocent ponies, just to get to you.” And me I silently added. “And it would have worked! You would have been destroyed. Equestria’s best line of defense, broken because you did not yet realize what it was you were facing.” I shook my head and raised the addict a little higher. “Look! Look at what he has done to himself! See what he has done to these innocents! Then think of what you have to do to stop them.”

“I know that you’re hurting!” Cadance called out. I looked at her, confused. “I can feel the pain they’ve caused you!” With that I understood. She was sensing the emotions the dark magic had been tainted with. Since I still held a significant amount of that magic, I was probably like a bonfire of negative emotion to her. “But you don’t have to do this! Please, put him down. Let the Guard deal with him. I swear to you, he will see justice!”

“Justice?” I repeated, laughing. “You think there’s justice to be done here?”

“I am Mi Amore Cadenza!” she cried out, flaring her wings and letting her horn shine to show her claim to authority. “Princess of Equestria and ruler of the Crystal Empire. I promise you, my little pony, whatever you think of his crimes, there is no justice in you torturing him like this!”

My little pony. I don’t know if she was consciously aping Celestia with that line or if the condescension just comes naturally to Alicorns. Either way, all she managed with that plea was to make me stretch the addict out even further, straining his joints until he shook from the stress. “I know who you are, Cadance,” I spat out, glaring at her. “I know you are a loving, kind pony who is utterly incapable of understanding what must be done. If I have to leave this up to your ‘justice’, I might as well slit your throat now and save the bad guys some time.” She was taken aback by this, and Shining Armor stepped protectively in front of her. I switched my glare to him. “What about you, Captain? If I left this monster to you, would you have what it takes to finish the job? Would you do what is necessary, or would you follow your wife’s example and choose the path of the weak?”

The look he gave me would have chilled the blood of any other foe. I could see the strength in him, the resolve. Oh, he wasn’t going to kill anypony. He hadn’t quite hit that line yet, but he was dedicated to stopping me now. He would not rest until I was brought down in chains and set before Celestia to face judgement.

Which, I don’t have to tell you, just absolutely sucked.

Ah, well, I was dedicated myself, and I had wanted to put on a show. This would suffice, even if it set Twilight’s brother–my brother–and I on a collision course.

“You are under arrest,” he said. “Guards, seize her!”

They started moving forward, so I dissuaded them. A flare of dark power surged from my horn, sending out a wave of shadows that crashed into the advancing Guard, striking them with the fear and pain that the magic had absorbed. They cried out as the shadows touched them. Some fell to the ground in seizures of agony, others turned and ran. The rout only lasted a moment, as my shadows were swiftly countered by a soothing light from Cadance, her power bolstering the Guardsponies. Still, it was enough. They had stopped fleeing, but were more cautious when they turned back to me.

“Fine,” I said. “If none of you are strong enough, then I will be.” I brought up my blades. “Watch carefully, now. If you want to save Equestria, this is how you do it.”

“Stop!” Cadance cried out, her eyes wide with fear. Guards surged forward. It was too late.

My blades spun and slammed into the addict’s chest. He let out a wheeze as they sliced through his crystal-laced flesh and tore through his insides. Then I dragged them in two opposing directions, and split him down the middle.

I ripped the two halves apart, letting a shower of blood fall on me. Again, warm. Always warmer than I expect. Then I threw the remains at Shining Armor’s hooves. Some of the Guards stopped, staring in horror. Cadance buried her face in her husband’s side. He just stared at me, a rock of calm in the chaos erupting around him. Not even angry, just… undaunted.

“Here endeth the lesson,” I said, and my coat flared out, sending a cascade of shadows rushing up from the ground to screen me from sight as I teleported away.

While it was, overall, a bad night full of many mistakes, my little display for the Guard almost certainly being one of them, I will say this for it: that was a great exit.

Afterwards, In The Dark

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Did I win there? Were the events of that hospital a hard fought victory or a near escape from disaster? I would like to say that it was a triumph, that Alley Cat and her masters gave it their best, and found that it wasn’t enough. Heh, I have said as much, haven’t I? They set out to break me, and I am unbreakable. By the measure of my enemies, I was the clear victor.

By my own measure, however, the incident at the hospital was a catastrophe. Not in my failure to defeat the addicts, I didn’t fail there, but in the much more personal and dangerous failure to myself. I let myself be consumed by the distractions of dark magic. I’d wasted all my power when I should have been hoarding it. I should have been the stalker, haunting those dark corridors and slaughtering the unwary in fleeting bursts of magic and violence. Instead I allowed myself to become the prey, herded and worked to exhaustion so as to be made easy pickings for the predators.

I am nopony’s prey. The very notion of it sickens me.

My teleport away from the hospital hadn’t been a blind one. I didn’t even go far, materializing on a roof half a block away. The dark magic contamination in the air would obscure my trail, but I didn’t want Shining Armor getting clever and somehow sniffing out my safehouse or one of my allies if he did manage to track the teleport.

I was moving immediately, leaping across the dark street and making for where I had left Gale Force. He was gone from there, of course, the spot taken over by a squad of Guard pegasi. I avoided their notice and made my way back to the building where I had first met him that night, above my safehouse apartment. There I enacted a short message spell and told him to come to me when convenient. Then I sat down, obscured in darkness, and cried.

We all need to let our emotions out at times, and with the black magic still thrilling through my veins, I needed it then more than most. Being captured, chained down and nearly turned into a weapon against the ponies I was trying to save was bad enough. The horrors of what the addicts had done to the patients in the hospital were even worse. Yet neither of those things were what truly moved me to tears. No, it was the remaining hollow ache and gut-wrenching memory of being without magic that truly distressed me.

I had been helpless. Weak. It had hurt. It had hurt so much... I can’t even think of it now without a flash of fear, and I’ve taken steps to ensure it will never happen again. At that time it was all I could do to keep from screaming again, and I shed tears until I felt as dry as the southern barrens. It was many minutes before I had my sobbing under control and managed to bring my emotions back to something resembling composure.

Gale Force arrived in a gust of cold wind and the hurried flapping of wings working hard to slow a pony down. “You here?” he asked, peering around in the darkness. “Are you okay?”

I emerged from a shadow, startling him even though he was expecting me to do exactly that. “I’m fine,” I said, and I think the lie was convincing. “Things got... difficult. Did you spot anything?”

“Difficult?” he shook his head in disbelief. “The whole front of the hospital is gone! The Guard are crawling all over the wreckage, and I heard something about you tossing a bucking corpse at the Captain! What in tartarus went on in there?”

I managed a smirk. “Tartarus isn’t far from the truth. You do not want to know the full story, trust me on that. Suffice it to say that the addicts inside were planning to massacre the Guard. I stopped them, and made several of them pay for their crimes. What I need to know is if you managed to do your part.”

He hesitated, looking at me but unable to hold my gaze. “Yeah,” he said, finally. “I had to get farther away from the hospital when the Guard showed up, but I managed to spot something weird. Just after the explosion there was this… mist-thing. I thought it was part of the dust-cloud from the explosion at first, but it was keeping low to the ground and moving like a pony would. It was also leaving a trail of blood. I figured this was one of the bad guys, so I followed it.”

My eyes narrowed at his description. While I couldn’t be certain none of the other addicts had the same ability, the odds were that the bleeding mist was Alley Cat. I’d hoped that she’d died in the hospital, but I hadn’t counted on it. In fact, this worked in my favor.

My horn lit as I cast a variation on a simple cleaning spell. I could feel that my reserves were still agonizingly low, but I had enough to do what I needed. Perhaps Gale Force saw me flinch as I used my magic, but he’s never said anything about it. The magenta aura of my power slid into my mouth, scouring around and eventually emerging with a few strands of hair and drops of blood.

“What’s that?” Gale Force asked.

“A piece of your bleeding mist,” I replied. I sealed the hair and blood in a magical sphere, mentally adding evidence bags or some other small container to the list of additions to my costume I was building after the events of the night. “We can use it to track her, or prepare a spell that will specifically target her. Both very useful things. Where did you see it go?”

“To a condo out by the west slope,” he replied. “It’s an upscale place, a good view of the castle and the valleys. It, uh, that is, she slipped in through a window. I could hear sounds inside, like someone screaming quietly. You know, like when they’ve lost their voices but keep trying to scream anyway?”

A genuine smile graced my lips. “Oh, I can imagine it. Did you see anything else?”

He thought for a long moment. “I don’t think the condo was hers. There was this crest on the mailbox out front.”

“Would you recognize the crest if you saw it again?”

He nodded. “I think so, yeah.”

“Good. I’ll create a list of them and we can go through them tomorrow night until you find the one you saw. I’ll also be fitting you for a costume.”

He swallowed at that, his ears drooping. “Is it going to be like… yours?”

I considered that question. I knew he found my costume frightening. I had designed it to be that way. I could see no reason why he wouldn’t want to be similarly intimidating. On the other hoof, he was a former Guardpony. He would naturally gravitate to something more heroic than terrifying. I could allow him that. “No,” I said. “It won’t be as flashy as mine. Something better suited to a support role.” He relaxed a little at that. “Remember, though, you’re not going to be equipped to fight the terminal addicts like I am. I can probably give you something to defend yourself with, but I expect you to avoid combat whenever possible.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” he said. “If those guys can give you trouble, I’m about as useful as a light breeze against them.”

“Get some sleep,” I said. “Meet me here tomorrow night. We’ll go over the crests.” He nodded and took off.

I watched him go, then teleported into my safehouse. The short hop was done with my own magic instead of the black magic from the hospital, and it nearly wiped me out. I had, fortunately, furnished the room with a mattress in case of a late night such as this. I would need to rest for several hours before I was strong enough to teleport back to Ponyville. Even then, I was going to be facing the day with a monstrous headache.

Ah, well, there was nothing for it. I lay down, closed my eyes and let sleep come to claim me.

It never did. I lay awake and unmoving for six hours as the sounds of the sleeping city mixed with the reaching shadows on the wall. I remembered the flickering lights and the endless corridors of the broken hospital. I felt the warmth of blood on my face, and wondered why it felt so satisfying. It’s a question I never found an answer to, and still haven’t. Perhaps I don’t want to know. Perhaps I’m afraid of the answer, and what it means for who I am.

...It doesn’t matter. Gale Force had found what I needed to begin unravelling the identities of the masters of the black crystal, but I wouldn’t discover that until several nights and much frustration had passed.

Busy Work

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I practically fell through the library door, my body aching and my stomach flip-flopping with the after-effects of the black magic and the long-distance teleport. The teleport itself had just drained most of my recovered magic reserves, but that was more than enough to depress me. The residue the dark power left behind was worse, leaving me feeling like I had swallowed tar. I expelled it with little puffs of shadow from my horn during the walk from the Everfree Forest back to Ponyville, but that had resulted in a clinging miasma around my head that made the air taste stale and the normally enticing smells of the morning market turn sour and rotten.

The sun was well up and the town wide awake by the time I made it home. All I wanted was to collapse into my bed and try to get some of the sleep that had eluded me in Canterlot. Before I could do that, though, I had to confront the little purple dragon sitting in the middle of the library and watching the door with eyes as tired as I felt.

“You were gone all night,” he said. There was a hint of accusation in his voice, a touch of anger. Even as out-of-sorts as I was, however, I could tell that this was just a mask for the worry that had clearly kept him up and waiting for me.

“Sorry, Spike,” I said. I started to fake a smile, but gave up halfway through, realizing that the deception was only going to make this worse. “There was an explosion. In Canterlot.” I had been idly working on a cover story on the walk. I hadn’t settled on details, but the explosion would figure prominently.

“I know. Heck, everypony knows.” He frowned at me. “There were ponies banging on the door all night, trying to find out if you knew what was happening.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t considered that possibility. “Sorry.”

“You weren’t here, Twilight,” he continued, sighing. “I had to lie about where you were. I said you were busy. I said you were talking with Princess Celestia and finding out what had happened.”

“That’s... not too far from the truth,” I said. “I wasn’t talking to the Princess, but I was looking for information.”

“You were gone for hours before the explosion happened,” Spike said, and this time the accusation wasn’t just a hint. “Where were you?”

“The Everfree Forest,” I replied. “I took the… the sky-kraken core out there to study it away from the town, where it couldn’t hurt anypony.” The lie came easily, molded as it was from a core of truth. From the way his frown shifted, I could tell he believed me, though he didn’t like it. “Whatever happened in Canterlot, it was connected to the core. They were both done with the same dark magic. I spent all night dealing with that power, fighting it.”

His eyes widened as he shook off his fatigue and took a really good look at me, picking out all the little signs of stress and combat. His eyes fastened on the burned patch of my leg. “You’re hurt.”

“Just a little,” I said, managing a small smile. “It’ll take more than a little black magic to take me out. I am exhausted, though. I need to get some sleep. It looks like you do too. What do you say to calling this day a wash and just starting over again tomorrow?”

He opened his mouth to respond, but all that came out was a deep yawn. I couldn’t help but smirk. He’s still a baby dragon, after all. He shook his head and re-focused on me. “The other girls are going to be looking for you, Twilight! There’s a war or something going on in Canterlot! We can’t sleep all day!”

“Can’t we?” I asked, winking. He stared back at me incredulously, and I deflated a bit. “No, I guess we can’t. Do you think you could take a letter? I need to ask Princess Celestia what happened and if there’s anything we can do to help.”

“Of course, Twilight!” he practically jumped at the request, grabbing a nearby quill and scroll. Resigned to not getting any sleep, I began dictating a letter asking for information that I already knew, but had no way of justifying. Spike was more animated in writing than he had been throughout the preceding conversation. I suppose sending a letter to Celestia is a very Twilight thing to do, and he was looking hard for reasons to still believe I was who I appeared to be.

The response was swift, polite, and a clear attempt to keep me away from the action. You know the type: ‘dear faithful student, bad ponies made a big boom, no need to worry, all under control, go back to bed, signed Princess Celestia.’ No mentions of trapped hospitals or dead crystal addicts or the Canterlot vigilante making an appearance. All-in-all, exactly what I expected.

Of course, now that I had official word, I was obligated to spread it. So I sent Spike out to gather the most important or chatty ponies in town and tidied myself up as best I could. Then I went out to the town hall, got up in front of a hundred worried faces, and lied about how everything was going to be okay. The Princesses had it handled, the Guard was taking care of it, and Ponyville was, for once, safe.

I wasn’t intentionally lying about that last one, I was just wrong. Then again, how could I not be? This is Ponyville, where fresh disaster is always just a week away!

Heh. Had I known… Well, some forewarning would have been nice. If I hadn’t been so focused on events in Canterlot, and just thought for a minute and put it all together… If. Only if...

Sorry. I suppose you’ve long ago grown tired of these digressions.

Anyways, my reassurances calmed the naturally panic-prone citizens and everypony went back to their daily lives save Twilight’s friends, who gathered around me in search of different answers.

“I don’t like it,” Applejack began once we were out of earshot of other ponies. “Bein’ told to sit tight down here when there’s trouble up in the city.”

“Yeah! We’ve saved the whole world before, why can’t we do something now?” Rainbow Dash said, scowling up at the distant spires of Canterlot in prideful indignation.

“Girls, it’s not that simple,” I said, forced to play the role of the dutiful student. “I was in Canterlot when this began, and it’s not like what we’ve faced before. Shining Armor and Cadance are there right now, and I’m sure they can handle it.” Oh, the effort to keep from snorting and rolling my eyes after I said that.

“Oh, I hope they’ll be okay,” Fluttershy fretted.

“They’ll be fine,” Dash said, dismissing her concerns with the wave of a hoof. “And even if this is different, we should be still be in on it!” She hopped into the air and did a quick circle around the group. “Come on, we’re missing all the action! I say we get on the next train up the mountain and kick some tail!”

Despite my exhaustion and my injuries, I felt heat flush through me at those words. If I’d had much dark magic taint still in me, I might have jumped her right there in the street. As it was, I was forced to surreptitiously bite my lip and take a steadying breath. I could imagine her on the dark streets of Canterlot, facing down a horde of addicts with a cocky grin.

“Kick whose tail?” Rarity asked, unpleasantly dragging my thoughts out of my fantasies. “Even if we were to go to the city, we have no idea who we would be facing.”

“Plus, the Princess told us to stay put, right?” Pinkie asked me. I could see the twitchy exuberance in her eyes, just burning to be let out. How she managed to stay on topic and ask a relevant question, I doubt I’ll ever know.

“She did,” I confirmed. “She said that she wants to keep us safe in case worse comes to worse and we need to use the Elements.”

Applejack huffed. “Not that they did much good last time we put ‘em on. You still have them, right Twilight?” I nodded, feeling a little trepidation at that. I had originally assumed that Celestia would take the Elements back after our failure, but she hadn’t said anything about them at all. They remained in their shielded case, shut away in the lab under the library. “Now, I’m not keen on just sittin’ around when there’s somethin’ I could do to help. But I also gotta agree with Rarity here. We don’t even know who to fight yet, so just up and leavin’ for Canterlot won’t do nopony any good. Twilight, what do you think?”

“I think...” I began, pausing for a moment as I put some actual thought into my answer. Erotic fancies aside, I really didn’t want any of Twilight’s friends getting involved in the fight. The complications to my plans would just spiral well out of control in no time at all. On the other hoof, they had surprised me before. If they saw what was going on, what it would take to win, they just might begin to see things my way. Not having to hide my activities from them would be a boon of immeasurable worth.

In the end, of course, I decided that the risk was too great. “I think we should do as the Princess asked,” I said. “Stay here, keep doing what we do, and wait to see if she’ll need us.”

“Come on, Twilight! Don’t tell me you’re just going to do nothing!” Dash said, giving me a plaintive look.

“No, I’m not going to do nothing,” I said. “I’m still studying the core we took from the sky-kraken. From what Shining Armor’s expert said, it’s something that was made by King Sombra. Maybe somepony found a cache of his weapons or something and decided to use them.” As I said it, the idea struck a chord in me. Perhaps I had been thinking on Sage Advice’s words subconsciously, putting scenario’s together for why the black crystal was manifesting Sombra’s particular magic. A hidden weapons cache would certainly explain the sky-kraken, but not black crystal itself. I still maintain that Sombra would never willingly share power out like that, regardless of how effective the resulting addiction would be.

“Well, what are the rest of us supposed to do, then?” Dash asked.

“Get the town ready,” I replied. “Somepony sent that killer cloud at us. They might do it again. We need to have everything in place in case that happens. Remember all the disaster-proofing we did a while ago?”

“Is that from when you went all crazy because future-you went back in time to tell you not to go all crazy because future you went back in time to tell you not to go all crazy because–” Applejack conscientiously stuffed a hoof in Pinkie’s mouth to stop the oncoming infinite recursion.

I gave her a thankful look. “Yes. That. I think we should do that again. I’ve still got some checklists from then that you can go through.”

“You won’t be co-ordinating?” Rarity asked.

“I’ll be too busy,” I said. “That core is… difficult. I’ll be out in the Everfree Forest doing tests on it, I won’t be able to oversee everything going on here. I’m trusting you girls to make sure everything gets done here.”

“You can count on us, Twilight!” Dash said, landing and puffing out her chest. “We’ll get Ponyville whipped into shape in no time!”

“A good project’ll take everypony’s mind off of what’s goin’ on in Canterlot,” Applejack said with a satisfied nod.

The others all agreed in their own ways. Fluttershy squeaked something timid, Pinkie bounced and talked about having a ‘disaster-proofing party’ or some such nonsense. Rarity was the only one who didn’t seem entirely enthusiastic about it. As the others departed, she hung back.

“Not that I’m unhappy with it, dear, but it isn’t like you to not try to manage both your research and the other projects,” she said. She was angling towards something, which came out in the saccharine tone and false smile she used. What it was she really wanted, however, I didn’t really know. “Are you feeling well?”

“Perfectly,” I said, my own false smile and sweet tone a counter to hers. “Though, there is something else I’d like you to do for me.”

“Oh?” An eyebrow rose in intrigue. “Name it.”

“The gems you got for me are working,” I said. “But I need more of them.”

“That won’t be easy. There aren’t a lot of that quality around.”

“Still, I’m going to need as many as you can get your hooves on. I can pay–”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that, Twilight,” she said, cutting me off. “But whatever could you need them for?”

It was a supreme effort of will not to snap at her. I managed it, but barely. Instead, thinking of what I had planned I smiled. “I’m doing some disaster-proofing of my own,” I said. “By the way, I could also use your advice on fashion.”

“Really?” She blinked in surprise. “Well! I’m always ready to help my friends with that! What were you thinking of? A new dress? A nice hat?”

I may despise Rarity for her insipid nature, but even I have to admit that in her area of expertise, she is a master. “I was thinking jewelry, actually,” I said. “Tell me, how do you think I’d look with earrings?”