The Golden Age of Apocalypse - Book I

by BlueBastard

First published

A Berylverse Story - The ponies investigate an ancient prophecy tied to Sombra's plan to destroy Equestria, all the while Sunset prepares for her coronation. But not all is as it seems when the mystery begins to imply a far darker truth of the past.

Part of the Berylverse Project - edited by Shinzakura, Flynt Coal, Flash Frame, and Whitewolf Stormrunner.

Equestria has weathered a devastating war waged by the monstrous Tirek, emerging victorious but its people and land shattered. As the country continues to pick up the pieces even a year after the centaur’s destruction at the hooves of the Element Bearers, Raspberry Beryl once again finds herself trying to adapt to a new status quo after an unexpected absence of nearly a year – in what was only a few weeks for her in the human world. Embracing the role she was given as Equestria’s appointed Archmagus of Dark Magic – a task she and she alone can only bear due to her ancestry with Sombra, granting her immunity from the corruptive effects of dark magic at the cost of only being able to use dark magic herself – she applies herself to try and help heal the broken world best she can.

But her time back on familiar ground is short before she comes into contact with a dark artifact: the Alicorn Amulet. Unknowingly, she and her friends are thrown into a long dormant plan that could bring about the end of Equestria, a fatal blow to an already crippled country from none other than Sombra himself. To make matters worse, the coronation of the newly ascended Princess Sunset Shimmer is on the horizon and while it will be held in Equestria, the list of invited guests include the first humans who would ever come visit from the human side of the mirror portal. And all along the way, enemies both new and old will challenge the fragile peace of the country.

Yet underneath it all, far more horrifying truths await to be revealed, throwing into question just how much influence the two worlds of ponies and humans have had on each other across time.

Prologue - "It's All a Nemesis Plot"

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Prologue – “It’s All a Nemesis Plot”

King Reginald Sombra was many things. He was the strongest unicorn in the world: where others had shunned the dark forces out of fear and weakness, he had embraced it by breaking its will under his own. He was the uncontested ruler of the Crystal Empire, which by proxy meant he controlled a critical wellspring of Equus’ magic, giving him a chokehold on the entire country. He was a brilliant scholar, his personal private study filled with his written musings, research notes, and other documentation into virtually all subjects that lesser ponies would foolishly deem in violation of good ethics or respect to the lives of otherwise expendable slaves.

What he was not, however, was showing any emotion other than indifference to the impending forces of the Royal Sisters breaking through his own defenses as the siege of the Crystal Empire raged on outside. Instead, the moment he knew the battle was lost, he had left his aides without any instruction as to what to do. They pleaded for his command, but he just wordlessly departed his grand black crystal throne and for the past several hours had holed himself up in his study.

We are not pleased at your hypocrisy, came the whispers of dark, malicious energies. We had an agreement, Reginald, do not think you can escape our displeasure by all but submitting yourself to the Equestrian forces.

“Yes, yes, you think I’m being cowardly,” droned Sombra. “I am well aware of our agreed upon terms, just because I’m not throwing myself at my enemies doesn’t mean I’m hiding.”

You’re in a room sealed by dark magic, within the confines of the castle!

“If I was truly hiding like a rat, I wouldn’t be in this castle at all, but instead in the deepest vaults beneath it. No, if anything, I’m actually going to make things a bit easier for you after this.”

Explain.

Sombra grinned maliciously, closing the book in front of him and then shelved it. “As per our agreement, you would give me access to the greatest dark magic on this plane of existence, and in turn I would help you gain a powerful avatar through which you could submit all of Equus – barring my domain, of course – under your eternal will.”

The dark presence said nothing, though in such a way that Sombra could tell it was thinking of what to say next. Yes, those were the terms, but you’ve done nothing to hold up your end of the deal in service to us! All you’ve accomplished is making this Crystal Empire into your own twisted, personal playground with its populace its playthings! Do you expect us to think that some foal birthed by one of the mares you have chained in your harem will be acceptable?!

“Oh, those mares? Please, they have nothing to do with our deal.”

Then how-

“Come now, you came to me after my father managed to kill my mother by accident when he tried to assassinate the late Queen Faust years ago. Thus, it is obvious that your preferred…clients…are those with great magical ability and fragile states of mind. And I intend to repay your services in kind by giving you Princess Luna.”

That very princess and her sister are on the brink of victory over your forces. Hardly ideal circumstances for a fragile state of mind.

Sombra growled, “Surely you must sense it: even now Luna is a pot ready to boil over with rage. Her continual languishment in the obscurity of her sister’s shadow has seen to that.”

Petty rivalry between siblings is common, even among royalty, the darkness intoned. You really believe this will be enough?

“Not yet,” Sombra said, raising a robed hoof. “But she is close. Celestia’s zeal to fill the horseshoes of her mother has simultaneously distanced her from her sister, and put her in a position to receive all of the love and adoration of her subjects for herself. The ‘victory’ they are about to achieve will magnify that tenfold.”

There were a few moments of silence before the dark voice finally spoke. You continue to amuse and impress, King Sombra. The dark force’s tone and use of his preferred reference title both indicated that the voice was indeed pleasantly surprised. But what of you, then?

Sombra smirked, leaving his study and sealing its door with one of his strongest dark spells. “At this point, defeat is inevitable—temporary, but inevitable nonetheless. My forces will erode both themselves and those of the Royal Sisters, as that is the only use I have left for them. That selfish Sable Loam probably took his werewolves and have long since fled for Equestria in secret—not that I expected more from the self-proclaimed ‘Wolf Scourge of the North.’ And while it is purely trivial in keeping my forces fighting their own brethren, one less soldier who survives for the twin thrones after this at the cost of disposable forces is more than acceptable.”

But what about you? asked the dark voice, its tone almost as if that of childish interest. A fate worse than death at the hooves of the princesses is certain, after what you’ve accomplished.

“That’s what I’m planning on, replied the dark king, who by this point was now upside down—having reversed gravity—and sliding “up” a massive spiral staircase which led straight to the top. “The princesses cannot even conceive of performing the most obvious executions to rid themselves of problems, it’s always them sealing the offending party away in some kind of prison. Tirek? After his brother betrayed him, the centaur now rots at the bottom of an inescapable pit with a cerberus to ensure he never leaves. Discord? I don’t even understand why he was considered evil, but for his trouble he’s now ‘permanently’ trapped in a stone prison. And as for that damnable goat Grogar? He couldn’t even last against Star Swirl, that doddering dolt—the princesses didn’t even bother in that case!

And what fate do you expect from them, then?

“Probably something along the lines of ‘trapped in the ice as a shadow creature for a thousand years’ or another, similar imprisonment theme.”

You don’t seem too concerned about all this.

Sombra laughed heartily. “Of course not! How the sisters think they can just lock up problem enemies and forget about them, as if they won’t eventually escape is one of life’s biggest mysteries.” He then undid his reverse-gravity spell, uprighting him safely at the top of his castle. In front of him, levitating above a small pedestal, was the Crystal Heart—an incorruptible nexus of magic. “But I want them to think that I’m that easy to be rid of. I’ve been planning this for decades as a matter of fact.”

Decades? The dark voice sounded intrigued.

“Ever since I first communicated with that hairless monkey from beyond—that ‘Cavalcanti’ fool—I’ve known I would need plans to preserve my legacy.

“Yes, the princesses will banish me, but….” The red, deadly looking spike on the dark king’s head flared up in a ghastly purple and green fog. “By doing so, they will plunge this Empire into nothingness for a millennia, and as I tie my essence within all that lies within my domain, so too shall I return and reclaim what has always been mine!”

Bravo, you certainly have a brilliant contingency plan, which explains how you expect to return after we approach Princess Luna with our terms?

“Equestria will be tired of war—the last thing they will expect is for the princess they take for granted suddenly usurping her elder sister and plunge everypony into civil war. Furthermore, the other nations will watch and see what is happening and Equestrian lands and resources will be ripe for the taking, leaving the surviving princess—assuming there even is one—to fend off the invasions from the whole world!” He grinned maliciously. “Meanwhile, I’ll be sleeping in an icy tomb by that point, with everything I have done preserved within the vanished Empire, free from the horrors of a real war.”

Once Sombra finished his spell, linking him and the Empire together, it was now ensured that even in defeat, Sombra would prevent the alicorns from reclaiming the Crystal Heart. At that moment, overlooking the final line of defense for the Empire, the Royal Sisters had broken through and seemed to be making a beeline right for Sombra.

Before you get that long, cold nap, suddenly piped up the voice, do tell us just what all those pregnant mares were for besides being toys for your physical pleasure.

With his remaining time of consciousness rapidly declining, Sombra just smirked one last time. “They’ve already been made to think they’ve escaped, but by doing so they serve their final purpose. My children that they carry will integrate with the ponies still in Equestria proper, ensuring that even if I am truly killed before I can reclaim my Empire, there will always be one whom fate has chosen to carry on in my stead.” He shook a hoof in defiance. “Through me in person or through my blood, I will always be master of this realm!”

Suddenly, Sombra then bolted off the edge of the platform he was on, right toward the princesses with a strong dark magic spell primed to fire. They beat him in casting their own jointly powered spell, taking the form of a pure beam of energy that disintegrated most of Sombra on contact, leaving nothing but his head and a shadowy remnant of his neck down, and the last the world at the time knew of him was his vengeful screams as he fell into a convenient crack in the ice, which sealed shut soon after.

But as the world above his icy prison watched the Crystal Empire cease to exist before their eyes, Sombra couldn’t have been more elated. Everything had gone exactly to plan such that even centuries from now, should he be erased, nopony could stop his legacy.

Already those fools have guaranteed their inevitable failure, he thought as he felt the deep chill begin to put him into a suspended state of sleep, and as he prepared for the long slumber, he couldn’t wait to see the world when he woke up. It will be beautiful. Pure armageddon… a golden age of apocalypse.

Chapter 1 - “The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same”

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The Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 1: “The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same”

The smell of fresh stacks of pancakes and muffins wafted into the nostrils of Raspberry Beryl. Moaning softly, she cracked open her eyes, proceeded to rub the little sleep molecules from them, and sat up…bringing something else with her head. Glancing up, she felt the pillow slide down her horn a bit, confirming that she had once again forgotten to make sure the protection spell had been set. Normally, unicorn horns weren’t actually that sharp at their tips, even alicorn horns which looked longer and pointier than the usual kind were in truth slightly blunted at the top. But Raspberry’s horn, being a product of Sombra’s meddling in his own gene pool, was decidedly a weapon for both magic casting and actual physical impalement.

“Seriously, how the heck did he actually sleep with pillows?” rhetorically asked Razz, none too happy to have totaled another pillow by accident. “He really must have had crystal pillows or something.”

Removing the punctured bag of feathers and fluff, Raspberry could only sigh as she examined the damage. It was a clean wound, almost perfectly circular in its bore. The unicorn could only shake her head in regret. She herself couldn’t cast the protection spell, given she hadn’t yet figured out how to make a dark magic replica version that wasn’t turning the pillow’s appearance into something from an ancient horror story. The alternative option of using a kind of sheath had come up, but the cloth ones she’d tried hadn’t even lasted the first night. Her own attempt at making a crystal sheath had ended poorly as it had been both uncomfortable and prevented her horn from channeling dark magic ironically enough, and the custom-made ones she’d sampled that were made from plastic and wood had felt really, really awkward as she would roll in her sleep, only to wake up to feel something hard pushing against what was part of her skull extruding from her forehead.

Tossing the ruined pillow into the marked corner of her closet for all pillows that had befallen her horn, Razz hoped the day wouldn’t be marred by such a bad beginning. Though, really, the fact she was even standing here, in her own room, was something to be happy for, and glancing out the window simply reaffirmed that things could be a lot worse than just impaled pillows.

As she trotted over to the frame, glancing out at the skyline of Ponyville, the once quiet and low-key town was slowly being turned away from humble beginnings into a much larger center of population. Where the central town library, known as Golden Oaks, once stood high above the simple homes and businesses, the great tree was gone along with a sizable portion of the old businesses that once stood in the town center – the fact Raspberry’s own home, the Traveler’s Retreat bed and breakfast, had been spared in the midst of Tirek’s rampage, was nothing short of fortune given how the mad centaur had specifically targeted her on account of her dark powers, and Golden Oaks was gone because he’d targeted the home of Twilight Sparkle.

Instead, an even greater, grander, and in all honestly a far more gaudy crystal tree sat about half a mile from the town, the new castle of Princess Twilight Sparkle. And where simple shops and homes once stood within the town now rose moderately sized apartments akin to those in Manehattan or even Fillydelphia out of sheer necessity to provide housing for those displaced in the wake of Tirek’s wrath…and the ongoing conflicts against his equally insane followers.

On top of all those changes Razz had to deal with, after her forced “vacation” to the human world, the time dilation between that world and Equus meant she’d spent the greater part of a year – eight months, give or take a few days – away from home. And not only had she been believed killed like her friend Pavane Bayan, leaving her adoptive parents Cashmere and Ascot in mourning, but Sunset Shimmer actually had died saving everyone in the human world. Somehow, Princess Celestia had known about it the moment it happened, plunging the whole country, if not planet itself, into a slow spiral of decay as one would expect from basically the one pony who controlled the sun not exactly being motivated to do the best job she could do as her child was taken from her.

For several months Celestia thought her child was dead before learning that no, she simply resurrected into an alicorn princess herself. But even though Celestia had known Sunset had in the end lived, the effects of three months of a weakened sun during the harvest season meant a particularly rough winter, with diminished food stocks nationwide, a housing crisis, and lingering chaos – of a murderous kind even Discord disapproved of apparently – from maniacs as deranged as that stupid “Covenant of Shadow” Razz had helped put an end to some time ago. It was now supposed to be spring but with all the logistical nightmares going on with the government, Winter Wrap-Up had been canceled and there was still snow melting on the ground.

But we’re all still here, she thought, not trying to diminish the price paid by ponies whose lives had been lost protecting hers and the rest of the country, but more praising the fact that in the end, pony kind had still emerged victorious over Tirek. And Sunset Shimmer had also played a role, though more indirectly, by stopping that insane Divine Right guy and the demon who had once possessed Sunny herself.

Glancing over to the shelf – a bit dusty given the months she hadn’t been around to dust it – she picked up the newest addition in her black aura and brought it close. In the picture, eighteen human girls were packed together in front of a big castle that vaguely looked like Castle Canterlot, in a frame done up like a postcard with an overlay reading GREETINGS FROM DISNEYLAND, USA! in the upper left hoof corner. The oddest detail was that there were three girls who had the exact same hairdo, and two of them looked virtually identical if it wasn’t for the fact one was six inches taller and decidedly more “built” than her counterpart. But all the girls in the image had been important to Razz, meaning as much as she hated being in a world where mare equivalents had to deal with some real unpleasant stuff once a month and wear that horrible invention known as a “bra,” she didn’t regret the experience.

Well, okay maybe a little, but given everything Razz had suffered as a result she was entitled to it.

“Razz, honey!” called out Cashmere from the other side of the bedroom door, “Are you up?”

“Yeah, Mom!” called back Razz, putting the picture back on the shelf. “I’m up, I’m ready!” It was time to face a new day – like Equestria, Razz had endured her own war of sorts and neither were going to have to face a horrid trial like that again anytime soon.

“What do you mean there’s a secure checkpoint to get into town?” asked the red unicorn from his spot on top of the stagecoach.

“Sir, in case you aren’t aware,” said one of the guards at the checkpoint, “but in addition to the constant raids by dissident groups in the wake of Tirek’s defeat, there have been reports of changelings stepping up their infiltration attempts to use Equestria’s current weakened state to their advantage. With Ponyville and the surrounding land being established as the domain of Princess Twilight Sparkle, additional precautions have been set up to ensure the safety of those who reside here.”

The unicorn snorted. “Pardon my skepticism, but I doubt you’ll find trouble coming from a band of traveling performers.”

The guard merely raised an eyebrow. “You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you how wrong you were. And that’s not including the fact Ponyville is deceptively small—its central location does make it a well-traveled hub for all sorts of folks now that there’s sustainable train routes running through here. Though the new apartment buildings certainly don’t make it feel that small anymore.”

Suddenly, a mustard-brown pony poked his head out from the coach. “Certainly you guard types haven’t banned mere traveling performers, have you? Ponies need simple entertainment now more than ever, I’d argue.”

The guard sighed. “As long as your troupe doesn’t do what Trixie Lulamoon did the last time she was here, you’ll be fine.” The looks of worry on the faces of the ponies both on top of and in the cart were not promising to the guard, or the guard’s friends who subtly readied themselves to act. “Now, anything you’d like to declare before we search your wagon?”

“Well, uh…” began the earth pony, “not sure how you didn’t notice, but…that’s Miss Lulamoon’s coach behind this one.” He gestured behind him and as the guard moved a bit to his right, he too didn’t know how he’d missed seeing the second cart hitched to the first one. Going off of its design, its occupant was all too obvious. “Look, she said she was just coming through Ponyville in the direction we were going and offered a little extra space in her coach—these things are kind of cramped when you try to fit more than one pony in them—so we didn’t see the harm.”

The guard sighed again. “Ok, look, just…just get everypony out here so we can do our thing, then provided you aren’t trying to smuggle in a changeling or take over the town by throwing the mayor in a cage, we’ll let you go, alright?”

Following the oddly specific request of the guard, the five ponies from the two carts were assembled and lined up side-by-side in short order. Along with the red unicorn and the mustard earth pony, there were two bat ponies—a bat stallion of dark gray coloration and blue-green mane and a bat mare who bore passing resemblance to Fluttershy given the mane style choice, and…Trixie Lulamoon in a bedrobe.

“Trixie demands to know the meaning of this!” demanded Trixie, taking off her eyemask and throwing it into her coach before turning to face the guard. “Do you not know who you are inconveniencing here?!”

“Yeah, we do,” deadpanned the guard. “We’ve got orders to arrest you on sight if you try removing a pony’s mouth again.”

“You what?!” exclaimed the male batpony.

“Oh yeah, that…” Trixie sheepishly admitted. “Well, er, Trixie isn’t in town to make more trouble for that Sparkle pest, not like last time!”

“That’s ‘Princess Twilight Sparkle’ to you,” the guard grunted. “And believe me, I’m just looking for an excuse to arrest you. Don’t make it any easier for us, if you know what’s good for you.”

“Mel, who did we end up dragging behind us for the past twenty miles?” the red pony asked of the earth pony.

“Why, ‘The Great and Powerful Trixie’, of course,” grunted the earth pony, “as if she didn’t keep reminding us every hour, right?”

The side discussion went unnoticed by the increasingly irate Trixie herself—a condition brought on by not having eaten her daily breakfast of Pinesnax brand snack crackers—as she kept arguing with the guard.

“Honestly, this whole business about changelings is silly!” she exclaimed. “You have no reason to think there’s a changeling who would ever try to step foot into this town!”

“Ma’am,” calmly replied the guard, having been trained to deal with the kinds of ponies who would do exactly what Trixie was doing now. “We’re just trying to make sure that what you said is true—if there isn’t any sign there’s a changeling with you, we’ll be quick in the search and then you can be on your way.”

That didn’t satisfy Trixie. “I know changelings can disguise themselves to look like regular ponies,” she exclaimed, “but the way you’re all acting, it’s like I could just fire a spell to remove a changeling’s disguise and immediately find one!” Then, without really thinking about it, she quickly turned, fired that exact spell at one of the bat ponies, then turned back to face the guard and pointed to where the bat pony had been standing, all without actually seeing what happened. “See, does that look like a changeling to you?!”

An almost bemused smile came across the guard’s muzzle. “Yes, actually.”

It wasn’t at all what Trixie was expecting. “Really, now? How can you not—“ As she turned to look where her hoof had actually been pointing, she stopped mid-sentence as—against all odds—where she had fired was now a very embarrassed looking changeling. The other three ponies from the acting troupe all looked very uncomfortable as they stood around it.

“Uh…ta da?” said the changeling, cringing. The other bat pony facehoofed in disbelief.

“Oh, I’m sure there’s going to be quite an interesting story about this one,” chuckled the guard, motioning for his friends to help him secure the suspects. “But first, I might as well read you all your rights….”

“Wait, you want my help for coming up with ideas for dresses?” skeptically asked Razz. She’d been invited over to Rarity’s for tea—but given how Rarity was seemingly close to simply dragging Razz and Heliodor off involuntarily as she had the previous Nightmare Night, it hadn’t taken long to get to the heart of the matter. “While I’m flattered you turned to me instead of, say, Fluttershy and her reportedly freaky knowledge of sewing, I’m no good at dress design. Gem work is my forte’ and after giant monoliths of gems nearly killed everypony, I wouldn’t think gem-encrusted anything is still hot on the market scene.”

“While true, the gem market is down considerably, the truth is I need design inspiration for Sunset’s upcoming coronation. And for that I would benefit from having Sunset around. Only, she’s not. But somepony who looks like her, could physically have her presence for me to, ah, work with as it were.”

Razz looked unamused. “Y’know, I was hoping that impersonating Sunset that one time because we happen to share mane styles would be limited to just once. I’m not a changeling, you know.”

“Well, yes, but nopony needs to know. It’s not like I have my own personal changeling—appealing as that concept is in theory—but it also would just be short term for me to get measurements of things.”

“But aren’t unicorn mares usually almost cookie-cutter in our measurements? To the point we just look like we swap colors and manes all the time?”

“Yes, but you try finding somepony other than Sunset with your mane for me to measure.”

Razz blinked. “You need to measure my mane?”

“Well, of course darling. I always take everything into account for maximum fabulosity!”

“You do understand that A, Sunset is an alicorn now and thus not only taller than me, but also B, has wings now and thus Twilight probably would be a better comparison?”

“Yes, but I already have measurements for Twilight post-alicornization—unless you’re going to tell me Sunset changed her manestyle, my original reasoning still applies.”

As Razz sighed in disbelief, she looked around the surprisingly untidy interior of the residential workspace, she noted an absurd number of order slips tacked upon the wall—next to the already overflowing corkboard with orders pinned to it. “Pardon me for asking, but…why all the orders for dresses?”

“Huh? Oh, yes, those,” Rarity quickly glanced back and saw what Razz was seeing. “There’s that billiards tournament coming to town in a few days, and so many ponies want dresses repaired or new ones commissioned—no, I know that look you’re giving me, darling, I assure you I have it under control.”

Raspberry kept up her deadpan stare unabated. “That many ponies want to look good for a pool tournament?”

Rarity nodded. “With parts of Ponyville still being rebuilt—to say nothing of the nation itself—we could all use a little levity right now, darling. I know you weren’t here for the worst of it, but for a while there, Raspberry, dear, it was touch and go.” The curly-maned unicorn then sighed. “That being said, I do have quite a lot of commissions on my hooves. It’s times like this I wish I had somepony to help take some of the workload.”

“What about that one mare who quit her job in Manehatten for your sake?” asked Razz. “The way you mentioned she was acting, working for you seemed like a dream job.”

Coco Pommel? asked Rarity, “Yes, having her would be a windfall indeed, but letting her take on the job for making Bridleway costumes would do far more for her career than taking her on as an assistant here in Ponyville.”

Any further discussion was cut off when the cries of Razz’s pet phoenix Heliodor were heard outside.

“Y’know, I was wondering where he’d been,” mentioned Rarity. “He’s so attached to you that it’s kind of strange to not see him in the same place.”

“Blame being on Earth for that one,” laughed Razz as she headed for the door. “While he enjoyed flying around the human world, he was in a lot more danger there than here, so he’s taking the time to readjust to this world.” At the door, however, Razz found Heliodor was not the only one waiting, as after the green and gold avian settled on her horn—his favorite roost—she noticed the guard standing at attention. “Oh, um, at ease, soldier?”

“Archmagus, your presence is requested at the royal garrison,” replied the guard, wasting no time to get to the reason for his presence, though briefly nodding in acknowledgement of Rarity, the other noble in his presence. “There was a group of ponies claiming to be a troupe of actors who were stopped at a checkpoint outside of town, one of them was found to be a changeling and they were all brought in for questioning.”

“That’s…uh, good work. Yes. Very good work,” stammered Razz, not sure what she was supposed to be saying or doing. “But is there a reason I needed to be notified?”

The guard cleared his throat before giving an answer. “One of them claimed that he was an acquaintance of yours and insisted that you be brought to talk to him about the matter.”

“An acquaintance?” repeated Razz, scratching her head. “I’m sorry, but there really isn’t anypony who comes to mind that I’d consider an old acquaintance from before I came to Ponyville. Out of curiosity, what is this pony’s name?”

“Rough Edge, m’lady. He’s a red unicorn and—” the guard never got to finish his sentence as Razz suddenly bolted forward and held her face close to his with her front hooves.

“Rough Edge? His name is Rough Edge?”

“Y-yes, m’am! Apologies for asking, but I thought you said you didn’t have any—”

“I didn’t think he’d remember me after all these years!” she exclaimed, before realizing she was probably going to make the guard die of embarrassed asphyxiation. Letting him go, she recomposed herself, noting in the corner of her eye a bemused Rarity watching from inside the boutique. “Yes, well, sorry for that. This was…unexpected.”

“I presume you know this Rough Edge character, then, Archmagus?”

“I only knew him briefly, but I wouldn’t be the mare I am today if it wasn’t for him…if he is the stallion I met ten years ago. Take me to him immediately.”

In one of the basements in the Canterlot palace, Marimba Rondo, Castellan of the Princess’ Hooves, walked in, her hooffalls echoing on the tiles. She looked around at this hallowed place, a massive room with a huge reflection pool in the center of it. Along the walls, black marble cladded everything, and on those were etched countless names. And by the far wall, there were fifteen marble statues, painstakingly carved to have the finest details of life.

The names on the walls were the countless members of the Hooves who over the years had given their lives in the process of their duties. But the statues had an even greater sense of honor: those were reserved for Hooves who had given all to save the nation and its subjects, mares who deserved to be honored for their actions and whose names deserved to be shouted from the highest towers. But that was not the way of the Hooves, and these reminders in this, the Chamber of Memory, were the only signs of the deeds of the dead.

Marimba walked towards the newest statue, that of her friend, Pavane Bayan. Pavane had literally been killed by the hooves of Tirek in a successful attempt to send Raspberry Beryl to safety. Moreover, she’d done this duty—as she’d done through her life—without the need, for she had been exempted from active duty by the Princess herself. Yet, Pavane Bayan—or truthfully, Princess Pavane, a minor princess of Equestria, had chosen to do her duties, as did her mother before her and so forth and so on.

That of course, was of no comfort to the grieving stallion seated by Pavane’s statue. Marimba could do nothing for him, save to fulfill Pavane’s final request. “Milord? A moment of your time, if you would.”

The stallion turned to look at her. “Hello, Castellan,” he said. “I wish I could congratulate you on your promotion, but I know the price was too high.”

“You honor me, milord,” she commented, reaching into her coat pocket and producing a scroll. “I know I cannot take away your pain, but I hope this will help the healing. I know that’s what Pav would have wanted.”

He nodded, accepting the letter in his magical grasp. “Thank you, Castellan. This means much to me.”

“I know. And your sister did too, milord. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to meet with the Princess.” Nothing more to say, she departed, leaving the heart torn stallion to his grief.

Chapter 2 - Illusions of Grandeur

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 2: Illusions of Grandeur

Breezily chatting with a few of the guardsponies, Twilight Sparkle patiently waited for Raspberry by the front gate of the town garrison. Twilight had already heard the story about this mysterious group of performers and their exposure to both a changeling and Trixie Lulamoon—and the Princess of Friendship wasn’t sure which one was worse. Truthfully, she still struggled with whether or not she should issue the Cranky and Egotistical Trixie a pardon; while she had been helpful in preventing a potentially dangerous creature from getting into town, she’d also been a personal thorn in Twilight’s side for more than the alicorn was comfortable with. Still, with what little was known about changelings and the fact that Trixie was involved, Twilight felt she had to insert herself into the situation, regardless of her feelings regarding the showmare.

“Twilight!” called out a voice, to which Twilight turned to see. Sure enough, Razz was racing toward her, her pet phoenix closely behind and the guard who was supposed to be escorting her working hard just to keep up. “Thank goodness you’re here! I’m sure there’s going to be Princess-type stuff and my authority doesn’t extend to the Guard.”

“Well, if anything, you’re the pony who is more necessary than I am,” Twilight pointed out, punctuating it via a questioning eyebrow raise. “You never mentioned having anypony you were still on good terms with before the night you arrived in town and saved your father from timberwolves.” She then caught a glare from Heliodor, now perched on his mistress’s horn as usual, making the alicorn chuckle. “Well, present company aside, of course.”

“In all honesty, I didn’t expect Rough Edge to even remember me,” Razz admitted. “I only met him the night after I left Lonesome Dove, and to be perfectly frank I don’t even remember much of the details beyond worrying out of my mind that the quick disguise I’d whipped up to make me look less demonic would fail. But when I tried getting a room and found I hadn’t saved enough money from my house, Rough Edge’s acting troupe happened to have just got done with some play and he himself just walked up and paid for a room I could use.”

“What, like he was trying to hit on you or something?” Twilight impishly asked, as the two kept talking while entering the garrison.

Razz followed, shaking her head. “Given I was still only a teenage filly and he was easily twice my age at the time, I was afraid that he was trying to bed me. Obviously, that didn’t turn out to be the case, considering he spent the cold night in the troupe’s stagecoach alone just so I could have a bed, and then he paid for my train ticket up north to Baltimare. It’s been a decade since then, during which I can’t say I’ve heard anything about him or his acting troupe.”

“Been hearin’ a lot about you, though,” suddenly piped up a pony in one of the stalls ahead. Immediately recognizing the voice, Razz quickly dashed to the cell holding the speaker, finding the imprisoned pony laying on the small cot inside to be a dark red unicorn with bluish-gray mane hairs. His cutie mark was a pair of crossed prop swords, over which were the twin masks of drama—those representing comedy and tragedy. As the stallion sat up to make himself presentable, his eyes opened revealing their deep auburn hue.

“I knew you were gonna be somepony truly unique someday, kid,” he said with a grin, “but I never would have believed the down on her luck teen I gave my room to that night was a real-life princess and the future archmagus! I tell ya, it’s like that play I did the night I met you: Queen Faust, pretending to be a commoner pegasus in order to find the threat to ponydom...only this is real life!”

“All the more reason to consider your identity fraudulent,” said one of the guards that quickly rushed over to prevent the detainee from trying anything funny. “Given that you and your buddies are behind bars because you were caught smuggling a changeling in—"

“I’M AN ACTOR!” called out another cell that presumably held the changeling, though it sounded like a regular young stallion’s voice.

“You’re a disgusting insect is what you are!” called back the guard, grumbling before turning to face Razz with an apologetic expression. “My apologies, Archmagus, but as you can see these changeling sympathizers seem to think you’d somehow be able to prove they’re innocent despite clearly aiding the enemy.”

“I wasn’t aware that they stopped teaching ‘innocent until proven guilty’ at guard boot camp,” snarked a third pony—an earth pony, whose coat was mustard-hued, matching nicely with his medium blue eyes and gray mane coloration. Oddly, his cutie mark appeared to be a burning saddle, though what that could possibly be referencing was lost on Razz. What was not lost was the realization she’d seen this pony before, too.

“Hey, I remember you!” she exclaimed. “You were at that place, too, though I don’t recall your name…something like Marshmallow Books?”

The earth pony grinned. “I’m flattered you remember that much, ma’am, though it’s Mellow Brook—I do prefer ponies to get my name right since I am a scriptwriter.” He then smiled and added, “I do know Marsh, though—her works are pretty good, though a bit too much on the romantic fluff.”

The guard, however, apparently wasn’t happy that the town’s recently returned archmagus in fact did know these random ponies. “Archmagus Beryl, you can’t possibly believe these individuals came to town claiming to know you, bringing with them a changeling and a repeat offender who is all too well known in this town, and not think they are up to something!”

Then, a fourth pony who had been jailed with the group piped up. “Yes, your guardliness, I confess, we were planning on doing something…entertaining the ponies of this town!” The pony gave a lopsided grin and added, “You know, there was this little thing going on a little while ago. I think they called it a war. Then Celestia got ill and the sun kind of made things even harder even after the war. Right now, ponies need cheering up, and that’s what we do!”

“You shut your mouth, prisoner,” the guard warned.

“Oh, I’m so, so sorry about being snippy. Being falsely accused and thrown in jail will do that to you sometimes.”

Evidently, the guard was getting agitated by the almost playful behavior of the ponies behind the bars. “Oh, because a batpony hanging around with a changeling and two sketchy stallions isn’t suspect in the slightest? I can think of only one reason why a batpony wouldn’t be back in her home in the mountains along the Equestria-Griffinlands border if she wasn’t part of the Lunar Guard, and that’s because you bat ponies are all natural kleptomaniacs!”

“Oh, because other ponies are so well known for their ability to not judge individuals based on anything other than pre-existing notions and stereotypes?” said Twilight, who caught everypony else off guard with her only now joining the group. “Yes, Ms. Stage Fright—as Trixie introduced her—is a batpony. Doesn’t mean she’s a thief just because of the recent gang of batpony thieves being apprehended in Trottingham. Furthermore, your previous captain, Stormbreaker, was a bat pony herself. Did you not trust your own captain?”

“Captain Stormbreaker was a proven soldier, dedicated to the crown! She was nothing like-”

Or need I remind you of how this town needed a filly for everypony to realize Zecora wasn’t some ‘evil enchantress’? Or a reminder to the whole town about how Princess Luna isn’t still Nightmare Moon?” Twilight could have cited a third example—the fact Raspberry Beryl had almost been executed due to her handicap of only being able to use dark magic—but chose to not alienate the ponies who had reached out to Razz in the first place.

“Well, I, uh…” stammered the guard, caught between an honest answer and trying to justify his disposition.

“Private True Believer, you are dismissed,” Twilight told him, “and furthermore, I will be speaking with Capt. Right regarding your conduct.”

“Y-yes, your Highness.” Head bowed low and a vivid red blush on his face, the guard immediately took leave lest he dig a deeper hole for himself. Especially since his commanding officer was Capt. Divine Right, who it was rumored had his eye on the princess—Believer would get some serious punishment for this if those rumors were true.

Private True Believer, you are dismissed,” suddenly echoed a near-perfect copy of Twilight’s voice. Had the real Twilight not just spoken, it would have been indistinguishable. The occupant’s voice then immediately shifted back to the stallion’s voice from before. “Hmmm, yes, semi-childish, a bit heavy with the sing-song pitch, though some refinement should make it quite useful for some instances….”

“For a changeling with evidently loyal travel companions,” said the alicorn, somewhat annoyed at the sudden thought of the guard’s bias having been correct after all as she walked over to face the shapeshifter, “copying my voice and then reviewing it like food certainly isn’t winning you any points with me.”

The changeling—who at face value appeared to be no different than the common changeling drone in any way other than unusually sparkly wings—seemed to finally realize what he’d done. “Huh? Oh, oh! A thousand pardons, your highness, it’s…sorry. I have a habit of…I guess you can say ‘collecting’ voices I don’t recognize and trying them out for possible use in acting roles later.”

“Collecting?” asked Twilight, extremely skeptical.

“Yeah, like…uh, I know this is asking a lot, but could you take this spell off of me that keeps me from changing?”

Razz, now alongside Twilight, seemed equally skeptical. “You certainly don’t seem to need help changing your voice, nor do you sound like an actual changeling, really.”

Surprisingly, the equine-like bug seemed to take pride in that. “Thanks, you’d actually be surprised at how hard it is to fake accents without using magic, like my brain is hardwired to do.”

“Then how did you change your wings?” asked Twilight, gesturing to the changeling’s back. “Changelings don’t have sparkly wings. And believe me, I’ve gotten close enough to your queen to know.”

“He isn’t in the thrall of that bitch Chrysalis,” answered the batpony in the cell behind them, “because Versa was raised as one of my younger brothers.”

“Huh?!” stammered Twilight. “You’re saying he’s somehow been your surrogate brother since he was in the larval stage?! But how did—" The appearance of a mulberry hoof on Twilight’s muzzle stopped the brainiac from continuing.

“We’re getting off track.” Razz pointed out. “As interesting as that sounds, we still can’t be sure of anything any of you are saying since your identities haven’t been verified.” Razz sighed, looking over to the pony claiming to be Rough Edge. “That will have to be done before we can do anything else.”

“Well, I actually can vouch for Trixie,” said Twilight after pulling Razz’s hoof off her muzzle. “For better or worse, she’s the real deal. But as for the rest of you,” the alicorn looked at each of the three ponies and the changeling in turn, “do you have a valid way to verify you are who you say you are?”

“Actually,” said the unicorn claiming to be Rough Edge, “that’s why I was hoping Miss Raspberry would remember me: She’s the only one who will understand how I can establish we did in fact meet a decade ago and that way convince you that Versatile isn’t dangerous.”

“Who the hay is Versatile?” asked Razz, only to have the changeling respond with an annoyed throat clearing.

The phlegmy sound of a changeling throat clearing sounded from the adjacent cell. “Ahem. Yes, the bug-horse thing has a name, and it is ‘Versatile.’ Thanks for asking.”

Fifteen minutes later, Twilight and Razz found themselves walking with the four troupe members—their official name being the “Four-Footed Performers” as they learned—along with Trixie and several guards to protect the princesses if necessary. Trixie, for her part, was deemed to have not actually known there had been a changeling as part of the actors she’d been journeying with and was only with the group because they were heading back to the checkpoint where the stage coaches had been left on the side of the road. According to Rough Edge, his proof was with his personal belongings within the FFP’s wagon, but for the whole trip between the garrison and the checkpoint, the most interesting topic was the changeling named Versatile.

As his friends insisted, Versatile—or “Versa” as his fellow performers called him—was only a changeling in biological nature. Hailing from the border town of Nightshade, both he and his adoptive older sister Stage Fright explained that about two decades ago, during the last known movement of changelings before Chrysalis tried to invade Canterlot, Fright’s parents had found what looked like an abandoned foal a few miles outside of town. It was quickly obvious of the real origin of the “foal” but so was the fact the hive had left him to die—he was destined to be nothing but a disposable drone in the first place. Having more appreciation for life than his own species, the batpony couple took him in as one of their own children. As a result, Versa preferred to think of himself as a stallion, since that was the life he knew—and besides, Twilight thought drone had negative connotations regardless. Razz, meanwhile, found common ground with Versa as they both vastly preferred to hide their fearsome “real” forms in favor of looking like ordinary ponies, though Versa retained his color scheme despite the preferred form of a young batpony.

“It’s the fact I look like a freak of nature that gets ponies trying to shove a pitchfork into me,” explained Versa. “But a changeling-colored batpony? Par for the course,” he said with a grin.

“At least you can actually keep a physical change while you sleep,” said Razz. “Mine is purely just an illusion, if my bird roosting on my horn is any indication of that, or the pile of pillows I occasionally murder in my sleep because I roll around so much.”

“Oh, while we’re on the subject,” interrupted Twilight, who actually intended to change the subject, “Versa, do you still need to eat love or some other kind of emotion like anger or the like?”

“Only if you have some stockpiled somewhere?” he dryly replied. “Is there a brothel in town?”

Twilight sputtered at that. “Prostitution is illegal in Equestria!”

“Yes, I’ve noted it’s illegal in most of Equestria’s provinces,” the changeling-as-batpony stated. “But trust me, we’ve been in more than enough places in the realm where it’s not only legal, but some mares consider it a decent living. In any case, I actually don’t — haven’t for years. I know it’s weird but I pretty much only need to eat food like any other regular pony.”

“But, isn’t magic derived from the emotion of love how changelings power their magic? How can you even be maintaining your current form if you haven’t consumed love from other ponies in years?”

“Actually,” said Stage Fright, “according to our brother, Echolocation—he’s a savant of science and is a first-year student over at Manehatten U.—the way Versa was raised with us in a loving family environment makes him almost self-sufficient as he produces love just like any pony else, meaning he’s basically his own power supply.”

“But how…?"

“Echo thinks it was something to do with me not developing a link to the ‘hivemind’ or whatever,” Versa explained. “His working theory is that because I wasn’t raised a slave to a shared consciousness, my growth wasn’t stunted and as a result, I’m just as much a conscious, self-sufficient being as anypony else. It’s still tough to keep up my preferred appearance, since I am using my energy to look like this and I can’t keep it up forever, but between the friendship I have with Edge and Brook, and having the sibling love from my sister, it’s enough to keep me covered when I need to take a quick break and be ‘myself’, if you know what I mean.”

Any further talking was interrupted by Trixie’s sudden outburst of “Hey, we’re here, ponies!”

Shortly after, while Trixie mysteriously dragged Twilight off to discuss “matters” neither of which seemed keen on divulging after Twilight’s reaction to Trixie whispering it in her ear, Razz and the acting troupe were left standing outside the latter’s stagecoach. For security reasons, the guards had insisted that, instead of letting Rough Edge simply go in the coach and fetch his purported evidence of trustworthiness, that they would instead go into the vehicle and remove his belongings for him. Then he would produce the evidence in plain sight.

Of course, as it turned out, wherever this evidence was, it was buried deep within the cramped coach and forced the guards to pull out everything in their way simply to have enough room—they staunchly refused to do the obvious of removing their armor which would have solved the problem as well.

“Hey, watch it, that was my Grandma’s steamer case!” said Brook as a guard not-so-gently tossed a slightly beaten up suitcase off to the side. “Honestly, we could just pop the coach’s side open if you need more room!”

“No, this thing is on the other side of the coach, under my bunk,” Edge told him, getting a groan out of his friend.

“It would still give us more room, because that way it would give us, you know, vertical space to work with. I’m sure the guards could do with a little less high anxiety, you know?” Brook replied.

“Except it’s in a nook I built into the coach,” Edge pointed out. “Even having the coach in full stage mode wouldn’t really help.”

Brook frowned at his partner. “Seriously what even is this thing? We’re the two founding members of this group, you’ve been my best friend since high school, and even I don’t have the foggiest idea what you’ve been keeping from me!”

As another guard removed a small, red box from the coach that had been latched underneath a recessed cabinet, Edge motioned to indicate that the box was what he needed, or at least whatever was inside it. “Because if you’d known about it, you would have pitched it for what it is.”

“Wait, if I would know what it is, then why do we need the archmagus here?”

The guard brought over the box, handing it over to Edge who promptly removed the lid. He then levitated something out of it, wrapped in a carefully tucked bundle that clearly implied whatever was inside was of great importance. Without answering Brook, Edge proceeded to gingerly unwrap the bundle until finally, the brilliant diamond gem within was revealed, or the top of it was at least. Everypony except Edge and Raspberry looked stunned at the precious stone that for all the world appeared to be worth a fortune.

It was Stage Fright who voiced what everypony was thinking: “You’ve had that the whole time?! No offense, but there better be a damn good reason why you’ve been hiding something that valuable from everypony!”

“It’s because it’s not worth anything,” answered Razz, who looked to Edge. He nodded, to which Razz then lit up her horn in its dark embrace, the bright diamond following suit as she lifted it out of the wrapping. The entire crowd gasped as precisely where the diamond had been obscured by the wrapping, there was a clear separation that marked the end of the diamond and the beginning of a deep, rich obsidian.

The guards, however, were less than enthused. “Sir, you do know it is highly illegal to possess—"

“Now hold on!” interrupted Razz. “This…this is one of my gem replicas, judging from what I’m feeling off of it. But not only that, it’s one of my earliest attempts, judging by how the diamond disguise is only half-formed. What I don’t get is…why do you even have this?”

Edge smiled. “Remember how I let you use my room that night?” Razz nodded, prompting him to continue. “Well, after I’d seen you off and moved back in, I found that under the bed.”

“But then, why did you keep it? You knew nothing about me, but this is clearly dark crystal and, well…” Razz blushed, “if anything it should have made it obvious I was no better than a fraud who was going to make synthetic gems.”

Edge laughed. “Archmagus—"

“Razz, please.”

“Well, alright, Razz. You have to remember, I’m an actor, but as much as I can pretend to be things that I’m not, I’m actually pretty good at seeing through other ponies trying to do the same. And what I saw in you that night when the miserable-looking teenage filly with the bindle walked into Rising Star’s joint—what I heard from you when you basically poured your heart out into my withers after I insisted I give you my room because you couldn’t afford one? Even if I knew from the first moment you weren’t telling the whole truth, there was enough for me to believe you were a good pony just in a really hard spot.

“But it was that weird crystal that made me realize what a special pony you were, Razz. See, back home in Las Pegasus during my colthood, my grandma Straight Flush would tell me stories about a long-forgotten city, a Crystal Empire in the northern range where the ponies all shined like precious stones as if they themselves were made of the stuff…and of the tyrannical King Som-somethingsomething—"

Razz giggled. “King Sombra?”

“Yeah, King Sigma, or whatever you said! Anyway, according to Grandma Flush, King Snusnu had been some crazed dark mage who corrupted the whole place with dark crystal and had taken the whole Empire and its populace with him when Princess Celestia and Princess Luna banished his butt to the planet’s freezer section.”

“Wait, you knew this thing was probably evil and—" began Brook, before he caught the angry eye glaring at him from the phoenix still sitting on Razz’s head. The screenplay writer would have to ask if it was a legit phoenix, he’d never even heard of a non-red one, but whatever that bird was it looked ready to kill him if he didn’t make a saving throw. “Sorry, appeared to be evil but in no way actually was malicious, and so for the past decade or so have kept it hidden under where we all sleep?!”

“Yeah, but you gotta remember, Mel,” answered Edge, “the Crystal Empire itself didn’t come back until, like, a year or two ago. Truth be told, I didn’t even know that what I found was a product of powerful dark magic. Personally, I legitimately thought it was diamond and obsidian fused together and had secretly been left by Razz as a means to repay me.” He smiled. “I never had the heart to spend it, given what you’d been through—it seemed unfair for you to have given up something of that caliber.”

Razz blushed slightly harder than last time; if anything, the fact Edge had found what was nothing more than a prototype of a gem forgery made it clear Razz had been a bit too careless in leaving evidence of that magnitude behind. But that he’d thought it had been a kind of “thank you” she’d left for him was deeply touching. “I…I hope you didn’t try to sell it at some point, n-not that I’m one to talk of course.”

“Let me guess, since that dark crystal is only half-disguised, it would have made me look like I was the one practicing dark magic?” Edge’s words made Razz’s pupils shrink in fear at what she could have unintentionally done to the first pony to show her kindness in her life. Noticing her panic, Edge plucked the hovering dark crystal forgery from her magic and put it back in its wrappings, then subsequently its box, before walking up to her and drawing her into a one-forelegged hug. “Don’t worry, I never had any intention of selling it, if anything it convinced me that you were somehow tied to that mythical Crystal Empire my grandma told me stories about. A strange, secretive pony comes into a random roadhouse in the middle of the night, only to find she can’t get a room for the night, but through the kindness of another stranger she gets her warm bed and a train ticket up north, and leaves behind the most unique gem formation I’ve ever seen?

“The thought of selling it occurred to me, but only if the troupe desperately needed the money, and then only if there was no other choice. No, I’ve always kept it mainly as a memento of you, Razz, especially after news about Lonesome Dove finally reached the roadhouse.”

“Y-you knew about what I’d done?” stammered Razz. “I…I mean I guess it makes sense, the roadhouse wasn’t far from there and after what I’d done to my father—"

“No, Razz, you didn’t do anything,” Edge said with a hard tone, catching Razz by surprise. “I won’t lie: it was shocking to hear what the pony claimed you’d done, but I refused to believe the mare I met was really nothing but a demon through and through. What I did believe was that nopony you’d ever known up to that point had ever really tried to help you because of your…unique powers. Being alone in life without anypony to go to, especially for a pony who has had it as rough as you, is no way to live, and so I’ve held onto that crystal in the hopes it would make our paths cross again before it was too late.” Oddly, Edge then chuckled softly. “You have no idea how worried I was when news finally reached me about what went down in Canterlot.”

If she hadn’t already been close to tears by that point, Razz was now. “You mean…you’ve been worrying about me all this time?”

“Of course! Meeting a special filly like you ain’t easy to forget! Plus, you were just a kid trying to find her place in a world that refused to understand your predicament. If nothing else, I worried that we never would meet again so you would know there was somepony who did care. Hell, I probably would’ve taken you under my metaphorical wing, had I known.”

Razz said nothing, but Helee suddenly leaving her horn to perch on the edge of the coach said it all as no sooner had he touched down did Razz fully embrace Edge and let the waterworks run down her face. While she had everything she could want in Ponyville—friends, family, honest employment and lodging—the fact there had been somepony who had always been thinking of her and even kept a memento of her in the hopes it would lead to their reunion despite what other ponies judged her as just made her all the more thankful for what had gone right in her life.

Even though Twilight was well aware of the rumors about how Trixie was supposedly her ultimate rival—if anything, Sunset Shimmer had really been the one to hold that title purely by being her predecessor as Celestia’s personal student—she realized this was the first time she’d ever been in Trixie’s mobile home. If it could even be called a “mobile home”, really, for the total area inside the stagecoach was maybe the size of a large living room, but the useable space was about two-thirds as much due to the left side being filled with the fireworks spinners, the trumpets, the large purple silk curtain, and the mechanisms used to deploy all of it when the left wall was lowered for “stage” mode. Along the right wall were two hooks—currently holding Trixie’s giant hat and cape—followed by a window and a miniature dressing room stand with mirror. In the back portion of the coach was a set of storage cabinets, on top of which sat a mattress and bedding that suggested that was where the blue unicorn bunked every night.

“Would you believe that this is actually bigger than the original that got crushed by the ursa?” chuckled Trixie, taking advantage of the alicorn’s momentary shock. “My father had taken out an insurance policy: evidently he hadn’t trusted that I would be able to cover expenses should something destroy it. I don’t know where he got ‘crushed by an ursa that was rudely awakened by two idiot colts’ insurance, but it was enough to get me a brand new stage coach that looked the same as the old one but gave me more room.”

“Hey, you’re not talking like you’re narrating every moment of your life,” noted Twilight.

Trixie just rolled her eyes. “Just because it sounds like I enjoy hearing myself speak in the third person all the time doesn’t actually mean I do it in the privacy of my own abode!” The normally boisterous performer suddenly seemed to lose much of the bravado she normally radiated as she added “It’s at least one of the illusions ponies still don’t see through.”

Twilight noted the immediate loss of confidence in Trixie’s demeanor. “Trixie, the whole ‘Magic Duel’ thing was ages ago. Don’t tell me ponies are still holding that against you.”

“No, most ponies outside of Ponyville have, thankfully, forgotten about that for the most part. Though there are a few villages around the Empire that have no love for me—you have a sizeable fandom up there, did you know that? But...the truth is that my act is getting kind of stale since there’s no significant feat of magic I can introduce without causing collateral damage or hope to learn within a year and…” Trixie rocked her head side to side like somepony grudgingly agreeing to another pony, “…it’s hard to make ponies believe I really am more talented at magic when the best I can do looks more like sleight of hoof tricks than actual magic. Plus, after Tirek stole so much magic and turned it against the country, ponies really aren’t that eager to see a stage performer of my vocation using magic so freely—and that’s when my old reputation kicks back in even though I had nothing to do with that Ursa attacking the town.”

“I dunno,” said Twilight in reply, “Ponies really are just scared of unrestrained users of high-level magic powers, especially after the energies I had to release when I had the power of all four alicorns within me. Plus, no offense, Trixie, but are you capable of higher level mag—"

“You’re not the only unicorn who got into Princess Celestia’s School!” angrily retorted Trixie. She then puffed her chest out slightly, slipping back into her usual boastful self. “You may have gotten the princess herself as a teacher, but only because you managed to pass the initiation exam’s last requirement—the one even the examiners normally couldn’t do. The Great and Powerful Trixie didn’t even need to take the exam, since she was recognized on her eighth birthday for her inherent power and got a Fullride Scholarship!”

Trixie got a scholarship to the school? Twilight wondered, trying hard—and failing—to keep the shock off her face. While the school was truly the vaunted establishment of higher magic education, Twilight had been stunned to learn one of its most important purposes was borderline indoctrination of notably gifted unicorns, albeit only in definition, as outside of rare exceptions the scholarships were mainly to ensure particularly vulnerable foals were protected in a dark magic free environment lest the Left Hoof Path corrupt them with promises of great power. The fact Trixie was born with such an inner magic wellspring to warrant a scholarship also lent the missing explanation of how she’d been able to fall prey to the Alicorn Amulet’s power—according to ancient texts deep within the Canterlot archives, the Amulet was extremely picky about the ponies who it deemed worthy of drawing from its vast pool of dark magic, for as far as dark magic was concerned, strength favored strength alone. She doesn’t need to know that if she doesn’t already by now.

Seeing the unicorn-turned-alicorn princess be put into a position of having underestimated her “rival’ brought a smile to Trixie’s muzzle—though not of contempt as evidenced by her return to the more modest version of her personality. “Heh, I went through so much in the past to try and prove myself as your better, and all I had to do was mention we went to the same damn school. But I never used it in my ‘act’ because ponies would then demand I do things possibly out of my caliber—yeah, yeah, it sounds hypocritical in light of me failing to drive off the Ursa but can you fault me for not ever planning on two colts actually doing something as stupidly dangerous as luring one into a populated area simply to see me fight it?”

“Trixie, I don’t recall ever seeing you at the school, though admittedly being personally mentored by Celestia meant I spent most of my time at the palace. But I know a few ponies who would have mentioned you, I’m sure.”

Trixie looked away. “I...never completed my studies there. During the fourth year there, my mother grew gravely ill and I had to return home to help my father care for her, even though it meant giving up my scholarship. One of the teachers, old Mr. Spellweave, contacted a friend of his and managed to get me a scholarship to the Magic Academy of Baltimare. But the quality of education isn’t anywhere near that of the Guild Academy, and so…” Trixie shrugged, as if that answered the rest of her statement.

Twilight opened her mouth to say something, but the sound of crying outside preempted her. Quickly trotting past Trixie, Twilight peeked out of the mobile home’s front door and was relieved to see it was just an emotional Razz doing the crying—evidently Rough Edge had been telling the truth and so presumably was also honest in supporting the changeling traveling in his troupe. It also served as a reminder to Twilight to wrap things up, as she turned to face Trixie again. “No, I can’t, but that’s all in the past, too. What still isn’t really explained is why you’ve come to town again now if you feel your act is wearing thin.”

Trixie perked up at the request. “Oh, it’s simple: I want to take my act to the human world!”

Twilight’s left eye twitched a little. “Trixie, you have two seconds to try and convince me what you just said is not what I think you just said, because otherwise—"

“Sandy told me,” said the magician, following up in response to the deadpan alicorn stare with, “She attended MAB’s sister school for earth ponies, the University School of Baltimare, so we were both at the Baltimare central library often and got to know each other. I was there when she first learned the word ‘hyo-mahn’ from some dusty book in the back of the public library.” She then sighed. “Look, all I know is that whatever you and your friends have been up to recently that’s related to Sunset Shimmer’s sudden return as a princess of all things has something to do with this ‘human world’. And that it’s a world without every third pony having natural magic. I do okay here in Equestria, but over there? I’d be the most successful entertainer who ever lived!”

Twilight, needless to say, was not so keen on the idea. “Are you out of your mind?! You literally just said you want to be in a position where you have incalculable power compared to everypony else: How is that not going to end up like the Alicorn Amulet screwing with your head again? The only thing that’s different is that the Amulet is pure dark magic, and nopony is immune to it except—"

The world seemed to stop for a split second as the neurons in Twilight’s supercomputer of a brain finally made an obvious connection. Disregarding Trixie for a moment, Twilight simply turned back to the door and looked out. She saw a now-emotionally collected Razz chatting idly with the other ponies, whatever set her off before evidently resolved.

But among the things that would set Razz off...dark magic was not one of them. She was the only pony alive who could be trusted in her knowledge of the left hoof path, for she was immune to its mental corruption. Imagine what we could learn about that amulet with her help… Twilight thought as she returned her attention inside.

“Trixie, instead of trying to work your way into something you really shouldn’t know anything about,” said the princess to the frantically-waving-her-forelegs-to-get-Twilight’s-attention mare behind her, “how about I just teach you some new tricks and help improve your act while you’re in town?”

Trixie huffed. “I would prefer no charity.”

“Don’t think of it as charity, then,” Twilight replied. “You said the caliber of education at Baltimare Academy isn’t up to snuff, right? Just think of it as me plugging up the holes in your education. You can’t be blamed for that, Trixie. You were trying to take care of your mother while she was ill—and to me, that’s worthy of praise.”

“Really?” The alice-blue maned unicorn looked like she was about to reach a level of excitement bordering what Pinkie Pie would consider ‘calm.’ “I mean, yeah, that would be great! But…what stopped you mid-rant there? You’re acting kind of funny, all of a sudden.”

“Don’t worry about it, Trixie,” replied Twilight. “It’s a matter best kept in the dark for now.”

From the number of times he’d read it, the scroll had been worn smooth at the edges and had started to tear. He constantly used a repair spell on it in order to keep it intact, but there was only so much that even magic could do against the ravages of wear and tear and time itself. He could have easily solved the problem by putting it in a display case with a preservation spell, and that would easily protect it.

But if he did that, it would reduce his sister’s last words to just that: words. Touching the letter made it feel as though she was still alive. LIke he hadn’t failed her and he hadn’t let her die. Sometimes he could almost feel her fur against the letter, as if she was holding it while he read. It was madness, sure, but a justifiable one.

He loved her and missed her so much that it tore a gaping wound in his heart and soul. How could he not? She had been his beautiful little sister, and she’d given up everything for duty, including her title, despite what Princess Celestia had exempted her from. She said she wanted to honor their mother, who had been a Hoof when she met their father. And from what Princess Celestia said, Pavane served with dignity and honor, just as a princess should. Even one who’d abandoned her title.

Still, Pavane had been his little sister, who he loved and tried to keep from her fate. His parents had told him he couldn’t; it had turned out to be true. So with a heavy heart and a massive brandy snifter, he reached for the scroll and opened it once more, reading the words he’d already memorized months ago at her funeral, but still forcing himself to read each word as if they were the first time he’d set eyes on them.


Blueblood set down the letter and wiped his eyes, reaching for the brandy snifter. He felt rage and sorrow at the same time. His sister had been murdered by Tirek and there hadn’t even been a body to bury. The “funeral” had been a mockery of life, just an empty casket with some of her personal belongings being set in a cenotaph. An empty grave, just as his heart felt. A fake soul for a fake tomb.

He threw the brandy snifter down in disgust, screaming in rage as it shattered on the marble floor. It was then that he heard a knock at the door, followed by it opening. Very few people had keys to his private apartments, so he should have expected this. Likely it was Broome again; he’d tried to fire that old coot for sticking around when he wasn’t wanted, but somehow the old stallion had the gall to think that he actually was wanted.

I suppose he knows me better than I do myself, Blueblood thought to himself.

He turned to look at the pony who had come in, gray as how he felt, her violet eyes filled with immense sorrow as she looked at him. For a change, she didn’t wear her normal bowtie, a sign that she was “off-duty”, so to speak..

He idly wondered: how many ponies in his life were practically always on duty? What meaningless items dictated their perpetual enslavement to their responsibilities? In many ways, Octavia Melody, his sister’s lifelong best friend was just as trapped as he was. Blueblood practically considered the mare like a sister himself, given how long she’d been in their lives.

“Blu,” she said in a soft voice.

“Go, Octy. Go before I ruin your life as well. Leave me to my own condemnation.”

She shook her head, much the same way his little sister had, a sign she wasn’t going anywhere. Blueblood knew she didn’t need to say anything more and held his forelegs out for her. She accepted the embrace and together, two siblings of the heart cried out in pain and sorrow for the third they’d lost and for the innocence Tirek had taken from the world. The world had always unfairly referred to her as his primary lover, his main dalliance whenever he wasn’t skirt chasing some other mare of the moment. It was vastly unfair to her, but she put up with it anyway, because of how much they meant to each other. Not that he’d ever been untoward with any mare outside of his “act”, but her least of all.

“Why do you do this to yourself?” she asked him. “Pav would not have wanted you to hurt yourself like this!”

“I hurt because it’s the only thing that still tells me I’m alive,” he told her in a dead voice. “I hurt because if I’d been better at my duties, my sister would still be here.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes, it was. If I’d been smarter, or quicker, or more clever to check in the places where no pony usually does––”

She embraced him once more as he broke down and cried. She cried along with him, but she continued to hold on, because she had to. She’d already lost one pony she loved like family. She would dare not let it happen a second time.

Chapter 3 - In the Shadow of Humanity

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 3: In the Shadow of Humanity

Once everything had been settled and Versatile the changeling was officially recognized as not a threat (somepony had originally suggested harmless, but Twilight felt that was too insulting a word for a fellow sapient being) the guard returned to their duties while Raspberry and Twilight led the caravan of performers off to the Traveler’s Retreat.

“This all started because Edge lent me his room for a night,” said Razz. “It’s only fair that—given I work at a bed and breakfast—I repay the favor with interest.”

“Is there going to be enough space for all of us?” asked Brook. “I recall hearing the guard talking about some big event coming to town in a few days and how hard it was to find rooms for anypony coming to be a part of it.”

“Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, only the Retreat and the Orchardview Hotel survived the attack on Ponyville, so we’re far more booked than usual,” Raspberry explained. “But I’m sure that we’ll find something to accommodate you—I’m not letting you down, Edge.”

Twilight looked at Raspberry. “I wish I could offer them space, but my spare bedrooms are hosting Town Hall and other government functions while those buildings get rebuilt,” the alicorn told her.

“No sweat,” Rough Edge said. “I’m sure that we’re well in Razz’s capable hooves.”

“Sorry, dear,” said Ascot to his adopted daughter, “but we’re full up!”

“Full up?!” Razz asked, surprised. “What about the extension that you and Mom started to work on after the extreme cold started letting up?”

“Only the first floor and three rooms on the second have been completed, and we had to give those up to several ponies wanting to attend the pool tournament,” Ascot explained. “The problem is, with the overly cold winter, building materials couldn’t be delivered on time. It’s put the rebuilding of Ponyville back several months, and obviously the priority went to those apartment buildings, because ponies can’t keep living in tents forever.”

“But if we’re one of only two hotels in town, they had to know that we’re overloaded!” Razz cried.

“They did, but we figured out how much the average would be for this time of year. We went well over that.” The elderly pegasus chuckled and added, “Things have gotten so busy, ponies are even staying out in Berryville and commuting just to see this event. Suffice to say I’m with you on that; never knew billiards was such a popular sport!”

“And I guess life won’t go back to normal anytime soon?”

“Not with everything going on right now,” Ascot told her, “And while you missed most of it, life hasn’t been what used to be normal for months, Razz.” He then pulled out a date book and quickly flipped through it. “As it is, after the tournament, we’ll have another group of ponies coming in from Canterlot to assess the damage, so at this rate, we’re booked solid for at least a few weeks!”

Razz sighed. “I don’t know if they’ll even still be around by then, but if we really are booked through for half a month or more, nothing to be done about it, right?”

“Not entirely, Cashmere and I have been running this ol’ shack for a long while, back when stage coaches like those were far more common for both traveling performers and simple passenger traffic. Here, take this,” Ascot then reached under the desk and pulled out a semi-rusty set of keys. “The storage building in the back used to be a kind of shelter where ponies could put the coaches when they stayed here. I figure if you move some things around, it could still fill that role for that coach there. I’ll send out Light Fixture later to get the utilities working, too. Not the same as a room, but...since they’re old friends of my little filly, they can stay there while they’re in town, no cost.“ He didn’t get to finish as Razz hurriedly ran around the desk to hug her adoptive father.

“It’s more than enough, Dad,” she said in thanks, kissing him on the cheek before taking the keys and heading out, quickly greeting a green pegasus with a pool cue hairclip who was presumably coming to check in.

Mare, those pool playing ponies really take it to heart, she thought.

“Ah, yes, the 4th Annual Blue Chalk Pool Masters tournament!” Twilight chirped to Razz as the two made their way back to the main door of the Traveler’s Retreat. They’d already helped the Four Footed Performers secure their coach in the rear building and left them be to unpack and unwind, though Twilight did invite them to dinner at the castle. “According to the documents I read, the founder and organizer of the event, Blue Chalk, was the best pool shark of his time and although he’s retired, still is a major public figure in promoting the sport.”

“You know way too much about everything, you know that, right?” laughed Razz as she spied her bird coming back from his evening hunt and stopped walking briefly so he could perch on her horn.

“It helps that most of my family plays pool,” Twilight sheepishly admitted. "My father's actually got a pool table at my parents’ place. Dad's honestly not that good—Cadance is the best player in the family.”

Raspberry laughed. “So the love alicorn’s the pool expert,huh? Somehow, that makes sense.”

“Yup. She used to play Shiny often to bet who would pay for their dates,” Twilight replied with a giggle. “In any case, Dad loves the game and explained a few things here and there growing up. And last but not least, it’s the first year it’s being held in Ponyville, so as the local royal I had to be informed about it. With so much of Equestria in ruins from the war, I need to find a way both to improve morale and to spur rebuilding.

The unicorn nodded in agreement. “Still, in all honesty, it’s pool. Sure, there’s Table Rack’s Pool Hall in town, but is that really going to be enough interest? Are ponies that knowledgeable about that kind of thing?”

“It’s one of those subjects you tend to learn by being around,” explained Twilight. “Ponies with special talents relating to the sport are actually pretty uncommon, truth be told. It's mainly a diamond dog and minotaur sport in origin, since they tend to have better means of grip than pony hooves, though not by much.” As an aside, she said to Razz in a softer tone, "I don't know if humans play it, though. You'll have to write Sunny for that answer, though it wouldn’t surprise me if humans played something similar."

“I’ll have to borrow your cellphone when I get a chance, so I can give her a call,” Razz told her as an aside. “Still, they seem pretty focused, like pro hoofball players or something.” She opened the door and then asked, “So you mentioned you needed to talk to me about something?”

“Yeah. I got an invitation from Celestia earlier this morning and she wanted me to talk to you about it directly.” Twilight sighed. “They’re having the dedication ceremony for the Pavane Bayan Memorial Park tomorrow. Did you want to go?”

Razz froze in her tracks, then looked down at the ground, as if she was ashamed to look anywhere else. “She died, Twi. She died and it was my fault.”

“It wasn’t your––”

“IT WAS!” Raspberry screamed. She looked up and tears started to pour down her cheeks. “Tirek took my powers, Twi! She fired two explosive crossbow bolts at him and it did nothing—nothing—because he took my powers! She was killed because of me!

Twilight put a wing around her friend. “No, she wasn’t. You were victimized, Razz, and Pavane did everything to protect you. Remember, I knew her, and she was the kind of mare that gave her all to protect those who needed it. Trust me, she wouldn't want you to cry about it—your trip to Earth ripped your magic from him, which helped us to win!”

“Yeah, I guess,” she said in a tone that indicated she didn’t believe it. “But I didn’t know you knew Pavane.”

“Yeah. She’s actually a minor princess like you, though she gave up her title to join the Hooves,” Twilight explained. “I grew up with her, Octavia Melody—that's how I know her—and Pavane’s brother. Granted, I wasn’t as close with them as I should have been, and that’s one thing I’ll always regret. Still, Pavane was a wonderful mare.”

“Of course I’ll go, Twi—I owe it to her to make up with Blueblood.”

“Wait—you know Blueblood’s her older brother?”

“She told me before she died. She said she knew he and I had bad blood between us and she asked me to make up with him. I’ll be honest, I really don’t want to, given how he treated me. She claims that’s just an image he displays, because of the nature of his duties at the palace. But frankly, I don’t believe that, and I’m only going to do it just for her sake.” She sighed. “Look, can we change the subject? Anything else we need to talk about?”

Twilight nodded but she didn’t smile, and Razz instantly knew she was in for round two. “Well, it’s about your ‘unique’ powers.”

“Oh, please!” chuckled Razz, trying to bring some levity into the situation. “Like I’m nothing special because the blood of a mad king makes me able to survive losing my windpipe. Twice. Totally a common power, as is being able to cure lycanthropy!” She grinned, then added, “Or did you mean the human magic that Sunny bound to me when I’m in human form?”

“I didn’t know about that,” Twilight commented.

“Long story; remind me to tell you about it later. Anyway, you were saying?”

“There’s only one pony with both the affinity and immunity to dark magic like you, Razz. Personally, I’m glad you’re the only one: Can you imagine the chaos that would come if there was somepony else out there with powers like yours?”

“You mean like Tirek?” Razz flatly reminded her friend, involuntarily shuddering at how the monster’s mere presence and hunger for what scrap of power she’d held from him, as well as the fact that he’d literally murdered Pavane.

“Tirek wasn’t a pony.”

“Yeah, point,“ Razz admitted before taking a deep breath. “Still, Twilight, I’m basically Sombra without an obsession with crystals and stairs. I don’t think anypony could do what I can. Well, unless they had some sort of dark magic artifact.”

“That’s actually exactly what I wanted to discuss,” Twilight said, taking a brief look around for prying ears before gesturing for Raspberry to come closer. “What do you know about the Alicorn Amulet?”

Raspberry tilted her head quizzically before answering, “Mostly just rumors. Some dark artifact that can supposedly give the wearer power to rival an alicorn, but at the price of their sanity.”

“That sounds about right, and I can tell you from experience that it is no rumor.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Raspberry muttered in disbelief. “How do you know?”

“I had an encounter with it a few years ago. Before we met.” Twilight then raised a hoof to answer the question she knew was on the tip of Raspberry’s tongue. “And before you ask, it’s safe. I left it in good hooves.”

Raspberry gave Twilight a glare indicating the news didn’t make her feel any better. “I’m the Archmagus of Dark Magic, it’s my job to know about as many of these things as I can. Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?!”

At that, Twilight’s purple cheeks turned pink and the young alicorn rubbed the back of her neck as she grinned sheepishly. “Would you believe… I forgot?”

Raspberry’s glare turned deadpan. “Unbelievable.”

“I’m sorry, between our trip to Lonesome Dove, the war with Tirek, being out of my mind with grief about your death, trying to save the world before it died from Celestia’s depression and trying to keep things running here in my landholdings, I’ve been just a bit busy,” Twilight snarked.

Letting out a calming breath using a technique that Twilight herself had taught her, Raspberry said, “It’s okay. At least I’m learning about it now before somepony tries using it again.” She then gave Twilight a smile to show there were no hard feelings before continuing. “So, you said you had an encounter with it?”

Twilight nodded. “Yep. I got to see its powers first hand…thanks to her.” The alicorn then gestured to Trixie, who had been waiting the whole time with her cart.

“Finally!” the blue unicorn exclaimed. “Trixie does not like having to wait! Princess or not!”

“Whoa, some kind of ‘thank you’ would be nice, given we just got her butt out of jail,” drolled Razz.

“Trixie needs to learn humility before Twilight puts Trixie back in the stockade,” Twilight replied, and Trixie’s ears drooped in shame. Twilight turned back to Razz, but spoke in such a tone that her words were still clearly directed at the showmare. “Perhaps she can work on that while she tells you all about her takeover of Ponyville.”

“Tell who what now?” inquired Trixie, suddenly no longer boastful and abrasive.

“Why, you’re gonna tell Archmagus Raspberry Beryl, the Crown’s Archmagus for Dark Magic, a.k.a. ‘that pony who does dark magic all the time’ all about the Alicorn Amulet.”

“Do I have to?” Trixie asked.

“Yes. And given that I have a meeting with Mayor Mare in ten minutes, you’re going to be spending all your time with Razz here until I get back,” the alicorn said, disguising what was clearly a command with a faux-friendly tone.

“Do I have to?” Raspberry now asked.

What Trixie had to say about the Alicorn Amulet left Raspberry lying awake in her bed for what must have been hours. The azure unicorn clearly was slightly uncomfortable in retelling her misadventure into revenge through use (or rather abuse) of a powerful and dangerous dark magic artifact, though at the same time the fact Razz was able to relate to some of Trixie’s feelings on the matter probably didn’t help.

But it was how the Amulet operated that left Razz wondering. According to Trixie, using the Amulet had been initially a great power surge—like the ultimate sugar rush of magic power—but quickly over time she became more and more dependent on it, like an addiction to caffeine. In time, it began to drive a clear wedge between her sanity and herself as she increasingly started to feel detached from what she was doing. One particular example somehow involved her declaring her eternal distrust of wheels for no discernable reason. At the same time, she described the magic as being in a deep, spacious well hidden inside the Amulet, easy enough to get to, but when drawing it out it was like pulling it through some kind of painful filter. Like a broken wire net meant to catch something or, more likely, serve to imprint upon the magic user in some way but over the centuries this purpose broke down. Needless to say, Trixie swore to never use the Amulet again.

As for the Amulet’s current location, apparently the last known individual to possess it was the local shaman-slash-alchemist Zecora. A zebra who made her home just inside the boundaries of the Everfree Forest, Razz was surprised she had yet to meet the mare who had once been treated as much as an outsider as the dark unicorn had herself, at least initially. The odds of her having it were unknown, as both Trixie and Razz had noted when they’d read about the Amulet that it seemed to have some uncanny habit of “wandering” between users, as if it was continually changing hosts until it found the proper one.

And why is it the Alicorn Amulet? Razz pondered. After all, the two magic types were often confused for some reason—why anypony would think dark magic and its obvious appearance was at all related to magic inherent with the grace of alicorns was beyond her. She herself was the strongest dark mage alive and if she ever became the latter there probably would be riots. Especially since Sunset Shimmer’s recent ascension, the mare in question had yet to be officially recognized as the “Princess of Seekers.” Yeah, and I’d be the “Princess of Evil Horn Bubbles” or something.

She turned to her side and prepared to try and get some real sleep. Twilight and I will see Zecora in the morning. Maybe then we’ll get some answers.

Then came her recollection of Pavane, that brave warrior mare not much younger than her, and how she essentially gave her life to save both Razz and her pet phoenix. That Pavane would never see another bright day within Equestria again, and that so many rotten and wicked ponies lived while purehearted paladins like Pavane did not haunted Razz to no end.

Raspberry ended up getting no sleep that night.

The next day, after a quick breakfast, Twilight and Razz headed off to visit the local zebra. The mulberry-colored unicorn looked much worse for wear. “Rough night?” Twilight asked.

“Yeah. Between everything that Trixie told me about the Amulet and the nightmares I had because of Pavane’s death, I didn’t sleep well at all. Worse, Luna didn’t come into my dreams to help me get over the death, which I guess means that it’s too soon,” Razz replied with a yawn.

“Sorry to hear that.”

“I’ll live. I’ll be dead tired, but I’ll live.”

“Anyway, you’ve seriously not met Zecora yet?” asked Twilight.

Razz shook her head, swinging the green avian on her forehead’s extrusion side to side. Heliodor didn’t seem to mind. “Nope. Well, maybe, back at the party on the Apple farm after I cured everypony of lycanthropy, but she might also have been out of town at the time since I distinctly recall you mentioning her not being there.”

“Ah, right, that must have been the week she went back to her native lands to take part in her tribe’s annual blessing rituals. She even offered to take me next year, now that I’m officially a national leader, and I’m sure she’d love to bring you as well, Princess.”

“Look, can we drop that already?”

“Sure thing...Archmagus.”

“Now you’re pushing it.” Razz groaned at the repeated joke between the two; it had been stale during their trip to Lonesome Dove, and in the months since, had yet to get any less dull. Ignoring it, the mulberry pony drolled, “If I go at least I’d go as the Archmagus for Dark Magic. At least that way they wouldn't worry about me not being on the leash.”

Twilight laughed. “Trust me, Razz, if the Crystal Empire ponies were willing to welcome you with open forelegs with your coronation merely a week or so after the stunt you pulled at the trial, the Zebra Tribes won’t have any problem with you. If anything, they’d probably treat you like the avatar of the spirit of shadows and darkness, which you have to admit describes your powers fairly accurately.”

“So, would they call me the Twilight Princess, then?” asked Razz, bashfully batting her eyes. “We’d be the perfect pair: Princess Twilight and the Twilight Princess!”

“I would think it less confusing if you kept to your name,” suddenly came a new voice, one Razz couldn’t recognize the accent of. “Because multiple royals makes speech hard to frame.” As the unicorn and alicorn looked off to the side of the path, they were soon joined by a black and white striped pony the likes of whom Razz thought the most unique individual she’d ever met...or at least the most unique since her return from the human world. Her mane was almost like a copy of the rigid crest of a royal guard’s galea helm though it still was the same colors as her coat. A tail wrap sat at the base of her long, thin tail, and what looked like a very abstract sun marking sat where a normal pony’s cutie mark would be.

“Ah, just the mare we were coming to see!” chirped Twilight. “Razz, this is Zecora, the local alchemist and spiritual consultant. Zecora, this is Raspberry Beryl. You seem well aware of her accomplishments and titles already.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Raspberry Beryl,” said Zecora, holding out a hoof. Razz took it and the two mares shook in friendly greeting. “I hope you weren’t coming due to more peril?”

Razz chuckled. “Well, if you know how to get rid of giant crystal trees…”

Twilight in turn nickered. “Someday I’m just going to have that damn thing painted brown...but criticism of my house aside, I’m glad to say we’re not here because we need your help saving the town again.”

Zecora smiled. “Ah, as everything is as it should be, would you two care for herbal tea?”

For the next hour or two, the two princesses and their host zebra friend chatted over tea and a light dish of tofu balls in sauce, which Zecora stated was a unique cultural dish from her heritage called neerb. Razz couldn’t help but suspect she’d had this exact meal at some point before, numerous times in fact, in various cities in her travels years ago, but did not voice her thoughts on the subject lest she anger her host. Plus, Heelee seemed to think it was decent enough from his spot on a table near the wall, which was quite impressive given it meant a bird of prey was willing to eat non-meat protein.

“‘Shame our paths have never crossed before your afore your fears of life as dross. I understand fear of losing home and no desire to forever roam,” said Zecora, before taking a sip of tea. “I once had issues with the town, but now their acceptance is of renown.”

The dark unicorn nodded in agreement before sipping her own tea. Zecora’s penchant for speaking in rhymes had struck her as strange, as indeed had everything about the zebra’s abode. But part of that was the idea that maybe, somewhere, there was an object of extreme danger she was more familiar with instead.

Feeling that it would be better to broach the subject of the amulet given their longer relationship, Twilight cleared her throat to indicate they were getting down to business. “You might find it interesting that Razz has been given a commission as Equestria’s first Archmagus for Dark Magic. Due to her expertise in the Left Hoof Path and her considerable skill at dark magic, Celestia tasked her with handling and disposing of materials and artefacts that are far too dangerous for the average pony.”

Zecora instantly knew what Twilight implied was the reason for both her and her companions coming to visit, beyond a friendly chat over light snacks. Curiously, she smiled a little as an old memory came to the forefront of her mind. “Of her powers’ extent I am much aware; once her dark form did I stare. Once in the Everfree did I see a pony with dark colors – darker than me.”

Razz immediately blushed. “Let me guess,” she replied meekly, “that pony was wearing a cloak and you were feeling your fur stand on end?” Zecora nodded, to which the mulberry unicorn chuckled. “Yep, what you probably felt was the perimeter of the warding field I’d always set up around that shelter I kept in the ruins. Long time coming, I know, but sorry for that. Things were...different for me then. Though I hope whatever you were doing in the ruins wasn’t cut off from you all on account of me being overkill with privacy.”

Zecora shook her head, admitting, “Your field was effective and filled me with fear, and never again did I tarry near.” The elder zebra’s blue eyes seemed to harden slightly as did her tone in what she said next. “But what you seek? It is no mere toy. The best option for it is simply: destroy.”

“I’ve spoken with Trixie Lulamoon, the last user of the charm. Since then, Twilight told me that you’ve had it in your care for safeguarding.”

“The amulet’s gaoler I truly be,” replied Zecora, nodding her head slowly. “But what are your plans if I give it free?”

With a stoic expression upon her face, Raspberry’s response was nothing if not full of conviction: “Part of my duty as the Archmagus of Dark Magic is to remove all dark artefacts from the world, so that it may not threaten the Empire nor Equestria. Even if I didn’t have this duty, I feel that it’s my responsibility as the Head of House Sombra to redeem the family line by doing so.”

“And this she would prove with all intent? This is a truthful precedent?” Zecora asked Twilight.

“We took a huge chance by having two archmagus positions,” Twilight admitted, “and an even bigger one given that the vicemagus was given neither once I had to give up the title of Archmagus of White Magic.”

“Oh? Something I should know?” Zecora asked.

“Not really. I’m not really privy to discussing my replacement in White Magic at the moment, but as for the Dark Magic replacement, Celestia completely has faith in Razz,” Twilight explained. “Razz has done everything she could to prove that she’s not the monster her ancestor was. She’s a trusted ally, a valued member of my court, but most of all—she’s a wonderful friend.”

The zebra smiled. “If you trust her to that amount, then I cannot your opinion flount”

“Thank you, Zecora. But I have admit I’ve always been curious: where did you put that amulet?” The alicorn laughed as she added, “Don’t tell me, it’s replacement for the doorstop ‘amulet’ that broke in dealing with Trixie. Pity it was the one you got as an apology gift from the proprietor of Doorstops and Refrigerators.”

Zecora shook her head."The amulet as doorstop is a dangerous idea indeed—it would cause much harm and problems of which I have no need."

Twilight nodded her head as if expecting more."So...then?"

"Until I decide its final fate, it’s serving as a paperweight."

Razz raised an eyebrow at the idea of a powerful dark magic artifact being used as a paperweight. “For realzies?”

“For what?” Twilight asked her.

Raspberry did a doubletake. “Guess Soni rubbed off on me,” the unicorn sighed, without explaining further.

Instead of answering—for the lack of not knowing a word to rhyme with realsies—Zecora got up and retrieved a small brown chest sitting on top of a copy of last week’s Ponyville Express. She then turned to face the seated magic users and slowly opened the box, clearly wary of what lay within.

Within the chest sat an amulet made primarily out of silver, its metallic gray shine partially tarnished though nearly not as much as it should have been for a piece of jewelry potentially dating back centuries. Taking up most of the middle of the triangle was a deep-set ruby, a multi-faceted diamond shape. Sprouting from the top of the central triangle were a pair of wings with finely crafted indentations to mark the feathers, though they could easily be mistaken for knives, sheathed in a red base form as if unnaturally grafted onto where the wing bases would be. Centered between the wings was the neck and head of what could only be described as a stereotypical evil unicorn with a horn overcompensation. The angled, angry eyes of the alicorn seemed to glow with arcane energy, the central diamond ruby even more so with the same energy—a force that seemed to whisper wordless promises of power, of greatness…

Dark magic.

More dark magic than Razz had ever seen contained in one place. Well, that wasn’t quite true. To any other pony, it would be unimaginable power at their hooftips, but to Razz, it was a grand, but not the largest, pool of miasmic power she’d encountered. That dubious award belonged to Razz’s own internal wellspring of the damned stuff. Regardless, though, the amulet came horrifyingly close.

Even more concerning was that almost as soon as Razz understood that, the amulet seemed to respond to her presence as it started to glow. Heliodor started to twitter nervously as the amulet’s radiated energy rapidly increased in its radius.

“Uh, Razz?” asked Twilight, having been front and center for the shining example of why rapidly charging dark magic energy was a bad thing, “Wh-what’s going on he-”

With athleticism borne from both her upbringing being more in line with that of a hard working earth pony, as well as the slight boost of power from the taint put into her blood by Sombra a millenia ago, Razz shot across the small, one room interior hut and physically slammed the chest shut. She then ripped it from Zecora’s hooves and pitched it through the conveniently open top half of the front door. An action done none too soon as the chest bounced off the ground before hitting the arc of its trajectory and promptly exploded. The Amulet, now positively charged with its own magic, unleashed a ground-shaking beam of dark energy into the sky. Had Razz not thrown the amulet out so fast, the arcane blast of energy and the mystical force it propelled would have made short work of Zecora and her hut.

The four all instinctively huddled together in the far corner of the hut, the levitating amulet centered in the door frame, unleashing its power without a host in the exact manner its own mythology said it could not. For a few frightful seconds, they watched in shock until the amulet just spontaneously stopped its beam and its flying, dropping to the ground with an anticlimactic, muffled clang.

“Wh-what just happened?” asked Zecora, who had been shocked enough that her rhyming tendencies were temporarily unavailable.

“Nothing good,” said Raspberry, who dreaded finding out the aftermath of the beam. “It reacted immediately upon detecting my presence. Which can only mean it had been intended to do so by its creator...by Sombra.”

“You mean, the whole bit about it moving from host to host,” said Twilight, “it’s been trying to find you?”

“Of course it has,” Razz said somberly. “I’m the only pony with his power, aren’t I?”

“Look, I think we’d best call it a day,” Twilight, visibly shaken, told Raspberry. “We still need to get back to Ponyville, check in on your friends, and see Rarity about dresses for tomorrow’s funeral.”

“Yeah,” Razz said as she looked out at the noontime sky. What Twilight had mentioned wouldn't take more than a few hours, tops. Still, given what they witnessed, the dark unicorn couldn’t fault her alicorn friend from reacting that way. “The sooner we get this thing under wraps, the better.”

Standing from a relative safe spot—relative meaning that nowhere was really a safe spot at the moment, both Celestia and Luna oversaw the reconstruction of some of the poorer southern districts of Canterlot. Truthfully, neither of them needed to be there at the moment, and their presence was probably more of a hindrance than a boon for the construction workers, but there was a method to their madness: by being there, they ensured the populace that their goddess-princesses would not let their ponies down. At the same time, with them being present, it meant that they were safe and this would calm anypony who had seen or heard about their defeat at the hooves and hands of Tirek.

It also helped calm the populace by seeing Celestia out in the open - after she had quote unquote ‘taken ill’ following the defeat of Tierek, in reality plunged into a depression at the death of Sunset Shimmer, seeing that the head of the nation was on the upswing promised prosperity again for all. Even if, Luna admitted in her mind, the majority of the post-Tierek problems like the weather which had destroyed crops and delayed much needed construction had been because of Celestia.

But as they watched a pegasus help a unicorn install an I-beam on a building that was to end up as a low-income apartment complex, Celestia looked with an even, almost placid look. To her sister, that was a huge clue the sun alicorn’s mind was elsewhere. “Bit for your thought, sister?” Luna asked.

Never taking her eyes off the workers, Celestia said softly, “It’s all I can do right now to keep calm in the face of the fact that I failed our loved ones yet again.”

Internally, though, Luna was having trouble keeping calm about the matter for more than just that reason. That doesn’t justify the fact when you felt Sunset’s death, you basically made a dormant volcano erupt and subject the country - neigh, the world - to a year of near starvation because you cared more about your own daughter’s death than the well being of a country shattered by war! These apartments should have already been built but because of your inaction, too busy weeping in your room sealed off from the world, the pegasi couldn’t deal with the weather and so everything was delayed further! Luna then sighed, adding in her head And the worst part is I don’t think you’ve learned a thing from this whole affair, either!

The white alicorn, oblivious to her sister’s inner monologue, moved her head next to the younger one in a movement that seemed like a friendly aside, and she whispered, “Prince Treasure all but exploded at me yesterday and it took his wife Princess Bossa to prevent him from striking me.”

Luna looked at her sister with mild surprise, though to the public it looked as if the night alicorn was merely reacting to a joke. “Surely, he didn’t! As much as I do not wish to disrespect Pavane’s memory, her death was several months ago.”

“He meant to, Luna. And I don’t blame him, especially since the memorial dedication must have brought her back on his mind. His daughter was killed, and it was my fault. I didn’t do enough to protect her. I’d thought I could do so and allow her into the Hooves, but that was folly. I should’ve declined her service and asked her to remain as a princess.” Celestia had a brief look on her face that made her appear as old as she was. “And you can’t say I didn’t do enough, Luna. She wasn’t just some soldier who promised her life for me. She was family.”

Luna nodded. “And I will say again, Celly: it wasn’t your fault. It was that damned bastard Tirek’s. Remember that his brother, Scorpan, warned us that he would try again, when we were at our weakest. And somehow he had plenty of time to plot this new scheme. You were certainly busy these centuries cleaning up my messes, so if anypony should be at fault, it should be me.” The night alicorn then shook her head. “From what I knew of Pavane, she was the kind of mare that wasn’t meant for an office job or to prance around as some sort of trophy princess. Even if you’d turned her down, maybe she would have found a way into the military, or maybe she would’ve become a mercenary in some far land. Either way, she gave her life for her nation, and as a princess, I daresay there’s no fine––”

Celestia looked as her sister suddenly stopped. “Lulu?”

Immediately, the night alicorn took off like a rocket. “OUT OF OUR WAY!” she bellowed, with Celestia following close behind. Without warning, what could only be described as a beam of pure dark magic had roared through the sky and smashed its way deep into Castle Canterlot. Luna quickly calculated in her head where that beam had been going and the magically enchanted doors—designed to open themselves for such an occasion of Celestia needing to race through the halls—barely could react in time to the alicorns flying at breakneck speed through the ivory halls.

However, due to Celestia’s larger size, the elder sister quickly overtook the younger, and by the time she arrived at the wreckage of what had formerly been a magically enchanted vault door layered with protective spells from both Celestia and Raspberry Beryl, the door had been punched through. In fact, the center of the door had been cored sharply enough that, in addition to the hole carved into the center, the whole construct had been ripped from its galvanized and ensorcelled hinges. The remains of the shattered portal lay scattered all over the inside of the vault, except at the same time a very visible cone of clear space was left around the sole object within, several feet separating the debris field from it.

But it was Celestia’s emotionless face, staring at the back of Sombra’s mirror, that filled Luna with the most dread. As the princess of the night gingerly hovered over the broken vault doors, finally noticing that what appeared to be the back panel of the mirror having just fallen flat on the ground, whatever transfixed the elder alicorn was not immediately visible.

“Celly, what is the matter?” Luna asked, joining her sister on the opposite side of the mirror, only receiving the motion of Celestia raising a forehoof to point at the back of the vile furnishing. Luna finally looked at the same thing Celestia was, and what was now revealed to her made her blood run cold as she read the deeply ingrained, ancient text:

Deep shadows etched upon the door, his image now becrowned
The truth revealed, the worlds now bridged, the spell now held aground
Black tidings stir, legacy calls, dark heritage resound
Blood calls to blood, lines now astir, with powers now renowned

The first is called, the wanderer, always searching for home,
Cast far aside, tossed far away, destined to quest and comb,
Footsteps will lead towards bastion and citadel adome,
Dark powers now unsheath themselves and ever curse the loam

The next now comes, the dark smithy, with metal strong as blades
Her vast secrets, hidden within, buried within the shades
Allays with beasts unnatural within a realm afraid
And all stand as great sentinels for mysteries deeply laid

The third moves swift, like lightning flash, faster than eyes can track,
A storm of steel, a hail of death, downburst of ruin and wrack,
Master of death, of silent kills, hunting without a pack
A thousand daggers now unleashed, a murderous attack

The last is key, is tone, is sound, a shattered melody,
Broken by love, betrayed by self, a damaged canary
This one was hidden by time, fruit from a long-gone tree,
A mind so disillusioned it becomes psychotic spree

These four: Scions, dark legacy, called now and thus command,
Take up stations and move on towards your struggle great and grand
Licorns broken, pinions ripped clear, strong bones ground into sand
My children—go, your quest awaits…
...on Canterlot’s grave, stand!

Chapter 4 - Those Fluent in the Language of Love…and Cheese Sauce

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 4: Those Fluent in the Language of Love…and Cheese Sauce

Five friends from Ponyville found themselves standing in the middle of what had been the most secure vault in Canterlot Castle. Indeed, the mysterious beam of dark magic originating from the Alicorn Amulet had done quite a number on it the day before. Now, the vault was little more than another room in the castle, albeit with a very large contingent of guards standing vigil. A large group of the castle’s maid staff worked on cleaning up the mess—many of whom, the ponies in the know suspected, were actually the Princess’ Hooves.

“As much as Ah still hate the bastard fer all the harm he indirectly caused to mah family, in addition to everythin’ else downright evil he did,” grumbled Applejack, “Ah have to hoof it t’ him: he was one crazy-prepared sunuvaharridelle.”

“Yes, well, I can’t say these lines are flattering of his skills as a poet,” said Rarity, lightly trotting around to glimpse the back of the mirror. “Honestly, I could write something better than ‘The last is key, is tone, is sound, a shattered melody/ Broken by love, betrayed by self, a damaged canary’. At the very least, I wouldn’t make it sound like every bad romance novel’s female lead during their ‘woe is me’ period.”

“I’m sure you know all about going overboard with ‘woe is me’, Rarity,” snarked Rainbow, inciting a chuckle from everypony who had come from Ponyville—except Rarity, of course, who only tried to hide her blush of embarrassment with a fashionable pout.

“Ah’d say th’ skill of writin’ rhymes is probably much stronger in you than me, Rarity,” said AJ, placating the alabaster unicorn. “Still, even if Sombra wasn’t a songwriter like Musica Allegra or th’ like, the meaning comes across a little too clearly for comfort if Ah must be honest.”

“I’ll say,” huffed Pinkie. “It sounds like some crappy fanfiction writer tried to be all mysterious with fancy words and stuff!”

“Ladies?” asked Raven, the earth pony scribe worried about yet more insanity going on in the castle. “Is there some way you can explain what just happened?”

“Well, I’m not as versed in magical theory as Twilight or Raspberry, but I’d be glad to give it a shot,” Rarity said. With the other two at the service for Pavane, it left her to be the magical expert of the group, by dint that she was the only unicorn present. “Insofar as I can tell,” she said, looking around the room, “it appears to have been some sort of triggered enchantment. Based on what Raspberry and Luna said, perhaps some dormant function in the Amulet was triggered?”

“The Alicorn Amulet?” Raven asked, worry creeping into her voice. “I thought that terrible trinket had been sealed away for good following the incident in Ponyville that Princess Twilight reported?”

“Actually, she’d given it to Zecora for safekeeping,” Applejack joined in, “and Ah guess she figured that with Zecora’s remote location, it was the safest place for the dang-gummed thing.”

“Which probably means that since Raspberry is more qualified for the job,” Rarity added, “she and Twilight likely went there to take custody once more. I don’t think anypony had planned for Raspberry’s presence near the object to cause, well, this.”

“But why did it know to shoot toward Sombra’s mirror?” The others turned to see Vice Captain Arrowswift enter, the muscular mare clutching her helm beneath a foreleg. “Apologies for being so late, but I just came back from a military meeting with Admiral Tumblehome. Frankly, I think I’d rather face Tirek armed with toothpicks,” she said with a weary smile. “Would somepony update me on what’s going on?” Raven proceeded to do just that, and a few moments later the vice captain was up to speed.

“So with that in mind,” Arrowswift asked, “What’s the current status of the Amulet? I’m going to guess that Archmagus Beryl isn’t just walking around town with it like fashion jewelry.”

“Oh, it’s in a safe place temporarily,” Pinkie cryptically replied.

Meanwhile, at a particular residence back in Ponyville…

“You think Pinkie was telling the truth about this thing being made by humans?” asked Lyra, reaching out to touch the ancient medallion, sealed within the super-secure confinement of three layers of Zip-Loc bags, the topmost of which was emblazoned with DO NOT OPEN ON FEAR OF NO MORE PERSONAL PINKIE-RUN BIRTHDAY PARTIES EVER. AND I MEAN IT. REALLY! SUGAR ON TOP!

A tan hoof quickly slapped the mint green one away. “Don’t touch it!” warned Sandalwood, “it’s apparently corruptive with dark magic or something.”

“So…only you can touch it because of that hairy problem from a while back?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” the aromatherapist sighed. Inexplicably, Sandalwood’s brief exposure to lycanthropy and subsequent curing had made her slightly immune to dark magic, albeit only insofar as she could stand closer to it and not be sucked into its seductive aura, unlike Lyra. She still couldn’t wear it, but it looked kind of ugly anyway. She was far more interested in what was written on the vertical faces—it looked almost like human writing. Probably wasn’t, but if Pinkie was telling the truth….

“Yeah, wish I could say the implication is that the human who wore this thing—allegedly—was naturally immune as well, but I can’t. Regardless, go get some parchment and quills; I think I can actually read this…”

Nopony saw reason to question Pinkie’s statement, since they certainly didn’t know where she stored it away and sometimes it was best not to question Pinkie period.

“Moving on,” Rainbow sighed, already growing bored of this whole situation.

Fluttershy spoke up. “Look, we know that the Amulet and the Mirror were both crafted by Sombra, and based on this, um… poem, both were created with a higher purpose to fulfill. Razz explained that the Amulet never stayed in one pony’s possession for very long before moving on, so based on that we can hypothesize, it’s been looking for somepony in particular. Based on Raspberry’s own origins, perhaps she’s the one it’s been searching for?”

Pinkie grinned. “Wow, Flutters, nice analysis!”

“Indeed,” Raven agreed. “How did you come to that conclusion?”

Fluttershy blushed and squeaked something.

“What was that?”

“It was in one of the books I borrowed from Rarity.”

Rarity turned whiter than normal. “You don’t mean th––”

Fluttershy nodded. “It was the part where Shadow Spade is looking for the Malt-Tease Phoenix, just before Dusky Eyes invites him up to her apartment for drinks and….” Fluttershy blushed hard enough that her coat started matching her mane.

“I...see,” Raven and Arrowswift deadpanned at the same time.

“Please, ah, continue?” Raven asked.

“Sure,” the pegasus said, glad to have that spotlight taken off her. “Looking at the poetry, I think it’s about Razz in some way?”

“Duh, why didn’t I think of that!” Rainbow commented. “In Daring Do and the Silver Scepter of Stallionia, there’s a riddle of the ancient King of Stallionia and his four heirs, each sired by his four wives who he then sent out after his kingdom became buried in an avalanche.” Rainbow walked up and peered at the mirror. “But if that’s the case that means….”

“It means Razz may not be the only one out there with the same abilities and heritage,” Applejack stated for them all.

“That’s rather…disconcerting, to put it mildly,” admitted Rarity. “But assuming she’s one of these Scions—one who presumably doesn’t want to stand on Canterlot’s grave, either—then we’ve got a bit of a head start.”

“But what about the other three?” pointed out Rainbow.

“We have no proof that any of this is real,” Arrowswift advised. “It could be just a false alarm. Sombra was a master of manipulation and disinformation, so much so that some of his methods are standard training procedures at the Agency.”

“They are? And how would you know about that?” Rainbow asked.

“I was briefly in the Agency before I found that I wasn’t the right kind of mare they needed. Fortunately, the Agency Director allowed me to transfer my commission to the Guard.” Arrowswift looked at the others in the room. “Still, this is something we may need to bring up to the Princesses and Archmagus Beryl. We could be facing a new problem. Tirek nearly did us in—I don’t need to tell you we’re not prepared for a follow-on crisis.”

During her time on Earth, Raspberry had picked up on a few things in their culture. One of them seemed oddly poetic and something she wondered if Equestria should adopt. Despite not having any control over the weather whatsoever, it always seemed to rain whenever there was a funeral. During her time in the human world, she’d seen enough of human entertainment to get that it was a commonplace thing. At another time, she would have wondered why the weather teams allowed it, but now given her limited knowledge of human cultures, she understood that rainy days seemed to be a leitmotif for human funerals.

Ponies on the other hoof, tended to like clear, sunny skies for their funerals, as if it was a sign that life moved on and that their loved ones were now with Queen Faust in the Great Pasture beyond. That was the reasoning, anyway. The truth, however, was that funerals were somber affairs, and as she stood, tears streaming down her cheeks at this one, she had to wonder if for once, humans were more in touch with how reality was than ponies were.

Fortunately for Razz, this was no funeral, though to her, it certainly felt like one. Truth be told, she’d been to Pavane’s cenotaph already and said what she felt needed to be said, but now, being here, it felt as though the wound had been ripped open all over again, the open sore of emotions exposed to the ugly air of sorrow.

At the moment, she and Twilight stood in what was now called Pavane’s Park. At one time, it had been the royal preserve of the Blueblood cadet branch of House Platinum, expansive landholdings belonging to the storied unicorn clan. Somewhere over the years, it had become an unofficial park where families and individuals enjoyed their time. And now, with the formal consecration of Pavane’s Park, and its rising spire of a statue in the center, it would always be both public park and memorial for a brave mare. The image of Pavane, wearing a mixture of both her royal attire and battle armor, made her look regal and commanding, strong and sure, kind and powerful. Just as she was in life.

Razz hated the statue the moment she saw it. It was an idealization of a mare who was her friend and in time, if left unfettered, this was what history books would know of Pavane Bayan. Not the sweet mare who did her duty, but the “unstoppable juggernaut who gave all for Equestria”, etc. etc. etc.

“For what it’s worth, Archmagus, I dislike this just as much as you do.” Marimba Rondo, the Castellan of the Princess’ Hooves, said softly. “This...this isn’t Pav. Not the Pav I knew. This...this is a figurehead. A necessary one, I have to admit,” she sighed, “but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to come, Mari,” Twilight told the Hoof leader. “I know that rebuilding the Hooves has to be an issue.”

“Pav was my friend, Lady Twilight,” Marimba said softly. “It was my orders that brought her to her end, and it is my burden to carry until the end of my days.”

“Not just you,” Razz sighed.

“Please don’t do this to yourself,” Marimba told Razz. “Nopony blames you for what happened, Lady Raspberry. You almost died as well, and ponies know that. As it was, you lost nearly a year of your life due to the dimensional weft and weave between where we are and where you went. You have suffered more than anypony living, I would argue. Nopony should dare to blame you for this.”

“Somepony does,” Razz told them, then pointed a hoof back at herself. “Me.”

“Nopony does, Razz,” Twilight told her, wrapping a wing around her friend. “Trust me. Right now, everypony is dealing with the loss. You’re not the only one.”

The princess pointed to where a disheveled stallion sat on a bench by the statue. It took a second, due to the stallion’s unkempt look, but Razz eventually recognized Blueblood, and the look of utter emptiness on his face surprised her—she didn’t think he had any trace of anything aside from his supersized ego within him. He was alone, as if he wanted to be that way, solitary in both body and spirit. All of him looked destroyed, but it was his eyes that reflected it the most, a bleak look that made him seem as though if he were only to close his eyes and keep them that way, it would make all of this go away.

“From what Celestia tells me, at one point or another, somepony from his family comes here: their father, Prince Treasure; their mother, Princess Bossa Nova, or their younger sister, Princess Cauda Melisma. They’re completely distraught right now, but I think it hit Blueblood the worst,” Twilight pointed out. “But I also can assure you that not a single one of them blames you. On the contrary—they see it as pride that Pavane did everything she could to try to save you. Just as you are, she was a hero, and nopony will ever forget that.”

“I would rather have her here, Twi,” Razz mourned.

“Razz, I knew her quite well,” Twilight explained, her own cheek fur soaked with tears. “We weren’t the closest of friends, given how I was as a filly, but we did get along. You should talk to Cady, though; after she was adopted into the royal family, Cady told me that Pav insisted on learning all the Bitalian dishes she grew up with, and her tortelli cremaschi was even better than the palace chef’s. Shiny once joked if Cady wasn’t around, he’d have married Pav just for her cooking skills.”

Marimba again looked at the grieving stallion and added, “But in the end, nopony will ever put blame on you for what happened. And if anypony does, I suspect they’ll have to answer to Princess Bossa—she still keeps in shape, even if she retired from active duty with the Hooves.”

“Thanks, but that still doesn’t make me feel any better,” Razz replied.

“Then perhaps I can.” The two mares turned to see Octavia Melody approaching them. “Archmagus Beryl, I have a request, if I may.”

Razz, not entirely familiar with Octavia Melody, couldn't help but do a mental comparison with the one she did know. Namely, Sunset’s cousin, who was likely this pony’s counterpart in the other world. “I think this is an odd time for requests, Miss Melody.”

“I, on the other hoof, think it’s a great one: Prince Blueblood would like to invite you to dinner tonight to discuss...well, what Pav wanted. And since she was my best friend it’s just about all I can do to not shatter from crying, I offered to host dinner at my place tonight since it’d be neutral ground.”

Raspberry was hesitant. “I don’t know….”

“I do. Pav and I grew up together, and so I sort of grew up with Blu as well. I know him better than just about any mare in this world. And I give you my word that nothing untoward will happen, Miss Beryl. I vow that on Pav’s name and I know he would as well.” Octavia looked at her and said, “Plus, I’m making tortelli cremaschi tonight—it was her favorite dish.”

“Can I come then?” Twilight teased.

“No, but I’ll have Blu bring you some tomorrow, okay?” The sheer fact that Octavia Melody, a minor noblemare, was about to use a prince like Blueblood as an errrandcolt was shocking to Razz, so much so that it briefly overwhelmed her dour mood. “Of course, in return, do you think you could arrange to have some wine sent from...where Archmagus Beryl has been? I would fancy a try.”

The fact that Octavia Melody mentioned Earth without mentioning it sent Twilight’s hackles up. “I’m not entirely sure that’s wise, especially given––”

“Trust me, I think the novelty will be not so much in the wine,” Octavia said, “but in the distraction. In case things go south, as it were.”

“Okay, I see your point,” Twilight noted. “I’ll see what I can do.”. She looked at Razz, adding, “So, you going?”

What could she say? Steeling herself for the worst time ever, she figured that if the worst came to, she could explain to Celestia why she had to blow up part of Canterlot later that night. “Sure. What time?”

A wave of child-like giddiness welled up within the cloaked stallion as he stood before his followers. He looked down at his onyx hooves and found that they were shaking. He reached up and brushed a hoof through his neon green hair to try and calm himself. I haven’t felt like this in years!

Just the other day, Neon Lux had resigned himself to a life of mundanity. He had his secret society and his followers, sure enough, but he had genuinely believed then that their glorious destiny would not come to pass until after his time. That his descendants would reap everything that he and his had sown. Everything changed when his loyal advisor, the Oracle they all looked to for guidance, came to him late that afternoon with two simple words: “It happened.

That very mare stood beside him now; she deserved the glory of this moment as much as he did.

“My brothers and sisters,” Neon Lux’s voice boomed through the dark cavern, his neon pink eyes scanning the faces of every pony gathered. “Just the other day a great prophecy has been fulfilled! Oracle Tiny Dynamine, if you may?”

Lux turned to the mare at his side, and with calm, cool confidence, she strode toward a dias at the center of the chamber. Runes and gemstones automatically lit up in a progressive manner with every successive hoof step. By the time she reached the top, the dais—as well as the cavern itself—was lit up as if the sun itself now sat at its center. What had been poorly lit crags and stalagmites before now gave way to the shadows moving out of the light, revealing that it was no simple cavern that these ponies were now inside, but an ancient meeting hall. On the wall behind Dynamine was what looked like the word PUREHOOVES hastily crossed out with red paint—plans to put up a more appropriate sign for the new tenants was already budgeted.

“Now is the time to wake the sleeping shadows,” Tiny Dynamine proclaimed. “For too long the Sun Tyrant has stood almighty above all others!”

“HEAR! HEAR!” the small crowd of ponies cheered.

Timing it wisely, the Oracle threw back her hood. White fur coat, her mane and tail a blend of orange and pink, with a cutie mark an unusually ornate butterfly colored a sea-green tint peeked out from her cloak’s covering. From her vantage point, the unicorn looked over the captivated audience, her blue-green emerald eyes twinkling in the light.

“It is exactly as I have seen it in my dreams: One of the Scions has awakened the Amulet,” Tiny Dynamine continued. “Now, the strings of fate that tie the Four together begin their pull. Our time is nigh!”

The massive crowd of followers let loose another cheer, and started to chant their Oracle’s name. A few paces behind her, Neon Lux’s earlier jubilation began to waver. They really do love her, he thought with some disdain. She is invaluable to our cause, but she’d better not forget her place.

“But!” Tiny declared, “I am just a prophet. I may guide you all, but I cannot be the leader you deserve. Our acting leader is the one among us who best embodies everything that our true master is.” She then gestured down to the stallion who had addressed her by name earlier. “Neon Lux, come, take your rightful place!”

With a smug, satisfied grin, Lux ascended the stairs and took to the dais as Tiny stepped back. “My fellow conspirators, our time standing idly by, watching from the shadows is over.” He then gestured to one of the mares in the front row, reserved for their higher-ranking members. “Sister Chrysoberyl, send someone to fetch our wayward Scion. It’s past time we freed her from her shackles and brought her into the fold.”

With a grin, the mare Chrysoberyl nodded. “Of course, sir. Should I send her?”

“Yes, excellent idea. It is well past time the two of them meet,” Lux replied with a grin of his own, before returning his attention to the crowd at large. “Brothers and sisters! After centuries of inactivity…it is time for the Covenant of Shadow to rise again and bring about the restoration of Equestria's true ruler!”

The noise of approval was deafening: “HAIL SOMBRA!

At the moment, Razz had to wonder repeatedly if she’d stepped into some kind of weird parallel dimension where Sombra was good, the Flim Flam Bros. were just and Trixie was so down-to-earth she’d become the Alicorn of Humility. She then closed her eyes, counted to ten, and opened them again.

Nope. Still here, Razz thought. “Here” was Octavia Melody’s townhouse in the trendy Hymnsburg district. At the moment, she was seated at the musician’s table, a recently-eaten bowl of tortelli cremaschi and an untouched glass of California red wine in front of her. Where the hell Octavia had managed to get a bottle of Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Santa Barbara on short notice, Razz wasn’t sure and she didn’t want to find out via drinking it.

And seated across from her, in a strangely-relaxed mode, was Prince Blueblood. He was currently swirling his wineglass and joking—joking!—with Octavia Melody, who was cleaning up in the kitchen.

“Octy, my compliments to the chef. Who’d you actually have cook this, by the way?”

“Blu, you’re lucky I love you like a brother. You do know that rat poison is tasteless, right?”

“Since when do we exterminate rats? I thought pest control just teleported them out of the town.”

“Would you please stop being stupid for a few seconds? Just maybe even one single second? For me?” She grinned. In response, he merely shook his head and chuckled.

That’s it. I’m dead, Razz reasoned. The truth was that Divine Right must’ve killed me, Sunny, and the rest and this is just all the afterlife or the delusions of a dying mare, right?

“I take it you’re not a fan of wine, Miss Beryl?” Blueblood asked and the smile fell from his face. “It was never personal, you know. It never really was.”

“Pardon?”

He sighed. “Let me ask you a question, Miss Beryl. How many mares have I slept with?”’

An eyebrow shot up on her face. “What?”

“Well, you slept with me that one time,” Octavia said cheerfully. “Of course, your sister was there, too; we were just foals and we took a nap together on your parents’ bed.”

“Octy…” he groaned.

“Fine, spoilsport.”

“The truth is that I haven’t done the deed with anypony. All the news you’ve heard is a lie. All the ‘charming and eager’ young mares hanging around me? The majority of them are agents of the Agency, assigned to play a role. Alternatively, when I need someone I know, her,” he said, pointing to Octy. “Once in a rare while, just to provide plausible deniability, I take an actual willing mare or two and ply them with enough drink to make them think they’ve had the night of their lives, when in truth, it was nothing of the sort.” He waited for a second for the earth mare to say something, and a look of surprise came onto his face when she didn’t. “You’re actually not saying something snarky?” he asked her.

“Playtime’s over,” Octavia scolded him. “This is what Pav wanted, Blu.”

“I know.” He turned back to Razz. “The truth is that I’m not the snobbish, stupid playcolt the public knows. I’m actually one of the senior officers in the Agency, though my specialty is dealing with crimes amongst the aristocracy. Between me and Fancy Pants—he and his wife are Agency officers as well—we keep tabs on nobles that would take advantage of their fellow ponies. Ponies like Baron Wormwood, who built substandard housing for the poor so he could skim on profits; or ones like Duchess Highfalutin’ who is, sadly, a distant cousin who actually believes that the ancient dynasty of Unicornia should supplant the alicorns. Fancy is able to work the nobles he keeps track of by being the pony everypony should know. I do it...by being the buffoon whose only worth is being the relative of some of the most powerful ponies in all of creation.”

Razz’ answer was succinct. “I don’t believe you.”

Octavia left the kitchen and joined them at the table. “If he really was who you think he is, would I dare to risk my reputation being around him? I’ve worked hard to be where I am, and every day I’m around him risks that. But I do, because he’s the closest thing to an older brother I have. I’m an only child, and Pav was my best friend, so I’m around Blu a lot. I know him better than any mare, and I know he’s not what the public says he is.”

Raspberry looked at the gray mare. “I wish I could believe you, but there is a mountain of evidence suggesting otherwise. The trial, for example.”

The prince groaned. “Not one of my better moments, I’ll admit. I’ll say it again: none of it was personal. I was there doing a job, because I had to. However, as you know, there were several in attendance at the trial, including one noblemare who we suspect was recently involved in some rather...unsavory business. Now, if I had suddenly been competent at my job, I would’ve been compromised and that’s a fatal thing in my line of work. Instead, Auntie hoped I’d do my schtick and that it would be enough to cover me. My fault was in not finding some way to apologize to you afterwards.” He ran a hoof through his mane. “Believe me, Twi gave me an earful when we talked about it.”

The mulberry unicorn blinked in surprise. “Wait—Twi knows?”

“We grew up together, sort of. Plus, she’s Auntie’s student—how could she not know? She’s just honorbound not to tell anypony the truth. Which, of course included Rarity the night of that rather disastrous Gala that one year. There were no agents available, Octy was preoccupied in performing that night––”

“I swear I’m going to get back at Pinkie for that shit,” Octavia grumbled semi-seriously.

“—and Miss Rarity had the misfortune to be fixated with me. I took that ball and ran with it for all it was worth. And speaking of that, I did apologize to her the first chance I had to see her again. Needless to say, she’s now in the know as well. And so, now too, are you.”

Raspberry looked unconvinced. “I’m still having a hard time believing any of this. I wouldn't even be here if I didn’t owe Pavane.”

“I wouldn’t be reaching out to you if it wasn’t for my sister.”

She looked at him, and his eyes started to water with tears. “I loved my sister, very dearly. She was only a couple of years younger than I, but we were very close, and now knowing that I’ll never see her again tears a hole in my heart like you cannot imagine. Even with your background, Miss Beryl.”

Raspberry was momentarily taken aback by just how genuine Blueblood’s entire demeanor had become. It was like she was looking at a completely different pony from the one at her trial. If he really was just making all of this up, then he was very good.

“I’m sorry that your family background makes it hard for you to trust males who seem like one thing and do another. And I’m sorry that my duties require me to be, well, a donkey’s ass. But spycraft is, as your friend Bon-Bon will tell you, a messy business that you have to hide from all but a few, even if it means loved ones or those you wronged. Because one miscalculation means that it’s all over and it all ends in smoke and fire.” He took another drink of his wine and shrugged.

“I’m not sure I can forgive,” she admitted.

“I’m not sure I can forgive myself,” he told her, “but I’ve learned to live with my duties. Reluctantly, but I carry on. And so must you, Archmagus.” He offered a hoof to bump. “Will you take the hoof that is offered?”

Ten minutes later, as she walked towards the palace and the room she was currently billeted in, she wasn’t sure whether her response had been the right one or if any of it was right.

But I guess I at least get the luxury of hindsight, she told herself. I’m not sure he gets that privilege.

Chapter 5 – The Rose with the Broken Neck

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The Golden Age of Apocalypse
Chapter Five: The Rose with the Broken Neck

As Raspberry Beryl approached the gates of the palace after her rather awkward dinner, she waved at the guard on duty. “Hello there!”

“Ah, Archmagus, your grace, good evening to you,” the batpony said. “We had a courier arrive with a package for you an hour ago from the Crystal Empire. We had a palace staffer take it to your room.”

A package? Raspberry thought curiously, giving her thanks to the guard and making her way into the palace building. A few more minutes went by as she navigated her way past the rooms where she and the other girls (save for Twilight, who still had her own place in the palace) were staying. Sure enough, there, on the desk, was a bound package.

The package turned out to be a bound book entitled The Rose with the Broken Neck. The note was from Aged Codex, the senior researcher heading up the Sombra Investigation Commission.

Archmagus,

We recently found this in one of the many hidden basements underneath the Empire. We have not determined what the room was used for, but based on the equipment we can identify, it does not look good. I am sending you a book we found; while it is not a grimoire, it certainly is grim—one of the researchers who’s already read through it is having nightmares now.

We believe that the book is just a mundane book...but the actions in it that were taken by the unnamed researcher—who is clearly King Sombra—are completely inequine and what happened to the victim is unknown. Personally, I have looked at a couple of pages, and I fear that the mare who was the victim of these atrocities did not die a painless and quick death.

I cannot wish you the best in reading this. I can only wish you the strength to deal with the aftermath.

Yours,

– Codex

Raspberry looked at the book as if it were a live cockatrice. Every time she turned around, she found something new that proved time and again that her ancestor was a monster in every sense of the word. And yet….

Codex hoped the mare in the book died a quick and painless death. And he fears she didn’t. Razz reluctantly reached for the book, knowing she shouldn’t read it just before going to bed. Hopefully Luna would keep an eye out in case her nightmares got too bad.

DAY 1:

The portal is closed, and with that the transaction is complete. It was foal’s play to turn that simple-minded mare, Bruyere, into one of those strange monkey creatures, and simpler still to offer that gelding Baldassare her in return for his mate. All I needed to show him was just a few parlor tricks any colt could learn with easy and he took my offer with gusto. And now he has a new toy to play with, even if she was somewhat of a dullard, as well as “grimoires of untold power” – and by the time he realizes they are naught more than just magical primers for foals, it won’t matter. Perhaps he never will.

Regardless, I have this babbling, pediculous human mare. She’s done nothing but scream and cry in that stupid language that reminds me much of Bitalian, the language of my foremothers. And while I certainly understand the stupid thing, I also have a hatred of that tongue – it reminds me so much of my cousins in the Amore branch of the family, a bunch of bobolynes who have no inkling of what it is to truly wield power.

I yell at her and demand that she speak in the Equish-like tongue I’ve heard uttered on their world; thankfully, Baldassare knew it, so it should stand to reason that this mare should also be capable of speaking “Inglish”. But instead, she looks at me with confusion, as if what I’ve just demanded is impossible.

It is a simple demand, and I am lord here – and it is time that she be taught who her betters are; I will have no feckless bedswerver deign herself to be superior to me in any way or form. With my magic, I grab her by the neck and thrash her thoroughly for her insouciance, as befitting my right. But then she has the audacity to scream at me and beg me not to do it again.

I will not be ordered as if I am some mere costermonger – I am the Ruler of Empire, and I will not be told what to do by my lesser, especially those not of this world. I reach out again and introduce her to the wall once more. The more she begs me to stop, the more I do not; eventually it will sink in, I’m sure.

And then I hear something crack.

I lift her up once more and she screams in a shrill sound that practically makes my ears bleed. She’s a bloody and bruised mess – Baldassare insisted that “mankind” was strong and hearty, but I suppose I am the fool for believing that lie. The wretched thing in my grasp proves that they are nothing more than bags of flesh without magic and barely able to reason, more possessed of bedlice than any particular value to their own world, much less ours.

Still, I asked for a pet, and I have one. I tell her that her home no longer exists, and as of now, she no longer exists. That Baldassare will tell the world that Crisalide della Lucca died in childbirth and that as his duty befitted, he had to take a new bride to further his line. That she was replaced by a simpleton of a crystal mare that I had changed into a human that he found far more enticing than she. She looks at me with disbelief and her visage makes me actually laugh.

I then tell her that from now on, she will live as nothing more than a pet for my amusement. That as a pet, she is not worthy of civilization and as the civilization of man was far inferior to that of ponydom, I will not have it infest my home. And with that, I rip the clothing from her body, reducing them to rags. Gowns and elegance are for ladies, after all, not for pathetic, mewling things who show me that they are the least worth of their species. I add that I will allow her to keep the rags for bedding; after all, I will not soil good textiles or hay when I have need of it elsewhere.

But as I look at her rags, I see a familiar symbol in the embroidery, and I ask her what it is. When she doesn’t answer in Equish and forces me to speak to her in Bitalian, I lance a blast of energy at her for her audacity. She screams once more and tells me it is a rose.

A rose. At the note of that I feel rage and anger quicken within me. Roses are her symbol – that damnable queen that tried to keep me from my birthright. If I ever see that nag again – her or her spawn, I swear I’ll….

My anger and rage get the better of me and I grab my new pet and release everything on her. She screams as I mount her and thrust, slamming her against the wall repeatedly in my exertions, but in hindsight I was too blinded by my fury to care. I hear a second crack and as my seed spills to the floor and on her, her body flops loosely. Her neck is at an unnatural angle, a clear sign that she should not be alive – and yet she is.

A shame wells up within me. Not because I harmed this thing; after all, she is my property and mine to do as I wish. No, I am shamed of my own lack of control. If I am to continue my rule, I cannot let distractions get the better of me.

In any case, that clarity brings a new perspective and as I see the shattered thing on the ground, I realize I have broken a rose, and I laugh. I tell her that will be her name now: Broken Rose. Of course, she does not respond – she cannot, as she will likely be dead soon, as she cannot so much as lift her neck, much less move any part of her body. Instead, I see her stare at me with both fear and hatred, impotent emotions coming from a rose with a broken neck.

I depart and head back to my offices. The realm still needs my attention, especially with potential enemies surrounding my Empire.

“My word, Razz, you look awful,” commented Rarity the next morning. Indeed, in stark contrast to the bright and upbeat attitude of Heliodor, who swooped in and tweeted casually upon perching on the provided birdstand, Razz all but physically dragged herself to the table. She’d forgotten to put up her disguise glamorie spell but ironically looked so sleep deprived that her typically more “demonic”—or as some ponies put it, “Sombraic” given the reason behind her dark magic inheritance—features gave off a more comical appearance on her tired expression.

“Yeah, well, when somepony who works for you sends you a book that they outright say is full of nightmare fuel and you know it’s all true, take my advice and don’t read it right before bed.” half-yawned, half groaned the Archmage of Dark magic, opting to just drag the chair out from the table instead of using her magic.

“We’ll...take your word for it,” confided Applejack, who exchanged worried glances with the rest of the gathered ponies—which amounted to the usual gang, Razz and her bird, and Raven. Expected to be joining them was Princesses Celestia, Cadence, and Luna, along with Prince Armor. None of the royals were yet present, however, which was unusual.

Arrowswift then hastily trotted in, followed by a bemused Celestia and a worried Luna. “My apologies, but Princess Cadence and Prince Shining Armor will not be able to attend this breakfast in light of potential threats relating to the late King Sombra’s...legacy.”

“I beg your pardon?” asked Razz, suspicion in her voice.

“No offense, your highness, but after the rather disturbing inscriptions on the back of Sombra’s mirror were discovered, following the giant beam of darkness and evil carving a nice hole through the middle of the castle, we can’t be too careful while Equestria is still healing from the wounds of the war Tirek waged on ponykind. Except around you, since you’re totally on our side.”

“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence,” she joked back.

“Well, I’m sure you two can work it out over breakfast, as I’ve invited Arrowswift to join us in lieu of Cadance and Shining,” explained Celestia.

“Also probably because she can explain slightly more about what’s going on with the mirror than they could have, anyway,” added Luna, who then turned to Razz apologetically. “I must confess I was not able to provide as much attention for you last night as I normally would have, Razz—there was a rash of nightmares in Baltimare in the youth following the release of a popular horror novel last week—why anypony thought that was a good idea after the real-life horror everypony has gone through these past few months is beyond me—and it’s all I can do to keep the children sleeping soundly, let alone the populace at large.”

“Yeah, it’s no big deal—I’ve had much worse nightmares become too real to make last night a real concern,” Razz stated, giving a knowing glance in Twilight’s direction. “Still, before I pass out from sleep deprivation, somepony want to bring me up to speed about the mirror?”

Fluttershy blanched. “I’m not sure you are gonna like it, but…”

Ten minutes later, Razz had been brought up to speed and, indeed, she didn’t like it. “Great, there’s potentially three others like me, because it wasn’t like one walking box of problems was enough!”

“Does that mean there’s three more ponies of Sombra’s bloodline who also inherited some aspect of his powers?” asked Rainbow.

“Yeah, given the verses you’ve told me, I’m unquestionably the first of these ‘Scions’,” Raspberry said, giving a distasteful look to nothing in particular. “But I don’t have any clue where to learn more about his machinations. The only ponies insane enough to derive any kind of further meaning was that Cult of Shadows or whatever.”

“You mean that group of ponies who were responsible for all those crystal explosions because they thought you were trying to do something?” asked Rarity.

“The same—unfortunately, after I helped crush their little cult, I think the dragons had their leader extradited because it turned out he’d stolen some kind of important ritual potion years ago, so it would take too long to try and ask him. I’m glad there’s nopony else that crazy within Equestria.”

Curiously, Twilight glanced over at Celestia and only leaned forward to answer after confirming the senior princess was engaged in her own conversation with Arrowswift. Suffice to say, it made Raspberry worry.

“Well, we don’t know any other experts on King Sombra,” Twilight said in a low, conspiratory tone. “But I might know an expert on someone who had dealings with Sombra….”

Raspberry was only momentarily confused before the pieces clicked into place. Suffice to say, she understood why Twilight didn’t want Celestia to know what she was thinking.

“No, Twilight!” Raspberry hissed. “You can’t be serious!”

But she was. And now that Raspberry was considering their alternatives (or lack thereof), she was horrified to find herself considering it too. And here I was hoping dinner last night would be the last time in a while I’d have to deal with an entitled royal….

It has been often said that the worst of the worst were banished to Tartarus. Sunset Shimmer, for the truth of her own life, sentenced herself to exile on Earth. Luna, trapped as Nightmare Moon, had been sentenced to the moon. Even a beast like Discord had been trapped within stone. But there were those who were far worse than that, and those deserved a place far more punitive than anything ever imagined: the ancient shame, a place between the strands of time, a place that even disquieted Queen Faust herself.

Walking amongst a stark white corridor, Razz looked around. “I hate this place, Twi.”

“Everypony does,” Twilight agreed. “That’s why the only way you can really get in or out is with an alicorn. Originally, we made the mistake of just using powerful imbued wards backed with magic from other species—kitsunes, dragons, et cetera—to ensure no one species could break through the lock if they weren’t approved. That proved ineffective with Tirek and Equestria, no, the world paid dearly for it. They got out that way; they can no longer do so if the way is forever closed. That’s why Cerberus now stands behind a welded-shut door made of mithrillium—the toughest, rarest metal in Equestria that even the vaults in Canterlot can’t use because it wouldn’t be cost effective.”

Despite everything, Raspberry allowed herself a grin. “You ever notice that when you get agitated you tend to start sentences with ‘that’s why’, Twi?”

The alicorn shook her head. “I do not!”

“Yes you do.”

“I’ll have you know that my language is perfectly precise and honed. That’s why….” Twilight paused. “Okay, you might have a point.”

The pair traveled on in silence, until they reached one of the hollowed-out volcanoes that dotted this hellish landscape. And as the pair walked up the stairs to the perpetual magical field, they looked on this particular cell’s residents: a white unicorn with a violet mane and tail, golden eyes and a very ornate cutie mark; on his horn was a massive magical inhibitor ring, though the ring was likely unnecessary. Next to him was an earth stallion, with a brown coat, short dark gray mane and tail, unshorn hocks, a flaming ordnance shell for a cutie mark and indigo-hued eyes, one marred by a scar. LIke his associate, he wore magical inhibitor hobbles designed to restrict both his magic and movement.

“I’m familiar with the the prince,” Raspberry asked, “but who’s the other one?”

As if in response, the earth stallion stood up and hobbled over to the alicorn. “Great, another one of you horny winged cunts. Well, I gotta hankerin’ for some fun, so turn around and and lift that tail, honey. I’ll show you a good time like you ain’t ever seen before!”

Raspberry reached out, horn raging with darkness, and slammed the stallion to the ground. “Quiet, or we’ll punish you.” She thought about that and added, “In a way you won’t like. Besides, we’re here for your buddy. Now go fetch or I’ll get mad.” As the earth stallion walked off, Razz turned to Twilight and explained. She then turned back to Twilight and asked, “Care to fill me in?”

“That’s Tripwire,” the alicorn explained. “Sunset personally banished him here after he tried to rape and murder one of her friends and some other girls in San Francisco. When I spoke to her she was...not happy about that, to say the least.”

“I can imagine. So you put a rapist with a rapist?” asked Raspberry.

“You can’t say they don’t deserve each other,” Twilight said with a sad shake of her head. “And this was her idea, not mine.”

The two watched as the earth stallion went over and kicked the unicorn in the stomach. There was enough of a distance that the two inmates could not be heard; Twilight thought about amplifying their whispers with magic, but then thought better of it. With whatever these two had in common, she’d rather not know what they were thinking.

“Well, well, well, it seems that I have visitors,” the unicorn finally said as he got up. “Now, isn’t this cute? I tried to make the world in my image, to rule the realms as my father of fathers intended. Tripwire here merely just wanted to get his rocks off with his favorite girl.” He walked up to the edge of the field and looked right at Razz. “But we ran afoul of an angry goddess in birth and she smote us to hell—a hell not even of our own thoughts. And you know who did it?” He tapped on the field angrily as a scowl came across his face. “The Serpent in the Garden, that’s who! The one who should’ve convinced Eva to eat that damn apple and instead you warned her about the cyanide in the apple seeds. You are as evil as we are and yet there you are safe and sound. If the gods had a sense of humor, it would be the best comedy tour of all time.”

“Excuse me?” Razz said, wondering what he was getting at.

“Playing the coy game? Well, let me make it clearer: Here I sit to rot, for merely trying to use a dark power to claim what I rightfully deserve, yet the greatest dark power of all runs free despite being a traitor to her own kind?” The momentary sign of the unicorn and alicorn having registered dismay at his comment made him grin wickedly. “Oh, I’ve heard the rumors, the stories, Raspberry Beryl. Is it true that your horn still runs fresh with the blood of those you’ve killed? I suppose that makes you a killer cop, does it not, Archmagus?”

Her eyes narrowing, Razz already found herself nearing her limit of the pompous twat before her. “If you want something sharp to impale yourself on, I’m sure her highness Princess Ce-“

“Oh please, if you were going to truly feed me to the wolves, you would’ve already done so by now. Posturing won’t do you a bit of good.” He sat down and looked at them. “Waiter, I’ll have the foie de gras, with a decent bottle of merlot. My friend here will have two six-year-old fillies from whatever this world’s equivalent of Thailand is.” Divine didn’t seem to notice or more likely care that his cellmate had proceeded to go to sleep on his small cot in the back.

Twilight frowned. “You seem to enjoy pushing your luck, don’t you, Mr. Right?”

“That’s Your Highness. I am still a prince.”

“No, you’re a corpse—according to Sunset you faked your own death before your little murder spree in the human world. The dead bear no titles in the afterlife,” Twilight told him. “Now, you can either continue to insult my archmage, or I can make things much worse for you.”

Divine Right raised an eyebrow. “Worse than condemning me to Hell? I think not.”

“I think I’ve had enough of this,” Razz said. “Your highness, may I?”

Twilight had no idea of what Razz was up to, but she nodded. “Do what you must, archmage.”

Razz reached in with her magic again and slammed the stallion against the wall. “Now, unless you want me to use an amniomorphic on you to change you into a mare and give your buddy a new fillyfriend, I’d really suggest you shut up and answer our questions. That is, unless you like the idea of potentially ending up pregnant.”

Thaaaaaaaaaaaaat won’t be necessary!” interrupted Divine Right, now having turned to fully face his visitors and with a far friendlier demeanor. “Now, how may I be of service, Princess Twilight?”

“For starters, you can tell us all about your magical heritage,” Twilight said with authority.

“Ah yes, my great, unappreciated ancestor. His Grace Baldassare, Il Vescovo di Cavalcanti, the Great Hermeticist and Most Profound of Alchemists,” Right seemed to smile slightly. “Obviously, I presume something has come up regarding his affairs with this world and the Black Unicorn that gave him the power to change a world? Some day that debt will be repaid. Or is it the corrupted sword that once defended and now kills? Or the realm on the other side of the beyond? Or perhaps you came to ask me more about the strumpet that defeated me wearing the face of my cousin’s daughter?”

To Razz’s shock, Twilight reached out and grabbed him, slamming him into the ground. “I do not have time for your antics, Mr. Right” Twilight said in a dangerous tone. “So unless you wish to push your luck further – and beyond the breaking point – I suggest you change the subject. Now.

“As you wish; I’d rather not talk about that little cocktease, anyway,” Divine said with glee. “I believe we were discussing more...important topics?”

“Humor us,” said Twilight flatly, her tone devoid of any humor. “Why would this ‘Black Unicorn’ bestow his gifts upon a man who was widely considered a crackpot?”

“My ancestor was a divine being among the paltry peasantry of his age!” angrily roared the stallion, and while neither Razz nor Twilight showed any outward reaction, inwardly they smiled at having gotten the desired response. “Yes, I will admit that there isn’t much that can be absolutely confirmed about him—and months of paying top euro to the finest researchers in their field for exacting work with no useable answers can attest to that—but then again, the most important thing about him is the deal he brokered with the Black Unicorn in that mirror, isn’t it?“

“Cut the crap and just get to the point,” cut off Razz, wanting to be rid of the bastard as soon as possible. Every additional minute was making her skin crawl by being near the slimy wannabe conqueror of his world.

“Ahem! Yes, well…” grumbled Right, “As much as you ponies have your high nobility families, so too did the ancient and venerable Florentine Republic, and it was only fitting that the most well respected and powerful of them all was the Cavalcanti bloodline. But petty politics only got you so far at the time, so he began research into the arcane. While his early dabblings in alchemy got him forcibly removed from the clergy, he did eventually succeed in opening up contact with another world. He brokered a deal with the Black Unicorn that ensured he and his descendants would know true power!””

“Okay, yeah. Sure,” droned Twilight, understanding exactly why Sunset had considered Cavalcanti a nutjob. Sunset had sent Twilight a book on the subject; the alicorn was sure that she’d read it later, because she’d need a laugh.

“This deal he made. Cavalcanti gave up his wife in exchange for those powers, right?” asked Razz.

“A fair enough trade for the Black Unicorn. The father of fathers gave him a weak, mewling girl who was lucky to have been born to serve her destiny. And in turn, my revered ancestor received the wellspring of magic, as well as a bride worthy of him—a girl transmuted from a lowly creature such as yourselves to be the mother of those who would be the world’s rulers!”

“Yeah? And how’d that work out for you?” Raspberry asked with an air of smugness, and Divine scowled.

The stallion then rubbed a hoof against his chest as if a mere triviality, then continued. “If there is a God, I’m not sure even he would know the reasons why Sombra desired to exchange knowledge of magical wonders for a stupid woman. Back in the fifteenth century, women were raised and treated as little more than baby-making status symbols, their only purpose was to look pretty and be married off for political ties. They’d be lucky to know how to read anything other than the Bible from cover to cover. Unless of course, he wanted a, ahem, ‘unique’ new way to experience the pleasures of the flesh.” Right then chuckled and made the two princesses even more uncomfortable around him. “A pity it was never known just what powers he gained, but then again it just adds to his mysterious glory, no?”

“If that helps you sleep at night,” nonchalantly replied the Princess of Friendship. She’d originally planned to ask about what Divine Right knew about Sombra, but apparently if the bastard was only just now logically figuring out the name of the ‘Black Unicorn’ then he probably wouldn’t know anything of value in that regard. “Alright, one last question. Well, two actually.”

“I’m all ears.”

This was where Twilight knew she had to be careful. If Divine Right knew about the message on the mirror and what it potentially heralded, there was no way he would help them. “This mare the Black Unicorn gave to Cavalcanti as a wife. Was she… pure?”

“You mean to ask if she was a virgin? I think it likely,” Divine answered. “An already broken flower would have been a poor gift, even with the powers he also received taken into consideration. And Cavalcanti made no complaints about her in his memoirs.”

“And was she the only one the unicorn sent over?”

He put a hoof to his chin in a way Twilight wasn’t sure was meant to be mocking. “Hmmm, to be perfectly honest, I cannot say for certain, but…I still have records stored at my villa back in France—records that neither the French government nor officials from the Bonaparte Family had access to—so I’m sure that if you were to let me out of this cage we could, oh, negotiate access to that info?”

Twilight just shook her head. “Are you really that stupid?” She then slowly began walking up to the bars, regal displeasure etched on her face. “Do you really think we’re so desperate for information we’d willingly turn you loose to wreak havoc upon both worlds again?” At this point, she was almost touching her muzzle to the bars, and while Right was showing no clear signs of panic, she could sense he was sweating up a storm mentally. “No, and honestly? This prison cell is probably the only place you can be put and still expect to live another hour, if not less.”

He rolled his eyes. “Oh, please, I’ve heard blustering threats before. Show me something new.”

“Yes,” a voice said. “Perhaps she shall.” Divine Right opened his eyes in fright. Razz also knew that voice. The mulberry unicorn turned to see Princess Celestia standing there, dressed in her battle armor, her sword Dawnbringer at her side. “And now I see what you two were up to.”

“Um...Celestia, this isn’t what it looks like,” Twilight said nervously.

“Twilight, I am very cross with you. You as well, Raspberry,” the ruler of Equestria said, looking at them both. “You both knew the pain I felt when I lost my child. And though she ascended, she was still killed due to the actions of one individual.” Celestia then turned to look at Divine.

“YOU.”

And then Celestia’s body became living flame as she passed through the protective wall. “There is nothing that will save you. Nothing that can protect you. Nothing that will grace you.” Divine’s eyes grew wide with terror as he looked at her. “There is nothing for you in this reality other than pain. Searing, scorching, nuclear flame from the very fibers of the sun itself.”

Divine ran over to where Tripwire was dozing, but it was no use trying to hide behind him, as Celestia picked them both up with her power. “Another human, I see? A friend of yours?”

Tripwire woke up, feeling the heat. “What th––?” He looked into the twin stars of anger that were Celestia’s eyes. “What the fuck?!”

“Yes, what the fuck indeed,” the ivory alicorn spoke. “I take it you two are the worst of what my daughter’s adopted world has to offer. As such, you are a pestilence and a disease, a rotting tumor in my realm. And as any good surgeon knows, the best way to stop a virus...is to kill it.”

Tripwire became a blubbering mass of tears, begging something in barely intelligible Equish. Divine, on the other hand, felt something wet travel down his leg as he looked on with shock.

“Prepare to die,” Celestia announced, her intensity growing so bright that not even Raspberry could look at her anymore. Twilight, for her part, however, watched intently.

The world turned an intense white.

And as vision returned to normal, two stallions stood there in a puddle of yellow, sobbing and holding each other for comfort like a pair of scared fillies.

“And that,” Twilight said, powering down her horn, “is what will come for you one day if you’re not careful, Prince Divine Right. You had best hope I never tell my mentor where I’ve hidden you.” With that, Twilight walked off, with a shocked Raspberry in tow.

“That was all an illusion?” Razz asked, stunned at what her friend had conjured. “I couldn’t even tell!”

“That was an illusion, Razz,” Twilight agreed, “but that was also my anger directed towards him, the kind of anger that burns a soul. And that’s nothing compared to what Celestia will do if she ever finds him. So now we have a prisoner who might be a little more receptive to our demands next time.”

“You sly dog,” Razz said in an impressed imitation of Rainbow Dash’s voice. “Didn’t know you had it in you.”

The two princesses did not say anything more until they were safely outside the prison’s main gate, where a waiting chariot with a full complement of pegasi guards had been ready the moment it had landed an hour prior. Far less patient was the green and gold phoenix who, upon sighting his mistress, happily soared over and playfully nipped at her before taking his usual roost on her noggin.

“To Ponyville, your highness?” asked the lead pegasus, a pony both were familiar with.

“Yes, please. Thank you, Skyracer,” she replied, and soon all were off and away from the depressing landscape that now faded in the distance. Letting herself finally relax, Twilight sighed. “Well, we came all this way and we’re no closer to having any idea about the other possible Scions. At least we know now that the mare Sombra gave to Cavalcanti wasn’t pregnant at the time, and that in all likeliness no others had been sent over. This means none of these Scions can be on Earth.”

The alicorn shuddered slightly at the thought of the man who Divine Right idolized. While she was only Princess Cadence’s sister-in-law, being around the Princess of Love for most of her life had made Twilight more than a little uncomfortable about cases where the loving bond between two individuals was so easily destroyed for selfish reasons. She was sort of glad that Divine Right hadn’t been able to go into detail about Crisalide della Lucca’s ultimate fate at the hooves of Sombra, whatever it had been certainly had not been what the poor girl had deserved.

“True,” disagreed Raspberry. “We’ve also learned that Divine Right is just as in the dark about the Scions as we are. Whatever Sombra’s plan for them was, he kept it very close to his chest.”

“Right,” agreed Twilight, before sighing. “I’m glad we narrowed down the search for these other three Scions to just our world, but still...finding them isn’t going to be easy.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about having to track them down,” sighed Razz as she spotted the bright, lively colors of Ponyville rise in the distance. “Trouble always seemed to be waiting for me no matter where I traveled. Now that I can travel wherever I need to in order to get my duties done, I’m sure I’ll hear some news about ponies like me that won’t fit any timeframes or locations I’ve been to. That should be the best place to start.”

Chapter 6 - Where Everypony Knows Your Name

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter Six: “Where Everypony Knows Your Name”

After the guards and Twilight had taken their leave, Raspberry had spent an unreasonable amount of time combing through the collection of books she personally had taken from Sombra’s inner sanctum within the Crystal Castle. Sombra had apparently felt the need to write down almost everything like he was his own biographer—except for anything directly relevant to the mirror, the Amulet, or that Baldy di Castlevania human. It was like even Sombra didn’t want to be reminded of those things, or at the very least provide proof on his end that confirmed he had interdimensional affairs. Not even the self-glorifying “fictional” novel Feldspar and the Empress, by “Queen Umbra” (the book from which Applejack and later Razz herself had gleaned enough information to stop the spread of lycanthropy—twice) made so much as a reference to humans or the amulet or even the tangentially related bit about corrupting the blood of his own descendants, one of whom was reading his annoyingly purple prose right this minute.

She’d gone to bed that night a frustrated mare. There was one book still that she needed to look into, perhaps the worst in her collection: The Rose with the Broken Neck. Summoning it via a spell, she debated whether she should read it now or not—the last time she did, she didn’t get much sleep, and that had been after a relatively rough day. This one had been no less taxing between organizing the other books and Divine Right’s interrogation—as well as the terror that came with Twilight’s very frightening illusion—so she was at risk once more.

Still, I’m safe, Razz told herself. This girl from another world, the one Sombra renamed Broken Rose? I don’t know if she could say the same by the end. And I have a feeling I need to know. And with that, she opened the book to the next entry.

DAY 13:

Today has been quite intriguing. First, my spies in Everfree tell me that Celestia and Luna are unhappy with my “stewardship” of this realm (as if they have any right to question my authority!) and that they plan to do something if I do not mend my ways. I demanded from my spymaster to know how they intended to bring me to heel as if I am some dog, but he confessed he had no answer. It was instead a guard – a guard who I’d thought was loyal – that told me that they were coming here to kill me and to place my aunt Amore on the throne. He then attacked me, much to his extreme disadvantage.

Fortunately for him, he was granted a quick death via my newest minion, Sable Loam, who has been of quite some use to me as of late. Loam tore him to shreds, then asked what my next command was. Eager to give him what he wished, I ordered him and his forces to take care of the rest of the guard’s family, as if one of them was a traitor, they all had to be. Furthermore, he was to search the city for any sign of my aunt or cousins, as it was clear he would not have acted alone.

I then informed my generals present that should it happen again, I would be looking for new generals – and the parapets of the castle would be stained with their blood and that of their families. Needless to say, I got my message across.

The second great note of import was that my troops along the western frontier had begun their offensive against those bespawling cumbergrounds of Yakyakistan. I suppose I should have not been surprised, as Prince Richardson was a craven abydocomist, a braggart that believed he deserved to be anywhere near my greatness. Still, his braggadocio amused me and I continued to let him and his little band of dalcops live. No longer.

But no sooner than my strike had begun, that I was informed by a messenger that our quarry was not, in fact yaks, but instead a changeling hive. That became far more important than those mere yaks. Changelings were rare and possessed of a magic within them that fascinated me; a fruit on a vine, luscious and ripe and just waiting to be plucked. I knew I had to capture one or more for study.

My orders went out, without fail. Soon, they would be within my grasp.

The day was going well enough, that I even felt whimsical enough to visit my pet. It had been a couple of days since I’d last seen the Broken Rose and after the last visit, finding her still alive and mired in her own filth, I had little choice but to have one of my harem serve as nurses and caretakers. After all, given that she hadn’t bowed to death as she should have, it made her fascinating enough to allow for her continued existence.

As I enter the room, one of her current caretakers, Musica Allegra, dares to stare at me with unbridled hatred. I should punish her for that, but I let it pass. After all, she was foolish enough to come to my Empire to play a “peaceful concert” on behalf of the Princesses, without realizing that she would be my prize. She hates me for her own stupidity, but I do not care. Where would she go? My spies within my realm are everywhere, and I certainly wouldn’t let her return to Everfree.

I then see the other caretaker, Cocoa Bean, who is washing the Broken Rose with a sponge. Neither of them notice and it seems that have struck up a sort of friendship. It irks me that they do not stop their incessant prattling to take note of my august presence, but given that Miss Cocoa is nothing more than common field trash, the daughter of one of my farmhooves, she should be glad that I chose her to be part of my royal harem. But no gratitude do I get for my magnanimity, sad to say.

She finally realizes that I am here, but instead of begging forgiveness for not noticing earlier, she berates me for what I have done to the Broken Rose, stating that if I had a shred of decency, I would find clothing for the strange, naked and immobile creature before her. I ask her, what does she think of the Broken Rose and she tells me that she considers her a friend, and that both she and Miss Musica would do their utmost for her.

Such devotion was to be rewarded, and so I drew my sword.

It…was a messy affair and sadly, I have ruined one of my cloaks, but when it was done, I cover the Broken Rose with the hide I cut away from Cocoa Bean. I suppose that, in hindsight, she was right: I must take better care of my playthings, and that meant the Broken Rose must be shielded from the elements.

Well, Cocoa Bean will no longer have need of her own coat, in any case.

I tell Musica to dispose of Cocoa’s corpse as she sees fit, then lightly suggest that she perhaps prepare it for the Broken Rose’s consumption, as if I recall, men are omnivores. Musica screams at what I have done, but that is not my concern. I have taken care of my pet, and it is Musica’s issues to attend to now.

Perhaps I shall send Oceanglide to assist next time, as the fishmonger’s daughter is no longer as pliable in my bed as she used to be.

But as I leave, I suddenly get the feeling that something is boring into my soul. I don’t have to turn around to know it’s the Broken Rose. Somehow, I know I have broken something else within her today and that amuses me to no end. She is a fine gift, one that keeps on giving.

As my day wraps up, Sable’s troops report that they have found not only my aunt, but two of my cousins as well. Bound and bruised before me at the base of my throne, I look at my aged aunt and my cousins. Aunt Amore looks at me with pity (why, I’ve no idea), while my cousins Charity and Patience glare at me with the sort of expression only twin fillies can do.

I ask where Devotion, my aunt’s youngest daughter is, and she spits at me, telling me that I will never find her. That so long as Devotion lives, the House of Amore will continue to live and someday the cadence of truth will shine down and reign in the Empire. I laugh at my aunt’s words; she was always a sentimental old fustiliarian.

I look at two of my guards and I see what they have in mind. Well, never let it be said that I am not a generous king, so I offer them their desires. And as they spend themselves on my cousins, I have my aunt watch as all my guards take their enjoyment. She screams in rage and hatred, damning and cursing me, saying that on a day to come I will be destroyed by love and a star, as if she is setting prophecy.

Oh no, you old hag. The only prophecy is that I shall rule forever. I take my sword and run it through her, staining my carpet with her lifeblood. I then tell my guards to take their prizes to the barracks and that they shall serve forevermore as my troops’ bedswervers.

One of the sergeants asks how interesting it is that he will get his fill of princesses tonight.

Alas for him, he will not have his fill of princesses, but of prostitutes who once might have been royalty.

Too bad they gave up that option by opposing me.

Razz felt even worse after closing that horrid book—what she’d done to kill Fair Vista made her feel dirty now that she knew her hated ancestor had gone and actually skinned some poor mare alive. She felt more like Sombra even if her actions had allowed her to finally end lycanthropy.

And the more horrifying fact was she knew she had to keep reading it at some point. Inexplicably, “Broken Rose” was important somehow but for all the pain in Razz’s life, nothing compared to what she’d already read about the suffering of that poor girl.

The next morning, half-stumbling through her usual morning routine, Razz dragged herself out of her room and toward the front desk. She was so tired that she didn’t have the energy to react in shock when she realized she’d forgotten Pinkie Pie was supposed to come around early that day to return the Alicorn Amulet to her.

“Up all night again, Blackberry?” came a distinctly Prench accented voice.

“Probably trying to think of new ways to be trouble around here, I’ll bet,” replied a slightly different pitched version of the same voice.

Sighing, Razz turned and looked at the two mares who had appeared behind her. Spic and Span were the pegasi twins who composed the entire cleaning maid staff of the Traveler’s Retreat, and like almost all of the rare twins born to ponies, they had an obvious duality about them where their colors were the reverse of their biological duplicate. Spic—the “older” sister by maybe a minute’s time—was a celeste blue in coat color, mane and tail hairs a shade of gray Razz personally would think belonged on a dust bunny, with bright sky blue eyes and a predominantly orange coloration in her cutie mark: a spray bottle and cleaning cloth. The younger sister Span was the inverse—dust bunny gray coat with celeste mane/tail colors, pumpkin orange hued eyes and a sky blue polish canister cutie mark. Internally, Razz had long since found it odd how these two pegasi twins managed to have the same mane style preferences as the only other pegasi twins in town: Cloudchaser and Flitter.

Though also in comparison, Cloudchaser and Flitter tended to be nicer as well.

“I’m pretty sure even college sororities don’t have hazing periods that last as long as this,” remarked Razz, turning to grab a much needed cup of coffee for what was already starting to be a long day.

Spic huffed. “Yeah, like you would know.”

Span nodded in agreement with her sister. “I’m amazed you can even read.”

“And I’m amazed you two think it’s still okay to be absolute haridelles to the daughter of your employers who thought she was dead for almost a whole year,” said a new voice that caused both pegasi to freeze in a panic. “Of course, I’m also assuming you two already finished cleaning rooms 9, 14, and 21 if you’re standing here and belittling my daughter?”

“Uh, y-yes, just finished them, Madame Cashmere!” stammered Span, speaking for both herself and her sister.

Descending the stairs, the elderly Earth pony moved to put herself in front of her rude employees. “Well then, why don’t you two go out back and see if that performing group using the old coach shed needs anything.”

“You meant the tramps that she–” Spic gestured to Razz, who had turned around at that point, “–dragged in the other night?”

“Yes, the fine ponies that Ascot and I agreed to let use a space nopony has used or needed for over a decade. After all, the two previous cleaning ponies, Spit Shine and Mirror Finish, were more than capable of handling that old building’s needs when it was still regularly used, and unless you’re saying you two aren’t as good as you say-“

“No-no!” stammered Spic, “we’ll get right on that, won’t we, Span?”

“B-but of c-course, Spic!” replied the younger, and in no time the twin cleaning crew was gone.

Cashmere nickered. “I’m sorry, honey,” she said as she gave Razz a quick hug, “they’re normally far more hospitable, but when it comes to you they just turn into total haridelles.”

“It’s ok, Mom,” thanked Razz, “they’re Prench. I think they need to be jerks to somepony and I was the lucky mare that caught their attention. With my luck, I wonder if I’d win the lottery? I can already cheat death in more ways than I care to acknowledge.”

“Well, I can see somepony needs a good brew right now,” said the elderly earth pony, producing a hot mug full of the caffeine-laden elysium that Razz so desperately needed. “Oh, by the way, Derpy Hooves came around earlier to drop off a letter. Apparently there’s been a family emergency on the Pie Rock Farm and Pinkie had to leave on the first train this morning.”

“Oh, dear, I hope everything is okay,” said Razz, sipping from the cup now hanging in the air in a cloud of bubbly black magic.

“I’m sure it will be, Pinkie did also mention she shouldn’t be gone too long and will be back by the time the pool tournament starts. But in regards to the jewelry she wanted to give to you, it’s still at the ‘safe’ place—she doesn’t say where, just an address.”

Razz shrugged. “Well, it’s not like she just pawned it off to anypony irresponsible, right?”

Sandalwood had been engrossed in her book; A Vestibule of Stars, when the doorbell rang.

“Coming!” she called out, putting the bookmark inside the spine before the book on the table. She’d been expecting Cherry Berry to come around - she’d wanted some perfumes Sandy had run out of the previous day at the spa, so the tan pony had offered to make a new batch and Berry could come around and pick some up. But when she opened the door, a ‘berry’ of a very different pony persuasion was on the other side.

“Hey, Sandy,” said Razz, “Sorry for the sudden appearance but I heard that-”

“Sweet Celestia, you’re alive!” exclaimed Sandalwood, rushing Razz in a big hug. “Why didn’t you let me know you were here?!”

“Uh, I’ve only been back in town for a week?” said Razz, groaning internally as she realized she was going to have to go through this kind of introduction with pretty much the entire country until the news got out that everypony’s favorite dark magic expert was alive and well after all. “But yeah, I’m alive.”

Sandalwood then let go, looking expectantly at Razz. “So...where’d you go?”

“What do you mean?”

Sandalwood rolled her eyes, “No, you’re just gone for close to an entire year, leaving the entire country thinking you’re dead, then pop up out of the blue alive and well after all is said and done and we’re all picking up the pieces of a broken country? That’s not you, Razz, dark magic or not if you weren’t busy doing something major out of the country - your folks were completely devastated by losing you, as was everypony.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Razz, somberly. “What happened was...well, to be perfectly honest, I almost did die. I had to go far away from Equestria to recover and honestly, it wasn’t exactly all sunshine and rainbows where I’ve been.”

“If it wasn’t that, then...what?”

“I can’t tell you,” Razz repeated. “It’s kind of a super secret.”

“Like a Pinkie Promise?” asked Sandy in a deadpan.

“No, because I didn’t do the Pinky Swear. This is a Because-the-resident-alicorn-princess-said-so matter.”

“Fine, fine, I get the hint - for now. But I think we both know exactly where you ended up all this time and you’re going to spill the beans to me at some point.” She sighed dramatically before continuing on the original topic; “I bet you’re probably here for this.” Sandalwood reached around just behind the door, picked something up, and then handed the crudely wrapped box to Raspberry. “Yeah, kinda surprised you let Pinkie handle this thing. I mean, the fact she can get a little too out there aside, I know she’s just the good kind of hyperactive, but what this thing does, I really don’t want to think of what would happen if she wore it.”

Razz took the package, taking only a second to try and think of what Sandalwood was talking about. Her eyes grew slightly wider when she realized it was the Alicorn Amulet. “Hold on…Pinkie gave this to you?” Granted, this was exactly why Razz had come to that address in the first place, but it was only now dawning on her the sheer scope of Pinkie’s...obliviousness to the situation regarding a weapon of mass destruction being just casually handled like a cheap trinket of interest.

Sandy shrugged. “She said you told her to give it to me, though I’m guessing that wasn’t quite right based on your reaction.”

The unicorn shook her head. “Look, keep this on the downlow, but Pinkie was supposed to merely hide it away in one of her various spots of ‘things hidden away in case of that specific thing-based emergencies’, not give it to somepony who already had a little too much of a brush with the dark side of magic not too long ago.” Then another realization hit Razz: “Unless the story here is that Pinkie somehow intuitively knew that because you were briefly, uh, ‘altered’ by dark magic, you are slightly immune to it and really might be one of the few ponies in this whole town who could safely handle this thing.”

“That’s…pretty much verbatim what Pinkie told me,” answered Sandalwood. “You’re telling me that it’s possible Pinkie was just making all that up off the top of her head?”

Razz chuckled. “Seems that way, but while I’d be extremely worried about Pinkie’s ambivalence if it was any other pony, that party pony has some supernatural-level insight into matters and can explain phenomena in simple terms nopony else can.”

Sandy nickered. “Well, she was still wrong about it being some magical artefact from an ancient human, that’s for sure.”

The dark archmagus raised an eyebrow at that. “She told you that this had something to do with humans?”

The aromatherapist nodded. “Yeah, looking back on it, she probably just said that to make me agree to hold on to it faster to ‘examine’. There’s a weird engraving on the side face of the amulet that I thought might have been similar to one of the few known and translated human languages in the field of homonology.”

“Homonology?”

Sandalwood nodded. “The study of humans, of course! Not sure where the term came from, but Lyra knows.”

“Anthropology, you mean?” Razz corrected.

“Anthro-what?” Sandalwood asked, but then shrugged. “Nevermind. Anyway, homonology is the study of humans possibly existing. Er, let me rephrase that—it’s the study of humans in regards to pony history. Even if it’s classified info Lyra and I happen to be privy to, since I’m sure Sunset Shimmer would argue humans do exist...even if it’s on another dimensional plane, right?”

“I’m sure she would, if she was here and not there,” chuckled Razz. Inwardly, though, Pinkie’s supposed lie about the Amulet being related to humans wasn’t entirely without merit, even if she’d not truly been aware of the facts. The dark mirror in Canterlot and the Amulet itself were unquestionably both related to Sombra, as was his supposed cross-dimensional bartering with that Baltimare Castlevania or whatever his name was—Razz herself had been the last individual to go through Sombra’s mirror and end up in front of Bratzi Corleone’s mirror, before the latter shattered to reveal a haunting warning from Sombra directly referencing that bartering between human and corrupt unicorn. But human writing—there was a time where Razz thought that no matter what specific human vernacular was used, without magic inherent in the species there was no way to imbue magic inscription on anything—on a decidedly not-human artifact seemed entirely out of place. But the magic she had unintentionally, for the lack of a better term ‘stolen’ from Divine Right and had been imbued within her was only available if Razz ever needed to become that horrid human form again, meaning there WAS inherent magic within humanity but perhaps sealed...she banished the thought for investigation at another time. “Though now you’ve got me curious, Sandy, were you able to read what was on the Amulet?”

The tan pony nickered. “I don’t think so, the closest matches I could find to make even a partial translation ended up reading as ‘Be surto stink tine ovo kween’ and…yeah, utter nonsense.”

“Yeah, I thought as much,” laughed Razz, relieved that for the moment, the evil amulet did not bear a connection to ancient human powers. It was enough of a headache with the amount of dark magic sealed within already.

Later, as Razz walked down the main thoroughfare of Ponyville, Amulet back in her custody, she noted that there were considerably more ponies looking at her cautiously. She was without Helee for the day—apparently Spike’s own pet phoenix chick, Pee Wee, was visiting with his parents and according to Spike, Pee Wee’s parents had wanted the green phoenix to be kind of a chaperone to watch over their chick for the day. While Razz had immediately approved, it left her without the reassuring bird’s grip on her horn. Without that presence, the creeping feeling of insecurity was rising inside the unicorn, aided by the fact all these ponies had to be looking at her in knowledge of what her true, physical self looked like. What she was capable of.

But this is different than all those times before, confidently reasoned Razz in her mind as she focused elsewhere to ignore the looks. Yes, I’m capable of great and terrifying feats, like him, but I am more capable of keeping a lid on it in public now as well. The rumbling in her tummy also helped take her mind off of things as it was lunchtime, though where to go was tough since there wasn’t a restaurant she especially dislike—

“OOOF!”

Razz had been so distracted by the sudden need for food that she hadn’t noticed where she had been walking—or who she’d walked into. As she stepped back to see what she’d run over, she realized she’d accidentally bumped into a stallion. At first she thought it was Big Mac, given this was a very large and red stallion, but the details didn’t match up. This stallion was a far brighter shade of red, with mane, spaghetti mustache and tail colors a mix of black and almost silvery gray. His cutie mark looked like a pool ball—a striped one, white top and bottom with a yellow line running through the middle. However, while Razz wasn’t familiar with pool balls, something seemed…off with this depiction, as the middle of the ball designating the number was pitch black with a golden-yellow “9” in the middle. The scariest detail, however, was the piercing gaze from the stallion’s bright blue eyes, scrunched so narrow it was like he had thin strips of blue for eyes instead.

“I-I’m sorry, sir!” apologized Razz, reasoning that as scary this pony may look like, she’d fought werewolves, her own demonic father, and human “monsters” in an alien dimension she’d been trapped in for a year.. Evil Big Mac couldn’t compare, really. “I got distracted and didn’t notice where I was going, honest mistake.”

“You…” replied the unmoving monolith of a pony in a coarse, deep voice that seemed as though he was a natural for spooky voices. “You are the Heir of Sombra, are you not?” His accent seemed unusual, slightly coarse and rough as his tones—and just as creepy, though she didn’t admit this aloud.

“I, uh, beg your pardon?” One of the things Razz had found out following being named Sombra’s blood heir was that some ponies who had disapproved of her being spared the death sentence to be named royalty had made up some nasty names for her. Of the ones she knew about, ‘Heir of Sombra’ was the most common because even in casual conversation, it couldn’t be taken out of context without sounding like just a statement of the truth. So she wanted to give the benefit of the doubt here. A confrontation was not necessary. She hoped.

“Yes, you are the one who shares the blood of the dark king,” continued the stallion, slowly turning to face her. It was like some giant, godless killing machine was deciding on whether or not to try and break her neck or other body part—again, something that wouldn’t be the worst Razz had faced and would maybe just inconvenience her for the day. “It would appear that reports of your death over this past year of your absence have been greatly exaggerated, if you are here now.” He then glanced around as if searching for something - or somepony. “Tell me, where is your phoenix friend?”

“Look, I don’t know why you want to know all that, and I said I was sorry, okay?” she replied with a little more authority. “As it is, I’d like to be on my way, so if you please…” but as she tried to walk off, the stallion moved to block her.

“Please, I just have some questions I would like to ask,” the red pony intoned, like a spider inviting a fly into his den. “If it’s not too much troub-“

“Clear the alley, Nineball!” Another pony suddenly threw herself into the fray, Razz noting it appeared to be the same green pegasus she’d bumped into from two nights ago momentarily at the Retreat, judging from the same pool cue hairclip as before. “Or do you normally like keeping a mare—an important government mare even—from whatever it is she is trying to do?”

Having looked over to focus on the green pony now, his eyes still narrow slits, the stallion known as Nineball just stared at her before replying. “I could say the same to you, since it would look good on your part to be saving the damsel in distress given your reputation in some circles.”

“You’re still sore over me sharking you all over the felt at the semi-finals at the Las Pegasus invitational, aren’t you?”

“That was luck and nothing else, Corner,” nickered Nineball, but he seemed to decide backing down was the better option. He turned and walked off without another word, leaving a crowd staring at him more than Razz for which she was slightly relieved about.

“The nerve of some ponies…” grumbled the pegasus, before she looked to the unicorn. “In case you couldn’t tell, Nineball ain’t exactly ‘sociable’ outside of his native Stalliongrad. Though from what I heard, in comparison to the average resident of that Celestia-forsaken icecube of a city, he’s a practical life of the party.” She then raised a hoof and added “But where are my manners? I’m Corner Shot.”

“Raspberry Beryl,” replied Razz, taking the hoof in hers and shaking. “Thanks for the save, normally ponies who just hear about me in the news tend to keep their distance, not…well, that.”

“Don’t doubt it, but I don’t think he’s playing with a full rack, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I wonder if he’s an actual pony and not just some elaborate mechanical puppet pretending to be an actual pony. What he lacks in personality, he makes up for with being able to run the rails if you give him a chance.” Corner then took on a more concerned look on her face. “But...aren’t you supposed to be dead? You’re the Archmagus, yet you’ve been missing since the whole war with that big angry centaur got resolved!”

“That’s...confidential, sorry,” said Razz, quickly covering for herself. “My whereabouts following the defeat of Tirek were kept secret as that monster had made it his intention to steal my power and to an extent had. Due to my unique magical traits, I had to hide away to recover lest some other big nasty evil thing decide it wanted a piece of me as well.” That much was in a sense correct, as Razz had recovered in the human world, even getting a taste of what magic that wasn’t inherently corrupting felt like. “I’ve only recently been able to resume my duties and come home, as a matter of fact, so lots of ponies still think I’m dead. But enough about me - I take it you’re here for the big pool tournament then?”

“Obviously!” Corner Shot raised an eyebrow at the question. “Wait, you’re saying you’ve never heard of me before?”

“Well, no, I…don’t follow sports, never really had the chance as I tended to drift from place to place.” Suddenly, Razz’s stomach rumbled again. “Sorry, I haven’t had much to eat today.”

“And I’m just out taking in the town, first time I’ve been to Ponyville and the first chance I’ve had to explore the place. How about you take me to the best place in town and I’ll treat you, sound good?”

A huge grin spread across Raspberry’s face. “Sure!”

As usual, The Bannered Mare was bustling with diners and wait staff, but in one of the rare times she was glad to abuse her status a member of Twilight’s court, Razz and Corner were instantly seated at the table usually reserved for Princess Twilight and her court...which was odd, given that she didn’t know if Twilight had ever eaten here before.

“So, I’m guessing you don’t know much about the whole pool scene?” asked Shot once the waitress had taken their drink orders.

“I don’t know much about pool at all, really,” admitted Razz. “Though I am curious: what exactly is the scene as you would describe it?”

Shot smiled. “Well, you know how the big sports like hoofball or extreme underwater basketweaving have big name athletes? Sort of the same with pool, only it’s a question of how good a pony is in swingin’ the stick to move that egg in sweet spots, instead of brute-forcing a pig-knitted ball through solid moving walls of stallion sweat and muscle. It’s all about skill, plain and simple.”

Razz blinked; she didn’t understand about half of that sentence, but she figured that it had to make sense to somepony. “Oh...okay,” she answered simply.

The waitress then returned with their drinks, subsequently taking the food orders before departing. Shot started up again, this time talking about the crème’ de la crème of the pool sharks around. Aside from Corner Shot herself, there were eight other pool “superstars” who were commonly cited as the favorites to take the tournament trophy; Nineball, Bouclée, Carambole, Forward Spin, Golden Break, Table Speed, and North Shores.

“Thing about North Shores,” continued Corner, in between bites of the food that had arrived during her monologue, “he’s probably the only one of the nine that isn’t gifted with some pool-related special talent.”

“Oh?” inquired Razz, having found Corner Shot’s in-depth explanation about the sport spellbinding.

“Yeah, like, I think he’s some rich playboy who runs a tropical resort in San Fransiscolt—he’s certainly brown enough that I can never tell if he’s that color naturally or he just stays permanently suntanned. Rumor is that he’s got the hots for Princess Luna, but regardless of that, the whole point is that he’s gotten so good at pool because he thinks that it’ll get her to notice him.”

“And she will, I tell you!” said North, who coincidentally was walking by the table on his way out of the restaurant. “Heck, I don’t even need to really win, I just need to beat you, Corner!”

“In your dreams, North,” snarked back Corner, before realizing her mistake. “Oh. Right. She does do the whole ‘dreamwalking’ thing doesn’t she?”

“Uh-huh, so thanks for the encouragement!” laughed North as he moved on from the brief exchange.

“Really, he’s one of the best players there is?” skeptically asked Razz.

“Don’t let his slightly delusional demeanor fool you, that pony is a master of the left hoof path. Er, I mean, left hoof spin. Sorry, don’t know what I was saying before.”

“Eh, no big. But what’s your big thing, then, Miss Shot?”

Shot blinked. “Come again?”

Razz giggled. “You’ve gone on at length about all the other big pool sharks, what’s your advantage?”

The pool shark smiled. “Well, I’m probably the only pool playing pegasus who uses all her limbs to play. Legs for standing, wings for making the shot. Puts a hell of a backspin on the egg and always puts the others into sweet. Somepony once told me that kind of skill, unless you’re a unicorn—which is why the balls are enchanted to block certain spells—is practically impossible unless you’ve got fingers or claws like some of the minotaur and griffin players. Fortunately for me, there’s a separate league for non-hooved players. Not that they’d stand a chance against me, anyway—I’m just that good.”

“Really?” Truth was, it wasn’t inconceivable to Razz that a pegasus could use their wings as an extra set of appendages with feathers for digits. After all, there was the one pony who was quite a crack shot with a bow and arrow she’d encountered back in Lonesome Dove. “I didn’t think pegasi were capable of that level of ungularity with their wings.”

“Believe me, Raspberry,” chuckled Shot, though for a moment Razz thought there was a somber touch in the amused mare’s tone, “sometimes, ponies are capable of things you would never expect them to be. And honestly? If it wasn’t for the support of my family, I never would have found my true calling here.”

Razz nodded. “Your family must be really supportive, then.”

Corner Shot grinned. “I’m sure they’d love to meet you sometime.” It looked like Corner was going to say more, but the diner suddenly growing silent put both the pool player and the dark mage on alert. “Okay, something is going down.”

Almost as if in response, the sound of a very flustered unicorn trying to work his way through the crowded restaurant became audible, and some awkward sidestepping later finally found Capt. Divine Right arriving at the table. “Glad I found you, Archmagus!” he said. “I’ve been looking all over town for you.”

“What’s up, Captain?” Razz asked.

He gave her an urgent look that could either mean the world was in peril, or Twilight was late on a report and was using him to stall for time. “Her highness needs you to report to the castle. It’s…sensitive matters I’m not at liberty to discuss publicly.”

“Of course.” The unicorn then looked apologetically at her lunch companion. “Sorry about this, Shot.”

“Ah, you’re probably tired of me yapping anyway,” joked the pool shark. “Go on, save the world or whatever it is you royal types do.”

With a thankful nod, Razz then disappeared in a flash of light, with Divine soon following. Now left with a party of one, Shot just sighed and wished Nineball hadn’t managed to figure out her own feelings before even she had realized it.

“Why are you still carrying that thing?” asked Twilight the moment Razz met up with her inside the castle. “I thought Pinkie hid the Amulet!”

“Yeah, she hid it with the resident human conspiracy theorists...excuse me, anthropologists,” replied Razz.

“You mean the homonologists?” Twilight asked.

Razz sighed, not in the mood to correct Twilight on the correct phrase. “Anyway, it admittedly was the right move—Sandalwood’s slight immunity to dark magic made her the best choice in my absence. Kinda wish she hadn’t told Sandy there was human writing on it, though, since there isn’t.”

“Well, we need to hide it somewhere now.” Twilight looked around the main foyer of her castle. She still was relatively unfamiliar with it—words couldn’t express how much she preferred the former Golden Oaks Library to this—but decided so long as Razz had the Amulet in her possession, that was the safest place at the current time. “Uh, nevermind. Point is I’m going to need to leave for a few days and because we’re going to need someone to officially take care of royal duties, I’m leaving that to my court for now. Unfortunately, that means you’ll need to take over for me.”

Razz was taken aback. “Don’t tell me you have a sudden family emergency, too!”

“Oh, it’s an emergency alright,” curtly answered the alicorn. “Several hours ago, the commercial airship Seabiscuit Arno was reported to have gone down somewhere along the griffin/Equestrian border near a town called Nightshade.” She pointed to a map of Equestria, where on a peninsula close to where the sea boundaries of Equestria and griffin lands met, was the small town.

“Never heard of it, though during my travels I learned to avoid going near the griffin border—last thing I wanted was some griffin warlord learning my secret and trying to bring me into his forces.” Razz shuddered at the thought before continuing. “Still, shouldn’t there be a detachment of Guard on the border every few miles or so to protect against raiding parties of rogue griffins? And how do we know it wasn’t a bunch of griffins responsible for this anyway?”

“The Guard is barely able to keep a minimum guard at their posts along the border—sending in one of the detachments to investigate would open a gap in border defenses and obviously that’s a no-go. Plus, those same detachments are posted to keep a lookout for any griffin air- or oceangoing ships that such raid parties would use and there are no reports of such ships. It’s more likely this is a changeling attack.” The two ponies were silent, one letting the other register the ramifications of what meaning now lay before them. “Ever since they were driven out of Canterlot thanks to my brother and sister-in-law, the Royal Guard has put more emphasis on strengthening its ability to root out impostors around key towns like Canterlot and, as you saw with your actor friends, the outskirts of Ponyville. After the war, it’s been more important than ever, and what with resources and ponypower so short on hoof, it would be opportune for changelings to try and prey on a weak Equestria through its transportation routes.”

“But why do you need to go?”

The Princess of Friendship sighed. “Because if this is an act of war on part of the changelings—we can’t be sure Chrysalis is still in charge or even alive, as there’s been no trace of her for the past two years—then taking out a civilian airship that close to the border presents multiple problems. Sending out more of the Guard to investigate that small area would take time and resources to mobilize a rescue effort, leaving less to go toward another potential attack that could happen if the airship is just a diversion. Additionally, sending troops that close to the border would make the Minoans a little antsy. Remember that their lands aren’t too far from the Griffon lands, so they’ve seen that mess a little too up close and personal. So if the changelings aren’t trying to start a war with us directly, a troop buildup would mean that we think the griffins are getting ready for another round of their internecine warfare, and that would put the Minoans on alert. Celestia would really appreciate it if we didn’t unintentionally start a war between the minotaurs and the griffons.”

“But you’re talking the Guard here, not the Army, right?”

“Exactly. By sending me in with a small contingent of guardsponies, our neighbors won’t see it as an act of aggression.”

“But you’re still only one pony, Twilight!” argued Razz, “and to be honest you don’t know how to deal with a situation that for all you know could leave you stranded and fighting for survival just like those poor passengers on the Arno.” She took a deep breath before she gave her decision on the matter: “That’s why it probably would be better if I went instead.”

“Are you sure you want to go, Razz?” Twilight asked. “You haven’t been home much of late—to the tune of almost a whole year, even though it was only a month for you—and it all but destroyed your parents to lose you once already. Now I’m sending you out on another trip?”

“I appreciate the concern, Twilight, but you forgot one thing: if you’re going, even with a small contingent of guards, how will that look? The minotaurs will probably panic even worse: they didn’t send a division of Army soldiers, but one of their alicorns—the Warrior Princess, no less—and her cleanup squad.”

Twilight facehoofed. “You know, I hate that nickname.”

“You save the world enough times, you end up with a nickname, I guess. Anyway, that’s how it will look if you go. But if I go? It will be framed as a standard investigation for possible derelict action on the airship—especially since we can’t rule out that this could be some Tirek fanatics instead of changelings, so it could be a dark magic situation. After all, who better to look for that than an Archmagus of Equestria, right?”

“You do have a point,” Twilight admitted, studying Raspberry for several long minutes. She knew Raspberry Beryl well, through the innocent white lies, to the public spectacle of the trial, to having already faced down multiple evil threats and had been there to lend a helping hoof needed for Razz to vanquish her dark personal history. This was Razz, lending a helping hoof to the nation, proving herself worthy of her title, even though she had barely even been home for what had felt like an eternity to all those who valued her as a friend and family member.

“Plus, I did just get back from that sudden trip to Endless Vale, so it isn’t like I’m not already used to being sent out into the field at short notice.”

“Okay, I’ll authorize it,” said Twilight, “I wouldn’t dare sacrifice a friend in my place normally, but…well, you’re pretty insistent and if anypony was better suited for this task, it’s you. Just try to take one of the other girls. You could probably use the help.”

“Well, I was briefly thinking of reaching out to a couple of mages, but sure, I’ll take Rarity along. She could probably use the practice in magecraft, all things considered."

"Anypony else you want to go?”

“Maybe AJ for muscle?”

“Makes sense. I also want you to take Rainbow along. Tell her that her Navy commission is reactivated and as a lieutenant, she’s in charge of the Guard group you’re taking.”

“Yeah. Naval officer in charge of Guard troops. Even I know that’s not gonna go over well, Twi.”

“It could go either way—yeah, on the immediate level it’s not going to go over well, but it’ll probably make Tumblehome happy since she’s so adamant that the Navy should be in charge of everything protecting the country.” Twilight nickered while shaking her head, then continued. “But more importantly, the fact is that Rocketfuel told me that Rainbow really needs to work on her military bearing if she’s going to be in the Wonderbolts. He put her in charge of a flight unit within the Shooting Stars and she could barely handle it. So she needs the practice. I’ll ask Div to select a sergeant that will be able to smooth out the rough edges, so don’t worry.”

“You’re the princess here,” Razz said with a shrug. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get my ‘posse’ ready to get going.”

“Posse?”

Razz shrugged. “I dunno, it was something Sunset said in passing once while I was in her company. Probably just some weird kind of human slang without an Equestrian equivalent, y’know?”

Chapter 7 - Royal Duties

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter Seven: Royal Duties

“Extra rolls of fabrics?” Rarity asked, looking between the rows of fabric on her worktable and the unicorn before her with trepidation. “Why, Raspberry dear, I cannot use these precious reams as mere bandages, you understand?”

“Rarity, I wouldn’t ask if the need isn’t so desperate,” Razz replied. “Twi already got word that they’re short on gauze there.”

“I see. Well, if I must part with them…hrmm….” The ever-fashionable unicorn paused in thought. “Very well, you’ve convinced me. I shall become a famous nurse in need, like Nightingale, ne pas? I shall heal the wounded with grace and style, giving each tender care and tasteful bandages!”

Raspberry blinked. “Uh, what?”

Rarity just tut-tutted her friend’s confusion. “Oh, don’t be so dismissive, darling. After all the commotion you made running around town earlier? As well as the rumor mill mentioning something about a passenger airship going down without a trace? Anypony can figure out what you’re doing.”

“But why the extra rolls of fabric if you’re saying you want to play nurse?”

Rarity just gave a deadpan stare to her friend. “Because if you don’t bring me along,” the fashionista said in sweet tones, “I will make it...difficult...for you when you return.””

“Don’t worry,” Razz chuckled, “but I’m not taking you for your medical knowledge, or lack thereof. The real reason I’m taking you is because I may need a second unicorn there, and you’re good at fine-grain telekinesis, which may be useful. Though if you already seem to know so much, why do you really have such a dire need to go to a small, sleepy town like Nightshade?”

In response, Rarity magicked up a beautiful evening gown with shades of blue and black laced with a sparkling silver thread. "It's a part of my new Nocturne line, dear. Luna simply insisted that I should design something based on nights and shades, and I assumed, well, this charming town must know something about that, correct?"

Fortunately, before Razz could make a snarky comment and thus get in trouble for her sense of humor, a knock at Rarity’s door saved her.

“That’s probably the others,” Razz explained.

Rarity opened the door, revealing Applejack and Sandalwood.

“Rainbow will be along in a bit,” said Applejack, “she’s going over some stuff with the troops—probably how to be 20% more military.”

“Yeah, that’s to be expected,” said Razz, before turning to Sandalwood. “But why are you here?”

“I overheard from AJ and RD that you all are planning on going to Nightshade and I want in,” answered the aromatherapist.

“Uh, why?” Razz raised an eyebrow. “This is, honestly, kind of a situation I’m dealing with for Twilight, and could be dangerous so—”

“I just let that insanely dangerous dark magic thingamabob into my house—and I heard from Zecora just what it almost did to her own house—so I think I deserve a little favor. Doubly so since as you may recall, I got turned into a werewolf myself so it isn’t like I haven’t dealt with my own issues.”

“So, you want to cash those in by coming along for the ride to Nightshade?”

“Yeah, been meaning to go visit my cousin Amaretto but then the war happened.” Then with a tone of biting sarcasm, Sandalwood added, “It’s kinda funny how ponies don’t really spend money when the national economy is kind of in the toilet and the whole town needs rebuilding because some asshole the size of a mountain razed half of it to the ground.”

“You have family in Nightshade?” asked Razz.

“Yeah. You make it sound as though that’s shocking.”

“Well, if Pinkie was here,” commented AJ, “she’d most likely say this Amaretto fellow is your distant cousin!” She put her hoof on the part of the map in the middle of the room, hooftip placed above a tiny town near the edge. “Seriously, in terms of pure distance the only pony Ah know of that lives farther than there is that A.K. Yearling gal.”

Sandalwood raised an eyebrow. “You’ve visited A. K. Yearling’s house?”

“Oh, what a story that was…” sighed Rarity.

Razz sighed. “Okay, okay, you can come along, Sandy—who knows, having another earth pony could be helpful.”

At this point, Rainbow came in, carrying two packs emblazoned with the Shooting Stars squadron emblem. “Sorry I’m late but I just got finished with my meeting with Colour Sergeant Lightfighter. Oh, man is she a weird one, with a capital W-E-I-R-D.”

“How so?” Sandalwood asked.

“Let’s just say that I just met one of your human ‘conspiracy theorist’ types, and she’s in the Guard. And worse, if the information you and Lyra had was incomplete, hers borders on completely made up. She says her soul name is ‘Jane the Michellson’, whatever that means, and she’s in love with a human guy she’s never met called ‘John Apple-Bee’ or something like that.”

“Yeah, that is weird,” Sandalwood agreed. “As far as I know, human names aren’t much different from ours, but then again, the collective of ‘theorists’ has their weird ones. As in, weirder than Lyra. What made her bring that up, anyway?”

“She’d heard some rumor that Ponyville is a secret research base for humans, so secret that not even Twi knows. So she thought she’d take an here to ‘uncover the secret’.”

“So why didn’t she speak to me or Lyra?”

“Well, duh, clearly you two are keeping the whole secret to yourself because you’re secretly humans yourselves!” Rainbow cried. When Sandalwood gave the pegasus a nonplussed look, Rainbow groaned. “Yeah, no kidding. And ponies say I have no military bearing.” With a shrug, Rainbow elected to leave it at that. “Anyway, I’m ready to go.”

“I’ll be ready soon,” Rarity advised. “But I see our dear Raspberry is not. Why exactly aren’t you packed, darling?”

“I don’t need much,” was all the dusky unicorn replied with.

“But won’t you need your robes of station, as well as some other items? I’d advise you attend to that before we leave.” There wasn’t much choice in the matter as Rarity all but shoved Razz out the door. Once Razz was out of the house, Rarity sighed nostalgically. “Seems like it was so long ago that the poor girl was all too eager to get out of my house when she still traded in gem forgeries.”

When her adoptive daughter had come back and informed her of her sudden travel plans, Cashmere hadn’t thought much of it. Or at least not until said daughter had come back out of her room with what looked like a saddlepack equipped more for a day trip than what could potentially be an entire week away from home.

“Razz, dear, aren’t you a little, erm…underpacked?” the older mare asked with concern.

“Underpacked?” asked the unicorn, who quickly glanced to Helee to see if he knew what was going on. He shrugged, indicating he didn’t. “I don’t think so. I have everything that I need, and anything else I can pick up along the way.”

Cashmere gave Raspberry a firm look. “Are you sure? Show me what you got in there.”

“Well, uh, okay.” Razz then took the pack off with her magic and, one by one, began pulling the things she wanted to bring out. “Let’s see…okay, there’s the prescription ointment for my leg injury that I need to put on after every time I wash up, there’s at least four days’ worth of Heelee’s favorite trail mix in case he can’t go hunting for food for whatever reason, well-stocked first aid kit with plenty of bandages, water canteen, my archmagus robes because Rarity insists I look important…oh, I am forgetting something!”

Almost instinctively, Heliodor realized what was missing as well and flew back into Raspberry’s room. Cashmere smiled, but also expected Razz to follow suit. She did not expect Helee to simply fly back out of the room, his talons cradling a toothbrush and toothpaste. Razz quickly took the dental implements in her magic and stowed them away in her bag, then rewarded her pet with a few scratches under his chin.

“Ah, excellent, thank you Heelee!” Looking at her mother, Razz replied, “Minuette will never let me hear the end of it if I’m not brushing three times a day!”

“I…um…” Cashmere was at a loss for words. Somehow, something didn’t seem right to her that Raspberry was going on a trip with just a toothbrush, first aid kit, water container, bird food, and medical ointment. “Don’t you need, like, at least a towel or a blanket or something else?”

“Not really,” answered the younger mare. “I mean, yeah, summer is just leaving and the air is getting slightly colder by like, a degree lower than usual but…” Razz took a deep breath as memories of harder times flooded her mind again. “No offense, Mom, you don’t know the kind of shit I’ve had to live through—believe me, even the author of all those wilderness survival books at least has a special talent in that field. Though, what a cutie mark consisting of a bear drinking yellow fluid out of a bottle has to do with survival is beyond me, but that’s besides the point. The truth is-“

Before Razz could continue, she found her muzzle shut by the elder pony’s hoof. With compassionate eyes, Cashmere finished for her daughter. “The truth is that you’ve lived through that kind of stuff without any idea of how to survive beyond maybe throwing up dark crystal walls, but you know how to keep yourself warm at night, know at a basic level what you could scrounge up for safe eating, stuff like that, yes?” The mulberry unicorn’s blush subsequently made Cashmere chuckle. “Honey, I get it, the past decade will never be anything but memories of hardship for you, but you tend to keep rambling on about that stuff all the time. This isn’t the past anymore, Razz. Just because you can make do without something as simple as a bed roll or a coat—which you are going to take with you because Faust help me I don’t know if my heart can take that kind of worry—doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do without. You’ve lived with so little for so long, I’m not sure you realize how often you push away what is now available to you in fear that if you need to flee, those things would hold you back. Your father and I even had to bribe you with a job in order to sway your decision to take more comfortable lodgings here!”

“And you had to bribe me with being the kind of parents I spent all that time looking for,” said Razz, laughing as well. “Almost hard to believe it’s nearly been a year since I’ve been able to call the Retreat my home, even if for the past several months I was...”

Cashmere reached out and took Razz’s face in her hooves. “The important thing is that this is your home, honey. You are part of our family, there is no arbitrary amount of time you need to be around for that..”

“Well, to be frank, I still technically haven’t even met your biological children, either. They must think of me as a horrible kid sister.”

“I do believe you are right, my dear, and that is something we will need to fix as soon as possible. But before that, I need to fix your underappreciation for basic traveling luxuries!”

“No, really, you don’t have to, Mom…” said Razz, blushing.

“Oh, but I must. That’s my special talent, need I remind you?”

“Mom….”

“A princess must compunct herself at all times, as I believe your friend Rarity is so fond of saying? Just because you’re a minor princess and the Archmagus doesn’t mean that you can get by with only minor necessities. Plus, you are a member of Princess Twilight’s court, so you have to look good for her sake as well, right? Obviously that means more than just your archmagus robes—it means looking healthy and hale enough as well.”

“Yeah, I guess….” Razz only blushed harder in embarrassment.

With a satisfied smile, Cashmere nuzzled her daughter before walking into the latter’s room, Razz following behind and secretly hoping that when she left, there wouldn’t be more than one article of luggage following in her wake.

The attack had been sudden and, for all that she knew, unprovoked. One moment, the Seabiscuit Arno had been flying on course and on time to its destination of Canterlot; the next, the once-clear blue skies had become blotted with a thick cloud of changelings.

Ponies on deck had either run for cover within the hull—which frankly wouldn’t have done them much good, she knew, despite the fact she herself had done exactly that but for different reasons—or prepared to make a stand on the weatherdeck. It didn’t matter: the changelings never went below the keel of the massive air vessel beneath which the airship hung.

No, they’d gone for the giant balloon itself. While reinforced both physically and magically to be impervious to normal weather phenomena like lightning strikes or hail, without royal guard-level wards the membrane of the balloon inevitably gave way after only a few minutes of unceasing aggression by the bugs.

Fortunately, the balloon was compartmentalized internally, so that if one section suddenly was penetrated, it wouldn’t cause the entire thing to deflate and drop a giant wooden boat full of screaming ponies to the ground and instantly kill both them and anything unfortunate enough to be beneath. However, the airship would still go down, the intention behind the sectioned design being the remaining sealed sections would allow for a controlled, smooth descent to a safe location.

Unfortunately, the design did not account for more than one section being punctured, especially not the three largest which the changelings somehow had known to go for. With the largest portion of the balloon’s contained air pressure released, the airship had gone into an uncontrollable fall—not outright straight down, but at a rate too fast to avoid a very rough and bumpy impact landing.

She’d been knocked out when the bottom of the airship had made contact with—judging from the sound of lots of breaking branches—a dense, forested area that by acting as a giant leafy cushion probably saved the lives of everypony on board.

Temporarily.

To her horror, the growls and snarls of a large number of predators rose all around the fallen airship, but it wasn’t buzzing or anything remotely insectile. It was the sound of something far more dangerous in the “brutally murder you with claws and teeth and then eat your corpse to the bone” sense. She could only have been out of it for maybe just a few hours, but already she got the sinking feeling she was the only pony still alive.

And whatever was out there was looking for her.

Applejack had ridden on trains before, plenty of times in fact. But somehow, she was having trouble wrapping her brain around how fast she was going now.

“So…why is it only five hours to the coast,” she ventured, “but it took us like two days to get from Ponyville to Appleloosa?"

Rainbow shrugged as she replied, "Weren't we being pulled by ponies back then?"

Razz said nothing, but her unique experience as having been human not too long ago had given her a perception on technology other ponies did not. I didn’t notice it before but…humans don't even have steam engines. Except for that Disneyland place, and that was clearly meant more for entertainment than transportation. Does that mean Equestria is like Disneyland? Can't be, Disneyland doesn’t have some French madman imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Applejack kept trying to make 2 and 2 voltron into 5. “Wait, if we were being pulled by ponies then…why were we being pulled by ponies? It was still a steam engine wasn’t it?”

“Darling, it was a steam engine insofar that it was providing a source of heat for the passenger cars,” said Rarity. “Only in the past few years was it possible for steam trains to be able to pull long distance trains faster than ponies and provide power for things like heating and running water for the bathrooms.”

“Y’know, it’s kind of funny if you think about it,” piped up Sandalwood. “No matter how far technology advances, magic is still predominantly a deciding factor in major events in our lives. When Tirek was stomping around and sucking out everypony’s magic like it was going out of style, it seemed like the only place he didn’t hit was the settlements in the southern plains and the unexplored west.”

“Huh, too bad you didn’t hide out back at Lonesome Dove, Razz,” Rarity commented. “Your old hometown might have been the safest option in hindsight.”

“So Raspberry was in Ponyville during that whole calamity?” Sandalwood interjected, finding herself picking up a discussion point from hours back. She immediately turned to face Razz with a ‘what the hell were you thinking?!’ expression plastered on her features. “No offense, but…seriously, what the hell were you thinking?! I don’t know how Tirek didn’t end up sucking your magic down his gullet like everypony else’s, but didn’t you think it might have been smarter to be as far away from him as possible?”

“Uh...he did,” Razz admitted glumly. “In the end, I only managed to get away from him because...because…” The thought of Pavane’s death nearly being in vain brought back the pain of guilt Razz felt over the young mare’s death, causing her to start sobbing gently. Rarity immediately wandered over and took the weeping unicorn in her embrace.

Sandy, for her part, looked down in shame. “I’m sorry, I...I didn’t realize…”

“Hey, that’s all in the past now,” Applejack said, giving Raspberry a sober, somber look. “Trust me: It don’t do you any good to spend yer days dwellin’ on the folks you lost.”

“Well, remember, it was just practically days ago for me!” Razz shot back. “For you, nearly a year went by; for me, it was just a few weeks!”

The look on Rarity’s face was sympathetic. “We understand what you’ve lost, darling, but Applejack is right: you have to move on, even though you should do it at your own pace. Nopony will rush you on that, I assure you. But even you know that dwelling on things that cannot be changed is counterproductive.”

“Wait, what?” asked Sandalwood, confused. “Razz told me she had to go somewhere all this time, but now you all are saying she jumped through time now?”

“You’re right,” Raspberry said, giving her friend a confident nod as she wiped the last of her tears away - and conveniently being able to ignore Sandy once again trying to pry into the details behind her year long absence. “In the end, Tirek was defeated and everypony got their magic back. Which means I’m back to looking like a Nightmare Night monster without my disguise.”

“Maybe Ponyville should start celebrating Nightmare Night every day,” Rainbow suggested with a teasing grin. “That way you won’t have to always use a glamorie to fit in!”

Raspberry gave her friend a good-natured shove. “C’mon, Dash. Even Ponyville wouldn’t let monster ponies run around every day of the year!”

Even from a vast distance away, Castle Canterlot was not hard to spot so long as one did not try to observe it from a location northeast of it. The only area from which its tall and majestic spires were hidden from view behind the peak of Mount Canterhorn. The capital—both the castle and the less precariously perched city itself tucked into the relatively flat plateau beneath it—stood as a beacon, a central landmark for all of Equestria’s domain as the heart of its government. The perch from where the “benevolent” princesses oversaw everything they ruled over and twice daily moved the very skies between the respective periods of day and night.

But it also was a reminder of how separate the various pony species were: no matter how much they believed in harmony, something as simple as physical location reflected where individuals stood in their place within society. The lowliest all lived on the ground, if not in the ground, and the most common of those peasants were named after the very dirt they were meant to till. Then there were the pegasi, who mostly lived exclusively in their great, vaulted cloud cities—the fact they were the most aggressive overall when compared to the others came as no surprise by default. Next, the unicorns always thought themselves better than the rest, hence their preference for living at high places both in the metaphorical and literal sense—centers of economy or near the mountains if not directly on them. Lastly, there were the alicorns—the few, the most privileged, the worshipped.

Chrysalis scoffed. In her time pretending to be Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, she’d learned that the royal bedchambers were all located in parts of the castle that was closest to the Canterhorn’s summit. Even at the top of the world, they sleep above even the wealthiest commoners, she thought.

Right now, the changeling Queen stood on her own private balcony that overlooked all of her own conquered domain in the southeastern badlands. A far cry from what she’d once known, even further from the lofty peak of the country’s capital she’d all but had firmly in her hooves. What she had deserved after all this time, only for it to be taken away because of love.

Disgusted, Chrysalis turned to sulk inside her chambers, having unintentionally reminded herself of yet another thing she hated about Canterlot. Or rather, what her last defeat had reminded her of consistently over the past two years: how much she hated the concept of love. It was ironic, given that as a changeling she needed to feed off that emotion just as much as the swarms of drones did, and that she’d even impersonated the very embodiment of that emotional concept to the point of pretending to love the most repulsive of suitors.

“How the hell could anybody have fallen in love with some bore like Shining Armor?!” she openly complained to nopony in particular. While she’d planned on mind controlling him from the start as there were too many potential flaws in her disguise to assume the guard captain would not notice them—his twit of a meddling sister having caught on almost immediately had proven as much—it had been near-maddening just to try and have casual conversation with him. Sure, he’d been extremely attractive for a stallion, but…as unfamiliar with the term as she was, Chrysalis could only describe the now-prince consort as a “nerd” for how much he did so very many weird things in private. She was even fairly certain it might have been a social taboo punishable by mental institutionalization for him to own something called an Ogres and Oubliettes set, his insistence even under mind control that Cadence had grown to like playing with tiny metal miniatures much in the way babies would had also made the changeling royal consider the prissy pink princess might have been a nutcase, too. Seriously, how is getting one’s character killed repeatedly by something called a “nothic” supposed to be fun?!

She was so busy ranting about how maddening actually being married to Shining Armor might really have turned out, the nonchalant changeling waiting at the bedchambers’ door almost went without notice. The changeling had no real reaction in part due to Chrysalis raving about the topic of Shining Armor and Cadance was a near-weekly affair to the day since the changelings were repulsed from Canterlot. Of course, he made the mistake of zoning out and paid the price.

“What do you want, drone?!” Chrysalis angrily bellowed upon noticing one of the hive waiting to speak with her.

“A-Apologies, my queen!” he quickly spoke, his stance going rigid in a nanosecond. “But our spies report that a group from Ponyville has been dispatched to investigate the downed pony airship. They will arrive at the nearest town in about two hours.”

“Just as I predicted.” Finally having something to take her mind off of her hated sort-of-but-not-really ex-fiancé—compared to her previous engagements, at least Shining Armor hadn’t actually been her legal husband under any pretenses, false or otherwise—Chrysalis immediately resumed her usual, far more formal behavior. “I assume that ‘the six’ are accounted for in full in that group?”

The changeling shook his head. “Only three of them have been seen on the train—no sign of ‘the pink menace’ or Princess Twilight Sparkle, but-“

Chrysalis, displaying only mild interest in her servant’s report, suddenly rounded on the smaller changeling with renewed vigor. “What? Only three of them? At that, not even the two most dangerous of that sextet?”

“No, my liege, there are five ponies, the three already mentioned and an earth pony—a tan mare, reportedly a bit bigger than the average—who we are still trying to learn more about, and more worrisome it appears that Ponyville’s other mage has gone in Twilight’s place.”

The false alicorn raised an eyebrow at hearing of the other princess. “Ponyville has two archmages?” she scoffed. “What, did Celestia’s prodigal daughter show up after all this time, to grace us with her presence?” Chrysalis wasn’t stupid—indeed, she had several subscriptions under fake names to all the major newspapers which were flame-faxed right to her doorstep. None of the printers ever seemed to realize where the papers were going. They sure loved to harp on and on about how great the formerly exiled Princess Sunset Shimmer was. It rubbed Chrysalis raw to the core, given that—

“No, your majesty,” the drone said, interrupting his liege’s train of thought. “This mage is, strangely enough, a dark magic user: Raspberry Beryl, a member of Princess Twilight’s court and a minor princess of the Crystal Empire. Our early intelligence indicates she’s a bit of an odd one in that she randomly appeared out of nowhere around the time of last year’s Nightmare Night and was put on trial—”

“For grand treason on account of dark magic use, yes, now I remember hearing about that,” mused Chrysalis. “She even almost killed those damn alicorns—all four of them!—but somehow went soft at the last minute and now she’s a princess? I don’t recall hearing that happening.”

The drone nodded. “It was right before Tirek’s bloody war, but during the incident of the trial, it was revealed that this Raspberry Beryl is the only known living member of the formerly-thought extinguished ancient Crystal Imperial bloodline, or—”

She’s the one ponies are talking about as the descendant of Sombra?!” In a flash, Chrysalis had lifted the changeling up in her magic and whipped him around such that he was less than an inch from her muzzle, her eyes suddenly those of a slightly-crazed individual. “This Raspberry Beryl, the one you said is on this train, is the direct blood descendant of King Sombra?!

“W-We’re certain, my queen!” stammered the helpless minion, worried that the wrong answer would result in his immediate banishment from life. “She’s not Princess Sparkle, b-but there’s nothing—” He was cut off as he was unceremoniously dropped. As he looked up, the slightly unhinged grin on his queen both pleased and unnerved him.

“There is nothing to be done,” said Chrysalis. Instinctively, the changeling knew this was more than a statement, it was a command. Her features returning to normal, she snapped her gaze down to the grunt changeling trying not to shrink away in fear. “Have our spies keep observing the group, but their orders are now only to observe—under no circumstances are they to attack as previously ordered.”

“It will be done, your high-“

“THEN GO DO IT, KNAVE!”

Within a blink, Chrysalis saw the prostrated insect vanish, no doubt at exhaustive speed as failure to prevent the original ambush plans from taking place would instead ensure his own demise. And how these changelings just loathed to fail their queen. But she didn’t care. Her unhinged smile returned as the news he had brought was the only acceptable alternative to her original goal of springing a trap on Princess Twilight and company—the preordained descendant of Sombra was now moving into position instead.

“And so…my little game begins…” she said aloud to nopony particular, her grin widening. Then she began to chuckle. Finally, she broke out into loud, maniacal laughter. The situation was better than she could have ever hoped or planned for, and with it the possibility of achieving the one thing she had come to believe was forever put out of reach.

The fact her existing plan already was instantly adaptable to the new change of priorities only made it all the better.

Chapter 8 - One-Nag Town, Airship Down"

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter Eight: One-Nag Town, Airship Down

DAY 49:

There are days when I sometimes wonder if taking possession of the Empire was worth it. I think about the times I could have just remained a spoiled, pointless prince, whiling away my days in cider, mares and song. There was a young mare with bewitching eyes that I had the honor of knowing once, a young noblestallion’s daughter, but she could not comprehend the grandiose nature of who I was and instead she married some simpering milquetoast. Such a pity.

My day started off with a political dispatch from that arrogant harridelle, Princess Celestia herself. A sternly-worded missive, it deplored my “equine rights abuses” that she’d heard rumors about in my lands. She also inquired as to the whereabouts of my aunt Amore and my cousins, Charity and Patience, as they have not been seen since the day they claimed to be headed here “to talk sense into me.”

Well, as for my aunt’s mortal remains, I care not where they are. As for Charity and Patience, or rather now, “Tail” and “Lift” (as my guards have suitably renamed them), the last I heard, they are fulfilling their new duties to the best of their abilities – not that said abilities are hard; any mare could do them, really.

In any case, I burned the letter before the Equestrian ambassador’s eyes and told her that if she ever brought tripe like this from her mistresses ever again, I would expel her from the Empire.

Piece by piece.

Later that day, I spoke to the marshal of troops. The war against the changelings was proceeding nicely, though it was unfortunately hampered by the occasional spy sneaking behind our lines and sabotaging resources or assassinating officers. This was a profound and vexing issue, given that some resources could not easily be replaced, due to the threat of an embargo by Equestria. The troops, thankfully, was not one of those resources I had to worry about. In any case, my objectives required me to capture the queen of necessity; while I care not if the drones live or die, the queen must live.

This, of course, presented a problem, one of my own nature, alas: despite my orders, my troops continued to kill immature queens on sight. Don’t those fools understand that the bodies of the queens are useless to me without their life – their soul (do drones even have souls?), for it is the spirit by which the hivemind grants them their devious magicks.

I let my marshal know that the lead queen must be captured at any cost, because if she gets away, I will be looking for a new marshal…and the marshal will be looking at a shallow ditch as a permanent retirement home.

My message was received quite well.

Finally, my schedule clears up that I am able to attend to other things. On a whim, I go see my Broken Rose. There’s something about her, seeing that broken, pitiful creature, that just makes me feel better about myself. I don’t know whether it’s sentimentality or anything of the sort; perhaps it’s just a need for a pony to have his playthings. That being said, I must be careful around her. She is human, after all, and though that race has proven to be weak at times, there is still some unknown measure of them I still must comprehend.

I walk past Musica Allegra and the baleful stare that she gives me. She has done well, attending to the Broken Rose, and as a result, I gave her a dutiful reward last night: attending me in my bed. Strangely, she wasn’t pleased about that, but she is merely a mare, with the limited mind of same. I exerted myself on her; how could she not comprehend that was a reward – to be the catch of a king? I could have easily invited Opal Orchid – there’s a mare who has her eye on being my queen, if I let her; or Bubbles, who is eager and pleasing and I suspect she would lay with anypony if I wished her to.

Musica claims that the Rose is dying. I laugh; how can she die? She’s human! As loathe as I am to admit it, Baldassare was right: they are a lot tougher than I’d first assumed, so much so that I’ve been studying her in how to take the human essence – the anthrolovitæ – and use it to make me stronger. The crystal ponies I rule are nearly as strong as their dullard “earth” brethren; how much more powerful would they become if I added the essence of humans?

How much more powerful would I become?

The thought is…rather intoxicating, I must admit.

I asked Musica where her assistant is. She, in turn, tells me that she’s opted to do it alone; that after Candied Orange saw what I’d done to Cocoa Bean that she’d went mad and thrown herself off of one of the palace balconies. Odd as I had not been told about that, but it does explain why I haven’t seen her as of late. But given what happened with Oceanglide, I wonder if Miss Allegra has the right of it; being left to her own devices to attend to the Rose’s needs may be more efficient as I have yet to dismiss her under “other” circumstances yet.

She also tells me that someday, Celestia and Luna will come to kill me. I’ll let that remark slide for now; a happy worker is an efficient worker, after all.

But as I enter the chamber, I feel that the room is distinctly colder than expected and it takes me a few seconds before I realize the climate spell has failed. And sure enough, lying there, on a bed of rags, is a rose-hued earth pony with a blonde mane and tail and teal eyes. She has no cutie mark, but strangely, she’s moving a bit more than I’d expected, as if the magic around her is starting to heal her. She holds onto the hide of Cocoa Bean as if it is a treasured object, softly singing a song to the mottled fur in her native language.

Then I feel her eyes fix on me, and they are filled with disgust and hatred, like nothing I have ever known. “Get out of here,” she orders me. Me! the audacity alone is astounding, but coming from one that can’t even wipe under her tail, that is saying much.

And then I realize that she’s just said that in Equish. Fancy that; I knew she had knowledge of the language, even with her accent.

“Ungrateful harridelle,” I curse at her. “You should be thankful! You are blessed to be in the body of a true being of importance, worthy of me.” I feel myself rise, and casting magic, I cast an immobilization spell on Musica before subsequently sealing the door. I then mount the ungrateful Rose and take her then and there as a pony deserves. She screams at me and tries to buck me off, threatening to kill me with my own horn; that only turns me on more and I end up spending myself in her. I cast a second spell and then to prove my point – a king must be virile, after all! – I then attend to Miss Allegra while the Rose watches. Unlike the Rose, she breaks down and cries, begging for me to stop, but doesn’t try to escape.

When I’m done, I restore the climate spell to the room and the Broken Rose, back in her human form, lies there, glaring at me once more. To my surprise, she’s able to move her arms, which she does, crawling over to Musica to embrace her and sing to her while she covers her own self with Cocoa Bean’s hide. She then glares at me wordlessly, but I get the message: she wants to kill me.

I laugh, walking out with a jaunty step as I depart. Dying, Musica? Oh, please.

I’ve never met a being so filled with life before.

Raspberry set down the book, trying to not let a horrified look on her face show. Reading the book in the middle of the day was no better than at night, and while she might not end up with nightmares tonight, she was sure she wasn’t going to forget this horror anytime soon.

“ARRIVAL AT NIGHTSHADE STATION IN TEN MINUTES!” announced the conductor, making his rounds through the short train.

“Well, I don’t think we’re in our usual trotting grounds, girls,” commented Rarity as she looked outside, prompted by the announcement. Indeed, for maybe the past hour, the environment off to the sides of the tracks had grown into things that were a far cry from the typical flora around central Equestria. It wasn’t a barren, inhospitable wasteland like those in the southern portion of the continent, but it was becoming more and more like a hardier-looking version of the Everfree Forest with every passing moment. The thickening conifers and wilder grasses were a far cry from the comparatively tame border of the Everfree with the dangers potentially being far worse…and not just from the local fauna. The skies themselves seemed restless, a perpetual overcast blocking the sun above just enough that the ground seemed lit by a partially obscured spotlight—not enough for long afternoon shadows to appear. At first they wondered if it was always like that, but then they noticed the patch of clear skies above.

As if acknowledging their thoughts, the conductor grinned. “Oh, yeah – this town is a coastal one, ladies, so there’s a lot of fog this time of year. Plus, we don’t have a full weather team, so the two weather pegasi we have mainly focus on keeping the area around the pecan farms clear.”

“That seems really weird,” Sandalwood commented. “I’m not a farmer or anything, but isn’t that a safety issue?”

“Believe me, as long as I’m around we’ll be fine,” chuckled Raspberry. “And you all shouldn’t need to worry about me biting the dust—I’m not the easiest mare to kill.” No, I can just be attacked psychologically, instead, she reminded herself silently, thinking about what she’d just read.

Ugh,” groaned Rarity. “No offense, Raspberry, darling, but just thinking about what you’ve survived is making me feel a bit queasy already. No no, I’ll be fine, thank you, but…don’t start thinking you’re an impenetrable wall we can stand behind for protection.”

Sandalwood nodded in agreement. “Exactly. I’d hate to see you get hurt on our account. Even if you can heal afterward.”

As the five ponies talked, Razz took the opportunity to excuse herself to the little filly’s room, citing a sudden need to apply another coating of prescription ointment on her leg. Taking her saddlebags with her, she quickly reached the end of the coach and locked herself into the rather cramped water closet. Gingerly, she removed her brace, revealing the parting gift she’d received from Fair Vista so long ago. It was an ugly sight to behold: at the midpoint of her left hind leg, her fur stopped a centimeter on both sides of a series of small, red scars, the markings of where the werewolf’s jaws had dug into her flesh with enough force to shatter her bone and almost tear her lower rear leg right off.

She could’ve healed the wound through her powers, but unfortunately, either due to something within Fair Vista’s bite or the fact that she’d exhausted her magic through other means, the wound had never quite healed, though the finest doctors in Equestria had been able to save the leg, but not without its cost—she would never be able to have full function in it again. Still, given that she’d saved the town and earned some lifelong friends and a family, it was a fair trade.

After capping the jar, Razz proceeded to wrap the cloth bandage around the injury to protect the ointment coating, followed by reattaching her brace. She let out a deep sigh of relief as the pain coming from her wound faded as the prosthetic aid shouldered part of the weight her leg alone no longer could handle.

Her treatment complete, she otherwise would have left the privacy of the bathroom, had that been the only thing she’d wanted to do in private.

Maybe I should get it looked at in the human world, she idly thought. If magic can’t heal it, maybe their technology could? Given the highly advanced brace that Sonata had built that let her move around as if the leg hadn’t been injured at all, it was something to consider. However, that would have to wait for another time, though. Right now, she had to focus on the current situation at hoof.

Razz put away the jar, slipping it into the bag. However, as she did, she noticed something else she’d had brought along that, had they known, the others would have objected to. Fittingly, it sat right next to where she’d placed The Rose with the Broken Neck.

Cautiously, Razz removed the towel her mother insisted needed to be brought along, unfolding it only partially to reveal the Alicorn Amulet hidden within. Originally, Razz had planned to simply give it back to Zecora, but decided against it as that was tantamount to asking the alchemist, “Can you hold onto this insanely dangerous and evil artifact that almost blew up your house and everything in it?” Plus, the best course of action would have been to send it to the foremost expert on dark magic in service to Equestria...who of course was Razz to begin with.

As such, it was a major reason why Razz felt the only place the Amulet would be kept safe—or at least kept as far from danger as possible—was with her at all times. The amulet’s reaction to her presence had yielded a most foreboding prophecy, one that implied that she was not the only descendant of Sombra to inherit his legacy in any capacity. For better or for worse, she had a connection with the stupid little trinket of pure evil, a connection implied that at least three other “Scions” held as well.

As much as I really don’t like it, she thought, I have to carry this thing around both to protect it and because it seems my destiny is to find those other ponies, something the Amulet’s probably already preset to help me with. A sickening follow-up thought then occurred and made Razz’s eyes widen with fear; she couldn’t help but vocalize the new potential horror. “Oh my Celestia…if Divine Right is a Scion, that would explain how he obviously did Equestrian magic…but it also would mean he’s my distant cousin. Faust above I hope that isn’t true, because otherwise I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to not kill him.”

“Archmagus, is everything okay in there?” suddenly came a voice from outside the door—a voice not belonging to any of her friends—followed by hoof knocking. Knocked out of her vacant stare, Razz swore her heart stopped for a fraction of a second.

“Y-yeah, sorry, just a moment!” she replied hastily, shoving the Amulet back into the bag, deeply wrapped in her towel. A few seconds later, Razz opened the door and found an unexpected acquaintance waiting. “My apologies, Corporal, I wasn’t aware you were part of the guard detachment put on this little adventure-slash-rescue mission, nor did I see you get on this train back in Ponyville.”

“It’s actually Sergeant now—I got promoted as a result of the war against Tirek,” Sgt. Summer Daffodil laughed. “Yeah, Lt. Skyracer said more or less the same thing. Princess Luna herself ordered a number of her Lunar Guard batponies to join your guard detachment for this trip. I guess it makes sense considering where we’re going, but she seemed to want me in particular,” the dark gray batpony said with a shrug. “Must be because we worked together during the whole werewolf incident some months back. Suffice to say, I barely had enough time to drag a few of my subordinates from their racks and haul their sorry plots to be at that last station in time to board this train. And then there’s the one I report to, Colour Sergeant Lightfighter. Can’t tell who’s weirder: her, or that Navy lieutenant that for some unknown reason is in overall command.”

“Well, I do appreciate your dedication to your duty, Sgt. Daffodil,” said Razz. “But Skyracer was there with you during the whole Fair Vista situation, so he’s aware of the werewolves thing, and he was the escort for Twilight and I during the goodwill tour that passed through Lonesome Dove. Not to be rude, but what is it about Nightshade that made Princess Luna insist that there be batponies along for the ride?”

Summer blinked. “Didn’t anypony tell you about Nightshade?”

“Yes, it’s related to the tomato, which is why I’m not fond of them,” Razz cracked. When she saw that the guard didn’t care for her joke, she continued. “Seriously, I’ve practically been all over Equestria before I ended up in Ponyville, but the only time I’ve ever heard about Nightshade was that a batpony and her…brother I met back home were originally from there.”

The sergeant raised an eyebrow and seemed to smirk slightly. “So the only thing you know about Nightshade is that two batponies call it their home town. Princess Luna insisted that you have batponies among your guard escort. If you look outside, that’s not exactly the most hospitable of environments. What does that tell you?”

“That…Nightshade has a large batpony population?”

Grinning, Daffodil nodded. “One of the biggest. Most ponies don’t come out to the Equestria-Griffon Kingdom border on this edge of the country, since while this land isn’t as barren as the southern wastes, it’s not easy to make a living out here. At least, not on the surface, but the borderlands along that mountain ridge are full of large caves—batponies thrive in that environment. Plus, it’s a seaside town, full of fog, which means that it’s a great place for batponies to hide.”

“But you––”

Historically, Archmagus. Nowadays, no, we don’t have to, but while weather may change on a dime, climate doesn’t—and the climate of Nightshade is tailor-made for batponies.”

The predators were everywhere. More importantly, the predators were almost certainly waiting outside the wreck, either on the ground outside any possible exits or already on top of the ship.

Even more importantly, there was no trace of anypony who had been on the ship besides her—meaning they’d already been around the inside decks.

The cream-coated mare was certain she was going to die by heart attack sooner than the teeth or claws of the beasts, as she slowly and nervously checked around every corner. The ship had been packed with ponies—how had she been the only one to escape?

“GRAAAAHHH!”

Me and my big thoughts! she exclaimed in her head as she saw a pair of golden eyes begin to bear down on her. Quickly taking off in the other direction, she felt her hooves slip at the top of the stairs she’d reached, prompting her transformation into a rapidly moving ball down a painfully long passage, ending with her rolling right into the improbably open galley freezer. She only needed a moment to recover, but the sight of those fearsome golden eyes quickly made her decision for her.

Slamming the galley door shut and hearing the external lock make a reaffirming click, she breathed a sigh of relief…only for that relief to go away when she saw her own breath exhalation, realization dawning on her that she was now locked in the freezer of the ship.

“Oh…changeling pudding pops!” she swore. Sure, not being ripped to death by monsters was good, but death by embarrassing self-cryostasis wasn’t exactly much better…

“Come on, Heelee!” insisted Razz, lightly and repeatedly poking her avian companion. “You spent the whole train ride asleep! We’re already here!”

Groggily, the phoenix slowly opened his eyes but it was clear something about the trip had made him far sleepier than usual. Raspberry looked at her avian companion with concern. This level of exhaustion was not normal for Heliodor, but maybe he simply overslept on the train.

“Alright, here, ride on my horn,” conceded Razz, lowering her head such that the shaky bird could more easily board the S. S. Raspberry Forehead. With the bird hat now equipped, Razz levitated her saddlebags on, before departing the coach to rejoin her pony companions.

Along with the five other mares she was with was the guard detachment included Rainbow, Sgt. Lightfighter and Sgt. Summer Daffodil, with a complement of guards from various divisions. One of the batponies was apparently trying to annoy one of the pegasi by making noisy silly faces at him.

“Private Amber Shine!” bellowed Daffodil, “this is a guard detachment, not a field trip of foals!”

“Yes, ma’am, your ma’amness!” replied Shine, immediately snapping to attention. Nopony around who looked at her believed for a second she wasn’t going to go right back to what she was doing, Daffodil chief among them.

“Well, since you’re so eager to be active, Private,” she said skeptically, who oddly glanced over to Rarity before resuming her commanding stare at her subordinate. “I’d like to thank you for volunteering to carry Lady Rarity’s bags—all thirteen of them.”

THIRTEEN?!”

“Yes, I’m shocked as well that they thought you could carry so little. So I told them you’d be carrying the bags of the others as well as Lt. Dash’s gear and ordnance. So that should be about...eighteen in all?” Amber Shine suddenly looked queasy and Daffodil asked, “Is there a problem, Private?”

“Uh, n-no, I mean—No, ma'am! I’ll get right on it!” The embarrassed batpony beat a quick salute before reluctantly heading over to the train to pick up the first of the many fancy, oversized travel bags only Rarity would deem necessary to bring along.

“Hey, congrats, Pvt. Shine!” hollered out a nearby guard. “You’re the new Raincloud Splash!”

“Cpl. Breakdown, show some discipline!” a voice commanded. All turned to see Rainbow Dash, wearing an operational uniform, walking towards them. “Pvt. Shine is a part of this team, as are you, and you will treat her as well as any other member of this unit with the respect they deserve, am I clear?”

Standing next to Rarity, Sandalwood whispered, “Who is she and what did she do to Rainbow?”

“In case y’all have forgotten,” flatly stated Applejack, “we’re supposed to be lookin’ for the wreck of that airship, specifically fer survivors.”

“AJ’s right,” Rainbow stated. “We really should get moving.”

The town of Nightshade was, much to everypony’s surprise, far more like Ponyville than they’d expected. Sure, the prominent mountain face dotted with caves and even smaller black dots moving to and fro was certainly different, but the town itself appeared to be relatively sleepy and small, more than a village but less than a city, nestled in the foothills of the bordering mountains near the coastline. As geographically impossible as it was, there it sat.

“Hey, is it just me,” said Sandalwood, “or does it seem really unusual that for a town on the border of the country, there doesn’t appear to be any presence of either Royal or Lunar Guards beyond present company?”

“For that matter, there should be a small naval facility here,” Rainbow added. “Even if it’s small, we try to make sure any significant shoreline towns are protected.”

“Even though the Guard recruits its batponies from this place, safety is the job of the town militia, and they tend to have standard-issue, if slightly outdated, steelplate armor,” informed Daffodil. “You’re probably more used to seeing the flashier barding for the various Princess Guard divisions than town forces. If I remember correctly, this town also serves as a regional HQ for the border guards, too. And as for a naval facility, the one at Horsetail Delta is just a few miles north of us, so the town has maritime protection.”

“Well, not quite,” corrected Lightfighter, “Nightshade may be a border town, but it’s not on the border. According to my briefing for this, Fort Hoofsteel is a few miles northwest of Nightshade, that’s where most of the main Army division would be. However, given the Seabiscuit Arno crashed closer to the garrison than it did this town, I expect most of the local guardsponies and soldiers are already on site running SAR operations.”

“I wasn’t aware there was an Army garrison nearby,” Rainbow stated.

“Yeah, for the most part it’s an Engineering facility, making sure that the rails in this area are up to code, since the Crown owns this segment of the rail system,” Lightracer continued. “However, as of recently they stationed a division here due to the increasing problems from the griffin lands and the spillover from time to time. They’re also here to protect Featherton, which is a small town of Equestrian griffins just a few miles inland. The Guard’s had reports that griffin brigands have been trying to capture some of the local hens, because...well, I don’t think I need to spell that out, do I?”

“Look, not all griffins are bad,” Rainbow insisted. “I mean, look at Gustav le Grande—he’s one of Equestria’s most famous celebrity chefs. There’s also Capt. Gallard of the Thunderheads and Capt. Genevieve of the Skystrikers, as well as all the griffins in those two squadrons.”

“Didn’t you also attend Junior Speedsters flight camp with one?” asked Applejack. “Ah remember one showin’ up a few years ago to visit and she was nothin’ but rude to everypony—even you when you called her out on it.”

“Yeah, and I found out why: she’s been leading a reformation effort within the griffinlands, but she was stressed, because they won’t listen to a ‘Ponylander’ since she lived here for so long. Her second-in-command, Gabrielle, is in just as bad a position. The Crown would like to help them, but I don’t think there’s much we can do without outright declaring war on all the griffin warlords. As it is, we just went through everything with Tirek, so nopony’s in the mood to get into a fight anytime soon.”

“It’s times like these that we could use somepony who isn’t on the books” Daffodil said. “Gen. Halbard’s been talking about creating specialized forces like the Minoan Asterions, but that’s the kind of specialized training we ponies don’t have.”

Just then, hurried galloping could be heard coming from the direction of the town. A slightly out-of-breath earth pony wearing a bow-tie soon accompanied the approaching sound, sliding to a stop in front of the escorted ponies and taking a moment to catch his breath. “So sorry…didn’t…expect you…so soon…”

“It’s fine, really,” assured Razz. “Truth be told we actually weren’t expecting anypony to meet us here, mister…”

“Twin Peaks,” answered the stallion, immediately doing his best to look presentable and offered his hoof to Razz. “I’m the mayor of Nightshade, so it wouldn’t do if I wasn’t around to offer the warmest welcoming to a group of Equestria’s most important ponies. I do apologize for being so late, Archmagus Beryl.” He then turned to address the others. “And we have three of the Bearers here! It is an honor to meet you, Ladies Rarity, Applejack and Lt. Rainbow Dash.”

“Just ‘Razz’ will do, thanks,” said the mulberry unicorn with a slight blush.

“Rarity is fine by me,” the fashionista unicorn added, and Applejack and Rainbow introduced themselves by name as well.

Peaks nodded. “Very good, then. In any case, my compatriots and I are pleased as punch to make your acquaintance. Now, I’m sure you’re all eager to help the search and rescue team, but I’m afraid that will have to wait. A storm is coming towards Nightshade soon and the wilderness where the Seabiscuit Arno crashed is particularly dangerous. While it should pose no problem to those already on-site, passage to the wreck is only by way of a steep dirt path that will become a giant mudslide trap if the reports are accurate about the rain.”

Rainbow turned to Lightfighter. “Get whatever pegasi we have out there and get as much control of that pattern as they can, got that?”

“They’re not trained weatherponies, Lieutenant,” Lightfighter replied.

“It’s an innate skill to pegasi in some degree or other. Yeah, weather creation is a trained skill, but cloudwrangling is something every pegasus knows—even the ones that were raised as landlubbers.” She then turned to Pine. “If Guards are already working on site, they’re going to need assistance.”

Rarity then asked, “But if the survivors are already being tended to, chances are there’s certainly much more pegasi with weather management capabilities already on site, is that not right? Why cut your forces if you don’t have to?”

“Because in a rescue situation, one of the biggest factors in safety is weather,” Rainbow explained, “and in some cases, it’s the difference between pulling a foal safely out of a dry hole or watching her die because it’s too slippery to get good footing, and storm ionization is interfering with spells.”

As if to help further the decision process, the gray clouds above chose that moment to start drizzling.

“Well, looks like our hoof is forced regardless, ponies,” said Razz. “Mr. Peaks, if you would be so kind as to help us find lodging to escape the rain?”

“It would be my pleasure,” he answered, with a hint of relief in his own voice.

The walk through town to where they were shacking up for the duration of their stay was odd and uncomfortable. Razz only half-listened as Twin Peaks gave them a basic rundown of the events surrounding the crash.

“Whole town probably felt the impact of the Arno when it hit,” Peaks said. “Naturally, I wasted no time dispatching the town militia to the crash site, and after assessing the situation, I had them contact the military.” Peaks glanced at Razz, who nodded to affirm she was listening before Peaks continued. “A contingent of my militia is still onsite working with the military and acting as runners….”

Razz started to fall back from the mayor a little, distracted by the sudden feeling of her hairs standing on end. She looked around the streets. As Sgt. Daffodil had said, there was an abundance of batponies around in addition to the more common subspecies milling about. That wasn’t what had Raspberry so perturbed, though. As she and her group walked down the dusty streets, every single pony they passed—bat-like or otherwise—stared at them steadily. These weren’t merely the looks of curious onlookers; there was a certain element of hostility to them.

This continued even as they approached the bustling marketplace. At first, it was typical of what one would expect out of a marketplace in the late afternoon. Ponies of all kinds bought and haggled with the merchants at their stands, who all competed over the sound of each other’s voices to announce their wares. One by one however, each stall grew silent as customer and salespony alike noticed the new arrivals. Soon, the din of voices became nothing but a few hushed murmurs. It was now silent enough that Razz could hear the static-covered voices of a radio one of the shopkeepers had been listening to.

“They sure are rollin’ out the welcome wagon for us, huh?” Applejack drawled, glancing once at Twin Peaks a few paces ahead of them. If the mayor had heard her, he made no indication of it.

“Yeah, I don’t think my reception at Lonesome Dove was this icy, and they literally attacked both Twilight and I,” Raspberry said. She had to check her reflection in the window of a nearby shop to make sure her magical guise was still intact.

“Perhaps they’re just not accustomed to newcomers?” Rarity suggested, but the slight tremor in her voice betrayed the truth: She could sense the hostility in the townsponies’ stares as well as Raspberry.

None too soon did the group of travelers put the eerie atmosphere of the marketplace behind them as they approached the Inn beyond its edge. According to Mayor Peaks, the Blackhoof Lodge was the nicest Inn in town by virtue of being the only Inn in town. It was a log structure that vaguely reminded Raspberry of a toy she used to have as a foal. If she had to guess, the Lodge was one of the oldest buildings in town.

“Please wait here, I need to have a word with the Innkeeper before securing your rooms,” Twin Peaks said before going into the log structure, leaving Razz and company alone.

Habitually, Raspberry glanced around, expecting more hostile stares. Instead, she saw nothing—the surrounding street was devoid of any life at all. Feeling her hairs stand on end, Raspberry was suddenly compelled to check over her shoulder towards the marketplace they just came through. The whole square was as empty as the street they stood on now. There was no sign that the marketplace had ever held anypony at all save for one: Razz could still hear the faint crackle of a radio.

“This may be a clichè,” Sandalwood said, clearly tensing up, “but I have a bad feeling about this.”

You don’t say, Raspberry thought, but voiced nothing. Instead, she silently prepared a defensive spell as around her, the others wordlessly assumed combat stances. For a few eternal minutes, that was how they stood, waiting for whatever was coming. But instead, the sound of the Blackhoof Lodge’s front door opening heralded Twin Peaks’ return.

“Okay, your rooms have been prepared,” he announced, before frowning at the group curiously. “Is something the matter?”

Raspberry glanced again at the barren marketplace, but already the tension was fading. It’s probably closing time anyway. We’re just getting worked up over nothing, she thought, before turning to the mayor and reassuring him—and herself—that everything was fine.

After seeing Sandalwood off to head to her cousin’s, the group of ponies soon found themselves in the Blackhoof Lodge’s penthouse suite, which featured two bedrooms—a king-sized bed in one and a queen-sized bed in the other—and a myriad of well cared for mahogany furniture. The new arrivals quickly got settled in for the late afternoon. That is, for the most part.

“Razz, darling,” said Rarity as one unicorn to another, “you do know you can take off your saddlebags now, right?”

“Oh, am I still wearing my bags?” Having usually walked around many a town in her past for long periods with her back laden with various assortments of precious stone “replicas”, the thought of having forgotten her relatively light baggage never actually left her back had never occurred to her. Though given its secret cargo, Razz didn’t particularly want to take her saddlebags off lest the Amulet vanish when she wasn’t looking.

“Yes, though if I didn’t know better, I would have sworn you yourself believe your bags were full of treasure, like they were a magic bag of infinite holding—or so Spike would put it, apparently that Ogres & Oubliettes game he plays with Big Mac on occasion can’t just say ‘pocket dimension bags’ I guess.”

“You could always say ‘hammerspace bag’, given that she does, though she still hasn’t explained the reference.”

“What’re you two talking about?” Daffodil asked as she approached.

“A Bag of Holding—those pocket-dimension storage bags that only certain high-ranking ponies can have,” Rarity explained. “A...friend of ours has one and apparently calls it ‘the hammerspace bag’, though she won’t explain the reference. Must be some obscure in-joke.”

“Must have been somepony extra special, as that kind of magic is usually forbidden for pretty obvious reasons,” interjected Lightfighter, who came over to the table the two unicorns were sitting at, dropping to her haunches and in a sign of relaxation, removed her helmet. Next to her was a pegasus in Army barding, and he removed his helmet as well, revealing a mane composed of brilliant white and gold streaks.

“All, this is Lt. Skyracer. He’s going to be our liaison from the Army garrison.”

Raspberry opened her mouth to tell her that she and Skyracer were already acquainted, but something wasn’t right. There was a distinct lack of familiarity in the way the newly arrived soldier regarded her.

Skyracer offered a hoof. “Pleasure to meet you all.” Introductions were made, and as they were, Skyracer sat down to join the group.

“As I was saying,” Lightfighter continued, “I feel like there’s something that needs to be discussed in a more discreet manner.”

“Oh, please—most of us here are high-ranking members of government or the military, so we don’t have to be that discreet,” Rainbow reminded.

“And I’m guessing there’s the part where Twi said you had to work on your military professionalism?”

“Secrets, schmecrets,” Rainbow complained. “I’m not a need-to-know-kind of gal.”

“That’s beside the point, though,” Skyracer said with a straight face, though his eyes were a dead giveaway of his finding humor in her words. “I don’t know about you two, or any of the others, but…something seems off around here.”

“What, you mean besides the creepy stares and disappearing act from the locals?” Razz asked sardonically.

“Don’t tell me it’s the unusually high amount of batponies around,” chided Rarity. “I for one think they could be an untapped market for an exclusive dressline made by yours truly.”

“Yeah, an’ actually, if there’s anything that’s off, it’s you,” Applejack chimed in. “We already know a pony named Skyracer, an’ you look like him, but you don’t know any of us.”

“Oh, that,” Skyracer said. “Complete coincidence that he and I have the same name. But as you can see, my coat is sky blue and my mane and tail a mix of gold and white. The other Skyracer is butter yellow coated with a three-shade mane of black, red, and white. Plus, I’m a soldier, through and through—he’s just a guard.”

“I’m not sure, Lieutenant,” Rarity said, eyeing his coat. “You look more like a periwinkle in tone.”

“Fashion on the brain as always,” jabbed Razz, before ignoring the indignant look the fashionista shot at her as Razz’s attention focused on the guard. “You were saying, Lieutenant?”

“The ponies in this town…I think they’re hiding something, Archmagus. Maybe more than just what’s going on with the Seabiscuit Arno.”

Although Raspberry certainly felt the same after the welcome she and the others had received, it just didn’t add up. “I can’t think of a reason for a town relatively out of contact with the rest of Equestria—it’s a small community that makes its money through fishing for carnivores and some kelp and pecan farming, after all—to have something to do with bringing down an airship.”

“That’s what worries me,” admitted Skyracer. “It’s only been a day, and enough ponies are now onscene that we’re going to end up tripping over each other’s hooves.” He then leaned in closer as he whispered in a conspiratorial tone, “I have reason to believe that we were all shoved here to create some sort of organized confusion for something else going on. But what that something else is, I don’t know.”

“Maybe it was just bad timing?” suggested Raspberry, gesturing to a window where the rain continued to pour heavily. “The Army, as I understand it, usually doesn’t send more than search and rescue personnel. The naval base didn’t send anypony, since they’re too busy patrolling the sea zones.”

“Unless...that’s what they want you to think,” Rainbow mused.

“Your tinfoil hat working overtime?” Applejack teased.

Rainbow took a long breath. “Think about it: you have civil, militia, military, guard, guild and naval forces here. That’s six different chains of command, four if you want the technicality that the Guard present reports to me and the militia to the town government. Even still, that’s several different methodologies and means of doing things, and unless someone already has a plan to work out the kinks, there’s a lot of ways you could cover over something or hide something important. For example, what if you wanted to steal a precious gem that was aboard the Arno? Sure you could get it off the ship, but then you have to deal with the various troops outside. Except...they’re all squabbling over who owns what box, who has SAR and who makes what arrests, so in the confusion our theoretical thief could just walk out and nopony does anything, because it’s not part of their SOP. Now imagine that on the case of somepony stealing a high-level magical device designed to, oh, I dunno, be used on the griffins nearby and start a war between them and either Equestria or Minos?”

The stunned look on their faces was enough to know she’d grabbed their attention. “Are you sure you’re not just overstating it a little?” Daffodil asked.

“Rainbow may be a bit eccentric, but when it comes to anything even tangentially related to the Wonderbolts, she’s deadly serious,” Applejack said.

“Your face is eccentric...” Rainbow muttered. Realizing she wasn’t making a good case for herself, she cleared her throat and continued, “Which brings me to problem two—the Arno’s ERICA.”

“What?” Rarity asked.

Razz decided to field this one, having read the briefing documents Twilight had provided her with. “Emergency Recording and Interpolative Crystal Array. You might have heard of it by another name—the Black Box. It’s a magical device onboard ships that records everything from a particular ship’s voyage, and especially in the event of a crash like this one. It can also record the difference between accident and intent, like for example whether the aerostat failed, or whether somepony blew it up.”

“Oh, well, isn’t that exciting,” Rarity uttered. “Do the valiant heroines learn that there actually was some kind of super-secret cargo that we—”

“It’s a magical device that records everything that an airship does,” interrupted an unamused Skyracer. “It may have the ship’s manifest recorded as well.”

“Ah. Right. Of course, silly me.”

“Anyway, point is that once an airship crash site has been secured, one of the highest priorities the Guardsponies on-scene have is to retrieve the box if they are able to and hold it until the proper authorities arrive—in this case, that’d be you, Archmagus.”

“Oh, so that’s what Twilight wanted me to do with that spell?” Razz then shook her head. “I wish somepony would have remembered why I’m a kind of pony everypony usually doesn’t want to know. Even if I have the kind of lock opening spell, I’d probably accidently destroy the thing due to the kind of magic holding it shut reacting to my dark magic.”

“There’s a way around that, thankfully, but I’ll get to that in a moment,” Skyracer stated. “The problem is that there’s been ample time for a guard on-site to have retrieved the box and brought it here—they knew we were coming, so there’s no reason they wouldn’t have. Furthermore? I sent my subordinates ahead to rendezvous with the guards at the crash site to at least ensure we had some presence there—a little thunderstorm shouldn't stop us, after all—but that was hours back and they apparently have just up and disappeared.”

“Well, looks like we’re in some kind of cliché mystery narrative all over again after all, Rarity,” mock-lamented Razz.

“As long as werewolves aren’t involved this time, I do believe we’ll be alright,” nonchalantly replied Rarity with a chuckle. Everypony else in the know also laughed, albeit a bit more nervously.

“Werewolves?

“It’s an in-joke,” said Applejack.

“Preciseley,” added Rarity, “Though, Lieutenant, you mentioned that it wasn’t a problem if Raspberry is unable to open the box?”

Skyracer nodded. “We’re lucky: in a sense, due to the kind of lock, procedure is to call for a Guild member with the knowledge for the unlocking spell. But despite being in the middle of nowhere, there is a pony who allegedly is accredited with the kind of knowledge to open it, and surprisingly enough, she’s not a Guild member.”

“Really?” Razz asked. “Sounds like this pony might be worth meeting.”

“So, he doesn’t sing?” the brown-coated mare asked her escorts.

“Nope, Sunshine doesn’t sing,” replied Meadowlark.

“Seriously, bro, why you gotta keep bringing that up like it’s a thing?” Sunshine complained.

The two batponies continued bickering as they made their way down the empty streets of Nightshade while the unicorn they were escorting looked on with a smile. Clearly she was enjoying their antics. Sunshine could hardly believe she was a local here—the other residents of Nightshade only ever stared creepily at them and the other military personnel whenever they passed through. Speaking of, where is everypony? This place is a ghost town all of a sudden.

“Because Sgt. Daffodil told me I can’t make any more ‘blind as a bat’ pony jokes on account of you,” Meadowlark snarked, continuing their latest round of bickering.

“Knock it off, you two!” ordered the spontaneously-appearing sergeant in question. “We’re representing the Lunar Guard and you two bickering through escort duty isn’t showing proper military bearing!”

“Oh, come on, Sarge. We’re brothers,” nickered Meadow, “it’s like, genetic or something.”

Daffodil just facehoofed. “Of all the troops I could have picked, the three I took are the ones who can’t keep their mouths shut…”

“No, no, it’s fine,” lightly laughed the mare the twin batponies had brought. “Not everyday a mare gets to be escorted around town with two handsome young stallions. Especially one with a jaunty eyepatch.”

HA! YES!” crowed Sunshine, hoofpumping the air. “Amber totally owes me ten bits now!”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” asked Daffodil with a questioning eyebrow raise.

“Uh, I don’t believe so, Ma-oh, right, it’s still raining.”

“You’re lucky that you were escorting a unicorn who knows an invisible rain shield spell,” Daffodil. Indeed, the whole time they’d been talking, it was still raining cats and dogs, and Daffodil had to hand it to the mare—she seemed far more at ease dealing with the two goofball brothers than Daffodil was with the relatively green recruits. “But since I don’t want to report back to Canterlot with a bad case of white-nose flu, let’s get…I’m sorry, what’s your name, miss?”

A loud crack of thunder then rang out. “On second thought, you can tell me after we get out of this rain. Shall we?”

“Let’s!”

As the sun set in the sky, a knock sounded at the door to the penthouse suite. Razz went to open it and saw a familiar tan face holding together a strained smile.

“Sandy? What are you doing back here?” Razz asked. “I thought you were staying at your cousin’s place.”

“That was the plan, yeah,” Sandalwood said, planning to leave it at that. Unfortunately for her, Razz’s concerned look made it clear that wasn’t going to happen. “She told me her guest room is being remodeled and that her couch might be infested.”

“Infested?”

“Yeah, with crystalmites.”

“Crystalmites? This far south?”

Sandalwood shrugged. “Apparently they tried growing crystalberries here last year and the crop had a small infestation. The mites have spread out and though they don’t cause much bother to the locals, they drive visitors up the wall. I don’t really know; I’m not too familiar with them.”

“Eesh. That’s unfortunate.” Razz thought about it for a moment. “But she knew you were coming, right? How was she not able to find a way to accommodate you?”

With a sigh and a shrug, Sandalwood said, “I don’t know. She was acting… weird. Was really nervous and jittery the whole time until kicking me out. Just told me she was tired and wanted to get an early night. The same mare who went bar hopping with me in Ponyville until 2AM running on four hours of sleep.” With a final shrug, Sandalwood just said, “Whatever. She gave me the bits to pay for a room here, so I’m fine. Just wanted to check in on you guys here. How’s your investigation?”

Razz looked back to where Skyracer was now pacing the floor. “In short, not great.”

Razz then gave Sandalwood a brief update on the situation surrounding the Arno, including the fact that they still hadn’t heard from the ponies Skyracer had sent to rendezvous with the team investigating the crash site.

“According to the Lieutenant, the town militia have been largely responsible for relaying information between here and all branches of the military onsite,” Razz explained. “They needed every last pegasus available to help wrangle this incoming storm, and the terrain proved to be too perilous for most anypony unfamiliar with it. But with the rains not letting up, it’s become too dangerous for even locals familiar with the terrain to make the journey, so we’re effectively in the dark on what’s happening at the crash site until we can get the storm under control.”

“Is it custom in the Mage’s Guild to share sensitive information with civilians, Archmagus?” Skyracer asked, his tone as biting as the teeth that mangled Razz’s leg. “Or is it just customary for the Archmagus of Dark Magic?”

“Mind your tone, Lieutenant,” Razz admonished. “Sandalwood is a researcher on the Crown payroll, so she has the applicable clearances. Furthermore, even if she didn’t, I can trust her to be discreet and judicious in her actions. That should be enough for you.”

Skyracer seemed about to come up with an equally dismissive retort when Sandalwood stepped between them. She recognized Skyracer’s particular brand of hostility: it was the kind used by officers to mask concern for their troops.

“Your ponies will be fine,” said Sandalwood, approaching him. “If they’re highly trained professionals, I’m sure they’re tough enough to deal with something as common as a rainstorm.”

“A rainstorm that should’ve been dealt with hours ago,” Skyracer grumbled. “What the hell is that naval officer that came with you doing? Polishing the raindrops inside?”

“Look, I’m a Navy brat, so I know how they operate,” Sandalwood said, frowning now that the military division she was closest to had its honor questioned by some Army jarhead. “I’m betting that Rainbow’s taking care of the stormwale first before tackling the headwinds—if she takes out the main one first, what’s the point when additional clouds come in? All she’d do is exhaust herself and the ponies she has with her.” Sandy shrugged. “As far as I know that’s common aerography tactics: control commanding ground, am I right?”

Chided, Skyracer coughed into his hoof. “Of course I knew that, Miss Sandalwood. My statement was merely a suppositional question, not an accusational one.”

The tan pony laughed. “Not much of a difference in Ponyville, when you live down the street to the Princess of Friendship. Just give Rainbow a fair shake—she’ll have this done soon enough, I’m sure of it.”

At this point, Rainbow came in, her flight suit soaked to the bone. “Can somepony get me a towel? I don’t want to soak the floor before I get to my room so I can change gear.”

“How goes the storm wrangling?” Applejack asked.

Rainbow removed her goggles, taking the towel handed to her by the staff. “Not going to clear up anytime soon,” she admitted. “There’s a huge supercell moving in from the southwest that’s driving a major front this way. As it is, we’ve got just enough ponies we’re throwing at it to prevent any flash flooding, but we’re not going to be able to get to the core of the present cell anytime soon––”

“And while you do that, time is wasting, Lt. Dash,” Skyracer barked. “This storm should’ve been taken out of commission the moment the accident happened, but there it is, still there, making a mess of things.”

“Yes, and your Army SAR folks were first on the scene after the militia,” Rainbow shot back. “I didn’t see any green flightsuits out there.”

“Because weather control is a Navy job, not an Army one.”

“No, normal military weather management goes to the Navy, Lieutenant,” Rainbow reminded him, “but emergency situations like this can be dealt with by anypony on-scene with CSAR skills.”

“Your point is?” Skyracer bristled.

“CSAR is supposedly something the Army loves to crow about teaching, right? That NSAR isn’t good enough in emergeny situations?” Rainbow shot back.

“CSAR? NSAR?” Raspberry asked.

“Combat Search and Rescue and Naval Search and Rescue,” Sandalwood explained. “Basically they’re advanced SAR techniques when regular SAR methods won’t work or conditions require specialists.”

Meanwhile, unaware of the earth pony’s explanation, Rainbow continued her dressing down of her counterpart. “So again, why weren’t your forces dealing with it? We could’ve had the storm gone by the time we got here and we’d have no problem with that incoming cell.”

“Look, what’s done is done,” Razz said, getting between the two, “and we’ll do what we have to, okay? We’ll make this work. Rainbow, if you can keep the extra storm from being a problem, I’ll ask Mayor Peaks if he can get some of the townsfolk to do what they can on the current storm.” She then turned to Skyracer. “But I also expect that you’ll send word to your garrison for a support unit that we could use to mop things up here.”

“Understood.” He looked out the windows, to the rain. “I best get started, then. Going to be a bit of a journey.” Pausing just long enough to pull a weather cloak out of his saddle bags, he departed.

“Anypony else think he was a grade-A jerk?” Applejack inquired.

“I’ll cut him some slack; he’s probably run himself ragged trying to keep a hold on the whole situation,” Rainbow said, uncharacteristically trying to be the voice of reason. “Plus, even AK Yearling was a jerk the first time we met her, right? Ponies warm up to us sooner or later.” Rainbow then looked out the window into the distance, frowning at whatever she saw. “Aaaaaaaaaand there goes my break time. Rares, think you can whip up a quick-drying spell for me? Not going to have time to get to my room after all.”

In response, Rarity’s horn briefly glowed, and a corresponding aura appeared over Rainbow. “As good as I can get it in a rush, darling,” she apologized.

“Hey, the fact that I won’t end up catching poneumonea from the cold is good enough,” Rainbow said with a grin. “Thanks!” She walked over to the door, opening it...

...and in stepped a rain soaked trio of batponies, followed by a unicorn who stood out more than most.

By coincidence, Razz had been seeing Rainbow off when the newcomers came through the door, and her eyes connected with the those of the trio’s charge. Whoever this unicorn was, her Cutie Mark was a bit unusual: a simple treasure chest, which stood out against her sinopia-toned fur and golden twin-ponytailed mane as it was. However, what really grabbed Razz’s attention were the crossed chains on the box—something didn’t seem right but Razz couldn’t figure out what bothered her so much about it.

“Well…” said the mysterious unicorn after what seemed like an eternity. “This is unexpected.”

“What’s unexpected?” cautiously asked Raspberry. She didn’t know quite what was going on, but this mare seemed to have some kind of unnerving disposition.

“You, of course,” flatly stated strange mare, before somehow making herself brighten up as if nothing had happened. “I heard there was a princess in town, but nopony told me she was here, too!” With energy on par with a sluggish Pinkie Pie, the mare rushed toward Rarity and took her into a big hug. “I’m such a fan of your work!”

“Well, er,” stammered Rarity, a bit taken aback at being recognized in an unexpected manner. “Always nice to…meet a fan, I suppose? Though I must confess I don’t know your na-OOOF!”

Almost in total obliviousness, the unicorn dropped Rarity unceremoniously (much to the amusement of Rarity’s compatriots). “Ohmigosh, I’m so sorry, where are my manners?” She then extended a hoof. “I’m Lockbox, the local lock-slash-blacksmith here in Nightshade!”

“A pleasure, truly,” replied Rarity, taking the offered hoof and letting the other mare help her up.

Razz, for her part, was uncertain about how to judge Lockbox. On the one hoof, she seemed to basically be a unicorn version of Pinkie Pie—difficult to deal with but hopefully not unreasonable.

On the other hoof, however, she couldn’t shake the feeling Lockbox had only dived after Rarity to divert attention away from that moment where she and the other unicorn had locked eyes. There’s only one way to start figuring any of this out, thought Razz, and that’s getting to that wreck as soon as possible. She then glanced out a window to the still-torrential rains outside. The last time Razz could remember rains that bad was the night she’d saved her adoptive father from timberwolves—and subsequently making the following week the most miserable of Heliodor’s life. I wonder if Rarity can make him a patched-together rain poncho?

“Alright, let’s get serious now,” Razz said, addressing Lockbox directly. “Miss Lockbox, if you have a moment, we may need your help…”

“Hmmm, that is serious,” said Lockbox, about an hour later after the truncated version of events had been laid out and she was made aware that she might have been the only pony who could open the black box. “You’re sure it needs to be me?”

Razz nodded. “While I do know the spell, I’d rather keep that in reserve in favor of more mundane methods. That way I’d have the extra magic on hand in case of other emergencies, and as the situation is playing out, we might be in this for the long haul.”

“And you can’t send for somepony more qualified than me to come open this box?”

“Look, you’re somepony who works with that kind of stuff for a living, right?” asked Applejack. “Generally, that doesn’t mean you’re ‘underqualified.’”

“Plus, we need the box opened as soon as possible,” added Sandalwood. “There’s more going on than we’re allowed to discuss, but let’s just say time is of the essence.”

“Look, going outside right now is not a good idea,” Lockbox said. “Not a good idea at all.”

“How so?”

“You are all from around Ponyville, right?” asked Lockbox, her hardened eyes suggesting the bubbly mare from earlier was currently out for the day. “I’ve heard stories about your Everfree, but those are nothing compared to what you’d find in the forests around Nightshade.”

“Ah personally disagree,” piped up Applejack, who wasn’t going to mention that it was in the Everfree that Sable Loam had turned her into a lycanthrope and that the sorta-not-kinda-still-maybe-dead-at-the-time spirit of Fair Vista had raised a magical clone army of herself and the Everfree had, apparently, generated an unnatural storm of raw dark magic energy that really had pointed right to the evil undead werewolf’s lair. “But that’s just me.”

“You don’t know the stories, then,” the golden-maned mare said with trepidation. “Not many ponies know, but Nightshade…this is where many of the refugees and survivors from the destroyed army of Nightmare Moon came after she was banished to the moon one thousand years ago, to become the founders of this town. It’s speculated that they inadvertently brought some of the demonic alicorn’s magic with them, the so-called ‘Nightmare Forces’ having permanently taken up residence in the forest. While residents of this town are safe—a protection granted by unknown powers that extends to the residents over at Clawhoof—outsiders aren’t so lucky. Two ponies from out of town can go in there, but whereas one will come out a day later, the other may not appear until a month has passed or longer—if they ever come out at all.”

“That sounds more like Discord’s magic than anything,” pointed out Raspberry. “And I doubt even he knows about this town.”

“Well, you get my point anyway, right? I’m sure your guards you sent in there are fine, but please, let the town and the local guards handle this—do not go into that forest without somebody who lives here, or you may never come out.”

“Don’t worry,” assured Razz, “nopony here is going to actually think about doing that, right girls?”

“Right!” they unanimously replied.

“Now I just need to get that answer out of Rainbow before she does anything stupid,” Razz added, “and everything should be fine.”

Three hours later after everypony at Blackhoof Lodge had gone to bed for the night, the rain had finally stopped. It was almost midnight when a second floor window bordering the forest popped open and out flew a makeshift rope made of malleable dark crystal—an idea generated when one particular mare had gone to another reality and needed another mare to explain what ‘fiber optics’ were. Soon after, Razz—who chose to leave without resetting her “normal” cloaking spell—descended. That way, in case anypony saw her, they’d think it was a monster or something other than Razz herself.

Probably the only time I’ve ever wanted that reaction from somepony looking at me in the dark, thought Razz, who carefully climbed down the side of the building, Heliodor then gliding out the window and quickly landing on the grass below. Once down, Razz dissolved the crystal rope and magically closed the window so nopony would be the wiser—she could have teleported but the large magical discharge was easily detectable by the guard ponies she was trying to give the slip to.

“You ready to go?” asked Applejack’s voice, though Applejack herself was nowhere to be seen.

“Yeah,” responded Razz, “let’s get goi-OOF!” The unicorn lightly rubbed her head where she’d apparently walked right into an invisible wall.

“Right, sorry about that,” said Rarity’s voice, followed by the spontaneous glow of a faint blue light. Rapidly, the alabaster unicorn removed her illusion spell and the forms of herself, Applejack, and Sandalwood subsequently came into view as if they were materializing ghosts. “Though we are going to be in so much trouble once Lightfighter and the other guards who are supposed to be protecting us discover we’re gone.”

“Rainbow should be able to run interference for us,” Razz told her. “She had to know we were going to do this. After all,” replied Razz cockily, before getting to her hooves and trotted toward the dark forest ahead, “You gotta remember the ponies that we are, Rarity. Getting into trouble like this is what we do.”

Just within visual distance of the Army facility, Skyracer walked off the beaten path, down into the gully and towards the copse of trees in the middle of it. As he did, a pack of timberwolves walked out, snapping and snarling, their glowing eyes full of malicious hunger. Skyracer didn’t bat an eye.

“Oh, knock it off, the lot of you,” Skyracer snapped in a voice that was not his own. It was actually lighter, more feminine.

“Sorry, your ladyship,” one of the timberwolves spoke, before he was consumed by jade-hued fire, leaving a changeling to stand in his place. On cue, the other timberwolves assumed their natural shapes as well, leaving a group of changelings to stand in their place.

“Where are Thorn and Thistle? They should’ve reported in by now, Briar.”

Briar, the lead changeling of the group present, nodded. “They have not reported in yet, your ladyship. They must still be working on their part of the plan.”

“They had better be, if they know what’s best for them,” ‘Skyracer’ seethed. A thought then crossed her mind as she looked at the assembly of black and teal changelings present. “And who said you should wear the Dowager’s colors?”

“But we are in disguise, your ladyship!” Briar stated.

“You need not wear the colors of the Dowager in front of your true queen,” Skyracer said, as jade fire enveloped him. What was left was a changeling mare the same size as Chrysalis, though she was accented by colors of indigo and plum. Her short mane held no crown, though she wore a torc and shoes similar to that of the alicorns, these made from hammered copper.

“My queen,” Briar said, bowing; the remaining changelings did so immediately.

“These are my orders: continue to spy on the Equestrians here, and ensure that the Target is taken care of by Thorn and Thistle immediately. The Target must not live to make it to Canterlot. That way, I can take the Target’s place and it will lead me to the Dowager herself.” The changeling queen smiled. “And then she will die and I will be queen of all changelings.” She laughed. “Chrysalis, you don’t know yet that you’ve sown the seeds of your own destruction, but you have. And when all is done? I will rule, and you will be less than a footnote in the history of our species.”

Chapter 9 - A Hairy...

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 9: A Hairy...

"There! Over yon is the Castle of Space and Time, from which flows the bountiful cornucopia of plenty, from which I have taken a hearty draught of the nectar of ambro—”

The first sound of a smack came from Summer Daffodil slapping the back of the drunken Amber Shine’s head. The second came from Summer Daffodil facehoofing as she noted the few cans of worryingly pink coloration lying around. The makeshift barracks they’d turned a room at the Blackhoof Lodge into had been spotless mere hours ago.

“Okay, you've really got to stop drinking that stuff,” chastised Daffodil. “Messes with your mind. Can you even read the label on these things?" As if to make a point, she opened a wing and flapped it down with enough force that the resulting little gust pushed one of the cans into a wall, bouncing it such that it landed perfectly in her hoof. She then held the can close to the delirious-eyed Shine. “Seriously, do you even know the name of this crap you guzzle down every time I turn my back on you?”

“Maybe I just want to fly, wanna live I don’t wanna die,” the drunken batpony slurred. “Maybe I just wanna breathe, maybe I just don’t believe….”

Daffodil facehoofed again. “Lately, did you ever feel the pain in the morning rain, as it soaks you to the bone?” An angry hoof was shaken as the sergeant added, “BECAUSE I’M GOING TO BURY YOU SO DEEP IN RAINBOW FALLS YOU’LL BE TASTING THE RAINBOW FOR MONTHS IF YOU DON’T SOBER THE HELL UP!”

Shine half-giggled, half burped in response, deciding to answer the earlier question rather than the later threat. “Yeah, name…uh…well, I don’t remember the name but I know the theme song was something like; “Rainbow Dashie, Rainbow Dashie, oh so round and suuupah chunkieeee…

Daffodil felt the need to succumb to the allure of the facehoof once more. “I’m too young to deal with this.”

“I think you’re the same as me, we see things they’ll never see,” continued the copyright-infringing, inebriated batpony. “You an’ I are g--” The words suddenly trailed off as the very picture of sobriety herself tripped over a conveniently uneven board and landed face first, knocking her out.

“Get her to bed, now!” ordered Daffodil, with Sunshine and Meadowlark immediately hauling the drunken lump that was their fellow guardspony off to one of the rented rooms where she would be spending the rest of the night.

“So, I see one of our guards had a little too much liberty?” Rainbow asked as she approached. She looked rough and soaked, as it had been an all-nighter to get the storm under control, just in time for another one to start its way from the southwest. At least this one was lighter, giving Rainbow and her fellow flyers time to get some much-needed rest.

“A little too much, ma’am. Trust me, I would immediately request a transfer to Stalliongrad if Pvt. Shine did this on a regular basis.” Daffodil sighed. “It’s bad enough that she may be addicted to this shit, but how she repeatedly manages to import whole crates of this from Neighpon without me knowing really grates my ears, y’know?”

“Sounds like someone needs to go to detox,” Rainbow observed. “Have you brought it up with your usual commander?”

“We have, but they let it go as it’s more of a bat thing than an Equestrian thing,” Lightfighter, approaching them, added. “Personally, maybe if we just get her a healthy hobby, something like homonology….”

“Homo-what?” Rainbow asked.

“We went over this the other day, Lieutenant! Homonology! The study of humans! Because I told you my soul name is really Jane and I––”

Rainbow facehoofed. “It’s too early in the morning for this. Daffodil, don’t let Shine get drunk again, or tell her I’m going to have her plot hauled into the brig. Have somepony come wake me up at noon. As for me, I’m going to go die on a cloud bed for a few hours.” Nothing more to say, she wandered off.

As if on cue, in the distance, a slurred voice could be heard shouting, “Maybe I don’t really wanna know how your garden grows, but I just wanna fly….”

As both senior guards looked at each other and rolled their eyes, Lightfigher resumed her conversation. “The heck is this stuff anyway?” She picked up a can and sniffed it, immediately reeling back in disgust. “Holy-! Is this bubblegum flavored alcohol?!”

“Apparently it’s all the rage in Neighpon,” Daffodil answered with a shrug. Fearing the worst, she opened the door to what should have been Raspberry Beryl’s room. Of course, given the guard assigned to first nightwatch duty had taken no time at all to get stoned on super chew liquor, it came as no surprise that neither the Archmagus nor her fiery phoenix were anywhere to be found. “And my rage is about to get Shine booted all the way to the moon because she had the one job to make sure the Archmagus and her entourage didn’t do the stupidest possible thing and she went and got drunk as hell instead!”

“Guess we better go get help from the mayor, then,” unenthusiastically suggested Lightfighter. “No telling where those ponies are now. Also, wake up the Lieutenant. Since she knows them, she probably has a clue where they might be as well.”

“I’m fairly certain Lt. Dash is already up,” Daffodil pointed out, “as well, my guess is that they’re in the forest, going to the Seabiscuit Arno no doubt. But Celestiadamnit…where did Shine hide all that carbonated alcohol?!”

“Maybe I will never be all the things I wanna be….”

Daffodil turned and screamed, “FOR CRYING OUT LOUD IF I HEAR YOU SING ONE MORE TIME, I’M GOING TO MAKE YOU A HIGH-FLYING BIRD, YOU MORON!” Groaning, she then asked Lightfighter, “Is it too late to retire yet?”

“Don’t tempt me,” the senior sergeant sighed in sympathy.

“And you all laughed when I brought a suitcase of Babaru Gamu among my things,” chided Rarity, flaunting her knowledge of one Neighponese word as she and the others walked along the dark forest path, “but a lady is nothing if not prepared to bring along some coercive aids when need be.”

“I thought you were supposed to be Generosity,” pointed out Sandalwood.

“But I am, darling: after all, I generously gave Pvt. Shine all those cans of bubblegum liquor as a thank-you for hauling my bags earlier—those refreshments were not cheap, I’ll have you know! However, how I choose to be generous? Why, if it ends up benefiting both the recipient and myself or my friends, well…that’s why I’m Generosity and not Honesty.”

“Yeah, can’t argue with that,” agreed Applejack. “’Course, Ah also make mah own alcohol from mah own crop, instead of havin’ to buy it from halfway across the world.”

“Your apple cider also tastes a lot better than what I imagine bubblegum liquor would taste like,” added Sandalwood, shuddering at the thought. “Even if I lived in Neighpon, there’s no way I’d ever try that stuff.”

The assembled ponies all laughed, but it was short-lived as they continued walking forward with uncertainty into the forest. Oddly, other than the sound of their hoofsteps, the flapping of Heliodor’s wings, and the occasional trivial observation from Sandalwood (who seemed to be a practical wellspring of useless information), the four ponies walked along in utter silence.

“Anypony getting a sense of déjà vu right now?” asked Rarity.

“To what, exactly?” replied Applejack.

“Oh, just one of the half dozen times we always end up going into the forest and, against all odds, something just dreadful happens.”

“Ah’d say that’s par for the course for us at this point. Ah mean, there’s the night of the Summer Sun Celebration we all became friends–slash-saved Equestria from Nightmare Moon, there’s the time mah sister and her friends sent a self-propelled vehicle into the woods an’ Ah got to finally learn why mah parents died in the worst possible, personal way….”

“There’s also the time you guys mistakenly went after Zecora, twice,” added Sandalwood. A thought crossed her mind. “You know, for a forest that’s supposed to be full of nasties that keeps the whole town scared, you do all tend to go in there a lot.”

“That’s certainly true, darling,” admitted Rarity “but it’s not like we haven’t learned what to expect with the Everfree—only so many times you can go into that collection of trees and still be surprised. Truth be told, that’s probably the only reason why I agreed to go in this place without guards, for all that Lockbox said this place was like the Catacombs of the Barnstille, Prance, there’s yet to be anything of real difference between here and the Everfree.”

Just then, two earth ponies seemed to fall out of the trees right in front of the group.

“What the…?” Before they could even move, they were pinned to the ground by an adhesive spell from Rarity. Raspberry looked from the pair of sudden newcomers to the other unicorn in their group with some confusion.

“Ponies popping out of nowhere, even if innocent, don’t always seem that way,” Rarity told Razz, “but I suppose this is more your bailiwick than mine, darling.”

“And you are?” asked Sandalwood, eyebrow raised. The rest of the group took their best attempt at stances should they need to fight.

“Funny, for a group of ponies lost in these woods,” one of them—a stallion wearing a pair of glasses—grumbled, then motioned his head towards his female partner, a cute thing with a pearl necklace. “Almost like you were expecting us.”

“I’m the Archmagus, and they’re, well, I’m sure you can figure it out,” Razz told them. “You get used to it when you’re, well, us.”

“You always expect a pair of ponies to fall from the sky when you go through thick woods?” asked the unnamed mare.

“You get used to it when you’re from Ponyville.” Rarity briefly considered saying when you’re Rainbow Dash, but thought the joke just wouldn’t be the same as their friend wasn’t present.

“Oh….oh!” The mare’s eyes grew slightly wider as if in realization. “You’re those ponies! Well, most of them.”

“Those ponies?” said the mare’s companion.

“Yeah, they’re, like, the ‘Mane Six’, you dunderhead! Well, ok, more like ‘Mane Six minus three and with two spares,’ since present company seems to have some different magic user in the lead instead of the newest alicorn, and…I’m sorry, I don’t know your name, miss?

"Sandalwood—I'm the new Pinkie Pie," she said with a grin dripping with sarcasm.

“And I’m the new Princess Twilight,” added Raspberry. “Now, if you would be so kind, who are you two?”

“Well, for starters, would you be so kind as to let us off the ground, please?” the mare asked.

“Sure thing, after you answer my question.”

“Ah, yes, how rude of us!” apologized the stallion. “I’m Thorn, and this is my sister, Thistle.”

“We’re florists from Manehattan,” added Thistle. “Well, we’re going to be, we were on the Seabiscuit Arno to find a supplier for seeds in Canterlot before we opened up our shop in the Big Horseapple. We thought we’d have a seller for sealilies here, but unfortunately the ship crashed before we could land.”

“You were on the ship?” asked Sandalwood. “Then you know what’s been going on!”

“Going on? We don’t have a clue as to what’s going on, other that when the ship came down because of those damn changelings, Thistle and I got thrown clear before it began its final descent,” Thorn explained, his expression turning deadly serious. Beside him, his sister closed her eyes like she was trying to forget. “As it is, we were lucky to have landed in those trees, or else we’d be goners!”

“There’s not much else we can tell you,” grunted Thistle, “but I can tell you this much: right around the time we were thrown off the ship, we didn’t see another soul onboard. The decks should’ve been swarming with passengers, but there was none but Thorn and I.”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” interrupted Sandalwood. “There was nopony at all? Not a single pony?”

Thistle shrugged. “No—that was the creepy thing: if there were, we would’ve found some sign of them, but we didn’t. We didn’t think to check inside the ship again, but by then the explosion happened and we were thrown clear.”

“Okay, then you two stick with us,” firmly stated Razz. “Once we arrive at the crash site, we can have you checked for injuries and anything of the sort, and we can have some guards escort you to the town, where you are required to stay until the investigation is over. I apologize if that inconveniences you, but we may have further questions we may need to ask.” They would also need to have a pony who knows a changeling detection spell to look them over, but Razz elected not to mention that out loud. She and the others would simply have to keep a close eye on them in the meantime.

“Quite understandable,” said Thorn. “As it is, I hope you catch the madponies that did this.“

After a quick glance to one another, Thorn and Thistle fell in line with their group. They were all headed off to the wreck, which sat under clouds threatening to rain once more. In the skies, pegasi darted to and fro, trying to break up or move the clouds out of the area, but it wouldn't be enough in time, and as they continued on towards their destination, they could only hope that what Thorn and Thistle had said wasn’t true, or else the tragedy would turn into a mystery; the former was bad, but the latter would be interminable.

Once, the Seabiscuit Arno was, at a glance, no different from a conventional large sailing vessel in shape. This was in large part due to it actually having been built at a conventional dry dock as a converted sailing barque in order to accommodate the aerostat that would replace its sails. While it was not as famous as the Serene Velocity—the first purpose-built airship—the Seabiscuit was no less as luxurious a liner as its more well known counterpart and in its short time in service had performed its duties admirably.

But now it was just a destroyed wooden hulk, a shattered giant with its spine broken and the tattered silken remnants of a giant air balloon lying all over the place in a large clearing, which most likely had not existed the day prior. Behind the hull were the remnants of thick forest, the trees having eventually buckled under the weight of the Arno and snapping, though on the bright side that had allowed the hull to effectively slide roughly to a stop intact. Evidence of a shattered keel, however, indicated the Arno would not be returning to service anytime soon if it was to be salvaged at all. And in the distance, buried partially into the earth as though it would serve as a future memorial to the accident, was the ship’s rudder, listing to the side and as marred and damaged as everything in the area.

“Musta been one rough landin’!” exclaimed Applejack as the group of ponies appeared out of the forest at the base of the grounded airship.

“They’re lucky the aerostat apparently blew in a way that propelled them to the ground relatively safely. Normally, when they blow, they send the ship straight down and shockwaves go through the ship rather than behind it,”” added Sandalwood, who couldn’t help but look at the sight of the Arno’s prow; specifically the cast-iron image of what appeared to be an alicorn. Chances were that it had once been in the image of Celestia, but unlike the sturdy wooden hull of the ship, the ship’s figurehead hadn’t been so lucky and had borne a good deal of abuse on the way down. As such, what remained looked horribly scarred and broken, good for nothing except maybe a vague rendition of Queen Chrysalis instead.

“Well, the ship itself looks intact,” said Razz, who pulled out a set of blueprints she’d gotten of the ship back in Ponyville.

“Raspberry, darling,” asked Rarity with some concern, “you never did take off your saddlebags, did you?”

“I took them off,” replied the unicorn. “Did you really think I went to bed wearing all my luggage on my back?” She looked at her friend with a weary grin. “I have enough luggage on my forehead, thank you very much! Though when we left the Blackhoof Lodge, I put them back on.”

“Maybe you should have your bird wear it?” a voice called from above; they looked up to see Rainbow floating down. “I’m sure he could carry all that stuff. Aren’t phoenixes able to lift immensely heavy loads? Or is that just from that book?”

“Rainbow, you okay?” Razz asked. “I thought you were out all night stormwrangling.”

“I was,” she said with a yawn, “but they had a unicorn there with a refresher spell. Didn’t really take, though.”

“Well, darling, have a second one,” Rarity said, lighting her own horn up. Rainbow was enveloped in a deep blue glow, and her eyes briefly sparked.

“I’m awake now, thanks, Rarity! But I’ll probably need to crash later on and sleep like I was coming off one of Pinkie’s sugar highs.”

“Think nothing of it, dear.”

“Anyway, somepony want to catch me up on the situation?”

“Yeah, we were just about to start going in. Hey, Heelee?” Razz addressed her phoenix, “looking at these blueprints, you’re not gonna like these narrow passages. Why don’t you keep watch outside, let us know if anything’s coming?”

The young phoenix tweeted eagerly, saluted with a wing, then launched high into the air before vanishing from view in the dark sky.

“I have really got to get me one of those,” Sandalwood said absently.

But Razz’s attention was focused entirely on the clearing around the Arno—the empty clearing. “Where are all the military ponies?”

A few minutes of moving around the ship’s weatherdeck had shown that it would not be smooth sailing—in a manner of speaking—to navigate through the ship’s passageways. With the wreck of the hull at a 25-degree list and part of it buried in the ground below what had once been the ship’s waterline, there was no guarantee that anything below the fourth deck was going to be intact afore the beam, Rainbow explained, having had some familiarization with ships as part of her naval training. When they asked what that meant, Rainbow explained, glad Fluttershy wasn’t here as it would give her nightmares.

Finding a hatch in the Arno’s poopdeck that hadn’t been slammed shut, the group slowly made their way forward, the path on the darkened ship lit by Razz and Rarity’s horns. Sandalwood had offered to ignite the lantern she brought with them, but Rainbow suggested otherwise, pointing out that any spilled fuels or magic potions might ignite from a dropped match, though thaumoluminesence didn’t have that problem.

To their surprise, though, Thorn and Thistle had offered to go with them. They admitted that not only did they want to recover their luggage, but as potentially the only survivors of the ship, they felt they had a duty to assist in the rescue or recovery. Besides, it wasn’t like the military was around to look after them. The group didn’t know what to say (about both of their hangers-on and the lack of military presence), but Rainbow stated that so long as they were careful, the others would be okay with their presence.

So deck by deck they went, slowly navigating around the broken spaces of the ship, seeing the spilled detritus and shattered debris of a vessel that had just days earlier, jauntily moved around the skies as if it had owned them:

“The horror, the horror!” cried out Rarity, seeing the remains of what once was a finely packed luggage trunk. “Those color combinations are an abomination! I must fix this ghastly affront to fabulosity post-haste!”

“OhmiCelestia…” the same unicorn gasped in another space a few minutes later. “Is this a...it is! I thought they stopped making Uniqucorns years ago! It’s a miracle this little glass beauty survived the crash!”

“Rares, this isn’t a shopping trip!” Rainbow shouted at her.

“You...you’re right, Rainbow, dear. My apologies in getting so worked up.” Rarity set the object down.

“What’s a ‘uniqucorn’ exactly?” asked Razz, overhearing the conversation from the deck above her.

“Some time ago, they were a huge, and I mean huge hit in the little ‘fancy glass figurines’ market,” answered Sandalwood, who came in with what looked like some kind of chalky powder on her face. “Before you ask, no, I was not digging through somepony’s stuff like Rarity was. I just happened to sneeze at the wrong moment and somepony’s powder makeup kit ended up exploding in my face.”

“You might want to go wash it off,” suggested Razz with a giggle. She wasn’t fooled for an instant. “Now, as glad as I am that you two are having fun, we need to focus on the task at hoof. I’m sure the others aren’t messing around when they should be looking for answers.”

“Ya’ll never catch me!” taunted Applejack, racing along a straightaway. “Ah know you can’t clear obstacles in tight spaces like Ah can!”

“That’s what you think!” countered Rainbow, who AJ had to admit was clearing the hurdles far better than she had back at the last Iron Pony competition. Of course, as their friendly rivalry had flared up when the duo had found the obstacle course on the Arno’s onboard gym facilities, they had to go for a few laps. With nothing better to do, Thorn and Thistle just watched from an elevated spectator bleacher bench.

“This is not what I had in mind when we were told to ‘search the ship’ y’know?” nickered Thorn. “As much as I would like to know why all the ponies vanished from the ship, being here makes me...uncomfortable.”

“No argument here,” agreed Thistle, who at this point was idly blowing strands of her own mane bangs out of sheer boredom. Neither of the two really cared about sticking around, but it was better than ending up vanished like the ponies who had still been on the Arno when it went down.

Finally, after nearly thirty minutes of maneuvering around the obstacle course that was the ship’s innards—as well as the actual obstacle course itself—the group finally made it to the engineering spaces, the place where they kept the magical receptors that kept the balloon inflated. Attached to it directly would be the first black box…

...or would have been, if the whole thing had been intact. As the crash had essentially snapped the ship in two, the engineering spaces were in the midship’s portion, and the result had destroyed the entire magical contraption. The room had partially caved in, and the large machine, a maze of pipes, tubes, crystals, gems and massive amounts of arcane power when active, now was a pile of broken metal, shattered crystals, and burnt everything—the whole of the space looked like the charred inside of one of Applejack’s cider barrels. And at the base of the totaled machine was the twisted, cracked remains of the black box, its metal and wooden case broken open, the recording crystals sticking out and the magic aura of the box no longer active.

Razz walked up to it and used a scanning spell on it, a fairly neutral spell regardless of magic alignment and thus not likely to affect it. “Great, looks like it’s damaged. Rarity, can you doublecheck?”

Rarity, familiar with the spell as well, scanned it and agreed. “And we came so far,” she sighed. “I’d hoped we’d find a clue as to what happened.”

“Well, fortunately there’s always a backup,” Rainbow told her. “After a failure of the main one on the Serene Velocity, they had a backup installed so that one or the other would always be intact in case of an emergency. After it worked there, they were installed on all of them. The Arno’s old enough that it would have needed to be installed in after steering instead of a dedicated control room, so we should look there.”

“Where’s after steering?” Sandalwood asked. When Rainbow looked at her, the earth pony admitted, “Hey, it’s not like I know a single thing about naval or nautical stuff.”

“I thought your dad was in the Navy?” asked Razz. “You said as much back at the lodge.”

Sandy nickered. “You think I had all that crap memorized? Just because my dad is an Old Saltlick doesn’t mean I know every last bit of maritime jargon. But on a similar topic: why are you so familiar with it all, Rainbow? You haven’t been Navy for that long, have you?”

“Same reason I am naturally fluent in Burroñeso—I’m just awesome that way!” the lieutenant replied with a grin.

“¿Es tu hablando en Burroñeso?” asked Sandalwood. “Okay fine, I’ll admit: I do know Burroñeso because my dad taught it to me.”

Rainbow facehoofed. “Look, can we just go now before Sandy starts talking about Daring Do stuff that I don’t know?”

“Well, you know what she always says,” chuckled Sandy as she started to walk off, “‘Another day, another dungeon!’”

“Uh, aft steering is the other way,” smugly pointed out Rainbow.

“Oh, um...right, I knew that! I was just...testing you! Yeah!”

Another few minutes, and they finally made it down to the after steering location. The trip had been long and arduous, but they finally made it down to the location where it had been. Surprisingly, it was still intact...and there was a knocking sound coming from within.

“Ah think we found somepony!” exclaimed Applejack, who then started pulling at the partially-jammed hatch separating one space from another.

“Yeah, somepony in the galley,” mused Rainbow. “Something isn’t right, though. Nopony would seriously try to put the freakin’ galley in aft steering, much less hide the backup black box in one of the messiest places on the ship!”

“Wouldn’t that make it ideal, then?” poised Rarity, who then lit up her horn in her brilliant blue aura. “I figure this second box will have the same precious gems just like the first box had, which is convenient as I’m certainly detecting those gems in here somewhere….”

The fashionista then seemed to aimlessly wander around with her horn aglow, leaving the rest of the ponies to wonder what she was really doing. They didn’t need to wait long as the proud unicorn needed but a few minutes to don a satisfied look and began striding toward what appeared to be the freezer. “Certainly an odd place to put something of such importance, but at the same time you could say a ship’s freezer is like a vault—keeping whatever is inside safe and anypony without the keys out.” She then dropped her satisfied smile as the freezer’s port hole suddenly caught her eye. A split second later she immediately began trying to magically rip the freezer’s locked door off its hinges, but while her magic was strong enough to handle dozens upon dozens of simultaneously levitated objects in her work or breaking into spontaneous choreographed song-and-dance sequences, it was not strong enough to have any effect on a locked steel door. “THERE’S SOMEPONY IN THERE!”

“That explains the knocking, at least,” commented Thorn, followed by a chuckle from Thistle. Everypony else shot an annoyed glance at the duo for their not-helpful contributions.

“Rarity, let me have a go,” stated Razz, lighting up her own horn. The peanut gallery of Thorn and Thistle immediately jumped back upon realizing the signature purple bubbled mist of dark magic. With a grunt, Razz shot out a dark beam at the door’s lock, then effortlessly ripped it right out of the door, letting it fall out of her magic with an unceremonious clang on the floor.

Rarity, meanwhile, took the opportunity to prove she was still useful and used her magic to throw the door open.

A half-frozen Coco Pommel promptly fell flat on her face in front of the other ponies.

Chapter 10 - "…36 Degrees and Counting"

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 10: …36 Degrees and Counting

“Th-th-thank y-you!” stuttered the frozen earth pony fashionista as she took the steaming mug of hot chocolate into her violently shaky hooves, prompting Rarity to hold them in her magic lest the hot, brown goodness end up everywhere except in Coco’s mouth.

As it was, there had been a very real chance of Coco having perished or at least gone into hypothermia had her rescuers not come in time to free her. Draped in several blankets scavenged from a nearby supply closet, it had been a no-brainer to utilize the still-functional galley implements to quickly get something warm to go down the poor pony’s gullet. Coco now barely existed, cocooned within layers of insulation such that only her forelegs, eyes, and her super-red muzzle were at all visible at the moment, but she would still need time to safely warm up before the idea of moving her could even be considered.

Rarity looked at the little mare that was her colleague and friend, worrying at her lower lip. Guilt threatened to eat her up from the inside out at the thought of what Coco’s fate might have been if she and the others had been any later freeing her.

“Oh, I can not apologize enough, Coco!” she apologized for the umpteenth time. “If we’d only known you were stuck in there, why, we would have been here hours earlier!”

“Oh, it’s alright, Miss Rarity!” Coco exclaimed through chattering teeth. “To be honest, I’m just glad to see you again.” A somewhat more troubled look crossed the little mare’s face as she took a sip from her cocoa. “I only wish there was more I could do to repay you. A simple ‘thank you’ seems pretty meager in comparison to all you’ve done for me.”

Rarity smiled. “Trust me, knowing you’re well is enough of a reward.”

“Hate to rain on the reunion here, but what exactly were you doin’ on this airship, Coco?” interjected Applejack. “Last time we saw you, didn’t you take that costume makin’ job fer Rarity’s friend who does Bridleway productions?”

Coco seemed to shrink farther back into her wrappings with an embarrassed blush. “Well, I….” She quieted herself via the mug of hot cocoa in lieu of saying anything else.

Knowing exactly what Coco was doing, Rarity intervened for her friend’s sake. “It’s okay, I understand exactly what you went through, Coco. I once dreamed that it was my calling to be a Bridleway dressmaker myself—after all, my cutie mark came to me by way of wanting to make the best school play costumes I could for the production of The Great Food Pyramid Adventure in my learning years.” The elder fashionista sighed dramatically before continuing, “But during an internship—that’s where I met my friend who would go on to be a big Bridleway director—I found I preferred letting my creativity flow freely instead of having to make variations on tried and true costume patterns. Of course, the job is also extremely stressful, so it’s not for everypony.”

To Rarity’s surprise, Coco only gave her a look of mild confusion. “Oh… I haven’t left Bridleway. Not permanently anyway. I received a summons to Canterlot from the Crown for some important project.”

“And that would be?” asked Razz, curious.

The rustling of blankets signified Coco’s attempt to shrug. “I dunno, the letter didn’t say but it was signed by both Princess Celestia and your friend, Princess Twilight.”

“What?!” gasped Rarity, feeling an instinctive urge to find the nearest fainting couch. “Please, don’t take this the wrong way, Coco, but…Twilight signed off on some big, important project requiring a fashionista and didn’t ask me?!

“Rarity!” shouted Rainbow, cutting the hysterical unicorn off before she went full-auto into drama queen mode. “Now is not the time for that! I’m sure there’s a rational explanation,” she said, and Rarity chose not to point out the irony of Rainbow being the rational one of the situation. “But the point is we still don’t have any idea of what’s going on here! First of all, we still need to find the black box….”

“Don’t worry, I got it!” called out Sandalwood, who promptly emerged from the freezer with an ice covered—but most importantly fully-intact—black box.

“Okay, we got that,” Rainbow said, and her look suddenly darkened, “but we still have to worry about Nightshade, since the mayor flat out either is the most oblivious pony ever or explicitly lied to us!”

The rest of the gathered ponies regarded Rainbow with silent uncertainty. Silent, that is, until Rarity saw fit to give it a voice. “Um… how do you figure, darling?”

“Remember what he told us when we arrived? He assured us this place was already crawling with military personnel.” Rainbow looked at each of them with almost uncharacteristic seriousness. “Tell me, how many guards or soldiers have you all seen since we got here?”

“Wait, but wouldn’t that mean Skyracer is the one lying to us?” Sandalwood asked. “He’s the one in charge of the military forces here.”

Although it was possible, one more detail occurred to Razz that changed things considerably. “Except Skyracer hasn’t been in direct contact with the military personnel that are supposed to be here. The town militia had been responsible for relaying information between the crash site and him… and they report directly to Twin Peaks,” Razz said darkly. “He could have told the Lieutenant anything he wanted about what was going on here.”

This time, the silence that followed needed no voice.

“Huh. Now that you mention it, it did seem like the feller was actively trying to keep us away from the crash site,” Applejack said, putting a hoof to her chin as a distasteful frown formed above it.

With a vindicated nod, Rainbow continued. “If all that’s true, it means he was intentionally obstructing a Crown investigation.”

“You thinking of putting him under arrest?” Razz asked with all seriousness.

“The thought crossed my mind,” Rainbow said, “but I’d rather scare the answer out of him. All putting him in the pokey’s going to do is just agitate the rest of Nightshade needlessly.”

“Wait, we’re near Nightshade?!” exclaimed Coco, who somehow managed to launch into the air and promptly make her cocoon of blankets explode all over the place. Fortunately, she herself appeared to no longer have dangerously low body temperature. “Look, we need to get out of here as soon as possible!” She turned and looked at Rainbow. “Do you have a second airship on standby?” She would’ve spilled the remainder of her cocoa in her attempt to get up had she not just finished it a second prior. “We need to get out of here, Miss Rarity!”

“Coco, please, calm down,” Rarity said placatingly. “If you’re worried about timberwolves or the like, I assure you we haven’t seen any evidence of danger as long as we’ve been here.”

“My brother and I have been lost in the forest since the crash,” Thistle said. The twins they’d picked up in the forest had been so quiet throughout the conversation Rarity had almost forgotten they were there. “If something dangerous was really out there, we might not be standing here.”

That did not pacify the increasingly worried-looking Coco. “Exactly! The danger isn’t outside Nightshade, it’s….” Coco’s wild, panicked eyes traveled from pony to pony. “Seriously, don’t any of you ponies know the rumors?”

Razz let out an exasperated sigh. “What rumors?”

Pointlessly looking around to see if there was anypony else listening in that she didn’t know about, Coco barely seemed able to say what she was so afraid of. “They say that Nightshade…” She trailed off in an attempt to calm down before she continued: “That...that it’s a town full of nothing but were….” The immediate feeling of Applejack and Sandalwood glaring jagged edge daggers wrapped in barbed wire and also set on fire made the already frightened Coco almost not finish saying, “Werewolves!”

“Oh, you kidder!” laughed Thorn, his sister Thistle laughing alongside him. That soon stopped when they realized nopony else was laughing. “Really? You ponies actually think all that nonsense about werewolves is real?”

“Quite,” Thistle guffawed. “I’d be more inclined to believe that one of you is a changeling.” Her words made a few ponies flinch, and that just made her and her brother laugh all the harder.

“We’ve all had encounters with them of a too-close-for-comfort nature,” coldly answered Applejack. “Let’s all just leave it at that.”

“But that’s impossible!” stammered Thorn, looking at the earth mare as if she was a madpony. “Sure, there was a case a couple of years ago where a few oversized natural wolves were causing problems in the countryside, but didn’t the Princesses hire a bounty hunter to deal with that?”

“It’s unfortunately not out of the question that the werewolf that Iron Will killed a few years back wasn’t the last one alive,” said Razz, looking directly at Thorn. The implication of her words, along with the dark stare in her eyes, suddenly made him blanche.

“OhmiCadence!” cried Thistle. “Are you seriously saying that it wasn’t just a normal wolf that minotaur killed? I’m having a hard time believing this, and you’re saying it’s Luna’s own truth?”

“I was there,” said Sandalwood, carefully choosing her words. “Iron Will was braver than anypony could have imagined for what he did that day—even some of the bravest of Equestria’s strongest soldiers might not have been able to pull it off!”

“Maybe this isn’t a good time to mention this, but…” cautiously piped up Coco, “there might be other things besides werewolves out there.”

"Okay, so anything else we need to be aware of that the average pony with much more common sense than we have might be afraid of?” asked an exasperated Sandy. “ Lions, tigers, and bears? Lawyers? Lousy writers? Mary Sue cameos? Bad manecuts? Space bees that live in volcanoes on some other planet’s moon, even?"

“Space bees?” Applejack asked.

“Blame Lyra’s reading habits,” Sandalwood said. “She’s got a thing for the Ranger Danger and the Danger Rangers series.”

“Girls, please,” Rarity interjected. “Speculation isn’t getting us anywhere. Let Coco speak.”

“Thanks, Miss Rarity,” said Coco. “Anyway, I just know there was something prowling around the ship when I woke up, but I couldn’t find anypony else—the ship was deserted already. This was also hours ago—the sun might even have still been up, I can’t say for sure.”

“That seems awfully suspicious,” intoned Thorn. “That the only pony left on this shipwreck has no idea why there isn’t another soul aboard with them. Especially considering I highly doubt you woke up in that freezer.”

“Are you saying that somepony put her in there?” Rarity gasped.

“It’s possible,” Sandy replied. “If somepony wanted to kill her—and I’m not saying that’s definitely the case, so please, calm down,” she said as she saw Thorn and Thistle flinch slightly. “But let’s suppose that some madpony thought she was a monster and tossed her in there? Freezing to death is a fairly clean way to go and an effective method of getting rid of a potential problem.”

“I know how it looks, but you have to trust me!” pleaded Coco, who instinctively looked over to Rarity for support. Rarity nodded slightly to indicate she believed Coco was being honest, but internally hoped this wasn’t a sign of Coco becoming totally dependent on her. That was how Coco got mixed up with Suri in the first place and Rarity did not want to become the new Suri, even if Rarity would treat her friend far better than Coco’s previous employer did.

Oblivious to Rarity’s inner thoughts, Coco took a deep breath before continuing. “All I know is that I wasn’t awake for long before something attacked me.”

“I’m guessing you didn’t get a good look at this thing?” inquired Thistle.

“No, I was too busy running for my life—I know it was chasing me, that much nopony would be able to mistake in that situation—and I ended up accidentally locking myself in the freezer.”

“How do you lock yourself in a freezer?” asked Thorn incredulously.

“She probably slammed it behind her hard enough to jostle the lock,” answered Razz, who was now levitating the destroyed lock in front of her face. From the twisted remains, it appeared to have been a simple sliding bar—like those on the inside of the rented room doors back at the Retreat, maybe even made by the same company—that hadn’t been fully slid into the “open” position, the slamming door causing the bar to slide back into the “closed” position. But as the other ponies kept talking, Razz glanced over at the door and magically shut it again to look at the outside face. Other than the hole where the lock had previously resided, the door had no signs of something trying to claw its way in there. Strange, why would something trying to get to Coco just up and leave their prey to die behind a simple door lock? Unless it knew it was a freezer….

“…and from the inside,” continued Coco, “all I saw were those golden eyes just staring at me for like, fifteen minutes, before it just slunk off.”

“Whoa, did you just say golden eyes, Coco?” Of all the details Coco could had described, that was one of the most worrying.

“Well, they looked golden, but now that I think about it, there might have been some traces of blue or something, like they’d originally been blue but had turned mostly gold—"

“SHIT!” shouted Razz, before recomposing herself. “Uh, sorry, didn’t mean to do that, but…I can say I am certain of one piece of good news, and one piece of…not so good news.

Sandy sighed. “Just give us the former, then the latter, Razz.”

“Well, I can say for certain I know what was after Coco,” the unicorn replied, before breathing deep and letting the hammer fall: “the not so good news is that it almost certainly confirms that we’re deep in werewolf country.”

“I’ll be right back,” Rainbow told them, heading back the way they came. “I’m going to get some extra escorts for us. Do not move. In fact, one of our resident unicorns should put up a shield until I return.” As she rushed off, the others looked at each other with worry as Razz immediately charged up her horn.

“Werewolves? I can’t imagine such a thing is real, am I right, brother?” Thistle said in a strangely calm tone.

“Indeed, sister mine, indeed.”

It was already mid-morning by the time the weary travelers dragged themselves into Nightshade, having not allowed themselves a wink of sleep on their journey lest they encounter some kind of ambush. Even then, Sandalwood, Applejack, and Thistle were carrying the worn-out Rarity and Coco, while Rainbow was barely able to remain upright due to their new escorts ensuring she remained upright. Even Heliodor had succumbed to weariness and was softly snoozing on Raspberry’s horn. For the ponies of Nightshade, seeing the exhausted, sleep-deprived group trudge through town toward Blackhoof Lodge was truly a sight, but at the lead of the sleepless assembly was a unicorn to whom sleep did not seem to matter. To Raspberry herself, however, it was just another Tuesday.

“Where the buck have you been?" demanded Skyracer, who upon hearing word that the missing party had returned to the town had wasted no time in confronting them. Razz, in turn, wasted no time in cutting him off by grabbing the side of his head and bringing his muzzle close to hers while burning eyes of determination told him she was in no mood to take whatever he had to say.

Nopony was at the Arno, Lieutenant,” she whispered in a tone that indicated that the situation was very, very bad for all of them.

Nopony?” he asked back in hushed tones.

“We are so up shit creek right now you don’t even know!” she spat, before she let go of his face. She was finally succumbing to the lack of sleep and needed all four limbs just to stay upright. “We need to talk in private. Lt. Dash, please accompany us.” The fact that she’d addressed Rainbow by rank instead of calling her friend by name made it clear this was not going to be an ordinary conversation by any means.

“Sure,” she yawned, turning to her escorts. “Quickstep, Blastoff, get Sgts. Lightfighter and Daffodil and have them report to us soonest. Where we gonna be, Razz?”

“We’ll be in my room,” the mulberry unicorn replied.

“And you’re sure this Coco Pommel can be trusted?” asked Daffodil, a few hours later. By the time she’d been made aware that Raspberry and friends—as well as three ponies who claimed to be survivors of the wreck—had returned with the recovered backup black box from the Seabiscuit Arno, the meeting between the officers present was already underway, and that didn’t make things clearer. Now, the exhausted ponies had already crashed in their beds and were dead to the world for possibly the rest of the day and well into tomorrow. That left Daffodil, Lightfighter and that jerkass Army lieutenant neither of them liked to put together the pieces.

“I don’t know who can be trusted at this point,” admitted Lightfighter, running a hoof through her mane. The trio were seated in a private dining room within the lodge that had been turned into a makeshift command center for the duration of the operation. Lightfighter knew when she’d read the internal memo back in Canterlot about how it was expected airship protocols in general—as relevant to when they inevitably crashed back down—would undergo significant revisions in the emerging commercialization of what was formerly a purely Navy-only feature. In short: Whoever had to deal with this rapidly-growing pile of shit was going to have massive headaches because the protocols meant to deal with situations like this weren’t actually made yet. She just wished she hadn’t been unlucky enough to be the first in line for this stuff.

As it was, the stipulations that were covered had been filled—as much as she hated to admit it, Razz and all the others running off in the middle of the night, purely by luck of Amber Shine getting drunk somehow, had done the work that supposedly had been already underway when they’d arrived the previous day. But as she had no reason to doubt Razz would lie about anything, especially when the Element of Honesty herself backed up the story, the wreck of the Arno had been virtually abandoned save for Thorn and Thistle having somehow safely leapt from the airship before it crashed, as well as Coco Pommel managing to nearly freeze herself to death…while running from death. The main black box was shot beyond repair, but the backup sitting before her had been untouched…also in the freezer due to some stupid oversight in the Arno’s plans. But only three of about 200 ponies from the ship were accounted for; and there was an awful lot of creepy shit going on as well, not the least of which was this Army lieutenant who had stayed involved in the investigation far longer than was needed.

And she was only finding out now because the mayor Twin Peaks had apparently lied about the whole thing.

“Seriously, Daffodil, was yesterday just one giant lie?” Lightfighter asked her fellow guardspony morosely. “I can’t even assume the rain was natural—we’re ponies, we basically control the Celestiadamn natural world!”

Skyracer laughed. “Are you that stupid? Those are oceanic rain patterns—that’s naturally developing weather phenomena, not anything from the Weather Factory. Of course it felt unnatural—because it was truly nature-made!”

“Oh, shut the hell up, Lieutenant,” Lightfighter growled. “You can suck a big one.”

“Your big what? You’re a mare!”

“I meant the big tubesteak I’m going to shove down your throat if you don’t shut up!”

“Again, you’re a mare!” came the reply.

Lightfighter fumed. “I was referring to my hoof, you moron – and that I’m going to shove that so far down your throat that you’ll find out what my withers taste like from the inside!” she snarled.

“Light, not now, okay?” retorted Daffodil. “Look, calm down you two. Let’s be honest: The only things we know for sure is that there are a lot of ponies missing right now, this town is far from secure given what the archmagus and Lt. Dash say, and that we’re stuck with a stupid box nopony except the local blacksmith can open just to tell us Changelings attacked the damn ship. Right now I’m more concerned about why all the ponies involved are missing, and need I mention that we’re so close to the border with the griffinlands that we haven’t really taken the time to consider that this was a false flag operation?”

“How so?” Skyracer asked.

Now who’s the stupid one?” Lightfighter retorted. “A false flag operation would let the griffins do whatever they wanted, and blame it on the bugs. And there’s a historical precedent for it, too: during the war between Inari and Zhonguo about 100 years ago, the pandas tried to wreck the alliance between Equestria and Inari by slaughtering the kitsune and blaming it on batponies. If it wasn’t for Col. Moonshot nearly dying to bring proof of Equestria’s innocence to the kitsune emperor, it would’ve succeeded.”

“Look, I don’t care about that,” added Skyracer, now rubbing his temples with his hooves. “My only concern is getting this investigation over and getting back to keeping an eye on those Celestiadamned featherdusters with spears.” He groaned. “You wouldn’t happen to know if Amber still had a can of that bubblegum liquor crap, do you?”

“Trust me, she drank enough that we could’ve thrown a kegger for the whole town.”

LIghtfighter sighed. “And the train just had to leave, too! Razz was right, we are so up shit creek right now we’re at the headwaters of the toilet it’s connected to.”

“Then we need to make ‘we’ be referring to as few ponies as possible,” stated Daffodil. “Razz and the others? That train gets here and we send them back home on it as soon as possible—they’ll protest but they’re still far too important to get caught up in this clusterbuck—because they’re the only ones we know of who have seen the Arno at this point. Send this stupid box with them, too, for whatever it’s worth. If nothing else we can complete one objective we came to do in the first place. We can ask the lieutenant to push on them a little to get them to go. However, we’re going to need her around for the short term.”

“Agreed, but we’re probably going to need to ask for some naval support, as well as a battalion of troops, too.” Lightfighter laughed. “Maybe if we’re lucky, we can get somepony to cough up some of those ‘Princess’ Hooves’ I’ve heard about.”

“You don’t really believe the rumors, do you, Light?”

“I don’t know what to believe, but you know as well as I do that the Solar Guard really isn’t in charge of protecting Princess Celestia. For buck’s sake, they’re all a bunch of glorified statues with pulses,” was the reply. “But that means there’s somepony who is, and my guess is that whoever that is? They’re the kind of ponies you don’t buck with. At all.”

An earth mare with a beige coat, gray eyes and a short mane of brown-and-black that somehow looked reminiscent of fake wood paneling poked her head in the door. “Mr. Peaks, sir?” she spoke, getting his attention. “She’s here.”

“Ah, please, send her in soonest,” he told her, a jovial look on his face. Shortly after, Lockbox walked into the small mayor’s office in Nightshade Town Hall. “Well, Locks…”

“Shut it. You want me out of here as soon as possible so you can start making out with your secretary again, right?” Lockbox said evenly. “Your wife know about her?”

“Crass as always, I see,” Peaks said as the smile fell from his muzzle. “Remind me why we keep you in town?”

“Because otherwise you’d have to hire somepony to actually come live in this one-mule town,” she responded, then inhaled deeply. “Listen, we knew it was going to happen someday, but you and I both know nopony was prepared for it to go down the shitter as fast as it did, okay? Changelings to the left of me, military to the right and here I am, stuck in the middle with you. And believe me, it’s the last place I want to be.”

“You’re just upset about your friend, the pet bug––”

“Finish that sentence, and you will be a gelding, got that?” Lockbox said angrily. “Versa can’t be blamed for what he is, no more than anypony else...well, maybe except for you, given that you’re a specist, cheating bastard who’s only here because you’re not good enough to land a political position somewhere big.”

“You would know—you’re the black-hearted bitch here,” he responded.

“You wouldn’t know what a heart was if you parked right outside the center of the Crystal Empire,” Lockbox spat. It was conversations like this one that reminded her how much she hated living here sometimes. “Versatile is the only one I know with a genuinely good heart, and I also know that whatever’s happening has nothing to do with him. The Changelings never made a move to reclaim him from Midnight Marigold and Polar Breeze when they found him all those years ago, nor when they went straight for the capital.”

“Then why even go to the trouble of attacking some random airship unprovoked?” he asked, giving her that patronizing stare he always did when he was certain he was right.

Lockbox let out a long sigh through her nose. “Look, I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this: Something about this whole situation smells and you’re too blind to see it!”

With his patented shit eating grin, Twin Peaks replied, “Last I checked, I don’t smell with my eyes.”

Lockbox responded with a roll of her own. “You know damn well what I mean, Peaks! You think those ponies the outsiders ‘found’ on board the Arno were just ordinary passengers?”

“I see no reason to believe otherwise,” Peaks said with a noncommittal shrug.

“Then you’re both blind and stupid, and it’s going to be the end of us!”

“There’s no need to be melodramatic,” Peaks said, his carefully engineered demeanor of indifference giving way to annoyance.

“Putting aside for a moment what could happen if the military finds out you lied to them, what do you think will happen to Nightshade if they realize what I suspect? If one or all of the three survivors found turn out to be changeling spies?” When Peaks didn’t answer her, Lockbox continued. “At best they’ll detain all of us until they’re sure we’re not changelings or changeling collaborators. At worst, it’ll spark a damn war, and we’ll be right in the middle of it!”

“And would they be so wrong to suspect changeling sympathizers in Nightshade? Considering the company you keep….” Peaks then put a hoof to his chin in mock thought. “Come to think of it, we haven’t exactly heard from young Versatile in a while, have we? Maybe the military found him? Perhaps he’s the real reason why they’re here now.”

Although she didn’t show it outwardly, the thought sent a tremor of fear through the unicorn. Taking a deep breath, Lockbox did her best to collect herself. Ranting and raving wasn’t going to convince the idiot sitting across from her, as the unimpressed stare he was giving her made that perfectly clear. Instead, Lockbox stood and paced across the office, finding herself looking at a very old painting that depicted a fledgling town. Something about it always seemed to make her feel weighed down, and she felt that now more than ever.

“My family founded Nightshade one thousand years ago as a refuge from war.” Lockbox turned to face Twin Peaks, still seated impassively behind his desk. “This town is my family’s legacy. And I will not let it be destroyed by a moron who only cares for his pitiful excuse for a political career!”

“Locks, that’s enough,” Peaks growled, fixing a stare at the younger unicorn. “You claim I’m the one risking Nightshade? How do you know this isn’t all your fault?”

“Please, tell me how I’m at fault for all this,” Locks taunted as she crossed her forelegs. “I could use the laugh.”

Twin Peaks laughed sardonically. “And you say I’m blind! You call me a moron, and you haven’t even figured out why Raspberry Beryl is here.” He leaned against his desk. “Tell me, do you know what a witch hunter is?”

“A what?”

He rolled his eyes. “Typical.” He walked over to his bookshelf and picked up a book, throwing it at her. “There’s an ancient term for black magic users—they used to be called witches or warlocks. A witch hunter is somepony trained in the black arts and specifically sent to hunt down other black magic users. Witch hunters were from centuries ago, but now and then the Crown probably trains somepony for the position. Somepony trained, oh, I’d say, like an archmagus?”

Lock’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re an idiot. This place stinks of black magic, and you know why—everypony in town does! So while you’re here, accusing me of letting the fox come into the proverbial henhouse, it’s clear you and the rest of the town didn’t really think your little defensive strategy through. Mark my words, that archmagus is here for the town’s secret—the one you’re supposed to protect.” He laughed. “I’ll even bet that news from a while back about her nearly killing the princesses was faked, just to make her sound that much more of a badflank.”

Lockbox knew that he was goading her. Possibly even setting her up to take the fall for his own idiocy. But in spite of that idiocy, the stallion had a point, and Lockbox hated him even more for it. She had taken advantage of Nightshade’s relative obscurity and isolation to try some… unconventional magical defenses for the town she loved so much. And now that the archmagus—Raspberry Beryl—was here, Lockbox had a bad feeling it was all going to come crashing down.

No, I will not see my family’s legacy destroyed, she thought as she turned to leave Twin Peaks’ office. Even if it means dealing with that witch hunter… permanently.

===

Twin Peaks just told us they might have found the rest of the survivors, but since you and the rest of the girls need your rest after that stunt you all pulled last night, Sgt. Daffodil, Sgt. Lightfighter and I are the only ponies who are going with him—the rest of the remaining Guard are going to stay here with you for protection and prep for any injured or such.

I’ve heard about the timberwolf incursions, and I’ll say this much: between two guardsponies and myself, I think we should be covered. If we get into any trouble, I have left a tracking charm with the corporal remaining behind so that he can deploy forces if need be.

I will report anything new once we return.

===

Razz read over the letter that Skyracer had left for her and Rainbow. There was something about it that felt off, something she couldn’t pin, but that was probably because she needed sleep. As it was, she knew that Skyracer was an asshole, so maybe that was what was setting her off and she was just too tired to think about it.

But she needed to sleep, yet at the same time, she needed to read that book that Twilight had sent her, the one that Razz herself had asked for an hour ago—the most recent survey on the lands around Nightshade. She knew she should’ve asked for the last town census as well, but that was getting a little too paranoid. As it was, she knew she could explain away the “werewolf” rumors simply by reading through this book’s survey reports, and just prove that there was just a larger than normal timber– or natural wolf population in the nearby woods.

Unfortunately for her, there was more than one book on the nightstand, and she was tired enough that she didn’t quite see which one she’d grabbed.

DAY 95:

At last a stroke of good news this week! My forces have finally captured the main queen of that damnable hive. Though they ended up having to kill both her and any of the immature queens, the treasure I so dearly sought is now within my grasp. Granted, she did slay most of the troops that I sent in, but those are resources that can easily be recouped once I gain possession of the queen’s cadaver.

I shall have to make it a point to reward the surviving soldiers for their efforts. For a legion of troops torn down to less than a score, it is clear that these soldiers fought valiantly, and I shall give them their due.

This puts a laurelous sobriquet upon what has been a dismal week otherwise. It started off with my ambassador to Equestria – my representative, the one I placed there to do my bidding! – seeking refuge in Equestria, requesting asylum from the Royal sisters! The gall! I chose her to serve this realm, not to cow before the alicorns as if they are “allowing” me to continue ruling my Empire!

Well, I hope Ageless Wisdom has settled upon her choice, as there will be nothing for her to come back to. As of now, any family she has left is rotting in my dungeons until I decide what to do with them, and admittedly, I do have various creatures in my menagerie that require feeding….

The other point of contention is the disappearance of that strumpet, Musica Allegra. She vanished three days ago and has not been seen since. Moreover, she and her friend Raspberry Sorbet attempted to abscond with my Broken Rose! Unfortunately for them, however, my forces, led by my most trustworthy of lieutenants, caught them just within the outer reaches of the city. However we only captured two of them, with Musica nowhere near to be found.

Upon interrogation, Sorbet claimed that they were trying to make it to a safehouse and that Musica would return shortly, but I know better; I am no fool. Furthermore, I had both Lt. Sharpsar and Sable scour the town for her. Given that none of the magical wards in one of my secret laboratories or chambers went off – that would have been…ill-advised…for her, it was clear. She used her so-called “friends” as scapegoats to cover her escape, a dastardly, devious plan that I never would have thought her capable of.

Perhaps she has learned a few things from her time in my care.

I inform the two of this little epiphany, and the reactions of both of them is…illuminating. The Rose refused to believe it. She looked at me with eyes full of rage, teal stones of anger – weren’t her eyes brown originally? Or am I misremembering? In any case, she swears that I killed Musica and that I will pay for that. I tell her that Musica used her and Sorbet to escape, and she refuses to believe me. The look of impotent rage on her face is such that for a change, I choose not to have my entertainments with her. The look of aimless fury is more than a delight enough for me.

But it is Sorbet’s response that is all the more surprising. She admits that she would have done the same thing, that she finds the “freakish creature” she was saddled with as a burden, but that Musica gave her little choice but to bring her along. She admits that she would have killed the Rose to be free of her and Musica after she realized her betrayal, but she made a foolish choice.

Ah, yes. Choices. Sometimes they can be kingly, and others…decidedly not so. But she has admitted her fault, so I must be a forgiving king. Tomorrow she will start work in the salt mines. If she lives through her sentence, I will pardon her. Though, alas, nopony has ever returned alive from working in the salt mines, but she may yet surprise me. We shall see.

However, there is the matter of the guard that the three slipped past. I order Rusty Arrow to come to the Rose’s chambers, where her two new caretakers are, along with a chirurgeon, so that my pet may have the finest of care. Once that is done, I order the simple to depart while I look at Rose, Seaside Pearl and the third mare, whose name I cannot recall – it is hardly important, in any case.

I tell them that the price of failure must be paid, and that a king demands his due. And with that I dispatch Rusty Arrow personally before them – and I do mean personally. It was days ago and I think I can still smell some of his offal on my hooves and his lifeblood on my horn. But as I ground that worthless fool’s body into nothing but a bloody stain on the ground, I see the looks of horror on the faces of Pearl and – Vanilla Crème, yes, that was the other mare’s name – yet the Rose looks uninterested.

That moment, I demand they reswear their fealty before me, right where I stand, and they do so gladly. As a reward, I offer them time in my bedchambers tonight, a moment to show their king how grateful they are. As I depart, they go to speak to Rose; I suppose they plan to convince her to capitulate before me as well.

Later that night, they do not show up as planned. Incensed, I order them to be found and put to death before a courier arrives with the news: they had crept into the royal kitchens like sneakthieves and slit each other’s throats. Moreover, they died with oddly satisfied smiles on their faces. I don’t know why, but somehow I suspect the Rose is responsible.

When I asked her about it, she told me that she said to them “exactly what they needed to do to be free” of me.

Intriguing.

It makes me wonder whether Baldassare really knew what he had on his hooves.

For the first time, I realize this broken, tattered, ruined Rose…

still has thorns.

Razz set down the book, in tears. Crisalide had found a way to fight back against Sombra, but it had also led to the deaths of at least two ponies. And now there was practically no doubt: Octavia Melody—the human Octavia, no less!—had a pony as an ancestor. Musica Allegra had to all but be the same one that had witnessed the brutality of Sombra. She hadn’t known Tavi very long, but like Sunny, Raspberry had somehow felt there was an...equine...quality about the teenage musician. Even though she seemed to be nothing more than a typical human girl, there was something else about her, something otherworldly, and now Razz had put the puzzle pieces together.

But regardless of that, it painted a bleak picture for the Rose from that point on. The only friend Crisalide had was apparently gone, and it left her alone and at the anything-but-mercy of Sombra’s brutal hooves. And there was, of course, on the other end, if Sunny had told her cousin the truth. Now that they knew her famous ancestor was not originally human, it could be something that the new alicorn could speak about to her adopted family, but….

I’m getting ahead of myself, here. I’ll have Heelee flamefax a letter for me in the morning so they can dragoncandle it to Sunny. She might want to know about this. Razz looked at the book she accidentally picked up. Though there’s no way I’m going to show her this book—enough ponies have suffered because of it already.

It was then that she felt a sensation that was unlike anything she’d felt before—which given she’d been subjected to pain and torture that would have killed normal ponies hundreds of times over and all she had to show for it was a wounded limb she could still use with her brace was alarming—and the closest thing she could feel was like her body was itchy all over. That’s what Applejack, Apple Bloom, and all the others who became werewolves said the first transformation was like, Razz thought to herself, but I can’t become a werewolf. I’ve only ever been bitten by Fair Vista and the legitimacy of that doesn’t count given she wasn’t even really alive when I fought her. Plus my blood’s the same as Sombra’s so that wouldn’t work that way either. So…what am I feeling?

As her mind began to wander, she recalled a line from the scripture that had been carved into the back of Sombra’s mirror: blood calls to blood. It filled her with dread, as the presence of werewolves (even though supposedly she’d killed the last of the curse off back in Ponyville months prior) would only be possible through somebody of her own caliber, to handle something requiring Sombra-grade dark magic. Was all of this business in Nightshade…related to one of those Scions? Was her blood calling out to her?

A knock on the door caught her out of her reverie, bringing her back to the present. “One second!” Razz called out, pleased at the distraction. But after hauling herself out of bed and donning her brace, she immediately had second thoughts as a chance glance out the window revealed that it was a full moon. Can’t take any chances.


The door opened up with Raspberry Beryl behind it. “Good evening, how can I—"

Acting quickly, the werewolf immediately slammed into the pony and pinned Razz to the ground…or it thought it had, as where Razz had just been to its knowledge was now a pile of tiny dark, black crystals.

“Celestiadamnit, I hate it when I’m right in these situations!” exclaimed the real Raspberry Beryl, who as the werewolf looked behind the wall obscured from the doorway, was looking somewhat different from the one that had somehow melted into dark-

Oh, shit, thought the werewolf as it promptly found itself in the grasp of dark magic…and then defenestrated right out the window.

Razz could hear more sounds of violence down the hall, accompanied by feral snarls. She turned to where her companion was perched.

“Heelee, c’mon!” shouted Razz, quickly grabbing her saddlebags and throwing them on her back, pausing only for a moment to give Heliodor time to register that they were in trouble. Together, bird and unicorn rushed out of the room. They needed to save the others…lest Applejack get turned into a werewolf again. “Can’t let that happen; that shit’s just getting old at this point!”

Chapter 11 - " Chains of Obsession"

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 11: Chains of Obsession

Bar brawls were not something that the Blackhoof Lodge was accustomed to. Neither was more than one pony being up at this hour of night. So when you tied the two great tastes that didn’t go well together, you ended up with the current situation...that none of the participants were very happy with.

Pvt. Amber Shine took a half-step before turning green and projectile vomiting. The blast hit a pair of werewolves, who stopped, saw what had happened and turned tail, beating a fast retreat in favor of the ocean in the distance.

“Is it bad that Amber’s still drunk,” groaned Rarity, in between bucking a werewolf right in the kisser and over the railing of the second floor, causing it to crash into a table and snapping it clean in half. “Or that she stopped two werewolves by clearing herself?!”

“Ask later!” grunted Sandalwood, after punching not a werewolf but some weird rotting zombie pony creature in the face and making it land on the werewolf on the first floor. “Beat the shit out of supernatural bastards now!”

“Ah am so sick of motherbuckin’ werewolves…” suddenly rang out Applejack’s voice, followed by what sounded like a window shattering, then grunts as multiple bodies could be heard hitting the ground outside, “...in mah motherbuckin’ life!

Just then, a beam of dark energy blasted from the other side of the building, hitting the werewolf and zombie pony. Instantly, dark crystal growths sprung up to encase their hooves, anchoring them to the ground.

We gotta move!” shouted Razz, barreling across the elevated floor, Coco Pommel gripping onto her back for dear life. “Where is everypony else?”

“We’re here!” Sandalwood called out as she wither-charged another werewolf, knocking it flat.

“Rainbow, can you clear us some moving room outside?” Razz called out.

“One OFC, coming up!” Rainbow said, accelerating to near-sonic rainboom speeds and punching through the roof of the building.

“OFC?” Sandalwood asked.

“Yeah,” Applejack said, “but Rarity can explain better.”

“I can?” the fashionista asked, and sighed. “Well, Sandalwood, dear, Rainbow Dash can do this thing where she flies really fast and makes a sonic rainboom.” In the distance, a loud boom erupted.

“So, OFC means…?”

“Orbital Friendship Cannon,” Rarity explained, and in the distance behind her, a massive blast of rainbow light occurred, followed by the ground erupting, throwing gouts of earth and groups of werewolves alike to the four winds. Rarity had been fortunate that the hotel’s windows had long been broken by the attack, or she might have been injured by the resulting glass storm that would’ve followed.

“Quick, out the door! Sandy, grab Amber!” Razz yelled.

AAAAAAAAAAAND MY HEART WILL GO OOOOOOOOOOOOO-”*WHAM* sang the now clearly-still-drunk Shine, who had been knocked out by the beige earth mare.

“C’mon, Sapphire Shores, you can sing later,” Sandalwood grunted as she threw Pvt. Shine over her back and raced out the door.

The ground outside was, needless to say, a massive crater. Dozens of unconscious werewolves were littered around the crater, the tops of buildings and the few trees that had survived. “Overkill much, Rainbow?” Applejack asked.

Rainbow shrugged. “They were lucky I wasn’t wearing my flightsuit. Those are designed to remove flight friction and thus make our attacks even more intense.” She walked over to a female werewolf, picking up her unconscious head and moving it up and down like a puppet, speaking in an altered voice, “And I’m only unconscious! I’d have been killed if the Mighty Rainbow Dash had been wearing her flight gear!”

“Ugh. Rainbow, that’s just crass,” Rarity said with distaste.

“Yeah, gotta agree, sugarcube, that’s just a bit over the top,” Applejack added.

“Sorry. You get used to gallows humor when you’re in uniform,” Rainbow explained, gently setting the unconscious creature down again. “So Razz, what’s next?”

“We need to get to the train station,” Razz explained. “Then we need to make it the most defendable building in town until either our ride arrives, or the sun comes up.”

Unfortunately, just getting to the train station proved far harder than it seemed even for a town filled with werewolves and zombies and, almost unsurprisingly, the fabled vampire batpony variety—no relation to the vampire fruit bats that once terrorized Applejack’s fields (or Fluttershy’s short-lived ‘issues’ that had stemmed from that episode). While the streets of the otherwise alarmingly abandoned town of Nightshade weren’t totally crawling with freaks of the night, there were enough around to make just trying to leave Blackhoof Lodge one heck of a hairy problem indeed.

“RUN!” shouted Razz, straining herself to levitate a whole mob of goons out of the way, then pitch them far into the horizon in the opposite direction. But before she could catch her breath, she got tackled to the ground by yet more monsters.

“Razz!” cried out somepony—she couldn’t exactly tell who, not over the snarls and the hissing of the things holding her to the ground—and as much as Razz wanted to avoid having to kill what possibly were just cursed townsponies, she would do so without hesitation to protect her friends. Only…something else started to sound out, something that drew the attention of her ambushers away long enough for her to throw them into a nearby wall and free herself. But then she too looked at the source of the weird noise and her jaw promptly dropped.

“ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS BE FASHIONABLE IN A SIMPLE RESCUE!” whined Rarity at damn near the top of her lungs. Remarkably, this was having a profound effect on both the werewolves and the vamponies, who for respective reasons were trying to move away from the high pitched irritant their heightened senses of hearing were picking up. As for the undead, well, they seemed to be following the lead of the other monsters despite the shrieking being considerably less effective on them. Unfortunately, Rarity’s cries were also having an impact on her compatriots and no doubt she would eventually need to stop in order to breathe.

Thinking quickly, Applejack just decided the simple option was to dive under Rarity and then hoist her on her back. “EVERYPONY! THIS WAY!” she hollered over the psuedo-klaxon of a unicorn on her back. Opting to preserve their voices, the rest followed suit. But despite the admirable repulsion powers of Rarity’s whining, it wasn’t enough to clear a path through the monsters to make a straight shot to the train station on the outskirts of the town. Left with little choice, the group ended up holing themselves up in the safest place they could find: the bank. Luckily, while Nightshade was for the most part relatively still a few years behind the rest of the country in terms of modern technology, the Nightshade Bank was fortunately up to current code and thus its vault was more than enough to provide safe and secure protection from the cursed masses outside...for the moment.

“I think it goes without saying,” said Rainbow Dash as they ran into the vault, “but this town is seriously not right!”

“Ah think we c’n all see that!” grumbled Applejack, slamming the vault door shut.

“W-we’re all going to just stay in here until morning, right?” asked Coco. “When everypony is back to normal and we can get out of here, right?”

“Oh, they’ll probably get in here before then,” sadly surmised Sandalwood. “Werewolves can be clever sons of bitches—don’t ask how I know, but right now the only thing between us and them is a vault door and maybe Rarity’s screaming if she’s willing to sacrifice her lungs.”

The unicorn in question gave the earth pony an indignant glare, but after coming to the conclusion that she was right, opted to remain silent.

“Say, Razz,” Sandalwood continued, “if I recall correctly, lycanthropy is a product of Sombra’s magic, yes?”

“Yeah, it was,affirmed Razz, who had now taken some of the bird food out of her bag and was feeding Heliodor with it. “But if what you’re going to propose is me using my magic to insta-cure all the werewolves, it’s not that simple. First, it’s werewolves and zombies and vamponies–”

Oh, my!” squeaked Rarity, whose voice was not quite back from all the wailing.

“-out there,” continued Razz without missing a beat. “So, I’d only cure a third of the ponies and they’d probably still be pissed at us, but I’ll explain why in a minute. More importantly, I can’t cure them without knowing the exact specifics of the curse’s strain that’s in play here—sure, it was foal’s play to cure it last time, since my horn was buried to the base in that bitch’s heart. Vista’s strain was really the same one that Sable Loam had used and all those afflicted were maybe at most second or third generation werewolves, so there was not a chance of strain mutation. Here? It may not even have been Sable’s in the first place for the werewolves that have to have come and settled Nightshade. Even then it’s been a thousand years and a dozen or so generations of ponies since, so without knowing if the strain is all the same from just one werewolf, trying to do some kind of mass application is a shot in the dark!”

“The heck are you even talking about?” asked Thistle, confused as to the nature of what was being discussed.

“Not really much of something you need to be worried about unless you’re also a victim of Sombra screwing around with your bloodline.”

“If it’s a means to getting out of this shithole,” argued Thorn, “then I think my sister and I are deserving of that much! Other than Coco, we’re the only ponies who have survived the wreck of the Arno and we don’t want to die at the hands of some filthy freaks!”

“Yeah, little wonder anypony’s really ever heard of this place,” snorted Rainbow, “I’m wondering if anypony’s ever left this town to begin with.”

“Well, actually, I think there are some ponies who are from here,” recalled Razz, “who are currently in Ponyville…”

“WHAT?!” exclaimed all the other ponies at once.

“Yeah, some acting troupe, the ‘Four Footed PerFormers’ I think they were called, came to town just a few days ago. I know because one of their group was somepony who...well, if it wasn’t for his kindness I wouldn’t be standing here now. But two of the other ponies in his group—Versatile and Stage Fright—they told me they were bat ponies from this very town.”

“Great, so now there’s vampires back home, and you knew?” angrily retorted Sandalwood. “Well, maybe you didn’t know they were vampires, but don’t you think you might have gotten some impressions about….”

“They’re not vampires, okay?” Razz stamped the ground with her foreleg.

“How are you so sure?”

“Because as I’m sure we’re all keenly aware of at this point, I’m the Archmagus for Dark Magic. That means if a pony is cursed, I can sense it on them no matter what appearance or form they’re in! I sensed something was off as soon as we set foot in this town, but got nothing from Versatile and Stage Fright.”

“Not to question your expertise on the subject,” pointed out Sandy, “but, um, maybe vampires don’t have the same feeling in their aura as…well, werewolves?” Everypony looked angrily at the mare. “What? It’s not like Razz having dealt with them before is some big secret anymore.”

“She has a point, there,” admitted Razz, “but at the same time, even dark magic has to follow some rules. In this case, it’s that anypony with any kind of ‘curse’ on them has an aura I can sense, period. There is an aura on all of those cursed ponies out there, but there was not an aura on the two back in Ponyville when I met them.”

“But…but wouldn’t they mention that they were from a town full of cursed ponies?” asked Thistle. “Seems like something worth mentioning to ponies to make sure they never went there.”

“Unless this discussion topic can help get us out of here,” interrupted Rarity, “the fact is we’re still trapped in a bank vault in the middle of some Celestiaforsaken town near the border of the country, with no idea how to get out!”

“Well, we still need to get to the train station,” remembered Razz, “it’s looking like our only way out of this town.”

“But we don’t exactly have any offensive or defensive spells like a guardspony, do we?” Rainbow Dash pointed out. “I mean, sure I can them with another round of the OFC, but the fact is that in its full form it’s a one-trick use, and I haven’t developed anything for hoof-to-hoof combat advantage yet, plus the fact that I need range in order to pull it off and in a tighter confine like the train station it might be a bit harder to do.”

You don’t,” said Razz with a grin. “But I do—after all, know anypony else who could freeze four alicorns at once with a single spell besides me? As long as we stick together, we should be able to get to the station in one piece.”

Of course, that plan immediately failed once the time had come to actually leave the vault, as the monsters outside the door had somehow gotten rather well coordinated. To that end, they managed to succeed in splitting the group of ponies roughly in half, with an ill-timed interruption from one feisty werewolf interfering with Razz’s attempted mass teleport outside the bank (she couldn’t do it from inside the vault itself, due to the standard anti-teleportation wards). While she, Heliodor, Coco, and Rarity were safely outside (for the moment), the greater portion of their party had been simply moved up a few floors.

“Git goin!” hollered Applejack from the third floor window she’d ended up near. “We’ll hold out best we can!”

“Yeah, just go!” added Rainbow from a second floor window.

“No, I won’t leave you to your fates like this!” Razz shouted back, but before she could try teleporting back in to save her friends, a wave of rotting flesh, fangs, and fur poured out of the bank’s front entrance after the three ponies and bird companion that had so far evaded them.

“Damnit, no!” swore Razz, throwing up a dark crystal wall in front of her to stem the tide. “Just…just hold on! I’ll be back!” was all she could say as her choice had been made—leading Coco and Rarity off to the train station. But one thing was for sure in her mind: whoever was responsible for this, she was going to make them pay for all the ponies who fell victim to this dark town’s secrets.

“Like, can’t we just have you fly us out?” asked Thorn, while Thistle and Rainbow stacked desks and chairs in front of the staircase door, already straining under the weight of the freaks trying to force it open.

“Can’t!” huffed Rainbow. “In case you didn’t notice, those vampire bat ponies can still fly, and I’m assuming any other pegasi in town that ended up as werewolves or zombies still can fly, too, and that’s not counting any unicorns among them!”

“I…I don’t think it’s going to hold!” Thistle moaned, noting that the gap in the doorframe between the actual frame and the door was gradually growing despite the mountain of woodwork now in the way.

“Quickly, we gotta-“ shouted Thorn, cut off by an explosion of woodwork as the barrier suddenly gave way, leaving nowhere to run for the four ponies inside.

But as the werewolves and zombies that tried to pile in learned, there was nowhere for them to run, either, as upon entering the door they found themselves wedged in too tightly in the door frame, having effectively defeated their own progress.

“Well, that’s convenient!” remarked Rainbow, before realizing the only way out was now blockaded by a mass of fur and fangs. “Now it’s just a question of how long we can hold out...”

“Oh, of all the places to end up!” whined Sandalwood. She, Applejack, and the unconscious Amber Shine draped on her back had ended up on the top floor of the bank where the administrative offices were. To their misfortune, it seemed the top floor had been undergoing some renovations and most of the walls, doors and even whole sections of the floor had been torn out, leaving only one real spot in the middle to stand.

Which made it all the easier for the wolves now at the door to the staircase to get them.

“This has got to be some kind of bad joke,” groaned Applejack, readying herself to do some rapid bucking.

“Yeah, too bad the ‘punch’ line is going to be one heck of a kick in their faces, right?” smarted off Sandalwood, letting Amber slip off onto the floor as she too readied to make a last stand.

Then the door broke loose and the wolves poured through, except…

“S-Sandalwood?” the lead werewolf asked, stopping dead in her tracks as she seemed to recognize the tan earth pony.

“Oh, so now you furry lot are talka–” spat Sandy, before she in turn recognized who the werewolf actually was. Of particular note was how said werewolf looked strikingly similar to Sandalwood, with an almost identical brown mane and tan coat, the only difference being the wolf pony having a cutie mark of three walnuts, as opposed to Sandy’s mark of a stick of sandalwood incense. “OhmiCelestia…Amaretto?! You’re a damn werewolf?!”

“Shit, Sandy, I didn’t…” her identity realized, the ferociousness was gone and instead there was a wolf-like pony who seemed downright rational. “I didn’t know you were with them!”

“I told you I was friends with the Element Bearers, Ammy!” The anger in Sandalwood’s voice grew. “You didn’t know your own cousin was among the ponies you’ve been trying to kill or turn into wolves or something?!”

Amaretto sighed. “Is that who these ponies are? Look, Sandy, nopony told me anything! This is probably one big misunderstanding and–”

“That’s putting it lightly, because I think we deserve some Celestiadamn answers!” Sandy slammed her hoof down to make a point, only realizing why that had been a bad move when loud cracks were heard. Before anypony could do anything, the floor beneath her, AJ, and Amber gave way and sent them tumbling down into the second floor…right on top of Rainbow, Thorn, and Thistle.

By the time Amaretto got herself through the crowded stairs to the pile of ponies, they were all knocked out cold. Then things got worse as another figure appeared. “Oh, jeez, this is bad,” was all she could say, as she turned to see the gray unicorn militiapony walk into the second floor offices while the zombies and vampires scrambled to move out of the way. “Look, I can vouch for at least one of the–”

“You know why this needs to be done,” replied the militiapony, who charged up a spell and aimed at the ponies lying unconscious before him. “And really, they’re not the ones I think any of us should be worried about…”

Apparently, most of the monster ponies had been held up at the bank, for there was little resistance to Razz charging all the way toward the train station. Having crafted a large crystal wedge, like a plow on the front of a locomotive, she effortlessly knocked anypony in her way, with Coco and Rarity following close behind. Anypony who tried to get back up and attack from the rear of the party were subsequently discouraged as Heelee blasted them in the face with emerald fire.

“This is almost insulting!” declared Razz at the top of the path, just outside the train station. She let the plow fall to the ground, disintegrating into nothing almost upon contact, before taking deep breaths to catch her breath.

“I’ll say,” agreed Rarity, “my things are still back at that accursed lodge!” She yelled in the direction of the lodge. “I’ll have you know I’m writing a negative review about this in the Ponyville Express!”

“Humor, cute,” deadpanned Razz. “I’ll remind you if we survive.”

“At least yours are still intact,” Coco pointed out. “All my baggage probably was destroyed in the airship crash!”

“Oh, that’s true, I hadn’t thought of that. My most sincere apologies, Coco.”

“Heh, you could probably give half of your bags to Coco when we come back,” said Razz with a chuckle, turning to go through the doorway leading onto the station proper. “With an entire legion of guardsponies backing us-OOF!”

Razz found herself tumbling a short distance, having been shoved from behind suddenly. “What the hay, girls, that’s not like–” she began to chide, but as she turned to face her aggressors, she froze mid-sentence in shock.

Somehow, she’d not sensed that the door had been booby-trapped, while at least Rarity had and thus shoved Razz out of the way. But now, both Rarity and the hapless Coco were suspended in mid-air by black metal chains that had erupted from the ground and the sides of the frame, wrapped around the limbs of the fashionistas within like snakes.

“Well, isn’t this a bit compromising?” huffed Rarity. Coco chose not to comment, it had been so bad here in Nightshade to the point this was almost par for the course in what she’d been subjected to ever since the Arno had gone down.

“Hold on!” said Razz, charging up her magic, “I’ll get you two down!”

“No, you’re not,” replied a mare’s voice, serious in tone, followed by Lockbox emerging from her hiding place in the shadow of the train station’s main building. This was not the bubbly blacksmith from earlier, however. For all the falseness in the attempted “seriousness” Razz could immediately sense in her voice, it was clear Lockbox meant business. The brown furred, golden maned unicorn also wore a full set of plate armor with a disconcerting “chain” motif in the detailing, with a holster for what appeared to be a large blacksmith’s hammer on her right—Razz couldn’t see if there was anything on Lockbox’s left side.

“Lockbox, please,” begged Razz, knowing what was probably going to happen. All the same, she removed her saddlebags and motioned to Heliodor to take them. “Over there on the roof, if you would, please,” she requested of her longtime companion while nuzzling him. She could tell Heelee wanted to protest being relegated to a pack mule, especially given he’d played a big part in helping Razz take down Fair Vista months ago; begrudgingly he obeyed his mistress, taking the pack in his talons and flying over to the nearby roof where he could watch and—if need be—intervene.

“No, I think we need to finally settle this matter once and for all,” replied the armored mare, whose eyes held no sign of a mare willing to discuss an alternative. Together, she and Razz began to circle each other. “I do find it odd that somepony like you who has such control over dark crystal chooses to wear nothing but a brace, even if it’s just for show and not for some injur–”

“How dare you imply that-MNNPH!” retorted Rarity, only for Razz to suddenly use her magic to keep Rarity’s muzzle shut. Razz glanced over to Rarity, the look in her eyes saying, If she knows how bad that injury of mine is, she’s going to make it worse. Nodding in understanding, Rarity gasped for air when Razz released her muzzle.

“Armor would just slow me down,” said Razz, not wanting to have her friends fight her battles. “But that’s what you would like, isn’t it? Obviously you’re somehow tied into everything that’s happened to impede our investigation. A spontaneous rain storm to keep us from going to the wreck, only to find it untouched? Only three survivors accounted for out of maybe two hundred, and the supposed guards on site also having gone AWOL? Siccing the entire town on us as cursed ponies, even? At least show me you have the decency to tell me why all that has happened!”

“Funny, I’d think you would already know, given you’re a damned witch hunter!

Raspberry tilted her head with genuine confusion. “A what?!

“Don’t play dumb! You’ve come for me because I can do this!” At that, Lockbox’s horn lit up with dark purple mist and at the same time, black-and-red chains burst from the ground like large, metallic snakes, before they moved as one and rapidly converged onto the shocked Raspberry. Before Raspberry could do anything, the chains coiled around her limbs and body, then squeezed together like one giant anaconda to either crush or smother the pony within to death, depending on what happened first.

Suddenly, Lockbox instinctively turned around to face Raspberry and cast a shield strong enough to block most of the powerful spells leveled onto her. What had gone through ended up encasing Lockbox’s lower half in solid dark crystal, but to Razz’s worry, Lockbox didn’t seem all too concerned.

“You’re going to have to do better than that!” she taunted, the chains that had tried to crush Razz’s magical duplicate falling to the ground—revealing the decoy having already dissipated—before coiling around the dark crystal at their own mistress’s feet. Like a blender almost, the chains rapidly raked themselves around and around, surprisingly eroding the crystal away, while the rest of the chains honed in on Razz at the same time.

Barely dodging, Razz couldn’t help but wince at the spike of pain from her crippled leg—she’d put too much of a load onto her injury and so let her drop her guard momentarily, as well as reminding her she really needed to put a new coating of the prescription salve on it as the brace was starting to rub it raw through the bandage wrapping.

But worse, Razz had finally begun to put the pieces together—her dark crystals normally were at minimum as hard as diamonds by default, requiring powers on the level of an alicorn to be behind any attempt to manipulate or destroy them. In order for Lockbox’s dark magic chains to be like belt sanders to those same dark crystals, Lockbox’s level of dark power had to be on par with Razz herself.

On par with Sombra.

And then she recalled the third stanza of the prophetic words carved into the back of Sombra’s Mirror:

The next now comes, the dark smithy, with metal strong as blades

Her vast secrets, hidden within, buried within the shades

Allays with beasts unnatural within a realm afraid

And all stand as great sentinels for mysteries deeply laid

Looking at her adversary now, and with the events of the night still fresh in her mind, Raspberry believed she knew what much of the stanza meant. But what does the fourth line mean? Razz wondered, doing her best to continuously dodge the hail of chains raining down on her.

The sound of shattering stone, however, signified Lockbox was now a free mare again. Her horn ablaze with dark magic energy and her eyes now ignited with the signature mist trails as well. There was no question that Lockbox, for better or far more evidently worse, was a Scion like Raspberry.

Raspberry knew facing her in full combat was risky for a number of reasons, so she tried once again to reach out to the furious other mare. “Lockbox, I swear to you I’m not here for you!”

“You think you can come to my town and pretend not to have sinister motives for why you’re here?!” accused Lockbox, now drawing her hammer out from its holster and personally charging at Razz. Between a series of narrow misses and quick erections of dark crystals to block the relentless chains, Razz did notice that the aura on the hammer trying to knock her block off was not black, like her own, but instead a pale brown much like the shade on the actual box on Lockbox’s cutie mark. “That you think you can just waltz in pretending to be somepony you're not?!”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” spat back Razz, who managed a lucky kick into Lockbox’s face and sent the armored mare flying, the chains suddenly scattering as if they too had been hit directly. Taking the opportunity, Razz finally let her appearance of a normal mare vanish, her normally concealed form now brought to bear. “Because ponies would be put so at ease if I looked like this all the time!”

Coco gasped at Raspberry Beryl’s reveal of her true form. “Oh my Celestia what is going on?! She…she looks like Sombra almost!”

“Yes, Coco,” replied Rarity nonchalantly, “Raspberry normally hides her true appearance behind what she says her colors used to be before…well, that’s not important.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

Rarity sighed, shifting uncomfortably in the chains holding them. “Might as well tell you, Coco, not like there’s much else to do right now…”

“Holy Luna…” gaped Lockbox, evidently not expecting Razz to expose herself to such a degree. “What...what are you?”

Razz sighed. “Clearly you don’t read the papers since this version of me was all over the news about a year ago—y’know, the whole ‘I tried to kill Blueblood’ crap involving being on trial for dark magic treason or some shit—but what you see me as? This is what a real curse is like, one you unfortunately probably share with me though in a far lesser degree, I imagine.”

“I am nothing like you!” spat back Lockbox, readying her hammer and chains again.

“No, you’re not,” replied Razz, “at least I’m not somepony who manipulates a whole town by turning them into monsters of the night and disposing of the bodies of innocents who survived that airship wreck! Or the guards who tried to help save them, not to mention my friends!”

“Ha! If you really believe that’s what happened, then you are exactly the kind of pony who truly is being done away with here! You and those Lunadamned changelings, you still come after Nightshade when the one you seek isn’t even around anymore!”

One that ‘we’ seek? Razz inwardly queried, then took a shot. “Wait, you mean Versatile?”

The look of anger on Lockbox’s face deepening seemed to confirm the subject matter. “At least you recognize he has a name, but you’re never taking him back, and nopony in town knows where he currently is eith-”

“He’s in Ponyville with his sister, Stage Fright. I met them and their acting troupe a few days before all this shit with the Arno happened!” Razz shouted. “They’re staying at my parents’ inn!”

“You’re lying!” roared Lockbox, the dark chains flaring up with magic. “I told him I’d protect him!” Her eyes filled with dark eldritch fire, it seemed Lockbox was only further angered by the leaps of logic her brain was now making. “I’m going to get him—all of them —back, and the first step is through your dead body!””

In the blink of an eye, the chains made themselves coil around Raspberry’s limbs much like they still were for Coco and Rarity. Breathing heavily, Lockbox slowly approached the hapless Razz with her hammer raised. “You’re just here…to erase anypony who knew he existed…but the only one getting erased today…is you!

The hammer, charged with dark magic, came down onto Razz…dissipating the decoy Razz had left in her place. Lockbox screamed angrily at having been duped yet again.

“Oh, come on, you telegraph your movements horribly,” snidely commented Razz from atop the station’s roof. “But as much fun as this hasn’t been, you’re really starting to lose it and for the sake of your town, it’s time to end this!”

Lockbox simply snarled, her misty eyes and dark magic encased horn making her look every bit as possessed as she probably was by her own powers, and behind her, the number of chains doubled. “DIE!” she roared, wrapping the chains around Razz, who hadn’t dodged in time. Lockbox started squeezing the chains, choking the life out of the dark mage.

“You don’t want to do this,” Razz gasped. “I’m going to put an end to you monsters.”

“You’re the only monster here!” Lockbox shouted, and drew her closer, Razz squirming to get out of the magical grasp to no avail. As they were just about muzzle to muzzle, Lockbox admitted, “I don’t want to do this, but it’s to protect those I care about from monsters like you.”

A sudden thought came over Razz’s mind. “I’m going to give you two options. Option One is that you give up now and turn you and your rabble over to Guard custody.”

Lockbox laughed. “Yeah, right. And Option Two?”

Raspberry smiled. “I will introduce you to the fucking wrath of a Goddamn pissed-off-as-Tartarus alicorn. Your ass is going to be Discord and I’m going to be all six fucking Elements of Harmony. I’m going to rampage on you like the Princess did against the Minotaur Invasion of 957. I WILL BREAK YOU LIKE SHE BROKE THE ENTIRE CHANGELING ARMY AT SADDLEBACK RIDGE, AND I WON’T FEEL AN OUNCE OF REMORSE DOING IT, DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR!?

“Oh, please—you’ll feel a lot more than remorse, you monster,” Lockbox said, unphased by the random words coming out of Razz’s mouth, while squeezing the chains harder, with the intent to kill.

Razz’s eyes erupted with power; at the same time, a small, nearly unnoticeable necklace that the dark unicorn had been wearing began to burn with sulfuric yellow power . “You want to see a monster that badly?” she intoned. “I almost feel sorry for you.” And her body began to glow. The chains grew tighter, but a cocoon of energy surrounded Razz, and her body began to thin and elongate. The glowing oval slipped out of the chains easily, and as it hit the ground, it exploded.

Lockbox stared at the now furless bipedal creature before her. “Sweet Mother of Celestia—what are you?”

The now human Razz stood on her legs, flexing her fist. “Wow, that spell did work,” she said, thinking aloud. “Gonna have to thank Sunny when I get a chance.” And with that, she swung her closed fist at Lockbox’s face. Hard.

The impact of fist against muzzle hurt Razz, just as it did when she punched the human Twilight Sparkle a few weeks back (or technically months), and it hurt no less now. But the shock of seeing a human, followed by the jarring blow, stunned the other unicorn, leaving her defenseless.

Razz took advantage of that immediately. What was that human combat spell that Sunny taught me? she thought as she put her hands together and thrust them out, just like she’d seen the then-former unicorn do back on Earth. “Oh, yeah—that’s right!”

As a blast of golden energy roared away from Razz’s palms, she shouted out, HADŌKEN!”

Needless to say, she had no idea what that meant. Also, needless to say, it didn’t make a bit of difference. The human ki blast rocketed forward, slamming into Lockbox and crumpled the other unicorn like paper, tossing her against a nearby wall and putting her out for the count

Someday I’m going to have to ask Sunny to explain what all of this means, she thought to herself, mentally filing it away for later. Her attention was then caught as somepony screamed behind her. She turned to see a bunch of werewolves, vamponies and zomponies looking at her with fear in their eyes.

“Surrender. Now,” Razz ordered, and and they did, all laying prone on the ground in an instant. “What the fuck is wrong with this town?” the human girl groaned, trying not to facepalm with the injured hand.

Suddenly hearing two sets of hoofsteps behind her, Razz whirled around and raised a fist, filling it with more human magic for good measure. Rarity and Coco stopped in their tracks, having apparently been freed from the chains the instant Lockbox went down. The two ponies stood frozen, staring at Razz and her glowing fist with wide uncertain eyes.

For her part, Coco, already worn out by a long ordeal and being hunted down by the town’s monsters, did the only natural thing: she fainted.

“Razz, darling...I’m sure there’s an explaination for, well...this?” Rarity asked, gesturing to Razz in her entirety.

“Yeah,” Razz sighed, lowering her fist and running a hand through her hair. Once activated, her human transformation spell would last for an hour until it returned her to normal. Granted, she could cancel it early, but given the current delicate situation, it was probably for the best that the most frightening thing in the area was a human teenager.

“And as soon as I figure out what it is, I’ll let you know,” she said with a faint smile.

Chapter 12 - What Lies Hidden

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 12: What Lies Hidden

The next morning, the Super-Electric swiftly swung down, casting its shadow over the town of Nightshade. Despite the massive cannons at the ready, 600 or so pegasus and batpony guards poured out from the vessel—the unicorn guards teleporting to the ground simultaneously, transporting the earth and crystal ponies with them—and Lt. Skyracer leading the head. This one bearing a butter yellow coat with a three-color mane of black, red, and white coloration.

“Don’t forget to tip your driver!” called out Capt. Easychord from the deck.

Skyracer paid no heed, his mind focused at the task at hand. Only when his contingent got to the town center, they found...a bunch of townsponies locked up in shiny crystal cages.

“Finally, some backup shows up at long last!” exclaimed an exasperated Raspberry as she emerged from the heavily damaged hotel. The rest of her group and one pony Skyracer didn’t recognize followed suit. “Nice of you to join up, Skyracer! At least you’re not an asshole like the other one!”

“Other Skyracer?” asked Skyracer, confused. “There’s no other pony in the service with my name as far as I know, and where’s Sgts. Lightfighter and Daffodil? And didn’t the Princess put Lt. Dash in charge of all of this? What the hell is going on?”

“The whole town is some kinda weird, screwed up plot,” answered Razz. “They’ve been conspiring to cover up what they’ve done with the survivors from the wreck of the Arno, then...apparently turned into monsters to try and kill us. I honestly have no clue what was going on. And as for our good sergeants, they’re missing along with all our other guards—probably kidnapped and thrown in with the missing passengers.”

“Wait, that’s what you said happened to Thorn and Thistle...but I was on that ship so why am I not bound and gagged and thrown into a closet or something with the rest of them?” asked Coco.

“Because they haven’t had the chance, darling,” answered Rarity.

“And speakin’ of Thorn and Thistle, I gotta wonder if maybe they ended up with the rest of the missin’ passengers,” Applejack said. Beside her, Sandalwood and Rainbow Dash nodded.

The three of them had reconvened with Razz shortly after she had dealt with Lockbox, all of them bruised and battered. After the initial shock at seeing Razz in her human from, they had informed her that they had all taken a nasty fall and had been knocked out for several minutes. When they had come to, Thorn and Thistle were gone, along with Amaretto and the rest of the cursed ponies.

“Well with any luck, we’ll know for sure soon one way or the other,” Rarity said, sparing a glance around at the various imprisoned monsters, now in the forms of normal ponies. Sandalwood’s cousin Amaretto was among them, looking quietly ashamed. “Though despite getting to the bottom of this werewolf nonsense, we’re no closer to figuring out the reason we came here in the first place.”

“That would be, uh, my bad,” sheepishly admitted a new voice, and as all turned to view the speaker, it was revealed to be an ashamed looking Twin Peaks, who let out a weary sigh. “I suppose there’s nothing for it, now. Cat’s already out of the bag.”

“Ah, yes, Mr. Peaks, if that even is your real name,” drolled Razz, “I think there are things we need to discuss—and I would strongly suggest you start talking now while you aren’t behind bars!”

“Behind bars?” Peaks yelped.

“That is quite the option,” Rarity added.

“And when you’re done with him,” shouted Lockbox from her cage off to the side, “I need to have a little personal talk with him, too!”

Equestria was a land full of natural wonders, for even when the ruling powers of the whole country could command the sun and moon as mere playthings, and ponies took charge of the rotation of the seasons, it only made the species as a collective whole understand the significance of how the land’s greatest treasures were formed without a guiding hoof ever more pronounced.

For Raspberry Beryl and friends—Applejack, Sandalwood, Rainbow, Rarity, and Skyracer—they were awestruck by the hidden wonder that lay beneath the town of Nightshade. A gigantic bowl was carved out in the ground, a quarter-mile beneath the town itself, but from one of the wide passages that had been carved out on the sides that overlooked the underground clearing, it was like a whole different town had been designed with naturally occurring walls, doorways, and no rooftops. Almost like a foal’s attempt to build a town from blocks and forgot to give any buildings proper protection from the rain—not like an underground town would need that.

“The Brightstone Caverns are quite magnificent, aren’t they?” asked Lockbox with some pride. “None of what you see needs artificial lighting, the intensity of the naturally occurring brightstone, or to use the proper scientific term, aetherium deposits give off enough light that it’s no different than if you were standing outside on a sunny day!”

“Certainly must be nice having an entire, naturally formed base to have lying around,” commented Sandalwood, noting that in addition to the almost two-hundred beds contained in what looked like a well-stocked hospital area—where it had been revealed the entire crew and passenger count of the Seabiscuit Arno had been since Razz’s group had first stepped foot into the town—there were a number of guardsponies patrolling around. They were also able to confirm that Thorn and Thistle were among the other rescued passengers, having been brought there the other night by a member of the town militia.

Razz looked for sergeants Lightfighter and Daffodil among the armored ponies but couldn’t find them, nor could she spot the other Skyracer. She did, however, spot one familiar face in the crowd: the batpony Cpt. Stormbreaker moved around with a purpose, barking orders to her subordinates. Razz had forgotten this is where the old CO of Ponyville’s Guard contingent had been reassigned, and made a mental note to catch up with her later when they both had more time.

“Yeah, the truth is? You’re looking at the main portion of the initial guard company sent to assist,” replied Twin Peaks, returning Razz’s attention to the conversation. “There’s a passage directly linking the topside building to an entrance just behind that rock outcropping over there.“

“Seems mighty convenient such a place exists so close to where the Arno went down,” remarked Applejack.

“Well, this place is set up to be kind of a stronghold anyway, back before the time the Griffin kingdom fell into fiefdoms and civil war,” Peaks explained. “As I understand it, it dates back to King Gilman the Tyrant and his constant attempts to invade Equestria. Celestia herself used the ocean to create this sea cave and stationed a legion of her forces here before Gilman was deposed by his daughter, Princess Gillian, who declared herself queen and sued for peace. Eventually, the guard left and the town inherited this place.”

“I’d think a town full of werewolves, zombies, and vampires would pose enough of a problem that nopony would come invade,” observed Rainbow. “Seriously, we still haven’t gotten an answer for that.”

“We’re getting to that part, so don’t be so hasty,” Lockbox pointed out. “The asshole and I––”

“You, you mean,” Peaks argued. “I told you I wanted no part of any of this, especially since my job is on the line.”

“Oh, shut up,” Lockbox grunted. “Anyway, I just figured it would be better to start off with showing you all the caverns and that all the ponies who supposedly vanished—both from the Arno and the guard contingent—were always accounted for.”

“So, what exactly did happen?” asked Sandalwood, suspicious. “Sure, I’ll take your word that the guards swooped in and saved everypony, taking them down here through their garrison’s secret batcave entrance or whatever. But if I recall, shouldn’t the guard also have both found Coco freezing to death as well as the backup black box in that icebox, too?”

Just then, Peaks’ secretary appeared and whispered something to her boss, before promptly departing with a giggle after he gently swatted her with his tail. “Lockbox and I aren’t the ponies who would know what to answer for those questions, but those who would are waiting for us at lunch—if you all are willing to allow me, on behalf of the town of Nightshade, to offer it as a small part of the massive apology you fine mares deserve for the shenanigans we put you through unfairly.”

“No thanks,” Lockbox said. “I don’t want to be there when your wife murders you for cheating on her with your secretary.”

“Lock, you need to be there,” Razz said. “For starters, it will smooth things out between your forces and mine. Secondly, you and I still need to have a decent sit-down about a lot of things directly concerning you.”

“I still don’t want to be there,” the mare grumbled.

“I can either make it a request or a requirement,” Razz pointed out. “Your call.”

“Are, ah, the others going to be joining us?” ventured Rarity, though everypony knew who she was specifically asking about.

“To that, I can only hope,” sadly answered Lockbox.

“A letter, you say?” asked the guardspony, his monotone devoid of any emotion. Chainmail was approaching the end of his shift, all he had to do was get through the interrogation with this jittery little pony. He had already performed the changeling detection spell on her personally (as did a couple of the other guards just for safety), but that was no reason not to be thorough.

“Y-yes, signed by Princess Celestia and Princess Sparkle!” affirmed Coco eagerly, if not with a bit of a scared stutter.

“And do you happen to have this letter with you, Miss Pommel?”

“Um, no, it’s with my things…back on the ship.”

“Is there any way to confirm you actually were a passenger on the ship, beyond your name being on the manifest?”

“I, uh, had a conversation with somepony about my work on Bridleway before I was called to the capital.”

“Called because of the letter?”

“Yes.”

Chainmail groaned. Why do I get stuck with the shitty interrogations?

A few minutes later, Chainmail found himself wishing for another interrogation like it. It was certainly better than the dark alternative that presented itself as he stepped out of the interrogation room.

“Sergeant!” The familiar voice of his CO, Cpt. Stormbreaker caused him to instinctually stiffen his posture and Chainmail snapped off a smart salute. “Ma’am?” Chainmail said.

Stormbreaker stepped toward him at a pace much quicker than her usual slow, almost laid back speed, and right away Chainmail knew something was up. “Tell your squad to meet back by the entrance double-time. We need to secure the town ASAP!”

“Ma’am!” Chainmail nodded and immediately set about his task. Stormbreaker went with him, evidently headed the same way.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out something bad had happened. “It’s those two ponies detained by the town militia during the chaos the other night. Thorn and Thistle I believe were the names they gave us,” Stormbreaker explained. “I just scanned them with the changeling detection spell. The results came back positive.”

“Well shit…” Chainmail swore.

Stormbreaker’s grim look lingered. “That’s not even the worst part.”

“So, you’re saying that not only are Thorn and Thistle changelings, but they’ve escaped custody?” exclaimed Rarity.

All around could be heard collective gasps. The lunch spread was admittedly very generous and so far had actually been quite enjoyable up until Lt. Skyracer entered with the news.

“That’s right, we’ve dispatched troops to search and secure the town, but so far haven’t turned up anything,” Skyracer said. “All things considered, we’re lucky we caught them before they could do any damage.”

“How did they even escape? Were your ponies asleep on the job or something?” Rainbow asked somewhat harshly.

“They were in the custody of the town militia at the time,” Skyracer answered with a calm patience that established him as leagues better than the other officer with his name. “The working theory is that some of the militia were actually changelings, or at the very least working with them. Cpt. Stormbreaker reports that a few of their ponies have gone missing at the same time as Thorn and Thistle. She’s questioning their own CO as we speak.”

“Well ain’t that a fine howdy-do,” Applejack said with a scowl.

“Is Coco at least faring well?” Rarity asked.

Skyracer nodded. “She had just finished with questioning when news of the changelings’ escape broke. Aside from being a little—well, very—rattled, she’s just fine.” He then turned towards the door and made a quick gesture with his head, and the little mare in question was led into the room by another stone-faced Guard.

“She’s requested to stay close to you, Archmagus Beryl.”

“Me?” Razz asked.

Coco tried to smile away the anxiety plain on her face. “I’d just… feel safer around you, Miss Beryl. After seeing your performance last night….”

Frankly, Razz was surprised that anypony would feel safer around her after both seeing her true from and her human one. She decided to simply take it as a compliment.

Skyracer then removed his helmet and tucked it away at his side. “Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll join you for lunch. Not only am I starving, but it occurred to me that none of you have had a proper briefing on the situation with the SAR in the first place.”

With that, Skyracer took a seat and started by explaining that the guards had used detection spells to find anypony on the ship—a job made easier by way of a good portion of the ship having been crushed upon impact and, fortunately, nopony having been in that part of the ship at the time. But what Rarity got from that answer is that the guards had only used their detection spells, which for a yet-to-be-determined reason had not picked up Coco, and so she’d been left on the ship. The same applied for why the guards had not found the second black box in the freezer—despite the door at the time having been open—after finding the first box was busted.

“I’m sorry, Lady Rarity, but protocol had to be followed,” explained Skyracer. When asked how much he knew about the mysterious goings on in the town, he went on to explain that all the other guards had been led to the caverns the previous day, but by the time they were actually let in on the town’s secret defensive measures, communication had broken down so much due to the various group separations that they’d only just caught up to the insanity by the time Razz had detained Lockbox.

“As I feared, due to airship travel commercialization being so new, word about new protocols related to it still hadn’t reached here, so Stormbreaker acted as per standard regulations and moved to ensure that all survivors were safe. Somehow, the captain had only said there was one black box—though he also had a bad head wound from the crash so he can’t be entirely held at fault for that—so no attempt to locate the second box was made. Since those regulations were put in place directly by Princess Cadance, they have to be followed through to the letter.”

“But that doesn’t answer why ponies were left to die on their own by the guards!”

“I’m sure as hell going to mention that in my report,” Rainbow interjected. “It’s dereliction of duty and while I can play fast and loose with rules and regulations, we’re talking about lives here!”

Rarity narrowed her eyes. “What about the ‘revised count’ if I may ask?”

“Revised count?”

“Yeah. Sgt. Daffodil, her two batpony underlings, and that other Lt. Skyracer you were talking about are missing,” the Skyracer they knew said.

“What do you mean, ‘missing’?” asked Razz.

“Missing. Granted, I’m not quite as familiar with the dictionary as Princess Twilight is, but I can give a reasonable definition, if you want,” Skyracer replied in a dry tone.

“I know what ‘missing’ means, Lieutenant,” Razz deadpanned. “What I want to know is whether they’re ‘abducted by changelings’ missing, or ‘working with changelings’ missing.”

Rainbow looked at her counterpart. “Either way, we won’t know for sure until we find them. They’re under my command, and I don’t want to lose them. And if they are working with changelings, I want answers! Got any ideas of where we should start?”.

“Probably the changeling hive in the middle of the forest,” Peaks said, and everypony stared at him. “What, you didn’t know about that? I thought the Guard patrols would have found it by now.”

Lockbox reached over and grabbed Peaks by his lapels. “And when were you going to tell the town about this potential threat, stupid?” she seethed.

“After they take their little bundle of ‘I pretend to be a batpony’, back home to wherever the hell changelings come from, that’s when,” Peaks responded. “My job is to protect this town, not everypony in it.”

“Translation: ‘my job is to protect my plot from looking bad’, right?” Rainbow snarled. “Don’t think anypony didn’t know you were hiding. So,” she said, looking at Rarity and Applejack, “how much authority as Bearers do you think we have?”

“Y’ mean like the kind that strips bad mayors of their authority?” Applejack asked.

Peaks’ eyes went wide with shock. “YOU CAN’T DO THAT!” he hollered.

“Do what? Act on behalf of Princess Twilight to remove a poorly-performing public official whose actions, by his own admission no less, have jeopardized a member of the town?” Rarity asked, “Why darling, I’d think Twilight would be cross with us if we didn’t.”

“What? You can’t do this! This is mutiny! I’ll tell the princesses––”

“We speak for the Princesses,” Rainbow told him coldly. “I am a naval officer and a Bearer. Applejack and Rarity are Bearers as well. Razz is Archmagus.”

“Plus, we are all members of Princess Twilight’s court,” Rarity added. “We often do not wield political power, but if duty calls for us to use it? Use it we must.”

Razz looked at Lockbox. “Anypony you recommend as a new mayor?”

The look on the unicorn’s face was thoughtful. “Maybe Tinpan Alley. She’s the piano player for the hotel bar, but she’s got a lot of experience in running a town. From what she says, her father was the mayor of Berryville, but that after she left home, she’s been a travelling musician. So I’m guessing she knows her stuff.”

Razz looked at the three Bearers. “Ladies, would you care to make a decision?”

Peaks looked at the trio as if he was going to banish them to the moon just from the force of his glare.

“Let’s make this quick, okay?” Rainbow said testily. “We’ve got some ponies to save. All in favor of stripping Twin Pines––”

“That’s ‘Peaks’, you idiot! At least get my name right!” he growled.

“How rude—no respect for a lady making a singular mistake,” Rarity tutted. “Well, I know where I’m casting my vote.”

“Yeah, Ah can tell he’s been lyin’ to us pretty much from th’ first moment we got here,” Applejack added. “Besides, the town could use somepony a little more understanding in charge.”

“Well, you already know how I’m going to vote,” Rainbow said, “so let’s make it official.” She turned to a crystal stallion standing there. “Pvt. Shard, would you be so kind as to go get Miss Alley?” The guardstallion saluted and walked off in search of his quarry. The pegasus then turned back to Peaks. “And now, what do we do with you, Mr. Ex-Mayor?”

“You can’t do this!” he shouted. “I’ll protest to Celestia herself!”

“For what? You deliberately withheld information from an official investigation authorized by the Court of Friendship. And seeing as how the town’s entire population attacked us, we have the right to declare martial law and that gives us all the authority to remove you from office if we deem it necessary,” Rarity explained. “Raspberry, dear, if I write a letter to the Crown, can you ensure that dear Heliodor gets it to Spike? He can take care of the rest.”

“Absolutely,” Razz replied. “And since he’s going to probably be a screaming nuisance, Skyracer, would you take this clown and put him under arrest?”

“On it,” he told her. “Now c’mon, you don’t want to piss off the nice mares and have one of them turn you into black crystal or douse you with a rainbow laser, right?”

“Wait!” Peaks cried out. “I can tell you where they are!”

“And why would we choose to believe you?” a new voice said. Standing next to Pvt. Shard was a silver-coated earth mare, her mane and tail a vibrant honey brown and red, framing baby blue eyes. “So far you’ve lied about everything in order to hinder these ponies, now you admit to being party to kidnapping, too? No wonder your wife seems blissfully ignorant you’re cheating on her.”

“And you are?” Rarity asked.

“Tinpan Alley, at your service,” she said with a curtsey, addressing Razz and the Bearers. “I just received the news and you have my thanks, your graces. I assure you that you’ll have all the cooperation you need from the town government. Unlike my predecessor, I care about my ponies more than my cushy desk chair.”

“Well, we shall leave this to you, good lady mayor,” Rarity replied. “Unfortunately, we have to find some of our missing ponies—turns out they may have been captured by the changelings in the area.”

“Well, fortunately for you, Mr. Peaks here is going to lead you to the hive of his own accord,” Alley said with a smile.

“And why would I do that?” Peaks grunted.

“Well, as per the provincial municipal code, I am required to take a look at the town’s ledger and finances as incoming mayor. Furthermore, due to my predecessor being removed for cause, I am required to do a full investigation in the event that there has been any, shall we say, ‘cooking of the books’?” Alley’s smile became a massive grin. “Did I mention my sister’s a forensic accountant for the Crown? I’m sure she’d be more than happy to help me do a deep investigation of the town’s finances.”

Peaks sighed. “Fine, fine, you all think you’re so smarter than me––”

“‘So much smarter’, dear, not ‘so smarter’. You may wish to work on your Equish,” Rarity corrected.

“Whatever,” grunted the deposed ex-mayor.

Soon enough, Skyracer and a group of his soldiers were making their way through the dense forest, led by an indignant Twin Peaks. They were joined by Raspberry, Heliodor, Amber Shine (who was now finally sober, though nursing a killer headache), and two other ponies whose presence was fairly conspicuous. One of them was Coco, who wanted to come along namely because she felt safest around Razz (the fact she wasn’t clinging to Rarity instead gave the fashionista a mix of emotional responses), while the other…

“So, uh, remind me again why you have me along?” asked Lockbox. Considering what transpired a few hours prior, she was quite surprised when Raspberry elected to bring her along. Especially wearing her full battle barding. “I mean, you seem really trusting despite the fact I’d attempted to brutally murder you and all. Sorry about that, by the way.”

“While we’re still going to have a nice long discussion about that, it’s clear you were only trying to protect the town and our mutual versatile friend. Naturally, I still don’t trust you. That being said, I distrust Twin Peaks even more and if anypony will keep him in line through sheer presence, that pony is you.”

“Good point—I don’t recall if I told you already, but Peaks there was the one who convinced me you were really a ‘witch hunter’ trying to capture me.”

“A witch hunter?” scoffed Razz, “I’d say I’ve been more the witch hunted given who, or rather what, I am.” Raspberry then raised a hoof to her chin in thought. “Although, considering my position as Archmagus of Dark Magic, going on a witch hunt for illegal dark magic users is practically in my job description. Suffice to say, that private discussion we’ll be having is going to be very, very long.”

If you ever get to have that discussion,” remarked Amber. “This walk is taking forever!”

“Pvt. Shine, you’ll be doing laps back and forth between the town and our endpoint if you continue to complain,” chided Skyracer who then turned to Peaks. “But she does have a point, just where exactly are we headed? The map you showed this route on implied it was only an hour’s walk away.”

Twin Peaks grunted, “Just a bit farther—had to hide the troublesome lot well after all.”

“Hmmm...maybe I should have stayed back in town…” mumbled Coco, prompting Skyracer to sigh in exasperation.

“Okay, this isn’t working,” he stated, “so we’re going to head back to town, drop Coco off, and check that damn map because I’m pretty sure we’re lost.”

“If we’re lost then how are we going to get back to town?” asked Twin Peaks, slightly alarmed.

“I can teleport us, duh,” said Razz matter-of-factly, taking down her disguise spell in order to prep a large cast radius. Twin Peaks, not ever having seen Razz’s true form before, promptly screamed in fright, and suddenly a group of changelings sprung from hiding slightly farther up the path. With her disguise down, Razz had her full magic pool available and instinctively summoned up dark crystal where the changelings stood, entrapping their hooves.

But then a second wave showed up from behind the group, slightly larger in numbers this time, and quickly overwhelmed the Equestrians. However, what the rescue crew lacked in numbers they made up with in combat prowess and within a chaotic five minutes had incapacitated their attackers.

“Answers, now,” demanded Skyracer, who had taken no time to figure out Peaks had been in league with the Changelings. Razz, by complete accident, had made Peaks scream as if in trouble, thus botching the obvious ambush of Changelings and costing them the element of surprise. But by the same token, Twin Peaks could have been leading them on a wild goose chase and into a trap, not actually knowing where Skyracer’s comrades in arms were. “Because you can either be smart for once and tell me where the batponies are, or I hand you over to her.”

Peaks fully expected “her” to be Razz...but from the sheer terror when he realized Skyracer’s hoof was pointing to Lockbox—who looked only too eager to introduce her chains to the ex-mayor after so long—he would have much prefered the scarier looking one with the pissed off bird ornament. Either way, the truly scary part was he simply had nothing to use as bargaining chips.

“I...I don’t know!” he blubbered. “All I know is they’re at the hive or something, that’s all I was told!”

“You spineless, sell-out rat!” screamed Lockbox. “You hate on Versatile all the time and yet you willingly let the actual scum-sucker bugs take ponies prisoner to feed on their emotions?! I shouldn’t be so surprised: you’re so two-faced the only thing separating you from an actual changeling is biology!”

“And color,” remarked Amber, who was the first to notice something was off with their would be assailants. “Aren’t changelings teal, not purple?”

“And where’s Coco?” realized Razz. As the group looked around worriedly, they discovered the junior fashionista was missing.

“And great, the one bargaining chip I had left is gone, too,” grumbled Peaks. “All this trouble over one damn pony.”

The words seemed to suck all of the oxygen out of the air, as every set of eyes slowly landed on the duplicitous stallion.

“Wait, are you saying this entire shitshow was the Changelings taking down an airship to get at one pony?” Razz stated in disbelief. Her features turned to those of focus as the pieces suddenly fit together. “But that explains how Coco ended up in a freezer, not by accident but by design. Somepony or something scared her in there to kill her!”

Internally, Razz was worried about something else. What in the world do the changelings want with Coco?

“And that’s where those two changelings named Thorn and Thistle come into play,” Skyracer said, causing Razz to table her thoughts for the moment. They could figure out the bigger picture later. “Given Mr. Mayor here ‘threw them in jail’ and has been working with said changelings all along, we can probably guess what he really did with them.”

“Well, what’s our next move, Lieutenant?” asked Amber. “We’re an hour from town, we’ve got a civilian taken hostage or possibly already killed, and no closer to finding our—”

Heliodor suddenly screeched loudly, leaping off Razz’s horn and landing on the ground, gesturing to something with a wing. It was a spot of green blood on a small outcropping of dark crystal Razz had summoned in the confusion. He then hopped over a few meters to where another patch of green blood was.

“And that is why Heelee takes offense when ponies unwisely call him bird brain derisively,” boasted Razz, quickly running over to rub her pet’s head affectionately. “We now have a trail to the hive. No doubt whatever the Changelings want, it involves impersonating Coco, possibly the batponies too—and no doubt the other ‘Skyracer’ is anything but a guardspony.”

“We need to head back to town and plan an assault,” immediately ordered Skyracer.

“Yeah, like you’ll ever be able to save them after all this ti-URK!” chided Twin Peaks, who didn’t finish his sentence before Lockbox immediately trotted over and punched him square in the jaw, shutting him up.

“If anybody wants to tell me that is some kind of crime against equinanity like dark magic use is, then read me the riot act after we save our friends!” said Lockbox. Of course, nopony really had issue with shutting up the traitor, so nothing was said.

“Alright, Lockbox and Amber, you’re with me,” ordered Razz. “Skyracer, you take Peaks and the rest of your contingent back to town and do whatever it is you said you’re gonna do.”

“But Archmagus, that’s suicide!” exclaimed Skyracer, “As is my sworn duty-”

“Your duty is to protect the ponies of Equestria, which I need you to do in case we’re dealing with a far larger and more aggressive infestation of Changelings than I suspect we are. As Amber pointed out, these aren’t colored like the ones who serve Chrysalis, so it could be a rival hive trying to grow out of sight of the main swarm.” She then grinned as she tapped her leg brace, adding “And suicide? Please, killing me is easy—keeping me dead is what nopony has figured out yet.”

“I certainly hope they succeed,” Peaks muttered under his breath, then braced for another hit.

She ignored him and continued. “However, after this ambush, chances are they’re gonna try and move the hive, expecting a heavy counterattack—they’d be long gone by the time your forces were marshaled and led back to where we are two hours from now. They won’t expect a much smaller group with magic unlike anything they could possibly have encountered before, not to mention we don’t need to exterminate the hive, just get the hostages out alive. And honestly? It’s not like the incident in Castle Everfree with that undead werewolf bitch who gave me my leg’s parting gift.”

“Wait, undead ponies and werewolves are actually a thing?!” gasped a shocked Lockbox. “I mean, yeah, sure, the whole ‘town of monsters’ thing was me using a dark magic physical glamorie spell, but...those legends about shapeshifting wolf ponies and shit are true?!”

“I’ll explain on the way, but we all need to move if we’re going to make this work!”

“I knew I should have stayed with Miss Rarity!” cried Coco, who only thought her situation at present was improved from being locked in a freezer by the relative air temperature not slowly killing her. But being bound in slime with a bunch of bug faces staring at her certainly was not pleasant.

“I thought I ordered you two dolts to kill her!” came a cruel voice from somewhere within the hive.

“We tried to—accidental hypothermia by being locked in a freezer was totally going to leave no trace, but then those other ponies showed up!” came a voice vaguely like Thistle.

“And then the whole town suddenly turned into monsters!” added Thorn. “Frankly, we should consider ourselves lucky she was stupid enough to leave the safety of the town.”

“Yes…” intoned what must have been the queen. “But she’s still alive!”

“We couldn’t kill her on the spot! Your whole plan is ruined if they know she’s dead!” Thorn argued back.

“Plus, she may be of worth now,” suggested Thistle. “She’s spent some time around that one unicorn with the fancy hair, who is quite a powerful asset to the Equestrians. Anything she knows that could help mitigate a magic user of her caliber would be lost if we don’t get it out of her while still alive.”

“Hmmm…” observed the queen. “I suppose that is true—guess there is a reason I keep you morons around after all. Though you should get that wound looked at—it’s starting to bleed.”

“Huh? Oh, shit—one of the guards must have nicked me when we were grabbing Coco.”

Coco missed the tail end of the conversation as she dreaded just what exactly the changelings wanted from her. One thought immediately came to mind but she realized it might only make these bugs angry. Something definitely seemed off about them, beyond the obvious. They certainly weren’t the usual coloration expected of Changelings—that in and of itself troublesome. If something as simple as color wasn’t the same, what else did these Changelings have different from the usual fodder?

One such example was their queen, who by then was now walking up to where Coco was being held prisoner. She looked like a purple-hued Chrysalis, sans crown but with a semi-polished bronze torc as a substitute and a short-cut mane, to boot.

“Well, aren’t you a lucky mare?” the tall figure said. “You are in the presence of Queen Mandible, a rare honor for any mere pony—usually we suck you sentient feedbags dry of emotion before tossing your unconscious bodies to the side. But you, Miss Coco, you’re special. And I’m sure you know why.”

“I...was recommended for a position as Bridleway designer by one of the Elements of Harmony?” was the first thing Coco could respond with.

For Mandible, the sound of her train of thought screeching to a halt was almost audible, her wide eyes exposing the shock at such a completely unexpected response. “W-what? No, of course not, what makes you think I’m interested in crap like that?”

“Because I overheard you talking with your minions about it?”

The queen gave Coco a flat look. “Surely, you’re joking. No, I know you’re just screwing with me now—there’s a bitch far more important to you than that stupid unicorn obsessed with clothes!”

Coco was seriously confused now. What other ponies did she know who were more important in any way than Miss Rarity, Element of Generosity and part of Princess Twilight’s inner court? “Uh...Suri Polomare?”

The sound of Mandible facehoofing echoed through the entire hive. “All this work,” she grumbled, “just to hit a wall of incomprehensible obliviousness. Buck my life.”

Chapter 13 - The Mares Who Kicked The Changeling Nest

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 13—The Mares Who Kicked The Changeling Nest

Following Heliodor’s lead, the two unicorns and batpony followed an otherwise hidden path—outlined only by a trail of blood that for a bird of prey like Heelee was day-glo neon—and soon arrived right outside the entrance to a long abandoned mine. Or once-abandoned, as the blood trail led right into the foreboding entrance, framed with rotting timbers.

“The Old Yeller Mine,” said Lockbox. “Named such for when it was still being used, there’s a weird type of metal here—ekheum— that actually directs echoes acoustically to the head of the mine here as well as deep within far to the back, so ponies could yell from deep in the mine and be heard distinctly by ponies at the front, and vice versa. But the vein dried up a few decades ago and it’s too dangerous to make into a tourist spot, so the town abandoned it. In retrospect, it should have been obvious this is where the hive was—it used to host a different hive years back and was avoided like the plague for that reason, but then the hive moved out without warning and it was left abandoned ever since. That migration is believed to be where Versa originated from.”

“Yeah, got my own little story, too,” commented Razz. “Way back in the early portion of my...drifter years, I was looking for shelter from the rain and found some old mine entrance, similar to this one but more centrally on the continent if you get my meaning. At the same time, some kind of commotion erupted from within and I see a bunch of pissed-off diamond dogs chasing a green and yellow dot. I saved the dot by using my magic to rip out the support beams, trapping the dogs behind the rubble. Heliodor’s been by my side ever since.”

“Aw, that’s touching,” said Amber, “but what about saving the ponies trapped in this mine?”

“Well, you’re going to go back to town and tell Skyracer to haul ass up here to give us support if we need it,” replied Razz with a smile.

“Yeah, just say it’s the Old Yeller Mine,” Lockbox told her. “Basically everypony in town knows it’s here, especially the local batponies. They’ve been trying to get municipal permission to turn the cave into new housing developments for years. Being a changeling hive again might complicate that matter, unless you have some pull with the Crown Environmental Agency.”

Amber scrunched her muzzle in annoyance. “Are you saying you only brought me along to play messenger mare?”

Razz nodded. “Yep, because try as you might it’s still painfully obvious you have a hangover from your binge drinking two nights ago. You’re more at risk of being a liability and it does your comrades no good if you end up captured with them—whereas being a courier will get those guards moving here faster while Lock and I get to work.”

“Not to sound like Skyracer, but it’s just the two of you!”

“Yes, just the Archmage of Dark Magic and the one mare who fought said archmage to a standstill with dark magic,” Razz pointed out. “At worst, we merely need to know our friends are in there and prevent them from being moved out before support arrives.”

Amber sighed. “Fine, you’re the boss—but you better bring them all back alive though!” With that, the batpony turned and silently took flight, heading in the direction of Nightshade.

Once Amber was out of earshot, Lockbox had to ask a pressing question. “So, what exactly is our plan here? The mine was deemed dangerous because it’s got pitch black, sudden drops and we’re goners if we step in sticky bug shit or they get the jump on us in there. And I need say nothing about unexpected cave-ins, subterranean monsters we hadn’t accounted for and all those other fun bits.”

Razz chuckled. “Oh, I have an idea alright, but it involves your brand of dark magic. What’s your limit on how much you can handle?”

Lockbox raised an eyebrow. “You’re asking me to use magic you already said was akin to being a traitor to the country?”

“I said that there are specific cases where that definition is lifted; me being the biggest example since I can’t do any other kinds of magic. Trust me, it’s a long story,” Razz assured her. “But as Archmage I’m giving you permission to use all of your power, for whatever you need me to tell you to do it.”

The blond unicorn sighed. “Well, if you insist. I can have several dozen chains going at once. Never tried more than a hundred because I know better than to push my luck even with my seemingly light immunity to the corruptive shit—”

“I thought so,” said Razz.

“Thought what?”

“A theory I had; I’ll tell you later. Anyway, please continue.”

“Uh, sure. Anyway, past fifteen or so feet away from me in a radius, controlling chains at that distance becomes much harder. So it’s either a lot of chains up to a medium distance away, but long distance it’s only a hoofful. I also need line of sight or have the location memorized, or else I’m blind to what the chains are doing or will encounter. They’re not sensory like antennae or anything.”

“Hmm, alright...but could you put them through a large tube you can’t see through, in order to reach a distance at the end where you can see them?”

“I will smack you if the next word you say involves used sewer pipes.”

“Nah, think more along the lines of wall insulation, actually.”

“Are you that unbelievably stupid?” Mandible screamed at Coco. “How can you be so unyieldingly dense?”

“Look, I’m sorry, okay?” Coco sobbed, wiping tears from her eyes. “If you don’t think it’s Miss Rarity and it’s not Miss Suri, then it has to be Mrs. Cardigan Sweater, right?”

“I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHO THAT IS, YOU MORON!”

Meanwhile, in a separate wing of the reappropriated mine shaft, a few changelings stood guard in a boring vigil to ensure their three captive batponies wouldn’t try anything funny. Indeed, in addition to being bound with slime, the bugs had taken an additional precaution by putting the slime over the lower halves of their muscles so the batponies couldn’t annoy the shit out of them with constant screeching. The more efficient method would have been to encase them in cocoons in a kind of suspended animation and make guarding unnecessary, but cocoons were a chore to make for that purpose and Mandible was keeping her rebel hive ready to abandon their hideout at any moment—so the hostages needed to be kept easily moveable by extension.

One of the guard changelings suddenly emitted a growling sound from within.

“Damnit, I’m sick of underground mushroom stew for meals—I need some really filling love,” the drone audibly moaned.

“We all do, it’s just your fault you came out of that egg with a bottomless pit of a gut,” snarked another.

“Shut up.”

“Why? You got something more interesting to do?”

“Beating your head in sounds like a good idea.”

Your head? Yeah, I’m down with that.”

“Silence, you imbeciles!” said the third guard, evidently the one in charge from the extra armor he wore. “You will stay at your stations to ensure the hostages do not escape or get rescued!”

“But I’m so hungyyyyyyy…” the first drone sighed. Suddenly, he sniffed the air, head jolting upright from a slump. “Hey...you two feel that?”

“Yeah…” the second drone said. “That’s...that’s some Grade-A love right there! Faint though, so it must be close!”

“I’m calling bullshit,” the lead drone countered. “Any pony walking in here with that much love going on has a deathwish. Though if it’s legit...you two, follow me!”

The trapped batponies could only watch as their guards slunk off to investigate the sudden surge of love that only changelings could sense. Then, right after the three disappeared from view in the poor light conditions of the mine, brief sounds of a commotion were heard and silenced just as fast.

But to the delight of the batponies, a familiar green-and-gold figure then lit up, soaring over to land in front of Summer Daffodil. The trio tried to make happy-sounding muffled noises but the bird pantomimed a “shush!” gesture with his wing, while his mistress Raspberry emerged from the darkness without her normal guise. The effect of what looked to be a demon pony emerging from the pitch black nothingness of the caverns would have given the captives quite a shock if they hadn’t had inherently good vision in poor light conditions such as that.

“Thank the stars you three aren’t dead,” sighed Razz, using her magic to remove the slimy gags from the muzzles of the guards. “But where’s Lightfighter?”

“Look behind the pillar,” said Summer, and as Razz looked she was horrified to see that the Changelings had found the one non-batpony captive to be so annoying even when bound and gagged, that they’d actually gone to the trouble of putting her in a cocoon. Most likely as an example to make the batponies shut up. Razz hurriedly freed the batponies from their bindings before getting to work on freeing the trapped pegasus.

“What happened?” asked Meadowlark stretching his stiff wings after having them bound tightly for so long. “Last thing I recall is the mayor taking us to find where he said they’d found more survivors, and then next thing I know we’re trapped in this place!”

“Twin Peaks was working with these Changelings the whole time—something to do with trying to get to Coco. They’re still safe, so don’t worry; the changelings didn’t seem interested in them yet.”

“But who’s in charge back at Nightshade?” asked Sunshine, helping Summer to her hooves. “And I’m guessing you somehow lured our captors away with love...how?”

“I think Twilight got worried we hadn’t reported back yet and sent the freakin’ Super-Electric to town loaded with guards—the other Skyracer leading them. Twin Peaks has been deposed and Rainbow’s got the place under martial law—I’ll explain later. The love thing, though? Easy—Heliodor and I have the loving bond only a mare can share with her loyal companion.” Having then broken through the disgusting goop of the cocoon, Razz lifted the unconscious Lightfighter with her magic. “But it looks like Lightfighter really got sucked dry, even if she was awake I doubt she could get out of here on her own power. And unfortunately Coco is still in here somewhere and we have to get her out, too.”

“We’re not leaving you alone,” sternly said Summer.

“That’s why she’s not alone,” answered Lockbox, who emerged on some sort of platform made from chains like a thin, wide bulldozer tread. “Glad to see you’re all safe.”

“What took you so long?” said Razz.

“Ran into a few more changelings, had to deal with them,” shrugged the blacksmith. “But it looks like that pegasus needs a lift, so let’s get back to the surface and figure out our next move, since it looks like the hive hasn’t noticed we’re even here yet.”

“Has Amber’s message gotten through yet?”

“Amber?!” snorted Summer, who then recomposed. “Ugh, nevermind, you two unicorns seem to have things under control and we don’t have time for me to complain about that drunken mare. Let’s get to safety before going to rescue Poco-”

“Coco.”

“Whatever!”

“You are testing my patience!” Mandible roared at the smaller unicorn. “Do you have any idea of why you’re here?”

“No, unless….” A flash of inspiration came over her. “I got it! You kidnapped me because you need a dress for the Grand Galloping Gala—it’s not for another five months, but I know how hard it is to get a good dress that catches the eye. And I know I’m not Rarity, but I’m pretty sure I can come up with something that will suit your needs.”

“THAT IS IT!” screamed Mandible, slamming both hooves into the ground below hard enough to shake the earth and cause bits of dust to fall from the ceiling. “I’ve tried to be nice but how you managed to drive me into wasting far too much time on this nonsense ends here!”

Coco looked at her with utter confusion. “So I guess you don’t want a dress?”

Mandible growled in anger and frustration. “At the very least, I know enough now that I just have to be a complete moron to pretend I’m you and she’ll never know the difference!”

In a strange departure from character, Coco actually doubled down instead of wilting like a wallflower. “Nopony is going to believe you are me, you pretender of a queen. You have no idea what it takes to live my life or how well my friends know me!” She then spat as if mimicking some western film hero.

Only that seemed to placate Mandible somehow. “Well, all I had to do is make you show a little spine to confirm that theory, which means—”

“Means what exactly?” somepony who wasn’t Coco asked.

Mandible froze, her face slowly contorted into anger. She did not know this new voice, which meant somepony from that damn town had figured out the mines were her hive and gotten past any changelings they’d encountered thus far. But the space above Mandible’s head filling into a cylindrical dome of rainbow crystal took her by surprise.

“What in the—” she gasped, turning around and finding a mulberry-hued unicorn with a cool-hued mane looking rather pissed off. Her horn blazed with dark magic, something that completely shocked Mandible.

“So…” the queen seethed, lighting up her own magic. “You’re the special mare who has ruined all my plans here.”

“Well, I can’t take all the credit,” wistfully answered Razz, “but yeah, I’d say I’ve done the lion’s share of the work in undoing your scheme. Whatever the hell you’re up to, anyway. And now you’re going to give back my friend Coco or face some serious retribution.” Behind Razz then appeared the three batponies, looking like they were eager for the latter. Razz moved her attention to Coco, checking the trapped mare for injuries. “You okay?”

Coco shifted uncomfortably in her gooey bonds. “A little sticky, but nothing a nice long bath won’t fix!”

Satisfied that Coco was uninjured, Razz quickly scanned the rest of the room. There was still one more missing pony unaccounted for, and Razz didn’t see him.

“And where’s Lt. Skyracer?” she asked.

Mandible tilted her head before a cruel smile formed on her lips. “Oh, that moron? We picked him up well before any of this even began.”

Then with a burst of green flames, Mandible was replaced by the similarly smirking form of the first Skyracer they’d met in Nightshade. “Suffice it to say, there’s not much you or anyone can do for him now. He served his purpose nicely, keeping us fed for a while and giving me the means to infiltrate the local garrison here.” With another burst of green flame, Mandible returned to her true form. “I suppose he’s no good to anyone now, is he?”

Razz glowered hard at the smug changeling queen. Even if the real Skyracer had been as unpleasant as Mandible had portrayed him, he still didn’t deserve such a horrible fate. “You’re going to pay for everypony you hurt in Nightshade!”

“You foolish mare, even if you are the much-publicized blood descendant of King Sombra, your praise—such as it is—has only gone to your head! You don’t even understand the nature of the games I play, but continue to meddle with them. I will see to it you do nothing of the sort ever again!”

Coco, relieved at the sight of Razz and the guards but worried about what Mandible could potentially do, said nothing. However, her focus then caught four red long streaks visible on the other side of the crystal dome Razz had cast, like glowing red snakes making their way toward Coco’s end of the room. She didn’t like the imagery but in her mind she knew this was Razz’s doing and this was how she was going to rescue her.

“Oh, no,” retorted Razz. “There’s an even bigger picture you have no idea about. And you aren’t meddling with it because you can’t meddle in what I’m involved with...and who I call friends.”

“You talk big, almost as if you think you are even a fraction as terrifying as that monster Sombra was said to be. Given you ponies tend to be spineless four legged chickens—”

Scootaloo was busy doing homework back in Ponyville when she stopped, a strange feeling coming over her.

“I feel a disturbance in the magic,” she said, “as if millions of chickens cried out and were suddenly–-!”

“Scoots!” Sweetie Belle glared at her. “We’re supposed to study right now or we’re gonna flunk that test! Save the obscure quotes for later!”

Both then turned back to their homework giving the matter no more thought.

“—the moment they fear even getting a tiny bruise, but I must say you’re better than most. For that, I’ll give you one last chance to leave here alive with your bat buddies.”

Razz pondered that for a second. “Okay, deal,” she said enthusiastically, then turned and started walking off. The trio of batponies looked stunned, but with her back turned to Mandible, Razz gave the bats a wink to indicate she was not abandoning Coco whatsoever. Looking concerned to one another, the batponies could only follow Razz’s lead. For her part, Mandible appeared momentarily shocked that Raspberry was actually taking her up on her offer, before grinning a toothy grin.

“That’s right, maybe you do have some brain cells after all!” mocked Mandible, laughing maniacally. She’d just scared off a pony supposedly able to overpower the entire Alicorn Tetrarchy! Chrysalis didn’t stand a chanc—

What Mandible had failed to realize was the crystal canopy Razz had cast at the beginning of the confrontation was not, in fact, hugging the wall. She’d expertly left a three inch gap between the top of her structure and the actual mine roof, through which the hidden-from-view Lockbox had secretly threaded four of her chains to a length reaching the depth Coco was at. So when Razz shouted “GO!” Mandible only then realized all this as the crystal shattered, raining shards all over her and her minions. As they scurried to protect themselves from the sharp rain, the four chains all converged on Coco and wrapped themselves around her, the slime simply thrown off from the force. Then in sheer bad luck, Mandible looked up only to see Coco being pulled back to where Razz and friends were and got clocked in the face, dazing her even more.

“Sorry!” cried out an embarrassed Lockbox, manipulating her chains to deposit Coco with the reformed group of ponies. Then channeling more magic, she summoned even more chains and swirled them around to form a large disc atop which the group stood. With practiced coordination, the smithy then rotated the entire disc counterclockwise, like a drill and the pseudo-elevator made of chains clawed its way back up the shaft. Razz meanwhile was harkening back to the day she’d saved Heelee by ripping out the roof supports as the chain-platform raced back up to the surface, triggering a tunnel collapse and trapping the changelings within...

...except for the unfortunate Thorn and Thistle, who had gotten Thistle’s injury tended to and were on their way to rejoin their queen when from below they were blindsided by a rapidly spinning chain platform. Sunshine and Meadowlark immediately noticed the unwanted guests but as they couldn’t throw them off the deck, they instead delivered two quick punches to knock them out cold.

Heliodor was waiting patiently with the still unconscious Lightfighter when the group finally emerged from the tunnel, seconds before the old wood frame finally broke and was crushed under the weight of several tons of old rock and debris. He chirped happily upon seeing everypony was safe.

As did the two-hundred or so guards Skyracer had managed to bring to the top a minute before the group had emerged in a most unorthodox manner.

“Aw, sounds like we missed all the fun!” exclaimed Capt. Easychord. After the changelings were entombed in the mine and deemed no longer an immediate threat, now that —several hundred military personnel occupied the town and the heavily-armed naval airship flying in a circuitous pattern around the town, the captain had decided to let the crew have brief liberty status, herself included. Now she was chatting with Skyracer, Amber, and a worn-out Summer at the local bar.

“No, we haven’t had fun yet,” groaned Summer, “that’s until I’m drunk enough to forget spending a full day with foul-smelling slime literally under my nose and the worst wing cramps I’ve ever had!”

“You’re on duty,” reminded Skyracer.

“Yeah, which means I can’t get drunk, which means all that stuff I said earlier Celestia above do I look nearly as tired as I think I am?” She then looked to Skyracer and smiled impishly before jokingly leaning on him. “But I am just so glad the real you is here and not that fucking asshole changeling who somehow tried to impersonate you.”

“Yeah, about that….” Skyracer shook his head. “Captain, have the funeral arrangements been made?”

“I’ve sent a flamefax ahead to Ponyville. An honor guard will be on standby for Lt. Skyracer’s body.”

Amber’s eyes widened. “He was real?”

The Skyracer everypony was more familiar with nodded. “But he didn’t look a thing like me...unless I have a sky-blue coat and white and gold mane. They found his body in a cocoon near the hive’s central passageway, and from the looks of things, he’d been in there for six months and sucked dry to the point that he was mummified. He deserves a decent burial and to know that we got the changelings that killed him.”

“Well, no offense, but I’m glad he’s dead and not you!” Easychord chirped.

“Watch it, Chord,” Skyracer warned. Although his counterpart could be difficult to get along with sometimes, the other Skyracer wasn’t a bad stallion. At the very least, Skyracer was determined to give him the respect he’d earned in death.

“Hey, how do we know you aren’t a changeling?” Amber asked, suspiciously. “They did it before, they can do it again.”

Summer gave her a flat look. “Chrysalis or Mandible or whoever did this can go tell Princess Luna she has a fat rump.”

“Okay, I think you’re done here,” sighed Skyracer who got up and started to drag Summer from the bar.

“Hey, who do you think I am, Amber Shine? I can hold my liquor!” she whined as she began to see the growing distance between her and the bartender.

From across the street, while she hadn’t heard the commotion the military ponies were causing, Razz had caught a glimpse of it from the second story window of Lockbox’s home—conspicuously across the street from the town bar—before turning to resume her private conversation with her host. They were finally having the talk Raspberry had promised, but right now she didn’t care about Lockbox’s previous attempt on her life or the mare’s unauthorized use of dark magic. No, there was something far more important Raspberry had on her mind.

“So...you think I’m this, er, ‘Second Scion’ of Sombra, because I have a knack for dark magic?” asked Lockbox. She was sitting at a table with a cup of coffee, though little of it had been sipped. Razz couldn’t really blame her; after all they’d done over the past few days, learning your very being was touched by a monster of an ancestor was quite depressing news.

“I already told you the verse from the ‘prophecy’ for the Second Scion. Given your strong dark magic without any signs of corruption, I don’t know who else could be ‘the dark smithy’. All the clues fit.”

Lock was quiet for a few minutes, but then smiled. “Heh, I’ve always wanted to deny it, but I guess in the end my old family legend was true.” She looked up into Razz’s eyes. “Nightshade was founded by ponies who had fled Sombra’s army after his fall—my ancestors were among them. Scarlet Lace was the very first mayor of Nightshade, and the furthest back I can trace my heritage. She had a loving husband, but due to the timing of their first foal’s birth, local historians believe it wasn’t his. With a name like Nightshade, I suppose a dark tyrant’s legacy is a fitting secret to hold. As well as...the town’s mutual obligation to itself.”

“The what?”

Lock chuckled. “You don’t think I convinced the entire town to pull off a mass population nightmare night parade in less than a day for that stunt, did you? No, the truth is because the town was made up of so many refugees from Sombra’s forces, it made sense for them to be part of a town guard. I always thought it was superstition that said actual werewolves and the like came out from the populace when necessary, based on legend and in reality just a scare tactic. I didn’t even put it together that my dark magic was stronger than it should be normally: my whole family has carried the tradition of being the ‘masters of disguise’ by using dark magic to change the townsfolk—to ‘curse’ them without really cursing them.”

A melancholy look came over Lockbox then. “But does that mean we’re all damned? That we’re so used to existing alongside a corruptive force that we can’t stop from falling to the darkness?”

Razz shook her head. “I don’t think so. If anything, it’s because this town is full of ponies who share blood with those exposed to Sombra’s corruption that it’s almost unremarkable as to the true nature of our magic. You and I are proof that the power of dark magic can transcend generations by design...but this town is proof that the natural response of pony biology—to resist those effects—is also transcendent. It’s why I suspect the spell you use to make werewolves and zombies and even vamponies doesn’t have negative effects, because it’s a relatively weak strain of dark magic that these townsponies naturally have built up immunity to.

“However...the dark chains thing is an entirely different matter. I get the feeling that isn’t something your family has done for generations, is it?”

Lock shook her head. “No, it’s almost ironic how I learned that power. My special talent is working with metals. Figured that one out when I found a lost piece of guard armor in the woods and tried using a hammer to get the dents out—dad didn’t even care I broke the hammer and only got the thing half fixed. But the chains on my mark used to be silver, up until several years ago when I was superheating some metal to make some new axes for the lumber company. I somehow tripped and nearly landed in the hot coals, but when I opened my eyes I hadn’t even gotten close to falling in. Instead, I was laying on essentially a diagonal plane made from bright red and black chains. Since ponies around here are so used to seeing my horn with dark magic auras, they just kind of assumed I’d always been able to do that. If anything, the only time I became super self-conscious about it was when you showed up and I was stupid enough to let Peaks scare me into thinking you wanted my hide.”

“Lucky,” muttered Razz.

“Lucky?” repeated Lock.

“Oh crap. You, uh, weren’t supposed to hear that. But yeah, I said you were lucky. You have a family, the town accepted you, and your powers outright saved you from extreme bodily harm. Took me nearly ten years after my dark powers finally surfaced to get that. Ten years I’ll never get back.”

“Fuck, I...I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, it’s not your fault I got a really lousy start in life. What matters to me now is being able to use my ‘gift’ to help keep ponies safe and as pretentious as it is to be the ‘Archmagus of Dark Magic’ whose only long term interest is running a bed and breakfast, it’s a role I’m weirdly suited for. Heh, I’m even a minor princess in pretense and that doesn’t matter much to me.”

“And what about the whole ‘dark magic is treason’ thing?” worriedly reminded Lockbox. “I’ve already admitted my family has been doing it for generations and as you said, I must be this Second Scion.”

“I already gave you the right to be excluded from that,” Razz explained. “If you’d like a formal document, I’ll have Princess Twilight draw one up for you as soon as I return to Ponyville.”

“But that was just for the whole thing in the mines, wasn’t it?”

Razz shook her head. “Doesn’t have to be. Yes, technically you used it with cooperation of the town to attack me and my friends, but you were being manipulated. As far as I can tell, you only use your dark magic to protect other ponies and as we’ve covered, you understand your own limits of how much you can use without risking corruption. Plus you’re still capable with light and neutral magics which is more than I can say I can pull off thanks to my horn issues. Heck, if you were younger, I’d have recommended you to Princess Twilight as a student. Regardless, I see no reason to not make an exception, nepotism or not.”

Lock raised an eyebrow. “Nepotism?”

Razz laughed. “We’re both related to the same evil bastard, aren’t we? That makes us ridiculously distant cousins.”

“That’s the last of them, my queen,” Briar stated, rolling the false wall boulder back over the secret exit. From the moment Mandible had founded her rival hive in secret, with long term plans to overthrow Chrysalis, she’d had the emergency escape route built for cases when she and any minions lucky enough to be alive come what may needed to flee. A cave-in was also a much more likely scenario but not as self-glorification friendly when her legend would be retold.

Though the victors always rewrite history, she thought to herself with a cruel grin, so this little embarrassment could be undone given time.

“My queen, where are we to go?” said Briar, as he and the small group of surviving changelings looked to her for purpose in life. She surveyed her remaining forces, noting those dolts Thorn and Thistle were not among the group. At least their stupidity wouldn’t hinder her anymore, so that was a plus.

“We must find a new hive, of course—one more stable than a rotting hole in the ground such as this one had been. Perhaps the base of Smoky Mountain to the east will be more fitting for the long term. And where is Foxglove?”

“He...didn’t make it, my liege. I would say any changelings not present are either dead or captured, as such we should assume they are lost to our cause—if they are still alive then their loyalty will lead them to our new home.”

“Well, then I hereby make you my second-in-command, Briar—you’ve already shown more leadership potential than Foxglove ever did.”

“My thanks, my queen,” he said, bowing in gratitude. Then he turned to the remainder of the hive. “And as for you all, you have heard our queen, we shall make Smoky Mountain ours!”

With a cacophony of buzzing, the purple insect-equines immediately made haste to the east. But Briar did not as he felt his queen’s hoof on his wither.

“As my most trustworthy and loyal subordinate,” she said, “I can tell you are still bothered by something. You have my permission to speak your mind.”

“Yes, my liege. It is about the failure to prevent Coco Pommel from falling back into the hooves of the ponies. This completely undermines your plans, does it not?”

“You are quite correct,” Mandible told him. “What I intended to do originally is now no longer viable. However,” she smiled, “we know where that idiot is going, and she is easily tracked from afar. She will lead us right to where we need to be to become the dominant power among all Changelings, but for now we must rebuild my forces for when that day finally comes.

“And I may grow impatient and kill that stupid unicorn Raspberry Beryl before then, anyway. For I will not forget this humiliation at her hooves!”

The next day...

A petty officer from the Super-Electric approached Razz. “Archmagus, the Captain has asked me to let you know that we’ve stowed your gear onboard and the other Bearers and their guests are settled aboard. We’re ready to get underway as soon as you embark, ma’am.”

“Thank you; inform Captain Easychord I’ll be onboard shortly,” Razz told the petty officer, and she headed back, off to fulfill her duty.

Nearby, Sandalwood was saying her farewells to her cousin. “I’m so so sorry your visit turned out to be such a shitshow,” Amaretto said.

“Ammy, you apologized to me like ten times already,” Sandy said with a reassuring pat on the withers. “If you really want to make it up to me, just buy all my drinks the next time we go drinking!”

“Pfft, figures you’d use this to extort more drinks from me, ya damn alcoholic!” Amaretto said, and the two of them giggled. When their mirth subsided, Amaretto rubbed a foreleg self-consciously. “So, um… you’re really not bothered by the whole… werewolf thing?”

With another laugh, Sandalwood grabbed her cousin and pulled her into a tight hug. “We’re family, cuz. In my experience, a little lycanthropy never changes that.”

“Thanks, Sandy,” Amaretto said, giving her cousin one final squeeze.

“Besides,” Sandalwood said, pulling away, “now you and I can compare notes on the subject!”

“Yeah…” Amaretto said, before the full meaning of her cousin’s words sunk in. “Wait, what?!

But Sandalwood was already heading towards the airship ramp. “Bye, Ammy!”

“Wait, Sandy! You can’t just leave after dropping a bomb like that!

Meanwhile, Razz smiled at her friend’s antics before she turned back to the pony she’d been speaking to. “Well, looks like I gotta go back to my boring day job. Take care of yourself, okay, Locky?”

Lockbox smiled. “Hey, at least come and visit sometime, alright?”

“I’ll plan on it! You just keeping taking care of this place, okay?”

Nodding, Razz made her way up the gangplank, and the moment she was aboard, the seaponies began to remove the deck, and cast off the hawsers; a few minutes later the ship’s bell rang as the vessel got underway. Both Razz and Lockbox didn’t stop waving until they were long out of sight of each other.

“So…she’s your cousin now?” asked Sandalwood, who came up next to Razz. “Wouldn’t it be weird for us both to have a cousin who lives here?”

Distantly, yeah, it makes sense given how we’re certain of our relation by blood to King Sombra.”

“So you could get married to her, then?” Sandy leaned in close, batting her eyes and then making a kissy face.

“We only just really met, you wanna-be –Rarity-tier-romantic!” laughed Razz, pushing Sandy away playfully. “Besides, while relationships of that nature obviously aren’t something I even try to have, I don’t swing that way.”

“And the entire male population of Equestria sighs in relief, I’ll bet!”

“Says the mare who thought she was going to marry a sailor someday,” said Razz as she turned to walk back to the main coach where the rest of her friends were.

“Hey, I’m still young!” shot back Sandy. “I’m only in my twenties!”

Really?” said Coco, her eyes lighting up like balloons. “You mean it?!”

“But of course, darling!” affirmed Rarity. “I’ll talk to my friend about getting you your Bridleway job back—provided he hasn’t already found a replacement, you know how the industry is—after whatever this business you’ve been called upon to do for the princesses is taken care of, but until then I am in dire need of skilled hooves at my boutique and I even have a spare guest room I’m willing to let you use.”

“Oh, thank you!” exclaimed Coco, tackling the unicorn in a big hug. “I’ll be the best assistant ever!

“Yeah, wait until Spike gets a load of that,” snickered Rainbow.

“What, the competition in fawning over Rarity or actually being a helpful assistant?” asked Applejack. “Because Ah’ve seen him go crazy over tryin’ to be the latter for me back when Ah saved his life from timberwolves…almost made me wish Ah hadn’t.”

“Oh, I remember, didn’t he destroy Rarity’s plumbing as part of that?”

“At least he didn’t try to kill Opal,” laughed Razz, before turning to address the mildly annoyed bird. “Oh, come on, don’t act like destroying that feline isn’t one of your major goals in life.” Heelee raised a wing as if in response, then thought about it, and lowered it with an acknowledging nod that yes, Razz was right in that Opal would someday need to be eradicated from the face of the Earth. Someday.

As the airship receded into the distance, a mare watched it head off before she headed over to the train station and her own transportation. A half-hour later, the train departed Nightshade Station, and the mare who nopony had seen board it waited patiently in an otherwise empty coach, watching the small town disappear into the foothills of the border mountain ranges.

An hour passed.

Two.

The door at the far end of the coach opened then, a second mare walking through and closing it behind her.

“I trust they don’t suspect a thing?”

“No,” replied the second mare, morosely. “She managed to make it away from her captors, safe and sound.”

“Good. The sooner she is away from here, the less chance she will be suspected of anything in this...incident. Eventually, time will allay any fears.” The mare smiled. “Coco Pommel can now play her role in this little stage production we call life, and when her curtain bows, so will all of Equestria.”

Chapter 14 - Time Weals All Hounds

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 14: Time Weals All Hounds

Sunset Shimmer, I am removing you from the position of my pupil. If we cannot get past this, your studies end here. You are welcome to stay in Canterlot, but you are no longer welcome in the castle.”

“We’ll never get past this because you can’t see how great I deserve to be! Is that really all you have to say to me?”

“No. The guards will escort you out.”

“This is the biggest mistake you’ll make in your entire life!” the unicorn shouted as the guards moved to intercept her. “You’ll regret this!”

“One of many,” solemnly repeated Celestia, recalling the painful memory of the moment where she’d inadvertently driven Sunset Shimmer—her pupil, her protégée, in all but name her own daughter—onto a path of wanton and depraved self-destruction. But what stung the most was that it hadn’t been Celestia’s own choice to do so: Sunset simply had not been ready for the role that Celestia had been trying to groom her into; it hadn’t helped that, by her own admission, she may have focused on the newest alicorn princess, Cadance, instead of what was closer to home. The results of that hoofiwork had been nothing less than apocalyptic: by the time she’d realized what she’d done to poor Sunset, the damage had been irreversible…or so she’d believed had been the case in the five years following Sunset’s disappearance into the mirror.

The lessons learned from where things had gone so wrong with Sunset, however, had formed the foundation for how Celestia had merely guided Sunset’s successor (but never her replacement), Twilight Sparkle, into the same role instead of hoof-holding the whole way. This choice had turned out to be the right one, as Twilight attained what Sunset desired but could not gain herself: ascension, and not by the newest princess’ desires, either. Celestia had been very proud of her protegee, but even the sun alicorn couldn’t imagine what would come next.

Twilight had gone farther than simply ascend in the way originally meant for Sunset—she’d crossed dimensions and not only retrieved the stolen Element of Magic, but effectively saved Sunset from being horrifically possessed by a demon during her wayward years away from Equestria, restoring the filly Celestia feared had forever been lost.

Though despite choosing to remain in the human world, the restored Sunset quickly proved that she was every bit Twilight Sparkle’s equal soon after. Having already returned to Equestria once to erroneously attempt to destroy Raspberry Beryl, believing the mulberry unicorn of having tried to destroy the human Twilight Sparkle’s mind. That in itself was more than a bit surprising, given the fact that Sunset was willing to throw it all away to save another life. But the bigger shock came when Celestia discovered that Twilight’s counterpart had ended up becoming an adoptive little sister to Sunset brought the sun alicorn no end of amusement and pride at the inner strength the maize unicorn had developed.

But the most emotionally painful and draining part of the tale had to have been when Celestia found out that her daughter, the mare she had raised since foalhood, the filly that she'd fought with and made up with, and loved so very much, had died, sacrificing herself in a battle to halt another human—her own counterpart, no less!— who had been possessed by the same demoness that had taken Sunset initially. Devastated by the death of her daughter, Celestia entered a deep depression that left Equestria in an increasingly rough micro-ice age that made crop production difficult and otherwise severely interfered with recovery in the aftermath of Tirek’s war. Nearly a year had passed, pushing the realm to the brink when Celestia finally recovered after learning that her beloved Sunset had finally ascended as the Alicorn of Earth, the Rose of Humanity.

Words had not, would not, and never would exist to describe the rollercoaster of emotions Celestia felt that day...or the absolute nightmare that awaited the vile criminal whose actions caused Sunset’s death. In truth, the reason the cur wasn’t already begging for death because Twilight Sparkle had—wisely, admittedly—not told anypony where she’d hidden him, not even Celestia - the solar monarch didn’t even know the culprit’s name, though admittedly she’d not been in any sort of condition to be told that information until learning of Sunset’s resurrection. Of course, that was probably for the best, as it would be an unending headache to explain to the populace why their beloved ruler was laughing maniacally while roasting some alien bastard alive in the heart of the sun for days on end.

“You’ve been waiting in this room for two hours, Celly,” observed Princess Luna, who walked into the side room. “Is there any specific reason why?”

“This is where everything took a turn for the worse,” replied the elder alicorn. “It might seem like a small-minded gesture, but…but I think it’s only fitting that things be exactly as they were years ago when I can finally leave this sad fault of mine in the sands of time.” She looked at her sister with the concern of ages. “I owe that much to my daughter.”

When confirmation of Sunset’s ascension had come, Celestia had kept in mind through all her emotional swings of that day that the newest princess would need to be recognized through a proper coronation. This actually posed a unique problem as, until Celestia had masterminded a fabrication about the whole spectacle surrounding Sunset’s schism and disappearance as really having been a “top secret assignment” lasting years on end, the general public had thought Sunset a traitor for having rebelled against the Princess of All, as Celestia was often referred to at the time.

Once the “truth” had been publicly divulged, however, it was interesting—and more than a little disturbing, Celestia privately admitted to her sister—that ponies abruptly dropped their mass hatred for Sunset, though the fact that Celestia had, in truth, declared Sunset Equestria’s last-ditch chance to survive against Tirek may have helped things along as well. Furthermore, once the news of Sunset’s own battle on Earth, her sacrifice to save another and ascension had been made public, the citizenry were all too eager to declare a week-long celebration in honor of their newest princess-to-be. It bothered Celestia that her ponies had changed their outlook instantly on just her say-so (meaning that they relied on her too much) and that they’d done so without so much as even seeing any sign of the new princess, another sign that fed the stereotypes of ponies being “too naive.” Still, it meant that Sunset would be welcomed back to Equestria with open forelegs, and the sun alicorn saw it in the end as a mixed blessing.

Upon Twilight’s suggestion, it was decided that some time before the actual coronation would take place, Sunset would return through Platinum's Mirror—the time restriction having been removed a few weeks ago—and spend some time among the populace so at the very least it could be said she’d made a public appearance and ponies were aware of her existence again before being declared Equestria’s fifth alicorn princess out of the blue. A small smile came to Celestia’s lips as it had been unnecessary to decide where Sunset would go—there’d been only one possibility anyway.

And so now began the interminable wait—well, by Celestia’s standards—to see her daughter once more, to hold her in her forelegs and mother her as she should have so long ago. No doubt Sunset would be embarrassed by it, but that was a parent’s prerogative in the end.

Suddenly, the mirror—exactly placed where it had been nearly five years prior in that very room—began to glow ominously. “Just to warn you,” Celestia told her sister, “I think I’m about to become very emotional.”

“I think we both will,” replied Luna, smiling, then turning to look at the glowing centerpiece of the room. The glow brightened, then the reflection of the two alicorns vanished from the face of the glass, as now there was no glass at all. Instead, a watery magic membrane had replaced it, followed by ripples as Equestria's long lost daughter, Sunset Shimmer, emerged, excited as a little filly.

Sunset threw herself into Celestia’s side and fiercely nuzzled it. Celestia, in response, simply encircled her wings around her child and the two shared a long-overdue family moment, the two of them finally united as mother and daughter at last. Then, wordlessly, Celestia looked at her sister, inviting her to join, and the pair became a trio: a daughter, a mother and an aunt, not at the moment rulers of a nation, but as three mares who meant so much to one another.

Finally, Sunset looked at Celestia, tears of joys in her eyes. “I’m here, even if for just a short while,” she said, reaching forward to nuzzle her mother once more.

“And I am glad you are, my little sun,” laughed Celestia as she ruffled Sunset’s mane, emotional tears in her eyes as well as the white alicorn embraced her daughter.

“So…Mother saw fit to give you what you, ahem, demanded of me so long ago?” Celestia asked, gesturing for them to depart the room.

“More than that, actually—she’s actually shouldering the quote-unquote ‘responsibility’ of being the one who kidnapped the previously unknown ‘twin sister’ of the human Princess Sunset Shimmer at birth, to explain away to those who don’t know the truth of my origins how I can exist at the same time my human counterpart does.”

“Wait,” interjected Luna, “did you just say the human version of you is also a princess?”

“Yeah, remember that part I mentioned in my last letter,,” Sunset reminded them. “Somehow my counterpart, whose life I lucked into commandeering in California, turned out to be a minor princess related to the French—the human version of “Prance” is “France”—Imperial’ bloodline.”

“I thought you mentioned that she was dead.”

“Yeah, I thought so as well, but it turned out to be one hell of an error in a newspaper at the time. All it was, was that she had run away from home after her father’s death and had been picked up by the cops. In reality, they moved back to France shortly thereafter. The weird thing was that she has relatives living in town still, and somehow in the years I was there I never came across them.”

“So, if Mother set up some convoluted situation where you’re this other Sunset’s long lost twin, does that mean you’re also technically as much a princess as her, in addition to being the soon-to-be Alicorn of Earth, that Mother appointed you as?”

“They’re a house in pretense,” Sunset explained. “France is a democracy nowadays, and the only thing they do for the government is act as diplomats and the like.” Sunset gave the dusky alicorn a half-lidded look. “I don’t know the full story, so I really can’t comment further, other than the fact that my duties as a ‘Princess of Imperial France’—” she said, adding air quotes, “—is really nothing more than ceremonial at best. Really, all I need to worry about is being the Sunset Shimmer my friends and family back home have come to know and love, as well as all this bureaucratic stuff that comes with ascendance and all that jazz.”

“Well, the fact is you did end up becoming what you went into that mirror to be, did you not?” playfully asked Celestia.

Sunset, surprisingly, shook her head and gestured at the portal. “The Sunset who went into this mirror was someone who only wanted all the power she could get, without understanding that being a princess is more than just having obscene magical ability. Sure, I guess in the end I’ll be princess all the same but…no offense, but what I value more than royal titles and such is that I found where I belong, and it’s not in a castle or even in my native land of birth. It’s with those who took me in as a homeless, lost teenager, and even after learning I’d been lying about being the same species as them, they don’t treat me any differently.”

“Spoken like a true princess,” was all Celestia said in response, and Sunset blushed cutely.

Sunset smiled at the senior alicorn and she then asked, “So, Mother, what are the plans for my visit?”

“Well, let’s get you settled in,” Luna advised. “Afterwards, we can spend the day together before the formal dinner tonight.” She was about to speak further when when all attention was drawn back to the mirror as its interior started to ripple again. “That’s strange….”

“Is somepony else coming through the portal?” Celestia asked Sunset.

“Despite my best attempts to convince them otherwise” mock-grumbled Sunset.

“Your security team, I take it?”

“My cousins,” Sunset admitted, “though in addition to that, yes, they’re my security forces. Grandmother said that because I’m now a princess, I needed some bodyguards and long story short, there happened to be three candidates she appointed to protect me on the spot.”

The thought made Celestia wonder. “Why would my mother do that, given that you are now an alicorn?”

“Grandmother told me that at the rate that you and Aunt Luna aren’t having foals anytime soon, I’m the only grandfoal she has,” Sunset said with a slight blush, “and that until you two take care of that particular problem, she’s going to do whatever it takes to make sure I’m okay.”

Celestia could practically hear her mother’s laughter in the air, Sunset’s comment resonating all too much.

“Are they prepared for this?” voiced a concerned Luna, ignoring the slight on the love lives of both herself and her older sister.

Sunset sighed. “Not really, but given what happened two weeks ago when I went to Europe without letting anyone know, I kinda pissed them off a little, so they’re not letting me out of their sight once I announced my travel here.” The maize alicorn frowned as she added, “Trust me, it was hard enough to convince them that they couldn’t bring along enough weapons to arm the fucking Spetnaz.”

“The who?”

“Nevermind, just—” Sunset cut herself off as her “bodyguards” proceeded to tumble out of the mirror portal…and promptly lost their shit completely. She did not notice Celestia raising a hoof to conceal a giggle as the three newcomers had…decidedly noticeable problems bestowed upon them through the mirror.

“WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?!”

“WHERE ARE OUR FEET?!”

“WHY CAN I SEE MY NOSTRILS!?”

“I see the brave heroes have arrived,” Luna quipped.

Sunset couldn’t help but join in. “Yup, they’ll be the pride of the Royal Equestrian Navy in no time flat.”

The Super-Electric flew off into the distance, having freshly delivered its Ponyville native passengers and crew in front of Twilight’s giant crystal lighthouse of a tree castle, but no sooner had it vanished from view did another entity of high energy make itself known.

“I can’t believe you all went and partied somewhere new without us!” whined Pinkie, who was practically teleporting between friends as she gave them big hugs. Twilight did her own round of hugging in turn, though less spastic.

“Uh, Pinkie?” asked Rainbow, “Just because we went as a rescue party doesn’t mean we actually went there to party.”

“Yeah, can’t say there was too much ‘party’ going on,” agreed Sandalwood, “since it was almost entirely ‘rescue’ from the moment we got there to the moment we left!”

“I’m sure it’s going to be quite a story you all have to tell me and Pinkie!” chuckled Twilight, whose smile faltered when she realized the group had come back larger than before. “Oh, uh, hello, Coco, I…can’t say I was expecting you to be…here…”

“Yes, funny story about how my new hire got mixed up in this little adventure you unfortunately missed out on,” said Rarity, a glint in her eye telling Twilight that the worst case scenario had just happened. “Maybe you can help shed some light on something you’ve been keeping secret from us? Something from me?

“Wait, what?” asked Fluttershy, surprised at the sudden change of Rarity’s tone. “I think I’m missing something here…who’s keeping what secret?”

As all eyes looked to Twilight, she merely groaned, but then perked up as an idea came to realization. “Well, truth be told this might actually be most opportunistic. You did just say Coco is your ‘new hire’ by which I’m assuming she’s going to be your live-in assistant?”

Rarity nodded. “Indeed, I did. But am I correct in assuming that you and Princess Celestia summoned Coco for some hitherto vaguely undefined project that I can only figure involves a need for great fashion talent…and I wasn’t even considered?!”

“Rares, are ya upset that whatever you’re huffin’ an’ puffin about,” said Applejack, “is just Twi not lettin’ ya get first dibs on somethin’?”

“Well, I’m not quite sure, really,” huffed and puffed Rarity, “only because I don’t know what she overlooked me for!”

Twilight laughed. “Oh, don’t be so silly, Rarity—"

“I am not being silly, thank you very much!” Rarity screeched.

“Can you at least let me tell you what you’re supposed to be so riled up about?”

“No, I—” Rarity froze mid-sentence as she realized what actually had been asked. “Uh, yes, please continue.”

“Well, I was trying to keep it a secret, but if you insist, the fact is I didn’t overlook you—when Princess Celestia asked me if I knew anypony who should be in charge of designing the dresswear for Sunset Shimmer’s upcoming coronation, it was a given you were the only one we felt right for the job.”

“Huh?” Rarity was, needless to say, shocked. “B-but then how does—”

The alicorn laughed again. “Rarity, you know we know how easily you work yourself to the bone for these kinds of big jobs! That’s why I asked Princess Celestia to summon Coco to Canterlot to eventually be your assistant there anyway—it was supposed to have been a surprise. Well…at least one that didn’t involve that business in Nightshade.”

Applejack looked smugly toward the now furiously blushing Rarity. “And y’all thought Twi overlooked ya the whole time.”

“Fine, I’ll admit,” sighed Rarity. “Not one of my finer moments. I apologize for that.”

The group shared a good, hearty laugh at the misconception being resolved, only stopping when Spike hurriedly ran into the group. “Twilight, Princess Celestia just sent this!” he exclaimed as he hastily shoved a parchment letter into her face.

“Oh, thank you, Spike,” said the princess, opening the letter up. “Hmm, that’s weird, it seems the princess needs me and Razz up at the castle but…doesn’t say why.”

“Just the two of you?” asked Sandy. “You sure it might not be a fake?”

“Can’t be—it had the same stamp-backing flavor aftertaste like all the princess’s letters do,” Spike nonchalantly answered. Then, after a moment, he added with a sigh, “Oh, come on, I vomit these things up all the time! If you were a personal mail dispenser you’d know it’s kind of hard to not taste the letters coming and going through your gullet on a regular basis.”

“Best not keep the princess waiting, huh, princess?” joked Razz. Heliodor then promptly made his presence known by hopping onto her horn—she wasn’t going anywhere without him.

“Guess not, princess,” shot back Twilight. “Sorry to cut the reunion short, girls, but…y’know, duty calls and all.”

“I’m starting to feel like you don’t want to be around us anymore,” mock-pouted Rainbow, before her smile returned. “But yeah, you know we’re cool with that. Besides, we’ll probably show Coco around, catch up with Flutters, you know, all the usual stuff until you get back.”

“Sounds good, hope you like it here, Coco!” warmly said Twilight, before a quick, shared nod with Razz led to a momentary flash of light.

It then hit Pinkie she was forgetting something important. “Ohmigosh!” she exclaimed, taking Coco by her forehooves, “you’re a new pony in town, that means you need a big welcoming party!

“O-oh, my!” was all the flustered neckerchief-wearing pony could manage before the pink pony shot off with Coco in tow into the heart of town.

“Here we go again?” asked Fluttershy with a knowing smile.

“Here we go again,” unanimously replied the others.

In the Imperial Palace of the Crystal Empire, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, more commonly referred to as Princess Cadence, exited the one of the many meeting halls within the palace. This one, however, Cadance particularly disliked, as she’d had the misfortune of being held as a prisoner of sorts, one sentenced of her own royal position. For the past three hours straight a slew of advisors had basically grilled her on such exciting questions about ‘How will you address issue x when issue y also needs addressing for completely unrelated reasons’ and ‘Are the rumors that you and Shining Armor are getting a divorce true’ and other such fun questions from ponies who honestly needed to do a little more thinking on their own part.

Not like most ponies really know better, internally admitted the weary Avatar of Love. Between the horror that was Sombra still fresh in their minds, the chaos following their return to the timeline a few years back, and ponykind’s own origins as herd animals, it’s a given they rely on their leaders who also happen to be ascended near-omnipotent deities for just about everything.

Her eyes narrowed; even with being a virtual goddess, some ponies were the blasphemous type, sadly. Kinda wish they’d at least show some fucking respect and not spread rumors Shiny and I are getting divorced—that’s a load of horseshit and they know it.

Mercifully, the one pony who Cadence felt she could just do away with all the polite formalities around and talk about how she really felt was already waiting around the corner. “Y’know, we seem to be getting divorced a lot only to end up back together—maybe we should stop getting divorced or something,” Shining Armor said with a grin.

“Or maybe we really should get divorced,” replied the weary princess, “then it’ll at least make ponies stop asking about it.”

“Yeah, but then they’ll either call it scandalous and tie it into something about how you felt you couldn’t love me after that changeling psychopath took your place—because the fact she’d mind controlled me the whole time somehow doesn’t matter—or they’ll continuously pester you about who you’d inevitably marry next, both the general public and prudish suitors trying to get my girl.”

“Nah, I think I’d be more worried about what would happen to you if either of us said we wanted a divorce—given two of my aunts and your sister who I babysat since she was in diapers are easily more powerful than I am, they’d sooner brainwash you back into loving me than allow you to escape this union.”

“No offense, Cady,” chuckled Shining, as he drew close to her, “but I’d be more scared of my mom than anything those three would do to me. Besides, you’ve always been the only mare for me, my love.”

“And you the only stallion I’d want, sweetheart.” Cadence finished by locking lips with her husband, sighing in contentment. It was only then she noted that he was wearing his dress uniform. “Don’t tell me—some veterans affair you need to attend for ‘princely’ duties.”

Shining shrugged as he draped a foreleg over his wife’s neck. “Yeah, both that and as acting captain of the Crystal Empire guard—tonight’s the night I announce the lucky winner who I get to pass that fun job to as I make them the actual guard captain.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, in all fairness I’m sure this stallion is going to do a fine job.” He then stepped back and cleared his throat, mock-announcing in his faux-deep tone: “‘Please, step forward, Pvt. Flash Sent–’”

“You are not!” gasped Cadence. “Shining Armor, I cannot in good faith allow you to name such a lousy excuse for a guard that he lost to me in a drinking contest some months back as the first guard captain the Crystal Empire has had since I—sorry, we—took the throne!” Her scowl melted at the sight of Shining doubled over in laughter.

“Shining!” she scolded.

He laughed again at her consternation. “Cady, Flash is a private. And admittedly I’m considering promoting him to corporal—he’s a good guardspony, even if he can’t hold his liquor. But he’s an enlisted pony, not an officer—I couldn’t make him captain even if I tried!”

“Oh, good, I thought I was going to have to get physical with you for that.”

“Well, as much as it would be a blessing for a divine beauty like my wife to repeatedly strike her hoof back and forth on my face,” chortled Shining, knowing Cadence would never lift a hoof against him in anger, “I’m afraid I must dissuade her from the notion I was at all serious about that.” He smiled. “Besides, I have different plans for Pvt. Sentry.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“The platoon sergeant over at Icespire Garrison has caught a serious case of strephorn, and the doctors said she’s going to be out of commission for a few weeks. Lt. Cordon suggested that we temporarily detail Pvt. Sentry out there as part of his promotion potential. He’ll serve as acting sergeant until Sgt. Backblast is back on her hooves. He then added, “As for who the new captain was going to be, I still have to discuss that with the Security Council––”

A flash appeared between them, trace motes of yellow magic fading as Cadence’s blue aura appeared around it. “Huh, it’s a letter from Auntie Celestia,” remarked Cadence, who proceeded to read the note. “Ohmigosh…Shining, remember Sunset Shimmer?”

“Yeah, wasn’t she the mare you threatened to kill when she came back to kill Raspberry Beryl or something, then you mentioned maybe last month she’s now a princess for some reason?”

“Yes, that’s the one; her coronation is in a few weeks but Twily thought it prudent that Sunset spend some time among the populace of Ponyville for a week before all that pomp and circumstance happens. Apparently, she’s in Canterlot right now….”

Shining knew that tone. “And?” he asked.

Cadance gave a small, awkward smile. “Well, ever since her last visit it’s been on my mind that she and I are actually about the same age and…” She sighed. “Maybe I could have helped prevent what happened to her years back if I’d reached out and been a big sister figure to her like I’ve always been to Twily.”

“Going to be hard to be a ‘big sister’ if you’re the same age as her,” Shining observed.

“You know what I mean. Seriously, we both lived in the castle and I saw Blueblood more often than her.” Cadance’s face took on a guilty cast as she said, “We could have been the best of friends, like sisters—or at least like cousins. Don’t get me wrong, Shiny, I’m not saying I’m completely to blame for what happened, but—”

Shining knew that look in his wife’s eyes and realized arguing was a moot point. “Well, it’s not like anything I say is going to dissuade you from doing what I think you’re going to do,” smirked Shining.

“Dammit honey, you know me too well.”

“Don’t be gone too long, okay? These dinners do end and the weather forecast said it’s going to be chilly tonight.”

“This Empire is situated in the frozen fucking north, that’s pretty much true every night.” Cadence then winked as she added. “But if Shiny needs a bedwarmer…I’ll see if I’m flexible later…” Then with a brilliant blue flash, she was gone.

Hot damn… thought Shining; I actually would seriously divorce her. Just so I could propose to her a second time.

The scene awaiting Twilight, Razz, and Heelee within Castle Canterlot was somewhere between almost expected and yet bizarre, depending on what each of them had seen in the recent past. Having been quickly relocated through some quick teleportation magic courtesy of Celestia and Luna, the trio found them, the newly-arrived Sunset Shimmer, and three earth ponies of light citrine, baby blue, and lilac coloration trying their best to keep calm.

“Looks like she brought the gunbunnies,” Razz laughed. “Heya, girls. Long time no see.”

Sonata Dusk turned to her friend and said in whining tones, “Razz, fix this! Sunny promised me I’d be a pegasus!”

“No, Soni, I said there’s a chance you’d be a pegasus, since you like to fool everyone into thinking you’re an airhead,” Sunset teased.

“Oh. Okay,” Sonata replied with a grin.

Aria Blaze tried to walk over on unsteady legs, grateful that Razz met her halfway. “It’s great to see you again, Razz,” she commented.

“Good to see both of you again,” Razz said, going over and hugging both. She then looked at Adagio. “And you as well, Dagi.”

“Too bad I can’t say the same,” Adagio said with clenched teeth.

“Dagi,” Sunset warned.

“Fine, fine,” the teen relented. “Besides, my duty to protect you takes precedence regardless of the situation, and sadly, this is the situation. I just have to get used to it, is all.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Dagi,” she repeated herself.

Capt.t Dazzle, if you please, your highness,” Adagio commented. “We’re on the clock right now.”

“You know I don’t like this. You three are my cousins.”

“No, we’re only your cousins off the clock; when we’re on the clock, we’re your guards, and you’re our liegelady. We agreed to this, and we were ordered to do this by her majesty. So that’s what we’re going to do. Besides, after your little stunt two weeks ago, I’m sure you don’t want Aunt Velvet to find out you were being uncooperative, right?”

“That’s not fair,” Sunset accused.

“My job is to protect you. Fair doesn’t come into the equation,” Adagio replied.

Just then, the door to the ballroom swung open, through which came Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and three of the castle’s maids. Suspiciously, they looked almost similar to the three SIRENs assigned as Sunset’s protective detail, right down to the same colors—but they were all dressed as maids.

“Wow, you weren’t kidding when you said they were young, your majesty!” gawked the magenta pony, whose mane was a mirror image of Aria’s normal hairstyle.

“Well, looks like you were right,” said the blue pony with the ponytailed mane that sounded exactly like Sonata as she looked at the other two. “Looks like we are gaining somewhat of a fan club.”

Celestia looked at her daughter. “Given the appearance of your guards, I thought it would be prudent if they met some of my newest Hooves, if for no other reason than to clear any potential misunderstandings.”

“Indeed,” said the golden pony, proceeding to bow, the other two hooves bowing with her. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Sunset.”

“She is a princess,” interrupted ponified Adagio, looking offended. “You dare disrespect her by merely referring to her as a lady?”

“Cool it, Adagio,” said Razz, having easily figured out why Princess Celestia had brought in the counterparts of the triplets. She then turned to the trio apologetically. “You’ll have to forgive her—she isn’t familiar with the Hooves’ traditions.”

“But they’re just maids!” observed Aria. “Isn’t it insubordination or something for them not to—?” A glare from Princess Twilight silenced her.

Celestia chuckled. “I’m sure everypony here wants an explanation, no?” Everypony nodded. “Well, truth be told, Sunset, I’d had my suspicions when you said Mother had appointed three ‘sirens’ to be your bodyguards, because you see…I also have sirens as my bodyguards.”

“Sirens?” Sunset asked. “I certainly don’t recall anything about siren bodyguards, Mother. I mean, you told me about the Hooves being your hidden bodyguards, but sirens?”

“I’m in agreement with Sunny,” added Twilight, who looked between the three SIRENs and the three maids brought in by the elder alicorns. “Given what Sunset’s told me about her world having highly-trained soldiers, it makes sense their counterparts are members of the Hooves, but sirens?”

“I will explain, if you’ll give me a chance,” Celestia said, feeling briefly sad about being reminded about yet another failure when it came to her daughter; worse, as it added her current protegee in the mix as well.

Luna, thankfully, took charge of the situation. “Miss Dazzle, Miss Blaze, and Miss Dusk, if you would be so kind?” said Luna. The three maids nodded, then as a cohesive group they trotted purposefully into the middle of the ballroom.

“What the…” said Dagi, confused, voicing what everypony was thinking, but then felt something…strange occur when the three maids who bore so much similarity to herself and her sisters started to vocalize in a seductive tone. Previously unnoticed ruby pendants around the necks of the three maids started to glow, then in unison promptly exploded as the maids’ voices rose, causing a blinding flash. Spontaneously, out from the flash shot out three serpentine forms, which proceeded to circle around the top of the ballroom before settling down to the ground. The transmogrified humans were aghast—they’d not been prepared to meet their own pony world counterparts so soon, or even had conceived of the fact that their ponyworld counterparts weren’t ponies, but something uncomfortably close to what their late compatriots had become thanks to their traitorous leader. Instinctively, three arms went for their sidearms...until they realized that the arms were forelegs and that none of them were weaponized.

“Well…this explains a lot!” remarked Razz.

“It really shouldn’t be that big a surprise, all things considered,” said the ruby-wearing Adagio, before turning to address the SIRENs. “I’m assuming that in your native forms, you’re a trio of highly-trained individuals who were taught to handle just about any kind of situation?”

“Uh…y-yeah…” the SIRENs replied as one, clearly taken abackby the situation.

The siren Aria nodded appreciatively. “Quick on the draw with those swordhooves. I’m betting if you were in your native forms, you would’ve had those blades out before we even finished transforming.”

The elder Sonata chuckled. “Figures. Your highness?” she addressed Celestia, “Would you care to explain? I fear if we try to do so, it might drive these three into further shock, since it’s not everyday you meet yourself in such a literal sense.”

“Speak for yourself,” Sunset muttered, and Twilight giggled.

“Certainly, Miss Dusk,” Celestia commented, ignoring her daughter’s aside before addressing the ponies who were still recovering from this new revelation. “As I’m sure you all can see, these young mares are sirens themselves—siren of course meaning the kind of creature they are, not a designation of a specialized group of warriors as they had been in the human world. However, in their line of work they take up the duties of the castle’s maid staff and are known as the Princesses’ Hooves, always being around to protect me and other nobility.”

Siren Sonata nodded. “That’s right—normally, sirens like us are native only to the Isles of Sirenia, nowadays a popular tourist getaway like Hoofalulu. But a few centuries ago, we were relatively isolated from Equestia, which was a problem as we sirens are a completely female species who needed to capture Equestriani stallions to mate with in order to breed—and no, despite the rumors we ate them, there is no actual record of doing that. Like I said, we’re really mostly vegetarians, and the stallions were let go after their duties were, ahem, filled.

“But to some sirens, they saw this as being subservient to the Equestrians in some way, and so decided to go and stage an invasion. The self-proclaimed ‘Queen of the Sirens’ Cantata Blast, with her three subordinates Contralto Rush, Medley Trance, and Canizone Burst, basically took over our entire civilization by force. Then she went and used her own people to attack Equestria to conquer it. Fortunately, our singing magic has a substantially reduced effect on mares, so things didn’t go quite as smoothly as Cantata wanted, as did the fact she hadn’t counted on the Equestrians being keen on prisoner taking.”

“From that, the captured sirens revealed to the ponies that this whole thing was not a collective choice,” continued Princess Celestia, “but Cantata having enslaved her own species against their will. As you can imagine, I was furious to hear of such gross tyranny on an otherwise peaceful culture, realizing this potential war needed to be fought not only for the sake of my ponies, but of the innocent sirens whose blood was being spilled to reach the goals of another.

“So I challenged Cantata to an honorable duel, one-on-one, to end this charade, and unsurprisingly Cantata was not as strong as she wanted to make others believe in comparison to me. Thus, she broke her honor by calling upon her three subordinates, and I in turn overpowered them all; casting them to the deepest parts of the ocean, locked in ice, for eternity.

”With the incident dealt with, brokering peace amusingly boiled down to addressing the problem of sirens raiding Equestrian shipping for mates, which they also admitted they merely had no other option of sustaining their species and were willing to work with me on solving. Thus, peace was achieved by establishing diplomatic relations with Sirenia and their new leader; Princess Chorale Aria, and the introduction of tourism to their home eliminating the piracy for mates.

“But Cantata had done more than nearly ruin her entire native culture with her warmongering, for many of the sirens forced to fight on Equestriani shores, their lives in Sirenia were gone. Families murdered, homes razed, they had nothing to go back to. So in turn, they took it upon themselves to uphold their code of honor, as I had unintentionally brought the entire siren species into my debt by saving them from Cantata, and thus pledged themselves to defend me as I had defended them. At the same time, getting maid service for the castle was a huge problem, which the sirens solved by simply becoming my maids. Thus, the Hooves were created, with their descendants continuing that service to this day.”

“Huh, that...kinda sounds like us,” said SIREN Dagi. “At least, we had been soldiers for a government that had betrayed and used us before we came to serve the princess who, in a way, liberated us.”.

“I still find it hard to believe that creatures so young were soldiers,” said the siren Aria.

“It’s kind of a tragic story,” admitted SIREN Aria, “but my sisters and I? We’re probably the only ones left from the SIREN group—that used to stand for ‘Strategic Intervention, Reconnaissance and Execution Network’—”

Execution? But you’re just fillies!” the siren Sonata gasped.

“We were part of an illegal program operated by our former country,” SIREN Adagio continued. “SIREN is—was—a top-secret branch of the Royal Canadian Navy. As for us, we’re the last three left of the active group, and only because we were assigned to be Princess Sunset’s escorts.”

“Does that still apply given the timeshift?” Sonata asked her sister.

“I don’t know. I’m getting a headache just thinking about it,” Aria admitted.

The human Adagio continued to recap the fall of the SIREN program for the benefit of their counterparts, sparing none of the unpleasant details. From Cantata Blast’s alliance with the human responsible for Sunset’s death (Twilight had made sure Sunset had told the trio to never mention Divine Right by name while in Equestria), to their experiments to turn their soldiers into monsters. She spoke of finding out it had been Cantata who had carried out the hit on their flag officer, and lied about it to turn them into her personal army. Finally, Adagio spoke of fighting their fellow SIRENs, capping it off with their execution of Cantata herself after the battle.

“Cantata Blast, hmmm?” asked siren Adagio, her brow furrowing. “I’m not surprised she turned traitor, given what her counterpart in this world did.”

“It gets a bit complicated after that,” Dagi stated: “But the long story short is that under the command of a new flag officer, and charged by Sunset’s grandmother to watch over her, we agreed to transfer our flag over to the Royal Equestrian Navy. With my princess’ permission, we’re hoping to rebuild the SIRENs as an elite volunteer unit.”

“Would anypony even join a division called the ‘Strategic Intervention, Reconnaissance and Execution Network’?”

“No, because we came up with a new name for the acronym: Special Initiative, Royal Equestrian Navy. We’re hoping that between our main duties of protecting Sunny and family, and the secondary duties of serving as super-elite REN SPECOPS, that we’ll be able to find a happy medium.”

“Speck Cops?” siren Adagio asked, puzzled at the term.

“Ren?” siren Sonata added.

“REN SPECOPS,” Razz repeated. “It’s an abbreviation for Royal Equestrian Naval Special Operations. Humans abbreviate everything and their military personnel are exceptionally prone to that.”

“Oh! So like what those purple Wonderbolts are?” siren Aria asked.

“Purple Wonderbolts?” Sunset, not familiar with them, asked.

“That’s...a matter for another time,” said Luna, evidently trying to change the subject.

Just then, Sunset’s stomach growled. “Ugh,” she moaned, “I forgot how that stupid mirror makes me feel famished.” She then noticed her three bodyguard cousins didn’t look any worse for wear. “Okay, like, the first time I went through the mirror, it felt like I hadn’t eaten anything in my entire life—was it some weird SIREN training thing where you actually don’t need to eat so much as you perform osmosis or photosynthesis type shenanigans and get nutrients from the air or something?”

“We can go twenty-one days without food so long as there’s water available,” said Dagi with a perfectly straight face.

“We’ve been trained to get sustenance from the land if necessary,” Aria added.

“No thanks!” Sonata chimed in. “Don’t think I could go a day without Burrito Bandito!”.

“Burrito Bandito?” asked siren Sonata.

“Think Burger Princess,” quickly answered Twilight, “except based on Burroñeso food,”

Siren Aria winced at the mention of the example. “Oh, really? I think if I had the special sauce again from Burger Princess it might just kill me;—it was absolute murder on my throat. Couldn’t vocalize for days—it was horrible.”

“I’m sure Sunset and her entourage can tell you all about food that won’t impact your singing over some not-fast-food, for I do believe it is lunchtime,” interrupted Princess Luna. “Ladies, if you would be so kind?”

Instantly, the three sirens seemed to hum a single note, before their ruby pendants flashed and returned them to their usual pony maid disguises. “Right away, your majesty!” they replied in unison, before rapidly taking off. They’d not been gone but a second before another flash—this time a bright blue one—spontaneously occurred and left Princess Cadence standing in plain view...if hunched over, gasping for breath counted as “standing”.

“I’m not...gasp...late...wheeze...for anything, am I?” she asked, slightly out of breath as though she’d just physically exerted herself a bit too hard.

“No, you’re just in time for lunch, as a matter of fact,” cheerily replied Celestia, glad to see her beloved young ones all present. Though she wouldn’t admit it outright, she felt like she was on Cloud Nine—and it had been a while since she’d been to that particular pegasus nightclub, especially in disguise.

“Sheesh, not even been here an hour and everypony’s rushing to see me,” chuckled Sunset.

“Oh, I’m sure you two will be seeing a lot of each other in the following week,” cryptically mused Celestia, before tactically choosing that moment to follow Luna out the door before more questions could be asked of her.

“Wait, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Ah, yes, I probably should explain,” said Cadence. “See, you and I are about the same age—well, I think, not sure how that works out given you say you aren’t even physically over age seventeen in the human world—but I feel that small part of what caused you to turn against Auntie Celestia is my fault since I was around the castle a lot during that time and I should have been more proactive in being somepony else you could rely on in our foalhood years.”

“Don’t worry about that too much,” comforted Sunset. “There’s a human saying that hindsight is 25/25 or something like that. Basically, it means we can’t change what we did in the past, but recognize how we need to learn from our mistakes for our future.”

“Uh...sure, I guess? Anyway, the point is that you’re here now and so while you’re back in Equestria, I’m going to do my best to make it up to you and be the best. Cousin. EVER.”

“Oh, er...yay?”

“Hey, wait, if she’s your cousin...does that mean she’s now our cousin as well?” Sonata asked..

“Well, we’re going to protect her like we are going to protect her highness,” replied Dagi, ever the professional. Turning to Aria, she said, “XO, reevaluate our protective plans to include a second asset, if you please.”

Aria nodded, “Recheck OPLAN aye, Captain.”

“Yeah, great…” Sunset groaned as she facehoofed. Twilight merely giggled.

Razz on the other hoof simply shrugged. “Hey, consider yourself lucky, Sunny. You’ve got more family members by the hour it seems. I’ve only got the one distant cousin.” The three alicorns looked at the unicorn, and Razz suddenly felt a bit on the defensive, “Yeah,” she laughed nervously, scratching the back of her head as she added, “kinda forgot to mention that, didn’t I? Guess we’ll be talking about that at lunch, huh?”

Chapter 15 – Racked and Ready

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 15: Racked and Ready

“Is everything okay, ladies?” Celestia asked, her face the very image of calm though only those closest to her knew her voice held tones of concern.

While the decision to host the newcomers from the human world to lunch in the castle was spontaneous, it was far from the first time the royal cooks had ever been asked to make a full luncheon at the drop of a hat. But while she had faith that the royal kitchens were hitting the high standard that they were known for, she inwardly chided herself for blowing the most basic rule of diplomacy via food: pretty much shoving her own native world’s cuisine in front of individuals whose own diets might not be able to adjust. Sunset of course, being a naturally born Equestrian who simply had migrated to the human realm, had no such problems, but it only now occurred to Celestia the full ramifications of having the three bodyguards who had accompanied Sunset: they were being told to eat food that for all anypony knew wasn’t meant for human consumption, especially given the fact humans as a whole were entirely foreign to Equus at large.

Celestia thought about all the rumors over the centuries of humans that roamed the wilds of Equus, especially the legends pertaining to The Megan, supposedly a human that her mother had known. But so long as Faust had lived on this plane, she’d never mentioned anypony who worked for her that Celestia hadn’t already known. True, the sun alicorn had been just a foal back then and hadn’t been privy to all of the Crown’s secrets, but even then, she wished the part about The Megan would’ve been true.

At least then I could ask her what would’ve been a decent meal for humans turned ponies, she mused.

“Are you kidding?” replied Sonata, her eyes shimmering with glee. “This stuff is delicious!”

Then again, maybe I don’t have to worry about it after all. A small smile came to Celestia’s face as she relaxed.

Meanwhile, the meal went on as one of the SIRENs felt the need to converse. “Pardon me for asking, your highness,” asked Adagio, “but are you worried that because we aren’t really ponies, that there may be things that should be inedible to humans?”

“Inedible?” replied Celestia. “Oh, not at all. Given how you all have made a sizable portion of the food in front of us disappear, I’m sure anything being inedible to you isn’t of concern. But you three seem somewhat uneasy all the same, so as your hostess I want to make sure you are comfortable as can be.”

“Well, for one, we’re used to your counterpart being a little less, well….” Adagio demurred.

“Pony?” Celestia offered.

“Well, that, yes. But I would also add, well...formal. No offense intended, of course.”

“None taken. Even if we are counterparts, we’re not the same individuals. But I must admit as to being intrigued by my counterpart,” Celestia stated. She would have said more, but suddenly seeing her daughter bristle at that probably brought up bad memories once more and she left it at that.

“To be fair, having lunch while feeling like the waitstaff are ghosts is a bit unnerving, suffice to say,” Aria added.

Luna cocked an eyebrow. “Ghosts?”

“No offense, your highness, but as was demonstrated to us a while back, it would appear that the Equestrian version of the SIREN group is effectively the entire maid-slash-protection detail within this castle.”

“The Hooves,” corrected Sunset.

“Uh, yeah, the Hooves.”

“Well, not all of them,” interjected Celestia, “while the kitchens are staffed by ponies, the royal kitchen supervisor is one of the Hooves, after poor Symphonica met the wrong end of a guardpony’s lance back when the Changelings tried to invade—as in a changeling took a lance and turned it on her—she’s got a bad hind leg injury that put her out of active duty.”

“I can relate to that,” said Razz, feeding a bit of pear to Helee.

“And…” Aria took a deep breath. “I know this is probably not something that should be brought up, but…a lot of our fellow SIREN members were killed because of what our prior CO did to them, girls who largely were the only family we’d had for all our lives. So, to see them, even if it’s just their alternate versions and not the ones we knew personally, walking around serving us lunch is kind of awkward. Uh, no offense.”

“Would you care to have your glass refilled?” a silver haired, black coated pony carrying a water ewer asked. Without even being told, the triplets knew the pony was named Piano Bliss, though her demeanor was different from the girl they’d encountered just the week prior. “Personally, though, I think I’d freak out myself if ponies I thought were dead suddenly were walking around.”

“But you’re not dead, just a shopaholic, if Mint was right,” Sonata responded.

“What’s a ‘shopaholic’?”

Just then, another three ponies walked in: the one in front was a medium gray mare with azure blue eyes, set off by an off-white mane and tail. To her left was a baby blue coated mare with pink eyes, sporting mane colors of white, gray, and cream colors. Finally, to the right of the first mare, a cauliflower hued mare with gray eyes brushed locks of blue and indigo mane out of her face as the three made a straight beeline for Princess Celestia. The first one then suddenly turned on a dime and barked orders at the triplets; “Guardsponies Dazzle, Blaze, Dusk, atten-HUT!”

As one, the three instantly moved out of their seats and into attention…at least they tried to, given the reaction to the order had been entirely habitual, but also when they’d been human. As ponies, however, they managed to end up in a crumpled heap of bodies trying to stand back up.

The gray mare facehoofed. “Unbelievable! You three have the audacity to—the hell?”

The mare hadn’t finished her words in time before three mares, identical to the ones who now finally stood at attention on the other side of the table, rushed into the room and flawlessly stood in fixed attention pose like statues. “Orders, Mezzo?” asked the duplicate Adagio.

“Oh boy, here we go again,” mock-groaned Sunset. Razz and Twilight did their best to hide amused smiles while letting out slight giggles. “Did you guys forget that you now outrank most ponies in the room?” Sunset pointed out.

“Wait…” said Dagi, recognition coming to her face. “Mezzo…as in Intermezzo Blue?”

“Well, at least you know who I am,” replied the suspicious mare, “but now maybe somepony can tell me why–”

Soni, almost at the verge of tears, pointing a hoof at the light blue mare. “M-Madrigal Storm?”

Aria then completed the pattern by gesturing to the final mare: “Vesper Blue?”

The most empathic of the group at the table, Cadence immediately caught on to the wellspring of emotion that was about to be unleashed. “Ok, before anypony says anything else,” she intoned, silencing whatever angry retort Intermezzo was going to spit out, then turned to the triplets who seemed to be frozen in shock. “Obviously, the human equivalents of these three ponies were individuals close to you, but it might help if you could explain what’s going on.”

“It’s because in terms of seeing ‘ghosts’ around,” answered Sunset for her bodyguards-slash-cousins, “they’re seeing their grande sœurs alive and well with their own eyes…”

Grande sœurs?” asked Twilight, though she figured the meaning was obvious already.

"Okay, Twi? You know the relationship you and Cadance have? It's almost like she's your grande sœur. Almost. The real thing, I'm told, is a lot more intense. Closer than blood family, at times."

“Blood is thicker than water, after all,” Sonata said.

That served to confuse Twilight all the more. “But if you said they’re not related by blood, then why–”

“We mean it in the terms of the original Roman version of the phrase, your highness,” Adagio clarified. “‘Spilled blood as brothers is thicker than the water of the womb’.” The looks of horror that came over all the other ponies’ faces at that puzzled Adagio. “It’s what we went through as kids, okay?”

“I swear, I am never going to get used to humanity,” Razz muttered for what must’ve been the umpteenth time.

Meanwhile, back in Ponyville, everypony seemed to be enjoying the latest spontaneous Pinkie party…except for the pony who the party was for.

“Coco, darling,” said Rarity, “don’t you think you should be out socializing and getting to know more ponies than just being a wallflower? This is your party after all.”

“I’m…I’m not really one for big social gatherings,” admitted the blushing Coco. “So many ponies who could get the wrong impression! It makes me really nervous, and when I get really nervous my tummy gets all queasy and I just feel worse for it.”

“Oh, darling!” laughed Rarity, good naturedly. “That’s just butterflies in your stomach! You just need to be more prominent and have more self-confidence in who you are. After all, someday you want to be a big fashion name like Hoity Toity or, if only to indulge my ego slightly, myself, right?”

“Yes, of course!”

Rarity then approached and took Coco’s foreleg into her own. “Then you’ll need to be comfortable in putting yourself out there for the world to know who you are. They need to know you exist first, before they ever consider becoming your customers, or even giving you a loan or something to let you establish the founding boutique from which your fashion empire will be born.”

“That sounds…daunting…” Coco stammered.

Rarity laughed again. “In a way, I suppose you’re right: first impressions are everything in our line of work and I won’t lie: Some of the upper crust clientele are downright petty in the things that will offend them even if you only do it by accident. The only surefire way I’ve ever heard of getting oneself set up as a fashion brand name is more or less be a very loose mare among handsome, wealthy stallions with more money than common sense or loyalty.”

“So…basically what Suri probably did?”

Rarity couldn’t hide the smile on her face. “More or less, darling. More or less.”

“In a way, I’m glad they insisted on coming,” admitted Sunset. “They don’t like to admit it, but they really needed the closure.”

Following the revelation of who Storm and the two Blues were, in the human world, to the SIRENs, the pony versions of the grande sœurs immediately were horrified to learn the truth of their counterparts’ fates. Almost like mothers finding their long-lost children, the three instinctively took to the triplets as their own, younger charges much as their human versions did. At the moment, after much tearful emotion display, it had been revealed that in the rush in getting to Equestria, the triplets didn’t know the first thing about actually being equines, so the elder trio had taken the younger ones off to at least become proficient in knowing how to use throwing knives and basic swordplay. The princesses all remained in the dining room, finishing up what was left of their meal.

“Well, things haven’t been destroyed with massive explosions yet,” noted Razz, “so I can’t complain too much, can I?” She just shook her head when Sunset glared at her. “You know I’m kidding, right? I’m just glad to see them happy – even Adagio,” Razz added. “Besides, it’s nice being able to find even some form of a family you’ve known all your life still being around. It’s a lonely world out there if you have nobody to turn to.”

“I thought you did find a family?” Sunset asked.

“I did, and my parents mean everything to me, but…there’s nopony in my life that I’ve been close to since foalhood. I suppose that’s par for the course, though, considering my lineage.” A thought then occurred to Razz then. “I wonder if he ever had somepony in his life before… y’know….”

Celestia closed her eyes and thought deeply before replying. “Sombra…even before his eventual departure from the royal capital at the time to become the tyrannical despot of the Crystal Empire, he had been an unpleasant individual seeking to steal the throne from both Luna and myself after we took our mother’s place at the head of Equestria. I will admit that ever since his first defeat, I have often tried to understand just who he was as a pony: what could have driven somepony to turn against everything they knew for the sake of power.”

Both Luna and Sunset coughed rather obtrusively at that last remark.

“Unlike you two,” snarked back Celestia, “I wasn’t responsible for what happened to Sombra when he took the left hoof path—not to mention I would like to think we’ve let those old bygones be bygones by now, correct?”

“Tell that to Equestria’s founding stance against dark magic nearly cleaving my head off,” commented Razz, rolling her eyes. “But more to the point—Luna and Sunset were both effectively possessed by more sinister forces that were by no means a reflection of who they are normally; who they are is standing right here. I’m related by blood to that bastard Sombra in order to have his kind of power – he’s a different twisted freak all together.”

“Yes, that he was, sadly,” nodded Celestia, “but I do believe that boils down to four key attributes of his character—his force, his obsession, his vulpinity, and…his denial.”

“Come again?” asked Sunset. “I recall reading about that guy when I was at school here, but I thought he was just a ponytale figure. You’re telling me he was real?“

“Divine Right is a close approximation,” clarified Razz.

“Is something wrong with my nephew?” Celestia asked, worriedly.

Fortunately, Twilight, who had done some reading up on the human world while she had been there, was quicker on the draw. “Sorry, Sunny – Razz means Der Fuhrer. That guy from your world’s second global war.”

“Er, yeah, totally meant that,” Razz said awkwardly. “No idea how I managed to mix them up.”

Sunset quickly realized they hadn’t told Celestia about her world’s Divine Right. Although she could only guess as to why, she was smart enough not to inquire. “Ah. Yeah, I can see how that would not be good,” was her only response.

“As I was saying,” continued the solar tetrarch, thankfully unaware of the second layer of conversation, “those four things probably characterized him the most, and I wonder if each represent the four who he prophesied as inheriting his legacies. His force was his sheer power, his mastery of dark magic and how he forced it upon all in his domain—that would be you, Raspberry. Next was his obsession; his drive to become lord of all that was and would ever be, to have the power over everything as its designated ruler, as if it was his duty. While sort of obtuse, I do believe Lockbox’s dedication to her family’s legacy in Nightshade to the point of psychosis qualifies.

“But it’s the latter two that concern me as they have not surfaced yet. His vulpinity made him far more dangerous than just a brute with power, for he knew how to manipulate, to plan, to execute in ways that provided exactly what he wanted. Even without copious dark magic, that alone would have been far and away more deadly in the area of politics. Finally, his denial…Sombra believed he was always in the right, that he defined the morality of his actions and that dark magic—the left hoof path—is not inherently evil and corruptive. It drove him mad, believing the impossible and refusing to treat fact as anything but fiction.” With a sad sigh, Celestia looked at Razz and concluded, “I fear the pony who finds themselves with that aspect of his, but not for our sake. Only tragedy do I see befalling them.”

With Rarity by her side, Coco felt far more confident as far as meeting other ponies went. It almost felt like she belonged there, a feeling she didn’t get very often, but relished dearly.

So of course she was facehoofing hard when she spent a little too long in the little fillies’ room only to emerge and find Rarity deep in conversation with a mustard yellow pony—Mellow Brook, maybe?—probably talking about a prospective business deal involving costumes. Coco perked up at that thought and probably would have liked to have been part of that conversation, she just…needed to wait to get her hoof into the conversation. Just needed to wait for a momentary lull so it wasn’t awkward.

Just then, out of the corner of her eye, she noted a mane of four colors—red, yellow, black, and white—moving through the sea of ponies, upon the quad-chromatic sat a most curious hairclip: a two-color pool cue, with at the end opposite the wider end being a red, tiny heart gem in lieu of a pool ball. Coco knew it looked unique, it looked cute, and that she wanted to know more about it.

Razz and Heliodor sat alone in one of the auxiliary ballrooms of the castle, as Razz had requested. This was a personal matter, she’d told the others, one that shouldn’t take too long and she’d rejoin the others soon enough. However, at the same time, she’d requested from the Hooves that they send two others of their kind to meet with her in this ballroom. The Castellan and the...sub-Castellan? Razz still wasn’t sure about how the rankings within the Hooves worked but she’d called the two mares up by name regardless.

In short time, the two requested Hooves showed up. “Greetings, Lady Beryl,” said Marimba, Castellan of the Princesses’ Hooves as she bowed. Her companion, Cuica Trecento, also bowed. It was similar, Razz noted, to the first time she’d met these mysterious paramilitary mares—but that only made the absence of the former third member of their party all the more noticeable.

“How may we be of service?” Cuica inquired.

“Hello again, ladies,” replied Razz, “it’s good to see you both again.”

“As it is to see you,” Marimba replied, “though I suspect you didn’t call upon us to revisit your adventures on...Earth, was it?”

“Yes, the human world is called Earth, and yes, you’re right that I requested your presence for other reasons.” Razz thought about how she could best word it before deciding just to be upfront. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but...I need to know what you didn’t tell—or rather, show,—when we were first introduced back in Pyrite Town.”

“Milady, I beg your pardon,” said Cui, “but are you accusing us of being less than absolutely faithful to our roles as Hooves?”

“What? No, certainly not! It’s just that, well...when you escorted me to Pyrite Town Hall, my conversation with Pavane revealed that she, along with you and all the other Hooves, are part of some secretive tribe of pony not known to the majority of the populace. This was somewhat backed up later by my trip to Endless Vale the week I got back. Finally, earlier today three other Hooves, acting on orders of Princess Celestia, revealed the big secret.”

“Ah, yes,” acknowledged Marimba, “as Castellan, I was informed by the Princess that she intended to have the three ‘SIRENs’ that are attached to Lady Sunset and those present at the time be shown how the Hooves are her own sirens. But forgive me if I do not see why you needed to see me and Cui in private as part of that.”

“If all Hooves are sirens and can thus become, well, seaponies, then that means you have those forms as well, yes?”

“That’s...correct,” said Cui, “but—”

“Then show me, please.”

With the two Hooves shrugging to each other, they placed their hooves on the ruby pendants on their necks and hummed a high note. Before Raspberry’s eyes, they turned from mares into large, serpentine sea creatures without losing much of what were identifiably equine-like features, their hidden ruby necklaces shining from under their coverings.

“I know what you will ask next,” solemnly said Marimba, absently flicking her tail, the fin moving to and fro. “The answer is yes. Like you said, all Hooves are sirens, and Pavane was no different, albeit she was one of the rare sirens who seemed slightly more comfortable on four hooves instead of flying with a fish tail.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” asked Razz, confused. “You’re sirens! Even if everypony doesn’t know that the personal private guard detail of Princess Celestia is made up of your kind, everypony does know the legends of your powers! Furthermore, why didn’t any of you take on these forms during the whole Tirek shitshow? Particularly of all ponies, Pavane, if she could have literally flown out of the way from Tirek’s hoof?!”

“The reason we didn’t tell you, despite your high standing, Lady Raspberry, is simply because the Princess, as well as Ladies Luna and Cadence, thought it best to not overload you at the time. As you probably recall, you barely survived the events aboard the Sunny Rainphase and despite having most of your power taken away were still a beacon for Tirek’s attention.”

“Additionally,” Cui added, “I presume you’re aware of the mythology behind our tribe—which for the record were slightly, intentionally hyped up because back in those days we needed stallions to breed as we’re a fully 100% female species––”

“How does that even work?” Razz asked.

Cuica chuckled. “It’s probably more proper to say that only the females of our tribe inherit the siren traits. We do give birth to boys, but they are born as whatever species their father is and potentially have the ability to sire sirens of their own someday...provided, of course, that the mother has distant siren ancestry as well. It’s...rather complicated and truthfully, I’m not versed in the biology of it all.”

Marimba nodded. “In any case, sirens abhor cannibalism but inexplicably being thought of as cannibals in that context makes us more mysterious and dangerous sounding, so we just went with it—and for that reason, you really didn’t need to know three ‘cannibalistic’ fish horse creatures were assigned as your personal security detail out of the blue.”

“Yeah, alright, makes sense,” said Razz. “But why didn’t Pavane change?”

“Because I didn’t give her authorization to do so,”Marimba replied simply.

Razz gaped in shock. “That’s...that’s stupid! You’re telling me that Pavane let herself die instead of trying to survive? That you ordered her to die?

“Lady Raspberry, you must remember: first and foremost, we are the Princess’ Hooves before we are anything else,” Cui told her. “While being a siren is a prerequisite, not all sirens are Hooves. There are those who live back in the native Isles of Sirenia or the Sirenian Coast, either because they were not from the first generation of Hooves, or they chose to do something else with their life, as the Princess allows. You must understand: Our entire organization – our initial way of life – was founded by sirens who had nothing but their service to give back to Celestia after she saved our kind by swiftly ending the Sirenia-Equestria incident.”

“She defended us, so by honor they pledged to defend her in turn,” Marimba added. “From the first siren who pledged her hoof and sword to us today, each of us carries the tradition of those that came before. To that end, we as Hooves act as bodyguards and gendarmes but that means we are soldiers who must follow our orders even if we think they are not the proper course of action. Sometimes these decisions don’t seem completely clear to outsiders—sometimes they don’t even make sense to those who carry them out. But still, we have to carry out the directives we are given.

“Pavane was a true member of the Hooves to the last, even if it cost her everything to save you,” Marimba finished. “And even though my heart aches at her absence, the warrior in me is proud that she did her duty to the end.”

Cuica nodded and spoke once more. “Additionally, the Hooves as a whole were under orders by the Princess herself to not take on our true forms lest Tirek get the idea we were more than just average earth ponies. With that brute being potentially able to use magical singing, it would have been a crime against anything with a sense of hearing in addition to increasing his terrible power. Pavane turning into her true form would have only endangered all other sirens still able to fight at the time, because we don’t know what would happen to us if Tirek stole our magic like he did from other ponies - and you of all ponies should know how horrifyingly bad things got when he got the bulk of your power.”

Razz nodded. “I...I understand, I think. I...I guess it’s just the way you sirens handle your lives is much more different than what I’m used to.” Razz then laughed, “and like I’m one to talk, given my life on the run for nearly a decade.”

Humming another, slightly lower note than before, the two sirens then returned to their pony forms, with Cui coming forward to put a hoof on Razz’s wither. “While true, the way we as Hooves function is much different from even a typical guard, Pavane would have been honored by your desire to understand our kind.”

Thoughts of her fallen sister-in-arms caused a barely perceptible flash of pain across the siren’s face, and she reached up and touched the ruby pendant around her neck; perhaps as a means to give herself some small comfort. But the sight of the pendant reminded Razz of another, very different kind of pendant—or more accurately, an amulet.

“Are you alright, milady?” Cui asked with concern. “You look like you just realized you left the stove on.”

Razz immediately made her way to the door. “Something like that, yeah.”

Uncharacteristically, if certain ponies were asked, Corner Shot seemed relatively nervous or anxious, as if she was constantly looking for somepony who she expected to be there but wasn’t.

C’mon, c’mon! the mare thought, trying to not draw attention to herself as she attempted to navigate through the masses of ponies without her rising star power as a top pool shark getting her involved in talking with anypony who wasn’t the one she sought out. The rest of them came back, but where are you?

Then just like that, she saw her, and just like before, Corner found herself paralyzed. Something about Razz always seemed to catch Corner off guard. She couldn’t say whether it was her kind, loving eyes that looked onto the green phoenix beside her. Or her adorable, sweet smile as she sent the bird on its way. Or the quiet, self-assured strength with which she carried herself despite the clear hardship she’d endured. And yet, Corner wanted nothing more than to lend her own strength to her. To hold her and comfort her when she was especially weighed down… to lov—

Corner abruptly shook the nonsense from her head. Where in the world were these thoughts even coming from. Focus, Shottie! You have a job to do….

Razz didn’t seem to have noticed her yet, so there was still time for Corner to approach her and act like she hadn’t just spent the past several seconds staring longingly at the other mare. Corner was about to do exactly that when another pony beat her to it.

A diminutive earth pony mare with a beige coat and expertly styled two-tone teal bangs, complimented with a tri-color frill hairclip, all but galloped up to Razz, calling out to her with the voice of a lovesick filly. A fire burned in Corner’s chest when she saw the other mare wrap her forelegs around Razz’s neck, nuzzling her deeply. A fire alighted in Corner’s veins, and she suddenly found herself approaching the pair, her hoofsteps falling perhaps a little harder than intended.

“Hey Razz!” Corner greeted, trying her best to sound nonchalant even as she turned a withering glare towards the other pony hanging off Razz’s neck. “Who’s your friend?”

For her part, the smaller mare immediately let go of Razz and tried to put the dark unicorn between herself and Corner without making it obvious that’s what she was doing. Razz, on the other hoof, seemed oblivious to the growing tension—or if she was aware, did an exceptional job hiding it—and smiled.

“Oh, this is Coco Pommel. She’s a dear friend of Rarity’s I met over in Nightshade,” Razz said.

“Nightshade, huh?” Corner said thoughtfully, scrutinizing the smaller pony carefully.

Razz gently nudged Coco forward. “Coco, this is Corner Shot. She’s playing in the pool tournament.”

With a nervous smile, Coco offered a hoof to bump. “The, uh… pleasure’s all mine!”

Corner simply stared at the offered hoof impassively. “That it is.”

It was a few moments before Coco realized the menacing pegasus wasn’t going to take the offered hoof, and she lowered it, awkwardly clearing her throat. “So, uh… I really like your hairclip?” Coco offered with a nervous smile.

Corner simply turned her attention to Razz, giving her a much more genuine smile than any she had spared Coco. “So, it’s good to see you back. How was Nightshade?”

Razz’s brow furrowed, either just now catching on to the tension between the other two ponies or unable to continue hiding it. Nevertheless, talk of Nightshade elicited a weary sigh from the unicorn.

“To be frank, it was a hot mess, and I don’t really have time to go over it all. I have something to take care of back at my place, and just wanted to pop my head in to see how my friend’s party was going.” Razz then put a diplomatic hoof on Coco’s withers. “You should ask her about it. She was there for just about all of it.”

Corner gave another dismissive glance at Coco. “Maybe another time. There’s actually something I want to talk to you about.” Then with a sultry grin, Corner said, “Maybe I can escort you home?”

Razz gave another curious look to each of her companions before giving an uncertain, “Okay,” before turning to leave, telling Coco to enjoy the rest of her party as she did so.

Corner lingered just long enough to lean close to Coco and whisper, “Word of advice, Coocoo….”

“Coco.”

“I know what I said,” Corner stated loudly before returning to a whisper. “Now, it might be in your best interest to keep your distance from the archmagus.”

“What?” Coco was taken aback. “Why? Are you talking about that stuff in the news from awhile back? Rarity told me that was blown out of proportion and that everything worked out. Besides, Princess Twilight wouldn’t have made her an archmagus if they didn’t trust her!“

“Trust me,” Corner replied, a stern look on her face. “I recommend that you act like you’re horribly allergic to her or phoenix feathers or whatever, but stay away from her, got it? By now Corner was really in Coco’s face and jabbing her chest with a hoof.

“O-okay,” squeaked Coco. Grunting in acknowledgement, Corner then turned and walked off in a huff, following Razz out the Sugar Cube Corner’s entrance.

“I see you’ve met Corner Shot,” suddenly came a new voice—this time, a stallion—and made Coco jump. Slowly she turned in fear to see possibly the largest stallion she’d ever seen, but oddly he seemed more meek than his large frame suggested. “I’m sorry, I did not mean to frighten you, Miss…”

“Pommel, Coco Pommel,” she stated, offering a hoof and a slightly forced grin. She hoped this pony wouldn’t be as in her face as that “Corner Shot” had been.

“They call me Nineball,” he replied, taking her hoof and shaking lightly, like a gentle giant. “But, as I was saying, that mare you just met, that Corner Shot? She’s the one you need to be wary of, for where she goes, only trouble ever follows.”

“G-great to know,” stammered Coco, suddenly wondering how a pony that large could apparently eavesdrop on the entire conversation—even the whispered parts—without notice. She secretly wondered where Rarity was—the timid earth pony felt the need to leave and get settled in that nice guest room, private and away from the public for things were getting far too uncomfortable for her at this rate.

Thus, she nearly had a heart attack when a bright flash of light followed by a pop of magic heralded the sudden appearance of Princess Twilight and a number of other ponies in the middle of the party. It was as Pinkie Pie started shrieking with enthusiasm that Coco decided she was done for the night.

“I believe I can speak for my subordinates and myself in saying that those three are some of the fastest-learning individuals we’ve ever taught!” said Mezzo, beaming with pride. “I can only hope our ill-fated counterparts were as proud of them as we are.”

“Indeed, it is a shame we can’t ever actually meet ourselves,” added Vesper, “but those three at least get the opportunity to see themselves in a way most never can.”

“Indeed. Thank you, ladies,” said Celestia, nodding her head in appreciation. “Tell me, where are the ‘local’ Adagio Dazzle, Aria Blaze, and Sonata Dusk?”

“Both the ones of the Hooves and the, ah, ‘SIREN’ trio are visiting the armory at this time,” explained Madigral Storm. “We figured it would be best to help arm Princess Sunset’s guards with weapons more fitting than things like, and I quote; ‘Eff-En Five-Seven,’ a ‘Springfield Ex-Dee-Emm Parabellum’, something Aria specifically gushed about called the ‘M-107A1,’ and a ‘Colt 1911 Heritage’… I didn’t really want to know why they use young male ponies considered ‘heritage’ in some way as bludgeoning weapons. Frankly, the idea sounds quite barbaric.”

“Actually, that’s a handgun,” said Sunset, before facehoofing a second later. “Right…no hands. My bad.”

Vesper raised a hoof to ask what the newest alicorn was talking about, but then the sound of laughter rung out and one of the triplet groups—their ruby necklaces denoting that they were the non-human set—entered, clearly doing only a so-so job of holding their composure. “Apologies, but…” barely managed siren Sonata, while her two compatriots went to hold the doors open. The cause for the riotous laughter soon emerged:

The other “siren” trio—meaning the triplets—had apparently decided to go for broke and across the three of them were equipped with maybe half the entire Royal Guard armory surplus. Rapiers, throwing blades, long knives, a few javelins, heavy swords, a healthy amount of chain mail, and a dagger each only just began to describe the walking weapon racks the SIRENs had decided would be necessary. Soni had gone so far as to manage to dig up an older style guard helm with a muzzle guard and was wearing it—somehow, the back of the helmet where the plume was supposed to have been was missing the plume, allowing her somewhat redundant ponytail—as in the one made from her mane and not her actual tail—to stick out as a replacement.

“I think they miss their toys back home,” teased Sunset with a giggle.

“Admittedly, it wouldn’t be so bad if we still had fingers,” admitted Aria, “but since we’ve only got what we have access to here, better safe than sorry, right?”

“You don’t intend to walk around Ponyville wearing all that stuff all the time, do you?” asked Cadence, concerned for the health of the trio. “Even with just one or two armaments, you’ll stick out, but it looks like you’re gearing up to go declare war on the griffons or something!”

“We carry much more armament whenever we’re fully geared up,” Adagio explained.

“Our loadout is usually much lighter than this, though,” Sonata reminded her sister.

“Well…maybe this is overkill,” shrugged Ari, symbolized more by the metallic rustling of her chainmail under the weight of over a dozen different polearm-type weapons strapped to her back than any actual movement that could be seen. “But, like, even though this is maybe several hundred pounds of gear, we can carry it all pretty easily, so why not?”

“Because it limits your movement,” replied siren Aria. “Having more weapons than the typical guard regiment isn’t gonna mean squat if you can’t hit one enemy with any of them.”

“C’mon, girls. I’m sure the highly trained local bodyguards know what they’re talking about,” Sunset said.

Fine…” The SIRENs all groaned as they surrendered the armaments they’d initially gathered. Now significantly more visible, each of the triplets now only carried a saber and dagger, while their third armament was different among them: Dagi retained her javelin, Soni still had some throwing knives and the proper carrying pouches, but Ari had a new weapon altogether.

“Wait, crossbows exist here?” the pleasantly surprised magenta pony exclaimed as she pulled out what looked like a miniature string-drawn horizontal bow with a wooden handle. “Because I know this wasn’t back in that armory!”

“It’s not standard issue, but…” answered siren Aria with a slight blush, “it’s my personal armament. Seeing as how your sisters say you’re the most accurate with a bow and the only individual I ever entrust that thing to is myself, I see no issue letting you borrow it for a while.” Her eyes then turned hard as she added; “But so help me if you don’t return that thing to me in one piece without a damn good reason why it’s damaged…”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s your baby, got it,” replied the ponified human, reholstering the primitive firearm while rolling her eyes. “Trust me, especially since I apparently am you, I have my own special babies back home I don’t let anybody touch. It’s in good hands with me…er, hooves, I mean…right?”

“I suppose,” the elder Aria chuckled.

“Well, thanks, regardless. Remind me of that when we come next time with our own gear: you and me are spending some time on the range with my loadout. You’ll love it.”

“Loudout?”

The sun alicorn laughed, a sort of end to the conversation. “Well, I think you’ve all dawdled around here long enough,” chuckled Celestia. “The others in Ponyville are probably wondering why this ‘luncheon’ is taking so long.”

“Right,” replied Twilight. “Besides, Razz still needs to tell me what exactly went down in Nightshade besides the business with Lockbox.”

“Wait, what’s Nightshade?” asked Sunset.

“We’ll explain later,” said Twilight with a wink, then in a flash of magic she along with all the other ponies in the group vanished, leaving only the eldest alicorns and the sirens in the room.

“So, be honest,” spoke Luna, “does Equestria not actually have more crossbows than the one you just let the other Aria have?”

“Heck no!” laughed Aria. “We intentionally didn’t let the baroness’ escorts anywhere near the weapons locker where all those things are located. I just spun that make believe story so the other me won’t go walking around with that crossbow like just anypony has one and be an idiot with it. Last thing I need is quartermaster Spreadsheet chewing me out about how I lent a crossbow to somepony not qualified enough to not jam a bolt into somepony’s rear end by accident.”

Raspberry hoped that the unamused frown was clear on her face as she watched Corner Shot step out of the Sugar Cube Corner. Evidently, the pool playing pegasus had lingered a bit to get some final words in, and Razz didn’t like it.

“You want to tell me just what the hell that was all about, Shot?”

Razz thought she saw a shiver pass through Corner’s entire body, but she wasn’t sure whether it was her glare that caused it or just the chilly night air.

“You mean what happened with me and that harlot in there?”

Razz gave Corner a no-nonsense glare. “My friend, yes.”

“She was pretty intimate with you for just a ‘friend’,” Corner shot back.

“That’s just who Coco is, she doesn’t mean anything by it.” Then Razz’s frown deepened. “It’s certainly less annoying than jealous rage.”

Corner recoiled like she’d been struck, and a blush formed across her cheeks as she stuttered. “Buh… t-that’s not… that isn’t what this is about!”

“Mind explaining what it is about, then?”

“It’s about protecting you, Razz! About making sure you don’t get hurt!” With a sigh, Corner composed herself and spoke clearly and rationally. “I’ve seen plenty of mares like her in my time. Not trying to brag or anything, but being as popular as I am on the international pool scene often attracts… the wrong kind of people. Ponies or other creatures that just want to get close to you for your fame.”

Razz raised an eyebrow. “And?”

“And you’re the Princess in Pretense of the Crystal Empire. The Archmagus of Dark Magic.”

“And what? You think Coco is some kind of gold-digger?”

“I’m just saying I’ve seen her same ‘innocent seductress’ routine many times. Tell me, has your ‘friend’ Coco ever been as touchy-feely with any of your other friends?”

“She’s the same way with Rarity,” Razz answered, but the more she thought about it, the more she wondered whether she’d ever seen Coco get as physically affectionate with Rarity as she was with her. “And so what if she isn’t? You ever stop to think that maybe it’s just a simple crush?

Corner opened her mouth to respond but Razz kept going. “All that matters to me is that Rarity trusts her, and therefore I trust her. And if you have any respect for me whatsoever, you will trust my judgement and stop harassing my friends. Okay?

Corner sighed, and it looked to Razz like she was admitting defeat, but there was an undercurrent of disappointment as all of her features visibly drooped. “Okay, I’m sorry. Can’t say I can see myself being best friends with Coco, but I was out of line.” Corner offered Razz her hoof. “Friends?”

Finally allowing herself a smile, Razz bumped the offered hoof. “Friends.”

With that, the two ponies started making their way across town towards the Travelers’ Retreat.

“Well, I tell you what, your pal Pinkie throws some utterly insane parties,” Corner said after a while. “Frankly I could see myself planting some roots here if fate puts me on that path.”

“Y’know, I am curious: just where do you call your hometown?” asked Razz.

Strangely, the question caught Corner up for a moment before she replied. “Horseshoe Bay…at least, that’s the town I was told I was born in.” The pool shark then took a deep sigh, as if to steel herself for her next words. “Don’t know who my birth parents are, as far as I know I was actually an unwanted pregnancy that got dumped on the steps of some orphanage in Detrot shortly after the umbilical cord was cut. But since the orphanage was filled there, I spent my youth in a place called Diamond Mountain.”

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s a beautiful place, in the Macintosh Hills—“Diamond Mountain” is actually just a large hill; it’s called that because of Diamond Lake. Beautiful, glistening waters.” The look on Corner’s face was wistful. “Just the greatest place you could ever live in. Most of what we did around there was actually in the turnips and parsnips growing trade. Ever heard of Jellied Jewels’ Candied Turnips?”

“Yeah, my mom’s a fan of them, why?”

“They come from Diamond Mountain. I know the owner’s kid. Maybe I can have them send a sampler or two.”

“That’d be great. Sounds like your hometown was special, then,” Razz said with a grin. “Lonesome Dove, at least for me, is my hometown again as of only recently—had to really work to gain the locals’ trust.”

Pretty soon the Retreat came into view, and Razz suddenly remembered something. “So what was it you wanted to talk to me about back at the party, Corner?”

With a confident grin, Corner said, “Oh, I wanted to offer you my services.”

Razz tilted her head. “Your services?”

“As your bodyguard, of course!” Corner said, still grinning. “Lots of weirdos come to these tournaments you know.”

Razz laughed. “What qualifications do you have to be my bodyguard, Ms. Pool Shark?”

“Hey, I’ve seen my fair share of fights. What could it hurt to have me around?” Corner’s sudden interest made Razz a little worried, especially when Shot suddenly leaned in a little too close for comfort. “Heck, I’ll even start tonight, I’ll sleep in your room to keep an ear to the ground in case—”

“Yeah…no,” declined Razz with a laugh. “I can handle myself, thank you. Plus, my parents...I’d have a hard time explaining that one.”

“No, really, you might be in trouble and—”

“I have a stupidly high healing factor, Shot. Even if somepony tried to kill me, they’d have a damned hard job of it. I think the fact is you’ve had a little too much to drink and we should call it a night.”

“Now you’re just playing hard to catch aren’t you?” grinned Shot, evidently tipsy herself. “The fact is, there’s no way you’re—”

“Good night, Corner Shot,” interrupted Razz, promptly teleporting the pegasus to her room upstairs lest things get out of hoof. Last thing I need is for somepony who I honestly barely even know to pop out of my room tomorrow morning, thought Razz, I’d never hear the end of it from Spic and Span!

Returning to her room, Razz reached into her bags and pulled out what she had originally come back for. The Alicorn Amulet stared back at her, seeming to call to her. There is great work to be done. Find the others….

Razz ignored its unsettling pull and locked it away in her room safe. That would do until she could find a proper place to keep it.

She readied to go to bed, when out of the corner of her eye she saw The Rose with the Broken Neck. Ever since things had gone south in Nightshade, she hadn’t had time in the past few days to keep reading that chronicle of nightmares, but now all was said and done. Sometimes, she’d heard ponies humorously describe intriguingly awful things as like ‘cart crashes you can’t look away from’ but in this case, it felt more like a drawn out murder. Whatever it was, she reached out with her mind and enveloped the terrible book in her black miasma of magic. It was time to enter Sombra’s hell once more.

DAY 107:

Sometimes, I swear, those Equestrians will never learn. This is my realm, my charge and my domain! And I will not be told how to handle my affairs! Especially not by the Throne of Everfree!

Did they think me blind? They claimed to be clerics of the Celestine and Selene Orders, here on a “peace parley”, but I’m not stupid. I’ve seen how mares and stallions like them weasel their way into the hearts and minds of my subjects, turning them from local vassals of the Empire into practical lackeys of the Sisters – and I will not abide that!

As the last of them was lined up before her executioner, she claimed to have forgiven me, but that I will be someday “taught a lesson” by “the Divine Sisters” themselves.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But as of today, it’s not my head that is in a basket or on a pike in the town square, correct?

I briefly consider going to visit the Broken Rose, as she has had no other company since the day she managed to talk the last trio into killing one another, and my very desire to set myself on her gives me pause. She has seemingly developed an ability for persuasion on a level that I have never seen before – and that could be of great use to me…or the potential for vexing me further.

Moreover, she seems to have completely healed, thus making the need for assistants no longer necessary. Other than the scars and bruises that she arrived with, there was no sign that she’d ever been crippled. So either the magic of this world, or her own innate abilities, has completely rejuvenated her.

I really should study human magic more, if for no other reason than to identify it. Thinking about that, I wonder if I should not have even bothered with that fool Baldassare, and instead made overtures with the Rose’s parents. If they had one foal with magic ability, perhaps they could have others?

Alas, there is no way to get there now; the gems I need to continue my work on refining my portal depends on the goodwill of the Throne of Everfree – and there is no good will there to be had, sad to say.

Well, I am off to dinner with an unexpected guest. And if this new assignation bears fruit…the potential gain I stand to reap will be quite the sobriquet.

DAY 107, CONTINUED

I have just concluded the most pleasant of dinners with a mage, a mare by the name of Dr. Mangle-leg. At least, that’s what she calls herself; she claims to have given up her true name when she was branded a “warlock” and expelled from Equestria’s Royal Magic Guild. She told me that she’d been experimenting with corpses to see if she could recover vital essences from the dead, but had instead created what the zebras call nzambi – the walking dead. I asked her what her thoughts on that were, and she told me that while she hadn’t intended to reanimate the dead…they did make for wonderful research experiments.

I look at this mare before me: lame in one leg, off-white coat with a wheat-hued mane tied in a severe bun and ice-blue eyes that seemed a little harder than average, especially with the monocle she affects. That, as well as her cutie mark – a steel-colored medical cross – makes lesser ponies consider her off-putting, perhaps even unattractive. But given that she wants to serve me in return for allowing her experiments to continue? Well, I daresay I haven’t seen a mare more beautiful.

I will not give this lady the honor of accompanying me to my bedchambers, as I have much more vital plans for her. I will admit, most of my tastes in mares run towards those whose only uses are for that. But for someone as…wonderful…as Mangle-leg? No, a beauty such as hers is to be prized and it will be.

In her own research labs, as she desires. In any case, in time I should introduce her to my own projects, in particular the Rose and the corpse of the changeling queen.

What beautiful music we could all make together.

Who says I don’t address the needs of the fairer sex?

Chapter 16 – Not at the Moment

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 16: Not at the Moment

“That was…well, quite a party for just a welcoming bash!” gasped a worn-out Coco. After her unnerving encounters with Nineball and before him, a pony he’d identified as “Corner Shot,” the rest of the party had gone surprisingly well, all things considered. Of course, Rarity—having then noticed Coco having returned from the bathroom—promptly brought her into conversation with Mellow Brooks. Together, they negotiated a contract for some costumes for his performance troupe: the Four Footed PerFormers. Rarity had also told Coco that due to her existing load for ponies who wanted their finest clothes ready for the upcoming pool tournament in town, the newly-hired assistant would need to be able to handle most of the new orders. Having just come fresh off the Bridleway scene as a costume maker there, Coco was overjoyed at the chance to go back to doing what she loved best as well as helping Rarity.

“Well, that’s Pinkie for you, darling,” said a satisfied-sounding Rarity. “She throws parties like this every time somepony new rolls into town. Though, given Twilight and Raspberry chose to appear in the middle of the festivities along with two more princesses and three more ponies who Pinkie had never seen before, we’re lucky the party isn’t still going right now.”

“Oh, my, I don’t think I’d last partying that long!” the younger fashionista laughed.

“Indeed, Pinkie is a real sweetheart but she can be a bit…overbearing at times,” Rarity admitted. “Still, she’s a pony worth knowing, and I know the ponies that everypony should know!” The two walked on a little longer before Rarity announced, “Ah, here we are! Please, let me have the pleasure to welcome you to the Chateau de Rarity, where everything is chic, unique, and fantastique! And no, I'm not referring to just my wonderful shop downstairs, but to the whole manse, which I have endeavored to fit my needs and to allow my creative pursuits!"

Coco looked at the building which Rarity now fancifully gestured toward. In short, it looked like a perfect dream house, fit for a designer amongst designers. Following Rarity’s departure from Manehattan, Coco had looked up Carousel Boutique and found not only was it an up-and-coming, if rather small scale, fashion establishment, but it was also run solely by Rarity out of her own house.

After entering at Rarity’s discretion, the entire bottom floor—well, the immediately visible part, off to the side was what clearly looked like a tidy and not entirely too modest kitchen—was dedicated to Rarity’s budding fashion empire. An entire space the size of Coco’s extremely modest apartment in Manehattan filled maybe half of the room Rarity had lazily strewn about ponnequins.

The upstairs was, in stark contrast to utility, almost entirely just what to expect in a classy home in the mostly rural town of Ponyville. Outside of a large master bedroom and a secondary bedroom evidently dedicated to a filly who did not seem to be present, the upper floor did not seem at all out of the ordinary. That did not mean the guest bedroom—which was itself easily no smaller than the size of Coco’s Manehattan apartment—was at all understocked. If anything, it felt exactly like Coco’s old digs, complete with an attached, private bathroom.

“I know it’s not much, darling, but I hope you’ll find it accommodating,” said Rarity, the look on her face embarrassed, as if she were berthing Coco in a shoebox.

Instead, the fashionista got glomped by an overappreiative Coco as thanks.

“THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU!” blurted the grateful earth pony, virtually singing her friend’s praises.

“Oh, it’s nothing, Coco dear; indeed, I’d been trying to shove Raspberry Beryl in here for months instead of her constantly renting a room at the small bed and breakfast she lives and works at now. But now I think you’ll get much more use out of it, suffice to say.”

“Of course—this is fantastic!” Coco then strode over to the one window in the room and opened it, leaning out into the cool evening air and taking a big whiff. “Ahhhh…smells so much nicer out here, away from the big city!”

“Indeed, while I’m all for being at the center of cosmopolity, there are some things cities will never have that Ponyville is never in short supply of. For example, bath towels, which I made sure I had in ample stock before I left for Nightshade.”

“Oh, that’s okay, I bro—" interjected Coco, before realizing where all her luggage still was. Which was Nightshade. “Right. The guard still has my stuff.”

“And in due time I’m sure they’ll forward it here, but until then you are welcome to use what I have on hoof. Now, as much as I’d love to give you the grand tour, I—yawn—feel I need to retire for the evening. It will be a long day tomorrow.”

“I understand; after a party like that, I think I might follow suit.” A soft smile came onto Coco’s face as she once again said, “Thanks again for everything, Miss Rarity!”

“But of course, darling, what are friends for?”

Meanwhile, on the lower level, the largely unnoticed Opal played with her favorite toy: a stuffed pink mouse. She loved that little synthetic furball, with a capital L-O-V-E-D. But evidently, she found she loved it too much to the point it was tiring her out, and soon she was falling fast asleep, the beloved plaything in her forepaws.

A few seconds later, a fine mist floated over the feline before gradually slithering out a window left open by Rarity, as she always did when at home. After all, with Ponyville being the seat of a princess and this dwelling belonging to a member of said princess’ court, it would be arguable to say it was one of the safest places in town.

And that may have been a problem.

Heart of Oak our ships jolly tars are men!

we always are ready...steady...boys....steady!

we’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again

Heart of oak our ships jolly tars are men

we allways our ready...steady...boys...steady!

we’ll fight and we’ll conquer againnnnnnnn!!!!

The rallying cry of “Heart of Oak” was an unwelcome substitute for Trixie’s alarm clock. “What in Equestria is that racket?!” groaned the showmare, deciding that she might as well get her day going now that she had no chance of returning to sleep. Granted, she worried about getting addicted to waking up in a bed half the size of her stagecoach’s usable floorspace, partly because it had taken a long time to get used to the cramped quarters that came with a mobile, personal stage and she didn’t want to go through all that fun again, but mostly…she really did appreciate the kindness Princess Twilight was showing her by lending her a room in her…unique crystal castle here in Ponyville. While Trixie knew better than to call it the gigantic eyesore it blatantly was in front of the princess, it certainly was prominent enough that comments on how out of place it was were unavoidable.

We never see our foes but we wish them to stay

they always see us but they wish us away!

if they run we will follow...we will drive them ashore

for if they will not fight us! we can do no more

“And they said I was annoyingly loud!” proclaimed Trixie to nopony in particular. Seriously, who the hell are those ponies, thinking they can just shout loudly at the crack of dawn? I’ll have a word with the princess about this and we’ll see who is laughing then!

A second thought then came to the stage magician. What is a “men”?

“Those ponies,” as Trixie would learn were, in fact, both the cousins (How? Were they related to Sunset via Princess Celestia?) of Equestria’s newest princess to be as well as triplets who had been trained to be the most lethal individuals alive since birth. As far as Trixie cared at that point, they could sing all damn day and it wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, she’d learned that after going to bed, Twilight had brought not only the three “SIREN” girls (as they described themselves) as well as Sunset, but also Princess Cadence who apparently was in town for Sunset’s benefit.

She also found this out when the one apparently named Sonata held her at knifepoint for being “uncleared tango” (whatever that was) until Twilight repeatedly vouched for the unicorn as a guest. The earth pony gave her a smile and said no hard feelings, but Trixie was somewhat worried to ask what hard feelings would be, given the situation.

“So, um…” said Twilight, seated at the head of her castle’s monolithic dining table within the “small” dining room (and apparently small meant “seats 20 ponies”), trying to break the ice despite the situation. Also in attendance were Sunset, Trixie, Adagio, and Aria. The three other current occupants of the castle—Spike, Sonata, and Cadance—were currently engaged in what sounded like a giant war as each of them were trying to lead the effort to make breakfast:

“Trust me, hay pancakes are perfect for a growing alicorn mare!”
“Cadance, you know that Twi doesn’t like hay pancakes. What if we made bluegrass ones?”
“Are you two as crazy as oatmeal? I’m not giving my cousin bluegrass pancakes! What about steak and eggs?”
“Sonata, you are creepy!”
“Am not!”
“Are too!”
“Yes, Spike is right—that is creepy.”
“Look, not my fault you don’t have chorizo or tortillas here! Could’ve made breakfast burritos by now!”

Twilight, trying to rub away the building migraine she felt at the base of her horn, instead turned her attention to her friend. “Sunset, I’m sure mornings at your home aren’t quite as chaotic as this, are they?”

“Pff, I wish!” laughed the maize alicorn. “You’d have to strongarm my Spike into cooking anything that didn’t involve microwaves and sugar, and even then the end result probably would result in your stomach getting pumped for toxins. And Cady? Well, she and Shiny don’t live with us so having her try to barge in just to make the family breakfast isn’t a problem.”

Trixie’s mind desperately raced to understand the amount of names being hurled out of Sunset’s mouth that referenced things and ponies she knew, and yet apparently didn’t. “Trixie is confused: How does a princess work at a cafe?”

“Well, that’s because—"

“Hold on!” interrupted Aria, “Miss…Lulamoon, was it? Do you have security clearance from COMRENINTELCOM for that kind of PII?”

“Trixie does not know where your so-called ‘Com-whatever you called it’ is, nor why you think she has any idea what pee-eye-eye is.”

“Oh God are we really going into this again, Ari?” moaned Sunset, putting her face into her hooves.

“Sorry,” said Dagi, “but it’s part of our jobs, y’know, and—"

WE HAVEN’T EVEN HAD BREAKFAST YET! I get it, but normal people aren’t ‘on the clock’ every second of their lives—and after my grandmother’s actions you three should know what a ‘normal’ life entails! Furthermore, in terms of safety, this giant glass menagerie of a treehouse has three of the most powerful ponies who ever lived—yours truly included—in it, I’m fairly certain undead pirate robot ninja vikings are not going to sprout from the walls and attack with at least Twilight or myself being unable to suitably protect ourselves! I appreciate you girls taking your jobs seriously for my sake, but…you can at least relax a bit because this is Equestria and things are never DEFCON fuckzone zero!”

“…in all fairness it still could,” Aria insisted.

“Isn’t all the reconstruction around town due to a recent war?” Adagio pointed out.

“Yeah,” agreed Trixie, “Tirek recently rose to power, stole the magic from almost the entire population while waging war with the rest, and was only stopped when Princess Twilight and her friends used the magic of Harmony to literally disintegrate the centaur. The only places that escaped destruction were border towns, really—even Canterlot was hit harder than it was during the Changeling invasion a few years ago.”

The maize alicorn opted for the diplomatic reply: “ARRRGGHHH!”

Trixie had never felt so out of her element in all her life. So, when Twilight tapped her on the shoulder, she jumped a little.

“Sorry,” apologized the lavender alicorn, “but things usually aren’t this chaotic, it’s just that Sunset and her companions have been through a… difficult change in having to live together.”

“Y-yeah, I can see that,” meekly replied Trixie, dropping the third person self-narration.

“They’re going to be here for the next week, though, so I totally understand if you need to leave early.”

“You’re not kicking me out that easily, Princess!” Trixie retorted.

“Never said that; you’re a friend and I like having you here. It’s just that–”

“Dagi, in case you forgot, I buried Chernabog in the black hole in the fucking center of the galaxy! And that was before I became an alicorn!”
“Yes, but you can’t be everywhere, Sunny! And you literally destroyed your physical being doing that, too! Why do you think her highness asked us to back you up? Even your biological mother has guards, for fuck’s sake!”
“You want me to go in the kitchen and tell Soni you don’t want us around anymore?”
“Now that’s a low blow, Ari!”

“Nevermind,” Trixie said, wondering just how much weirder the side conversation was going to get. “I think I understand what you were going to say. In either case, I’ll still stay.” The unicorn then muttered under her voice, “I think you’ll probably need somepony sane around here.”

Just then, all the arguing on the other side of the table stopped at the ringing of a bell.

“Sorry it took so long, folks!” cooed a particularly food-splattered Cadence. On either side of her and equally messy was Sonata and Spike. In front of them, lit in an aura of Cadence’s magic, was a plate of rather delicious looking waffles with plenty of butter and syrup. “We had some…disagreements on what to do, suffice to say.”

“Besides, your sister-in-law makes me free food, too,” grinned Trixie, “so why would The Great and Powerful Trixie ever want to leave here, when the 4th Annual Blue Chalk Pool Masters tournament is about to kick off in town?”

If the previous day had been a torrent of concentrated party courtesy of Pinkie Pie, then the conflagration of celebrations had gone off this present morning, as the whole town was making no small deal of its honor of hosting such a prestigious sports event. Even for a journeyman’s travel stop where all kinds of faces and species normally came through town, this week promised to have many, many more. In addition to ponies from all over the country, there were a full spectrum of other species come to spectate, along with those who were more naturally gifted in actually using a pool cue: griffons, minotaurs, even the Everfree Forrest’s resident sea serpent, the one and only Steven Magnet, had come to spend the week in the river surrounding the town and enjoy the festivities. Likewise, there were more than a few sightings of the famous motivational speaker-turned-werewolf hunter-turned prince Iron Will among the crowds along with his very pregnant wife. The fairgrounds, normally set for a town fair, were now bustling with temporary tents for accommodations for this particular event. For a town that made its entire world stop when just Princess Celestia came to visit, having practically all the who’s who of the world present was an event of a lifetime...

...unless, of course, anypony actually tried to get their usual business done in the midst of such organized chaos.

“I’m so sorry,” profusely apologized Pear Blossom, “but I am just as surprised as you are that my pears have sold out so early!”

“I knew trying to shop for fresh goods all week was going to be a hassle,” Razz groaned, “but it’s only two in the afternoon and you’ve got no more pears whatsoever?”

“Well, I did also choose this week to debut some new pear based products, like perry and my husband’s idea of pear-scented candles—he wanted to name them ‘Perry-Air’ and they sold like hotcakes even though I only started selling them today.”

“That’s a bummer; sounds like those were things I would have liked to try,” Razz replied, crestfallen. Heelee, perched on his usual horn pedestal, looked even more morose as his favorite fruit treat wouldn’t be available for a while.

“Ah, I thought as much,” interjected the pear vendor with a smile. “Now, please note that I never said I sold all my stock, because I saved some of each specifically for my two best customers!” From behind the cart, Pear Blossom produced a simple brown bag, which she held out to Razz. The dark unicorn picked it up in her magic—thankfully, she noted, its signature “bubbly” aura no longer frightfully intimidating to the somewhat timid fruit vendor as it had initially been—and Beryl was delighted to find it was filled with a few pears, some bottles of what looked like golden cider, and green candles with images of pears on the sides.

“Wow, thanks, Blossom!” graciously thanked the unicorn. Heliodor, now pleased that his fortune of fruit was still intact, went one step further by plucking out a loose feather from his brilliant green-and-gold plumage and promptly fluttered over to put in in Blossom’s hair.

“Ah, merci, I am pleased you appreciate my gift to you. I already have done so well in sales today, plus some free items as at least a form of rewarding your loyalty as customers is something I feel is vastly overdue, so all of that is on the house,” the pony said with a gracious bow.

The unicorn and the vendor exchanged some more pleasantries before parting ways, with Razz teleporting the bag of pear-based goodies back to her room at the Retreat so it wouldn’t burden her in fighting the massive crowds filling the town marketplaces.

“Oh thank God!” suddenly came a familiar voice, and before either Razz or her feathered friend could comprehend it, they were no sooner out in the main thoroughfares then they were just as soon knocked back into the alley by a red and yellow blur. “The only princess in town who isn’t going to drive me batshit crazy by the end of this!”

“Uh…thanks?” asked a dazzled Razz. “Everything okay, Sunny?”

“I wish!” the princess-to-be just groaned. “I know my whole schtick in the human world was that I couldn’t get enough of having a close-knit family, but now it’s getting to the point where I could just kill somebody for a little privacy!”

“Or, you could just ask,” said Twilight, who effortlessly seemed to just phase into being out of the crowds to join the other two princesses in the alleyway. “Seriously, I know Cady’s being a little…invasive, but it’s only because she’s trying to make up for what she honestly thinks were her faults in what drove you from Equestria in the first place, Sunset.”

Sunset just sighed. “Yeah, I know, but…everything so far has just been so overwhelming to me. Like, come on, I fucking died just weeks ago—and my whole family had to watch! That in of itself is still something I’m trying to come to grips with, and it doesn’t help that everyone at home’s been a bit on the touchy-feely side because of all this.”

“You’re not the only one who died, you know: At least you didn’t have your friends accidentally vaporize the shit out of you to death like I did.”

“Or get ripped apart by some undead werewolf bitch on two separate occasions and successive back-to-back trials on being sentenced to death anyway,” added Razz. “For all that a princess is supposed to imply, apparently becoming one is a real pain in the ass.”

“And while I’ll leave it to Cady to tell you, Sunny, how she ascended was…not for the faint of heart,” finished Twilight with a slight blush of embarrassment.

Sunny nickered. “Fine, I’ll let her tell me the gruesome details later, but in all honesty your sister-in-law is just part of the problem. Between her and the whole death-ascendence thing, it’s grating having to deal with the triplets having their mindset far too focused on being my bodyguards—like, I have to figure that their trained-birth-killing aspect is drilled into their heads that they can afford to not protect me 24/7 like a porcelain doll, they’re legally also my cousins now but they sure seem more content on sticking to being G.I.Jane all the time. And that doesn’t even get into how the other timeline figures into this!

“And then I really don’t mean to offend about this but… Y'know, Twi...if I get my own castle? I'll have it imported from Luxembourg or something. Nice little French chateau. None of this Disco Club on a tree crap like you have."

Razz snickered. "Hey, Sunny, remember that Disneyland place you took me to? You know that Tarzan treehouse thing? Doesn’t the castle look like that tree had sex with It’s a Small World and this is the Lunadamned result?”

Now it was Twi’s turn to nicker. “Okay, seriously, even I think the thing is pretentious, but are you ever not going to make fun of my house?”

“No.”

“Plus,” interjected Sunset, “you are like, what, on the same level of power if not even greater than both my mother and my aunt?”

“And you’re even more powerful than me, as I recall,” Twilight responded.

“The point is, Twi, couldn’t you just magic that crystal eyesore into being your old treehouse? Though…then again, given said eyesore is not Golden Oaks kind of makes it less creepy how much my life as a human parallels your life here in Ponyville.” A look of concern briefly crossed the neophyte alicorn’s face. “Just remembered that I need to call my sister while I’m here. Eh, I’ll do that later; she won’t min—”

“Princess Twilight!” The shout came from the sky, and a second later, a member of her guards alit next to the group. “Excuse me, Your Grace and Princess Raspberry, but I have urgent business with her highness.”

Twilight had that “Oh, not again” look on her face. “Yes, what is it, Sgt. Cloudstreaker?”

The pegasus reached into his saddlebags and pulled out a clipboard. “Your highness, the Captain requests that you review the plans for the additional patrols for town, as well as the plans to augment the town’s watchguard in cases of issues arising from the tournament.”

Twilight sighed. “Yeah, I promised that I would,” she said, taking the clipboard in her magical grasp.

Just then, Mayor Mare came rushing down the street, a group of her own aides at her side. “Your highness? May I have a moment of your time?”

Twilight looked up from the clipboard, a weary look on her face. “Yes, Mayor? This wouldn’t happen to be about the reconstruction budget, is it?”

“No, your highness, that is well in hoof, thanks to you. But my concern deals with protocols for foreign dignitaries!” the earth mare replied.

Twilight winced. “Yeah, I did promise you that, didn’t I? I really need to get me a seneschal to help with paperwork.”

Sunset looked at her. “Doesn’t Spike help you with that?”

“He does, but this would be too much for him. Plus, he’s still a growing drake and my parents and I want him to have as normal a foalhood as possible.”

Interrupting the conversation between the two alicorns, Mare continued. “Your majesty, while I certainly understand that your office is being staffed in Canterlot while Town Hall is being run from your castle during reconstruction, I need to know the proper protocols our town must provide! For example, we have no idea on how to accommodate a dignitary from the river serpent realm–”

Without intending to, Razz chose that minute to make it worse: “Isn’t Steven Magnet one of the tournament referees?” the raspberry unicorn commented helpfully.

“See? This is the sort of thing I needed to know yesterday, Princess!”

Twilight sighed. “Okay, see Spike. He should be able to get you a copy as soon a—”

“Hey, Twi, got a minute?” Lyra then approached with a whole bunch of music sheafs in her hand. “Octy and I wanted to know if you wanted us to give you a quick overview of the music that you commissioned for the event?”

Twilight looked at her fellow alicorn and former protegée of Celestia with pleading eyes. “Help?”

“Sorry, only one Twilight gets to give me that kind of guilt trip,” Sunset apologized. “Besides, I need somewhere else to—” She never got to finish her statement as The Administrative Milieu of Ponies Wanting Things from The Princess™ continued down the path, dragging the poor lavender mare along regardless of what her plans were or even what she wanted.

“It’s times like this I’m glad I’m only given that much overzealous attention these days when I need to act as the Archmagus of Dark Magic,” admitted Razz. “Few ponies who see me regularly these days go gaga over being in the presence of a princess—which is good, while the hordes that would converge on me these days would want to praise me if nothing else, it kind of reminds me of the many times similar hordes instead drove me out with torches and pitchforks.”

“Didn’t that shit get old after a while for you?” asked Sunset.

“Yeah, but nowadays it’s less ‘ponies fleeing in terror from the reincarnated Sombra mare’ and more ‘fillies and colts wanting me to reveal my Sombra horn to see if they can perch on it like my phoenix’, if anything. Keeps the tabloids away from trying to ask about my love life, though.”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah, no offense, but your, er, ‘real’ form being seen romantically involved with anything with sentience sounds like something straight from The Onion or, more likely, the Weekly World News website.”

“I have no idea what those even are in your world, and I was in it.”

“It’s probably for the best—cultural differences and all, y’know? Still, can’t say Cadence isn’t feeling like one of those periodicals in my eyes right now. Seriously, we’ve really only been rekindling our relationship for less than twenty-four hours and you know what one of the first questions she asks was?”

Razz cocked an eyebrow. “If there was some human guy or girl in your life you were romantically interested in?”

“If it had only been that then I wouldn’t be making such a big fuss about it, but even after I answer in the negative, she goes and basically asks the same question again, except if there’s any stallions or mares I’m into!” Sunset paused for a moment to let it sink in.

“You’re lucky she doesn’t know about your Pinkie or you’d never hear the end of it.”

“Yeah, especially after you talked me into going out on a date with her,” Sunset groaned.

“You were the one that kissed her.”

Sunset groaned. “Please don’t remind me – I already have to live with that mistake, okay?” She sighed. “Look, I know Cadance means well, but if she’s trying to make me feel more at home here in Equestria, then she could at least recognize that of the three times I’ve come through the mirror, the longest of those trips was me pretty much landing here in Ponyville and trying to justify why I needed to kill you.”

“Are you saying you’re...into me, Sunny?” playfully asked Razz, batting her eyes in her best impression of Rarity. The bird on her forehead facewinged in embarrassment.

“Do you really want to invite the Wrath of Pinkie?”

The mulberry unicorn laughed. “Yeah, yeah, wouldn’t want her thinking I’m moving onto her territory. Besides, I don’t swing that way; at least I don’t think so….”

Sunset raised an eyebrow in response. “LGBTQ?”

Razz rolled her eyes. “You humans are weird.

“Thought you would’ve heard that while you were visiting. Basically, it means that you’re not sure what you are? The Q part means questioning.”

“Never really explored it, to be honest. Too busy spending most of my life trying to simply fit into regular society and then inevitably run for my life when everypony suddenly hated me equally.”

“Oh, yeah, right.” Sunset then cocked her ears and quickly looked around. “Oh, joy...look, we gotta move, I think I just heard somepony on the roof over there.”

Razz facehoofed. “Seriously, I don’t think somepony’s going to send assassins to kill us when—”

“Nobody sent these—I feel like they’re gonna kill me because they love me too much.”

Oooooooooooooh. Those assassins...I’ll take your word for it.” Razz then wrapped a foreleg around Sunset’s neck. “Fortunately, I know just where to go—hope you like pool!” Sunset didn’t get a chance to respond as Razz then quickly teleported both of them away.

“Damnit!” said Aria from what she’d thought had been the perfect overlook point on the alley after finally tracking down her wayward cousin; it had been hard enough climbing into position in this form. “Why can’t she just not run off when she thinks me or my sisters are eavesdropping? God, trying to be a bodyguard for a girl who is also a magic horse is completely FUBAR!”

Sunset looked around the tournament locale. "Wow, this place looks like an antique B-Dubs."

Razz looked at her friend oddly. "A what?"

"Buffalo Wild Wings. Rainbow loves it there, especially two for one nights."

"A WHAT?"

"Buffalo Wild Wings."

"A what." That second one came from behind Sunset, and she turned to see a bison standing there, the look on his face odd. "Excuse me?"

Razz grinned awkwardly at the bison. "Don't mind my friend—she's from out of town."

"I could do without the insults, you know."

Sunset sighed, and waved her wings. "Trust me: I'm from out of town."

Seeing the extra appendages, the bison finally realized who he was speaking to. "Oh, you must be the new alicorn they said that was from overseas! Ah, understandable then. In my part of the country, a 'wild wing buffalo' usually means a bison who talks out of his ass. It's a really insulting term."

"Oh. I did not know that. Sorry." Sunset facehoofed. "FML."

“Again, I understand you didn’t mean it, your highness, so no problem.” The bison waved and bid them both a good day, then walked off towards other entertainments.

“Good thing I didn’t mention Red Bull,” Sunset muttered.

“Already trying to get thrown off the throne?” Razz laughed as she changed the subject. “Um, this might sound a bit strange but, this is Table Rack’s pool hall, right? I’ve never actually been here before but I thought this place would have more pool tables and less regular tables and bartending.”

A minotaur cow walking around with a drink tray gave the mulberry unicorn a nod. “Heh, guess you’re looking to go spectate, aren’t ya? Don’t worry, you’re in the right place, this is just the bar area, the main hall itself is through the doors behind you.”

“Ah, excellent, thanks!”

Somehow spared from the majority of the town’s destruction during the Tirek War, Table Rack’s Pool Hall had, in the recent past, undergone an expansion and refurbishment to allow the formerly moderately-sized establishment to become suitable enough to host the greatest pool tournament in the country. Much was riding on the hall’s reputation, because it would serve as the economic engine to help get Ponyville back on its hooves after the near-obliteration of the town. Suffice to say, the pressure was immense.

As it was the first day of the tournament, most of the hall was filled with tables where two randomly chosen entrants were pitted against each other. Thus, room for spectators was in fact extremely limited and first day tickets were exorbitantly expensive—most ponies instead went to various businesses around town where a new commercially available technology called “television” was installed in the form of large, wooden boxes that held screens on the front. Magically enchanted to receive transmissions from on-site video cameras, what was effectively miniaturized and live broadcast filming was now available for the first time to allow more ponies to watch things like pool tournaments without needing to actually be at the tournament themselves.

In the same vein, however, freely making it possible for everypony to see the preliminaries for free also made it much more selective in just who was allowed in the pool hall during the prelims by being sold one of those expensive tickets. As Corner Shot stepped through into the ornately decorated interior and beheld the sea of pool tables and chairs before her, some tiny part of her consciousness was afraid that for whatever reason, her new friend Razz wouldn’t be able to uphold her promise to watch Corner cream the competition in these preliminaries. She then realized what Razz was, and then laughed at her own pointless worry.

As expensive as those tickets are, it’s not like an archmagus can’t afford them, she thought. Besides, given that she’s part of Princess Twilight’s court, I doubt they’d turn her down even if she showed up without a ticket and said she just wanted in. Heading to what seemed to be the the pool hall’s maitre d’, she checked in and was given her entry packet, complete with schedule and tournament number. Of course, the thing that was most important to her was the itinerary of her matches to be played in the tournament.

Well, well, well, there’s more names on this that I’ve faced before than I originally thought, and good ‘ol Nineball is in an entirely different bracket than me. Need to blow through that idiot North but no way Nines and I aren’t settling that old feud of ours over Las Pegasus in this tournament. Not when the spread of players is so generous to me like this. Though, if that’s who I think it is listed as my first opponent, this might get really ug–

“Hey, Corner!”

Corner’s ears perked up at hearing a voice she already felt could be picked from a crowd of millions. With more energy in her step, the pegasus quickly hurried to Table 9 where much to her delight was already being watched by Raspberry. As expected, she was with one of the royals, namely Princess Sunset Shimmer.

Wow, they do look somewhat similar. Not that I consider that such a bad thing…

“I don’t think you really need introducing,” said Razz, oblivious to the momentary gleam in Shot’s eyes, “but Corner Shot, this is Princess Sunset Shimmer.”

“Apologies, but I don’t remember if we met at that party last night or not,” said Sunset, extending a hoof and bumping it with Corner’s. “It was kind of insane, y’know?”

“Enh, no big deal,” chuckled Shot in reply. “Besides, I’m nopony really worth remembering—I’m just this pool player mare, y’know?”

“Wow, it’s only metaphorical bullshit but I can still smell it like the real deal!” rudely interrupted an approaching stallion. His coat was brown with a felt-green mane, a unicorn horn mounted above his chalk blue eyes. Appropriately, his cutie mark was shown to be two crossed pool cues over the 8 Ball. He had a look of both disgust and indifference as he adjusted his cravat and addressed the pegasus. “Then again, I already know your little song and dance of lies, Shottie.”

“You’re one to talk, Bumper Thumper,” spat Corner. Sunset and Razz immediately exchanged glances as they mutually agreed there was some clear animosity between those two. “Did you just come here to insult me or are you going to at least prove you can still hit a ball straight with a cue stick?”

“Oh, I don’t need to prove something as trivial as that,” said Thumper, smirking with a flair that immediately made Razz start to put her fur on end as, to her, something felt too familiar and uncomfortable about it. “After all, I can hit balls straighter than you.”

“You know, I normally hate to point this kind of stuff out, but did you notice we’re in the presence of a princess? Or are you that far gone?” scoffed Corner. “Then again, you wouldn’t see nobility if it slapped you in the face, being that you are one of Prince Blueblood’s toadies.”

“And once more you prove how easy it is to dismantle your false presentation, Shottie,” sardonically said Thumper. “Hanging out with somepony his highness was nearly murdered by when he merely sought to uphold Equestria’s own founding laws? No wonder you’re trying to bed her like you did m—”

Incensed, Razz lost her temper and stepped forward, intent on teaching the idiot some manners, but Sunset stepped in the middle of them all. “Razz, Corner, let me handle this,” she told them. Without waiting for an answer, she turned to face Thumper. “In case you’ve forgotten,” Sunset replied, “you’re here to play pool, not to harass my subordinate or her friend. If you care to make this equinal, by all means go ahead. Just remember that I am by far and away the strongest of the alicorns in terms of magic, and have been living overseas for years, learning all sorts of interesting—and painful for others—things. And if that’s not enough, you know who my mother is. I could go on but I won’t.”

Sunset looked at the stallion, eye to eye, her normally warm aqua eyes colder than the ice outside the Crystal Empire. “So if you wish to start something, by all means, go ahead. Either I will have you in the stockades within a second, or should I feel the need to intervene directly you will be a small carbon smear on the ground.” As fear set into his eyes, she concluded with, “Next time don’t bite off more than you can chew. You might just find that you’ll swallow it and choke on the results.”

At that reminder, Bumper blanched momentarily, but quickly regained composure. “Well, it appears you’ve made quite the friend, Corner. Maybe later, when they are done with your lies and deceit, they’ll roast you to a crisp, and I will watch and laugh.”

Any more clearly unresolved antagonism was halted when, randomly, a tiny, sky-blue holographic sea serpent with fabulous orange facial hair spawned above the table. “Hello, hello? This thing working?”

“Oh, good, the ref is here,” sighed Sunset. The discussion that had just ended was getting a little much for her to handle.

“Ah! Archmagus Beryl, Princess Shimmer!” responded the magical serpent upon noticing the spectators. “What an honor—I am Steven Magnet, though you can just call me ‘Steve’ for short if you wish, and I’ll be the ref for this round of the preliminaries.”

Following the instructions of Mr. Magnet—as well as learning he was physically still outside the building, his appearance in miniature over the pool table being through the use of a special scrying crystal made for his personal use—Corner and Bumper quickly set the table up for play.

“Now, if it’s alright,” said Bumper, “I would like to extend a hoof of generosity and let my opponent have the break shot.”

“Oh, um,” said Steve, caught a bit off guard at the slight departure from the rules. “I...guess that’s okay, if Miss Shot wishes to accept.”

“I readily accept,” snarked Corner, “it’s his funeral anyway.” Walking over to the waiting cue sticks, Shot went ahead and grabbed one, proceeding to fiddle around with it as expected to check it over. When she was done, however, she twirled it around in her hoof, before in one swift motion letting the rod slide down toward the top in her hoof, while the heavier handle end found itself firmly grasped in one of her wings. Her other wing soon followed suit, and for the first time Razz finally understood what Corner had meant the week prior with her claim of using “all” her limbs in that she played with her wings—the way Corner now twirled the cue in her wings just as easily as she’d done with her hooves, her total mastery of her feathered dexterity now came to bear. With practiced skill, she stood at the head of the table and carefully lowered her cue dead center on the waiting cue ball. “Now...let’s get to work,” she stated with finality, her wings pushing the stick held within them right into the white orb on the table. Propelled with great force, the white sphere smashed into its multicolored brethren, scattering them all across the table and signalling the game had truly just begun.

In a secluded location, two ponies discussed recent events. The whole world had shifted and they had control of the situation, or else all would be lost. Of course, that wouldn’t be the case, not as long as the Covenant of Shadows had things well in hoof.

“Yes, while it is regrettable that what happened in Nightshade has made things a bit…difficult, more so than expected,” said Neon Lux. “But now we have confirmation that the second Scion is located there.”

“But that also means we must consider Equestria’s forces in this matter, particularly their archmagus: Raspberry Beryl,” Tiny Dynamine told him. “In finding out this ‘Lockbox’ character’s piece in the puzzle, she’s also driven her away from the mindset she needs to be in order to even consider embracing her heritage as she should, rather than staying with whatever worthless life she leads now.”

“Oh, on the contrary, all that needs to be done to correct that is to make sure Raspberry is turned back towards the proper path. Once that happens, it’s almost certain she can convince her distant brethren to do the same.”

“And how exactly are we going to do that?”

Lux grinned. “As I told you a few days ago, I already dispatched one of our most capable agents into the field to accomplish that. I have every faith she will take care of the issue.”

Tiny, however, did not seem placated by the reminder. “Oh, that’s right…you did…only this could be an even bigger problem.”

“How so?”

Tiny sighed. “I had a vision a few nights ago…another has appeared in Ponyville who could seriously disrupt our agent’s attempts at making contact with Beryl. From what I understand, this mare is… very fond of the archmagus, and could become… unpredictable if our agent’s intentions are discovered.” A hint of a smile seemed to briefly play across the Oracle’s face. “With all of the forces in play, Ponyville is a powderkeg that could go up with the slightest sparks.”

Chapter 17 - Equestriani Pool Rules

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 17—Equestriani Pool Rules

“Like, holy shit I’m a Goddamn alicorn and I can’t believe half that shit that you just did in there!” gushed Sunset, as wide eyed as Pinkie Pie. “Seriously, that ball defied the laws of physics as far as I’m concerned!”

“I’m guessing wherever you’re from, pool is played in the casual way where you actually hit the ball in the direction of the one ball you want it to hit?” said Corner with a smirk.

“Well…yes! That’s the only way I could think of that involved the cue ball not hitting your opponent’s balls! But you had that thing flying and reversing hairpin turns and….” Sunset paused for a second as if in thought. “Looks like Twi and I are going to be having a nice physics chat.”

“Congrats, Corner,” said Razz. “I think you made a new pool fan.”

“Oh, is that so?” came the sudden vocal presence of Princess Cadence. “Seriously, why didn’t you tell anypony you were squirrelling away Sunny for the day to attend the pool tournament preliminaries, Razz?”

“I doubt she did because it was at all planned,” commented Ari, who along with her sisters also were accompanying the Avatar of Love. As had been typical of what the trio had worked out, the trio had taken triangular escort positions around the romance alicorn, much to her dismay.

Sunset sighed—something that was alarmingly frequent for her it seemed these days. “Girls…look, remember the time before you three totally just ditched me and our friends without warning, saying you were going back to, uh, Cann…Caneighda?” Sunset asked, hastily correcting herself.

“Actually, we said we were going back to Washington sta—" Sonata began before Adagio shoved a hoof in her sister’s mouth.

Not helping,” the eldest triplet groaned.

“Uh, yeah, you get my point,” said Sunny. “Anyway, basically I’m asking if you recall when we were all just friends?”

“Yeah?”

“You weren’t crawling all over me back then and…” the newest alicorn took a deep breath to prep herself. “God help me if I have to actually pull royal rank here and order you three to chill the hell out! As far as anybody should be concerned, I’m the exact same individual that I was before ascending, and it’s kind of concerning that the Soni, Ari, and Dagi that I knew as friends and now as my cousins keep thinking I prefer having the SIRENs I didn’t know around.”

“But, we’re only trying to protect you like we’re supposed to!” retorted Dagi. “Plus, you did this to yourself, may I remind you?”

“I know, and I realize in hindsight I should have told you guys about Shimmy needing me in Europe. But we’re family, Dagi – you three can guard me without having to be so impersonal all the time. Look, what do you three do when you’re at school with Twily and Tavi? You don’t hover around them like you’re Karate Kommando looking for the first sign of a fight, do you?”

“No, but––”

“Then why do it now? Aside from occasional flareups, I’d argue high school is more dangerous than Equestria on a regular basis.”

The most emotional of the trio, Sonata ended up giving Sunset exactly what she wanted—albeit in the way the alicorn had not expected. “B-but…” the cyan girl said, tears coming to her eyes, “Sunny, family is important to us—you know that. And if we’d been more efficient in making that bitch Cantata answer for her crimes against the Sisterhood, we could have possibly prevented your death. You’re right in that we may be a little overprotective at times, but after losing the people that raised us time after time, we can’t afford to lose any more family – we just can’t.”

Adagio sighed. “Well, without having to resort to Soni’s emotional manipulation, what she means is that ever since the death of our mother, our stepmother, and us having to live with two of our aunts, we’ve had the kind of life Dad couldn’t give us. Family’s become important to us now, and that includes you, you know.”

Sunset briefly considered reminding Sonata that her death was what caused her ascension, but it was something that she was still coming to grips with herself. Furthermore, given how Sonata was reacting and her personal nature, it was hard to tell if these were just more crocodile tears or if it was all genuine. I wonder how Mom deals with this, she thought to herself.

“Looks like you four need to have a nice, long discussion,” observed Cadence, slipping into a more parental posture, “because it doesn’t suit a princess-to-be if she’s on the run more from her own bodyguards than any actual hostile threats.”

Razz couldn’t help herself and snarked, “Says the princess that doesn’t have guards around.”

“None that you can see, at least,” Cadance said cryptically.

“So what, you’re going to mediate it?” asked Sunset with a little more bite than she intended; the last thing she needed was to be smothered by Cadance again, but she was a fellow princess and it wasn’t something she could say in person—and then realized she had. “Er, sorry, but—”

“No buts,” the love avatar interrupted. “Plus...I kinda get the feeling you’re avoiding not just them, so maybe I’m part of the problem as well. If anything, we need Twilight to help us out and get us all seeing eye-to-eye for once.”

“I feel like Raspberry and I are not part of this conversation. Like, at all,” interjected Corner.

“Well, erm, I guess this is sort of a family-exclusive problem, I’m sorry to say, so—”

“No biggie,” said Razz. “I can just take Corner and show her around town while you all have heart-to-heart talking fun.”

“You mean you actually vanishing from our sight would make things easier for us?” Adagio said in a saccharine-sweet way that made it clear she was being sarcastic.

“Dagi….” Sunset warned her cousin, then continued. “Actually, Razz, that’s a good idea, Hopefully, it’ll give us all enough time to get this stuff worked out and we can meet up at some local joint for dinner.”

“Oh, what about The Bannered Mare?” suggested Razz, “That place is always good for an impromptu meet-up!”

Ari looked at Razz with a questioning look. “Wait, isn’t that a fictional inn you visit in that Skyrim game or something?”

Sunset in turn looked oddly at Aria. “Wait, you’ve played Skyrim? When?!

At the same time, at a bar close to Table Rack’s place, the sorely beaten Bumper Thumper grumbled and tried to drown his distress in cider.

“I still can’t believe that damn harridelle won!” he spat. “She had to have cheated—no way she could have beaten me so soundly!”

“On the contrary,” came a thickly accented voice behind him. “The only player of that game who couldn’t be believed was you.”

Thumper turned to glare at the unwelcome newcomer. “Nopony asked for your opinion. Besides, the only chalk you'll need is for the chalkboard—'cause you're about to get schooled!"

Nineball chuckled—which slightly terrified Thumper as a laughing Stalliongrad native’s deep baritones rarely came off as anything good —as he took a seat next to the posh pool player. “I highly doubt that—after all, the stage is already set for the finals between me and Corner Shot.”

“Bah, your ego is just as bad as that promiscuous mare’s—you two aren’t the only ones who can nail a corner curling trick shot in case you need to be reminded.”

Nineball chuckled again. “Like the pony who screwed one up and lost his match has any right to say that to me.”

Bumper gritted his teeth. “Look, what the hell do you want, Nineball? To gloat over how you got the easy match against a first-year griffon in the first round of prelims?”

The red stallion shook his head. “No, I’m here to talk about things I think you’re rather in the mood to talk about.” He then flagged down the bartender, “I’ll take a Haymaker, please.”

“What makes you think I’m in the mood to tell you anything,” seethed Bumper, “other than get lost?”

“Oh, I think you’re going to tell me everything you know,” intoned Nineball, leaning in and squinting his eyes so it looked like they were one connected strip of blue, “because you know who I work for and I’m not afraid to pull a few strings to make your life…slightly more uncomfortable, if you will.”

Bumper gasped. “You wouldn’t!”

“Oh, I will, unless you tell me everything you observed in your game about Corner Shot.” Just then, the barkeep returned with Nineball’s Haymaker, from which the large stallion took a sip. “And while you’re at it, what you know about Raspberry Beryl, too.”

“You sure, Corner?” asked Razz. After their minor misadventures all over Ponyville that day, one last surprise came at dinner time when they learned it would not be at The Bannered Mare, but instead at Twilight’s Castle. The reasoning as it turned out was due to Cadence having to call in backup to help talk Sunset’s triplet cousins out of orbiting her constantly as bodyguards.

“Yeah, don’t get me wrong—I really appreciate the invitation and all, but, um…” The pool shark seemed slightly nervous—something Razz noted both came with the pegasus tending to use her wings to scratch themselves somewhat irregularly. It was curious; Razz had noticed Corner’s apparent behavioral “tic” during her game that morning against that asshole Bumper Thumper, but here she seemed to be doing it so much that it could have been passed off as fidgeting. Maybe she was fidgeting, even? “Look, that captain of the guard Princess Twilight has scares the crap out of me, okay?”

“Oh, Div’s not that bad,” Razz told her. Of course, she’d had some time to adjust to the stallion and mentally disambiguate the gallant guardspony from the diabolical human of the same name, but Corner didn’t need to know that. “I mean, sure, he can get goofy around Twi due to the fact that he’s clearly crushing on her, but aside from that, he’s a gentlestallion, why?”

An awkward look came over Corner’s face. “I...uh...knew a guy like him back home. Constant creeper, always trying to see if he could ask mares out on a date to the point where he became annoying. Look, it’s nothing personal against the Captain, but they just look alike and so it dredges up bad memories. Really.”

“No problem. In any case, the Captain of the Guard himself, Prince Shining Armor will be here as well––”

“That’s even worse!” When Razz gave Corner a puzzled look, the pegasus explained. “He’s fearsome! Didn’t he take on Chrysalis and Sombra? He’s probably, like, a beast or something!”

“Seriously? You know he cries—sorry, I mean, ‘sheds liquid pride’ like a fountain at weddings, right?” Razz chuckled. “Yeah, he’s pretty much terrifying as all get out if you have to fight him, but really he’s just a big softie. And also kind of a nerd: I saw him on the cover of Ochre a few months back when a guest at the Retreat left it lying around—that’s the magazine for ponies who are really into Oubliettes and Obelisks or whatever it’s called.” Razz then changed to a more concerned tone as Corner shifted her wings uncomfortably again. “Are you okay? I saw you scratching your wings like that earlier, but here it’s like Pinkie Pie bathed them in that damn itchy powder of hers.”

“Oh, the itching?” Shot seemed to strangely perk up at the subject change—probably because it didn’t involve the prince who currently was inside his little sister’s castle off to the left of them. “Well, obviously pegasi aren’t really built for using their wings as much as I do, in the ways I handle the cue. As a result, I kind of have a near-chronic rash due to overusing them. Don’t worry, I’ve got a prescribed ointment back in my room, and truth be told I probably should be going back to put some on if I’m itching this much. Plus, I’ll probably have to let my wings relax, which means I’ll likely be bedbound and making a late-night dinner run at Burger Princess or something. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

“Alright, I’ll let you worm your way out of this one,” said Razz, “but don’t think I’m letting you off the hook so easily next time.”

“Hey, you’re gonna be around to catch my match against Golden Break tomorrow, right?”

“Of course!”

“Awesome! Catch you later, then!” At that, Corner Shot lifted herself into the air and flew off in the direction of the Retreat. Her height seemed a bit low compared to what Razz usually saw pegasi around town cruise at, but she just figured it was to take the strain off her wings—even though it wasn’t much of a comparison, having her own limb that required regular applications of ointment to keep functionally not-annoying allowed Razz to know something along the lines of what Corner must have been feeling. Still, something was gnawing at the back of Razz’s mind about Shot, about the itching. She couldn’t put a hoof on it though…

“I thought your date was going to join us for dinner?” asked Cadence, who had emerged from the side of Razz’s view.

“Oh, she needed to get back to the Retreat,” Razz explained as she ignored her friend’s attempt at teasing. “Turns out she needed to put some ointment on her wings—something about the way she uses her wings causes an itch.”

“Ah, well, can’t fault her for–”

And she said your hubby terrifies her,” added Razz with an impish grin. “Div as well.”

“Good thing you started with the real reason she had to leave,” laughed Cadence as she escorted the smaller princess into the castle, “because why would somepony like me marry anypony who was normally terrifying? And I refuse to believe that part about Div—I remember when he was just a colt that carried around his security blanket!”

“Cadance, I thought you promised you would never bring that up!” a voice behind her shouted.

For Sunset and the triplets, they all immediately froze—that voice was all too familiar to them.

“Was that who I think it was?” asked Sonata, her face clearly showing concern.

“It better not have been,” growled Aria, already having pulled out the loaned crossbow.

“Hey!” said Twilight, “no weapons at the table!”

“But your highness!” said Adagio, “We all could be in grave danger! That was Divine Right we just heard!”

“Okay, I think we’re all missing some kind of context here,” said Divine Right, returning to the table.

“Uh, yeah,” said Razz, hastily jumping in. She had to defuse the situation lest ponies who didn’t need to know about the human Divine Right in Tartarus. “Look, there was some really bad stuff that went down with the human world and the individual responsible for all of it? He happened to sound just like you.”

“Wait, seriously?” the noble guard asked. “Is that why some of you are acting so weirdly around me?”

“Uh, yeah, more or less,” said Twilight—Divine didn’t need to know that it was because he looked exactly like the other Divine Right that had tried to take over the human world and nearly unleashed a demon in the process.

Soon, all of the ponies were seated around the castle’s dining room table, and before long they were digging into the braised tofu with potatoes au gratin, grilled brussels sprouts and a tomato consommé, courtesy of Spike.

“Oh, I have one quick bit of business I wanted to get out of the way before we get too into our meal,” Cadance said after swallowing her first bite. “Something that you in particular might want to know, Razz.”

Razz continued chewing her own food, but leaned forward to indicate she was listening, and Cadance proceeded. “After reading your report on the incident in Nightshade, I had a few of my agents do a follow up investigation on this ‘Mandible’ changeling that you encountered.”

“Right, something tells me we haven’t seen the last of her,” Razz said between bites. “Find anything good?”

“Not much beyond what you’d expect. It’s no surprise that running intel against changelings is incredibly difficult.” Cadance took another bite, likely to give her time to consider how best to explain things. “We did learn that Mandible isn’t the only one of her kind: Apparently lots of rogue changeling queens have been springing up ever since their attempt to ruin my wedding failed.” Cadance gave a smile that seemed intended to be jovial, but there was a hint of almost ruthless satisfaction to it. “It would appear that Queen Chrysalis’ defeat at our hooves has seriously shaken her hive’s confidence in her as a leader.”

“Well, if she’s had her hooves full dealing with these potential usurpers, I suppose that would explain why we haven’t heard anything from her,” Twilight chimed in.

“That’s possible, but I don’t want us to let our guard down in case she is planning something.”

Razz nodded in agreement before electing to change the subject. It was clear that talk of changelings was understandably putting Cadance in a foul mood. “Well, I’m sure you have the situation well in hoof, Cadance.” A thought occurred to Raspberry then, and turning to Sunset, she asked, “Hey, just curious: you have anyone like Chrysalis on Earth?”

“Yeah, actually, we do,” Sunset replied. “After you told me all about what happened at the wedding here, I looked into it and after some help from a friend that’s good at that sort of thing – better than I am, anyway – and we found there’s a Chrysalis in jail somewhere in Illinois. Serving 10—25 for larceny and grand theft. The Chicago Tribune talked about the thief group she led—all con artists and masters of disguise, kinda like the changelings, I guess. So I guess that’s her.” Sunset thought about it for a bit. “But, as Razz and Twi know already, not everything on Earth is a one-to-one match with Equestria and Equus. For example, we’ve finally met Razz’s counterpart.”

“You did?” Razz asked.

“Yeah, she’s neurotic and traumatized as hell,” Adagio commented, “but at least she’s not as much of a––”

“Sis, knock it off!” Aria and Sonata said simultaneously.

“Did I miss something?” Twilight asked.

Sunset grumbled. “Yeah. For some reason, Dagi and Razz don’t get along. Don’t ask me to explain, save that was one of the reasons I wanted to leave them behind. Unfortunately, they insisted; plus, Ari and Soni adore Razz.”

“Why, I will never know,” Adagio sighed. “In any case, Ribby isn’t the bitch here and she’s got some serious issues that we’re trying to help her with. She’s younger, so maybe she can learn how to be normal...unlike some––”

Divine leapt to his feet. “Capt. Dazzle, I would appreciate it if you didn’t impugn the honor of the Archmagus in my princess’ presence. She is a hero of the land and Equestria looks up to her. If you continue to insult her, you and I will have words.”

“Great, so you’re an asshole too?”

“Dagi, enough,” Sunset warned. “You know you’re already in hot water with my mother because of that.”

“That’s hitting below the belt, isn’t it?”

“If that’s what it takes to get you to behave, so be it.”

The reaction in the room was expected: utter confusion. Only Spike, who kept muttering, “I shoulda been a human,” was the difference in thoughts.

“So, changing gears a bit,” said Razz, “I take it Prince Armor’s presence has helped settle things between the overprotective cousins and their other cousin of two realities?”

"Something like that: I mean, I talked to them, guardspony to...uh, guardshumans?" Shining began.

"Sailors, Shining," Sunset explained. "They're heavily-trained ground troops, but they're technically sailors."

"Really? Because I swear the Navy's the weak link in the chain,” Shining commented.

“That’s not a good sign,” Adagio muttered under her breath.

“Anyway, I sat them aside and explained how I've had to deal with my duties in the past as opposed to what I do now and the fact that even though it drives me nuts that I can't always protect her, I also have to let her do what she does for a living and live our own normal lives. I'd smother her otherwise, and I hope I got the message across."

"You did, General," Adagio admitted. “Besides, I have to also admit that we don’t give her this much protection Earthside, given that she goes to a separate school than we do.”

"I’m glad to hear that I got through to you. And actually, it's just Captain. The Guard is structured slightly differently from the Army, but yeah, I'm a general officer, Adagio—though I suppose that would be flag officer to you." The teen-as-mare bristled and Shining grinned. "Can't call you captain, because aren't you supposed to be off-duty right now? Plus, between my rank and yours, all we need is somepony from the Army to show up and we'll be pulling our manes out trying to figure out who's who."

“How do you tell the difference between your rank and his?” Sonata, pointing to Divine, asked.

“Technicalities. The full title of my rank is Captain of the Guard,” Shining explained, “while Div’s full rank is Divisional Captain. After Divisional Captain, the next rank up is Brigade Captain, which we shorten to Brigadier; then Vice Captain of the Guard, which is just Vice Captain; and then finally my rank.”

“Hey,” interrupted Razz, who didn’t want to get into military minutiae all night, “where’s Trixie? I thought she was staying with you, Twilight?”

“Apparently, she got a part-time job as an entertainer at one of the restaurants in town,” answered the lavender alicorn. “She’ll probably still live here until she fully gets back on her feet, but with a nighttime job, our schedules are going to be different.”

“Still, given what you’ve told me about her,” said Cadence, “it’s nice that she’s rebounding somewhat, thanks to the crowds in town for the pool tournament.”

“She doesn’t sound anything like the Trixie we know back home,” said Soni, “There she’s got some real confidence problems. Totally different from her counterpart here.”

“That seems to be a rule of thumb around here,” Aria noted.

Cadance then glanced over to Razz with a mischievous gleam in her eye. “And getting back on topic, I do believe you’ve made a pool fan out of Sunset, no?”

“In a way, I guess,” shrugged Razz. “Though she did say she wanted to come with me to watch Corner’s next game, so…”

“Well, I’m certainly impressed with the shots. Plus that way when I get home I figure I can mess a little with Dad and Cady, if only to get them both off the Minnesota Fats kick,” Sunset commented, while the triplets merely nodded in agreement.

“Well, if it’s alright with you, Twily,” said Cadence, “I’d like to ask Razz to make a pool table out of crystal to add to your home here.”

“That sounds like a great idea!” chirped Twilight.

“Sure, might as well flex those proverbial muscles—haven’t made anything out of crystal in a while, truth be told.”

“Then how about tomorrow, while Shiny and I are taking the triplets around town—try and teach them not to be ‘on the clock’ all the time—you make a pool table so I can teach everypony how to knock some billiards around. Maybe you could even invite your friend Corner Shot to teach us a few tricks as well?”

“Sure, sounds good!”

“Great,” Sunset sighed. “As if I don’t have enough things in stereo in my life.” When everypony asked, the newest alicorn merely facehoofed.

That night, Razz did what she had to admit had become a macabre tradition for her as of late: reading the next chapter of The Rose with the Broken Neck.

DAY 125:

I believe the pandas of Cathay have an old curse, which they state as such: “May you live in interesting times.” Right now, I certainly believe I do. We are on the brink of war, and the alicorns have shown their true colors. They intend to take my empire. And I will not allow that. Worse still, I may have potential sedition within my own ranks.

Sable and his pack found a centuria of Equestrian guards that had been patrolling around the perimeter of what they claimed was the border. However, a troop of my own forces were there, correctly pointing out that the Equestrians had already crossed the border several miles back – and that this was no “minor error”, as the border in question was a river.

Nonetheless, their coronet argued, and Sable, impatient as always, decided to deal with it. Of that, I have no quarrel. No, my problem became when he then turned on our own troops. Sable reported that he faulted our soldiers for “not dealing with the situation postehaste”. Lt. Cutting Edge was one of my finest junior officers and while lower-ranked troops are a bit a dozen, finding capable officers is a more…challenging issue. Not only because of the need of intelligence, but because there are nobles that need to be assured that their sons and daughters are given choice assignments. Issues such as this only makes it that much harder.

Furthermore, I grow weary – and wary – of Sable and his werewolves. It was already enough that I used that information I took from human legends to mold his forces into something suitably vicious, but I have to wonder if in the long run if I may have created another problem I will have to deal with. His pack seems more wolf than pony now, feral and bestial on a level that outright unnerves many of my loyal troops. At one time, that was an asset. Now? I am no longer sure.

Regardless, if it comes to blows, I will deal with it, if and when it comes time. All part of the grand plan, I suppose.

However, I do have some excellent news on this otherwise dreary day: my grand mage, Dr. Mangle-leg, tells me that her research projects are going apace, and have made outstanding progress. The first one is based on the armor my agents were able to study in the Everfree Armory. She tells me that she will be able to replicate the magic within Queen Faust’s old armor and create something suitable for my station, protection that will give me an edge against her mewling brats who fancy themselves queens in their own right. When I inevitably face them on the field, this new armament will render me even more superior than I already am.

Mangle-leg also tells me that the latest preservation spell on the cadaver of the changeling queen has failed and that she has had to cast another round. There is something inimical within the queen’s body that is withstanding our attempts to study her, as if she defies us from even beyond the Great Pasture. Perhaps she is not even truly dead, despite her extensive fatal wounds, cracked shell and torn mane. Mayhaps she is still within her seemingly-deceased body, in hibernation and subconsciously sending out defensive measures until she heals and awakes once more.

The very thought of that gives me both a shiver of glee and chills down my spine at the same time. If I could obtain her power, I would be an unstoppable force upon this blighted world. But if she still lies alive, awaiting her chance to strike…the Sisters would be the least of my problems. Still, there is no problem that does not have a solution, and I intend to find it, no matter the cost or time.

Which, of course, brings me to my biggest problem of all: my pet, the so-called Broken Rose. She is no longer broken, but instead becoming a rose in full blossom, replete with thorns. It is clear, without a shadow of a doubt, that there is magic within her, a magic that fool Baldassare never noticed, as he was too wrapped up in the smallest of sparks within him. If he had only realized that compared to him, his wife is a veritable inferno, a blazing pyre compared to his mere candlewick.

She grows stronger each day and I have yet to discern the puzzle that she is. Given time, I certainly will. No mere trinket can stand before my might for long.

“Hrrrmmm…” grumbled Corner the next morning, finding that the next match was surprisingly difficult for her, at least in comparison to the previous day where she’d essentially wiped the floor with Bumper’s poor playing. But today, her opponent Golden Break was living up to his name as he’d already won the first round handily and now she was trailing. She didn’t like trailing points, plus it especially wasn’t good that she still felt a little off her game today.

It also didn’t help that Sunset Shimmer was sitting “quietly” off to the side, munching on a ridiculously large bucket of butter-oil coated popcorn. Damn magic ponies and their ability to burn cholesterol for magic, internally whined Corner before she slammed the cue ball with her cue. The white orb bounced off the opposite side of the table, arcing in trajectory to land a divebomb on the solid 2 ball, knocking it into the pocket, while on the rebound the cue ball knocked back the striped 13 ball in the opposite direction and safely away from any convenient pockets.

Sunset, who had been sure there was no way for Corner to get her ball in without also pocketing Golden Break’s at the same time, sat frozen in her seat with a large hoofful of popcorn suspended in a cyan glow. She didn’t react when the cyan magic suddenly was overpowered by a pitch black aura and about half of the popcorn detached from the buttery glob on a trajectory into a different pony’s mouth.

“Good thing I didn’t bring Heelee today,” mused Razz in a hushed tone—careful not to interrupt the pool match—as she sat down next to Sunset. “The last thing he needs is flying pool balls hitting him in the air.”

“You get what you needed?” asked Sunny, not taking her eyes off of the green battlefield before her as Golden Break scowled—evidently the tables might have started to turn against him now.

“Yeah,” replied Razz, pulling out a rolled up, large piece of paper from her saddlebags and opened it up with her telekinesis for Sunny. “Table Rack was more than happy to lend me a set of pool table blueprints for the day along with a full set of balls for me to recreate later.”

“Twice over, I’ll bet. Cadence probably is going to want an identical pool set to take with her when she goes back to the Crystal Empire.”

“Somehow, I got that impression,” chuckled the dark unicorn as she tucked the blueprints away and focused back on the game. While she’d been off talking to the tournament’s venue host, evidently Corner had already lost the first two games while managing to beat Golden Break in the third round. As the winning condition determined the victor by who won seven matches first, it was not a good position for Corner to be trailing so early. The green pegasus seemed to be visually indicating as such as her wings were beginning to periodically scratch themselves more than usual, much as they had last night.

“I gotta ask Corner how she does all that stuff with her wings,” mentioned Sunset, who had since gone back to stuffing her muzzle with popcorn, enraptured by a sport being taken to a level humans generally didn’t bother exploring.

“Why? I do recall mentioning that being so ambidextrous with her wings gives her some kind of rash—she had to miss dinner with us last night specifically because she needed to put on some ointment or lotion or whatever.”

“Yeah, but frankly the way she uses them is a bit similar to hands. Things I’ve kind of gotten accustomed to using, for obvious reasons.” As if to emphasize her point, Sunny held up one of her forehooves—had she been in human form, the hoof would have been replaced with a soft, flat palm with four long digits sticking out of the top and one slightly offset digit on the side. “Plus, look at how she’s scratching—it’s almost like she’s counting her individual feathers. Probably makes preening super easy.” The young alicorn shuddered. “It was bad enough having to learn how to clip toenails as a human, but not even having wings most of the time isn’t going to save me from having to periodically yank out feathers with my mouth.”

“Hey, do it enough times and you can save a fortune on new pillows by replacing it with your own down, right?” joked Razz, who secretly envied that exact fact about Sunset. Being her own personal pillow factory would seem like nothing but a useless gimmick to just about anypony, but Razz saw value in such an idea—given that her own unusual physical accessory occasionally decided to ruin pillows in the middle of the night by impaling them. And pillows weren’t cheap at the rate of a new one every two months at best.

Maybe I should ask Dad to lend me some of his feathers? wondered Razz thoughtfully—her adoptive father Ascot was a pegasus himself, after all—and as Razz watched Corner’s nervous wings count feathers as the match slowly dragged on, the idea retained merit.

But then Razz’s feelings about something being off about Corner kicked in around the halfway point, where Corner had evened the odds and the match stood at each contestant having won four, hard-fought rounds to their name. Having barely pulled through the eighth round to victory, Shot’s wings were practically miniature clones of Pinkie Pie in not being able to stand still at that point.

“Jeez, Corner, never known you to be this flighty,” jested Break, who over the course of the match had at least proven to be far more humble and respectable an individual than Shot’s previous opponent. “You keep it up and all your feathers are gonna fall out!”

“Enh,” shrugged Corner as she took the jab in stride, “it’ll make preening a lot easier, if nothing else.”

“See?” whispered Sunset, “I told you that was a benefit!”

But Razz didn’t hear her identical profile look-a-like, instead she’d been focusing on Corner’s wings. Specifically how they almost seemed to be cycling through what she could only guess was a set of three, well-practiced patterns. Every third time her wings sprung up to “scratch” they apparently seemed to hone in on the same feathers each time. Maybe she is counting her feathers, thought Razz, but that idea didn’t hold any ground—Corner had been doing this for maybe all her professional career, by the pool shark’s own admission, no way she could be in her late twenties and still be worrying about feathers that would have molted off naturally years ago. Or, perhaps it wasn’t so much the feathers as it was simply the rote memorization of the coping mechanism, to combat extreme nervousness. Razz knew from countless misadventures in her past she’d only made it through because of the reassuring grip Heliodor’s talons applied on her horn which helped calm her.

But then…why did she start getting itchy wings like this when she learned she might end up at the same table as Prince Shining and Divine? As if on cue, her own words from the previous night’s dinner on that subject came back to her:

“Yeah, he’s pretty much terrifying as all get out…if you have to fight him…”

She was certain that her conclusion couldn’t possibly have been correct, but the idea that maybe Corner didn’t want to be around Shining because if there was a reason she’d be at the wrong end of either stallion’s wrath…well, Razz wasn’t one to say hiding massive secrets of that caliber was never a good idea. She’d lived virtually a decade selling gem forgeries at prices nopony would look more into and skipped virtually every town she’d ever gone to during that time—Ponyville being the last and only on a technicality. But I had to do what I did because not keeping my secrets hidden from anypony would certainly ensure my death, thought the worried unicorn, and before the trial where he even served as my defense lawyer, I would have been scared shitless to be in the presence of Shining Armor—the guy outright faced my infamous ancestor head-on and lived. And while she hadn’t faced off against Divine Right, if he was anything like his diabolical counterpart, he was probably no slouch in the fighting department either.

As for the topic of secrets, Razz only had to glance at the seat next to her for probably the best example. The daughter of Celestia herself, who had committed pretty much the ultimate act of lese majeste, all now swept away by a set of lies the Crown told. And that secret hid another one: that Sunset’s life, as she’d told Razz, hadn’t always been sunshine and daffodils. That she’d lived in crushing poverty and near-homelessness during her “extended tantrum”. That even when she gained the family life she had so desired, she lived in fear that they would find their secret: that she wasn’t even human. And that all came crashing down when her “long-lost twin sister” came to town.

Razz understood that secrets were problematic, to say the least, but even Applejack had an understanding of why some ponies held them.

We all have our dangerous secrets, continued Razz in her head, glancing back over to Corner Shot making the break shot for the ninth round. I just hope yours don’t come with foul intent, either, Corner.

“Oh, Coco!” called up Rarity. “There’s an interesting delivery for you!”

“F-for me?” stammered-slash-hollered back the earth mare, quickly descending the steps to the ground floor. Having been put in charge of filling the order for costumes by the Four Footed PerFormers, Coco had been forced to utilize Rarity’s secondary sewing machine up in her bedroom while the fashionista herself used the larger one downstairs to finish the last remaining dress orders in time for the grand championship pool match. “Who’s it from?”

“Oh, just the guard,” whimsically replied Rarity as she stepped out of the way. Coco, in turn, was overjoyed to find it was her luggage from the Seabiscuit Arno finally having returned to her.

“Fortunately,” continued Rarity, “it appears none of your things were damaged in the airship’s crash so really the delay in returning them was nothing more than simply processing time…or so the guard who dropped these off claimed was the case. He also said there’s a ฿2000 check from the shipping company to make up for your ‘trying times’.”

“I’m just glad to have my things back!” chirped Coco, who eagerly moved toward her belongings. Only then she found Rarity’s foreleg stretched out and blocking her path.

“Please, darling, allow me.” While courteous, the alabaster unicorn’s tone brokered no argument. “Of course, I’d simply have Spike take your things if he were around but, alas, he’s not, so I’ll just shoulder this light burden myself.” Coco’s luggage immediately levitated into the air, coated in a blue magical hue, and followed the unicorn up the stairs, and Coco following her luggage in turn. In no time at all Rarity had deposited her assistant’s things in the guest bedroom without any fuss. “There we are, right as rain!”

“Gee, thanks Miss Rarity!” gushed Coco. The urge to glomp the older mare was hard to resist.

“Think nothing of it, I would be remiss to be a hostess who didn’t provide suitable hospitality, no?” Rarity lightly chuckled. “Now, how are you doing with those costumes?”

“Oh! Uh, most of them are done, I only need to finish one or two of them and—"

“Ah, ah, ah!” tut-tutted Rarity. “I only have a hoofful of dresses to go myself, so how about I just take those last costumes of yours onto my workload, while you take your time and get yourself further settled here now that all your possessions are returned. Later, if you’d be so kind, you can be the one who delivers the costumes over to the Retreat, as I have dinner plans this evening with my family.”

“Will do! Thanks!”

With a curt nod, Rarity turned and walked off to go finish what little work remained, leaving Coco free to spend time making herself more comfortable in the boutique’s living quarters. For Coco, she couldn’t have been happier…until she got close to the end of sorting away her things and found, near the bottom of one steamer trunk, a letter addressed to her, likely the check in question. However, unlike usual business correspondence, it was sealed with a wax stamp and bore no return address. Curious, she took it in her hooves to open it to see what was inside. She immediately regretted it as the stationary gave away who had sent it long before she needed to look at the typewritten note:

Coco didn’t know how long she’d stood there in shock before hearing Rarity’s voice call up again.

“Coco, darling? Can you come down for a moment, if it’s not too much trouble to ask?”

“U-uh, yeah! One moment!” The nervous pony quickly stuffed the letter back into the envelope, then the envelope into her toiletries bag—not the most covert place, but in a pinch it would have to do. After hiding the toiletries bag under the sink in the guest bathroom, she hurriedly made her way downstairs. “You needed me, Miss Rarity?”

“Ah, yes, I trust you can spare a moment?”

“Of course!”

“Marvelous. Raspberry Beryl was just here—teleported, of course—and asked if she could use my help in finding a suitable felt for making some kind of pool table for Twilight, though heaven knows why as I never thought Twilight to be much of a pool player. Alas, I’ve still got things to do here first, but if it’s not too much trouble, could you go in my stead?”

“Like, just to help her find some good felt?” asked Coco.

“Yes, I will admit it seems much a trivial task for ponies like you or I, to whom fashion and fabric quality is part of our natural talents, but Razz…well, if her mother Cashmere wasn’t stretching the truth, the poor girl needs convincing to take a simple comforter on trips.”

“Sure, I can do it, no problem!”

“Oh, yes, one more thing,” Rarity added, “before she had to teleport back to the pool hall, she said she’d probably be bringing along her friend Corner Shot—evidently one of the hot shot pool sharks in the tournament. I trust that shouldn’t be a problem, but I wanted to give you a heads up.”

“Ah...um, ok, that shouldn’t be a problem,” answered Coco, though her confidence in tone did not match the sinking feeling in her stomach of having to deal with that pony again. “Honestly, it’s just one more pony, I’m sure we’ll get along just fine!”

Chapter 18 - Whatever Happened to Buford the Janitor?

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 18—Whatever Happened to Buford the Janitor?

In hindsight, ponies would recollect later, the animosity should have been obvious: the two, the unyielding force and the immovable object, forever destined to clash between each other. Like timberwolves and smokecats, like manticores and bugbears, even as viciously as Celestia fought her occasional diets, the two forces would never meet a happy twain, and so it was again.

Ponies would say that later on, anypony could have seen it coming.

Too bad that nopony did.

After Corner Shot had narrowly managed to pull ahead with back-to-back wins to prove victorious over Golden Break, she’d been only too happy to subsequently agree to Raspberry Beryl’s request to be a part of her search for some good pool table quality felt. According to Razz, Princess Cadance had asked her to make a crystal pool table or something the previous night, and while for the most part Razz could manage using her magic for everything, she couldn’t replicate the qualities of a felt surface out of crystal. While Corner declined the invitation to basically show off in front of a bunch of royalty on the to-be-built table, she could at least lend her expertise as a pool player to identify the kind of felt that only professionals would play on. And so together, they merrily went on an afternoon adventure through Ponyville for the second day in a row and had no cares in the world whatsoever.

…at least that’s what should have been the case.

While Corner could not fault Razz’s intuition for the one reason the afternoon trek was probably already ruined, nor even the original plan itself given Rarity was supposed to be the third wheel of the group, the fact that damnable Coco Pommel ended up in the alabaster unicorn’s place just irritated Shot for some reason. That one pesky filly, thinking she was a real mare, kept popping up around Razz at all the wrong times and seemed to gravitate to the unicorn a bit too much for Shot’s liking. Hell, if she could I bet she’d willingly sit on Raspberry’s horn right next to her bird, thought Corner, netting a small grin at the mental image generated.

“You say something, Shot?” murmured Razz, as she led her compatriots through town.

“Oh, nothing, just figuring out my plans for how I’m going to psyche my next opponent out. Don’t worry about it.”

“Uh…okay.”

Meanwhile, Coco finished putting away a slip of paper into her own saddlebags. “Well, we’ve searched Fabulous Fedora’s Fabrics and Faucets, Patrol Box’s Tents and Dishcloths, and even Terrific Tietack's Textiles and Tables, but nopony in town seems to have any suitable felt!”

“We could always just ask Rarity if she’s got some felt around,” suggested Corner nonchalantly.

“Can’t—I used the last of the green felt she had for a costume order this morning. Wasn’t even good enough to be used for the outside, all of it ended up as interior lining for the costumes. Never would have served well for a pool table meant for royalty.”

“Like you would know felt quality for pool playing,” muttered Corner.

“You okay, Corner?” asked Razz with somewhat firm tones. Ever since Razz had noticed Corner’s sudden nervous streak, the pegasus had been acting rather strangely—by now Razz was sure it wasn’t just a case of barely even having known the pony before the Nightshade incident, and if nothing else Corner appeared to be highly evasive when it came to divulging potentially personal, albeit minor, reasons.

“I’m…just getting a little antsy, since I doubt there are that many stores in town that would carry felt to begin with, much less pool table quality.”

“I disagree: there’s probably someplace with a surplus of the stuff that did event-related pool table repairs prior to the competition getting going, ponies in town would need to practice, y’know.”

“Given that the town’s rebuilding from the war against Tirek, it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of things are out of stock ,” added Coco. “Maybe if we were in Manehatten, then we would be able to find this felt easily—that city’s basically the Meccolt of pool.”

“No, that’d be–” began Corner, before getting interrupted by Razz shoving both her and Coco into a store almost at random.

“Davenport’s Sofas and Quills, might as well give it a shot!” Razz said with a sweet smile.

For some reason, Corner found herself blushing as she smiled back before replying in a huskier than usual tone, “Razz, you’re like a candy bar: half of you is sweet, the other half is totally nutty!”

The entire world seemed to stop just then as Razz and Coco stared at the mare whose lips had just uttered what very well might have been one of the worst flirting lines in recorded history. So much so that it could have easily passed as mock-flirtation. Even though the crowds kept moving on like nothing had happened, all Corner could hear was the high-pitched “BOO!” cries from the crickets who wouldn’t even give her words the dignity of their chirping.

“Was… that supposed to be a pickup line?” asked a bewildered Razz. Heliodor—perched on her horn as always, still had his beak agape in shock.

“Well, uh…” Corner desperately tried to find a logical enough sounding response. “Admittedly, that one might have accidently slipped out, but can you blame me? I’m kind of used to being pushed around by overzealous fans of both sexes; kind of an occupational hazard when you’re as good as me!”

Razz, much to Corner’s dismay, didn’t really buy it. Coco even less so when she replied, "Corner Shot? I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it, no offense. I don’t think pool has ravenous fans the way real sports do.”

That was enough to trigger the pegasus. “WHAT?” she suddenly roared, getting in the other mare’s face. “Wanna say that again? Because I’m pretty sure I heard you say pool isn’t a real sport!

The near-apocalyptic brawl that almost erupted right then and there—prevented only by Razz’s well-timed use of some dark crystal hobbles on the pegasus before she assaulted the earth pony—had attracted a small crowd that only began to disperse when a frustrated Razz dragged a mortified Corner with her into the oddly, but accurately, named store, with Coco hesitantly bringing up the rear. And from a rooftop nearby, all of it had been captured in a series of still photographs. Nineball gave a satisfied grunt before he quickly broke down his portable camera stand and made his way off the roof, to blend back into the masses below as best as a thickly accented, Stalliongrad giant like himself could.

“She said what?!” exclaimed Sunset later that day. Following the potential hospitalization of one friend by another when they were supposed to have been helping Razz find good pool table felt, it had been mutually decided that the three should split up lest something else happen. Sunset, who had gone off shortly after the pool match of the day had been finished, didn’t know about any of what Corner had done until just now—she’d gone off to join the triplets, Cadance, and Shining Armor instead.

“Yeah, she said I was a candy bar—among other things,” winced Razz in recollection. Corner had seemingly not had a clue about what she’d suddenly been saying, but some of Bumper Thumper’s words about how Corner got around seemed to be more accurate than she’d willingly wanted to believe at the time. “To be honest, I’m pretty sure Corner has been making passes at me for a while now, but I just tried to ignore it because she’s sort of become a friend. But now with Coco getting involved, things are starting to get weird.”

“Wait, Coco? As in Coco Pommel?” Sunset asked. “How is she involved?”

“Why, do you know her?”

Sunset shook her head. “Not the one here. But I’m… sorta related to her human counterpart.”

There was the briefest of pauses as Razz attempted to process this information. “Oh yeah, that’s right, I was there when you got named part of the French Napoleons or something and Coco was the cousin of the human Sunset Shimmer, who you’re now legally the identical sister of, so...yeah.” The mulberry unicorn shook her head in disbelief, adding “Is there anyone in that world you’re not related to?”

With a humorous smile, Sunset answered, “For now, but give it a few years.”

Razz chuckled in response. It was a brief but much needed distraction from the situation she’d found herself in. “Well anyway, to answer your question, Coco seems to have gotten very… attached to me ever since I found her on board the Arno, and Corner is having none of it.”

Sunset nodded in understanding. “Jealousy?”

“It’s the most likely explanation I can think of,” Razz sighed. “Coco is a very… affectionate pony by nature—Rarity said as much from experience—but there’s something noticeably different about how she is around me. The more I think about it, the more I notice there’s something more… I guess, intimate in her interactions with me. She’s even started to return fire a bit to Corner. I’m afraid the feeling is mutual between them, and it’s all I can do to keep them from tearing each other to pieces.”

Cadance delicately cleared her throat and asked, “Well, do you feel the same way for either of them?” A harsh and immediate glare from Razz met Cadance’s words, and the alicorn raised her forelegs defensively. “Hey, I had to ask!”

After letting her glare subside, Razz said, “I think I’m going to have to have a good long talk with both of them if this continues to be a problem.”

“So you’ve got two girls fighting over you, and you don’t want either of them?” Sunset nodded with a look that was stone-cold sober. “Razz, I know exactly what you’re going through.”

“Any advice?”

Sunset sighed wearily. “Honestly? I’m still trying to figure out what to do about my own little harem.”

“Well, I guess I’ll figure out how to handle it on my own time. But for now, might as well get started on the project. Here, take this and hold it up for me.” Razz handed Sonata the plans for the pool table she’d gotten from Table Rack, then let her magical illusion spell drop. “Before anypony asks why I’ve dropped the illusion,” piped up Razz, fully expecting to having needed to field the question, “it’s that this is going to be one of the most complex things I’ve ever sculpted out of crystal and I need total concentration on this—being out of my normal guise eliminates what otherwise would be a minor distraction.”

“You’re actually capable of using your brain?” Adagio began, but then got a hard stare from Sunset.

“Dagi, you do realize Mom’s going to want to know if you gave Razz here a hard time,” Sunset explained. “Do you want to end up grounded again?”

Adagio blanched. “You wouldn’t!”

“So, orders from your liegelady don’t matter, but being grounded by your aunt does?” Sunset said with a grin. “I’ll have to keep that in mind for next time.”

Ignoring the banter between the two, Razz charged her magic, then summoned up several crystal growths right out of the floor, the universal dark shades giving off an aura of intimidating presence until Razz’s tools flew out from her saddlebags and made contact with the still growing magic minerals. Upon contact, the obsidian colors faded away, replaced by brighter, less evil looking pastel shades that the final build of the pool table would display.

“So this is your natural magic, Razz?” asked Aria, dazzled at the brilliance of the artful performance Razz was giving as her tools flew among the rough crystals, grinding and chipping away at the rapidly changing shapes. While the distinction had been made when the SIRENs had first met Razz in the human world, visually the only difference anybody had noticed between the magic used between Razz and Sunset was the former’s yellow hued magic—which as was later found out to be her having “hijacked” the magic of Divine Right, while the latter was much more of a “traditional” magic user. Raspberry’s true dark powers, drained before her time in the human world due to Tirek’s machinations, hadn’t returned until after she was able to come home to Equestria, and as such her dark magic in its full form hadn’t been seen by humans before now.

“Well, the Sombraic branch of black magic is,” explained Twilight, “in that it’s still dark magic solidified into crystalline shapes, and then an illusion coating embedded into them to hide the truth. While they are still capable of continually growing and overtaking the immediate environment, Razz is able to make that aspect of them sealed and dormant within and it takes something designed to dissolve crystals wholesale to make that magic become active again.”

“Don’t even ask me about it!” shouted Spike as he passed by the open door in the hallway, evidently transporting a box of something from one place in the castle to another.

“Yeah, this is gonna take it outta me….” groaned Razz.

“Raspberry, please,” said Cadance, “don’t push yourself too far just to make a fancy pool table, I can always–”

“No, no, I don’t mean that!” chuckled the crystal artisan, “I just don’t think I’ll be able to make the table and the matching set of pool balls and cues tonight. Fortunately, Table Rack lent me a full set so you all can at least play with the table once I’m done.”

“Oh, that’s nice of him!”

As the rest of the group watched, the now-geometrical shaped crystals, in a variety of colors matching Rainbow’s hair, suddenly lifted off the ground and began to form together in the air into what looked like a pool table. Held together with screws and bolts—also made from crystal—the assembly took no less than a few minutes thanks to crystal effectively being the replacement for wood in what was otherwise a standard looking pool table, now open for business.

“Phew!” Exclaimed Razz, wiping sweat from her brow, “Haven’t worked with dark crystal in a while, so that was one heck of a mental workout!”

“Well, time for a physical one, then!” said Cadance, who took the liberty of removing the pool equipment from Razz’s saddlebags. “Now, who here knows how to play pool?” She honestly expected nopony other than Twilight to raise a hoof, so to her surprise, the triplets raised their hooves high almost immediately.

“It’s a longstanding tradition in various human armed forces to play that sport,” said Dagi, “so if you’re looking for a challenge, then we’ll step right up—though I feel I must warn you that we’re pretty good at this, all things considered.”

“Oh, really?” Cadance asked with a wolfish grin. “I do so love a challenge…”

Cadance looked at the trio with disappointment. “Wow, and it seemed as though you knew what you were doing!”

To everypony’s amazement, not only were the trio very knowledgeable about pool, but based on their positioning and movements, it was clear that they were very good at it. This, of course, came up against the stark reality of being good at it...as humans, a condition they were not currently under. Thus, when it came to actual control of the cues, while the desire was there, the body was lacking and thus the trio put up a brave fight only to be crushed under the strength of Cadance’s own skills.

“I feel continuously marginalized by you three,” mock-whined Sunset. “Just when I start learning how cool pool can be, you come and just be total badasses about it.”

“Uh, weren’t you just watching us making idiots of ourselves?” Sonata asked her.

“Well, how about you come and help me make dinner, then?” asked Cadance of Sunset. “Let the three of them lick their wounds.”

Everypony shared a good chuckle at that.

Perfect, thought the dark unicorn. “Okay, look, I need to ask a favor from you three, seeing as how you’re all foreign super-soldiers who play pool.”

Adagio glared at Razz and opened her mouth to say something, but never got the chance.

“Well, sailors, actually, but we get what you mean,” Aria joked loudly, giving a sideways glare of her own to Adagio.

“Here’s the deal: I think something’s wrong with Corner Shot. The way she’s been acting seems like…well, stuff you girls would do on a really, really off day.”

“Look, as far as I’m concerned, the only thing wrong with her is that she can actually stand you,” Adagio snarled. Ignoring the glares from her sisters, she then reluctantly added, “So I guess you think she’s, to quote you, ‘a foreign super-soldier who plays pool,’ basically?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

The trio exchanged a few glances, knowing what Razz was asking of them. As the unit’s commanding officer, Dagi spoke for them all: “Alright, I guess we can help you. But only out of interest for Sunny’s safety!”

“Hey, Versa, you okay?” asked Stage Fright, waving a hoof up and down in front of her brother’s face. Having been born around the same time that her parents had done the unprecedented deed of adopting a changeling nymph into their family, she was the most experienced of her siblings when it came to handling Versatile’s “unique” behaviors.

But him staring into space, jaw open, was something brand new. She knew he wasn’t going through some kind of love withdrawal—together they’d developed a daily regimen similar to ponies who needed to monitor their blood sugar specifically to keep him mobile without issue—so she couldn’t help but be worried about what this new behavior might mean.

“She…she’s beautiful…” he sighed.

Oh no, thought a panicked Stage Fright, as she looked over to the object of his gaze. He’s falling in love.

“Hey, thanks for bringing these over!” Rough Edge voiced, levitating the bundle of clothes up and away into the stagecoach.

“It’s no problem, really,” said Coco nonchalantly, “I made most of them myself, so as a former Bridleway dressmaker, you can rest assured I put nothing less than the best into my work!”

“Yeah, these look fantastic!” cooed Meadow, examining what looked like a Snow Whinny dress, then glancing over to a tall, pointy hat. “Even got the bells on the Starswirl get-up, too!”

“Actually, I had a question about that….” the seamstress interjected “In addition to the Snow Whinny costumes, you asked for all seven of the breezies…given there’s only four of you, are you planning on hiring extras or using pepper ghost spells?”

“Nope, that’s what Versatile’s gonna do. Hey, Versa!” Brooks called out to his ace-in-the-hole actor.

“Y-yes!” The disguised changeling said, shooting over to his boss’s side.

“Mind showing Miss Coco here what you can do with the—” Brooks, much to his surprise, didn’t even get the chance to finish as Versa dashed into the stage coach with the costumes, slamming the door behind him.

“I’ve never seen him that eager to do his special talent for anypony!” mentioned Rough Edge, rubbing his chin in wonder.

“Yeah, because the unthinkable has happened,” Stage Fright commented, walking up and shaking her head.

“You don’t mean he’s…” said Meadow, eyes widening.

“This involves me doesn’t it?” said Coco, figuring out the obvious. However, before any more discussion could be brokered, the stage coach’s door flew open and there stood a giant Breezie.

“Slippy!” declared the aptly dressed Breezie, albeit in a tone that was not at all suited to the character he was. The door then shut again for but a moment, reopening to reveal Versa in the guise of another Breezie whose name he stated aloud, continuing the process for the remaining six: “Drippy! Nippy! Showery! Flowery! Bowery! And Phil!”

The costume designer stood in awe for more than a few minutes, looking at the beaming Phil look-a-like. In her head, she was trying to work out how in the world the batpony had managed to don all seven costumes in quick succession—just one was a complex outfit consisting of a shirt, oversized headpiece with a large stocking cap and the long stringy antennae, and most troublesome of all were the wing slips that made a pony’s wings resemble that of a breezie. While she had modified a design taken from a standard template in order for the wing slips to work for any kind of wings—pegasus, bat pony, and otherwise—they too were cumbersome for one pony alone to swap them as fast as this bat pony had done for all seven pairs.

In truth, the seven costumes Coco had made were still folded neatly out of sight inside the stagecoach, and barring unusual circumstances, Versatile would never wear them—each suit had come with a requested faux-wing harness so they could be used by non-winged ponies, so the only ponies who would ever wear the costumes were Rough and Meadow. For Versa, he merely needed to look at the costumes in whole and have an idea of what else was necessary for each role (makeup, intended accent and mannerisms, etc.) and he could do what changelings did naturally and replicate the appearance of a fully costumed actor using actual costumes and such. On stage, this was a major benefit as Versa could quickly dart off stage, shroud himself in emerald fire, then emerge as a totally different character without missing a beat.

However, when it was just one pony, who had made the very costumes Versa was supposedly wearing and knew how troublesome the costumes were to put on, the effect was more eyebrow-raising than anything. For the sake of being nice, though, as well as for reasons she would rather not have known already, Coco did her best to hide her non-surprise. “Wow, that’s the fastest costume changing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve known some quick actors!”

“Thanks!” said the now blushing Breezie-garbed, batpony-disguised-changeling.

“Yeah, the costumes look even better in action!” added Rough. “I trust the rest of our ordered garments will be as good as these?”

“Of course!” beamed Coco, “I’m just glad you like my work so much!”

After some more discussion and banter—half of which involved Coco becoming ever more uncomfortable at the increasingly obvious infatuation Versatile had for her (and also split understanding/amusement toward Stage Fright’s semi-annoyance at her brother being infatuated like this)—the seamstress bade farewell to the performance troupe and departed the Retreat.

Stepping out into the lonely night air, Coco had to admit she actually found the young batpony rather cute, and while something had seemed more than a little…“off” about him when he seemed to change costumes so fast, she’d largely written it off as simply having been his special talent—she hadn’t caught his cutie mark so it was within the realm of possibility. Plus, the fact he’d been clearly head-over-hooves in love that anypony could have felt the love he was radiating, which in a sense nourished her own self-confidence in more ways than–

“And what the hell are you doing here?” suddenly came a voice that, by now, was all-too-familiar to Coco. Only now, after the incident between them earlier that day, and after such a feel-good moment for herself, Coco wasn’t about to let Corner Shot ruin what had been the only decent bright spot of the day.

“Are you still sore about earlier?” Coco asked, turning to face the pool shark standing in front of the Retreat.

“I asked you a question,” Corner said, her voice rough and tinged with threat.

“If you must know, I was delivering a bundle of costumes ordered by a performance group who is currently staying at this bed and breakfast,” Coco explained. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but if anything, the way we’ve been running into each other so often, it seems like you’re stalking me!”

“Yeah, because you showing up in front of this bed and breakfast when I’m staying here, too, sure seems like one big coincidence, eh?”

Normally, Coco would have backed off well beforehand. However, this time was different—she felt far more bolder and willing to stand her ground—just like Rarity would.

“Well, it appears to be just that: a coincidence. But judging from your attitude, you seem to think that’s somehow my fault.”

“Given how you’ve been hanging around Raspberry Beryl all the time like some lovesick puppy, I would have to think so!”

Coco reacted to that. “Lovesick puppy? No, after what spilled out of your mouth earlier, that role was easily filled by you!”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah, because I’m pretty sure that wasn’t your drool telling Raspberry Beryl she was nutty as a candy bar…that was merely incidental. After all, that’s why you jumped on me back at that party when I showed up in town, wasn’t it?”

Corner narrowed her eyes. This only looked like the same pony Razz had dragged around town with her that morning. But unlike that other Coco Pommel, this one had a spine—a strong one at that, which caught her off guard. Only momentarily, though.

“Well, aren’t you being a little hypocritical bitch here? Accusing me of chasing after Razz when you’ve been stuck by her side almost constantly since she got back from Night-whatever.”

“Nightshade?” corrected Coco, “Yeah, when she kind of saved my life and then I got offered a job by Rarity? Why the hell wouldn’t I start popping up around town and around Razz whenever she needs my help?” Coco then closed the distance with her own eyes narrowed, stopping until her muzzle was close enough that Corner could smell her dandelion-and-mustard sandwich lunch. “So, Miss-only-here-to-knock-balls-around, back the hell off before you do something you regret.”

“Pssh. What are you gonna do? Cry on me?” Corner then punctuated the statement with a rough shove, pushing a wide-eyed Coco back. “Y’know, I think it’s past time I taught you a little lesson!

But instead of being cowed, Coco responded to the threat with a grin, and something about it looked… wrong to Corner. “Okay. Start teaching!”

With a disbelieving chuckle, Corner moved to shove Coco again, but with speed and strength that didn’t seem to fit such a meek tiny mare, Coco deflected and shoved back hard. With an angry growl, Corner lunged forward with a full punch, but the smaller mare ducked around it and brought Corner into a grapple.

The two struggled in each other’s hooves for a second before Corner thought to headbutt her, but Coco held firm. Corner moved to try again, and that was when Coco did something she couldn’t have anticipated. She opened her mouth and sank her teeth into Corner’s withers, sending a sharp jolt of pain through the pool player.

Letting out a scream, Corner’s finely honed instincts took over, and she stopped holding back. With lightning fast precision, Corner hit Coco with a series of sharp jabs carefully aimed at her pressure points, weakening the feral pony’s grip on her. Then Corner took her by the foreleg and flipped her over onto her back, expertly spinning and twisting Coco’s foreleg behind her back. As Coco thrashed and gnawed, Corner opened her left wing and brought it to bear….

THAT’S ENOUGH!” Suddenly Corner and Coco were pried apart by an invisible force and held in place.

Both combatants looked to the source of the voice that just called out and saw Raspberry Beryl standing there, purple mist flowing from her eyes and ichorous magic oozing from her horn.

What in the world are you two doing?!” Razz exclaimed.

“S-she started it!” Coco stammered, all signs of the wild animal she had become earlier suddenly vanished.

“She bit me!” Corner exclaimed, wincing and clutching her shoulder. Sure enough, a decent amount of blood was starting to come out of the wound. She was going for my neck, Corner realized.

“I don’t care who started what, you two are acting like foals!” Razz said, and both mares’ ears wilted. “Trust me, neither of you are going to win my affections like this!”

Corner looked indignant, but Coco looked confused. “What? T-that’s not what this was about!”

“Oh really? You mind telling me what this was about, then?”

“W-well, it’s uh…” Coco stuttered and stammered for an answer, but it was Corner who finally answered.

“Nothing. Petty shit, that’s all,” she said. “Just a clash of personalities. I didn't mean for things to go this far. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me neither. I was just so… so angry,” Coco sighed, looking thoroughly ashamed. “I’m going back to Rarity’s. Maybe it would be best if Corner and I just avoided each other from now on.”

“Fine by me,” Corner said as Coco started walking away with a noticeable limp.

“You might want to get that looked at, Corner,” Razz said, gesturing to Corner’s bleeding shoulder.

“It’s fine. I have a first aid kit in my room.”

Corner was about to go into the Retreat herself when Razz stopped her, giving the mare a suspicious glare. “Where did you learn to fight like that?”

Corner froze in her tracks. “Let’s just say you’re not the only one with a colorful past.” Corner then continued into the Retreat, hesitating only when she noticed Razz wasn’t following her. “Coming in? You do still live here, right?”

To Corner’s dismay, Razz just kept studying her with that suspicious glare. “In a bit. I just need to go back to Twilight’s Castle first. Forgot something important.”

Her words worried Corner, but it wasn’t like she could do anything to stop her, so she made a show of shrugging uncaringly before stepping into the Inn.

She was greeted by the sound of a one-stallion slow clap, and turned to see a familiar red giant of a pony sitting in the lounge… right by the window looking out at where the violent confrontation had taken place.

“You’re lucky I’m such a gentlestallion, Corner,” intoned Nineball in his thick Stalliongrad accent. “If word got out that you’re starting fights with friends of important ponies… it could be quite a scandal!”

“Not trying to blackmail me, are you, Nine?”

Nineball shook his head. “Like I said, I’m a gentlestallion.” The big pony then let out a deep, unsettling chuckle. “I would say that the little mare out there bit off more than she could chew out there, but by the look of things, she was ready for seconds!” Nineball smiled. “From one professional to another, you be careful with that one, Shot.”

Under normal circumstances, the sight of the most annoying not-girl in the known multiverse standing over her bed in the middle of the night would have caused Adagio to cuss her out and throw her out, in that order. But Aria and Sonata were flanking her, and all three of them had deadly serious looks on their faces.

“Something happened,” Razz said. “I might have an assignment for you guys.”

Adagio yawned and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “That right? Well we don’t answer to you, dumb c—”

“Watch it, Dagi,” the stern voice of Sunset Shimmer warned, and Adagio realized she was standing in the doorway. “Razz’s mission has my approval.”

This did not make Adagio happy. “What mission?

“There was an… altercation tonight between Corner Shot and Coco,” Razz explained. “I only caught the end of it, but I saw some of Corner’s moves, and she was good. She moved like you guys,” Razz said. “Like she was trained.”

Now Adagio understood the serious atmosphere. “You think she’s like, an operative or something?”

“I don’t know, that’s why we need more intel,” Razz said. “Up for some reconnaissance?”

Chapter 19 - Zero Dark Pony

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 19—Zero Dark Pony

In the time that Trixie had been forced to live with Sunset’s lethal cousins singing loud, boisterous chorus songs every morning while they did jogs or whatever, she’d found it easier to use their voices as an alarm clock instead of her actual alarm clock. So, much to her surprise, this morning she woke to the normal bell ringing of the clock she kept winding every night out of habit, with no detectable sign of the trio’s singing outside.

“What in Equestria are they doing if not waking me up?” Trixie rhetorically asked. Just then, the door to her room opened up and the very three ponies she was talking about entered.

“Sorry, Ms. Lulamoon,” the one with the curly mane—Adagio, if Trixie remembered correctly—apologized. “We didn’t want to interrupt your sleep, but since you’re awake, we have a request to ask of you.”

Trixie raised an eyebrow. “And what do you three want to ask of the Great and Powerful Trixie Lulamoon?” A thought. “And what’s a ‘miz’?”

Sonata looked at her and groaned. "Do we really have to do this? Our Trixie isn't this much of a pain!"

Aria rolled her eyes. "Ixnay on the other Rixietay!" she groaned, barely avoiding a facehoof.

“Wha?” asked a confused Trixie—it felt like the first night she’d met these three along with Sunset all over again.

“Nevermind, it’s not important,” said Adagio. “What is important is that we need your help—there’s a particular pony who we want to watch without her knowing we’re watching her.”

“You want me to cast an invisibility spell on you?”

“Stealth spell,” Sonata said authoritatively. “No such thing as an invisibility spell.”

“Didn’t Sunny call it a Background Pony spell?” Aria interjected.

Adagio groaned, then addressed Trixie. “Actually, after evaluating what we need to do, it would be more optimal for us to have a disguise spell that makes us look like other ponies—nopony in particular, just ponies who don’t look anything like us.”

“You’re asking Trixie to do something that’s nominally considered illegal in this country?”

Sonata looked at her. "Don’t think of it as illegal, but rather as clandestine: You're being drafted as a civilian advisor into a military operation."

Aria looked at her sister. "Do we have that kind of authority yet? We still only have nominal acceptance by the REN; they haven't clea—"

"That's my problem, XO," Adagio told Aria. "I'll deal with that. So will you help us, Ms. Lulamoon? Or will we have to get somebody else?"

Luckily for the triplets, Trixie didn’t catch Adagio’s slip of the tongue in saying body instead of pony. “Trixie apologizes, but she really doesn’t feel comfortable about—"

“Hey, Dagi, what was that other showmare’s name again?” asked Sonata, “like, Abby Cadabra or something?”

“Wait, Abby Cadabra!?” exclaimed Trixie in shock. “You would seriously ask a charlatan like her to help you with something supposedly so important? She’d sooner take your bits and run than actually bother putting on a show!”

“Desperate times, desperate measures,” shrugged Aria.

Trixie gritted her teeth. As much as she truly didn’t feel comfortable about it, she was not going to let her performing rival Abby Cadabra—whose sudden appearance in town a few days ago had not made Trixie a happy mare to be sure—outdo her in this affair. “Okay, fine, Trixie will help you three this one time.”

“Yay!” exclaimed Soni.

Later, with utmost stealth, Sweetie Drops—or at least a pony who looked like Sweetie Drops—climbed up into the tree just a few hundred feet from the Traveler’s Retreat. Specifically, the tree that would provide an unobstructed view of the room in which a Miss Corner Shot currently resided. While it would have seemed very much like a “stalkerish” thing to do, the fine line between a stalker and a stakeout was very much dependent on context that was often lacking to those only observing the observer.

The irony that it was something Sweetie Drops normally did anyway because of her status as an Agency operative of course never registered, since Aria Blaze only knew of the human porn star by that name who happened to resemble her friend Bon-Bon. And even that was only because Sunset had told her—with shame—that it was something she’d used against Bon-Bon back when she was still an alpha bitch.

“Please don’t do any creepy shit,” mumbled Aria Drops, securing herself well out of view in the tree before pulling out a pair of binoculars and peering through them. Sure, it took something absurdly Lovecraftian to really leave somebody as well trained as Aria shaken—such as one’s former commander turning everybody in the old SIREN regiment into bipedal monster seahorses before her very eyes—but something considerably less tame like weird-ass BDSM shit was tolerable. Absolutely horrifying to watch and of the category of things Aria would prefer not to watch, but if the mission called for it, a voyeur she would have to be, willing or not.

Mercifully, it appeared that Corner wasn’t into early morning self-bondage, as all Aria could see the mare doing was a full repertoire of early morning stretches—both from regimens she figured were for general ponies, regardless of their subspecies; and from wing-based forms obviously exclusive to pegasi…or in Aria’s case, her liegelady—liegemare?—and cousin, as Sunset had mentioned all the new things she had to do in order to keep her new wings fit and functional. But of those “new” things, Aria noted, Corner did very few of them.

Strange, thought Aria, for a pony who supposedly makes a living from using her wings so strenuously, she doesn’t seem to focus all that much on keeping them in top condition. She couldn’t help but give a sudden start when, suddenly, Corner looked straight in her direction and in one swift motion had closed the blinds. For the next fifteen minutes, Aria remained in position, determined to not let Corner get the best of her, and indeed right when the first pangs of boredom crept around, Aria saw her mark leave the front of the building. From a safe distance behind, Aria proceeded to tail the pool shark as if pretending to also be on a morning jog into town. But also to keep observing how Corner Shot did little more than flex her wings time to time, otherwise refusing to do what seemed obvious and simply fly into town. You have wings, why don’t you use them? Aria had to wonder what the story was with a pegasus who refused to fly—and wasn’t Fluttershy’s local counterpart.

“Spike should never hear about this,” grumbled Minuette, “or else I’ll never hear the end of those toothpaste jokes…”

For better or worse, Sonata’s disguise had ended up being slightly different in colors but very different in appearance all the same—whereas Aria had just turned into a different “Earth” pony, Sonata was now a unicorn. Naturally, it was merely an illusion and her “horn” did not exist, but what struck Soni immediately upon seeing her new self in the mirror was how much she looked like a pony whose mane and tail came out of a Colgate brand toothpaste tube—and the mane style was a dead ringer for Sunset’s friend Minuette, so between that and human Minuette’s parents being dentists, Sonata really understood why the teen being called “Colgate” all the time had been aggravating. Though upon swearing she saw an identical pony to her appearance standing somewhere in the town crowds every few blocks or so, Soni couldn’t help but wonder if despite the myriad of color combinations alone that ponies seemed to exhibit, there were only a handful of said combinations that happened to occur a lot. Hell, she could have sworn there were four of five ponies who seemed suspiciously similar to Lyra Heartstrings—every single one of them, ironically, being unicorns.

New mental note, added Soni. Lyra does not ever get to learn this alternate reality exists or that I ever pretended to be a unicorn. Sunset’s got enough problems already.

But enough was enough, noting that the human Lyra unintentionally presented a threat to the stability of both realities like a Chernobyl Reactor powered by pure wishful desire for mythical horses was not the mission at hand. Relieving Aria on surveillance duties on Corner Shot, however, was. To that end, “Minuette” slipped through the crowds behind the mark, always keeping distance but at the same time not letting the mare escape her sight.

One thing that struck Soni almost immediately, much like it had her sister, was that where other pegasi seemed to naturally gravitate toward flying around virtually every time the thought came to them, Corner Shot rarely even flapped her wings. In fact, she seemed to be actively avoiding any possible chance of ponies accidentally colliding with her—specifically on her sides and with her wings. Every hoofstep also seemed to be both firmly planted and yet light enough that if necessary, a quick escape could be undertaken.

Sonata couldn’t confirm 100% the latter was true, but she was certain of it otherwise as that was what she was herself doing. And despite only being a sixteen-year-old from the human world, virtually every minute of those sixteen years had been devoted into training her as a perfect warrior—or at least, before Sunset’s grandmother godhorse changed the timeline—so even if she wanted to, she couldn’t break her pattern of walking, as it was etched into her very being. To see another individual and be able to immediately tell from their steps that it was a practiced technique to the point of muscle memory set off warning bells in Sonata’s head. She dearly hoped she was wrong, but if this pony walked with the mannerisms of a special operator, then the possible outcomes were not good.

Adagio Dazzle was no stranger to unusual operations. From explosive nighttime thefts in Dubai ending with rescuing sexually abused children, to fighting Canadian SPECOPS assault teams in exploding pizzerias filled with creepy-as-hell robot animals, and once even having to escape from the archives of the United States Department of the Interior for reasons that even to this day weren’t clear to her—at least those didn’t explode, in comparison.

But as far as unusual went concerning her, well…something as outright normal as being a spectator to a pool tournament without some ulterior objective of subterfuge at play was utterly unusual for her. The whole “the only pony not born a pony in the entire building” detail notwithstanding.

“You okay, Dagi?” asked Sunset, concern for her fellow yellow pony evident on her face. While Soni and Ari were on their assignment, Sunset had opted to ask her bodyguard-slash-cousin to come spend the day with her and Raspberry at the pool hall. The newest alicorn now was wondering if that had really been the right choice and Dagi really seemed out of it today.

“Don’t worry about me, your high…” started Dagi, slipping into bodyguard form, but after several seconds of a hard glare from Sunset, Dagi finally relented and allowed herself to be more open. “Fine,” she sighed, “if you really need to know, as much as I appreciate trying to spend time with you in this form, this whole thing makes me feel totally out of my element, so to speak.”

“Hey, trust me, I know exactly…well, okay, maybe not exactly what you’re feeling right now,” Sunset said, “since going from pony to human certainly adds a few joints here and there, whereas from human to pony probably takes a few of those things away.”

“Yeah, about that…” said Dagi, turning to Sunset. “Seriously, girl, how are you so comfortable in going from having spent the last few years of your life with fingers only to lose them?! Like, I’m still trying to understand how I can pick things up without opposable thumbs!”

“Extensory frogs,” was Sunset’s answer. Adagio gave her cousin a look of bewilderment, and Sunset chuckled. “I guess Zacherle doesn’t cover that in your biology classes?”

“Ha ha, Sunny.”

“Anyway, equines—both the kind back on Earth and the equinal species here—have frogs, pads underneath our hooves, similar to human arches in a sense. But the difference is, extensory frogs are a little different, as they act like biological electromagnets. When you think about picking something up, you do, just like you think about grasping something with your hands, as opposed to just letting it sit in your palm. That clear things up?”

“And I thought the weirdest part of my life to this point had been the fact I listen to a band called High Impact Sexual Violence in my off-hours.”

“High impact sexual violence?” asked Razz, who was standing nearby; half curious and half horrified that those exact words were able to be strung together. The only thing Razz could think of that even remotely matched that criteria was if a couple who were both wrestlers were trying to make children in the middle of a wrestling match. Taking place on the backs of the Wonderbolts.

“Human thing,” was all Dagi said, shrugging. It seemed to be taking all of her willpower not to add another petty insult to her answer, so Razz elected to let sleeping female dogs lie. Any further discussion was beneath Dagi’s notice, however, as at that point Corner Shot walked into the pool hall.

Right off the bat, Dagi noted that Corner was subtly reconnoitering the known and accessible egresses—or in other words, she’d not been in the building five seconds without evaluating her options for leaving it within the next five seconds if necessary. Then, slightly to her dismay, Corner seemed to notice the group and headed over, a guilty look on her face.

“Oh, hey, Corner,” said Razz, cautiously. She did not want a repeat of the previous day’s incident.

“Look, before anything else is said,” blurted Corner, “I’m sorry again for what I did yesterday—both for what I said and what I did. Maybe things got too much for my ego and…yeah, I’m not too full of myself to admit when I’ve fucked up.”

“Well, that’s the mark of a good pony, then,” replied Sunset, “admitting when you’ve fucked up big time. Celestia knows I’m certainly an expert when it comes to that.”

“Oh?” asked Corner, interest piqued.

“Well, uh, yeah. She practically raised me for most of my life and is my mother—well, here anyway” the maize alicorn said in a manner that hinted there was more to the story—and that the more of that story was probably going to be confusing if she explained.

“Plus, she’s a princess—can’t have princess figures going around and refusing to admit when they’ve screwed up, now can you?” chuckled Razz, before walking over and taking Corner into an embrace. “And as for you, Corner, for what it’s worth I forgive you. But I’m really not the pony you should be apologizing to.”

“Right…” Corner acknowledged with a wince. “Thanks, Razz, it means a lot to me.” After breaking the embrace, Shot seemed to finally recognize the existence of the one non-horned pony of the group. “And I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met, miss…”

“Adagio Dazzle,” said Dagi with politeness, holding out a hoof. “I’m Sunset’s long-lost cousin from Canneighda.”

“Corner Shot, at your service,” the pool shark replied, taking and shaking the offered hoof. “Gotta say, though, I’m curious as to why somepony from Canneighda who isn’t playing pool would want to be here—I know some ponies think knocking balls around with sticks is kind of a total bore.”

Dagi shrugged. “What can I say? I’m certainly not one of those kinds of ponies, rather I’m a fellow pool-playing aficionado myself.”

“Awesome, so I’m guessing you’re all here to watch me mop the floor with North Shores, eh?”

“Uh-huh!” Razz and Sunset answered in unison.

“Well, then,” grinned Shot, “let’s get to it!” Right as Shot was out of earshot, Dagi leaned in to Razz.

Razz and Adagio exchanged looks as Corner started preparing for the game. Adagio’s hard glare was met with a questioning look from Razz, and Sunset gave them both a glare that stopped any further escalation.

*CLICK*

Red light filled the bathroom, normally rather spacious for a typically-sized pony, but for the large stallion whose natural coat made him almost blend into the walls now, it was a bit on the tiny side. The sink was lined with black plastic from garbage bags, a mix of chemicals sitting in the bowl, and on the closed toilet seat a neat stack of photographs ready for developing.

Making sure that the door was locked, Nineball took a deep breath before setting to his work. With skill drawn from having taken many pictures before, he used a special pair of mouth-operated tweezers to pick up each picture from the top of the pile and gently dropped each slip into the waiting chemical bath. One by one, the white began to melt away into shades of black and gray, and images of ponies began to materialize. Corner Shot. Coco Pommel. And of course, Raspberry Beryl along with her bird Heliodor. All the shots of Raspberry seemed to be satisfactory to Nineball, who almost lovingly hung up each one of the pictures to dry on their own exclusive clothesline. But if one of the other two ponies ended up being more in focus, then he merely grunted before hanging them up on a different clothesline. He’d burned through an entire roll of film and so he had a lot of photos to develop and evaluate for reasons only he was privy to. But film was expensive, and every bad photo was a little more pocket change having gone out the window.

Razz and her pet are so photogenic, thought the massive red stallion, but neither of those other two mares seem at all as naturally talented for the camera. But then it hit him that maybe he wasn’t just a bad shot when it came to them—that something was a little too consistent when it came to what made all their shots poor quality.

For Coco, every shot she should have been in focus, she was actually somewhat blurry…but only her. The rest of the picture was crystal clear. In every shot of her.

And as for Corner Shot, he’d written off all of her photos as it seemed every time she was in focus, her wings were strangely always in motion or something else that didn’t look correct.

As he looked from photo to photo, the consistent errors slowly stopped looking like errors with the photo…and errors with the mares. And whereas Coco kept showing up blurry for some reason, it was the realization that he had not been a bad shot when it came to Corner Shot that struck him cold, that something far more shocking about her had been hidden in plain sight the whole time.

“One…four…seven…ten…thirteen…” counted Aria Blaze.

Now reunited at the pool hall, the triplets quickly and covertly compared notes and had all mutually come to the same conclusion: Corner Shot’s behavior was not the same as what a pegasus like her would be expected to behave like.

“What are you counting?” Sonata inquired.

“Watch Corner’s wings when she ‘itches’—something seems a bit too routine about the way she’s doing the itching.”

“You saw that, too?” conferred Dagi with a raised eyebrow. “I was thinking the same thing but it seems too random and attention drawing for something disguised as a nervous tic.”

““two…five…eight…eleven…fourteen—yeah, but for all that we’re highly trained, you gotta remember at the end of the day, we’re still human. Corner isn’t.”

"Well, think about that course we took on VLS systems. VLS-enabled destroyers don't fire their missiles in sequential order, but staggered, so they don't do burn damage during the hot pop."

Sonata, the gearhead of the trio, watched Corner intently. "Yeah, but you're thinking vertical. That order would definitely sound like something from an ABL unit, like a Mark 143."

“A what?

"A Mark 143—something like what the US Navy uses for their Tomahawks." Sonata nodded her head that way and said, "If she's got something like that under her wings, for whatever reason, it would have to be based on that. From what I can see of pegasi wings, they don't operate well enough for a pod design."

Aria shook her head in wonder. "And people think you're the dumb one."

Sonata grinned. "Well, I don't know everything, sis."

“You okay, Corner?” asked North, after his opponent had cleared a third table and making the score three-to-one in her favor.

“Yeah, I’m fine, so don’t try psyching me out when I’m kicking your butt.”

“No, seriously, that wing-itching of yours is on serious overdrive today—more than I think I’ve ever seen it.” He looked with genuine concern at the mare who he held a friendly rivalry with, even if she tended to always beat him. “This doesn’t have anything to do with that little spat I heard you had with some other mare yesterday, does it?”

“N-no, it doesn’t.” Internally, Corner swore. Guess Nineball wasn’t the gentlestallion he claimed to be.

North sighed. “Yes, it does, you aren’t exactly a mare who keeps secrets well, Corner.” As she walked over to the waiting sideline as it was now North’s turn to set the table and break, he stopped her by putting his hoof on her withers. “Seriously, I think this tournament’s been more of a load on your mind than any before, I’d hate for my suspicions that you’ve got some major insecurity problems to be right and that you go out because your head just can’t get in this game.”

Corner chuckled. “I thought you were my opponent, not my therapist!”

“Hey, it’s not fun losing to you if you’re not actually giving me the dignity of your full attention,” flatly said North, before taking his cue stick in hoof and trotting over to the table. Shaking her head, Corner simply just left her wings unfurled—they needed a break—and sat down at her seat.

“Hey, what’s Corner Shot’s…er…tramp stamp?” asked Sonata.

“You mean ‘cutie mark’ I think,” corrected Dagi, who frowned distastefully at the words.

“Cutie mark? You mean like that show on Cartoon Network—Filly Funtasia?”

“You watch that?” Aria asked.

“Actually, I caught Spike watching it one morning,” the youngest triplet replied. “I promised him I wouldn’t tell anyone, but hey, we’re not anyones right now, so that doesn’t count, right?” She turned back to the oldest triplet. “So...why cutie marks?”

“Hey, I don’t name the things, I just remember whatever Sunny says and try to adjust to this surreal situation we’re all in,” Adagio said with a shrug of her withers. “But to get back to your point, yeah, that’s weird. I’m guessing it’s pool related?”

“I dunno,” said Sonata, “it kinda looks like some weird dude in a party hat if you ask me.”

“Well, this is the mare you’re saying has missile launchers for feathers,” replied Dagi, “so having some weird butt art isn’t out of the question I guess.”

Meanwhile, Corner’s wing itch flared up again and Aria was right on the mark to count them. “Three…six…nine…twelve…fifteen…”

“Stop the bats! Stop the bats! Make them go and not come back!” lightly sang Coco as she did her best to finish off repairing or, in some cases, refabricating, some of the older costumes the Four Footed Performers had stowed away in their stagecoach and, in a previous stop, found a rather unwelcome infestation of parasprites had done a fair bit of damage to the outfits while in storage. Fortunately, during this pool tournament, the plays they were able to put on attracted large numbers of ponies and so brought them a lot of revenue. Hence why they were able to keep affording Miss Rarity’s (and by extension Coco’s) services as even the Element of Generosity could only go so far when it came to making ends meet through this kind of work.

Which, Coco did note, seemed to rely on a fair bit of luck when it came to Rarity’s clientele not exactly matching the demographics Carousel Boutique was situated in. Most industry experts in the fashion magazines Coco read would swear that Ponyville pre-Twilight Sparkle would have been literally the worst place for a seamstress looking to place herself among the elite tailors of the country. Heck, if she recalled correctly, Rarity had said her first big customer Hoity Toity had only come upon hearing of a fashion show taking place in a town he was traveling through at the time and he had no better plans. While Rarity herself was not totally to blame for what was a disastrous first showing, even with Twilight pulling some of her social class weight around to convince the fashion reviewer to give Rarity a second try, it was lucky he’d not just left town immediately after something pretty offensive or so the rumors had implied.

Then again, Rarity was nothing if not truly gifted in her talent as a fashionista. While at the time during Fashion Week, Coco couldn’t express anything but subservience to that bitch Suri Polomare, the truth had been the younger pony had been awestruck by Rarity’s second batch of dresses being both made out of things found out of a hotel suite of all places and yet so distinctly upper class in feel that it was no wonder she won.

At the same time, Coco felt that maybe she too had been a winner. Not in the usual get-a-trophy sense—that had been Rarity’s time in the limelight—but for Coco it was getting free of Suri once and for all. As much as the earth pony hated to admit it, she had probably been drawn to Suri more or less due to seeing similarities with her own mother, who for reasons beyond Coco’s control was something she felt naturally attracted to as being subservient. Part of those fears still manifested now that she was in Rarity’s service, though for the opposite reason of Rarity being an older mentor figure Coco had wanted all her life. And the part where Rarity didn’t constantly demand to be fed tributes of coffee was a bonus, too, for Suri seemed to just live off that stuff. Coco personally didn’t care for coffee, even just the smell of it had a strange reaction where she would feel tired. In fact, she felt really exhausted right then and couldn’t help but involuntarily start leaning toward the side, in danger of falling off her stool, as her eyes struggled in vain to stay open.

“Coco, darling, are you quite alright?” came the distinct accent of the Boutique’s owner. Before Coco could respond, she was wrapped in a rich blue magic aura and found herself righted in her seat. Soon enough, Rarity was by Coco’s side. “My word, you look absolutely dreadful! Have you not been sleeping well? Why, those bags under your eyes, I’m simply a terrible hostess-slash-employer for not noticing those sooner!”

“Huh? Oh, no, nononono, these aren’t bags under my eyes!” quickly explained Coco, who then used her tail to quickly wipe away what Rarity could have sworn were genuine signs of sleep deprivation. “It’s just, uh…grime! Yeah, working with these old costumes, can’t wash them normally because Celestia probably wishes she doesn’t know what they’d do to your laundry until they’re properly repaired, right?”

“Ah, I see…” was all the unicorn could say. In all honesty, after losing one of her favorite sweaters to Sweetie Belle’s…enthusiastic assumption that literally every article of clothing Rarity owned could go into a hot water spin cycle, Rarity was always one to err on the side of caution in making absolutely sure she didn’t end up repeating that mistake with clothing she actually was going to sell off.

That’s when she saw the trash can. “Coco…are you…spitting…into that can?”

Alarmed, Coco glanced down at what she realized had been serving as a makeshift spittoon for her while she’d been working. While it wasn’t turning into the unsavory receptacle that a tobacco chewing pony spit would create, it was still kind of questionable why Coco of all ponies was spitting into a trash can for undisclosed reasons. “Uh…,” stammered Coco, rubbing her hooves together, “I can explain…”

Sighing, Rarity raised a hoof to silence the younger mare. “No need, I know exactly what’s going on here.”

Coco immediately blanched. If Rarity knew what was actually going on to the point she knew the truth about the spit, then it was all over for—

“It’s sort of my fault, really,” continued the alabaster fashionista, “because I got you that job on Bridleway.”

“W-wha?” Coco was taken aback at the completely unexpected comment. She’d absolutely loved working on Bridleway, that had been a once in a lifetime experience! “Miss Rarity, it’s not your fault at all, I loved that job!”

“Oh, I’m not saying it was the better path for you, darling, it’s just that I failed to at least impart some hard-earned wisdom about working that kind of occupation. This spitting thing obviously isn’t intentional on your part—you picked up the habit from some other ponies who work backstage on Bridleway. I bet you weren’t even aware you’d been spitting, right?”

“Uh, n-no! Total surprise!” lied Coco.

“Indeed, it shouldn’t be long before you naturally stop doing it—because I insist that you stop working and go take a nap!” Rarity then looked hard at the understudy in her employ, but in a motherly, caring sort of way. “Believe me, darling, I can tell you’re exhausted—probably from that little spat you had with Corner Shot or whoever yesterday, can’t say I understand why but that’s your personal business and not mine—and you’re probably spitting out of exhaustion, hence your use of bad habits you didn’t even know you had!”

Coco vigorously shook her head. “No, honestly I’m fine! I owe you so much, Miss Rarity, and I want to prove that I’m worthy of working for you!”

To that, Rarity laughed. “Oh, Coco, if you must know, you already did that back in Fashion Week.”

“R-really?” Coco felt a little relieved—she’d worked her ass off on making sure those dresses met Suri’s exacting standards and while ultimately she still got said ass chewed out when Rarity’s ‘hotel chic’ line proved better in the end, the fact Rarity had actually been impressed with what had initially been a fashion-based proverbial slap in the face, much less recognized Coco’s hoofiwork quality, made the earth pony feel much better about the incident in retrospect.

“Of course! But you were only able to make such magnificent dresses when you were at the top of your game, dear. Not when you’re slaving over old costumes, spitting into a trash can without even realizing it, and almost falling off a stool. Suri took you for granted, but I don’t, and I intend to prove to you that I’m still the better mare to work for. Even if I have to levitate you myself all the way back into your room to do it.”

Blushing, Coco said nothing but took the hint—as well as being grateful for the chance to catch some much needed sleep. Starting when she hadn’t even made it five steps toward the stairs before passing out from sheer exhaustion. Chuckling, Rarity made good on her promise and used her magic to carry the tired Coco all the way to the guest bedroom, complete with sheet tucking and door closing.

She’s such a treasure, thought Rarity. And she’d give Applejack a run for her money in the dedication to hard work department! The smiling unicorn then had a moment of panic as, inexplicably, she felt a passing feeling of wooziness go through her.

“Oh, my, taking Coco up here must have been a bit more taxing on my magic than I thought!” said Rarity to nopony in particular. Rarity was no stranger to lifting heavy things—indeed, the only time she ever acknowledged having fallen in love with a giant boulder she’d named “Tom” for some reason was when she felt like boasting about her strong telekinetic abilities—but for a slightly smaller-than-average mare like Coco, it felt like she’d just lifted what she’d presumed to be Coco’s weight plus the hypothetical additional weight of a certain trio of fillies on Coco’s back. But ultimately the moment of lightheadedness was soon over and Rarity just shrugged it off. Maybe it’s just that earth ponies are heavier than they look.

“Jeez, I get it, you’re sorry!” chuckled Razz as both she and Corner Shot walked back to the Retreat together. “Honestly, you’re starting to give me flashbacks to how I was over a year ago when my big secret got out and I somehow kept making problems for everypony left and right. All that I could do was run around apologizing to everypony!”

“Hey, you’re a princess in pretentiousness or whatever, right?” asked Corner, “Doesn’t that mean you can get away with whatever you want, basically?”

“Princess in pretense, thank you, and no, if anything the fact I’m only even that because my bloodline traces back to Sombra makes ponies distrustful of me, even now.” Razz then shrugged. “But that also was only really a problem for me back when I was still unsure about being little miss Sombra in public and every other town I’d been to trying to skewer me with torches and pitchforks before too long. I’d say having been able to finally put down some roots here in Ponyville and having an actual life for once really has made me more self-confident.”

“Yeah, to be honest I can’t really see you as being a scaredy-mare running around to everypony and apologizing for the fact you were born. It’s not like you could’ve done anything about that, right?”

“No, it wasn’t me being born, it was…” Razz sighed and proceeded to give Corner a shorthoof version of the events leading up to the murder of her abusive father and her departure from her hometown. It was as painful and tedious to her as all the other times she’d needed to tell the story.

Corner raised an eyebrow in interest when Razz was finished. “So you’re saying that by embracing the darkness within you, it did in effect lead you on a better path in life?”

Razz stopped in her tracks, wide-eyed. “Corner, you do realize how fucking creepy that sounded, right?”

The pegasus blinked, then chuckled with embarrassment upon realizing what the unicorn had meant. “Oh, uh…yeah, sorry, probably could have phrased that better.”

“I’d say.” Razz proceeded to keep going forward while shaking her head. “In a sense, yes, being forced to use the dark magic within me did save my life, but only because my special talent is being immune to dark magic’s corrupting backlash—even then I can’t just rest on my laurels and assume I can use dark magic like Twilight uses any kind of magic. Just because my dark magic can’t affect me any more than it’s already made me look like a demon in the physical sense doesn’t mean it won’t gravely impact other ponies if I’m not careful. And I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anypony—sudden physical changes that permanently alter how you have to live your life suck.”

“Yeah…” said Corner, though Razz thought she caught something in the other mare’s tone that implied the topic wasn’t entirely something unfamiliar to Corner. But any idea of pursuing that line of discussion ended when immediately afterward, the duo had reached the front of the Retreat. “Well, whatever the case with you is, Razz, I’m glad I can call you a friend—being somepony who isn’t as lucky as you to settle down or have a stable set of friends to hang out with, I’m glad I can at least say you are one of the closest friends I have.”

“Aww, thanks!” Razz hugged Corner Shot in response, which caught the pegasus slightly off guard and a bit unsure of how to respond when Razz let go—fortunately, that was a decision Corner didn’t need to make when Razz then said “Anyway, I think I’m going to turn in early for tonight.”

“Yeah, me too. Gotta get plenty of rest so I’ll have enough energy to take on Nineball tomorrow—North Shores may be a tough customer, but just because I could easily beat him doesn’t mean he’s even remotely in the same league as that big red buffoon!”

“Well, you know I’ll be there to see it! Night!” And with that, Razz headed off to bed. Corner didn’t immediately follow, instead choosing to remain just outside after hearing the signature cry of a certain phoenix and then watching the green-and-gold avian return from his evening dinner hunt, soaring just out of view to presumably reunite with his mistress at her windowsill.

Wish I had a bird like that, mused the pool shark as she finally headed back inside and up to her own room. But unlike Razz, Corner’s night was not over. There was some business she still needed to take care of—business she knew her friend would not approve of if she knew the truth. Corner waited until nightfall, relying on the cover of the evening before silently opening her room’s window and proceeding to fly out for a little nocturnal exercise. But not before making sure her trademark pool cue hairclip was in place—it would be disaster if she lost it for so many, many reasons this night.

Sighing as she shut the door behind her, Razz knew it was time to enter the nightmare that was The Rose with the Broken Neck. She had a bad feeling about what that ‘Mangle-Leg’ was going to be involved with - because it was obvious it was nothing good - and if it was some problem Razz would need to clean up, now was the time to learn about it beforehoof.

DAY 141:

It is not every day when the first thing that catches my attention in the morning are the clanging of alarm bells. Though it is the war alarm that was sounded, a quick psychic rifling through the various scrying crystals I have stationed throughout the lands indicates that no, that it is not such – my realm is safe for now.

Still, the alarms can only portend one of two things…and as Sable heads to my front door to inform me of the alarm, I know – at least for now – that it is not him I should worry about.

As I reach the dungeon halls where I keep her, I immediately notice something is wrong – though in retrospect I think I should note that I sensed it long before I saw any actual signs of concern. My hooffalls become a gallop, and as I reach the door to the Rose’s cell, I see that it is broken. I immediately send out a call for more guards, and as I reach the shattered portal I quickly cast a shielding spell.

It is the only thing that saves my life.

Just mere inches from my left eye, I see the Rose, her eyes full of venom and hate, brandishing a broken unicorn horn, her intent clear as day: to stab me with it and end my life. I cast a second spell to immobilize her, and as I do, I see behind her, crumpled in a puddle of blood, the owner of the horn: Sgt. Black Granite. She had been a loyal soldier to the end and one I had considered promoting to ensign. Now she will have a promotion to coronet, instead – as I bury her with honors.

Wasting no time, I slam my foe against the wall. “Did you really think you could harm me, fool?” I ask her.

“YOU TOOK EVERYTHING FROM ME!” I hear her roar at me. “MY LIFE! MY FAMILY! MY FRIENDS! EVERYTHING! AND ONE DAY I WILL KILL YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU STAND FOR, YOU FIEND!” To my surprise, she manages to start moving, despite the immobilization spell and a second later, breaks it completely of her own strength.

In a different situation, I would have to admit, I would be suitably impressed. That spell I’ve used several times to disable or outright cow anypony I’ve used it against and she managed to break through it like a rampaging minotaur. That is nothing less than absolutely wondrous, both because it shows that she has a prodigious mind and strength that I had not expected. All from a mewling, simpering creature that was on death’s door just a short while ago and a terrified kitten not long before that.

Ah, Baldassare, if you only knew what a treasure you’d given me – I wonder if you would have parted with her?

Regardless, insolence must be taught a lesson. Taking her in my magic field once more, I slam her against the wall again, this time face first. I see the spray of blood and from what my studies of the human body have shown, this likely would have killed a lesser one. But now I know the Rose is no lesser. I do not have to fear for her safety.

She is nothing less than dangerous.

A shame, though, that I cannot win her to my side just yet. But so long as the Sisters fear my might and do not attempt to invade my lands outright, I will spend centuries grinding the Rose down, if need be. One does not make an omelet, after all, without breaking an egg or two.

“My patience grows thin,” I warn her. A lie, and we both know it, but I cannot afford to look weak in front of anyone or thing – I am a king, and kings do not know weakness. “Do so again and your life will be forfeit.”

As I drop her to the floor, she turns to look at me, her face a ruined mass of blood, though I know it will mend itself in a few days, as seems to be her wont. But instead of saying anything further or doing anything more, she instead crawls over and takes Cocoa Bean’s tattered hide and cries into it, saying multiple things in that human tongue of hers to the moldering skin. After a while, I realize it has to be an apology.

She attacked me, because of that? Some stupid strumpet I took in and taught a lesson when she became an upstart? I would say this makes no sense, but anypony with any shred of intelligence would see that! Cocoa Bean is dead and what is left of her is just hide and fur, nothing of value at all in this world, and yet the Rose treats it as though it was nothing less than a priceless treasure! Even moreso than the rags of the dress I ripped from her when she first arrived, or the sackcloth she currently wears.

Perhaps I will never truly ken the human mind. It is, after all, alien.

Finally, the reinforcements arrive and my orders to them are clear: I want her moved to a new cell, I want the door on that cell to be heavily spell-imbued, and there will be two guards on duty at all times – one a unicorn, the other an earth pony. Additionally, a platoon shall be on standby at all times should the Rose attempt to escape.

If she does, as regrettable as it is, I may have to end her.

I wonder if I can.

I also wonder what would happen should the Sisters find out about her.

Back at Twilight’s crystal eyesore, the purple alicorn looked at the triplets with a raised eyebrow. “You three are saying that the mare Raspberry just walked to the Traveler’s Retreat with is somehow some kind of elite assassin?”

“Yes!” the three replied in unison.

“I’ve given them authorization to investigate Corner Shot after her altercation with Coco the previous night,” Sunset explained, before fixing her three cousins with a serious look. “I am not, however, giving you permission to arrest and interrogate a high-profile athlete with no real evidence! We don’t need that kind of scandal right now!”

“Plus,” added Twilight, “you three admit that you’re only accusing Corner Shot’s actions as those of covert operations, because that’s exactly what you all would think of first. The wing itching, for instance, is a well-documented medical condition she has, nothing more.”

“But what about the fact she kept looking over to Razz virtually every chance she got?” pointed out Sonata.

“Maybe she’s just got a crush on Razz?” suggested Sunset. “Like, do any of you know which way Corner Shot actually swings when it comes to what she’s sexually attracted to?”

“Look, I don’t give a fuck who she screws, okay?” Adagio commented. “Least of all if it’s the freak—God knows she might mellow the fuck out if she gets her rocks off anyway. My concern is keeping you safe, and I’m telling you what my gut instinct says!”

“Then you three probably should just cool your jets—you’ve been dedicated so much to the idea of being my bodyguards, you’re seeing threats where they don’t exist. Besides, I know you three saw what Razz is capable of even when she didn’t even have access to her full abilities—in the off chance Corner is anything close to that level of danger, I’m sure Razz can handle it.” The maize-coated alicorn then yawned. “Man, I really feel tired after today, so I’m going to bed to prepare for those finals tomorrow.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll join you in that plan,” agreed Twilight, “Spike’s already gone to bed anyway. Goodnight everypony.”

After bidding both their cousin and the Princess of Friendship goodnight, it was just the three SIRENs left in the castle’s main room.

“You think they’re right, that we’re just being too overprotective?” Sonata asked worriedly.

“Well, OPS,” Adagio began before she shook her head. “No, little sister: do you think that protecting family is being overprotective? And I’m not talking about our status as the three senior officers of the SIRENs—I’m talking about us as sisters, and about our cousin over there. All-powerful alicorn or not, she’s just like us: a normal girl, and normal people get protected.”

“Uh...when did we become normal?” Aria joked.

“Plus, there’s the other dimension of this: Sunny’s put in our application to transfer our flag to the REN, and she was told that it’s in process. We’ll stand a better chance of succeeding if we can prove we’re up to the job.”

“Which means?” Sonata asked, though she already knew the answer.

“We need to find out what Corner Shot is up to, and if necessary, shut her down. Those are your orders, understood?”

Both Aria and Sonata saluted as one. “Aye, Captain.”

The antique grandfather clock in the Retreat’s lobby chimed once, signaling that it was now 1:00 am. Everypony had gone to bed and as far as they were concerned, so had everypony else both in the Retreat and the entire town. The front desk of the Retreat was left unhitched with not even the desk lamp left on—there was no reason to expect anypony to come in the middle of the night to check into a bed and breakfast that had NO VACANCY written on a sign put right next to the building’s main name sign.

So as a result, nopony was around or awake to notice the approaching form appear at the door. Silently, the black-cloaked figure slipped through the front door, somehow with enough skill to get past the attached bell. With purpose, the cloaked intruder made a beeline right for one of the private rooms reserved for ponies who worked at the Retreat—specifically the former guest bedroom.

Just as silently as how the front door had been handled, so too did Raspberry Beryl’s door not make even a squeak from the hinges, the stranger framed perfectly within the portal with the sleeping unicorn dead ahead. Heliodor slept soundly on his stand not too far away, but his presence made the intruder shudder slightly—he was the one who generated more concern should he wake up.

Cautiously, the cloaked figure ever so slowly loped into the room, freezing briefly if there was so much as even a creaky floorboard. But the uncertainty the figure held initially started to abide upon reaching the halfway point with success, neither bird nor mare stirring. Unfortunately for the figure inside the cloak, nervousness started to take hold instead—this was something they had really, really not wanted to do but at this point they were desperate and it was like they always said, desperate times called for desp—

The cloaked individual had been so momentarily distracted that they hadn’t realized until too late that they’d accidentally hit an incidental loose crystal Razz had left lying around. The tinkling of the faux-crystal across the wooden floorboards and the ultimate, slightly louder tinkle signaling having hit the opposing wall, might as well have been a gong going off inside a deep cave for how loud it felt to the cloaked intruder.

After what felt like an eternity, the coast seemed to be clear much to their relief. Heliodor had not stirred at all, while the sudden perking of Razz’s ears had proved to not have woken the mare from her slumber.

Close, too close! thought the cloaked one, now under pressure to finish the task at hoof before they made another stupid mistake that would get them killed—or worse.

Everything seemed to be fine, at least, as no further incident occurred up to the cloaked intruder reaching the side of Razz’s bed. This was it. Now or never.

“Please, forgive me for this…” whispered the individual, before within the hood of the cloak a mouth opened up as if ready to attack. And that’s when Razz made her move.

The figure in the cloak didn’t have any clue what had happened, as one second Razz was dead to the world in her bed, then an inexplicable flash of light filled the world for a split second, afterwards leaving nothing but a Raspberry Beryl-less bed instead. Any chance to comprehend what had happened was not given to the would-be attacker, as no sooner had Razz disappeared from the bed, did that same unicorn throw open her bathroom door and in one quick motion encase the lower portion of her would be assailant in dark crystal.

“Y’know,” said Razz, none too happy to be woken up at one in the morning, “you should have just left after you hit that crystal—I’m by nature a very light sleeper.” Approaching the intruder without having been more cognizant in first making sure the threat had been neutralized, Razz didn’t bother hiding her dark magic’s eye-irritating green-and-purple smoke—she wanted the intimidating effect. “Just who the hell do you think you are, barging into my home like this, planning to do…whatever the hell it was you were going to do?”

Razz did not notice the now trapped pony shaking feverishly and trying to now cower in fear of the dark princess—being rudely awoken left Razz’s mind not firing on all cylinders. The fact the intruder did not answer immediately was of more concern to the unicorn.

“Did you not hear me?” snarled Razz, reaching for the hood of the cloak, “JUST WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!”

Throwing back the hood, nothing in the world—or even both human and pony worlds—could have prepared Razz to see none other than a strangely sleep-deprived looking Coco Pommel fearfully looking up at the inheritor of Sombra’s great and terrible power. Now revealed, only then did the trapped mare choose to speak, and there was something about the smile Coco gave that seemed somehow… wrong.

“I…I can explain!”

Chapter 20 - Foe or Faux?

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 20—Foe or Faux?

Things were not going Corner’s way this night, or so it seemed. Against all odds, the very reason she’d bothered to sneak out of the Retreat and risk blowing the lid off everything appeared to have gone missing inexplicably. That had been bad enough. But as she stealthily moved from rooftop to rooftop, drawing closer to the bed and breakfast, she was shocked to find the place almost entirely lit up like a Hearth’s Warming tree. At two in the Celestiadamn morning!

There was no immediate reason for why there was so much commotion going on, but Corner had a sinking feeling about it. Bizarrely, while all the main lights were on, the only distinct forms moving within she could easily identify as guards in typical barding. Why are they patrolling the halls? At least they weren’t patrolling the exterior, which meant it was no problem sneaking back into the room through the window and closing it behind her.

None too soon, Corner discovered, as there was a knocking on the door almost immediately as soon as she had thrown the window’s lock. Having not gotten much sleep doing her “business,” Shot had little difficulty looking like she’d been rudely awakened as she opened the door somewhat jerkily.

“Can I help you,” yawned Shot, “sir?”

“Ma'am,” started the guard with the telltale mannerisms of repeating memorized, generic speeches, “under the authority of Her Highness Princess Twilight Sparkle, the Guard is undergoing an investigation at the moment. For your own safety, please remain in your room.”

“Huh? Princess…Twilight?” Corner was taken aback. What had gone on in this place in less than an hour she’d been gone for? “Is there anything I can do to help?”

The guard shook his head. “I appreciate your concern, m’am, but Princess Twilight has insisted that everypony please remain in their rooms. If there are any questions, you may refer them to the Municipal Offices at Friendship Castle.”

“Oh, ok. Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome. Good evening, ma’am.” The guard then turned and walked down the hall to the next room. Corner closed the door behind her, cursing her luck.

“Dammit!” she swore under her breath, “what’s going on, Razz?” Whatever it was, the guards didn’t seem interested in her, and Corner wasn’t sure whether that was a blessing… or a bad omen.

Meanwhile, in the privacy of Razz’s bedroom, space was at a premium for it was never designed with the intent of holding a maximum of nine ponies and a phoenix with ample leg room. Especially when the subject of them all being there was still encased in dark crystal.

“Alright, Coco,” said Razz, who took a sip from a dearly needed cup of coffee. It wasn’t her mother’s excellent blend, but instead a shitty “just add water!” instant-mix type due to the speed with which caffeine had been required to keep Razz on her feet, let alone remember to put her leg brace on, so the crappy taste did not improve Razz’s already foul mood. “You said you could explain what’s going on here, so spill.”

"I'm...uh...well...looking for gossamer thread!” said Coco with absolutely no belief that her lie would be bought. “Yeah! It's hard to find and I lost a spool around here the other day...."

“Ah’m pretty sure Ah was informed this whole business was about you attackin’ Razz in her sleep,” interjected Applejack, who above all the other ponies valued the need for sleep—she could already assume the impact on harvest productivity this matter was making to the workload tomorrow. “So unless you somehow thought Razz was made of Galoshes-er thead, you’re only diggin’ yerself a deeper hole of trouble by lyin’ to us.”

Divine, who was one of the first on the scene, looked at Applejack. “Just say the word and I’ll have her taken down to the stockades.”

Rarity looked at the captain. “You wouldn’t!”

“I know she’s a friend of yours, Rarity, but I have my duties to do—and a strange pony being where she’s not supposed to be is either a thief...or worse.”

Now blushing a deep crimson—almost enough to make her cheeks match Razz’s normal coat color—Coco looked as if she’d rather just melt away into the floor than meet the gaze of the ponies around her.

“Well, we don’t have all night, so let’s cut the crap and get straight to the bottom of this!” declared Rainbow. Lifting off, she dashed within mere inches of her muzzle touching Coco’s, eyes squinted in accusatorial rage. “Coco Pommel, are you a spy?” Behind Rainbow, Twilight facehoofed and several others rolled their eyes.

“A s-spy?” stammered Coco, “no, of c-course not! Wh-why would I…” her common sense then appeared to take over in her mind as she sighed before mumbling, “Well, okay, technically yes…”

Then who are you working for, you traitor?!” shouted Rainbow, before suddenly getting yanked back by AJ who then silenced RD by shoving her hoof into the muzzle of the pegasus.

“You really need to work on that brain-to-mouth filter, Dash,” chided the farm mare.

Divine facehoofed. “As much as we...appreciate...the assistance, Lieutenant,” he said to Rainbow, “would you let my ponies do their duties?"

“Applejack’s right,” piped up Fluttershy, “you can’t just assume Coco’s a traitor just because she admitted to being some kind of a spy.”

Rarity, still at a loss, tried to reason things out. “Surely there’s more at play here than just trying to kill Raspberry—"

“I wasn’t trying to kill her!” blurted Coco, now so scared she was shivering almost exactly as she had been when she’d been freed from from the Seabrook Arno’s locked freezer. “It’s not like I could anyway: She’s a descendant of Sombra! So long as there’s a drop of magic left in her there’s no way to even permanently harm her!”

Razz then noticeably stiffened. “Now how would you happen to know that loophole, Coco?” The cream-coated mare seemed to shrink even further than she had before as the dark unicorn’s gaze bore down into her. Due to the circumstances, Razz hadn’t bothered putting up her illusion spell so to Coco, it was like a literal pony demon was now evaluating how best to torture her. “The only way anypony would know my regenerative power won’t work if I burn off all my magic first is if they were around when I got my leg injury from a while back—and it was never made public that I have regenerative powers in the first place, either.”

“I…uh, I…” Coco struggled to try and answer. It wasn’t so much she was afraid of just telling the truth, it was the fear of losing the only real ponies she could call friends at that point in her life. But they were getting dangerously close to figuring it out anyway and Coco didn’t know what to do.

“Obviously, whoever she’s working for either also has spies somewhere in the country’s infrastructure such that even something as kept hush-hush as Razz’s regenerative abilities would leak to them eventually,” suggested Twilight, “or whoever Coco works for already knew about Razz’s powers.”

“But, how is that possible?” asked Rarity. “We ourselves didn’t even know Razz existed until a few years ago, much less her unique connection to the darker side of magic. Even then, the only pony with enough knowledge about dark magic that could even think that Razz had such powers is Razz herself, you appointed her the ‘Grand Archmagus of Equestria for Dark Magic’ for that reason!”

“Ah dunno,” interjected Applejack, “maybe Coco’s workin’ for the Changelings—those pockmarked locusts seem to know too much anyway.”

“Well, we have to make a decision,” Divine said. “Twi, my recommendation is that we place her under arrest until we get more answers. Even if by some coincidence this is nothing more than just a mistake, once the news gets out it could cause serious problems for the town. Best to overthink the problem than to potentially miss a warning sign.”

“As reluctant as I am to do so,” Twilight said, “you know what you’re doing, Div. I’ll leave it in your hooves.” She sighed. “I just hope Sunset doesn’t find out about this.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s a friend of mine and has a very protective streak. Remind Razz to tell you what she did the last time there was a minor misunderstanding.”

Razz rolled her eyes. “Yeah, was that a fun time. Not.”

Any further discussion was halted when everypony finally noticed Coco had apparently started cramping up. Whatever was going on, it was enough to make the poor mare start tearing up and Razz immediately removed the dark crystal holding Coco to the floor, thinking that was the cause. But the real cause, as it turned out, was entirely unexpected and yet unintentionally predicted.

Chrysalis emerged from what had been her forces’ temporary headquarters and made her way toward what had been a rapidly growing hive. Only it wasn’t one of her hives and as soon as Chrysalis had learned of its existence, she’d launched an all-out siege to squash this rising problem like a bug…literally speaking. She was getting lax in recognizing would be usurpers in her own camp, as evidenced by how the bodies of slain enemy changelings had already shifted their alignment colors; from the teal that most Changelings—her changelings—wore, to a kind of burnt pumpkin orange that no doubt was claimed by the latest pretender to the Black Throne. She could only hope the majority of the survivors would see reason and shift back to her colors, she never was one to like pointless changeling-on-changeling violence.

Within the hive, she was pleased to see her forces had taken care to do minimal collateral damage to the cavities within—the hive was still useful as a remote colony breeding ground, which saved a lot of work on Chrysalis’ part from recovering losses thanks to all this infighting. Less pleasing was the disproportionate number of dead orange changelings to live ones held prisoner by her loyal teal changelings. So much slaughter filled her life even now, but she’d long since stopped thinking it was anything other than a natural law she had to deal with. Only the strongest would survive, or however it went.

“My queen,” said one of her changelings—Thorax she believed his name was, more notable than most in how he wasn’t trying to proverbially kiss her ass all the time, but he was still loyal which was a rare commodity these days—as he descended from a higher level. “We’ve captured the false queen Capillo, but she demands to see you before she surrenders.”

Chrysalis sighed, she already knew this song and dance. “Fine, take me to her.” Following her subordinate, it was only a few minutes later that a wall of teal changelings all facing away from Chrysalis parted. Backed into a corner, numerous cuts in black and orange carapace seeping the green blood of changelings, was “Queen” Capillo.

As was always the case, the chittering voices of her hive filled Chrysalis’s mind. The sensation of their thoughts and emotions moved with her own, ebbing and flowing like a stream. It was not so when a part of the hive was splintered, but still connected. Then the hive mind was more of a tempestuous ocean, roiling so chaotically that Chrysalis almost didn’t hear Capillo when she spoke aloud.

“So, come to see me die?” taunted the wounded leader. Even when the hive mind was calm, it was still difficult to pick out one voice from all the others, which made analogue communication a necessity.

“Yes, because you apparently asked for me to come see you,” flatly stated Chrysalis, not in the mood to be all haughty as she had once been in these situations. All she wanted was to end the storm of noise stampeding through her head. Alas, she had an image to uphold, and mentally prepared herself to once again engage in tiresome theatricks.

“Well, I wanted to see what passed as queen material before I killed you,” scoffed Capillo.

At that, Chrysalis laughed, already adopting the haughty and powerful presence expected of a queen. “Was that a threat, grub?”

Capillo shook her head. “A challenge. You are unfit to rule, Chrysalis, and I invoke my right to an honorable duel. It should be me who sits on the Black Throne, or hell, even Mandible! But you aren’t even—ack!” Capillo tried to stand, but Chrysalis placed a hoof on her back and held her in place with seemingly no effort at all.

You wish to challenge me?” Chrysalis taunted with a chuckle. “Poor grub, you can’t even stand! This duel has already been decided.”

Capillo coughed up a wad of green ichorous blood. “It isn’t about winning….”

“Of course, it’s about defiance,” Chrysalis said blaisely. “Do you think you’re the first would-be usurper to try to face me in a hopeless last stand? Better changelings than you have tried.” Chrysalis bent down so she was eye level with Capillo and gave her a cruel smirk. “Do you think history is going to remember ‘the last stand of Queen Capillo’? Or that I’ll see your face on the enemy to finally strike me down? Ignorant fool. I’ve dealt with so many traitors and usurpers over the years that all of their names and faces blend together, and yours will soon join them in obscurity. I doubt I’ll even remember this conversation tomorrow.”

Chrysalis wished she could relish the growing despair on the other changeling’s face, but all she felt was tired. She just wanted the storm of thought to become a stream again. Then to her surprise, Capillo’s despondent look gave way to a weak smile.

“So many snakes in your garden, huh? What does that say about you?”

“That I need a better exterminator.” With that, Chrysalis brought her hoof to the lesser changeling’s neck and brought it down with all of her might.

Capillo’s neck gave with a sickening snap, and her entire body spasmed, her limbs twitching once, twice, three times, before she was still. Giving a nod to her drones, Chrysalis ordered each of Capillo’s orange hued changelings prostrated before her as she approached.

“DO NOT FORGET WHO OUR REAL ENEMY IS. WHILE WE ALL SLAUGHTER EACH OTHER, EQUESTRIA GROWS STRONGER BY THE DAY!” Chrysalis proclaimed, her booming voice echoing through the twisting tunnels around them. “They were weak and defenseless after their war with Tirek, but thanks to the efforts of this one—” Chrysalis gave Capillo’s body a nudge with the same hoof she’d killed her with, “—and of her part-time ally Mandible, we were too busy fighting each other to capitalize on Equestria’s vulnerability. Now their might grows stronger—they even have another alicorn princess in their ranks!

“This will be the last time our own infighting will distract us from our true goal. Do any more of you wish to challenge my rule, and continue to undermine changeling kind itself? WHAT SAY YOU?

There was only a moment’s hesitation before every orange changeling gathered before her flashed in green flame and changed their colors back to Chrysalis’ teal green. The roiling storm of the hive mind lessened, and Chrysalis found herself able to hear her own thoughts again. There was still discord in the hearts of her changelings—she supposed there always would be—but at least the noise was lessened.

Then Chrysalis saw one among Capillo’s number who still hadn’t reverted their colors. To her surprise, it was a small grub—freshly shed their first skin by the looks of it. Before Chrysalis could act, however, one of her own stepped towards it—Thorax, she realized.

“Ocellus,” Thorax said softly, and Chrysalis immediately noticed a certain… intimacy between them. “Change your colors.”

The little grub—Ocellus—wavered for a moment, then looked over at her with a glare. In that moment, the discord in the hive mind increased tenfold so it was almost as tumultuous as it had been before, and Chrysalis wondered if she was going to have to squash this mere infant before the others were finally well and truly back in line. Then Thorax held Ocellus’s gaze and something unspoken passed between them. With a defeated sigh, the little grub shifted her own pumpkin-orange colors to Chrysalis’s teal green. The hive mind became a stream once again.

Chrysalis smiled, though it was more of an automatic response at this point than from any actual joy. At least one of them would betray her again eventually down the road. Someone always did, and that little Ocellus had come very close to openly defying her. And then there was her apparent close relationship with Thorax. She would have to look into that later.

It was as Chrysalis was leaving the now quiet hive that she saw another contingent of her changelings approach—ones Chrysalis vaguely recalled sending to Nightshade. She spoke to the changeling in charge—Pharynx she believed his name was.

“Report. Did you find Mandible?”

Pharynx shook his head with a neutral expression. “We dug thoroughly through the remains of the hive near Nightshade but found no sign of Mandible. It seems likely she escaped its destruction.”

“Pity,” Chrysalis mused. Mandible had been a far more annoying thorn in her side than any of her previous usurpers had been. Mandible’s attack on the Seabiscuit Arno had very nearly removed a small but crucial piece from Chrysalis’s board. Fortunately everything had worked out, thanks in no small part to some much larger pieces of hers. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. It will take time for Mandible to recover her strength: more than enough time I need to see my plan through.” She turned her full attention to the changeling before her. “Pharynx, I want you to oversee what remains of our infiltration operation. When the time comes, we need most of their ranks to be our own.”

Pharynx bowed low, but there was a certain… insincerity to it that Chrysalis didn’t like. Or perhaps I’m just seeing traitors everywhere I look now.

“It shall be done, My Queen.”

The seven ponies and phoenix looked at Coco Pommel in complete and utter shock. Now freed from the dark crystal, the only thing hiding Coco’s body from the crowd was her cloak, but most of it had been knocked off when two teal wings had spontaneously sprouted from Coco’s back: two translucent, insectile, pockmarked teal wings.

Where the wings connected only told more of the same story—a turquoise saddle carapace now covered most of Coco’s back as well as wrapping around her midsection. Her tail and hooves also sported holes much like her wings, but their size was considerably smaller than the average changelings—something Razz felt would be worth comparing later, given the real live changeling she’d befriended only a few weeks ago. To finish off the differences, whenever Coco’s mouth was open, her incisors were notably slightly longer fang shapes, but weren’t anything to write home about compared to Razz’s own fangs.

But the common thought between the seven ponies was that for all the differences, this changeling had somehow retained the majority of Coco Pommel’s look. In fact, it looked less like a changeling and more like Coco herself wearing half of a changeling costume with a minor illusion spell for the holes in her body—only part of her body at that, for she notably lacked holes of any sort in her ears and mane.

Rarity was the first to recover from the shock, instead turning to rage. “You mean to tell me that the mare I thought was Coco Pommel all this time…was an impostor?!

“I know you have no reason to believe me, but…I am Coco Pommel, Miss Rarity!” The changeling mare was starting to tear up, clearly pouring emotion into her words now.

“Impossible, I may not have known her long but—"

“Everything I may have said about my parentage, my early education? You have no idea how much I wish any of it was actually true! How much I wish I was a real pony and not some half-bred reject experiment!” Coco was practically sobbing at this point. “Back when I was stuck working for that bitch Suri, I was worried she’d somehow find out, but then I met all of you during Fashion Week and for once in my life I actually had friends and…and…and I just…” Unable to find words, the mare simply collapsed to the floor, sobbing now that the damning truth was out.

“Coco…” gently began Rarity as she approached the form before her. “Darling, please, talk to us…”

“B-but you all hate me!” was Coco’s response. “I lied to all of you about who I really am and—"

“So you’re not Coco Pommel, then?” interrupted the fashionista.

“N-no, I am, but—"

“Then you never lied about who you are, Coco, not once. Now, lied about what you are? Most certainly, but with all due respect to those present, you actually aren’t the first pony who’s done this exact same schtick to us, either.”

“Yeah, if anypony could say that, it’d be you Rarity—after all, you’re the one who makes use of our services for your business, right?” snarked back Razz.

“Fair enough, I suppose.”

Sniffling, Coco’s waterworks had slowed down somewhat. “I don’t…I don’t understand, this whole time I’ve been trying to keep this under wraps because I was sure the moment you all knew I was some half-changeling freak you’d all hate my guts.”

“As the resident expert of being chased out of towns with torches and pitchforks,” expertly replied Razz, “I can say with certainty the ponies in front of you, Coco, are not those kinds of ponies. If anything, they’ll love and tolerate the shit out of you. Constantly.” Then Razz’s eyes got more stern. “But now that your big secret is out, can you finally tell me why I woke up in the middle of the night to see you trying to do something to me?”

“Oh, um, I know this is going to sound really awkward but…” Coco turned bright red again. “It was because I was going to try and feed on the love you and your pet have for each other.”

“What.”

Coco sighed. “I’m part changeling, I need love to keep up the disguise so I can pass for a normal pony, and while I can store a large amount of love energy for that magic, I’ve been running low ever since we got back from Nightshade and in order to keep a low profile I’ve not had a chance to really fill up again. Plus, hanging around with you and Heliodor all the time, well, I apologize for the comparison but you two have such a bond it’s like you were unintentionally holding triple chocolate sugar bombs made of love just out of my reach. If I’d succeeded, all that would have happened was you waking up later feeling like you were going through a really bad hangover. Please, understand I absolutely did not want to do that, but I’m a little desperate and when I get desperate I tend to also become really nervous and do…non-pony things…”

“Like the spitting?” asked Rarity, eyebrow raised. A few of the other ponies raised their eyebrows in confusion.

Coco nodded. “Yeah, you can blame that on the non-pony part of me, too, since changelings will try to build a protective hive-type structure if they feel nervous or in danger. Only, I can’t generate the kind of substance needed to do that so…all I can do is spit normal pony saliva.”

“Okay, this business about spitting aside,” interrupted Razz, “you seriously weren’t barging in here just to kill me, but to basically recharge your batteries?”

“Yeah!” Coco nodded vigorously. “It would look really bad if I ended up doing the opposite of what Chrysalis said I needed to do.”

“Excuse me?!” said Twilight, immediately catching Coco’s words. “You’re working for CHRYSALIS?!”

“Oh, um, aheheheh…” Coco shrank back, obviously realizing she might not have wanted to mention that detail. “I…I can—"

Divine’s eyes narrowed. “You can explain once I get you into the dungeon.” He waved behind him for two guards to come in with restraint hobbles.

“You will do no such thing,” Rarity told him. “This is a Bearer matter, and we will attend to it, won’t we, Twilight, dear?”

“My duties are to protect you,” Divine reminded the alicorn. “Please don’t make this harder.”

Twilight looked at him. “Div...I’m the Princess of Friendship. If I can’t trust my own court—who can I trust?”

He sighed. “Okay. But if something happens, I will end it and it will not be pretty,” he warned Coco as his hoof went towards where his sword was.

“Yes, yes, we get it, you can be the big bad stallion later!” cut off Rainbow before turning to Coco. “As for you, just stop saying you can explain and actually explain it, will you?!”

“To be fair,” interrupted Pinkie, “she can’t, not right now at least.”

“And why not, Pinkie?”

“Because it’s the end of the chapter.”

“The end of the chapter?” Rainbow gawked. “What are you even talking abou—"

Just then there was a knock at Raspberry’s door.

“Quickly!” said Rarity, nodding toward Coco. Before the half-changeling could react, she suddenly found all the other ponies standing in front of her as if blocking the pony at the door from seeing her.

“Captain?” inquired the guard at the now open door.

“Yes?” Divine responded.

“The guards have completed the sweep of the area to search for any changelings—standard protocol, you know. As it stands, we have found none other than the one changeling that has been given special permission to remain within the town’s boundaries.”

“Ah, excellent, thank you, guardspony,” Divine acknowledged. The guard saluted before departing, with all the ponies sighing in relief after he closed the door.

“Did...did you all just protect me?” asked Coco, stunned.

“Well, duh!” said Pinkie, “you’re still our friend, Coco, just...with a complex problem, that’s all.”

Chapter 21 - Fancy Flies Living Lies

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 21 — Fancy Flies Living Lies

“Coco, just so we’re all on the same page, please…how are you, well…you?”

Coco nervously pawed the ground. “My life story, huh? Well, I do owe you all that much, if not more still.” She paused, closed her eyes, then began. “It started a few decades back when Chrysalis was trying to come up with plans to strengthen her secret presence in pony society. She had—probably still has—agents in places you wouldn’t believe and if I knew any of that information I totally would tell you but—"

“Coco,” interrupted Rarity, “Focus.”

“Ah, right, thanks,” the halfling said, blushing. “Anyway, one of the things she wanted was to make a new type of changeling breed. A type of changeling that was also genetically a pony—that’s the flaw in any existing defenses against normal changelings; they only look like ponies but biologically they can’t pass. So Chrysalis thought that if changelings can assume perfect disguises as ponies, with the cutie marks and the wings—though unicorns are harder as there’s no way to truly disguise their green magic auras—then why not try to blur the line that separates bugs from ponies?”

“Uh, because Ah’d figure she’d have had sense enough to realize y’ can’t just make changelin’s be something they ain’t born as?” said Applejack. “Like, I get you standin’ here shows it’s possible to a degree, but…” The farmmare shook her head, trying to get her thoughts straight. “…but there’s no way you could’ve been born both a pony and a changeling…right?”

Coco looked at Applejack with a sad smile. “Technically, that’s right—as far as I’m aware, my biological parents were both ponies, and it was a mare that birthed me, but…this may sound weird, but I didn’t leave the womb the same way I went in.”

“Do we really wanna go into that detail?” whined Rainbow Dash, who caught glares from everypony else.

“I never knew the ponies that I should call mother or father,” interrupted Coco. “It’s likely they weren’t well off—a laundrymare and a small-time street vendor, maybe?—but nopony would have batted an eye if a pregnant mare as low in social standing as that went missing, abducted by changelings. I presume she was eventually returned home, hypnotized into believing that she’d wandered off and gotten lost in a place like the Everfree—and that the stress of trying to find her way back home caused her to miscarry.

“The truth is she didn’t, though sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if she had. I don’t know the things Chrysalis had done to her, or if she was even the first. All that mattered was she was the last: that the foal she gave birth to was the unnatural fusion of pony and changeling Chrysalis had wanted—me.”

“So, you’re saying that Chrysalis…raised you, basically?” inquired Twilight, venturing dangerously close to “research” mode.

“Just as easy to say that she created me from whomever the baby in that mare was supposed to be,” Coco laughed, though it sounded empty. “Being the abomination of nature she’d been trying to make, you’d think she’d at least treat me like one of her drones, wouldn’t you? She hardly seemed to care I existed, making it no secret all I meant to her was potentially strengthening her armies. She left her higher-ranked drones to be in charge of teaching me the basics—reading, writing, things any foal is taught in school—but all she ever seemed to express in my presence was disappointment, especially when she found out the limit of my camouflaging powers extended only into just hiding the non-pony parts of me and nothing more. And when by some miracle I did manage to get my cutie mark? She merely regarded it as predestined for how I would ‘infiltrate" pony society through the fashion world!

“Eventually, she decided I was ‘ready’ and after setting up a fake background and some financial support, she got me enrolled into The New Stable fashion school and… pretty much dropped all contact. I never heard from her or any other changeling ever again until she somehow found out I was going to Canterlot on the Seabiscuit Arno.”

“Hold on,” interrupted Rarity, “That whole business really was just about you?”

Coco nodded. “Yeah, she thought I was ‘abandoning’ my mission in Manehattan or something—not like that bitch ever told me what that was—but when she learned I’d gotten into the social circle of ‘those six mares that ruined the wedding’ and especially you, Raspberry, she essentially ordered me to play secret bodyguard for you.”

“The hell?” Razz was stunned, and a brief look to Heliodor—who shrugged to indicate the same level of confusion as her—before returning to look at Coco. “I wasn’t even at the wedding. What does Chrysalis want with me?”

“I doubt she would have told me even if I had asked; to her I’m just supposed to be smarter than the average changeling and be a more effective sleeper agent.” Then Coco seemed to shrink back a little as she added “Maybe too good a sleeper agent given the last time I was among other changelings.”

“Yeah, now that you bring that up, was that whole thing back in Nightshade where you were kidnapped by changelings just a ruse to make us believe you weren’t, well, this?”

Coco shook her head. “If it was, I wasn’t told that either. However, I do believe that that hive in Nightshade was actually going rogue—their queen kept demanding that I acknowledge that I knew somepony and just kept getting angrier and angrier after I named all the ponies I know. But if she knew my secret, in retrospect it’s possible she wanted to try and turn me into her own double agent against Chrysalis. It’s probably the bug part of me, but I’m always subconsciously been drawn to following strong-willed females, since like regular insects, Changelings have their queens.”

“Like Suri?” asked Rarity, though her tone indicated an unspoken addition of and me?

Only for Suri,” spat Coco, her distaste for her former boss evident, “but while yes, in changeling terms I have sort have made you my ‘queen’ to serve, Miss Rarity, it’s only because I actually love working for you—my cutie mark and special talent are genuine, even if most of the rest of me is not.”

“At least your talent isn’t more or less concentrated evil,” said Razz with a chuckle. “In all seriousness, though, I think you and I have a lot more in common than you’d think, Coco.”

“You need to feed on love, too?”

“No, apparently I’m a serial pillow killer,” answered Razz, stepping back and opening her closet to reveal the pile of punctured pillows. “I’m guessing you can sleep with your disguise on—I can’t.”

“Raspberry, dear, why didn’t you mention anything about your sleeping issues?” Rarity asked. “I’m sure I can come up with something that could help…” She then perked up and practically sang I~DEEAAAAAA!”

“Rares, focus,” Rainbow admonished. “Anyway, you were sayin’, Coco?”

A thought then occurred to Razz, based on what she’d learned about how Versatile the Changeling had largely come to solve his love energy problem. “Say, Coco, since you’re half-pony, do you have the ability to self-recharge?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

Razz shrugged. “I’ll fill you in on that later, but basically if you’re out of, er, ‘love juice’ right now—because no offense but I’m not letting you suck the love out of me, that sounds all kinds of wrong—how long do you need before you can safely put your disguise back on?”

“Oh, usually just a good night’s rest for two nights is enough,” Coco shrugged. “I…just haven’t been getting much sleep recently because I’ve been working so hard on clothing jobs.”

“I told you that overworking yourself was a bad thing,” chided Rarity. “But now that the danger to you is even more evident, I forbid you from working until your, er, ‘love reserves’ are topped off.”

Coco looked to Rarity with shock. “I’m…I’m not fired?”

Rarity’s eyes widened. “Good heavens, no! When did I say you were fired?” The alabaster unicorn was then promptly tackle-hugged by the overjoyed halfling.

“You just did,” snickered Rainbow.

“Not now, Rainbow,” scolded Fluttershy.

“Well, it’s all nice and dandy that this business with Coco sorta-not-really attackin’ Razz is finished with,” said Applejack, “but what Ah wanna know is why Chrysalis is so interested in Razz. What did Razz ever do to her?”

“Yeah, there’s plenty of ponies out there who could argue they have good reasons to plot revenge against me, but I don’t think Chrysalis is one of them,” Razz mused.

“I beg your pardon, Razz, but I never said Chrysalis wanted to bring harm to you,” Coco said, her sweet voice being made ominous by the words she was speaking. “She actually seemed to want me to protect you.”

Protect me? From what?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” said Coco, stopping her affectionate assault on her boss, “It’s Corner Shot.”

Razz wanted to argue the point. To say that Corner Shot was, despite her faults, a friend, and that she’d have no reason to harm her. But then Razz remembered how suspicious Corner had been acting of late. “Why would Corner want to hurt me? And why would Chrysalis want to protect me?! The more you explain, the less sense this all makes!”

“I know, and I’m sorry. I don’t have all the facts myself—Chrysalis likes to keep information on a need-to-know basis. But I know she has her reasons—she is, after all, a very brilliant tactician.” Several distasteful glares from the other ponies gathered indicated to Coco that complimenting their hated enemy was probably not the best way to gain their trust. “I was just stating an objective fact! Trust me, I probably hate her more than any of you!”

“She nearly married my brother!” protested Twilight., “I was nearly her sister-in-law!”

“...okay, other than Princess Twilight, I have more reason to hate the queen than any of you. But when she told me to protect you, Razz, she explicitly said that Corner Shot was actually an agent for some dark covenant that worshiped Sombra.”

“She seriously thinks those cultist crackpots are somehow involved in all this?” Razz rolled her eyes. “Looks like Chrysalis’ information network has been slacking off, because I took care of that cult months before the war with Tirek. That was several weeks ago!”

“Don’t you mean almost a year ago?” Rarity asked, reminding Razz of the shift in time she’d had to endure..

“Um...yeah.” Razz scratched the back of her head in a very human manner. “Kinda forgot that part. Still trying to adjust to that.”

“Whatever you did, you only took out one of their operation cells,” clarified Coco, “The actual main body remained hidden just to make you think you’d destroyed them entirely.”

“I should have known it was too easy,” the dark unicorn groaned.

“Somepony wanna fill us in on this whole ‘Covenant’ nonsense?” asked Applejack.

“The Covenant of Shadows,” began Twilight, “was—if I recall correctly—a group of like-minded anarchists who sought to restore their idol King Sombra to physical form so he could finish his conquering of the known world beyond the Crystal Empire. After the war, groups of rebels began attacking government facilities in an effort to slow reconstruction. We thought it was Tirek’s loyalists at first, but it turned out to be ponies loyal to this ‘Covenant.’” She then noticed everypony looking weirdly at her. “Sorry, old habit.”

Razz was furiously trying to crunch all the mental data. This is bad, what with Sunset and her cousins in town right now—they barely just finished dealing with that demon Chernabog, getting drawn into another conflict is something they don’t need, especially while the triplets don’t have their usual weapons and are still getting used to pony bodies!

Still, at least there was finally an explanation for Corner’s mysterious behavior.

“This is a lot of information to take in at once,” finally said Razz, before a well timed yawn. “But it’s also like, three in the morning and it’s going to be a crappy day for all of us at this point with what little sleep we have, so I suggest we all get to bed and rest up—most of all you, Coco.”

Coco blushed in embarrassment.

“Yeah, Razz is right,” agreed Twilight, “I’m going to have a bad enough time explaining all this to Sunset and the triplets in a few hours, so if Corner is going to do something to Razz, now we know at least to be on the lookout.”

“Shall I put out a warrant for Corner Shot’s arrest?” Divine Right asked, finally making himself known after spending the past several minutes silently taking everything in.

“It would certainly make me feel better,” Rainbow Dash said.

The other ponies present all voiced their approval, except for Twilight… and Razz. “If we arrest a pony with Corner Shot’s public notoriety, we’ll put ourselves at the center of a huge scandal.” Twilight explained. “The fact is, we don’t have anything on her that’ll stick. At most she assaulted Coco…” Twilight looked at the mare in question. “And if we arrest her on that, there’ll be an investigation… one that will inevitably have to make your big secret public. I take it you don’t want that?”

Coco emphatically shook her head.

“Then we have nothing on her, and she’ll be walking free by the end of the day.”

“And then we’ll have tipped our cards to her, and by extension, her employers—whether it’s really the Covenant of Shadows or not,” Razz added. “Then they’ll all turtle up, and we won’t get any information on what they’re planning.”

Divine sighed. “Then what do you suggest we do, your Highness?”

Twilight looked at Razz, who said simply, “We do nothing.” The look on Divine’s face (as well as the rest of the ponies) said it all. So Razz continued. “We let Corner Shot think her cover is intact… and then wait for her to make her move.”

“Are you suggesting we use you as bait, Razz?” Rarity asked, the worry clear in her tone.

Razz shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s not like I’m easy to kill.”

“But there is still considerable danger to you,” Divine warned. “I don’t care how powerful your ability to heal is. If somepony really wants to kill you… they’ll find a way.”

For one reason or another, Corner Shot was used to operating on minimal sleep. It was bad enough she was still on hooftips over fretting just what the early morning hours situation had been that guards had been warranted to keep the place locked down; for all she knew the guards were still around. After a quick shower, Corner went through the motions of hiding the rings under her eyes—so long as nopony took a super close look or she accidently rubbed her face, it was a passable job.

Mercifully, the number one way to deal with needing more energy than one got through sleep was already waiting in the Retreat’s main dining hall—one damn good brew of homemade coffee. Having stayed at a wide variety of lodgings for rent in her career, Corner had by proxy sampled all kinds of hot, brown water mixtures. Usually, when she had to stay at one-off, locally run establishments like the Retreat, the coffee tended to be a bit heavy in having what Corner charitably would call “The Regional Flavor,” if it wasn’t crappy instant coffee outright, and more than once Corner had seen a bad day get worse all because of one bad cup of mud passed off as a drink. But as she’d come to find out, Cashmere’s coffee blend was one of the best she’d ever had, and deep down Corner knew it was a bright spot in what promised to be a rough day ahead.

“Oh, good morning!” greeted Raspberry as she walked in from the Retreat’s kitchens with a plate of fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip muffins on her back.

Corner then noticed for the first time how not only the muffin-bearing plate, but all the plateware hosting the morning breakfast goods were made out of extremely fine looking crystals of all the colors of the rainbow. It didn’t take a genius to figure out how the Traveler’s Retreat could afford to have such luxurious looking dishes, let alone risk customers accidently breaking any of them—after all, Razz’s cutie mark was sort of a dead giveaway, even if all she’d done was make disguised dark crystal. It also was probably why Razz chose to manually carry things to and from the kitchen instead of just using telekinesis—the last thing any casual pony would want to see first thing in the morning is the food being enshrouded by evil looking dark magic auras.

“Morning, Razz,” replied Corner Shot before taking a big swig of her coffee. Yep, two or three more of those probably needed to go down the gullet before she tried starting the day.

Oblivious to Corner’s need for coffee rivaling Sunset Shimmer’s, Razz finished putting the muffins down before taking a seat next to the pool-playing pegasus. “So, big day today, what with it being the finals, right?”

Corner shrugged. “Yep. Me against Nineball. Kinda wish I’d had the chance to get more shut-eye, though.”

Razz blinked in confusion. “Oh, you didn’t get enough sleep? Was it a problem with the bed, or maybe the—"

The pegasus laughed. “Don’t worry—it wasn’t anything to do with the accommodations, if anything they were what helped me get what little slumber I had. No, it was the guard banging on my door at two in the freakin’ morning just to tell me to go back to bed. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you? Heard from some other people staying at this place that guards were doing the same stupid shit to all the ponies trying to sleep.”

“Oh, that? Yeah, I think that was largely my fault.” Razz faked a blush and rubbed the back of her head. “I had a bit of an…episode…last night.”

“An episode of what? I mean, whatever it was, it required Princess Twilight to send out guards and disturb all the sleeping ponies?”

Razz sighed. “Look, keep this on the down low, okay? Usually, I’m fine with being able to sleep without having to keep my left leg in its brace so long as I put ointment on it first thing after I wake up, but sometimes…well, do you know what ‘phantom pains’ are?”

Corner raised an eyebrow. “Wasn’t that the name of the bad guy with the gas mask from that one Daring Do book nopony liked? Uh, Daring Do and the Philosopher’s Legacy, I think?”

The unicorn shook her head. “I’ve not read any of the Daring Do books yet—though both Twilight and Rainbow said that one sucks—but no, it’s not anything to do with that. It’s a medical condition where damaged nerves will randomly and periodically send signals to the brain that make it feel as if whatever damaged them in the first place is happening again.”

“And you’re saying that happened last night?”

Razz nodded. “Yeah, felt like I was being attacked, even though I was well aware that there wasn’t anything in the vicinity that meant me harm. I don’t like talking about how I got this injury, but all you really need to know is that the thing that did try to gnaw off my leg had powerful jaws—emphasis on had.”

“But what does that have to do with your, uh, ‘episode’ as you say occurred last night?” Razz noted Corner seemed a bit wary after a few choice words about something posing the dark unicorn harm, filing the note away in her memory.

“I consider myself lucky that for the years I wandered Equestria, I never got any lasting injuries that didn’t eventually heal completely, but part of that is thanks to my reaction to any kind of great, sudden pain being…well, dark to put it mildly if you get my meaning.”

“Ah,” said Corner, feeling as if she did get Razz’s meaning—the pegasus had her own involuntary reaction to things like that, but it wasn’t necessary to bring up the details. “Anyway, I think I’ll grab another cup of coffee before I head over to the pool hall to warm up.”

“Same, I have some things I need to finish up here at the Retreat but I’ll be sure to see you kick Nineball’s sorry butt!”

“I’ll hold you to that!” Corner laughed before proceeding to get the next cup of coffee. Razz’s seemingly innocent, yet oddly specific choice of wording had only left Corner ever more on the edge, to the point she needed that last cup of coffee simply to calm her nerves.

“Hey, Big Mac! Big Mac!” a small filly cried out, racing across the pool hall floor. An orange pegasus and light gray unicorn of similar ages followed behind her.

Realizing he was being confused for somepony else—and knowing exactly which pony he was mistaken for—Nineball turned from the table and looked down at the three small fillies. “Can I help you?”

“Ah’ve been lookin’ all over fer―” The first filly, a yellow, red maned earth pony with a cute bow who also seemed to be the ringleader of the trio, suddenly seemed to realize just who she was talking to. “Oh, sorry, thought you were mah brother!”

“How do you know I’m not, er, ‘Big Mac’ and I’m just wearing a disguise to trick you?” he suggested playfully. Most colts and fillies tended to shy away from him due to his size, but not these three. In truth, he actually had a soft spot for children that ran counter to the usual aloofness that was his reputation in pool-playing circles.

“Hmmm, you know, he’s got a point,” said the unicorn, rubbing her chin.

“Yeah, an’ Ah’m secretly a top pool player in disguise, too,” said an approaching stallion who Nineball could only figure was the real ‘Big Mac’ the fillies had been looking for. Big Mac then looked up to address his not-really-similar counterpart. “Ah apologize, Mr. Nineball, Ah hope these three didn’t trouble you too much.“

“Oh, they did nothing of the sort!” chuckled Nineball. “If anything, all they’ve been doing is what most of this whole town has been doing—mistaking me for you, Mr, ah, Big Mac, is it?”

“Eeyup,” replied the apple farmer, followed by the two large stallions shaking hooves.

“A pleasure to meet my doppelganger, it’s not every day I walk around a town and everypony thinks I’m somepony else—the whole thing rather amuses me, honestly.”

For a brief few minutes, the CMC watched in awe as Nineball and Big Mac idly chatted about a few things—namely because seeing Big Mac talk to anypony other than Miss Cheerilee for longer than five seconds at a time was so rare it was thought by the fillies to be a sign of the apocalypse.

For Nineball, however, his pleasurable chat about the pros and cons of wearing giant yokes all the time needed to come to an end when he saw the mare he’d been waiting all day to speak to enter the hall. Bidding Big Mac and the three fillies goodbye, Nineball then proceeded to walk around the hall in order to reset his more intimidating composure before finally confronting his opponent to be.

“Oh, hey, Nineball,” nonchalantly greeted the green pegasus, her mind obviously elsewhere.

“Hello, Corner,” replied Nineball. “If it’s not to much trouble, I’d like to have a word with you in private.”

“Seriously, I just got here, okay? Can’t you at least do the nice thing and let me practice a lit—"

Suddenly, a large red foreleg moved in front of Corner, its owner glaring down daggers. “Please, I insist.”

“Yeesh! Fine, fine,” groaned Corner, who proceeded to follow Nineball into an empty side room, probably one used for birthday parties or boring corporate get-togethers, whatever ponies did at pool halls when tournaments weren’t going on. As Nineball closed the door—something that if Corner Shot wasn’t Corner Shot would have her worried—the mare seemed not to be bothered by saying, “Look, if you’re just going to tell me to forfeit now, you—"

“I know about your wings,” he intoned, and that changed everything.

Corner immediately froze up. There was no way he could know, she’d taken great pains to ensure nopony would ever notice. And until now, nopony had bothered to look deeper into her claims of a chronic wing rash or medical history. “Wh-what are you talking about? Do my wings look like they’re breaking tournament rules?” She fanned them out to back her claim up. “See? All-natural pony feathers!”

Nineball turned, his eyes still solid slits of angry bright blue. “To the naked eye, they look that way, but I have reason to believe you’ve got an illusion spell that cloaks the truth.”

Shit shit shit! Corner was slowly slipping another notch down into panic mode. First it had been the guard at two in the morning, then Razz’s weird word choice at breakfast, but now somepony who shouldn’t even have been relevant to Corner’s other business in town had figured out her secret? Don’t make me have to resort to violence, mentally pleaded Corner in her mind, at the very least I-

Getting right into Corner’s face, Nineball made his move. “You have your wings lined with rubber pads to help with the gripping of the cue, don’t you?”

Wha? Corner took a step back out of shock, wondering what the hell Nineball had heard or found out to come to that conclusion. But if he has convinced himself that’s the truth, then maybe I can get out of this one after all…

“Well, for starters, that’s bullshit and I bet you can’t prove it without simultaneously proving you’ve probably been doing something of a pretty shady nature yourself, can you?” Nineball’s frown becoming more pronounced was just what Corner needed to be her usual, cocky self. “Even if you could, my wings aren’t lined with rubber or anything—that’s against the rules and trust me, having anything on my wings to ‘help’ with grip actually only interferes with it instead. But…” Now it was Corner’s turn to get into Nineball’s face, still bearing her smug grin. “If it will help you sleep better tonight after I beat you, how about I play our long awaited rematch on your terms? With these babies?” She held up her front hooves, while folding her wings back to her sides now that they were unneeded.

For a few moments, Nineball seemed to be mulling the choice over in his head, his great big expose’ plan foiled. Finally, he relented. “Fine. If you really are as good as you say you are, you shouldn’t have any problem playing with your hooves as well as you do with your wings.” Then without further discussion, he opened the door and walked off.

Corner just stood basking in her smug satisfaction for a minute before also departing the room, letting Nineball put distance between him and her. But inside, she knew the stakes were now rising from all kinds of angles, not just the ones she could predict. She was out of time—it needed to be done tonight.

Much to Corner’s dismay, she’d only remembered too late that her hoof-handling skills for playing pool were a bit rusty and hadn’t been practiced in a long time. As a result, the final rounds of the tournament against her archrival Nineball quickly proved to be the hardest series of tables she’d ever played.

What made it worse was the fact that keeping her head in the game had become in and of itself a trial due to her increasing paranoia. Now, being at a pool table in the center of the building, with ponies seated at chairs encircling the one table to watch the finals, the countless pairs of eyes bearing down on her every action was not helping matters.

It was best out of seven, with the first victory going to Nineball easily.

If there had been any small mercies along the way, Corner had taken the unintended warning from North Shores very seriously. Her wings now not needed for playing the game, the urge to scratch was significantly reduced. But her perpetual state of nervousness prevented it from entirely going away, and every time she flared up her wings to scratch, she worried ever more that somepony would notice. That somepony would realize how something as random as incidental rash itchiness was dealt with in methodical strokes. Always five strokes, five places, in sets of three different patterns.

Score: 0-2. He’d taken the second round just as easily as the first.

Dammit, concentrate! Corner scolded herself—somehow, she realized that everything that needed to happen, that she wanted to happen, now lay in the balance of who won the tournament. Ironically, the only pony she knew of who wouldn’t find anything special about her winning it all…was herself.

Score: 1-2. Corner had started to rally at last.

What really was at stake, though? All the crap about winning the tournament was old hat to her now, she wasn’t a well-known professional pool shark without having pocketed a few tournaments in the process, and frankly purely on the merits of this tournament it wouldn’t matter for her reputation if she won or not. Sure, somepony would stir up some shit about how she wasn’t playing with her wings like she had for the rest of the tournament, but she regularly got shit for using her wings anyway and given how she was notably even with Nineball in performance, it could easily be written off as her being “nice” to him, which in a way wasn’t entirely incorrect.

Score: 2-2.

But as she’d thought before, it wasn’t the glory of winning she cared about so much as it was what winning could mean. She knew that among the crowd watching her right now were some of the most important ponies alive. She knew a bit more about the true nature of Sunset Shimmer and her cousins than she really should have, but so long as they kept out of this business they were of no concern. There was also Princess Twilight Sparkle, a pony Corner truthfully suspected was little more than just a puppet of Celestia—she’d practically been groomed for the role of representing the Element of Magic, after all.

Score: 3-2. Corner Shot now took the lead.

Most important, though, was Raspberry Beryl. Every chance Corner got, she couldn’t help but search the crowd to try and find the unicorn she’d befriended. The matchup was nearing the halfway point by the time she’d finally been located.

Score: 4-2.

Everything basically revolved around Raspberry Beryl. It was why Corner had come to the town in the first place. Well, ok, she’d come to town because she was in this tournament, that much was obvious. But it’s why she’d come to town so early—for reasons she didn’t feel totally comfortable about, in retrospect.

Score: 4-5.

Shit! Corner had fallen into the trap she’d kept setting up for herself and had basically let Nineball pull a hat trick by taking the next three successive rounds.

And the fact she’d been so preoccupied about Raspberry Beryl is what worried Corner so much.

Score: 5-5.

Raspberry Beryl…Razz…was special, that much was obvious. Sometimes Corner wondered if even now, Razz understood just how powerful she was by her birthright. At one point, she’d been driven to have Equestria’s entire government entirely at her mercy, ironically getting closer to her ancestor’s ultimate goal than he himself ever had. She might have even done the deed had she not been stopped by a filly of all ponies somehow persuading her not to.

Score: 6-5.

But as a tool of overthrowing the government of Equestria? Corner couldn’t see Razz as just that, a mere extension of Sombra’s wrath from beyond the grave. In a small time the unicorn had become Corner’s friend, a very close friend, and how they could relate to each other made Corner feel like Razz was special in some entirely other way than just her lineage.

Score: 6-6. Final Round.

No, I can’t lose! Corner was now visibly sweating slightly, everything now coming down to this last round of pool. But as the cue sticks hit the balls into the pockets, Corner still was at war internally—had she been compromised? Had she compromised herself? Was she even capable of doing what she knew needed to be done?

Score: 7-6.

She’d won, but just barely—if Nineball hadn’t slipped up at the last moment, it would have gone to him. But as the realization of victory dawned on her, so did a far darker truth: she needed to finish what she’d already started the moment she’d first come to Ponyville weeks ago.

Hours later, following the usual celebrations expected at the end of a long fought tournament finals match, the residents of Twilight’s castle chose to unwind inside the crystal tree and away from the partying throngs in the city streets.

“You’d think the pony Superbowl just finished up and the town’s favored team won,” commented Aria, idly lounging in a somewhat uncomfortable plush chair.

“It’d probably be the Colts,” suggested Dagi with a grin, before turning back to her book—which despite being written by a non-human species, was in perfect legible English—and changing the topic. “But talking more in the present reality, I expect Sunny to be talking with Princess Twilight all night, so it’s just us three we need to worry about tonight.”

“And what?” asked Ari, “we’ve spent so much time focusing on Corner Shot, certain she was a danger, but she’s probably leaving tomorrow and we have no evidence of anything.”

“Maybe we’ve just been barking up the wrong tree?” suggested Sonata. “Maybe she’s just a really nervous pool shark with visible OCD tendencies? There are humans who constantly make sure their little pencils on their workdesks are perfectly aligned--”

“Yes, and we see Twily do that every day,” Aria noted. “Your point is?”

“Who’s to say there’s not a reason a pegasus doesn’t have the same psychological behavior with her own feathers?”

“There’s always the part where she’s not inclined to fly,” reminded Dagi. “Like, are there any other ponies with wings in this town other than Corner Shot who don’t like taking to the skies? Like, Princess Twilight and even Sunny—who has been able to fly for less than a month—seem somewhat drawn to flying around sometimes. And even at today’s finals match, didn’t you notice she wasn’t using her wings this time? I feel like there’s a reason for that. A pegasus whose entire playstyle, whose livelihood, revolves around using her wings to play pool…but she neither behaves like normal winged ponies nor uses her wings when she needed them for a game more than ever.”

“And that’s not even mentioning her apparent knowledge of CQC,” Sonata added, recalling what Razz told them of Corner’s brief fight with Coco.

“Yeah, well, unless we catch her in the act or something, what can we do about it?” said Aria. “It’s not like the answer is just going to fall right into our laps or anything.”

Just then, Heliodor flew in through the conveniently open window, dropping a letter into Aria’s lap before immediately departing.

“Just had to open your big mouth, didn’t ya?” snickered Soni.

“Like you had anything else planned for tonight?” Taking the letter, the ponified human teen held it upright and quickly skimmed over it, her eyes slowly growing bigger before narrowing toward the end. Suddenly, she handed it over to Dagi. “Looks like we’re back on duty.”

“Oh boy, what did Razz get herself into…” groaned Dagi as she skimmed the letter. Finishing, she handed it over to Soni. “Alright girls, this is our chance to prove ourselves to everybody.”

“Don’t you mean everypony, sis?” corrected Soni.

“Noted. But the more important thing is we need to get armed up and out of here. As much as I don’t like that cunt Razz, I’m pretty sure Sunny will kill us if we let something happen to her.”

“So…you’re sure this ‘Everfree Moonlight Lily’ exists?” asked Razz, following Corner into the Everfree Forest in the dead of night and knowing far better than she was letting on.

“Y-yeah! Read it in a book at a library, it’s supposed to be super-rare and only sprouts in the presence of a princess.” Corner, on the other hoof, seemed to be a bit too happy that Razz agreed to the sudden request to go into the dangerous local woods in the middle of the night.

“Remind me why you wanted me to come along and not, y’know, an actual princess? Twilight’s the one with the wings and the horn.”

“Because you’re the closest pony around who has a bloodline that goes back to the true original royal families of Equestria! I mean, sure, it’s Sombra’s but it’s still noble blood even if it’s…yeah, I’ll stop talking now.”

Following her victory over Nineball earlier that day, Corner had waited until the right moment to privately ask Razz to come with her for a favor to investigate a flower—the “Everfree Moonlight Lily”—and cited something about needing royal blood to make it appear. She felt bad about leading the mare on like this, but the forest was the only place nearby where Corner truly felt she could be alone with Razz. Long enough to do what was needed.

The two proceeded in silence afterward for a few minutes before reaching a clearing, the bright waxing moon illuminating the ground below.

“Well, this should be the place,” said Corner, trying to figure out when to drop the bomb. She needn’t have bothered.

“Corner…did you really think I was dumb enough to believe that crap about some magical flower I’d never heard of that needed ancient royal blood or whatever to show up?” Razz’s demeanor had gone from friendly to almost emotionless. That unsettled Corner greatly. “The only reason I actually agreed to this was because you clearly wanted to just get you and I by ourselves away from town. Which happens to be something I found beneficial for my sake as well.”

“I, uh, wha?” Corner had no idea what Razz meant by her last statement and was rapidly trying to take back control of the conversation. Shaking her head, Corner decided maybe now was the moment to make her move. “Look, Razz, how much do you trust me?”

“A lot less than I did when we first met, that’s for sure.” The coldness of the words cut Corner deep as Razz seemed to suddenly become aware of far more than she should have. “You’ve been hiding something from me, that involves me, and I get the impression it’s something you know I’m not going to like very much, isn’t that right?”

“W-what on Earth makes you think any of that is true?” Corner knew she was starting to lose ground, despite being so close to achieving her goals. But seeing Razz, who had been nothing but friendly to her the whole time, just drop it all like a curtain and regard Corner so coldly…admittedly the pegasus knew she was guilty of having done the same thing at this point but if Razz would just let her explain, maybe things would still be alright. The pent up nervousness of the whole day, however, seemed to choose that moment to break, and suddenly all over Corner Shot’s body it felt like it was very, very itchy. Like her very blood veins were itchy. And glancing at the stoic, emotionless Raspberry, Corner could tell that for some reason, the same was happening to her, too.

“Why are we here, Corner Shot?” asked Raspberry. “Why did you want you and I alone, where nopony else could potentially interfere with us?”

“Razz, please,” begged Corner, “you need to understand that you’re meant for greater things, your importance as a descendant of Sombra—"

“So it is true, then?!” Razz shouted, “That you are nothing more than a stooge who works for the Covenant?!”

“I…I…” stammered Corner, already knowing she’d fucked up but good now. How did Razz know about the Covenant? About me working for them?!

“I thought you were a friend, Corner,” continued Razz, who now looked hurt and betrayed and by proxy making Corner feel the same way. “I hoped that what I’d heard wasn’t true, but apparently all I am is just somepony for you to take back to your masters, aren’t I?” With a Rarity-esque Harumph! Razz promptly turned her back to Corner and started walking back toward Ponyville.

I tried, Razz, I really did, sadly thought Corner, finally recognizing she’d burned the bridge of friendship between them and there was nothing to be done to fix it. Silently, Corner opened up her wings, an olive-green colored knife in the shape of a feather materializing at each wingtip, while her eyes narrowed. “Apologies, Raspberry,” intoned Corner, “but you must play your part in the prophecy, even if you have to be convinced through force!” Then in an instant, Corner’s wings pulled back, making the knives catch the light of the moon, revealing the tips having been coated with a liquid—in this case, a fast-acting anesthetic that would make a victim fall asleep in seconds—and taking aim at the pony she’d dearly wanted to not use those knives on.

The knives never got thrown as at that moment, familiar green-and-gold fire erupted from the sky toward Corner, forcing the revealed assassin to quickly dodge and forfeit her shot. Heliodor took one more fierce blast at the pegasus before darting over to roost on Raspberry’s horn, who herself now looked upon Corner Shot with nothing but sadness. Corner wanted to try one more time to convince Razz to see her side of things, but in the blink of an eye the unicorn had teleported away.

“AAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHH!” screamed Corner, stamping the ground with rage. She’d let herself miss every opportunity to use those knives to knock the unicorn out without her ever knowing in time—she shouldn’t have let Razz even speak, let alone get flustered and try to play Ms. Nice Pony. Now she was going to have to resort to more…ugly…methods, but come hell or high water, Razz was going to play her part and Corner would ensure her safe delivery to the Covenant. It was for the best, after all.

But suddenly, there was rustling from all around the clearing, leaving Corner little time to prepare before three familiar earth ponies appeared out of the forest, well armed with swords, daggers, and each a specialty weapon from what Corner could make out.

“Well, well, well,” said the orange one—Adagio something or other, Corner neither remembered nor cared at this point—who drew her sword, revealing it to be a cutlass. “Looks like we might have more in common than a love of pool, Ms. Shot.”

“Indeed we might,” replied Corner.

“I don’t think I need to tell you that you’re going down one way or another, right?” Adagio stated.

“Let’s make it the hard way!” snarled Corner, who then instantly launched more feather knives in the direction of the three other ponies in a quick in-place whirlwind. She was both slightly surprised and impressed to see Sunset’s cousins—if they ever were actually related to her and not just undercover bodyguards to begin with—were able to dodge and re-establish their fighting stances in almost no time at all. Corner would even dare say they might be as well trained as her…but if what Corner’s briefing info said was correct, they weren’t used to being quadrupeds—how that was the case was beyond her, but if it was true, that would be their downfall. “I just hope you three have the skills to at least make killing you worth my while!” Then Corner drew out two new knife blades and charged at Adagio, the battle beginning in earnest.

Chapter 22: FUBMS—F***ed Up Beyond Mere SNAFU

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 22: FUBMS—F***ed Up Beyond Mere SNAFU

Sunset traversed the length and breadth of Twilight’s Friendship Death Star (as she’d privately referred to it more than once), looking for her cousins.

"Okay, where'd those goofballs go? They know we need to get ready to go back home!” Sunset traversed the interior of the castle, searching to no avail for her wayward family. Finally stumbling into the well-stocked library to find her purple-coated counterpart, Sunset asked “Hey, Twi, have you seen those three troublemakers I showed up with?"

Twilight looked up from her book. “No, can’t say that I have. They’re not in their rooms?”

“Nope, looked high and low for ‘em. No dice.”

“Strange, I wonder where they could be at this hour?”

The sound of metal-hitting-metal and feminine grunts rung out from the Everfree Forest, about a mile away from the crystal treehouse.

While Corner only had a limited supply of feather knives at her disposal, her real strategy lay in being able to quickly maneuver around the battlefield and deftly reclaim them. Of course, this also meant she had to constantly keep moving and, more importantly, keep track of where her knives went. The battle had only been going on for maybe five minutes and already she knew three of her knives were unrecoverable until after the fight was done.

But she still had plenty of knives both stored and open on the field, the latter also having the additional benefit of making the trio she was fighting have to keep a mindful watch where they were stepping lest they cut their hooves on the razor-sharp objects. Their awkwardness did appear to be them mostly tripping over their own legs as if they weren’t used to that many limbs on the ground. And they’d all gone for their cutlesses as their first armament of choice—seriously, cutlasses? What was this, something out of a Daring Do book where she fought idiot pirates that didn’t even know how to hold their swords properly?

Even the Royal Equestrian Navy knows that cutlasses are only good aboard ships! Corner thought. Out where the surface doesn’t buckle or roll, deep curved blades are absolutely useless.

Of course, just because they didn’t brandish their weapons right didn’t mean they understood the necessary tactics to use them. With three highly mobile adversaries, Corner eventually had to give up trying to keep her distance as no matter where she tried darting off to, one of the three was already en route to intercept. And while a normal pegasus would easily be able to simply fly up where ground based enemies couldn’t get them…Corner was, unfortunately, not a normal pegasus and this was certainly one of those times where she wished her abilities hadn’t cost her luxuries such as that. It also didn’t help that in close quarters, her only options were to dual wield two of her knives in her hooves—wingtip holding was out of the question as they were too large to not avoid getting hit in that situation—or straight up hoof-to-hoof combat.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Given Corner was still a pony, she had one move that any Equestrian would instinctively know how to use. Adagio found this out the hard way when in the middle of the furious fighting, she suddenly saw two green back hooves deck her square in the face. Despite the relative weakness of pegasi especially when compared to the average earth pony, the ponified SIREN was sent flying a short distance backwards. Crashing to the ground, Dagi lost a hold of her cutlass, which Corner then used the gust from a wing flap to send flying into the woods.

“Dagi!” cried out the blue one, before finding herself Corner’s next primary target.

“Takes more than a buck to stop a SIREN!” shouted back Dagi, who aside from a split lip seemed relatively okay despite having been kicked full-force by a horse. Reaching back, she chose to keep her dagger in reserve and instead went for the javelin, which she skillfully twirled around with her hooves in front of her before touching back down, the pointy stick gripped in the crux of one of her forelegs like how a normal guardspony would hold it.

“Takes more than a stick to stop me!” countered Corner, nimbly dodging a swipe from Aria before sweeping out her legs from under her. Then the pegasus turned and charged right back at Dagi.

Meanwhile, back at the Traveler’s Retreat, Razz was slowly entering into a panic. The plan had been to teleport out of there and let the SIRENs get the jump on Corner before subduing her. Simple enough. Only when Razz and Corner had started to argue, it had been that feeling again. Other than her blood itself feeling itchy, there was no other way to really describe it. But she’d only felt that way once before. Back in Nightshade…right before that werewolf sent by Lockbox had come calling (he had turned out to be a decent guy and profusely apologized about the misunderstanding once everything had been cleared up). And before she’d had to briefly fight Lockbox herself, who proved to be another Scion.

But if the feeling had been tied to Corner Shot…things had just escalated beyond dangerous at minimum and now Razz was looking for the one thing that would ensure she could now save the SIRENs from playing hunters-turned-hunted.

Except she couldn’t find that blasted Alicorn Amulet.

“I know that damn thing is in here somewhere!” she declared, having turned half her bedroom into a warzone. She of course had kept it hidden and its presence in her room secret to all—even Twilight didn’t know about it as she’d never asked after Nightshade and the less who knew about the Amulet’s whereabouts the better—but while she also could sense the dark magics within the amulet, being of Sombra’s blood, all she could discern was that it wasn’t where it was supposed to have been.

One lucky punch later and Dagi was sent spiraling down to the ground, dazed and confused.

“No!” shouted Aria, prevented from running to her sister’s aid by way of a feather knife barely missing its mark on her face. It had gotten close enough to make a small cut on Aria’s forehead, however.

“I’d say the odds got evened,” snarled Corner, “but they never were in your favor to begin with.”

“Wait, hold on,” said Sonata, a puzzled look on her face. “How can the odds be evened, exactly? There’s still two of us and one of you.”

Corner turned and looked dumbfounded at Sonata. “Are you seriously asking that kind of question when I’m trying to kill all of you?”

“Well, yeah,” nodded Soni. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Holy crap, you are the stupidest mare I ever—FUCK!” Corner had made to facepalm, but before she could, a sharp screaming pain suddenly radiated from her flank. Wincing in immense pain, she turned to find a crossbow bolt somehow having lodged itself into her butt, inches away from her cutie mark.

“Now you really are a pain in the ass!” mocked Aria, the fired crossbow still in her hooves. She made to reload it, but then with horror realized two things; 1. Without fingers, she wasn’t as equipped to pull back the drawstring, and 2. That didn’t matter anyway because she didn’t have the spare bolts to reload the crossbow with.

“You’re gonna pay for thaaAAAAAAAAHH!” Corner tried to turn again to rush Aria, but doing so worsened the pain coming from her rear, causing her to slightly crumple in place. Soni capitalized on the chance, being the one to rush Corner instead and with one swift motion knocked the bolt lodged in Corner’s flank into an even more harmful position, tearing the flank brutally, a spray of blood gushing out of the wound.

“Solid hit!” said Aria as her sister stopped on a dime right next to her. “Now…oh.”

Corner was down, but she was far from out. Instead, she seemed to only have reached a demonic level of anger. With a swift motion, she used one of her wings to grip the bolt and then in one strong yank, pulled it from her body without so much as wincing. Then she let the bloodied bolt fall to the ground and, looking both Ari and Soni dead in their eyes, let loose an unearthly scream. This was complemented by Corner’s eyes bizarrely turning green and briefly emitting what looked like purple smoke. Then she vanished.

“Wh-what the…?” was all Soni could manage.

“Great, don’t tell me she can go stealt-OOOF!” Aria was suddenly blindsided by a vicious right hook, flooring her immediately.

“Oh, don’t worry,” hissed the now questionably sane Corner as she glared at Soni, “you’re gonna get much worse!”

“Mmmm!” Coco hummed as she sipped from the bowl in front of her. “This is delicious! What did you say this was? It’s making me feel so much better already!”

“Ah, yes, my grandmother Tasteful Finesse always could cheer a pony up with her Tofu Noodle recipe,” smiled Rarity, “though I don’t know what her reaction would be if I told her it worked on changelings, too!”

Half-changeling, thank you.”

“Oh, yes, I’m so sorry, darling,” Rarity apologized, blushing. “It’s just…”

“Yeah, the love sucking, the wings, etcetera. It makes ponies think I’m a full changeling all the time when I’m not. Kinda gotten used to it now that you and your friends know about it.”

“They’re your friends, too, Coco,” replied Rarity, levitating the emptied bowl away. “Now, get some more sleep, I know you’ve been resting all day so hopefully you’ll be able to get back to work tomorrow—you wouldn’t believe the amount of dresses and suits ponies have brought in needing to be fixed because of party-related damage!”

“Right! Goodnight, my Quee...I mean, Miss Rarity!”

“Goodnight, darling,” the alabaster unicorn said, chuckling at her assistant’s faux pas. With that, Rarity turned and left, turning the lights off as she did so. Coco, meanwhile, just scrunched back under the bed covers and closed her eyes, ready to get more rest. She’d been babied by Rarity all day and while it had been sort of both annoying and awkward—namely where changeling physiology and pony physiology didn’t quite compare evenly in the subject of bubble baths—it was a nice change of pace to be the one getting serviced all day.

Now if she could just get to sleep despite that nagging sensation that somepony was angry. One of the worst parts about being part changeling, Coco had quickly learned, is that their empathic nature left them susceptible to sensing other emotions than just love. And anger, to Coco, was like a burning sensation that never made sleeping easy.

But then curiosity took over and she focused more on the anger. It wasn’t stopping, but…growing. A violent, virulent anger. And as it got stronger, Coco could start picking up the minute details that, when plentiful enough, could even be used to identify a specific pony provided she knew from prior experience the pony who was the source of the anger.

And she’d already scuffled with Corner Shot before.

But then the anger was joined by more emotions—fear, distress, pain. They were not from Corner Shot, but from whoever she was taking her anger out on.

Without hesitation, Coco launched out of the bed. Miss Rarity would never approve but lives were potentially on the line. She’d understand. Thinking quickly, Coco mustered up the strength and departed through the window—her wings may not have allowed perfect flight, but they could catch enough lift for her to descend out of a second story window without much problem.

“UNF! UNF! UNF!”

Now visibly weakened, Dagi grunted with every thrust of the javelin. She’d come to consciousness only to see a wounded Corner Shot somehow not only having become impossibly fast, but also brutally beating the shit out of Sonata, Aria laying in a crumpled heap not far off. Dagi was no longer interested in taking Corner alive; she had murder in her eyes.

Unfortunately, so did Corner Shot, who was almost playing with Dagi in how she just sidestepped every javelin thrust. Like she was just waiting for Dagi to just whittle herself out, a point the merciless assassin decided had come. Corner grabbed onto the javelin with a wing, then with near-earth pony strength lifted up Dagi with only her wing holding the pole, then twirled around until Dagi couldn’t hold on any longer and her grip failed, once again sending her flying. She landed in-between the bodies of her sisters, looking just as beat up as both of them.

“This has been fairly…exhilarating, to say the least,” snorted Corner, who slowly approached the defeated SIRENs. “But I’ve wasted enough time with you lot.” She then snapped the javelin’s shaft clean in two with her wings, tossing the bottom end aside before brandishing the business end like a pool cue. “Goodbye, los—"

Just like she’d blindsided Aria Blaze out of nowhere, Corner suddenly found herself blindsided by a punch she couldn’t see. Only the assailant this time did not materialize out of thin air. As a pegasus, Corner could read the air currents shifting as somepony moved in and out of nearby space, but she couldn't do more than that. “SHOW YOURSELF!” bellowed Corner, not in the mood to have to deal with a new problem.

Ring around the aaappplllee…” chanted a sweet pitched voice. Corner knew she’d heard it before, but couldn’t think straight as the force of a pony bucking slammed into her side. It felt like one of Corner’s ribs had been broken, pissing her off even more. Instinctively Corner lashed out, only to hit nothing but empty air.

“YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY?!” Corner roared.

An orchard that’s sun-dappled...” Once again after the chanting, hard forces smashed into Corner, probably breaking another rib in the process.

This time, Corner said nothing, figuring her opponent to actually be invisible. She tried to use the silence to listen for her opponent’s hoofsteps, only…there wasn’t any.

Rain drops, rain drops, we all—"

Hard kick to Corner’s jaw.

“-fall—"

A legsweep that made Corner fall.

“-DOWN!”

A crushing weight collapsed onto Corner’s back, a miracle it didn’t break her spine. Corner’s jaw hit a rock nearby, clattering her jaws hard and making her bite the inside of her mouth, drawing blood.

“I…I know that’s you, Coco…” spat Corner, a bit of blood leaving her mouth. “Once I figure out how you’re doing this, I’m gonna—"

“Oh, I’ll spot you for that one, bitch!” spat back Coco’s voice, and to Corner’s horror the cream colored fashion pony materialized out of thin air in front of her. Except it wasn’t entirely the same pony. It was like a pony had fucked a changeling and Coco was the bastard child. In fact, in Corner’s mind that had to be exactly how Coco Pommel could exist in the state before her. And she could also turn invisible.

“H-how?”

“Simple,” grinned Coco, her smile devoid of humor but worryingly containing two things that looked like fangs. “Your anger feeds me.”

Corner blinked. “Did you really just fucking say that corny shit?”

“Corny, yes. But also the truth—obviously I’m changeling enough to feed on emotions, and anger is the second best if love isn’t available.” The halfling leaned forward, her eyes glowing with the sickly green tapetum lucidum that was natural to changelings.

“Gee, Prof. Abomination, thanks for the shitty biology lesson,” slowly, Corner managed to draw the strength to stand, eyes full of rage. “Now how about I teach you a lesson in pain!?” In a flash, Corner lunged forward with a feather knife right into Coco’s face—only to find the pony was not even there any more.

“Can’t hit what you can’t seeee~!” taunted Coco, now once again a voice in the wind.

“Yeah, but you can’t dodge what you don’t see coming!” countered Corner, who proceeded to randomly dart off to some part of the clearing before going silent.

It became a deadly game of cat and mouse, but while Coco held the advantage of true invisibility, Corner wasn’t as good an assassin as she was without knowing how to track the unseen.

As Corner was preoccupied with trying to punch the air—with the air punching back it seemed—the battered SIRENS crawled together to regroup.

“You still alive?” wheezed Aria.

“Barely,” coughed Adagio. She then crawled over to check on Sonata; the results weren’t good. At least one broken leg, a seriously bad cut to her ear, and slashes along her barrel. That was in addition to the fact that her sister’s face looked like several miles of bad road. Adagio leaned forward to check for breath.

“Is she…?” Aria asked, her breath caught in her throat.

“Yeah, but she’s gonna need a medic soon. Hopefully Sunny and Princess Twilight can do something to help.”

“We…we can’t stay like this,” stated Aria, “we just got our asses handed to us like we were toddlers on our first day of training.”

“Yeah,” agreed Dagi. “If we survive this, we’re going to have to up our training.”

A soft moan came from Sonata’s throat, and Adagio had to wipe away the tears that came. They’d survived the destruction of their organization, facing off against the legions of the damned and came out of it with an order to rebuild the SIRENs and a family they could call their own. Adagio wouldn’t let it end like this.

Never again, she swore to herself. Next time, Sunny or no, we’re coming in full kit.

Dagi reached over and put her hoof on her wounded sister’s body, fighting back the tears that threatened to fall. “Hang in there, sis.” Aria painfully sidled over to Adagio and hugged both her sisters for support.

With one final grunt, Corner timed her punch correctly and landed dead on the side of Coco’s face.

“GAAAAHHH!” wailed the Halfling, falling back and finally coming into view. She looked utterly exhausted, the anger energy she was getting from Corner having burned up relatively too fast for her liking.

“There you are, you little shit!” Corner snorted, whipping out two feather knives and slightly crouching. Coco didn’t have a chance to dodge now, and both mares knew it. “Time to squish you like the insect that you are!” It didn’t ever occur to Corner that despite staring death in the face, Coco didn’t seem all that concerned. In fact, she seemed a bit cocky as Corner leapt at the hybrid pony…

…and came to a screeching halt in mid-air, her wings not even fully pointed forward but splayed out to the sides as if she was taking flight. The forward half of her body was still fully mobile, but from the wings back, she discovered to her utter shock, she was immobilized in dark crystal.

“I misjudged you,” a voice, cold as emptiness, intoned.

Corner’s blood virtually froze, knowing she couldn’t face the owner of that voice even if she could fully turn around.

“I thought you were merely dangerous,” said Razz, slowly walking around next to the changeling hybrid who—having no more reason to fight—had since collapsed on her side and was panting heavily. Gone was the purple-and-blue hair, the raspberry coat, and the bright cutie mark. Now Razz chose not to hide her red-and-black mane, the deep red coat, her dark cutie mark, or her curved horn with what looked like a bloodstain on the tip. “But I was wrong…you’re worse!”

“Razz, please…” begged Corner, “you need to understand—"

“Understand what?!” snapped Razz, her rage evident in the flash of dark magic smoke in her eyes. “Look at what you’ve done!” She gestured to the four ponies Corner had physically assaulted. “What’s there not to understand about you trying to kill my friends while you continue to claim you’re one of them?”

“They tried to kill me first!”

“Oh, like I believe that shit!” Razz, who had been forcing Corner to look her dead in the eye, then changed her focus to Corner’s pool cue hairclip and narrowed her eyes. “Why the heck does…wait a minute!”

Corner’s ultimate nightmare came true as she was powerless to stop Razz from yanking off her hairclip, revealing her deepest secret in the process. Her wings, still locked in the open position from the crystal, seemed to have the feathers from the middle up just dissolve into nothing, replaced with something nopony present had ever seen before.

Where mere feathers had previously been there now instead existed a hard, black carapace that extended to the top of her wings. Inside the structures were fifteen slots on each wing, some of them still containing feather knives, but more were empty.

“Holy shit,” gasped Aria from her spot a few feet away, “is that carbon fiber?”

“No…” answered Coco, who looked absolutely horrified, “that’s…that’s…refined changeling chitin! Oh, Celestia, I think I’m gonna be sick!” She then hurried off into the woods, stopping not too far away at the edge of the forest to void the Tofu Noodle soup she’d had earlier in some sense of privacy.

“Ah!” gasped Razz, wincing. She then immediately reached down and yanked off the Alicorn Amulet which she’d been wearing the whole time.

Corner did her best to not show her distress at how Raspberry didn’t seem to understand anything. “Raspberry, why are you running from what you were clearly born to do?”

“Oh, spare me the ‘fulfill my destiny because Sombra is my greatto the whatever grandfather because he raped some poor mare’ speech!” Razz then narrowed her eyes again as she dropped the bombshell. “Of course, he’s your ancestor, too!”

Corner was taken aback. “Wh-what? No, I’m not—"

“Don’t tell me the Covenant hasn’t at least told you about ‘the prophecy’—the line about the third Scion happens to fit you to a ‘T’!

The third moves swift, like lightning flash, faster than eyes can track,

A storm of steel, a hail of death, downburst of ruin and wrack,

Master of death, of silent kills, hunting without a pack

A thousand daggers now unleashed, a murderous attack.

“You literally have dead changeling corpses attached to your wings to hold your throwing knives, there’s nopony else who could qualify!”

As realization dawned on Corner, she quietly asked, “Then that feeling…like my blood was so itchy…’

Razz nodded. “Death knows its own, and it knows you well. But I’m surprised you didn’t already know that.”

Corner shook her head furiously. “N-no! It can’t be me, it has to be y—"

“Oh for…just shut up already!

The last thing Corner remembered was a dark red hoof slamming into her head and knocking her out cold.

Chapter 23: Blinded By the Dark

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 23—Blinded By the Dark

The last time the triplets had been in the hospital, it had been shortly after the incident with Les SCARS at the old pizza place Adagio had worked at. Prior to that, it was a few incidents that ended up with them in sickbay...though that term had taken on negative connotations since their near brush with death in the wake of Project ANTHEMUSA. All things considered, however, pony hospitals were at least cheerier than human ones.

Now here they were, in yet another hospital, having been saved by sheer luck not once but twice in the same confrontation. It was also slightly humbling for the trio as while they’d held their own against Corner Shot, the fact they’d received the worst physical punishment of their lives (not counting the time Adagio would have actually died from her wounds had Sunset not used magic to heal her) all from one hostile was almost tantamount to failure.

“At least a building didn’t fall on top of us, right?” half-chuckled, half-coughed Sonata. Having received the worst of Corner’s wrath out of the three, she’d been put into a hospital cot and now had her right foreleg—effectively the same as her normal human form’s right arm—locked in a cast and cradled from a sling around her neck, slowly healing a nasty complex fracture under the skin. Under the covers she was tucked into, her barrel was wrapped up like a mummy, with gauze patches hidden underneath to help heal the worst of the slashes. None of which, thankfully, had been too deep and needed a trip to ER surgery, though a few had been bad enough to require stitches in uncomfortable places around her torso. Her left ear, in comparison to the rest of her injuries, looked almost comical in that all it had needed was a simple bandaid in the end.

“After that ass kicking?” replied Ari, “Having a building explode on us was preferable to last night! We’re lucky we’re in an alternate reality where instant healing magic is a thing!”

While it wasn’t instant healing in reality—rather, healing magic just rapidly accelerated the natural process—the nasty black eye Aria had received from Corner had been reduced to looking like a minor bruise under the ice pack she held over it. She too had received numerous cuts, also relatively minor save for one on her side that she was sure had made one of the nurses turn pale (or maybe it had been the light, she’d been a bit high on painkillers and so her perception of reality hadn’t been as sharp), so besides the remnants of other bad bruises having been reduced significantly, Aria just had a band-aid applied diagonally across her forehead that looked even sillier than the one on Soni’s ear.

“Well, one thing’s for sure,” interjected Adagio, “we at least succeeded somewhat in what Razz had asked of us in helping capture Corner Shot.” Then with a scowl, she added, “Not that I’m particularly happy to have almost died helping that cun...” Simultaneous glares from both of her sisters made Adagio trail off before correcting herself. “Cunning pony.”

The only one of the three to not be caught off guard by Corner’s sudden burst of psychotic anger, Dagi was no less in as bad shape as her sisters. Phantom pains from a dislocated left hind leg felt especially weird as it involved pain in places she’d never even had in her sixteen years as a human being - across virtually two completely different lives. Her head was wrapped up in bandages to help treat a concussion she’d gotten from the numerous times Corner had sent her flying and crashing into the ground, and more than a few bruises were present on her body throughout.

Just then, the door to the room the triplets were sharing burst open and a frantic looking Raspberry Beryl came in, followed shortly by an exhausted looking Heliodor—no doubt from his endless attempts to try and get Razz to calm down.

“Oh my Celestia I’m so, so sorry about what happened!” she blurted apologetically to the three bedridden mares. “I should have known Corner was more dangerous than she’d even let on and if I’d only been able to find that damn amulet sooner then she wouldn’t have been able to nearly kill the three of you!”

“It’s not your fault, Razz,” said Aria, preemptively cutting off whatever salt Adagio was about to rub into the wound. “I mean, putting our lives on the line to help protect others is what we swore as our duty to Queen Faust a few weeks back.”

“But I inadvertently put you three up against a Scion—worse, one who seems to have been turned into the deadliest one of all!”

“What’s a Scion, again?” asked Sonata. “Like, you were going on about this after you punched out Corner Shot’s lights and saw how much we’d gotten beat up by her, to the point Princess Twilight had to use a sleeping spell on you to get your histrionics under control.”

“I think an answer as to how Princess Twilight, Sunny, and a bunch of guards arrived at that exact moment also never made it to us, come to think of it,” added Adagio with just a hint of an accusatory glare.

Razz cringed. “The latter actually was my doing—I sent Heelee over to Twilight’s with a note to bring the guards to that location, probably should have had him doing that while I was looking for the amulet. The former though…” Razz took a deep breath and quickly explained King Sombra, and who the Scions were to him.

“And Corner is the second?” asked Dagi, eyebrow raised.

“Third, actually—though the second is extremely dangerous in her own right, she’s not an actual Sombra fanatic like Corner apparently is. Would you believe the whole point of her being in town was to try and indoctrinate me?”

Sonata nodded at that. “Yeah, compromise critical personnel within a command base and you have yourself a weak link in the chain. Textbook example.” Razz looked at her oddly, and Sonata said, “Trust me, it’s bad.”

Razz shrugged. “Oh, I was nice to her. At least compared to the shitstorm heading her way right now. Trust me, she’s going to get paid back for all the harm she’s done to everypony before she gets to leave town.”

Deep inside the Ponyville Guard garrison, the exposed assassin Corner Shot groaned from within her stockade. It was bad enough that she’d failed in the end, but to make matters worse, she’d lost the closest friend she’d ever had as a result, her cover as a professional pool player was probably ruined, and the guards had seen fit to lock her up with magically enchanted hobbles that ensured she couldn’t try to use anything she managed to get her hooves on as a weapon.

However, what poured salt in the wound and was slowly driving her nuts was her need to crack a joke or do something that would at least make the oppressive atmosphere seem a little more comforting. The problem she couldn’t overcome in that respect is that the two guards assigned to watch her cell wouldn’t show any emotional response to anything she did. She had no way of knowing if they were cracking up in hysterics or were as stone faced as the usual guardspony, for these two had been chosen from the ranks of some kind of secret guardspony regiment who wore full-body armors. She’d overheard a regular guard tell another that these ponies in their impenetrable armor had been rumored to not been seen in over a decade and were only called out to deal with super extreme dangers normal guards wouldn’t be able to handle, but were still beneath the notice of Princess Twilight and her friends who—inexplicably—tended to be the ones to handle the biggest dangers to the country.

Suddenly, the lights went out, providing some minor level of excitement for the pegasus simply because something had interrupted the boredom of imprisonment. A new set of hoofsteps then echoed in the relatively empty basement area the prison was in, prompting Corner to try and look into the darkness to see who the newcomer was. Having trained to work in environments with no light, Corner’s natural nightvision was better than the average pony—though nowhere close to even a batpony foal’s nightvision, but every little bit counted in Corner’s line of work. But nothing prepared her to see Razz’s silhouette start approaching the bars, stopping just before them to talk to the guards in a low whisper, intentionally making sure Corner couldn’t hear her voice.

“Cut the crap, Razz,” obnoxiously groaned Corner, turning to face the princess. “I know it’s you.”

The lights suddenly snapped back on, revealing much to Corner’s shock that it was not Raspberry Beryl. Raspberry Beryl wasn’t an alicorn. But she did look a whole lot like Sunset Shimmer.

“Nice guess, bitch,” taunted Sunset, whose eyes radiated with pure malice, “but do you really think she’d even want to talk to your sorry ass after the shit you pulled last night?”

“No, I suppose not,” said Corner, regaining her composure. “Though it makes me wonder what you want.”

“I want you to understand that whatever level of deep shit you think you’re in is not even remotely close to the actual level of shit you’re submerged in,” growled Sunset as she got close enough to the bars to almost stick her muzzle through them. “You went after one of my closest friends and nearly killed three of my family members! Let me translate that for you into common Equish: you assaulted three senior-ranking military personnel, the assistant to the Element of Generosity and an Archmagus of Equestria.”

Corner shrugged her withers. “So?”

“The last three people who tried to do something like that around me had everything they had become torn down around them and thrown into a hell of their own making—you’re lucky that I don’t have the rights to rip off those stupid looking wings of yours and shove them up and down both of your ends, because mark my words I totally could.”

“Oh, trust me, ponies have tried,” said Corner without showing any reaction to being threatened by the original prodigy of Princess Celestia herself. “Hell, for what it’s worth, I’ve tried to myself—but these augments to my wings are magically fused to my bones so they’re not going anywhere, anytime soon.”

“Complements of that club of nutcases? Or maybe just another excuse for you to go chasing after Razz?”

“Are you accusing me of trying to make myself a cripple in some sense simply to try and get Razz to relate to me?” Corner fanned out her wings, evidently having a button pushed. “Because believe me, I’ve had these racks for years. But…we’re probably connected on a deeper level.”

“What, are you attracted to her sexually?" Sunset snarled. "Trying to find a little sapphic lambda energy or something? No, let me guess: your mother's name is Harmonic Convergence and she wants you to have an Ishtarine coterie and fuck as many of your female relatives as possible, right?"

“What the fuck are you even talking about?” gaped Corner. “Like, what’s ‘Ish-tar-eene’ even mean?”

“None of your concern,” replied the alicorn. “All you need to know is that whatever game you’re playing? It’s over.”

“You’re blind if you think this is over,” said Corner. “You yourself said it: My ‘club of nutcases’ clearly has more than just me. And whether or not she meant it, Razz has only helped the Covenant by naming me as one of Sombra’s Scions.”

“Yeah, I’m sure that old dusty shadow is so proud of you getting your ass in jail. And only two of his descendants known and you got your ass kicked by the better one.”

“What?” Corner grinned cockily. “You clearly are out of the loop if you think it’s just me and her. No, I’m the third—the Covenant knows of the second, and we will get her in due time.”

Sunset’s lack of reaction slowly brought Corner’s grin into a frown, then into an open gasp as she realized her slip up. Sunset had to have known about the second Scion—Razz obviously had met them though the actual identity was still an unknown to Corner, and Razz would have at least told Sunset—so all Corner had done was reveal more about the Covenant than she should have.

“You sure do seem confident about your friends being competent enough to do whatever you failed at doing if you’re willing to let that slip,” said Sunset. “Anything else you think the Covenant’s flunkie messenger pigeon should mention to strike fear into the hearts of Equestria?”

Corner wasn’t able to keep the hateful glare off her face. Alicorn or no, Corner wasn’t going to take such disrespect from one of the Sun Tyrant’s lapdogs. “You think I’m finished now that you’ve caught me? Now that I know I’m one of Sombra’s Scions, I’m just getting started! No cell you put me in is gonna keep me from achieving my destiny, and when I’m free you’d better tell those three flunkies of your own to stay the hell out of my way, or they’re going to end up with a lot worse than a few bruises next time!”

If her words had any effect on the alicorn, she hid it well behind a neutral expression. “I see. So that’s how you want to play?”

Corner didn’t know what to expect next. A verbal threat, or perhaps even a physical one. She hadn’t expected Sunset to simply turn around and start walking away.

“Oh? Nothing to say, huh?!” Corner called after her. “It’s because you know I’m right! I have the power to bring real change to this country and there’s nothing you can do to stop—”

But all the lights suddenly went out again, and Corner did stop. She looked around in the darkness outside her cell, her well-honed eyes scanning for any movement.

“Oh come on! Using the same trick to scare me won’t work. Hell, it didn’t even work the first time!”

But Corner was only answered by the silent darkness. Seconds ticked by, then minutes, until finally Corner thought that maybe Sunset had left. So she turned around to sit on her cot...and came face to face with a monster.

“Boo,” said the monster from its place seated on the cell’s cot, grinning evilly. The creature stood heads above her and looked like a minotaur dragged through the worst part of Luna’s nightmares.

“AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!” screamed Corner, rocketing back hard into the cell door, wondering if the guards would intervene if this thing meant her harm. But one glance out the bars and Corner realized with dread that the guards had disappeared. She was alone now—alone with this thing.

It was as the creature stood and took a step toward her that Corner managed to get a good look at it, and right away its features were familiar. Red and yellow hair framed a beige, hairless face, upon which a pair of familiar cyan eyes glared at her. It held out an appendage with five protruding digits and powerful magic energy began to twist and crackle before her, making Corner’s hairs stand on end from both the static energy and her own fear.

“What… what are you?” Corner stammered.

The terrifying biped then spoke in Sunset Shimmer’s voice. “I’m what you’ll answer to if you ever try to hurt my family again!”

The Sunset-creature then promptly closed its hand around the building magic energy into a fist, and a sound like shattering glass accompanied a blinding flash of light, and for a moment Corner thought she was being incinerated right then and there. Then her senses returned, and she found herself standing in her cell, exactly where she had been, with no sign that the Sunset-monster had ever been there.

“We hope that you enjoyed your stay at the Traveler’s Retreat and that you’ll come to visit again soon!”

The finely dressed stallion smiled, nodded, then picked up his bag before walking out the front door. Razz then looked from left to right, seeing if there was anypony still waiting to be checked out, before letting out a relieved sigh. After apologizing to the injured triplets about a billion more times, she’d finally been forced to return home when she realized her front desk shift was going to start soon. Upon arrival, she’d had to rush into action as there were so many ponies who were waiting to be checked out with only a harried-looking Ascot doing his best to expedite the process. After relieving her father of duty, she’d helped maybe twenty ponies check out before now, her first chance to catch her breath.

“Never realized how much I missed doing something normal,” sighed Razz, turning to scratch Heliodor’s chin. He’d taken his deskside stand perch when Razz had taken the desk and patiently waited since for her to finish up. Which could only mean one thing.

“Alright, you silly bird,” teased Razz, putting up a BACK IN FIVE MINUTES sign on the desk before leaving it. “I’ll get you your chopped pears. Just don’t torch anypony when I’m not looking, even if they deserve it, okay?”

He nodded eagerly—there was little he wouldn’t do for his favorite fruit. However, after a quick trip to the kitchen and returning with a bowl of her pet’s treasured foodstuff, he seemed to have forgotten all about the pears, instead staring intently at something in front of him.

“Hey, Heelee, pears!” said Razz, putting the bowl in front of the phoenix. He didn’t seem to react. Finally deciding to see what had captured Heelee’s attention, Razz turned to follow his gaze…and gave a little jump when she saw Nineball waiting in front of the desk. “Oh, uh, hello!” she stammered, still feeling a bit as intimidated of the large stallion as she had been the first time they’d come face to face and he’d asked those weird questions about her relations to Sombra and…something else, she didn’t recall. “How can I be off assistance, Mr. Nineball?”

“I’d like to checkout, please,” he simply stated. Whatever he’d wanted to know before seemed to be of no consequence now. Razz hoped it would stay that way, but it seemed odd that he’d been staying at the Retreat and only now did she realize that fact. However, as he handed her his room keys and she cross checked the list of guests, sure enough he’d been here the whole time.

Just let it go, Razz, she thought to herself, keeping up a smile as she put the keys up. “Were there any problems with the room or any other concerns about how your experience here has been?”

“No,” was all Nineball said. That was good enough for Razz.

“Well, we here at the Traveler’s Retreat hope that you enjoyed your stay with us and—”

Suddenly, Heliodor bolted from his perch and seemed hell-bent on attacking Nineball’s luggage—specifically a nondescript briefcase.

“What the- NO! BAD HELIODOR!” Razz was furious, she’d drilled how important it was for Heliodor to behave if he was to be allowed to stay in the Retreat—magical creatures like him were normally banned from public lodgings like the Retreat in fear of attacking the guests, with phoenixes at the top of the list of banned animals because of their ability to manipulate fire hot enough to melt metals and sometimes even rock. At the same time, though, Heliodor never acted against what he knew were the rules unless it was in his mistress’ best interest, the examples of which included willingly risking his life to save hers more than once. Nothing Razz could think of, though, justified Heliodor randomly attacking a guest’s luggage like this, and she rushed around the desk to pull him away from further eviscerating the suitcase.

But before she could, Heliodor had already gotten it open and with his beak pulled out a manila envelope labeled “Ponyville”. Then with his talons, he ripped the envelope open before tossing it to the ground, sending the contents of photographs spilling onto the floor.

Photographs that, to Raspberry’s horror, were almost all of her. Specifically when she’d gotten Corner Shot and Coco Pommel to stop trying to knock each other’s blocks off.

The usually imposing Nineball now seemed not so frightening, instead he seemed extremely nervous about what was about to happen. Razz knew he should be feeling that way given she did not handle her temper well.

“Mr. Nineball…” the unicorn started, slowly looking up from the photographs on the ground to the red stallion who clearly had taken them, “…why are there photographs of me, clearly taken with the intent that I wasn’t supposed to know about them, in your luggage?”

“I, uh…” stammered Nineball. He didn’t seem so terrifying now.

“This doesn’t happen to involve the way you popped all those questions about me a few days ago, does it?” Razz was doing her best to keep from unloading on him right then and there—after learning Corner Shot had been an agent of the loonies who tried to draw her into their King Sombra worshiping cult, then before that learning that for unknown reasons, Queen Chrysalis also had an interest in her to the point of posting her own guard in secret to protect Razz, the idea that yet another pony was performing illicit surveillance on her really was going to push her over the edge. Already she could feel her fangs starting to extend, hoping nopony actually noticed.

“Well, yes, honestly, but…please, a moment.” Keeping his cool, Nineball recomposed himself and from another bag pulled out what looked like a wallet. “As you already know, I am from Stalliongrad, a place far from most of the country, especially Ponyville. My place as a pool player in tournaments such as the one just concluded allows me to journey all over the world, to see beyond my hometown. But as it is not cheap to travel around with such a far place away as my home, I can rarely bring my family to see the world with me.” He then opened the wallet, showing in one of the window compartments a picture of four ponies all wearing papakhas and silly grins. Alongside Nineball was a beautiful medium blue pegasus with a warm, red mane, in front of them were two young ponies: a gray coated earth pony colt with a black-and red striped mane and an eight ball cutie mark, and a snow-white pegasus filly with a gray mane who had yet to get her mark.

“What does telling me your…” said Razz, before stopping herself to also recompose. “I’m sorry, that was impolite.” She figured there had to be some point to him explaining all this to why he was secretly photographing one of the country’s most dangerous ponies.

Nineball nodded slightly, sensing Razz was beginning to understand. “This is my wife, Blue Magnolia; and our children, Eight Ball and White Glint. During my travels, I try to bring back the world I see for them to experience it as well. My wife is a botanist, so I always send local flowers home for her. My son takes after me so I bring him memorabilia from the pool establishments I go to—including the odd trophy now and then.” He sighed before continuing. “My daughter has an interest in ornithology, which I believe will become evident as her special talent to be manifested in her cutie mark.”

“Ornithology?” asked Razz.

Nineball grinned. “The study of birds. Photographing them, learning about all their natural habits, nothing can sate her love of avians. Of course, in Stalliongrad, there’s only a hoofful of birds for her to see—mostly just iron kestrels and dwarf rocs—so I take it upon myself to bring home images of the birds I see—I’m actually pretty good at photographing birds, if you’d be so kind to take a look at those photos again.”

Eyebrow raised, Razz glance back down to the photos on the floor. What she thought had been images taken with her as the primary focus proved to be anything but, as more often than not she wasn’t centered and/or even in focus.

But in every shot, it was clear who really had been the subject of interest: Heliodor.

“Given your pet’s reaction, I’m guessing he doesn’t like attention?” sheepishly asked Nineball.

“Are you kidding? He freakin’ loves attention!” Razz looked over to Heelee, who now looked properly embarrassed. “I don’t know how you knew Nineball was doing this—which I would like to remind him I’m still not happy about—but you wanted me to see the pics because you thought he was photographing me, right?”

The bird nodded.

“Well, can’t fault you for that, you featherbrain,” chuckled Razz, then turning to Nineball again. “But if it was Heliodor you were interested in…why didn’t you just ask me for permission in the first place?”

“I tried,” pointed out Nineball, and as Razz recalled their previous interaction, she understood that he had indeed tried to ask about this matter. “But, erm,” Nineball blushed—blushed!—and rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment. “If you must know I’m kind of utterly terrified of you.”

“That explains the way you addressed me before,” surmised Razz. “That also why you decided to take pics of Heliodor and by proxy me from a distance, then?”

Nineball nodded.

The unicorn sighed with relief. “Oh thank Celestia, you have no idea how relieved I am this is just one big mix-up. And, uh, sorry about what Heliodor did to your bag.”

“It is no problem—I have duct tape for these kinds of situations.” Nineball then produced a roll of duct tape, evidently well-used judging from how thin the outer layer of tape was.

“Actually, if you don’t have to go immediately,” said Razz, glancing down to her apologetic-looking bird before back up at Nineball, “since this matter is cleared up and these photos were meant for your daughter…how’d you like to get better photos of Heliodor up close and personal?”

The big red stallion grinned appreciatively. “It would make my daughter the happiest filly in the world, and thank you for understanding.”

Later that day, Twilight Sparkle accompanied Sunset and her cousins—now able to walk after another round of healing magic—back to Canterlot Castle with the small assortment of luggage they’d managed to acquire unintentionally during their stay. Razz had wanted to come see Sunset off as well, but there were still more ponies who needed to check out of the Retreat and she was needed to help stem the tide. But both Princess Celestia and Princess Luna were there to see off the former’s de facto-adopted child through Platinum's Mirror, something they both felt might end up being a semi-often occurrence at this rate.

“I do wish your first visit to Equestria hadn’t ended on such an ugly note,” Celestia apologized to the SIRENs. As Razz had confirmed Corner Shot as the third Scion, naturally Celestia and Luna had been notified by flamefax as soon as Twilight was done writing the letter herself. They’d also learned of what Corner Shot had done, which would have proven a real headache trying to figure out what countries on either side of the interdimensional border the triplets were considered nationals of. After all, even though they were human, they’d transferred the flag of the SIREN outfit to the Royal Equestrian Navy, pending final approval by the Lord Admiral.

“It wasn’t all bad,” said Adagio. “If anything, this shows we need to be in our human forms if we’re going to be as effective as possible.”

“Human?” asked Luna with a touch of worry in her voice. “As in, you’d be walking around as creatures most of ponykind has never seen before? I’m not sure that is wise given how the common pony tends to fear things bigger than they are.”

“I don’t think it can be avoided,” said Sunset. “I’m sure I mentioned this before, but when my cousins and I come back in a couple of weeks for my coronation, there’s…a lot of people who are going to want to come.”

“Define ‘a lot’ in this case,” requested Twilight, though she already had a feeling about who else would be among the first humans to visit Canterlot, present company excluded.

“Well, there’s my parents, Shiny, Cady, Spike, Twily, Tavi, AJ, Rainbow, Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie, Ms. Luna, Ms. Celestia, and, given the aftermath of what happened back in Canterlot, Ms. Celestia’s boyfriend…” Sunset caught herself as she realized why the human Celestia’s boyfriend effectively being the human world counterpart to one of Princess Celestia’s most hated enemies—one Sable Loam—might need some replanning.

“I suppose we would need to reveal the ‘natives’ of where I sent my beloved daughter for all these years sooner or later, anyway,” admitted Celestia. “So if they are all going to come, please at least remind them that by doing so, they’re going to serve as ponykind’s first true experience with humans.”

“Plus,” Aria added, “if we’re going to be recruiting future SIRENs from the services, they have to know what form they’ll pretty much be spending the rest of their lives in. It’s a big commitment, and it’s better that we acclimate ponykind to humanity soonest.”

“Hopefully it will be less painful than this trip ended up being,” groaned Soni, rubbing her formerly broken foreleg and wincing. While it had never been seen what would happen to the injuries of individuals who got shapeshifted through the portal, Sunset had somewhat shyly mentioned that on her first return visit, she’d still had a scar left from the time she’d gotten stabbed nearly a year ago, so it was assumed what lingering injuries the SIRENs still had would translate over to their human selves.

“For us, at least,” remarked Aria with an impish smile. “We already got to meet our counterparts in this world. But the other girls? For starters, we’re going to do the impossible by having two Pinkie Pies in the same place, at the same time, in the same reality. We seriously might break the laws of physics.”

“What a great way to start off my coronation,” mock-groaned Sunset, before moving to hug the elder princesses. “Anyway, we gotta get going—if the time back in the human world is set to match the time here through the mirror, the triplets and I might be running late for dinner!”

“Well, guess we can’t have that, now can we?” laughed Celestia, nuzzling her daughter. “I trust you know what to do during the week before you, your family, and your friends come to see your homeland?”

“Like we haven’t gone over it a billion, billion times,” sighed Sunset with a smile. “Just like we always did.”

“If you’re going to start stealing my lines,” retorted Twilight with a huff, “then you really do need to go!”

“Fine, fine,” said Sunset, though as she approached the mirror, she then turned around and added, “but be ready to meet your counterpart, Twilight Sparkle, the version of you who until recently didn’t believe magic existed!” As Twilight’s face reacted in shock upon being reminded of the monumental task that would come with Sunset next time, the maize-coated alicorn merely winked mischievously before plunging back into the mirror. Bowing one last time for the three remaining princesses, the triplets then followed suit.

“It’ll be a golden age of apocalypse when worlds collide upon Sunset’s return,” mused Luna. “Of course, I wouldn’t expect anything less from her—she really does follow in your hoofsteps in that respect.”

Celestia said nothing, instead merely grinning almost as much as a sedated Pinkie Pie.

Twilight sighed. “I guess I’d best go get the supplies ready. Reagents, alchemical compounds, and a keg of scrumpy.”

Luna looked at the youngest alicorn. “What’s that for?”

“The reagents and compounds are for researching the counteractive spell Sunset’s companions will need for the next time around so they can retain their normal forms. As far as I know, only the human Element Bearers have magic, and they haven’t been trained, I’m sure.”

“And the keg?” Luna asked as Twilight started to walk towards her labs.

“I have a feeling we’re all going to need a stiff drink,” the Princess of Friendship replied over her shoulder.

Chapter 24: Consolidation

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 24—Consolidation

DAY 150:

Sable and his wolves have finally rebelled. It was simply a matter of time; a rabid animal, once the hydrophobia sets in, will always turn on its master, no matter how intelligent the animal is or how generous the master. Regardless of whatever loyalties Sable Loam had in the past, they are there no longer and I have had to take measures appropriate to the rebellion.

It had started simply enough: one of his mares (I know he has several, given that he now thinks of himself more of an alpha wolf than a stallion), a former soldier by the name of Bluegrass, stood in the town square, demanding that I do something about the Sisters, or that I should surrender my rule to somepony who would. It didn’t take a miraculous stroke of intellect to infer who she was talking about.

It turned out that my recently-promoted major, Sharpspar, disagreed with Bluegrass, and as a result, several seconds later, there were more than a few arrows sticking out of Bluegrass’ head and neck. Needless to say, this was apparently just enough justification for Sable, who immediately moved against me “in defense of his pack.” With the speed he moved, it was clear that he’d been plotting treason for quite some time and just needed an excuse to openly oppose me.

The end result of the battle in the town square came with my forces victorious, though not without cost: though most of his wolves and nearly all of his females—I suppose they were more bitches than mares by that point—were killed, unfortunately, so were a good number of my most reliable senior commanders. Mars. Emerald Blaze, Col. Glowing Ruby, Majs. Black Onyx and White Marble. It had been a deliberate attempt to decapitate my senior command and unfortunately, it had succeeded, leaving my most senior troops as lieutenants, coronets and ensigns.

Upon consultation with Sharpspar, who I have now promoted to marshal; and his assistant, former coronet-now-colonel Topaz Spire, I have reduced the military eligibility age to ten. Given that my kingdom must have a future, I will allow the foals to finish their education—even peasants need to know how to count, after all—but once they do, into the Army they must go. Otherwise I risk assault from the remnant of Sable’s forces…or worse, from an Everfree all too willing to pounce on my weakness.

All would be a complete loss, if it were not for my beautiful Mangle-leg’s news. The last preservation spell, the strongest one we have, failed on the corpse of the changeling queen, and there is nothing preventing its decay into carrion now, all those enticing magics lost. Thankfully, thanks to Mangle’s efforts, that will now not be the case. She has created a concoction, a new alchemical brew she calls Compulsion. It allows her to create nzambi from anything, dead or alive. Alive, they would be slaves to my very suggestion. Dead, they would be unthinking creatures, willing to follow their commands until utterly destroyed.

I will keep that latter part under consideration. I will not have my Empire sullied by the shambling, rotting corpses of those gone…but better that than to have hooves of white and blue set foot on my realm’s cobblestones, my lands! Still, it is the other part of the equation that has me interested: the part that would bring the living under my hoof. The Rose seems to have a natural Compulsion of her own, and it would be fascinating to see which is stronger: her natural abilities, or Mangle’s artificing.

And then Mangle gives me another suggestion, one that fills my heart with glee: in one fell swoop, she can bring the Rose under control, make her a weapon and deal with the corpse of the changeling queen. She tells me of her plan and it is so bewilderingly complex and arcane even I, with my vaunted education and intellect, cannot keep up, but she assures me it will work. I ask her what reward she requires for her actions—everypony has one, after all. She in turn tells me that she will do it out of loyalty and gratitude, as I gave her the title she deserved for advancing both magic and science, while the fools of Everfree’s Guild tossed her out because they were pitiful troglodytes.

In this lonely world I have, I am glad to have a servant—nay, a friend—like Mangle-leg. Though a beauty of her own, she pales against the physical beauty of some of my other guests…but for her mind? I have seen nothing more precious.

A high-pitched bellow of steam cried out from the darkness, taking Razz out of the tunnel vision she’d been in after reading yet another ‘riveting’ chapter of that horrible book. Followed by the locomotive roaring out of the mountainside tunnel, belching smoke from its smokestack and the train cars clattering along behind.

Must they sound the whistle when they’re still inside the tunnel?” moaned Lockbox, hooves clamped tightly on her ears. “Or are they so deaf up there that they can’t hear the piercing echo of that damn thing?”

“Actually, it’s a safety measure,” said Twilight. “It is possible, though unlikely, for somepony to be at the entrance of the tunnel and not hear the train coming, or see the headlight. So, all engineers are required to signal their approach with a whistle pull or two.”

“Can’t they come up with something better? Like, use a magic signal or something?”

“Most ponies who work on the railroad are earth ponies,” pointed out Razz, “raw strength and endurance are more important due to the physical demands of working on trains.”

“In fact, a good number of military earth ponies, when they’re done with their service, have been hired to work for the railroad as of late,” Divine, who had also come along, stated. “The railroad company likes the professionalism and sturdiness that former soldiers, sailors or guardsponies provide.”

Lockbox looked incredulously at her fellow unicorn. “I’m the blacksmith of Nightshade, a job normally done by earth pony stallions twice my size and mass. Can’t be that hard.”

Razz laughed. “I was basically forced into being my father’s indentured servant on the most pathetic farm ever created—I know grueling, physical labor. Not saying your occupation isn’t as tough, Lockbox, but…neither you nor I are exactly ‘regular old unicorns’ are we?”

Lockbox shrugged. “Point taken.”

Meanwhile, at Canterlot station, a select group of other ponies were waiting for the three horned ponies to arrive. They’d caught a different train directly to Canterlot, while Razz and Twilight had instead gone to Nightshade to pick up Lockbox. Despite her protests of being required to leave her hometown, it had been decided by higher powers—namely Celestia—that after Corner revealed that the Covenant knew where the second Scion was located, Lockbox’s safety was a matter of national concern and so until further notice she was required to hang out with Razz and her friends.

“Oh, I can’t wait to meet her!” squeed Pinkie Pie, bouncing up and down as usual.

“Is she usually this excited to meet ponies?” discretely asked Coco to Rarity.

“Well, it’s rare that there’s a pony that any of us meet and she’s the last to make their acquaintance,” answered Rarity. “I just hope she doesn’t overwhelm Lockbox too much.” Rarity internally cringed, as her memory of what Lockbox’s signature dark powers could do—even Pinkie was unlikely to be able to worm her way free of those kinds of restraints.

“Wish I was as happy to see her again, since…well, nopony’s told her about me, right?”

“What are you…oh.”

“Don’t worry, Coco,” said Applejack, “these mares can keep a secret, Ah can personally attest to that.” She then gave a knowing wink to Coco, though the latter had no idea what Applejack was talking about. But if she was hinting to having a dark secret of her own, Coco wasn’t sure what to make of it.

“Hey, train’s coming!” shouted Rainbow, gesturing down the tracks as the faintest trace of gray clouds started to appear in the distance. Her prediction was proven right when the whistle sounded off and fifteen minutes later, the Ponyville Crew was reunited again, with one extra guest along for the ride.

"Hey, Twilight,” chirped Pinkie, “I know everypony calls us the Mane Six, but that's unfair to Razz and Coco. Maybe we should call ourselves.... I got it! The EIGHTMAZING EIGHT!"

Rainbow facehoofed. “Pinkie, that's a dumb name. Seriously, would anypony actually use that?"

“Anypony?” said Razz with a slight smirk. “No, I don’t think anypony would use it.”

Divine caught that. “Not anypony? I presume that you mean griffins? I don’t think they tend to be that poetic, though I will admit that my experiences with non-military ones are few and far between.”

Razz looked at him, then shook her head. “Don’t worry about it,” she told him.

Pinkie assumed a deep thinking pose, which was impressive given she was still walking. “Well, I’ll have to think on that some more. In the meantime, Coco, why don’t you and Rarity talk about that big dress thing you were talking about on the train up here?”

“Oh, so you actually were summoned to Canterlot to help with this big coronation thing?” Lockbox asked Coco.

“Well, um, yes, I showed you the letter back in Nightshade, right?”

“You probably did, I just forgot since I had…other concerns on my mind at the time. You understand, right?”

“Of course!”

“So, uh, Twilight?” asked Fluttershy, ready to change the subject. “I know we’re all here for Sunset’s Coronation, but…isn’t that a week away?”

“It is, but you remember how we all were called upon to help with the wedding for my brother and Cadence?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, that’s why we’re here!”

“I thought Princess Celestia said we wouldn’t need to help out this time?” said Rainbow, with concern in her voice.

“I know she did,” replied the lavender alicorn, “but…she’s been acting a bit like, er, not sure how to put this…”

“She’s been acting a bit too much like you, then?” asked Razz with a smirk.

Twilight sighed dramatically. “I think it’s a bit of overkill.”

You think something involving planning is overkill?” the rest collectively gasped. If Twilight Sparkle, whose OCD tendencies were bordering on legendary, thought something of that nature was overkill, then she was very much doing the right thing in having the cavalry brought in to assist the princess.

Divine sighed. “Well, I wish I could say that I was here for that, but my duties are a little different.”

Rarity looked at him. “You sound vexed, my good sir. Are you okay?”

“Not really,” he admitted. “It seems my sister has been acting up once more, and I received a request from Auntie last night to come and deal with her.”

Twilight looked over at him and sighed in sympathy. Divine’s younger sister Highfalutin’ was, by all means, a typical noblepony, going so far as to ignore her status as a minor princess in favor of one of her other titles, Duchess, because it gave her more immediate power. While Twilight had never had direct interaction with Highfalutin’, anypony that even Blueblood complained about was likely to be an individual in dire need of Friendship.

Luna sighed deeply, having sent one of the maids off for what felt like the fifth cup of coffee that day—and it wasn’t even past noon yet. "No, Celly, as much as I adore my niece, we cannot build a gold statue of Sunset that's taller than the city."

Cadance’s muzzle seemed unable to decide whether to cringe or grimace. "I think I'm going to go back to the Empire and hide under my bed now."

Celestia took another look at the plans she’d personally drawn up and shown to her sister and niece. “Maybe you two are right…we’ll need to carve it out of Mt. Canterlot! Do you think Discord would mind assisting us with that?”

Luna moved her head over to Cadance and whispered, “I think she’s lost it.”

“Lost? Auntie, I’m not sure she ever had it when it comes to Sunny.” That elicited a giggle from the dark alicorn.

Celestia looked out the window at the mountains, but it wasn't a look that Cadance expected to ever see on her aunt. She'd seen it on Twilight more than a few times, and she shuddered whenever she did. "Yes, I’m absolutely sure Discord would be happy to do so. It is grand to know we have a friend to rely on when the realm needs it!"

Luna facehoofed. "She did not just forget...."

Cadance decided to go for sanity. "Please, Auntie, let's just leave this be and figure out how we can reconstitute Auntie Celly's brain before she decides to decorate the top of the palace with the sun itself."

Celestia clapped her forehooves together excitedly. “That’s a great idea!

Luna groaned, facehoofing. “This can’t get any worse, can it?”

“You just had to say that, didn’t you?” Cadance groaned.

Meanwhile, about several hundred miles south of Canterlot, another train was steaming away to a far destination—Las Pegasus. But this train only had one passenger, aside from them and the ponies driving the train the only other ponies on board were royal guards. In the five car train set, the middle car was a specially made prisoner transport, flanked front and back by a full company of guards to ensure the guest of honor wasn’t inclined to do anything stupid.

“So, they’re thinking she’s the one who killed Fungus…whatshisname a year ago?” said one guard to his partner. Normally royal guards were sworn to always be silent when on duty if not relaying orders while in action. But like all enlisted individuals, they tended to be a bit lax when they were not being watched and standing shift for several hours on end got boring.

“Tempus Fugit,” replied the other guard. “Yeah, I read the coroner’s report on that one— totally eviscerated him.” He nodded with his head to the highly dangerous pony within. “Don’t know what she had going against a clockmaker with a clean record, but a cover as one of the best pool sharks in the country? Like, did they even say why Corner Shot of all ponies is now the prime suspect for the murder?”

“Heard it involved some kind of stealth knife trick she’s got goin’ on—just look at those wings, how she hid them is anypony’s guess but ‘parently the knives they confiscated off of her matched the broken blade of one they got as evidence—pulled it from that pony’s floor while cleaning up the blood as I recall.”

“Guess whoever was doing clean up that day was on…the edge of discovery, eh?” The two guards snickered at the bad pun, while as far as they could tell, Corner Shot was still safely locked up tight within the armored cell flanked by guards, sleeping away.

What they didn’t know was she’d had to listen to their moronic banter for several hours straight and the only decision she’d had to mull over was which one of them would die firsta choice easily made when the unlucky winner had cracked that awful, awful pun.

As silently as she could—the rather boisterous chatter of the guards providing ample background noise for her purposes—Corner had unwound a bobby pin hidden in her fetlocks and with some difficulty freed herself from the shackles. As she lay with her back to the guards—extremely poor planning on their part, the pegasus mused, though very much an advantage to her—they wouldn’t know she was free until they came into the cell, at which point it would be too late for them to stop her. And just in time for lunch.

“Alright, you bloodthirsty bitch,” taunted one of the guards, “here’s your mushy oats—be thankful we’re giving you any lunch, if things were done my way you’d be left starving. Murderers like you don’t deserve this kind of hoofservice, frankly.”

Corner did not respond, rather she just lay there motionless.

“Hey!” called out the guard again, rattling the door to the cell. “You sleepin’ or somethin’? I know you haven’t been fed all day, but I’m not complain’ if you wanna starve yourself!”

“Uh, hold on a sec,” said the other guard, worriedly, “what if she’s, y’know…dead?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“No, seriously, I’ve heard of stories where cult assassins have one of their teeth removed and replaced with a tooth-shaped capsule of iocane. If they get caught, they bite down and break open the false tooth, committing suicide by poison basically.”

“Wouldn’t she already have done that back when she got caught?”

The second guard shrugged. “Maybe she forgot, only to accidently do herself in now? Only one way to check.”

The first guard nickered. “Your funeral, pal, but if you wanna go check, be my guest.”

Slowly, the second guard slipped into the cell and cautiously approached the green mare. He was practically right on top of her when he realized the shackles were off.

“Oh, sh—” he began, but never got the chance to finish as Corner then sprung to life and in one swift motion wrapped one of the chains around the guard’s neck, making it audibly snap. The other guard now moving in on her sword drawn, she used the dead guard as a shield to block the surviving guard’s attack, then swiftly slit his throat with the first guard’s sword.

“Idiots,” she spat, wiping the sword blade with her wings, before promptly going back to the first fallen guard and taking the scabbard for her own, then doing the same with the other guard’s weapon. Only as she did so, she noticed a slip of paper also in the second guard’s belt. Curious, she took it up and read it, a scowl coming across her face. As it turned out, the note was instructions for the guard in handling a charm that had been placed on him, largely to monitor her instead—so long as the now dead guard was in the same railcar as she was, if she tried to escape it would cause the rail car to explode and if she wasn’t immediately killed, it would seriously injure her. Not a deal breaker but it made getting out alive significantly harder, something Corner really was not in the mood for at the moment.

The sound of commotion from both ends of the rail car also meant she needed to hurry up and get out of there fast. Fortunately, it looked like this prison car had been rebuilt from an old passenger car, which meant it was mostly all-wood construction, including the floor. With little else in the way of choices, she took both swords and started whacking the hell out of the ground as the guards could now be heard shouting at the doors.

“STOP RIGHT THERE, CRIMINAL SCUM!”

For fuck’s sake it’s like they all say the exact same canned shit! mentally groaned Corner, who despite feeling weak after not having eaten anything all day had almost carved a large enough hole for her to get through. It would be risky, as she was counting on being able to tuck into the middle of the rails before the back wheel axle of the rail car knocked her lights out for good, but risk got her adrenaline pumping. This is what she lived for. Well, this and a nice game of pool, but since she couldn’t have the latter she’d go for the former.

With one last stroke, she’d made the hole wide enough just as the guards finally came piling through. With a sly grin, she taunted; “Well, you guys are gonna do a real bang-up job!” before plunging into the hole. The guards had no idea what she meant until one of the dead guards started to ominously glow…

Five miles down the line, the smoke from what had sounded like an explosion could be seen on the horizon. A forest ranger named Woodlands scowled as he watched a fire engine from the local town wail down the road as chances were one of those steam engines had probably exploded into a ball of fire.

“Always knew those damn things were ticking time bombs,” he muttered before retreating back into his solitary hut. He really wasn’t into the whole “friendship” ideal and found living by his lonesome far more appealing. Likewise, his job being posted in the middle of nowhere as a forest ranger to retrieve lost ponies in the woods largely supported that lifestyle. There was the one exception; his wife White Tulip, but as she was off visiting relatives it was just him.

Five minutes later, there was a knocking at the door, to which he begrudgingly answered. To his surprise, he found a green pegasus mare who looked tired, hungry, and as if she’d just been on the bad side of a dragon.

“Uh, hi?” sheepishly asked the mare, “I know you probably have a lot of questions, but if it’s not too much to ask, I really need some help.”

“Yeah, sure, come on in,” he replied, opening the door further and stepping aside to let the mare in. As she did so, she gave him a big smile.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” asked Shining.

“Totally,” said Razz, who pulled out several codices from a vault tucked far within the library. The door had been inscribed with DO NOT OPEN BY THE ORDER OF ARCHMAGUS BERYL in big black letters, even though the one who had put those words there was now paying them no heed. “Since I’m in town and I have the only other pony who can safely read Sombra’s bullshit with me, getting through more of this backlog of dark magic crap is something that still needs to be done every chance there is.”

“Well, why not see if Sunset could help whenever she has some free time?” Razz focused a deadpan stare on the prince consort, prompting him to amend his suggestion. “I mean, in all fairness this is precisely the kind of stuff that by looking into, she got onto Princess Celestia’s bad side, and—”

“And it ended up making her body into real estate for a raging, power hungry demoness,” finished Razz, having gone back to selectively pulling materials from the private vault. “I get what you’re saying, Shining, but even with her having defeated something of a truly evil magical nature and ascending to become an alicorn in the process, the last thing she needs to be working with is the most corruptive dark magic ever created...that is, unless you want Nightmare Moon, Part II.” The sudden look on the stallion’s face indicated that no, he hadn’t thought of that. “Furthermore,” she continued, “I absolutely refuse to run the risk of letting more of Sombra’s writings bleed into the human world—after Chernabog’s short-lived return to the physical plane—”

“Chenrawha?” asked Shining, confused.

“Chernabog,” Razz repeated, her tone dark as she recalled the monster that Sunset had faced. “Basically the human world’s version of the Nightmare Force, more or less. Obviously bringing that kind of pure evil into any world is bad news, but it happened because that idiot Di…” Razz caught herself and quickly evaded accidently incriminating the pony version of the human madman, “...er, Dimwit Wrong—"

“Was his name seriously ‘Dimwit Wrong’ of all things?”

“No, but after the crap he tried to pull I’m not giving him the respect to use his proper name,” she replied, adding in her thoughts especially since he doesn’t deserve it compared to the Divine Right of this world. She then proceeded to give Shining an abridged version of what she went through in the human world.

“Hey, that does remind me about something I wanted to ask you about, being that you were in the human world for longer than anypony…well, longer than anypony who still lives on this side of the mirror.”

Razz sighed—after she’d made the mistake of mentioning her own minor little adventures in the human world following Sunset’s little death and resurrection show, Twilight Sparkle had practically cornered her and assailed her with questions that, presumably, she’d not yet had the chance to ask Sunset about. Or, more realistically, she couldn’t ask Sunset about since the transplanted pony's thoughts were definitely not of the norm; if anything they were less equine and more primate in nature. “Chances are, what you’re gonna ask probably already crossed your little sister’s mind earlier, but go ahead.”

“Well, what can you tell me about their armies?”

“W-wha?” stammered Razz, feigning a cough caused by dust. Twilight most certainly had not asked about that topic, though likely because she’d been there for a few days and had come across something.

“I’ve always been big about military issues and the like,” said Shining, misinterpreting Razz’s reaction as a prompt for him to explain. “Obviously, being the head of the EUP probably indicates that, but when it comes to how armies exist here on our world, they’re largely the same kind of soldiers and tactics, the only variation being the specialized infantry playing to whatever race’s strengths are on the battlefield. But humans? They’re nothing like ponies or any other sentient species on Equus. Which means they probably fight wars very differently, and while I’d like to assume they’re also naturally peaceful, they’d need to keep an active force for peacekeeping right?”

Razz was not sure how to respond—she was certain he’d gotten the idea about how humanity differed in their armies from meeting the triplets, but given that he’d never seen them in action, that meant his information was still lacking.

“I would suggest you talk to Adagio and her sisters once they return,” Razz said delicately, “as they’re far more qualified to talk about that than I am.”

“That’s a good idea,” Shining agreed, “but surely you had to have seen something of their skills, right?”

Luckily, but as would prove unfortunate, a courtier saved Razz from answering by skidding to a halt in front of the two unicorns. “Your highness, your grace, both your presences have been requested by Princess Luna.”

“Oh, what’s the problem?” Shining asked.

The messenger gulped. “We just received word that a highly dangerous prisoner being moved to Las Pegasus has broken free!”

Razz’s heart sank. Corner Shot is loose? But…how?!

Once he arrived at his ancestral home, Divine wasted no time in looking at the statue garden and the central sculpture in the center of it: supposedly that of the Megan, the mythical human that had been so central to ponydom’s early years. He had no idea if she’d been real or not. Many noble families had claimed to descend from the Megan, whereas his family had never done so, instead just honoring her bravery and dedication to ponies, whether she’d been real or not.

Every time he saw her, he always wondered what it would be like if he were human. However, as always, he brushed it aside; if there was one thing he’d learned well from his studies, it was that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. He’d seen the recalcitrant behavior of so many of his relatives his age and it galled him; he always feared that if by some miracle he had the chance to become human, he wouldn’t know what to do with such power. After all, the Megan had been born human and with the limitless talents that portended...but no one knew if she was real or not, and the closest comparisons were alicorns, which Divine knew were just as capable of fallacy as the average pony.

“I thought I’d find you here,” an older voice behind him stated. He turned around to see an older stallion standing there, adjusting his glasses. The aged pegasus bowed, flaring out his wings in a sign of respect. “Your highness,” he said deeply.

“Saddleworth, you know you need never bow to me,” Divine told him.

The stallion chuckled. “As always, young master Divine, you show yourself to live up to your name. You are a credit to your family, and an honor to your parents, may they rest forever in the Great Pasture.” He sighed. “Would it that I could say the same of your sister.”

“Yes, I heard,” Divine said with some distaste. “Is she home?”

“She should be in the drawing room, sir,” Saddleworth told him, “though as always, she is being….” He searched for the words.

“A harridelle?” Divine offered.

“I was going to say, ‘difficult’, Master Divine,” Saddleworth told him.

“Don’t worry, I’ll deal with her.”

As promised, he found her in the drawing room. She was seated at one of her easels, painting. It had been one of her hobbies and back when they were foals, she had once expressed a desire that her cutie mark would let her do that. Of course, it did not, and her life had been markedly different ever since.

“Hello, Hi,” he said as he came in.

She didn’t even look at him. “Hello, brother,” she spoke. “Have you found your way under the tail of your little discount alicorn yet?”

His eyes narrowed. “My lady deserves a better commentary than that,” he told his sister. “She is one of the ruling alicorns––”

She finally turned to look at him, her sea-green eyes gazing into his golden ones. “What, no more ‘I wuv Twi-Twi and wanna mawwy her!’? Did you finally come to your senses and realize that pretty prissy little Pollyanna simply won’t do as a method of bringing our family back to its rightful position?”

“You are on the verge of being treasonous, sister,” he warned her.

“And you’re never going to get out from under her tail, are you?”

He took a deep breath, then looked back at her, not bothering to wipe the scowl from his face. “My feelings for Twilight have nothing to do with why I am here.”

“Then why are you here?” she said with a cruel smile. “Unless...you actually plan to accept that proposal I suggested two months ago? Baron Upstanding’s daughter is available and it would be a good match for you, even if she is a bit...plain,” she told him. “Besides, I’m sure she has a maid or two that could keep you busy in the meanwhile.”

“No thanks; I am not here to further your aims.” He looked at her and said tersely, “I have just come from meeting with the new princess-to-be, Baroness Sunset Shimmer.”

“Another discount alicorn, I see,” she yawned, turning back to her painting. “Well, if nothing else, I will say your taste in tails seems to aim in the right direction, even if for the wrong reasons.”

“Power is never a reason for marriage.”

“Wrong—power is the only reason for marriage,” she barked back. “Look at our cousin Blueblood. Now he knows how to play the game correctly. The only reason he hasn’t kicked that little musician foreleg candy of his to the gutter is because he probably has yet to find a worthy match.” She pursed her lips. “A shame we’re related; I could almost see myself—”

“Please; I had breakfast on the train and do not want to be ill from your sick mentality,” he told her. “Anyway, I know you will try something while Princess Sunset is investured. And I know you will try to directly challenge her authority. My suggestion to you is simple: don’t. I have met her in person and she makes Twilight look timid in comparison.”

She laughed. “Anypony could make that walking library look good in comparison.”

“And yet she’s vanquished foes that make you wet your bed at night.” He turned to depart. “Anyway, I said my piece, Hi. I hope for your sake you come to your senses someday.”

“And I hope you decide to crawl out from Twilight’s vagina someday, you fool,” she hissed at him as he departed.

Chapter 25: Under (De)Construction

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Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 25—Under (De)Construction

“Mr. Woodland!” called out the guard, knocking on the door. “Mr. Woodland, I’m with the Royal Guard! Are you home? We need to talk!”


It had been almost eighteen hours since the assassin known as Corner Shot had managed to break out of captivity while in transport, killing several guards and causing significant damage to rail service between Las Pegasus and the rest of the country in the process when she somehow managed to make a rail car explode by undisclosed means. Now a realmwide pony hunt was in effect—in secret, with the coronation of another princess coming up, it was decided that the guard try to keep it as much under wraps as possible. While Woodlands’ position as a park ranger meant he should have been notified sooner, the usual red tape in organizing the search had delayed him being called upon for hours.


“Mr. Woodland, are you—" called out the guard again, knocking harder on the door this time and to his surprise finding the door suddenly opening—it had been unlocked. Immediately wary of what that could mean, the guard signaled his compatriots to arm themselves as danger could be lurking in the house. With well-practiced coordination, the guards slowly made their way through the house, making sure each room was clear before the next.


They found Woodland in his bed, his throat slit with a carving knife. But almost as if in some twisted humor, above his bed they saw the words “nothing personal” gouged into the wall. Several knives were also missing from the cutting block in the kitchen, meaning the last pony to pay Woodland a visit had no intention of repaying his hospitality in kind.

In her chambers at Canterlot Castle, Twilight pushed aside the ever-growing pile of government paperwork. She’d initially thought to bring the paperwork with her in order to save time, but now she was having second thoughts about that...as well as third and fourth thoughts.

“If me and the girls ever have to fight an enemy whose primary form of attack is entirely made up of paperwork,” she sighed, “then Equestria may well and truly be doomed!” Her mind, ever hungry for knowledge, demanded that it be fed something actually interesting than going over Ponyville’s new re-zoning policy for the fifth time that day.

That’s when she remembered Razz had happened to give something to her—a rather nondescript collection of hoofwritten pages that the archmagus had said might be prudent to get published in light of recent events. Buried in work, Twilight had promised to get to it, but of course the government papers simply kept growing...then again, she was a freakin’ Princess. If she wanted a break to do something fun, then damn it she had every right to do so! The papers from Razz, set off in a corner, levitated in a warm purple-pink glow before floating over to where Twilight sat—while at the same time a cup and a bottle of some fine elderberry wine also flew over in the same glow. Pouring out the delicious beverage, Twilight got herself comfortable in her chair and began reading.

A STUDY INTO THE NATURE OF DARK MAGIC
BY R. BERYL, ARCHMAGUS OF DARK MAGIC

It is easy to say that there is still as much unknown about magic on Equus as there is known to pony kind. Of the gaps in knowledge, the biggest void is that which concerns the realm of dark magic. History is filled with examples of how dark magic, or as it is lesser known; Black Magic, was sought by those wanting to understand its properties or, more often, bend it to their will, but in both cases it was the magic which got the better of those wielders. Such dangers are an obvious reason as to why the founding laws of Equestria make no uncertain terms that the punishment for dark magic use will be considered an act of treason, with the traitor to be put to death. Of course, given the mental state of out of control dark magic users, it is ironic that the only one who not only survived long enough after being found out, but even willingly was put on trial, ended up having the death sentence overturned by the order of the princesses.

I, Raspberry Beryl, am the first pony since the days of King Sombra to openly wield dark magic, let alone in the same overwhelming capacity as he, and for that I was supposed to have been killed. However, I am unique in that while my state has rendered me powerful in the dark arts at the cost of being unable to use virtually any other kind of magic, my special talent as a pony is that I actually am mostly immune to the corruptive effects of constant dark magic use. And that is why even though my powers are the stuff of nightmares, my loyalty is to Equestria and to that end I use my abilities to help protect the nation in a way nopony else ever has before. After all, who better to study the unknowns about dark magic than the mare who has it running through her very veins? My experience with dark magic has given me an understanding first-hoof that helps explain the nature of the enigma that has been such a problem for pony kind.

At this point, Twilight tuned out the rest of the essay. She’d read some florid prose before, but this had to be some of the most purple there was—and given that she was a purple alicorn, that was saying a lot.

I know Razz didn’t have as extensive an education as I did, but still…. She sighed; she was going to have to sit down with her friend and go over the essay as soon as possible. If nothing else, once the other mages took a look at it, they would be afraid to read further – not because they feared the influence of their archmagus infecting them with dark magic, but instead with terminal boredom.


Finishing up her drink, Twilight then focused on the report that Divine had given her an hour ago. And not a minute too soon, glumly thought Twilight, since Corner is on the loose and the fourth Scion is unknown...we might have a real dark magic problem soon enough and the populace is still woefully uninformed about it.

Blue eyes looked across the road, making sure nopony was around to see her. Then, gingerly, she emerged from the thick woods onto the dirt path leading into the town—the black coated pegasus with white and gray mane and tail hairs, a cutie mark of a cloud with two thunderbolts coming out of it like the two top lines of a triangle. The simply named ‘Thunderbolt’ certainly seemed to be uneasy, as if she wasn’t anywhere she was supposed to be. Opening her wings, she was slightly dismayed to see that the magical disguise spell wasn’t entirely perfect and that the middle of her wings still clearly exposed the changeling-chitin made knife racks, which currently had a collection of random kitchen knives roughly secured in them. It certainly made keeping her wings closed uncomfortable, but closed and concealed was better than practically advertising her real identity.

As a skilled Covenant assassin, as well as national Pool star, Corner Shot had more than just knives and lockpicks hidden in her wings. One of the few other things in her ‘swiss army wings’ as she sometimes considered them was a reserve disguise hair clip. It wasn’t as efficient as her normal hair clip, but her normal pool cue clip only had to hide her wings behind a guise of normal feathers—the reserve hairclip was styled to be a simple yellow thunderbolt, but its charm was supposed to be more powerful by giving her full body a different guise. However, in order to escape detection, the charm’s power wasn’t as capable as it could have been, as to avoid magical sensory scans meant to find such things. As a result, there was a time limit to how long it could last on a single charge and because she wasn’t a unicorn, Corner had to use it sparingly. Unfortunately, now that the entire country knew she was at large and insanely dangerous at that, she had to pull out her trump card.

Also didn’t help that Razz still had her pool cue hair clip, either.

Now, she had about maybe twelve hours to meet a Covenant contact she knew was in the next town—Harborsport—before the charm lost all power and let her back in her easily recognizable four-tone mane and pool table green coat. And she honestly didn’t know what to do if that happened.

The Saddleback Mountain Inn certainly wasn’t the most up to date building, having been built out of logs maybe several decades ago when the town was still relatively small. Now that the town had grown farther, the old place certainly looked old and somewhat decrepit.

‘Thunderbolt’ certainly didn’t feel it held the same charm as the Traveler’s Retreat, and the thought sent an inexplicable sense of despair through her.

Can’t ever go back there, she thought sadly, as she stepped into the doors that looked like they probably were only being held together by the remnants of paint still on them.

The inside was just about as cheerful as the exterior. Apparently, what was saved by not having given the outside a new paint job this side of its construction date, was not being reinvested into the interior decoration. Or lighting. If anything, the place looked like a seedy opium den—and in some sense probably was. Corner had been in such places when she was getting her start in the pool scene. She wasn’t too fond of being back in such a place. To her surprise, the establishment did have a small bar area—and she’d stolen enough bits from that older stallion she’d murdered in his bed that she could afford a stiff drink.

The other denizens of the bar gave her curious looks as she made her way to the bar, each one of them looking as decrepit as the place itself. Taking a seat—and boy was that seat uncomfortable—at the bar, she flagged down the barkeep. He looked just as seedy as the inn, with five o’clock shadow, a bad mustache, and more than a few scars on his face.

“What’ll it be? A room? A drink?” The stallion smiled in a way Corner didn’t like. “Maybe some, uh... ‘company’?”

“If the quality of the ‘company’ here is the same as everything else, I’ll pass,” Corner said, slapping a few bits down on the counter. “A drink will suffice. Got any Pocardi Black Crystal rum? 36 BL?”

A place like this wouldn’t have a drink of that quality, of course, but that wasn’t the point. The barkeep gave her a knowing nod and simply filled a filthy mug from the tap.

“Find solace in the shadows,” the barkeep recited, as he had no doubt rehearsed.

“The sun makes them long and plentiful,” Corner replied, completing the coded exchange before taking a sip of the grossly cheap alcohol in her mug and getting straight to business. “I need to see—”

“Our leader, I know, I know,” Barkeep drawled with a slimy grin. “I was told you’d be coming.”

Rather than proceed to help her, though, the barkeep continued about his work wiping down the bar top with a filthy rag. Corner Shot waited as long as her patience would allow, which was to say no more than a few seconds.

“We gonna get moving soon? Time is kinda short here.”

But to Corner’s growing annoyance, the barkeep made no move to help her. He just kept wiping down the bar.

“Relax. Have yer drink. We’ve got time—guards know better than to poke their noses around in here. Even after the mess you made of their li’l choo-choo train.” He then proceeded to pantomime pulling a train whistle, going “whoo-whoooooo” before indulging in an exaggerated explosion sound effect.

“Yup, way I hear it, you been makin’ quite a few messes lately,” the annoying barkeep continued. “Pony with as much heat as you got on ya might draw the wrong eyes to the boss’ abode, if you don’ mind my sayin’ so.”

“I do, in fact, mind your sayin’ so,” Corner growled, getting pretty sick and tired of playing games with some low-level go-between. “Obviously you know who I really am, which means you know how much I outrank you. Take me to Father Lux, or I might just have to pull some of that rank.”

At that, Barkeep only laughed. “Missy, you been hangin’ around the sun tyrant’s lackeys too long: you’ve started thinkin’ like they do. Ranks don’t mean nothin’ in the Covenant. Faith is where true power is.”

“Are you seriously lecturing me about faith? Knowing who I am?” Corner was glaring daggers at the barkeep now, and seeing his indifferent grin, decided it was time to employ some very real ones.

Corner grabbed him by the mane with one hoof and drew one of her stolen kitchen knives from her wing-sheath with the other and held it to the grinning barkeep’s throat. At the same time, a chorus of chairs squeaking against the wood floors sounded, followed swiftly by a dozen more blades being drawn. Corner didn’t have to look to know that every other patron of the Saddleback Mountain was now standing behind her, armed and ready to intervene.

“I told ya to relax, missy! Don’t want nobody to get hurt now!” The barkeep exclaimed with the same shit-eating grin.

Glancing back at the bar full of thugs ready and waiting for her next move, Corner considered her options and wasn’t happy with what she found. She figured she could take about half of them before they overwhelmed her, and with how little room to maneuver there was in the establishment, she didn’t like her odds. Not to mention a fight was bound to draw more guards to her anyway, and she’d still be without a direction to head.

So Corner released her grip on Barkeep and slowly returned the knife to its ill-fitting sheath.

“Thatta girl, knew ya had a good head on yer shoulders!” Barkeep exclaimed, tapping the side of his own head for good measure. “And don’t you fret none! Yer faith will be rewarded in due time! Now, I can see yer gettin’ impatient, so I’ll jus’ get right on down to brass tacks, shall I?”

“About damn time,” Corner said, taking another sip of whatever murky shit was in her mug.

“See, I got myself a little problem that is perfectly suited for one of yer, uh… skillset,” Barkeep started.

Corner nodded. “Oooh, I see. So who do you want dead?”

Barkeep smiled and pointed to his head again, seeming amused at Corner’s ability to put two and two together before motioning for her to lean in closer so he could whisper, “We got us a sheep that’s strayed from the flock, if’n ya know what I mean. Feller’s been with the Covenant for decades, and thinks he can jus’ up and leave. I guess you could say he lost his faith.” Then for the first time since Corner stepped into this shithole, Barkeep’s grin vanished in a puff of smoke, and his countenance grew dark. “And as you well know, the Covenant does not abide the faithless.”

Corner understood. “Where is he?”

“Feller got himself a cozy li’l farm just outside of town here. I’ll get ya the address. Way I hear it, he’s plannin’ on leavin’ tonight. Thinks we ain’t wise to his plans. Wisen him up, missy.”

Corner nodded. Dealing with a traitor to her cause may be just the thing she needed to turn around her thoroughly lousy day. “What’s he look like?”

At that Barkeep’s grin returned, and there was something about it that was… different than it was before. Suffice to say, it set Corner ill at ease.

“Oh, don’t you fret none, Miss Shot. Somethin’ tells me you’ll know him when ya see him!”

Barkeep had been right about one thing, Corner mused. The farmstead that her quarry called home was cozy looking. Sat atop a hill far off the beaten path, the farmhouse overlooked a field of corn stretching on for a good seven acres. Down the path from the farmhouse was the barn, which Corner immediately noted was unusually quiet. Evidently whoever lived here had sold off whatever livestock he had, which only made sense. He wouldn’t bring them if he was trying to beat a hasty retreat.

Corner approached the house and knocked on the door. Seconds passed. A minute. All the while, Corner was wracked by some anxiety she couldn’t explain. Something significant was going to happen here, or so some feeling deep in her bones told her. Corner shook the feeling away and knocked on the door again, and when another minute passed with no movement in the house, she reached for the lockpicks in her swiss-army wings.

Soon Corner was inside the house, and wasted no time in searching. She spotted a framed photo on the wall of two fillies between the ages of eight and ten. Corner turned away from it—she didn’t need to know about the family this guy would be leaving behind when she was through. Fearing her quarry might have skipped town earlier than expected, Corner checked the master bedroom. Two suitcases were partially packed, but still very much present. They hadn’t left town yet.

Movement out the window into the backyard caught Corner’s eye, and Corner looked out to see a figure in the back garden, tending to a patch of sunflowers.

Soon Corner was outside, making her way swiftly and silently to the sunflower patch. Her finely toned senses could pick up the stallion watering the flowers. She navigated between green stalks until she got a better look at the figure nourishing them. He had a coat of green that was just a few shades lighter than her own, and something about it seemed intimately familiar.

Corner moved silently closer with a lifetime’s training behind her, yet the stallion’s ears perked at her approach anyway. As his head started to turn her way time seemed to slow, and Corner’s killer instinct to throw one of the half-dozen knives from their sheath was combated when she and the stallion locked eyes, and all at once memories started flooding back, and with them, feelings; feelings as unnecessary as they were paralyzing. The old, black-maned face looking back at her was one she knew well, and that anxiety returned when she realized this was what Barkeep had meant when he said she’d know her quarry when she saw him.

Corner could never forget the stern yellow eyes of her mentor, or his hard square jaw. His own wings twitched in a familiar way when he looked at her, and Corner belatedly realized that in her stupor, she was scratching her wings in her own specific, unique way.

Evidently her mentor spotted it immediately, for even though she was still wearing her magical disguise hair clip, the old stallion greeted her. “Hello, Corner.”

“Father Tilled Fields….”

“Just Tilled Fields now, or so you’ve probably heard,” the old stallion said with a sigh. “I should have known they would send you.”

The sound of the smooth, ever stoic gravel that was Fields’ voice caused even more memories to flood through Corner unbidden. Unwanted. Hours of gruelling training alongside fillies and colts she considered brothers and sisters; Covenant assassins-to-be. The harsh words of encouragement from Father Tilled Fields, and the pride hidden within those words as Corner rose to the top among her peers. The few moments of peace she had with their Father, when he looked at her with genuine affection.

“Well, if you’re just going to stand there and gawk, I hope you’ll let me indulge in a final drink,” Fields said, removing his familiar tin flask from a pouch on his side and took a swig of whatever was inside. He then offered his flask to her. “Care to join me?”

Corner decided that whatever was in there was probably better than what she’d had at the Saddleback Mountain, and took her old mentor up on his offer, if only so she could wash out the bad taste. It only brought back more memories, as Corner recalled Father Fields allowing her a sip from the very same flask during her teenage years. This time the memory only served to make her angry, and she scowled at what had once been her Father.

“If you’re going to kill me, I only ask that you not harm my family,” Fields said. Even pleading, he was calm and stoic. “They know nothing of my life in the Covenant. They pose no threat.”

“Just tell me why,” she intoned. “After everything you’ve done, why would you betray the cause?!”

“I’m not betraying the cause. I still have no more love for the sun tyrant than you do. But it’s because of everything I’ve done for the cause that I no longer want any part of it.”

“What are you talking about?! You’ve done so much good, not just for the cause, but for us! For me!” Corner fought the lump in her throat as she continued. “You gave me a family, a purpose! Are you really saying you regret all that?!”

Corner spread her wings, baring her teeth and her blades, but Fields only looked at her sadly, like a thing to be pitied.

“I don’t regret building you up, Corner. You or your siblings. I only regret what I built you into.”

Taking a shaky step closer to him, Corner asked, “And what did you build me into, Father?”

“A weapon. A blade for them to wield as they see fit, taking life indiscriminately.”

“Indiscriminately?! Everyone I’ve killed was a cog in the sun tyrant’s machine,” Corner said, thrusting a trembling hoof towards him. “You taught me that! You!”

“Exactly my point,” Fields sighed. “I haven’t equipped you with the means to think for yourself: To ask questions, and for that I am sorry.” His voice remained stoic as ever, but for the first time since she’d known him, Corner thought she saw moisture in his eyes. “I’ve failed you, my child.”

Corner’s ear then flicked as she heard voices on the wind: a mare and two small fillies approaching the farmstead.

Fields frowned. “Hmm. They’re home early.”

The old stallion then looked at her and waited, and Corner finally realized what was really going on: she was being tested. Two paths lay before her, one to a life where she could be free to do and think as she pleased, and the other….

Corner remembered what she’d learned the night she fought Raspberry Beryl and her entourage, and realized that like it or not, her choice was already made for her. So reaching out, she did what she’d always dreamed of doing as a filly and pulled her Father into a soft, tender embrace.

“I’m sorry too,” she said. And then Corner Shot started to squeeze. As Tilled Fields started to choke and gasp at the tightening of her forelegs around his neck, Corner whispered as comfortingly as she could into his ear. “It’s okay… you don’t have to blame yourself for what I am. The truth is, my destiny was sealed from the moment I was born.”

Tilled Fields desperate struggles paused, and Corner knew he had figured it out. “Yes, I am heir to our dark lord’s legacy. His blood runs through my veins.” Corner tightened her grip further, and kept tightening until her muscles hurt. “So you see? There was nothing more you could have done for me.”

Finally, Tilled Fields gave his last gasping breath, and Corner tenderly lowered him to the earth he had worked so hard cultivating. “Thank you,” she said, looking at how peaceful his stern face was now. In truth, she envied it. Learning of her true bloodline should have only strengthened her resolve, but somehow, she found herself more torn than ever.

She heard the voices of Fields’ fillies call out to him, and envied them too, so full of innocence. A shame that innocence won’t last, Corner thought, looking at the body of her mentor. No one’s ever does.

So turning away from her dead mentor, Corner left the sunflower patch, putting the farmstead behind her. She didn’t want to be in earshot when the body was found.

Corner Shot found Barkeep sitting on the steps outside the Saddleback Mountain Inn, apparently taking a smoke break. His familiar slimy grin appeared when he saw her coming, and he got up and did a spidery little jig as she approached.

“Woowee lookit who’s back already!” Barkeep exclaimed. “Didja do the deed?”

Corner Shot was having none of it, and slammed him against the side of the Inn, pinning him there with her hooves and her glare.

“What kind of twisted game are you playing here, asshole?!”

Barkeep laughed, and Corner called on her training not to recoil at his breath. “Ain’t playin’ no games, no ma’am!”

“Oh really? So I suppose you just conveniently forgot to tell me who my target was?!” Corner spat. “Maybe he isn’t the only turncoat I should deal with!”

Barkeep patted one of the hooves pinning him to the wall in a way that was maybe meant to be reassuring. “Missy, I get the desire to shoot the messenger, I really do. But I was only doing what was instructed of me.”

Reluctantly, Corner let the spider of a stallion go. “And who was it that told you to spend the day yanking my chain?”

At that, Barkeep pointed to his own head again and said, “C’mon, you were doin’ such a good job with this before!”

It all came together for Corner then. “So Neon Lux put you up to this, huh?”

“Bing bing bing!” Barkeep exclaimed in reply.

“What the hell for?”

Barkeep leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially. “Like I told ya earlier: Faith is everything in the Covenant. None of us’d even be here without it! Father Neon Lux just wanted to make sure you hadn’t lost yours.” Barkeep giggled almost girlishly. “After all, you did fail yer mission, right? The one where you were supposed to recruit Razzmatazz Somepony? I didn’t see her with ya when you came in.”

Corner scowled and spread her wings, and Barkeep raised his hooves placatingly. “Hey hey hey, we all gotta have as much faith in each other as we do in our Dark Lord’s will, right? And now that you’ve proved you still have faith in Him, we can all continue to have faith in you!”

Barkeep then turned to face the street and shouted to the bustling ponies passing by, “AIN’T FAITH A MARVELOUS THING???”

For their part, the passersby only gave him curious looks and muttered things under their breath before carrying on with their day, but Barkeep’s enthusiasm was undeterred, giggling insanely.

Corner simply gave him a lidded look. “You done? I’d kinda like to get going before this disguise enchantment wears off.”

“Of course ya do!” Barkeep said, picking up a set of saddlebags and placing them on his back. “Well, no time like the present right? Now c’mon, Father Neon Lux is waiting!”

With some downtime that she had while the group had begun the basic planning for Sunset’s coronation, it gave Raspberry some time to read the next chapter of The Rose with the Broken Neck. The chapters were beginning to thin out as she reached towards the end of the book, and as she did so, she wondered if the poor girl that had been the crux of the story would live to see the end.

Admittedly, this had all occurred hundreds of years ago, but even still, Razz hoped that the Rose would have returned to Italy safe and sound.

The chances of that happening, however, she knew to be pretty much a folly.

===

DAY 162:

My spies in Equestria tell me that Everfree is gathering its forces, that Celestia and Luna are gearing up for war. Their aim is to oust me from my rightful throne, and though I am not surprised, it is nonetheless pathetic, in my opinion.

All because of a small, unimportant village? Starlight, or Light Star, or whatever the name of it was? It was on my lands – my territory! The damnable Equestrians, trying to take lands from me, even going so far as to put up a blatantly false sign stating that the village was fifteen leagues from the border. What, do they think me addlepated? Stupid? A foolish, doddering idiot like their mother was? At least Faust would have seen reason!

These foals who fancy themselves warrior queens need more than a bit of growing up to do. Regardless, my forces have been trained to the fullest, and my generals assure me that they are ready. Every able-bodied pony from the age of ten and up is within my forces, and while there are some complaints by the peasantry that they will starve, that is hardly a major consideration. I will tend to the survivors once the war is over.

And it will be over soon, not only due to the forces I have at my disposal, but other methods I have prepared as well.

The first is my newest personal weapon, the product of years of painstaking research. My armorers have created a new mystical focus – an amulet – that refracts and amplifies the magic of any unicorn using it significantly. Just putting it in the hooves of a lesser unicorn will cause said caster’s magic to grow a thousandfold. But under my use? I will break the Sisters, and I will do so before their armies. Even from where I stand, I can feel the amulet, calling me from the secret armory I have it placed in. It sings to my blood and my power sings back, creating a beautiful duet that I will use to crush Everfree the moment they step out of line.

But it is the second weapon, revealed to me today that is of far more value than the amulet. The product of Mangle-leg’s countless hours of loyal toiling and slaving away to create something worthy of her liegelord, and I can honestly say she has outdone herself. After nearly two weeks, she has successfully grafted parts of the changeling queen to the Rose, blending them and fusing them into one being. As I look at the Rose now, she is even more hideous than before, far more by her gruesome human standards and certainly by that of pony mares. Her mind under Mangle-leg’s complete control thanks to the Compulsion, she sits there on the ground, vacant-eyed, her hand playing with the black chitinous foreleg that replaced her other one.

At first I ask Mangle-leg what she has done; the Rose is completely useless to me as such. Then Mangle-leg smiles and tells the Rose to change.

And she does.

In the space of a second, a flash of verdant magic burns around her and what was this monstrosity a second ago becomes a rather dull-looking blue pony with a brownish-yellow mane. Mangle orders her to change several more times and the Rose complies, becoming a green pegasus; a gray earth pony; an orange unicorn; a lilac batpony; then a griffin, a minotaur and finally, Princess Celestia herself.

I know that the Rose hasn’t seen any of those other forms; she barely knows anything other than ponies exist. How? I ask Mangle, and my studious friend has the answer.

“Essential memory, my lord,” she tells me. “The changelings must prey on all the world’s beings and so must know how to change into one at a moment’s notice, so they must all share the same memories within their hive mind. That makes her the perfect weapon, so long as we keep her under heavy dosage of Compulsion.” I ask how much, and she tells me, “To create the average nzambi, I only need a single dose. To turn the living into a willing slave, I need a double dose. But for her?” She looks at me gravely and admits, “Nearly fifty doses