Three More Things!

by Tatsurou

First published

Uncle Chan tries to balance running an antique shop, fighting demons, and being a Chi Wizard with being a loving Uncle to his nephew, his somewhat removed niece...and three little ponies who drive him straight up the wall.

Uncle lives a very fulfilling life at his antique shop. It's peaceful and quiet for the most part, just how he likes it. Of course, he's a skilled chi wizard, so he knows better than to actually let the universe know that he's content. So he complains.

A lot.

Then one day, a basket containing three infant magical ponies arrives, and his peaceful life goes out the window...to be replaced with, perhaps, something a little more than contentment.

The universe, apparently, is smarter than he gave it credit for, because now he has "Three More Things!" to complain about to hide just how much they mean to him.


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Part of the PWNY-verse.

First chapters take place approximately 10 years before the events of the first episode of the show.

Edit: Cover Art put together by Shadow Bolt
Edit 2: New Cover Art by Swan Song. Link to his page in image source.
Edit 3: Level Dasher commissioned an image of the CMC with their new Cutie Marks from Katakiuchi4U over on Deviantart. Here's the pic!

Potion Problems, Windows and Doors

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Zecora smiled as she watched the three young fillies looking around the inside of her hut. With the return of the Elements to the Tree of Harmony, the Everfree Forest had become much safer to traverse, at least along the more well traveled routes. This, thankfully, included both the direct route from Ponyville to the Castle of the Two Sisters above the Tree of Harmony, and the direct path from Ponyville to Zecora's hut. As such, certain restrictions had been relaxed, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders were allowed to enter the Everfree Forest on the condition they stuck to those safe paths. Apple Bloom had capitalized on that to explore her fascination with Zecora's potion work, and Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo tagged along frequently, much as they had today.

"So what are you working on Zecora?" Sweetie Belle asked sweetly, staring at the bubbling cauldron the zebra shamare was adding ingredients to.

Zecora clicked her tongue, gently nudging the young unicorn away from the cauldron with her hoof. "As a scholar, one never reaches peak. It is new secrets of magic that I seek." She added one last ingredient and stirred. "When this spell is unfurled, we shall gaze into another world."

"Really?" Apple Bloom asked eagerly, racing to Zecora's side. "How'd you do that?" She wilted as she saw Zecora's disapproving gaze. "...too advanced for me?" she interpreted. Smiling encouragingly, Zecora nodded, pleased that Apple Bloom remembered the lessons she'd been given about seeking new knowledge before she was ready for it.

"Another world, huh?" Scootaloo asked, climbing up onto a stool so she could see into the swirling cauldron. "That ought to be pretty cool to see!"

"Mollify your expectation," Zecora warned. "What I seek might not bring you elation. To learn what secrets in that world might be, it is another like myself that I wish to see."

Apple Bloom's eyes widened, attempting to clamber onto Scootaloo's stool to see into the cauldron. "You mean we'll see the other world's version of you?" she asked excitedly even as Scootaloo hopped down, apparently having lost interest.

Nodding, Zecora completed the potion mixture, chanting the spell to activate it, a spell she'd learned from her travels in the Far East. "Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao...Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao..."

That's a new one, Sweetie Belle thought to herself as she felt magic swirling around. Managing to get up beside Apple Bloom, she stared down into the cauldron in time to see what she readily recognized as an overhead view of an antique shop, having visited one once with Rarity. "An antique shop?" she asked, surprised.

Glancing at a few of the things scattered around in the shop, Apple Bloom lifted her gaze to a few things scattered around Zecora's hut. "Huh...really does seem like this place scaled up," she muttered.

Scootaloo clambered up on top of her friends, staring into the cauldron just as a figure emerged. "What's that?" she asked, pointing.

"That's a human!" Sweetie Belle explained. "Princess Twilight told us about them last tutoring session! I never thought we'd get to see a human world!" She stared at the figure. "Hmm...from what Twilight said, that white hair and those wrinkles, he must be pretty old."

"So we're staring at some old geezer puttering around his antiques?" Scootaloo grumbled.

"Do not let appearances make you take this one lightly," Zecora scolded. "For these eyes perceive a wizard mighty."

"Really?" Apple Bloom asked eagerly, leaning forward. "Hey, I think he's chanting something!" She started to lean forward.

"Let me see!" Scootaloo griped, pushing forward to get a better look.

"Hey stop pushing!" Sweetie Belle complained as the stool they were on began to shake.

"Careful now my young friends!" Zecora warned. "I know not how contact with this potion might end!"

Just as a spell took shape in the antique shop below, the three fillies tumbled forward into the cauldron, vanishing into the liquid as the boundary between dimensions fluctuated. Desperately, Zecora grabbed a reversal potion she'd prepared just in case this happened and poured it into the cauldron. Unfortunately, the potion had been made without taking into account the possibility of the one she was observing working magic of his own.

As Zecora stared at the end results, trying to think of how to salvage the situation, she came to an inescapable conclusion. "...forgive me, Fluttershy, for I must cry...fuck, all kinds of duck..."


Uncle smiled inside his own mind as he puttered around his antique shop. His life in San Fransisco was peaceful and quiet for the most part, just the way he liked it. San Francisco itself was relatively quiet. His shop got just enough business to turn a profit, but not so much that it took time away from his own studies and pursuits. His nephew, Jackie, had just started his career as an archaeologist, and every so often he stopped by with something from a dig for Uncle to translate. All in all, Uncle was quite content with his life.

Of course, Uncle was also a highly trained chi wizard, and understood the workings of the fundamental magical forces of creation better than most individuals. As such, he knew better than to talk about how content he was anywhere near a concentration of magical energy...which was both San Francisco in general and his own Chi Laboratory specifically. Instead, he complained frequently about things that only somewhat mattered to his happiness.

"One more thing!" he said to no one in particular. "Why do spiders always choose the most expensive antiques to spin their webs in? It is not like the flies are art connoisseurs. One more thing! Why can I not manage to fix the burner for the tea so the water is just right? It is always too hot or too cold!"

These matters didn't actually bother him as much as he made out, but the powers that be enjoyed messing with people's happiness, and Uncle didn't want them interfering with his contentment. Unfortunately for him, either the powers that be were smarter than he gave them credit for...or one of them wanted to give him happiness to mess with.

Uncle shivered as he felt a strange but recognizable sensation. "One more thing...Uncle has the willies! Someone is working magic on my shop!" Reaching under his counter, he pulled out a vial and a dried blowfish. Carefully, he poured the contents of the bottle over the fish, giving it the enchantment to ward off malevolent eyes. "Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao...Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao..."

Before his very eyes, the magic leapt from his blowfish and into a concentration of magic glowing in the air before him. More magic poured into it from somewhere, and Uncle stepped back. He knew better than to mess with an unknown working until its purpose was known.

As the light flared, three tiny figures dropped out, equine in shape but the size of kittens. One had a yellow coat with red mane and tail. Another was white with a striped purple and pink mane and tail. The last was dark orange with a purple mane and tail. All three had relatively large heads and very expressive faces.

Unfortunately for him, what the unknown infants seemed to be wanting to express was despair, as they all began wailing at ear piercing volume.

"AIYAH!" Uncle screamed out, desperately covering his ears. "Three more things!"

Portals and Parenting Ponies

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Zecora quickly grabbed every magic analyzing artifact off her shelves, doing everything she could to find out what, exactly, had just happened, and how - if at all - she could reverse it. Once she'd begun getting information, she began correlating it in her mind, not bothering to rhyme her thoughts as that was a waste of time...time she quickly realized she didn't have.

Well, the good news is that they're safely over there, she thought silently. The bad news is that they are foals, somehow. Even if I managed to bring them back, there's no telling what it would do to them, since the original transfer was a mixture of magics from both sides. Also, the world I'm observing...their timeline is not synched up to Equestria's. So when this portal closes, even if I manage to open another window, there's no guarantee it will be to the same moment...and the portal is closing, and fast.

Realizing she only had moments, if that, to try and help the young ponies, she did the only thing she could do...have faith in another practitioner of good magic to safeguard them until a solution could be found. Quickly writing out a letter, she dropped it into the cauldron. Moments later, the portal closed.

Desperately, she began brewing the window potion anew, hoping against hope she'd be able to find the same world soon.


Uncle kept his ears covered against the wailing of the three tiny creatures, trying to focus his senses so he could at least figure out what was happening. Finally, unable to take it, he shouted at the top of his voice, "AIYAH! Uncle cannot think in this noise! Quiet!" Much to his surprise, the din immediately ceased, the three tiny creatures staring up at him in shock. He did his best to smile reassuringly. "Much better."

Kneeling down, he began to examine the three creatures. "Hmm...a tiny bright colored horse?" he asked, picking up the yellow one. "Not what Uncle expected to see." The tiny foal giggled as he held her. "You are easily amused," he chided, setting her back down. "Uncle is not...a pegasus?" This brought more giggles, and not just from the tiny winged equine he'd picked up. Frowning, he set her to the side with the other. "And now what about..." His voice trailed off as he finally got a clear look at the last foal. "...aiyah..."

He stared in awe at the tiny white filly, who squirmed in his grip, plainly uncertain how to react to the attention. His eyes, however, were locked on her horn.

"Qi-lin..." he breathed, completely awestruck. "To think Uncle would be visited by infant Qi-lin...such great omen..." He gently set her down with the other two. "To come with a Qi-lin...you three are all creatures of great good magic...Uncle is truly blessed for such a visit-ow!" He rubbed his head as he picked up the scroll, made of paper unlike any he'd encountered before, bounced off his head, the binding of chi magic releasing the scroll as his eyes fell upon it. Lifting it, he read the contents.

Their names are Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo
All three are my dear friends true
From one sage to another, I beg of thee
Please tend to them till they return to me

Uncle rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Hmm...the scroll was bound by good chi. A good chi wizard like myself worries for you." He shrugged and smiled. "It is hardly my strangest quest as a Chi Wizard," he admitted, sitting down before the three foals. "Now...which of you is which? ...Apple Bloom?"

The yellow foal squeaked happily, her brown eyes shining happily.

Chuckling, he reached out and stroked her between her ears. "Sweetie Belle?"

The unicorn let out a high pitched squeak as she clambered into his lap.

Uncle smiled widely as he gently stroked her mane. He then scooped up the pegasus. "And you must be Scootaloo. Hmm, odd names."

Scootaloo stuck her tongue out at him.

Shaking his head, Uncle put the three foals together in front of him. "Uncle will take care of you three. But you must be well behaved and obey Uncle's rules. Understand?" Looking back down, he saw that all three foals had vanished. "Aiyah!"

The first thing he did was rush to the door, making sure it was closed and locked. After that, he raced through the rest of the shop and upstairs apartment, moving as fast as he could as he checked each and every window was closed and locked. Once he was certain that the three couldn't get out of the shop, he began searching for them.

When he did find them, however, he wished he hadn't, as they had made their way into his chi laboratory. "Aiyah!" he screamed out in panic, immediately getting their attention. "Apple Bloom, those potions are dangerous, not tasty treats!" Apple Bloom dropped the vial she'd been trying to drink from, causing it to break and the liquid inside to burst into purplish gas that, thankfully, only filled the room with a sweet scent. "One more thing! Sweetie Belle, that is an ancient and dangerous artifact, not a scratching post!" Sweetie Belle sank to the floor, taking her hooves off the large mystic blade she'd been trying to scrape her hooves against. "One more thing! Scootaloo, the ceiling is not for walking!" Pouting, Scootaloo dropped off the ceiling, landing in his arms.

Taking the three of them, he pulled them out of his laboratory, wanting to try and get them under control. Taking another vial, he drew a line across the doorway. "Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao...Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao..." Once the line of powder began to glow, he turned towards the three fillies, only to see them walk right over the line, Sweetie Belle pausing to eat some of the powder. "...right, creatures of good magic..." Uncle reminded himself, grabbing the three of them by their tails and pulling them back out, this time shutting the door. "Do not go in there," he instructed them firmly. "It is too dangerous!" He paused. "Uncle has the feeling that is going to be said a lot in the future..." A loud crash interrupted his musings. "Aiyah! Scootaloo, that was rare Ming vase, not a jungle gym!"

Nephew News

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Once Uncle had managed to sweep up the fragments of the rare Ming vase, he turned to face the three foals, ready to deliver a blistering remonstration against their reckless behavior...only to find all three sitting huddled together with their heads down, Scootaloo herself looking like she was about to burst into tears. Sighing, Uncle knelt down beside them. He knew there would be no point in giving them such a lecture. Instead, he pulled them into a hug. "It's alright," he said softly. "There are hundreds of rare Ming vases out there, and they are always being broken. Jackie will find me a new one and I'll get it insured." He rubbed his chin. "Then again, I should probably get everything here insured. Good lesson for today." Seeing that this had the desired effect of cheering them up, Uncle relaxed. Perhaps this wouldn't be so difficult-

All three of their stomachs rumbled, and they burst into loud wails.

"Aiyah!" Uncle screamed out, covering his ears again. "Alright! Alright! Uncle will make you food!" When the sound stopped, Uncle looked down nervously, worried he'd find them absent. Instead, he found them looking up at him expectantly, eyes wide, forehooves on their bellies, ears flat against their skulls. He quickly looked away. "One more thing! Try to be less cute. Uncle can not give you food if he has cute induced heart attack!" When this resulted in more tears, Uncle buried his face in his hands and went to his chi laboratory. "Uncle just had to open his big mouth..." he grumbled to himself.

Thankfully, one of his tomes just happened to be on the care of various magical creatures, subdivided between the type of chi they represented. While the pages on Qi-Lin did not contain any detail on raising an infant one, as an infant Qi-Lin had never been seen (and if the pictures of all the various forms Qi-Lin had taken over the millennia were any indication, Sweetie Belle was either a new variant, due to undergo major metamorphosis as she grew, or all historical Qi-Lin had been male and the species had major sexual dimorphism, all possible explanations), there was a recipe for a chi magic food that could be fed to any infant good chi magical creature to help stabilize them and strengthen their inherent magic, recommended as a first meal for hand raising. Luckily, it also proved to be safe for human consumption, in case he had to show them it was okay to eat by eating some himself.

Making a quick search of his chi laboratory, he found all the ingredients he needed for the recipe and began to prepare it. As he mixed, he chanted a purifying spell to drive away all evil or bad influences from the mixture. "Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao...Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao..."

Before long, the mixture glowed a faint lime green, before settling into a faint shimmer of magic. Uncle had to admit, it didn't look very appetizing. In point of fact, it looked like pale green porridge. And on top of that, it had an absolutely vile smell. If the tome hadn't told him to expect that, he would have been certain he'd messed something up with either the recipe or the spell. Picking up the large dish, he carried it out to the three foals...who immediately backed away.

"It's alright," Uncle offered reassuringly. "Smells bad, but good for you!" He set the dish down. Scootaloo approached the dish and poked its contents with her hoof, then backed away when it wiggled. "Trust Uncle!" Uncle coaxed reassuringly. "It's good magic!" Sticking his finger in it, he licked his finger clean...then fought valiantly to suppress his gag reflex. "Urk! ...see?"

Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle stared up at him disbelievingly, but Apple Bloom approached. Leaning forward, she gave the mixture a cautious lick...then promptly buried her face in it, munching away happily. A few exchanged squeaks between the three foals, and Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo quickly joined. Uncle sat back with a smile as he saw the magical auras shaping around the trio, growing in power and stabilizing around them.

At that moment, the phone rang. "I'll be right back," Uncle told the three as he made his way to the phone. "Nff...Uncle's joints are getting creaky," he grumbled. "Kneeling was bad idea." Reaching the phone, he picked it up. "Hello! Uncle's Antiques! Who is calling?"

"Uncle!" a familiar voice called from the other end.

"Jackie!" Uncle greeted happily. "So good to hear from you!"

"It's good to speak to you too, Uncle," Jackie agreed. "I just got back from a dig, and...I was wondering if I could bring a few artifacts over for you to analyze. Some old hieroglyphics-"

"Of course Jackie!" Uncle agreed. "Uncle will be happy to help. Can Jackie pick some things up for Uncle on the way to Uncle's shop?"

"Uh...sure Uncle," Jackie agreed. "What did you need?"

"Pet harnesses," Uncle stated firmly. "Three of them." He glanced towards the three foals. "Small to medium size. One more thing, three leashes."

"Wha?" Jackie asked, confused. "Uncle, did you get a pet?"

"One more thing!" Uncle continued, ignoring Jackie's question. "Goat's milk!" Seeing the signs of the three foals getting upset, Uncle knew he had to end the call soon. "Uncle will talk later!" He quickly hung up.


Jackie stared at the payphone as he hung up. "That was odd," he muttered, turning away and shouldering his satchel of tools, supplies, and artifacts. "But where am I supposed to find those things in this part of San Fransisco?"

Right across the street, Jackie's eyes fell on an exotic pets supply depot.

"Huh," Jackie smiled. "Convenient." Seeing traffic was rather busy at the moment, Jackie leapt onto a mailbox, launched himself against a nearby building wall, and kicked off to land on a nearby traffic light pole. Walking across the traffic light into the middle of the intersection, he leapt across to the next one, crossed the rest of the way, and hopped lightly down on the other side. He paused long enough to acknowledge the applause of several watching children before entering the shop.

Cousin Conundrums

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The purchase of goat's milk, harnesses, and leashes went off without a hitch for Jackie, even if it was the strangest purchase he'd ever made. When he'd told the person at the store what he needed, they came to the conclusion that he was hand raising an exotic animal, possibly a big cat. Jackie wasn't able to answer any questions about it beyond saying he was picking things up for his Uncle. Even so, he left feeling more confused then settled.

As he entered Uncle's Antiques, he saw Uncle behind the front counter, going over some old documents. He looked up with a smile as his nephew entered. "Jackie!" he greeted warmly. "Come, give Uncle a hug!"

"Uncle!" Jackie greeted warmly, walking up and embracing the old man.

"What did you bring me?" Uncle asked once they broke the embrace.

Smirking, Jackie set down his satchel. "The artifacts are carefully wrapped on top," he explained. "The, uh...pet supplies are in the bag. Do you have a big cat in here?" He looked around nervously. "Did you get pets?"

"No!" Uncle insisted. "Pets do not listen. One more thing! Too many breakables in antique shop for misbehaving animals. Is dangerous enough with misbehaving children, customers or otherwise. One more thing! Pets take far too much work, Uncle has no time for that!"

Jackie nodded. "Alright. But...why goat's milk? You've been cutting dairy from your diet."

"Is not for Uncle," Uncle countered. "Take it to the kitchen. One more thing, do not step on the ponies!"

Jackie had already turned towards the kitchen at the start of Uncle's second sentence, turning back for the instruction. He paused as he heard the last sentence, trying to make sense of it. "...what?" he asked, confused. "What was that last part, Uncle?"

"Is Jackie hard of hearing?" Uncle demanded. "Jackie is young, Uncle is getting old! Uncle said, do not step on the ponies!"

Jackie blinked. "So I didn't mishear. What does that even mean?"

"Is very straightforward!" Uncle insisted as he opened the satchel. "Now get goat's milk in fridge before it spoils!"

Jackie shook his head as he turned back towards the kitchen, carrying the pet supplies with him. What he saw nearly made him drop the bag as he let out a loud, "WUAHHG!"

A small yellow equine was on the counter, futzing with the coffee maker. An orange equine with wings walked along the bottom of the upper cabinets, tugging on the coffee maker as though insisting she should do something with it, although she raced up the cabinets to the ceiling at Jackie's startled shout. A white equine with a horn floated in a green aura watching the pair, but quickly floated over to Jackie to examine him, squeaking curiously.

"Jackie?" Uncle called out. "What is wrong?"

"Uncle!" Jackie gasped out. "There are...tiny ponies in the kitchen!"

"That is why Uncle said don't step on them!" Uncle called back reasonably.

"That would be somewhat hard when one is on the kitchen counter, one is on the ceiling, and one is floating in the air!" Jackie yelped out, rapidly patting his chest as he struggled to calm his heart.

Before long, Uncle joined him in the kitchen, staring disapprovingly at the ponies. "Apple Bloom, do not tinker with the coffee maker, you will void its warranty!" The yellow pony set the coffee maker down, hopping to the floor. "Scootaloo, floor is for walking, not walls, ceiling, or cabinets!" The orange filly dropped into Uncle's arms, letting him put her down. "Sweetie Belle, no levitation on the first floor, too many things to bump and break, or fall on and break you!" The glow ceased as the white filly dropped into Jackie's arms. "One more thing! ...this is Jackie, your cousin. Jackie, this is Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo. They went astray in a powerful magic spell, and were entrusted to me."

As all three fillies climbed up Jackie, he stared at them. "...you gotta be kidding me..." he groaned out as he examined them. "...tiny, candy colored ponies? A pegasus? A unicorn?"

"Qi-lin," Uncle corrected firmly. "Know your roots, Jackie!"

Jackie rolled his eyes. "Uncle, her horn is not an antler, nor does she have paws, claws, or a full lion-esque mane. Plainly she is a unicorn, not a Qi-lin."

"Same creature, different name!" Uncle insisted.

"Uncle, how can you say that?" Jackie demanded.

Uncle slapped down the documents he'd been going through. "My Chi Wizardy Master's thesis," he explained.

Confused, Jackie read the title, easily understanding the meaning of the kanji. "...Divergent Evolutionary Paths of Magical Creatures, As Pertaining to the Qi-Lin, Eastern and Western Varieties?" he asked, confused. He took a brief glance through it, seeing how Uncle had written that, based on where and when various images of unicorns and Qi-lin had been recorded and the fact that both had the same magical properties of purity and cleansing attributed to them, the two were divergent evolutionary branches of the same original creature, that had traveled and adapted its body in response to the magical field and environmental factors. "...huh. I never thought of that."

"Whether Qi-lin or unicorn, Sweetie Belle is sacred creature of great good magic," Uncle confirmed. "What matter what you call her?"

Jackie nodded, doing his best to wrap his mind around it...and eventually deciding to just accept it without fully understanding, as he had enough trouble wrapping his mind around the mundane world while accepting the possibility of magic, let alone trying to understand magic. "In that case, I will call her Sweetie Belle."

Uncle smiled warmly. "That is good, Jackie. One more thing!" He held out a small wrapped book and three pendants. "Where did you find these? They were at the top of your satchel."

Jackie blinked at the items. "I...didn't," he replied, confused. "I didn't put those in my satchel, either. Where did they come from?"

Uncle rubbed his chin thoughtfully, putting a few things together. "...come! We must do research!"

Magical Mysteries

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Uncle started with the three pendants, paying careful attention to them. They weren't very pretty to look at, an odd mix of white, orange, and brown jade, linked together in a regular pattern with gold thread in a small, perfect sphere. It didn't shimmer the way jade or gold jewelry normally did, or draw attention. In fact, the more Uncle stared at it, the more he found himself losing interest. It just seemed too ordinary to be of any significance...except for the fact that just touching one of them sent willies so strong through his body he nearly shook himself off the chair before he was adjusted to it. It was definitely good magic, and potent...but for the life of him, he couldn't figure out to what purpose. And the book seemed far more interesting. Maybe he could just look at the book and investigate the pendants later-

He froze, realizing that he was not the entire source of that line of thought. The closer he got to the pendants, the less he wanted to investigate them, and the more ordinary they became...except when he scanned them for magic. "But what is the point of enchanting something to be ordinary?" he mused aloud.

As he stared, Sweetie Belle clambered up his leg and into his lap to stare at the pendant as well. She started to reach towards it. "Careful, Sweetie Belle," Uncle chided. "It might be dangerous."

"What?" Jackie asked, startled. "Dangerous?"

Giggling, Sweetie grabbed the pendant and slipped it around her neck.

Jackie stared at Sweetie for a time, then smiled. "Aww, how cute. She's playing dress up."

Uncle blinked. "Jackie...Uncle just said pendant might be dangerous...and now Sweetie is cute for playing dress up with it?"

"Wha?" Jackie demanded, confused. "But how could a pendant be dangerous?"

"It has powerful magic!" Uncle insisted.

Jackie rolled his eyes. "Uncle, you don't seriously believe in that old myth, do you?"

Staring at Jackie in consternation, Uncle did the only thing he could think of to prove his point. Lifting Sweetie Belle up, he thrust her towards Jackie and proclaimed, "Qi-lin!"

Sweetie Belle squeaked happily and waved with one hoof.

"Aww...so cute!" Jackie murmured affectionately, patting Sweetie on the head. "What's your point?"

Uncle opened his mouth to deliver a blistering remonstrance...only to pause, an idea beginning to form. He turned Sweetie Belle around to stare at the pendant, and found his eyes trying to slip off of it, and her. "Aiyah!" he proclaimed happily. "Pendants are magically ordinary!"

Jackie blinked in confusion. "Umm...Uncle? Isn't that...contradicting yourself?" He clutched his head as two fingers struck his temple. "Ow!"

"Listen to Uncle!" Uncle snapped. "Pendants are enchanted to be ordinary. When ponies wear them, no one notice anything odd about them!" He frowned as he looked over the two pendants. "But power of pendants will have limits. Take great deal of power just to make tiny candy-colored ponies seem ordinary in San Fransisco. If ponies do anything out of the ordinary, might draw attention and pierce veil of magic. One more thing, anyone who can sense magic of pendants might notice ponies for what they are."

"That's...oddly convenient," Jackie mused. "You need a way to keep people from noticing them, and I just happen to have it with me?"

"Pfeh!" Uncle countered. "Nothing convenient about it! Sage who lose ponies sent note with names to me. Obviously, send pendants and book too, through you since could not reach me." He lifted up the book. "Now, time for research! Go put pendants on Apple Bloom and Scootaloo."

Sighing and nodding, Jackie scooped up the two pendants. He hoped Uncle would make time to analyze the artifacts he'd actually brought for research, but he knew better than to try and demand it. After all, the fillies were likely to be more time sensitive than Jackie's artifacts, what with how energetic they were in the kitchen were a sign of how active they were going to be before long. Finding a way for Uncle - or Jackie, possibly - to take them outside would be very useful.

He eventually found the two fillies on the second floor. Scootaloo was climbing the walls - literally - while Apple Bloom was tending Uncle's tea garden on the windowsill, gently tapping the dirt down around the tiny bushes and cooing to them. "Apple Bloom," Jackie called gently. "I have something for you."

The filly turned, her large red-orange eyes shining as her red bow - larger than her whole head - bounced from her movement. She took one look at the pendant and immediately raced forward, eager to let him put it on her.

Jackie smiled as he slipped the pendant around her neck, his smile widening as she nuzzled him happily. He then turned to the other filly. "Scootaloo!" he called out. "I have one for you, too!"

"Bee!" Scootaloo called out, sticking her tongue out to express her distaste at the idea of ornamentation. She then promptly raced off along the wall, her tiny wings buzzing. As she reached the edge of the wall, she leapt into the air, her wings keeping her aloft.

Jackie stared for a time, having a difficult time wrapping his head around how such tiny wings could generate so much lift. He quickly snapped out of it. "Scootaloo! Come back!" Pendant in his outstretched hand, he pursued her as fast as he could, just barely keeping up as he leapt around obstacles that Scootaloo simply buzzed over, struggling to catch her.

Eventually, he was able to catch her at a corner, leaping into the air with intent of tackling her to the ground...only to find himself clinging around her as she continued to fly. "WUAGH!" he screamed out, ducking his head repeatedly to avoid the beams Scootaloo flew towards in an attempt to knock him off. "Scootaloo!" he cried out as he struggled to get the pendant around her neck, pulling his hand back several times as she tried to bite him. "You have...to wear this...to go...outside!" he managed to gasp out between dodging.

Scootaloo's eyes widened, and she squeaked happily, dropping out of the air.

"WAAAAHG!" Jackie screamed out as he landed back first on the hard wooden floors. He then stared as Scootaloo yanked the pendant out of his hand and stuck it around her neck before racing off towards the front door. "...ugh..." he groaned.

"Jackie!" Uncle called from the first floor. "What is all that racket? They are ponies, not elephants!"

Jackie brought one hand up to his face. "Bad day..." he groaned, somehow feeling like he'd be saying that a great deal in the near - or not so near - future.

Ordinary Outings

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Uncle continued his careful examination of the book that had arrived with the pendants. As with the pendants, he could feel that it was a book of good magic, and powerful at that. However, each of the spells listed within seemed to call on concepts he had never encountered before in magic, and used in ways he'd never considered working magic before. Beyond that, it was quite nondescript, and contained more theory than actual spell work. Uncle could only come to one conclusion from this. The fillies, the pendants, the spellbook...all were from a whole other world.

He immediately discarded this conclusion as preposterous. There were other planes of existence, certainly, but a whole other world with its own laws of magic that could be somehow applied to this one? Patently absurd, and violated everything he knew about magic. Besides, once he'd written out the makeup of the pendants more, he was able to see how the magic ran through them to create the effects produced. With practice and resources, he could duplicate them himself. That would hardly be the case if they used a completely different system of magic. Obviously, the ponies just came from a plane of existence that was unfrequented by documented magi.

"With how adorable ponies are," Uncle mused aloud, "any magi who reached their plane likely had heart attacks before they could return and document. With skilled and experienced wizards, spirit is strong but heart is not!" He heard a buzzing and banging against the inside of the shop's front door. "Scootaloo!" he called out without looking up. "Do not fly around antiques! In shop front, keep all four hooves on floor."

In the corner of his eye, he saw Scootaloo settling to the floor on the welcome mat. She then stood up, pawing at the front door with her forehooves, looking over her shoulder at him pleadingly.

Uncle returned to his reading, not quite realizing that Scootaloo wanted something from him. When he heard further banging, he looked up to see Scootaloo banging her head and forehooves against the front door. "...what?" he demanded.

Scootaloo looked up at him pleadingly.

Uncle scratched his head. "Jackie!" he called out.

"Yes, Uncle?" Jackie asked, stepping into the room with Apple Bloom clinging to his head.

"Ponies are not hats!" Uncle scolded, lifting Apple Bloom off Jackie's head. "One more thing-"

"Sweetie Belle's on your head," Jackie pointed out.

Raising his eyes, Uncle caught a bit of white near his forehead, and heard Sweetie Belle squeak. He calmly lifted her off his head. "One more thing! Scootaloo is banging at door!"

Jackie sighed. "I told her she had to wear the pendant to go outside. It was the only way to get her to wear it."

"So now she wants to go outside?" Uncle interpreted.

Scootaloo squeaked happily, bouncing up and down excitedly. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle soon joined her in bouncing and squeaking.

"I think they all do," Jackie murmured.

"Get harnesses and leashes," Uncle instructed Jackie.


Before long, the trio of ponies were harnessed and leashed. The three had examined the new accouterments curiously, and did not appear to like them at first. However, as soon as Uncle opened the front door, they forgot all about it and dashed out into the rest of the world. Just as they reached the curb, a car zoomed down the road right in front of them, and Sweetie Belle immediately tried to duck back inside.

Shaking his head, Uncle handed Apple Bloom and Scootaloo's leashes to Jackie. "Hold these," he instructed, turning to pick Sweetie Belle up to reassure her.

As soon as Jackie turned his head to watch what Uncle was doing, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo took off, one on the ground and one in the air, racing down the road as fast as they could, towing Jackie along behind them.

"WAAAUGH!" Jackie screamed out as his feet raced to keep himself from falling over. "No! Bad ponies! Don't run in the street!" His eyes widened as they started down a long hill, and his foot came down on a discarded roller skate, causing him to roll after them, no longer able to exert any sort of control despite bracing his other foot against the road to slow down. "Bad day bad day bad day bad day bad day!" he screamed out as the fillies raced around bikers and the occasional parked - or moving - car, leaving him to desperately twist, duck, dodge, or weave to avoid the new obstacle.

As he zoomed down the road, he nearly slammed into a young white haired man with angular blue eyes wearing a green suit as he stepped out of a limo. "Sorry!" Jackie screamed out as he barely swerved around.

The man paused, blinking at what had just passed him. "Was that...a pegasus?" He stroked his chin for a time, then shook his head. "Impossible. This new project's making me see 'magic' everywhere I look." Turning, he went into the library he'd come to peruse.

Desperately, Jackie struggled to exert some form of control. "Oh...how do you make ponies stop? Halt! Yield!" As he saw the pier approaching, he screamed out, "WHOA!"

Apple Bloom immediately halted, sitting down on her rump with a smile. Scootaloo gripped a lamppost as she halted. The sudden change in momentum jerked the leashes out of Jackie's hands, and he careened into the water with a terrified scream and a loud splash. Resurfacing with seaweed on his head, he glowered at the giggling fillies. "Bad day..." he grumbled.

"Jackie!" Uncle called out, pulling his bike to a stop and rubbing his joints, riding the bike having pushed him a bit even if putting Sweetie in the basket had been the only way to get her out of the shop and down the road. "What are you doing in bay? We are taking ponies for walk, not swim!"

"It was not exactly intentional, Uncle," Jackie groaned, clambering back out onto the pier and shaking himself off as best he could, only to slip as the roller skate was still on his foot. "Oohhh..."

Shaking his head, Uncle took the leashes. "Take bike back to shop," he instructed. "Uncle will walk ponies. One more thing! Do not use up all hot water cleaning up! Ponies will need bath when they get back."

Groaning, Jackie got the roller skate off his foot and clambered onto the bike, turning to head back up the hills to the antique shop, looking forward to a hot shower - however short - and a relaxing nap. He'd need it if he was going to keep the ponies entertained while Uncle researched the artifacts from his dig.

Titillating Tails

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Once at the park with the three tiny ponies in tow, Uncle found his way to a bench to sit down and relax. For some reason, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom had behaved better with him than they had with Jackie. Scootaloo had stayed close, flying in circles around his head with only a few jerks towards anything that interested her. Apple Bloom walked calmly by his side, only pausing whenever they passed a flower stand or fruit stall. He made a mental note to take her to a farmer's market next time there was one in town. Sweetie Belle, however, kept trying to climb to the top of his head, apparently terrified of the world at large.

Once at the park, however, all three changed. Scootaloo became much more excited, tugging on her leash as she tried to race around and investigate. Apple Bloom rolled around in the grass, plainly enjoying all the plant life (which seemed to flourish in her presence, Uncle noted idly in surprise). Sweetie Belle, for her part, went straight to the fountain and stared at at the equine statue in the center, plainly entranced by the spectacle.

Uncle frowned slightly as he watched them. While he was glad they were enjoying the park, the whole point of this excursion was to get them to burn their excess energy so he could put them down for a nap when they returned home, so he could finish up with Jackie's artifacts and the new spell book undisturbed. However, the only one who seemed to be getting any sort of exercise was Scootaloo, who continued to fly around as much as possible. He made a mental note to send Jackie for some toys or something to get them all exercising.

A sudden shriek of terror caught his attention. Turning his head, he felt his jaw drop. Sweetie Belle's horn was glowing with a pale green aura, and several small statues set up around the park were zooming around in the air in a make-shift obstacle course for Scootaloo. Meanwhile, the ivy along a stone wall had grown to immense proportions and was writhing around, seizing passersby despite Apple Bloom's attempts to tame it. Scootaloo found it all wonderfully fun as she tried to fly in amongst the groping vines and flying statuary. From the sound of the screams, no one seemed to consider the fillies as having any connection to what was going on, despite their proximity and the energy around Sweetie Belle's horn.

Ah, Uncle thought to himself. So pendants hide fillies from scrutiny, but not their influence on the world. Interesting. "Apple Bloom! Sweetie Belle! Scootaloo!" he called out firmly, causing all three to turn towards him. "We go home now!"

All three came up to his side with varying degrees of willingness. Sweetie Belle came eagerly, rushing up to his side as she dropped the statuary from her magical aura. Apple Bloom came obediently, though her gait did not show the same eagerness as Sweetie's. Scootaloo looked grumpy as she flew over, plainly not liking having her fun interrupted.

Taking hold of their leashes - he wasn't sure how or why he let go of them in the first place - Uncle turned to lead them back to the shop. They didn't even make it a full block before all three started to doze. Sweetie Belle determinedly climbed up to Uncle's head, curling up and clinging tightly. Apple Bloom crawled up into his arms, curling up to be held there. Scootaloo managed to grab a passing wisp of fog which she condensed into a small cloud that she curled up on, clinging to it and allowing herself to be towed along. Uncle settled for doing that, after poking at the small cloud a few times to try and make sense of how she managed it. He made a mental note to investigate all the abilities the three of them were demonstrating at a later date.

He thought about what had happened at the park. "Hmm...perhaps sooner rather than later..."

Once he reached the shop, he found Jackie relaxed in his chair in the back room. "Jackie!" he insisted. "That is Uncle's chair!"

"S-sorry Uncle," Jackie apologized quickly, clambering out of the chair. Noticing the three sleeping foals, a rather goofy expression crossed his face. "Aww..." he cooed, gently taking Apple Bloom from Uncle's arms when she was offered, cradling her gently. "They are so cute when they are sleeping..." He blinked as he spotted Scootaloo. "Is...is she sleeping on a cloud? How is she sleeping on a cloud?"

Uncle shrugged. "Must be part of her magic. One more thing! Must tuck them in for nap." As Jackie turned to take Apple Bloom upstairs, Uncle spoke up again. "One more thing! Quietly! Must not wake them."

Jackie nodded. "Understood, Uncle," he replied softly, carefully making his way up the stairs, using Scootaloo's leash to tow her - and her cloud - behind him.

Uncle frowned, noticing how readily Jackie accepted 'Scootaloo can sleep on a cloud'. "Pendant magic more complex than first appears," he murmured, returning to the spell book, deciding to look for any information on the three foals' abilities while he had some quiet time with the trio sound asleep.

It was twenty minutes before the quiet whistle in his ear made him realize that Sweetie Belle was still asleep on his head. He thought about removing her and making her sleep upstairs, but her weight wasn't that difficult to bear, and it was oddly comfortable having her up there...at least as long as she was this small. Shrugging his shoulders, he continued to read, making sure to monitor his posture so she didn't tumble off.


By the time Valmont returned to his base of operations in Las Vegas, he had completely forgotten about his odd encounter on the streets of San Francisco. The tomes he'd 'acquired' from the library had been useful, and he already had agents pursuing the leads he'd discovered therein. Now came the difficult part: explaining the lack of appreciable progress to his new 'client'.

Entering the inner sanctum, he approached the large stone carving against the far wall. He was not looking forward to this. While with anyone else Valmont could easily command a meeting, his new 'client' was something else entirely. The promised reward for accomplishing what he desired was immense...but one always had to be careful when dealing with the unknown.

Before he could speak, however, his 'client' spoke up. "I sensed a powerful surge of magic to the West-Northwest," the hissing voice insisted. "Powerful enough that I felt it here despite how far away it is. The kind of power that is normally only based in a rift between Realms..." Glowing red eyes illuminated the darkness. "A magic I have never sensed before...but of strong good magic. It must be investigated!"

Valmont bowed slightly. "I would be overjoyed to do this for you," he offered sincerely. In truth, he would. Not only was magic of any sort profitable if his 'client's promises were to be believed, but anything that could give him an edge in his dealings here was welcome. "If you can only be a bit more specific as far as where it occurred."

"Bring me a map," the voice continued. "And show me our present location."

Nodding, Valmont unrolled a map of North America. He then pointed out Las Vegas. "We are here-" He leapt back as a spot on the map began to smolder.

"There!" the hissing voice insisted. "That is where the magic came from!"

Valmonst stared at the spot. "...San Francisco? I was just there..."

"Then that is where we shall go!" the voice insisted. "If great good magic has awoken there, it will eventually move against me. We shall discover its source...and use it to our advantage. But we must move carefully, especially when I move there. If anyone has command of the magic, things could be...problematic."

Valmont grinned widely. A move such as this gave him a perfect way to create a distraction for the various law enforcement agencies after his endeavors. They were getting a little too close, and sniffing around this base. And with the insistence on being careful, he could take his time, while setting up a few other endeavors to cover recent...expenditures. "As you wish...Shendu."

Wondrous Words

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The pattern created by that first day when Jackie visited persisted in Uncle's Antiques for some time, whether or not Jackie was actually there. Uncle would wake up, have his coffee, and feed the fillies. He would then mind the shop and do research until Scootaloo started pawing at the front door. If Jackie was there, Uncle would have him take the fillies out for some exercise. Jackie would have some degree of 'bad day' based on how well he anticipated the trios energetic antics. If Jackie wasn't there, Uncle would take them out himself, and they would behave with him all the way to the park, where their magic would get away from them to a certain extent, at which point Uncle would take them back to the shop.

After that first day, Uncle had started to teach them meditation, in the hopes of teaching them to better guide and control the powerful magic surging through them. While they took the instructions well enough, more often than not they fell asleep in their chosen meditation positions: Apple Bloom in a planter surrounded by bonsai trees that flourished in her presence, Scootaloo on her tame cloud which continued to ignore physics by maintaining itself in the shop (Uncle tolerated it because it absorbed excess humidity to maintain itself, which was good for the antiques), and Sweetie Belle on his head. Uncle had given up trying to convince her not to sit there, and instead had decided to wait until someone complimented him on his 'fashionable headgear' to make his point for him. The fillies had already shown that they understood when someone spoke to them, and Uncle had taken to switching between speaking to them in English and Chinese. He figured Sweetie Belle would eventually take offense to being called a hat and decide not to sit there anymore.

After the trio fell asleep in meditation, Uncle would cover Apple Bloom and Scootaloo in a blanket and Sweetie Belle with a winter hat before returning to his research. When they awoke, he'd feed them dinner and then engage them in tasks around the shop to focus their magic. Scootaloo was given a duster to clean up high around the shop, working her way down. Apple Bloom was set to tending a hanging vegetable and spell ingredient garden. Sweetie Belle was set to shelving books, as Uncle had - with Jackie's assistance - put a color coded sticker at the base of each book, matching an identical sticker on their spot on the shelves.

Once the three were tired out at the end of their chores, Uncle would give them a night time snack of the chi magic supplement he'd given them when they first arrived, modified as they'd started to grow a bit according to the formula given in the book, and incorporating a few of the plants that the new book listed as being good for health. Once they'd eaten, he'd put them to bed together in a basket he'd left at the foot of his own bed. At first he'd leave it at that, but he'd quickly discovered that none of them slept well if he didn't give each of them a good night kiss...and if they didn't sleep well, neither did he. They were quite vocal when they needed or wanted something.

One thing Uncle had noticed as he'd tended to the trio was that, as much as the pendants made them seem ordinary to others, people still seemed to be aware at some level that the three were more than just ordinary animals. Their presence in the shop when someone was browsing, making a purchase, or making a sale often resulted in a much more amicable discussion, allowing Uncle to easily maximize profits on exchanges. Even the most hardened of his customers turned to goo when all three of them made an effort to be adorable.

In order to keep them entertained in the mornings, Uncle had invested in a few cat toys after seeing how much all three liked batting at things. He made certain to institute the rule that all such playing was done upstairs, and as a result one of Sweetie's most common spot magic practice involved snatching a toy out of the air as it fell down the stairs or from the second floor landing. He quickly grew used to the sounds of tiny hooves dashing back and forth above his head...and capable of distinguishing between those and the sound of Scootaloo's hooves on the ceiling above his head. She often tried to sneak that, and found it highly amusing when he called her on it, even if she did immediately obey.

By the end of the third month taking care of the fillies, Uncle had gotten so used to their presence and the new habits developed from taking care of them that he could do most of it without even thinking. At the same time, he was surprised to find that he enjoyed having them there with him. He kept his mind as far away from that realization as he could, however. He knew that as soon as he reached the point where he never wanted to let them go, he would have to. Besides, they were only left with him in trust. It wasn't his place to want to keep them.

As a result, he was actually pleased when his late night ruminations over these subjects were interrupted by the three fillies wailing, apparently upset that he wasn't in bed yet or something similar. However, Uncle's own mixed emotions resulted in him feeling a bit harsher than he actually wanted, so instead of calmly going up the stairs, he stomped up them and threw the door to his bedroom open. "What?" he demanded angrily. "You had food, you had play, you had exercise, you have bed! What more do you want from Uncle?"

"Unca!" all three fillies called out at once.

Uncle staggered back, stunned. While he'd noticed that the babbling sounds they'd made were not equine, he'd never have imagined... "Aiyah!" he screamed out. "You can talk?"

"Aiyah!" the trio called back, throwing their hooves into the air happily.

Talking Tykes

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With the first words uttered by the fillies, Uncle's world turned upside down all over again. Up till that point, Uncle had been able to simply treat the three as unusually intelligent animals and magical creatures, neither of which was even slightly out of his experience. While it rubbed him the wrong way to consider them that way, Jackie had hit the nail on the head when he'd asked if Uncle had gotten a pet. It wasn't the first time he'd had one - even a magical one - and he knew how to handle it. He still remembered his pet salamander fondly...and, of course, all his fellow chi wizard students whom he'd managed to prove 'liars' beyond a shadow of a doubt, thanks to little Fireball. Those had been good times. He idly wondered if that one student who'd been expelled after Fireball's prank had exposed his studies of dark magic would ever forgive him, and if they'd cross paths again. What was his name again? Uncle mused as his thoughts wandered. Dao something or other? Eh, old dark wizard student not important. Talking fillies important.

But now with the fillies talking, even if it was baby talk and babbling with only the occasional clear word coming through, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were more than just highly intelligent magical creatures. They were infants of another sapient species. They were...children.

What is Uncle to do? Uncle thought worriedly as Sweetie Belle stared up at him from his lap, pointing at pictures in an antique catalog he was perusing for business, babbling her nonsense sounds about each picture, sounds he was now able to discern the beginnings of words in. Uncle has no experience with children! Should Uncle get self help books on raising children, and do research? Petting Sweetie lightly on the head, he watched as she giggled happily and nuzzled into his chest. No! Books are on raising human children! Fillies not humans! ...maybe books on raising horses? He shook his head in frustration. No! Not horses, ponies! One more thing, horses in books not talk! No book on properly raising Mr. Ed!

Uncle sighed to himself. "Uncle not know what to do with fillies," he groaned. "How is Uncle supposed to raise ponies properly? Does Sweetie have any ideas?"

Sweetie Belle tapped her chin for a bit, as though giving it serious thought. "Unca!" she stated finally, hugging him.

Uncle sighed. "Be one's self is not good parenting advice. Uncle is decade at most away from being crotchety old man. Need someone who can handle kids, so Uncle can learn how to handle fillies."

"Shya-ki?" Apple Bloom called out as she wandered around the antique shop, sticking her head into urns, vases, and cupboards as though looking for someone. "Shya-ki?"

Uncle stared at Apple Bloom for a time, working his mouth as he tried to sound out what she was saying. "Shya-ki...Jya-ki...Jackie?"

"Shya-ki?" Apple Bloom asked hopefully, looking up and turning her head around, searching.

Uncle stroked his chin. "Jackie know children? Hmm...doubtful...but Uncle has no one else to ask." He turned to reach for the phone, only for the front door of the shop to open to a familiar figure. "Jackie!" he called out happily.

"Hello, Uncle," Jackie replied happily, setting his bags down and stretching.

"Shya-ki!" Apple Bloom called out happily, bouncing eagerly around the young man to get his attention.

Chuckling, Jackie knelt down and pet her. "Hello, Apple Bloom," he replied warmly. "I am happy to see you, too."

Uncle blinked in shock, wondering if perhaps Jackie had been over-exposed to the effects of the Pendants of Normalcy, as he'd come to think of them.

Moments later, Jackie let out a startled, "WAGH!" as he fell backwards, patting his chest rapidly as he stared at Apple Bloom. "Uncle! She talked!"

"Waugh!" Apple Bloom called out as she tumbled backwards, only to giggle happily. "Aiyah!"

Uncle nodded slowly. "Yes, fillies are talking now," Uncle confirmed. "Uncle needs Jackie's help! Uncle has no idea how to handle children!"

Jackie let out a startled scoffing cough. "And I do?" he demanded angrily. "I'm as lost as you!" Groaning, he lowered his head into his hands.

Before he could speak, Scootaloo zoomed in on her cloud, zipping around his head in circles and calling out, "Bah kay bah kay bah kay bah kay!"

Jackie blinked, staring at her in confusion. "Umm...?"

"Uncle thinks she lacks teeth to make 'd' sound," Uncle explained. "Also, Uncle thinks she is trying to show she likes you."

"Or at least likes watching me freak out," Jackie mumbled in reply. He attempted to glare at Scootaloo as she came to a halt in front of him, bundled up in her cloud and smiling up at him. He failed miserably. "Aww...I just can't stay mad at that face..." Reaching out, he stroked her mane softly.

"Shya-ki!" Apple Bloom called out demandingly, nudging his knee with her head until he started petting her as well.

"So...does Jackie have any advice for Uncle on raising talking magic pony children?" Uncle asked. "Other than not be pushover like Jackie?"

Jackie flinched. "Uncle! I am not a pushover-WAH!" He fell backwards as Apple Bloom lunged for his chest, knocking him onto his back as she hugged him. "You are not helping my case," he chided her, getting a blown raspberry and a tighter hug in response. Sighing, he rubbed his head. "Well...they behave for you, so...just keep doing what you're doing? And...throw in more lessons?"

"Hmm..." Uncle stroked his chin and Sweetie's mane in thought. "Uncle has idea. Uncle will do as Jackie suggests, but also teach reading and writing by finger reading to fillies. One more thing! Jackie will help Uncle teach ponies martial arts to teach discipline and magic control."

Jackie looked at the three fillies for a time. "...I think that might be difficult," he murmured. "I don't know of any martial arts for four legged creatures-ow!"

Uncle pulled his two fingers back from Jackie's forehead. "Jackie will improvise!" Uncle insisted as the fillies giggled.

Jackie sighed, laying back in what he expected to be his last relaxed moment of peace for a while. "...bad day..."

Television Turmoil

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Uncle groaned to himself as he struggled to keep the three fillies in line. While them starting to talk had made being understood by them easier - Scootaloo, for example, could no longer claim she hadn't understood a directive with big cute eyes - they also became bored more easily with their normal activities, and were much more vocal and demanding about their boredom and desire for entertainment.

"Aiyah!" Uncle cried out desperately as yet another cry of "Bohhd!" from three high-pitched voices echoed through the shop. "Can't you three keep yourselves entertained for ten minutes? Uncle has research to do!"

All three fillies stared up at him desperately. Sweetie Belle added a soft whimpering squeak. "Unca..." she whimpered. "Bohd..."

Uncle stared down at the three for a time, then finally sighed. "Uncle does not have time just now for stories. Uncle has to mind the shop. Customers coming in." The three continued to stare at him. Groaning, he stood up. "Maybe something on TV will entertain you...Uncle not like using TV, but Uncle is desperate..."

Leading them into the other room, he grabbed the TV remote and started flipping through channels, trying to find something that would entertain the fillies for a half hour while not being 'mindless drivel'. "Hmm...no," he grumbled as he flicked off an image of several teenagers in colored uniforms beating up faceless mooks. "No martial arts shows until they actually learn martial arts. Don't want them imitating until they know what they're doing." He glanced briefly at the next show, and changed again. "Talking sponge? Eeyuck! Too brain rotting, not for my wards!" He carefully examined the next show. "...talking ducks on an adventure? ...interesting, but not right now." He made a mental note to keep track of that show, and then changed the channel once again.

He paused as he watched the rather short intro for the show he'd changed the channel to. "Hmm...teaching science in entertaining ways?" he mused. "Uncle approves. Watch TV that builds brains, not rots them." With that said, Uncle set the remote down out of reach, and left the fillies fascinated with the Television. He stopped before leaving the room as he noticed Apple Bloom and Scootaloo standing up. "Do not dismantle television! Is still under warranty!"

Giggling, Scootaloo sat back down on her cloud as Apple Bloom laid down with a soft smile. The three then locked their eyes on the screen, listening as the man in the white coat on the screen proceeded to explain the science behind volcanoes. All three listened in wide eyed fascination. Each oohed and aahed as they saw the volcano on the screen erupt, and watched intently as the man in white demonstrated the model version.

As the show came to a commercial, the trio raced to the kitchen and the laboratory. Gathering materials from the scraps Uncle had gathered for them to play with, they soon had a paper mache volcano constructed, quick dried with magic, and filled with vinegar and food coloring. Apple Bloom then carefully added the baking soda. The three then watched in wide eyed fascination as the fake lava flowed out over the top.

As they stared, Scootaloo's ears went down. "Too small..." she complained.

Apple Bloom nodded in agreement. It had been far more impressive looking on the TV, despite how small the screen was.

Sweetie Belle glanced up at the books around them...and grinned. "Sweetie has idea!" she squealed happily, pulling out a map book, a book of Lei Lines, and a book of magic.

As the three books were laid open, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom grinned widely.


Uncle smiled as he looked up at the clock. "Hmm...TV works quite well. Fillies have been quiet and peaceful." A frown slowly stole its way over his face as he realized it had been far more than a half hour. "...too quiet..." He suddenly shivered as he felt a strong surge of magic. "Uncle has the wil-"

He flinched as a massive explosion to the northwest shook the city.

"Aiyah!" Uncle screamed out as he raced for his bicycle. "What have they done this time?"


Somewhere between Las Vegas and San Francisco, Shendu grumbled from inside the moving truck that was transporting him. While he understood being low key, it was beneath his dignity as a Demon Sorcerer to be packed up like this. "If only something could ease the monotony of-"

He froze as the surge of powerful Good Chi and Earth Magic shook the very fabric of magic in the world, and a flood of spirit magic and Earth Fire rose into the world.

Had Shendu any blood in his stone form, his face would surely have paled. "On second thought, a long, boring trip to the focal point of all this magic suddenly seems quite appealing..." he whimpered.


Not far Northwest of San Fransisco, the two sides - north and south - of the San Andreas Fault intersected with the San Gregoro Fault, making it a natural breeding ground for tectonic action. It also happened to be a place where several of the Ley Lines running through the West Coast of the continent intersected, making it a hotbed of spiritual activity as well. Thankfully, spiritual activity tended to be overshadowed there by tectonic, so few noticed the former.

As Uncle arrived, however, he saw his three wards sitting atop a massive new volcano, oohing and ahhing as they stared into the caldera, braced by a young woman who seemed to be made of living stone. Grumbling to himself, Uncle stomped right up to the spiritual being. "Pachamama!" he snapped out angrily.

The woman turned to Uncle, flinching back slightly. "...yours?" she asked, gesturing to the fillies.

"For now," Uncle replied as the three fillies looked up at him worriedly. "And they are in very big trouble!" All three hung their heads. "Will Pachamama put things back the way they were?"

The young seeming woman crossed her arms, frowning.

"Does Uncle need to get Uncle's blowfish?" Uncle threatened.

The woman Uncle had identified as Pachamama sighed. "Fine," she grumbled, sinking into the earth. The volcano slowly subsided, sinking back into the ground as the lava was reabsorbed by the Earth, even the streets repairing themselves.

Uncle then picked the three fillies up and deposited them in his bicycle's basket. "You three are grounded," he scolded firmly. "No more unsupervised outings! And no more TV!"

"Awww!" all three fillies pouted.


A few weeks later, Uncle decided that the three had learned their lesson, and allowed them to watch TV again. This time, he'd pre-selected a good 'edutainment' show for them, one recommended by another shopkeeper. After all, where could he go wrong with having them watch a show about kids attending school? He fully intended to enroll them when they were old enough. A whole half day he'd have to himself!

However, he didn't stick around after turning the show on. If he had, he might have reconsidered. The three fillies became absolutely enthralled from the moment the frizzy red head proclaimed, "Seatbelts, everyone!"

As the show ended, Apple Bloom grinned widely. "Bloom has idea!" she squealed happily.

Magic Morals

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Uncle stared down at the three fillies, a frown on his face and his arms crossed. The three fillies hung their heads, knowing that there was a rather large harangue coming. They knew they'd done wrong, and were about to face the consequences.

Uncle glowered down at them. "Uncle is most upset with you three," he stated firmly. "Not only were you experimenting with magic unsupervised, you used up many of my magical ingredients that are difficult to come by, and did damage to the shop in the process. That is many bad things, and you must face stern consequences for them."

He sighed to himself. "After your punishment from summoning Pachamama and everything that involved, Uncle thought you understood magic was not a toy, but a powerful force not to be trifled with. Uncle was apparently mistaken, so before we do anything else, Uncle will explain to you the ethics of magical practice." As all three fillies groaned, Uncle shook a finger at them. "None of that! Only reason Uncle let you do magic things without this before was because Uncle was under the impression you were magical creatures with the proper instincts to control your magic and not break the planet. Even after fillies start talking, Uncle thought instincts for safety stronger than instincts for mischief. Uncle is not happy to be proven mistaken."

As the fillies groaned, Uncle settled in to lecture. "First, magic is not something that fixes everything. It is part of the world, and not a toy. Magic can work around some rules that bind mundane reality, but magic is still a part of reality. There is only so much magic in the world, just like there is only so much energy and matter. Energy and matter can be converted back and forth, and magic and mundane can also be converted back and forth. However, much like converting energy and matter, magic and mundane conversions are fraught with peril and consequences. Any number of bad things can happen with inappropriate uses of magic. One wrong move in crafting spell...boom!" He threw his arms into the air to indicate the seriousness thereof, causing the trio of fillies to jump back, startled.

Pleased to see he still had their attention, he continued. "You three have great deal of magical energy inside you...but it is used up for every spell you craft. Use too much too fast, and chi will be burnt up, and then..." He let his voice hang, trusting in childish imagination to paint that picture far more plainly than any words of his could. As he watched the growing looks of horror on their faces, he knew he had accomplished his goals. Sitting back, he continued his lecture. "As such, you three are not to work magic without Uncle present to observe, in order to make sure none of you face such dire consequences."

All three fillies nodded readily. Seeing that they understood, Uncle moved on to the next point. "Next, Uncle's rare magical ingredients. They are rare for a reason, and not to be used incautiously. What if something serious happened, and Uncle needed those to make medicine? But now they are all gone, and Uncle could not make medicine. Careless use of magical ingredients can cost lives, not just because of bad spell, but because ingredients not available when needed! Uncle not want to scare fillies like this, but fillies must understand why Uncle make these rules." He watched as all three nodded, their heads hanging low. Feeling he was pushing a bit too hard, he reached out to give each a comforting mane stroke, pleased to see this managed to cheer them up.

"Uncle is mostly certain he does not need to explain why damage to shop is bad thing," he continued. "Shop is home. If damaged too much, Uncle lose home. Fillies want be homeless, no?" At the vigorous headshakes the three fillies returned, he continued, "Then no damage shop!" All three nodded vigorously.

"Very well," Uncle confirmed. "Uncle has given lecture, and will now dispense punishments. If lessons are learned, fillies will be given more freedoms over time, but Uncle must be strict for fillies' own good." Uncle leaned back in his chair, watching to be sure he had their full attention. He then held up his hand with one finger. "First, fillies are no longer allowed in Chi Lab without supervision, and forbidden from experimentation even with, save during actual lessons. Understand?" The three fillies nodded eagerly.

Uncle smiled, ready to continue. "One more thing! Fillies not allowed to watch TV unsupervised. It gives dangerous ideas, and Uncle cannot allow that." While he noticed the hanging heads, he knew he had to stay firm. Besides, he figured a family TV time might help them stay close. It was rather surprising how readily he was coming to think of things like that. "One more thing! Fillies not allowed to watch Magic School Bus. While teaches good lessons, gives bad ideas for experimentation." He pointed to three shoddily constructed pony shaped suits, built of fish bowls, old hose, cardboard boxes, and paper towel rolls sans the paper towels. "While desire to know more about human body is good thing, protective suits not work. Not fit fillies well, and no air supply. And not good idea to attempt to explore Uncle's digestive tract without telling Uncle! Might have also ended up taking tour of San Francisco sewers!"

All three fillies tilted their heads, trying to make sense of that. As they realized what he meant, all their eyes went wide. "EWWW!" they all squealed out, making disgusted faces.

"One more thing!" Uncle insisted. "No more Reading Rainbow for you. Uncle will handle teaching reading and writing." The three fillies nodded, but Sweetie Belle at least looked excited. "One more thing! First lesson of magic ethics is learning responsibility, and cleaning up own lessons. Understand?" All three nodded agreement.

"Good!" Uncle confirmed. He then pointed out the window to the giant canine in the backyard. "Then put Clifford back in his book!"

Food Foibles

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Reading lessons proved quite easy for Uncle, though he privately suspected the fillies already knew how to read, given they'd been raiding his spell library for their unsupervised experiments. The fillies readily grasped both English and Chinese letters as he taught them their meanings. Writing, however, proved far more challenging, likely due to the absence of fingers.

Apple Bloom managed somewhat by holding the writing implement in her mouth and moving it with her tongue. While impressive, Uncle found it mildly disturbing for reasons he couldn't put his finger on. Beyond that, he didn't like being handed a writing implement with slobber on it.

Sweetie Belle was easily able to manipulate pencils or pens with her magical aura...but her fine control was somewhat lacking. More often than not, her letters would shape gigantic, or she'd end up driving her pencil or pen through the paper - and sometimes through the table - when she tried to mark a period. She found this nearly as frustrating as Uncle did.

Scootaloo had the most problems with writing. While she was, surprisingly, able to grip a pencil with her feathers, her wings were far too small to reach the paper from her side, and attempts to hold the paper at her side or see it as she wrote resulted in contortions of her body that were more amusing and painful than effective. She also lacked Apple Bloom's dexterity when holding an implement in her mouth, and had a tendency to chew while thinking. Uncle was surprised to discover that her teeth - like the others' - were quite well developed, leading to her chewing through three pencils. He was very glad he had not attempted to give her a pen.

Uncle had attempted teaching them to hold writing implements with their hooves, as he'd seen Apple Bloom and Scootaloo demonstrate gripping ability with hooves that should easily have translated to holding a pencil or pen. Apple Bloom often gripped a vial in magic lessons in one hoof, pouring the contents into another vial she held in the other. Scootaloo, in reading lessons, frequently carried a book in each of her four hooves to her spot to pleasure read...especially if Uncle relented and let her read comic books. On closer examination, he'd noticed that their hooves generated low level magical fields, similar to what Sweetie Belle generated from her horn, but far more limited and only visible when he brought his own magic to his senses. As best he could tell, this field only worked for gripping things, like doorknobs and similar objects.

He had raised his concerns to Jackie...who had presented a possible lesson solution that was of such simplicity Uncle was surprised he hadn't thought of it before. Then again, even with them reading, writing, and talking, Uncle still tended to think of the fillies as magical creatures. Fully sapient magical creatures, but still creatures. Because of the pendants, however, Jackie had come to think of them as children first, magical creatures second, and his suggested approach was obvious, in treating them like children. Since they had some manual dexterity and teeth, the solution was obvious: chopsticks.

As such, the five were now seated around the dining table, bowls of chow mein with tofu in front of each of them, as Uncle and Jackie prepared to teach the fillies how to eat with chopsticks. In order to improve the lesson so that the fillies could learn by watching, Jackie and Uncle were both wearing socks over their hands to make them more hoof-like.

"First step, learn to hold chopsticks together," Uncle instructed, picking up his chopsticks in one socked hand. Managing to get a grip on them, he held them up in proper alignment and clicked them together. "Should be able to click like this. Try."

Apple Bloom glanced down at the utensils before her worriedly, lowering her hoof atop them and trying to grip them. Picking them up proved easy enough. Manipulating them single-hoofed while gripping proved much more difficult, and frequently led to her dropping one or both. However, she continued to struggle with it doggedly.

Sweetie Belle quickly levitated her chopsticks into the air, holding them in proper alignment. However, when she tried to click them together, one snapped cleanly in two from the force of the impact. Squealing in frustration, she quickly grabbed a replacement from the large pile Uncle had provided her just in case it happened and tried again, only for the other one to break at the click. She continued this determinedly, struggling to learn the control where the chopsticks were held but did not break.

Scootaloo picked one chopstick up in each forehoof, clicking them together as demonstrated. She then smiled proudly up at Uncle, thinking she'd found the trick to the lesson.

Uncle and Jackie waited patiently, the dishes covered to protect them from splinters, until Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle had each managed a successful click of their chopsticks. Uncle then uncovered each of the bowls. "Now, hold bowl close to mouth, and use chopsticks to bring food to mouth, like so." Picking up his own bowl, he brought a bit of noodle and tofu to his mouth with his chopsticks, giving it a soft blow before putting it in his mouth. Jackie mimicked the actions, having a bit more difficulty with his socked hands than Uncle was.

Apple Bloom attempted to mimic the actions, but had difficulty picking up her bowl. When she finally managed it, she had difficulty maintaining the focus on both bowl and chopsticks to move them. Eventually, her frustration reached its peak when she dropped one of the chopsticks. Growling, she held the other like a spear and stabbed it through some vegetables and tofu before swirling it around. With noodle caught on the tofu and vegetable, she stuffed the mouthful into her mouth. She hummed in pleasure as she chewed.

Sweetie Belle managed to get the first mouthful into her mouth via bowl and chopsticks without any trouble...but her pleasure at the taste caused her magic to spike, resulting in her chopsticks being embedded in two different walls and her bowl flipping through the air. She managed to catch the bowl before anything spilled, setting it gently back on the table. When she tried to pick up fresh chopsticks, however, they snapped in her grip. She slammed her hooves on the table with a squeal of frustration, which caused her bowl to flip off and onto her head, spinning on her horn. She looked up sadly at Uncle and Jackie, sniffling.

Sighing, Jackie set his bowl down and covered it before picking her up. "Come on," he said gently. "Let's get you cleaned up, and then I'll make you a fresh bowl..."

Uncle sighed as he watched them walk off, then turned to his last charge. Scootaloo had picked up the bowl with her two chopsticks and buried her face in it, snarfing the food up. "Aiyah!" Uncle snapped. "Scootaloo! A proper young lady does not eat like hog on farm!"

Scootaloo lifted her head from the bowl, her face covered with bits of sauce, noodle, and vegetable. She smirked, blew a raspberry at Uncle, then went back to eating.

At that moment, Jackie had returned, Sweetie Belle wrapped in towels and a fresh bowl in his hand. He glowered down at Scootaloo. "Not cool," he chided gently.

Scootaloo's eyes widened in surprise, and she promptly set the bowl down, looking up worriedly.

Uncle sighed, putting one socked hand to his face. He wasn't sure if he should be relieved he had a way to reign Scootaloo in now, or upset at how...idiotic it seemed.

Crazy Customers

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Uncle had noticed the influence that the three fillies had on the customers who came into the shop. When they made an effort to be adorable, even the hardest dealer turned to goo, and Sweetie Belle at least seemed to have an instinct for just the right time to be adorable, with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo following suit.

What Uncle hadn't noticed or really thought about was how his customers changed as a result of their presence. After all, antique collectors were unusual to begin with, and Uncle was no exception. It didn't occur to him that the presence of the three magical creatures in his care drew some of the more...unusual members of his clientele like moths to flame. Still, they were good customers, so Uncle didn't really think much about it.

Besides, it made for good stories.


It was just after sundown and Uncle was getting ready to put the fillies to bed when the bell rang to indicate someone had entered the shop via the front door. Inwardly, he winced, realizing he'd forgot to flip the sign to 'Closed' earlier. Sighing, he made his way back down to the shop, the fillies trundling after him curiously in their usual manners: Scootaloo on her cloud, Apple Bloom on her hooves, and Sweetie Belle on his head.

As he reached the shop, he saw the potential customer. She was a rather well endowed young blonde woman wearing a uniform Uncle didn't recognize, and dark sunglasses over her eyes. "Can I help you?" he asked calmly.

The young woman jumped, startled, and turned to face him. She started to open her mouth to speak, but instead stared right at Scootaloo. Walking right up to her, she began to stroke the tiny pegasus' mane ever so gently. Scootaloo, for her part, leaned into it happily.

Uncle cleared his throat irritably. "Uncle owns antique shop, not petting zoo!"

"S-sorry!" the woman apologized, jumping back. "I don't mean to disturb you. I was just in the area on business when I remembered that my Mast-" She paused, running her tongue over her teeth as she searched for the right word. "Dàshī's birthday is coming up," she concluded. "I wanted to get him something as a special present to curry favor." She glanced away. "Maybe he'll finally start calling me by name," she grumbled under her breath. Looking back up, she continued. "Anyway, this...felt like the right place to shop."

Uncle looked at her for a time, then shrugged. "Very well. Look around. Maybe see something you like?"

Nodding, the woman began to peruse the shop. She examined several artifacts carefully without touching, but eventually moved on. She paused, however, at an ancient looking sword. "This..." she began, plainly drawn to the weapon.

"You have interesting tastes," Uncle offered, coming up behind her. "Sword has very interesting and wicked history. Once belonged to Vlad the Impaler. Very wicked weapon...yet legend say blade is blessed. Most unusual."

The woman smiled widely. "Oh, Master will definitely love to have this..." Under her breath, she whispered, "...again..."

Not hearing the last word, Uncle nodded. "Let us discuss price, then. Come." Taking the sword from the wall, Uncle carried it to the counter.

After a quick negotiation, the young woman paid full price for the antique, fishing dollars out of her money pouch from in amongst a great deal of pounds. Taking the sword, she began to make her way out...pausing to pet Scootaloo again.

"Why spend so much time petting Scootaloo?" Uncle asked curiously. "No pet Apple Bloom or Sweetie Belle?"

The woman paused, flustered. "There's just...something about her," she replied softly. "A...certain kinship. I can't really explain it." With that said, and a gentle pet to each of the other fillies, she left the shop.

Uncle turned the sign to 'Closed' locking the door. "Nice lady," he praised. "Fillies can learn from her how to act properly." From outside, a strange scream could be heard. Shrugging, Uncle lit an incense enchanted with his magic to ward away the undead. "Hope she knows how to use sword. Will likely help her make it back to her Dàshī if need such aid. Now, bedtime story."

With that, he led the fillies back to bed as he moved to select a story.


Another day, Uncle was at work in the shop, filling another shelf with unusual items from around town that the fillies had picked up. Having determined that they had magical properties, he was keeping them in the back for those aspects of his clientele who weren't looking for antiques. After all, for those in the know he was also a Master Chi Wizard, and sometimes those who came to his shop were seeking those services, rather than antiques.

As he worked, the bell chimed as a new customer came in. Turning, Uncle started to smile, only to frown. The young silver haired man who entered did not look to be the sort interested in antiques. However, the bat wing shaped key chain resting on the compass visibly glowed to Uncle's vision, showing that it was magic of some sort, meaning they were looking for something. Uncle was not overfond of young magic users, as they had a strong tendency towards being reckless.

When the young man looked up from his magical compass, however, uncle revised his opinion. His steel blue eyes showed great wisdom for his age, and a hard resolve. Plainly, this was a mage warrior, not a wizard. Those were much better to deal with young when they were learning responsibility, rather than old when they thought they knew everything. "Welcome to Uncle's Antiques," Uncle greeted warmly. "What are you looking for today-"

"WHEEEE!"

Uncle covered his face as the inevitable happened.

"...not being knocked over by a pegasus on a runaway cloud," the young man responded, getting back to his feet. He playfully mussed Scootaloo's mane. "Watch where you're going next time, squirt," he chided. He then looked up at Uncle. "There's something I need here, and...I think it's here somewhere. An...unusual item?"

Nodding, Uncle gestured to the shelf. "My wards bring many unusual items in this week."

The young man looked over the shelf, then pointed at a small green block. "That one," he said firmly.

"Powerful magic inside," Uncle replied. "Not let go of easily, especially with magic unidentified."

The young man offered a full looking satchel. Uncle peered into it, then shook his head, as he only saw yellow and blue baubles that had no value to him. The young man then offered a different satchel, holding various shards, stones, gems, and crystals of different materials, each containing unique and powerful magic that could easily be put to use in Uncle's magic research. "This will do," Uncle replied, taking a handful and handing over the small block.

"Thanks," the young man replied. "Took me a while to find those...glad I won't find anymore here."

"Good luck on your journey, young warrior," Uncle replied warmly as the young man left. He shook his head as he turned back to his shop. "What is with young people wearing so many belts and zippers?" he grumbled under his breath.


As the bell once more rang, Uncle looked up from teaching the three fillies to read. Standing in the entrance was a tall, pale skinned, black haired, red eyed man dressed as a butler. He stepped calmly and peacefully into the shop, but his very presence gave Uncle the willies. "W-welcome to Uncle's Antiques," he greeted nervously. "Looking for something special?"

"You could say that," the man replied softly. He pointed at a shelf where a jeweled ring rested, a recent acquisition that Uncle had painstakingly restored, focused around a single bright blue gem. "That, specifically."

"Ah!" Uncle murmured happily. "Is centuries old. Very precious." He gently lifted it off the shelf.

"Price is no issue," the man murmured, setting a satchel of gold and silver coins of varying age on the counter. As he did so, he reached over to gently stroke Scootaloo's mane as she nuzzled up to him like a cat. For some reason, he found this highly amusing.

"Why is it you want ring so badly?" Uncle asked as he made the exchange.

"This ring is very important to My Lord," he explained, "and yet...he is constantly losing, misplacing, or damaging it, and it always falls to me to fix it. A situation most easy to repair if one looks through time, rather than space." He gazed at the gem appreciatively as it caught the light. "You do very good work. Your high recommendations were well earned. I am glad I directed it to you for this."

Uncle shivered, deciding he didn't want to know anymore. Scootaloo, however, was plainly curious. "How you do dat?" she asked eagerly, all three fillies having started to develop more of a vocabulary by now.

The man chuckled softly as he brushed his hair back from in front of his eyes. "A butler who can't do this much isn't worth his salt, whoever he works for...My Lady," he replied gently. "It is amazing, what one learns looking through time."

"I'm no lady!" Scootaloo complained, blowing a raspberry in protest much to Uncle's terrified surprise.

The butler smiled softly. "Perhaps in another life..." he answered, stepping out of the shop and vanishing from sight.

Uncle shook all over as he began researching anti-demon spells for his shop. Not that they'd do any good if that one showed up again, but he had to calm down somehow...

Pet Problems

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Uncle sighed as the commercial ended on TV. It had been one of those commercials of 'a boy and his dog' variety, advertising pet food. Considering the three fillies had gone deathly quiet as it came on, he was pretty sure he knew exactly where this was going. He could see Apple Bloom's yearning expression just by looking down in his lap, and Scootaloo's hunger just by glancing to his left, where she rested on her cloud. While he couldn't look up to see Sweetie on his head, he could easily imagine her having a similar expression. She then clambered down to beside Apple Bloom as Scoot took the other arm rest, and he knew what would happen next.

As they all turned their cutest pleading expressions on him, they all spoke up. "Uncle...?" they began, their voices high pitched and wheedling.

"No pets," Uncle replied firmly, not even waiting for them to finish their request.

"Please?" all three whined.

"No!" Uncle replied firmly, setting them down and making his way into the kitchen. Once there, he opened a cabinet to fetch some tea.

"Please?" all three fillies pleaded from inside the cabinet...somehow.

Uncle, however, had grown used to the idea that the laws of physics didn't apply where magic was involved, so he simply replied, "No!" fetched his tea, and closed the cabinet. He then turned to start brewing his tea.

"Please?" Sweetie Belle pleaded from inside the first teapot when he lifted the lid.

"No!" he countered, turning to the second teapot.

"Please?" Apple Bloom pleaded as he lifted the lid.

"No!"

"Pwease?" Scootaloo wheedled from the third.

"No!" he snapped as he prepped the fourth to actually have tea.

After that, all was silent for a while as he made tea...until he poured it for himself and carried it to the table.

"Please?" all three fillies pleaded from their seats.

"No!" Uncle countered firmly, sitting down to drink his tea and steadfastly ignoring them.

All seemed quiet as Uncle prepared to go to bed. However, as he curled up and turned his ceiling fan on low, he realize the fillies had taken things a step further. His fan had three blades, and they were each sitting on the edge of one. As the fan rotated, each of them called out "Please?" as they passed over him, to which he immediately responded "No!"

As time continued to pass like this, even with the light off, Uncle lulled himself to sleep by counting Pleases instead of sheep.


Jackie arrived early the following morning, deciding to surprise Uncle and the fillies with his visit. Letting himself in with his key, he made his way upstairs...and stared.

"Please?"

"No!"

"Please?"

"No!"

"Please?"

"No!"

Despite all four being asleep, the interaction of 'Please' and 'No' continued as the fan rotated. Jackie rubbed the back of his head, the magic of the pendants' 'normality' fighting with his own sense of strangeness about the situation...if only because Uncle was participating. "Umm...wakey wakey?" he asked, knocking on the door with the hand not holding Uncle's coffee.

"Please?" all three fillies begged as they stirred awake, tumbling off the fan and onto the bed in succession.

"No!" Uncle replied firmly as he slipped out of bed just ahead of the fillies' landing, slipping his glasses back on as he accepted the cup. "Thank you, Jackie." He took a slow sip.

Jackie stared from Uncle to the fillies. "...we are far too used to them," he mumbled idly.

"Says the one influenced by the pendants," Uncle pointed out.

"What are they asking for, anyway?" Jackie asked curiously.

"We wanna pet!" Apple Bloom squealed eagerly.

"Uncle said no!" Uncle countered firmly. "Repeatedly!"

"Why?" Jackie asked curiously. "I thought pets were good for teaching responsibility?"

"Pfeh!" Uncle countered as he sipped his coffee. "Uncle not think fillies ready for responsibility, and has no intention of bringing in pet that will become his responsibility!" He gestured at the fillies. "Uncle already has that in triplicate!"

"Uncle," Jackie chided, "you shouldn't compare them to pets..."

"Until fillies talked, that's what Uncle thought they were!" Uncle complained back, heading downstairs for breakfast.

Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo glanced at each other and grinned widely. "Light~bulb!" they chorused together.


The following day, Uncle was surprised to discover that the fillies were not in their bed together. Apparently, they'd decided to wake up early. Groaning, he got to his feet and made his way downstairs. Seeing a hot cup of coffee, Uncle happily took a sip. "Considerate," he murmured. He then paused. "When did fillies learn to make coffee?" After a thought, he remembered their reaction to his comments about responsibility. "Maybe trying be more responsible?"

At that moment, he heard an unearthly whimper from the library. "That's not good." Turning, he walked in...only to frown at the sight. "Apple Bloom...Sweetie Belle...Scootaloo..." he stated slowly, glowering down at the fillies.

The three fillies turned to look up at him, knowing they were in trouble.

"Why is hellhound in Uncle's shop?" he demanded firmly.

"We...we wanted to show we could take care of a pet," Scootaloo offered.

"And rule of magic using?" Uncle asked.

"We did it right!" Apple Bloom pointed out, indicating the bindings in the circle. "He can't do nothin' but what we tell him and escape from bein' hurt. He even helped us make ya coffee!"

Uncle paused with the cup to his lips, carefully setting it down. Was wondering why coffee so tasty today, he thought to himself. He then pointed to the hellhound, which was sitting atop a bookshelf, huddled into itself and whimpering. "And why hellhound there?"

"Umm...he doesn't like hugs?" Sweetie Belle suggested, looking somewhere between offended and perturbed.

Uncle's palm met his face. "Aiyah..." he moaned. "Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo...you three are creatures of good magic. Hellhound is creature of dark magic. While not inherently evil, good chi is painful to touch for dark magic creatures. If you three touch hellhound, he hurts."

All three fillies eyes went wide in shock. "Then...then we can never pet Flopsie?" Apple Bloom whimpered.

"Send him home," Uncle instructed firmly.

Crying, the three fillies reversed the summoning circle, sending the hellhound back to its own dimension, dispelling the circle in the process.

Uncle stared down at the sorrowful fillies. He finally sighed. "Uncle will have non-demonic coffee," he stated firmly. "Then...we visit pet shop, where Uncle will pick pet that won't be troublesome."

All three fillies gasped happily.


Uncle relaxed easily as he watched the three fillies playing with their new pet, a hamster named Rhino, for some reason. The little brown and white ball of fluff rolled happily around in his hamster ball while Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle raced around after him, the pair of fillies just as eager for safe interaction as the hamster. Scootaloo, meanwhile, was busy constructing a hamster tube maze that ran all along the walls and ceiling without disrupting the normal business of the shop. Uncle was content with this, seeing that the fillies had the pet they wanted and he didn't have to lift a finger.

"Do not over excite Rhino!" Uncle cautioned. "He is only tiny hamster!" Seeing Sweetie Belle's eyes light up, Uncle sat up quickly. "One more thing! No enchanting pets!"

Birthday Bonanza

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Uncle smiled softly to himself as he and Jackie set up the last few details within the shop's living area. He had been waiting for this day for several years now. While he hadn't thought something like this was necessary when he'd believed the fillies to be just animals, once they started talking, he knew it was. However, he was insistent on waiting on any of these until the three of them were cognizant enough to be fully aware of everything involved. Their taking good care of Rhino showed they were ready to handle things responsibly, and the fact that they were now speaking complete - if sometimes broken - sentences showed their minds had fully developed as far as conscious memory went. As such, Uncle decided it was time to begin a few...celebrations.

Once the fillies had gone to bed the previous night, he and Jackie had worked all through the night to have everything prepared by sunrise, not wanting anything to spoil the surprise. The decorations were hung, the presents were prepared, the cake was baked, and the candles were lit. Now, all that was left was the fillies.

As Uncle should have guessed, without him to wake them up at sunrise, they slept in an extra two hours. Thankfully, Jackie had the sense to extinguish the candles before the wax could reach the cake, and wait to reignite them until the fillies could be heard moving about upstairs. Once that was heard, Jackie lit the candles again. The sound of the match brought the fillies racing down to see what was going on, only for them all to gasp in amazement.

Uncle smiled down at them all. "Happy Birthday," he said warmly. He pulled out the chairs for the three to make their way to the table. Once they were all up, Jackie began singing.

As the song finished, Jackie smiled widely. "Now make a wish and blow out the candles," he instructed.

Grinning widely, Scootaloo spread her wings.

"Aiyah!" Uncle shouted out, scared of the mess that might happen. "Breath only!"

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle giggled as Scootaloo frowned. The three then tilted their heads in thought before each of them smiled. They then leaned forward together and blew out the candles.

Jackie clapped happily as he began serving out breakfast along with slices of the cake, which was decorated with orange, yellow, and white icing. Since it was their birthday - or, at the very least, the anniversary of their arrival, which Uncle had decided to treat as such - it had been decided that the three could eat however they wanted for today. Unsurprisingly, upon being told this, Scootaloo promptly buried her face in her plate, snarfing away. Apple Bloom swiftly joined her, with only Sweetie Belle carefully levitating each bite to her mouth.

Uncle and Jackie enjoyed their own breakfasts and cake, watching the fillies indulge. Once they were done eating, they promptly picked Apple Bloom and Scootaloo up, carrying them to the sink.

"What gives?" Apple Bloom complained.

"You ate rather messily," Jackie told the filly in his hands. "So you need a bath."

"What about Sweetie?" Scootaloo whined angrily.

"She no eat messy!" Uncle countered.

Smirking, Sweetie Belle blew Scootaloo a raspberry...only to get a bit of cake from Scootaloo's mane thrown in her face. "Uncle..." she whimpered.

Sighing, Uncle dropped Scootaloo into the warm water in the sink before going back to scoop up Sweetie Belle. "Not cool, Scootaloo," Jackie scolded.

"But..." Scootaloo complained, wilting under his gaze.

"There are better ways to handle things like that," he chided as the three fillies got their impromptu bath...even if this did result in vast amounts of water being transferred from the sink to all over Jackie, Uncle, and the kitchen.

On the table, Rhino popped his way out of his hamster ball, grabbed a forgotten baby carrot off Scootaloo's plate, stuffed it into his cheeks along with a hunk of cake, before climbing back into his hamster ball and sealing it back up, rolling away to where he could dock with his maze and stash his sneaky find, hoping he'd have time to come back and grab more.

Once the three fillies were cleaned, Uncle and Jackie brought them to their presents, which got the three even more excited. For Apple Bloom, Uncle had gotten her her own miniature greenhouse and planting pots, so she could experiment with growing her own plants magical and otherwise. Sweetie Belle received a toy microphone and a book on the magical properties of music. Having seen one of the ways Scootaloo liked getting around, Jackie had gotten her a scooter sized to her body, along with a little wagon for the other two to ride in behind her. He thought it appropriate somehow for reasons he could not explain, but was pleased to see the three so overjoyed with their gifts, bouncing up and down happily and cheering, and babbling to each other about everything they were going to do with them. Jackie couldn't help but be worried when Scootaloo talked about racing down the hills with Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle pulled behind her. He'd seen her idea of safe speeds. He made a mental note to get all three helmets as soon as possible...and pads as well, if not full fledged padded body suits...though those would probably be difficult and have to be custom made.

Uncle smiled softly down at the fillies as they babbled excitedly. "Girls, Uncle has extra surprise for you." As his words reached them, the trio rushed over, smiling widely. "Uncle knows you three have been fussing, need more space and time than Uncle can give. One more thing, Uncle thinks fillies could use friends, and wider learning than just magic." The three fillies smiled, liking the sound of making friends and learning more. "Uncle has found solution, though. Starting tomorrow, fillies enrolled in school! How is that for birthday surprise?"

The three fillies stared up at Uncle, tilting their heads in confusion. Jackie groaned, burying his face in his palm. "Bad day..." he groaned, not looking forward to what was sure to happen.

Schoolhouse Surprise

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Uncle smiled down at the fillies as he reached the schoolhouse. "This is where you'll be attending school," he told them calmly. "Now, don't give Uncle those faces. Nothing to worry about!"

"But...children see truer," Sweetie Belle pointed out, shivering a bit.

Uncle nodded, understanding the problem she had. Not long ago, one antique customer had come in with very young children...who saw right through the 'normality field' of the pendants to realize the one coming up to them was a genuine unicorn...and then got rather grabby. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo had gotten a tad...overprotective of Sweetie in how they responded. Uncle had lost a customer that day, and it took weeks to convince Sweetie Belle to stop being a hat. "Uncle knows this. That is why Uncle waited to enroll you all in first grade, rather than kindergarten. Trust Uncle, all will be fine."

Apple Bloom looked nervously towards the school. "But...without ya, Uncle?" she whimpered. As enthusiastic as the trio had been about the idea of school, that enthusiasm had dwindled rapidly when they realized it meant a protracted amount of time each day away from Uncle.

"Uncle will walk in with you today, and introduce to teacher and class," Uncle promised. "But after that, fillies must handle school on their own."

"Why can't I bring my cloud in?" Scootaloo grumbled, pawing unpleasantly at the ground.

"Must not stretch normal field too far too soon!" Uncle insisted. "Let school adjust to ponies being normal. Then let school adjust to magical ponies being normal. Then can bring pet cloud to school." All three fillies hung their heads, plainly not looking forward to this as much as they had been. Sighing, Uncle knelt down and embraced all three. "Now don't be so down. Uncle is sure fillies will love school! Uncle certainly did!" As the three perked up, Uncle pulled back and held up his hand. "Now remember, do not take off pendants while at school. No knowing what interrupted field effect might be." The three nodded and started to turn towards the school. "One more thing!" Uncle spoke up, causing them to turn back. "No chi or weather magic on school grounds. Teacher does not count as proper supervision for magic." He smiled as they nodded, turning once more to the school. "One more thing!" They again turned to Uncle, looking a bit more frustrated. "Uncle will be by to pick you up when school is out. Do not keep Uncle waiting!"

Nodding affirmatively, the three nodded before turning back towards the school.

"One more thing!"

"What?" Scootaloo demanded in irritation as the three turned back one last time.

Uncle pulled the three into another hug. "Uncle loves you all," he said softly. The realization of how quickly and firmly the three had found a place in his heart had shocked Uncle, and had been its own roller coaster of realization when it came to light. He'd made a mental note to properly think it through once he was back at the shop after dropping them off today.

Smiling, the three returned the hug. "We love you too, Uncle!" Sweetie Belle squeaked out as Apple Bloom and Scootaloo nodded affirmatively.

Standing up, Uncle led the three into the school. Finding the classroom he was looking for, he knocked. Inside, a young woman with very pale red hair and bright green eyes turned away from her class of first graders to smile at him. "Oh, you must be Uncle Chan," she greeted warmly. "I'm Dorothy Cheers." She smiled down at the fillies. "Are these your girls?"

Uncle nodded, returning the warm smile. "These are Uncle's girls, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo. Say hello, girls."

Apple Bloom glanced up, nervousness warring with confusion in her face. There was something oddly familiar here. "Uh...hello."

"Hi..." Scootaloo added, feeling uncharacteristically awkward.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Cheers!" Sweetie Belle piped up, deciding to try and be a bit more forward despite her own sense of dislocation.

"Well aren't you three just the cutest things ever," Miss Cheers praised, reaching down to ruffle each of their manes, plainly not seeing anything unusual about them. "Now, I understand you've been home schooling them until now?" she asked Uncle.

"Yes, Uncle is good teacher!" Uncle proclaimed proudly. "And girls are good students!" he added with praise.

"Well, we'll see how much they've learned, then," Miss Cheers confirmed. "For now, girls, take those three open seats in the back. We'll see about rearranging things once you're more at home in the classroom."

Nodding, the three fillies took the indicated seats. Smiling, Uncle waved goodbye to them. "See you after school!" he called out, turning to leave.

The three fillies waved goodbye as well, turning back to see what lessons Miss Cheers would impart. Something about her made the entire situation more comfortable for them, though none of them could quite put her hoof on why.

Unfortunately, the lessons proved rather dull for them. Uncle had already covered the basics of reading and writing with them - both in English and Chinese - and the basics of arithmetic had been covered watching Uncle make change in the store. Apple Bloom struggled to maintain her focus, if only to show respect. Sweetie Belle watched to see the different teaching methods, for a large group as opposed to just three.

Scootaloo lacked either curiosity or a desire to be respectful, and was quickly starting to nod off, despite Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle nudging her from either side.

"Girls?" Miss Cheers asked, a slight edge to her voice. "Is there something you want to say about the class?"

Apple Bloom gulped, not wanting to get in trouble. Sweetie Belle hesitated, unsure what to say.

Scootaloo pulled from a show they'd enjoyed watching with Uncle. "Miss Cheers, can we be excused to save the world?"

The entire class burst into laughter, Miss Cheers included. "Not a bad joke, Scootaloo," she offered chidingly. "I'll be passing out workbooks soon. If you feel you are ahead in the lesson, feel free to work ahead. Then you can get extra gold stars for helping any of your fellow students who ask."

All three fillies sat up eagerly. 'Gold Stars' sounded like a wonderful idea.

Halloween Happenstance

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Uncle smiled softly to himself as he finished decorating the shop for Halloween. While both inside and outside were fully decorated, no trick-or-treaters would be seeing the inside of the shop this year. Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo had heard about Halloween while at school, and were eager to give Trick-or-treating a try, even going so far as to make their own costumes. While Uncle had been happy to let them do so, the one rule he'd made for them all was that, while magic could be used to make the costume, none could be used in their functionality. When he'd seen the plans they'd made, however, he'd relented in regard to the use of Scootaloo's cloud, as long as she made certain everything was safe.

He had been confused at first regarding their choices in costumes, but apparently they'd been given a special project in class under the 'advanced enrichment' initiative Miss Cheer had initiated. Students who were sufficiently advanced and ahead of the rest of the class could earn further gold stars by choosing a subject they knew nothing about and presenting a report on it to the class as part of a day's lesson. Uncle was all the more impressed with Miss Cheer at hearing that, and had found himself wishing he was 20 years younger...a wish he discarded rapidly to focus on his wards. The subject the fillies had chosen had been Japanese mythology...under the logic that, given what they'd experienced so far, there was every possibility they would encounter such figures at some point in their lives, since they'd already encountered an Incan Earth Goddess. The costumes they'd chosen for themselves - and the one they'd insisted Uncle wear to match - were all drawn from their studies on that subject.

Uncle once more glanced down at his costume. At first glance, it seemed to be ordinary samurai armor, with an odd crest in the center of his belly. Of course, that was because he couldn't see the circle of stylized fireballs made of paper mache that was affixed to his back to arc around and over his arms and head. He was still having some difficulty with the sash that was meant to wrap around his arms and hover behind him, mostly because the absence of magic involved meant hovering was somewhat difficult. He also wasn't entirely comfortable with the way his hair flared all about him like crazy. Still, the fillies had insisted...

At first glance, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle's costumes were almost identical, save that Scootaloo was garbed in red and dark green while Sweetie Belle was garbed in green and white. Both had applied face paint to create a frighteningly demonic visage, and were riding around on Scootaloo's cloud, which she'd made much bigger and somehow darkened to a thunderhead. The major difference came in their accessories. Sweetie Belle had a large bag tied at either end wrapped around her neck, which hung down and released small amounts of smoke every so often. Scootaloo, however, had a circle of drums attached to her back, similar to the flames attached to Uncle's, and a pair of drumsticks clutched in her forehooves.

Apple Bloom's choice of costume seemed out of place, but actually had just drawn from different stories of Japanese myth. Lacking Sweetie's ability to make herself hover atop the cloud or Scootaloo's ability to sit on it, she had instead dressed herself in a white wolf costume, painting red lines along the body and strapping a mirror to her back.

Uncle smiled down at the fillies, feeling oddly proud of just how much effort they'd put into their costumes. It said good things about their futures that they could show such dedication. "Are we all ready to go?" Uncle asked.

"One more thing!" Scootaloo spoke up. guiding the cloud upward, she flicked a switch on the back of Uncle's costume...and the ring of flames started to slowly rotate. Sweetie Belle flicked a switch on the back of Scootaloo's costume, and her drums did the same. "Added some clockwork!" Scootaloo proclaimed proudly.

Uncle shook his head in amazement, idly wondering just what else the three might be capable of some day. He also made a mental note to be very careful when walking. The last thing he wanted to risk was one of Scootaloo's contraptions going haywire.

With costumes prepared and each of the fillies carrying their candy buckets, Uncle led them outside and turned to lock up the shop until their return. He then turned back to face the fillies...and leapt back. "Aiyah!" he cried out. "Apple Bloom! Uncle said no magic in costumes!"

"But ah'm not!" Apple Bloom complained, pawing at the grass and flowers sprouting up between the cobblestones on which she stood.

"Flowers and grass were not there moments ago!" Uncle insisted.

Apple Bloom glanced down at them. "Oh...that..." She looked up dewy eyed. "Ah'm not doin' it on purpose! It just...happens! Anytime ah'm on ground that's not a solid surface that ain't plant matter, plants sprout up around mah hooves. It's kinda freaky..."

"Is that why you've been insisting on riding around in the wagon as much as possible?" Scootaloo asked, startled. Apple Bloom nodded confirmation.

Kneeling down, Uncle put his fingertips to Apple Bloom's temples, mumbling under his breath as he gathered his magic to analyze Apple Bloom's...only to find that, much like Sweetie Belle's and Scootaloo's, it had reached a point where it was naturally flowing out of her and into the environment at a steady rate. Uncle theorized that their home plane of existence had a much stronger and active magical field, and thus this wasn't as noticeable there. However, as Earth's magical field was more stagnant and faint, this much magic pouring out of the three caused visible reactions in the environment. This was not to say that their magic had grown incredibly strong - as best as he could tell, they were still limited to the same level of output for spell work as they always had been, which was about what he could generate for a single spell unaided - but that their bodies generated that amount continuously, which resulted in the excess that couldn't be stored being released into the environment. This caused stunning visual effects which could likely be intimidating, but was hardly useful or dangerous.

"When did this start?" Uncle asked carefully.

"A few weeks ago..." Apple Bloom replied. "...Pachamama said there wasn't nothin' ah could do about it..."

"When Pachamama say that?" Uncle demanded incisively.

"When she visited mah dream a few months back," Apple Bloom explained. "She came ta check up on me when she felt mah power growin..."

Uncle nodded as he took that in. "We will discuss later," he said firmly. "For now...hope pendants are up to task." He saw Apple Bloom's head jerk up in surprise. "Uncle promised trick-or-treat, Uncle give trick-or-treat. At least plant-walking fits Apple Bloom's costume!"

All three fillies grinned widely as they raced away with Uncle close behind them, seeking the first house they could find for candy, a trail of sprouting and wilting plant life behind Apple Bloom's hooves.

Christmas Cheer

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Apple Bloom sat quietly, wrapped in a blanket as she stared into the fireplace beneath the shop's chimney. The fire burned cheerily, but it was a magic fire. It gave off warmth and light, but it didn't burn anything. She'd tested it herself by sitting amidst the flames for a full hour. She came out a bit dehydrated and overheated, but unburnt and without even a trace of soot in her coat. She'd prepared such a fire specifically for tonight, with a little bit of help from Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo.

Briefly taking her eyes off the fire, she glanced around the room. Nearby, an evergreen tree stood tall, decorations hanging form its branches. Everything from tinsel and lights to colorful spheres and little plush dolls of everyone they knew and cared about danced amidst the green needles, light flickering over the metallic surfaces as the vary-colored lights shimmered over the tinsel like a field of stars. Atop the tree, a star glowed faintly, illuminating the rest of the room only faintly, including the five stockings hanging from the mantel of the fireplace. Names were painstakingly hand-sewn into each of the stockings. Uncle, Jackie, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo...

She paused as she spotted a waver in the air beside her. "Sweetie Belle!" she hissed angrily. "What are ya doin' up?"

Light seemed to warp, and before long the unicorn was fully visible. "Drat," Sweetie Belle pouted. "I thought I'd managed to make that invisibility spell work!"

"It fights the pendant, remember?" Apple Bloom pointed out. "There's no such thing as a 'perfectly normal invisible unicorn', after all." As Sweetie continued to grumble, Apple Bloom pressed again. "Now what are ya doin' up?"

"I was going to ask you the same question," Sweetie chided. "You heard what Uncle said! Santa won't come until after we're asleep!"

The three fillies had caught the excitement of the rest of their class when the discussion of Christmas had come up. They'd written their letters to Santa, much like the rest of the class, asking for whatever it was they wanted. At school, however, it had just been part of the exercise, and fitting in with a human society, little more from Apple Bloom's perspective than further practice holding a pencil - or pen - with a hoof instead of her mouth. After all, the way the teacher had talked about Santa was the same way she referred to the fillies, as something perfectly ordinary that her mind didn't register as being magical. The same way Jackie spoke about such beings as the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.

But then they'd talked about it with Uncle...and he'd spoken of Santa differently. He spoke with the conviction of knowledge, not belief. Santa was apparently a fundamental aspect of Chi Magic studies, as real as unicorns and demons and just as important, a focal point of Good Chi. He even had a special way of sending off their letters to Santa to ensure they would reach him. After that, each of the fillies had written a new letter to Santa, asking for something other than the usual toys or 'feel good' wishes.

Apple Bloom glanced away. "Ah...ah'm hoping Santa can gimme what ah asked for a little sooner..." she answered softly, refusing to meet Sweetie Belle's gaze. "Ah mean...it's not like we're human kids, right? Maybe he'll make an exception as far as the 'must be in bed', since we're magic?"

"Why are you so eager, anyway?" Sweetie Belle asked curiously. "What could it be that you want so badly?"

"Ah...ah asked fer..." Apple Bloom lowered her gaze. "...ah asked him ta take mah magic away..."

"What?" Scootaloo demanded from the rafters, dropping down beside the others. "Why the hay would you ask that?"

"Yer supposed ta be in bed, too," Apple Bloom grumbled.

"The question stands," Sweetie Belle added her own insistence.

"You should understand pretty well, Sweetie," Apple Bloom countered. "Remember Mumbo?"

Sweetie Belle shuddered. Around Thanksgiving, a wanna-be wizard had stopped by the shop looking for things for his own attempts at magic. He had no real talent, but he'd read enough that he believed he could do anything if he put his mind to it. Uncle had refused to sell to him, since reckless use of magic was dangerous. 'The Magnificent Mumbo', as he'd called himself, had countered by trying to kidnap Sweetie Belle when the fillies were on their way home from school, while Scootaloo was towing her and Apple Bloom in the wheelbarrow. Unfortunately for 'Mumbo', Scootaloo was using her cloud that day, rather than her scooter, and it was still built up grey from Halloween. The trio had decided not to mention the event to Uncle, since Scootaloo didn't want a lecture on zapping people with lightning...or even to admit to Uncle that she could make lightning.

"See?" Apple Bloom pointed out. "And you can hide yer magical nature just by not using it. Scoot can easily defend herself from anything, or just fly out of reach. But me?" She pawed at the wooden floor as plants sprouted between the boards, withering as she moved away. "Ah can't even walk around without leavin' evidence Ah'm all magical...and what kinda defense do ah got? Ah can't even control most of what mah magic does yet, outside mah garden..." She lowered her eyes. "And if I get snatched for something - like as a vessel or sacrifice for some Earth spirit/god/demon/whatever - you two and Uncle will try ta save me...and all that'll do is put ya in danger cause of me..." She blinked away a few tears. "If...if all my magic is gonna do is put the ones ah care about in danger...than ah don't want it!"

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo immediately pulled Apple Bloom into a tight hug, doing their best to comfort her in her sorrow. So focused had they been on her anguish, none had noticed the sound of bells, or hoofsteps.

"So that is what your letter meant, Apple Bloom," a kindly old voice said in the barest of whispers from before the fireplace.

The three fillies spun, their eyes going wide in awe as they stared at the portly figure in furs, red trimmed with white. His full beard and mustache nearly swallowed his face and covered a good portion of his chest as well. "...Santa..." all three breathed in awe, able to not just see Santa for what he was, but to feel the vast amounts of Good Chi focused in every cell of his very being. Apple Bloom, being the most scientifically focused of the trio, began to get a glimmer of how Santa could traverse the whole world in a single night. There was so much Good Chi focused in him, he was the living magical equivalent of a black hole, his very existence warping the fabric of magic and space-time wherever he walked, the effect controlled by his gentle, compassionate nature so it did no harm. No wonder the normal laws of physics, or even magic physics, don't apply to him, she thought silently.

Santa knelt down before the fillies. "I'm actually glad all three of you are here," he explained as they approached him nervously, the trio being even more in awe than when they'd been in the presence of Pachamama, a genuine god. "You see...it isn't actually in my power to grant what you three asked of me in your second letters. I can give presents, but I can't grant miracles."

All three fillies hung their ears in disbelief. "But...but ya got so much power..." Apple Bloom whimpered. "Ya...ya can't...?"

"I wouldn't take your magic away from you even if I could," Santa interrupted. "It is a part of you...and to do so would, in the long run, be a great cruelty, wounding your very soul." He shook his head gently. "And cruelty is one thing I cannot abide, and will not do, even when asked by one who has been as good as you have." As Apple Bloom hung her head, he turned to Sweetie Belle. "And Sweetie Belle...I know you meant well, but even I do not have the power to give back years of life. Even if Uncle wanted it - which he does not - I cannot add sand to his hourglass and restore his youth to him. Magic such as that always has a price, one that neither I nor your guardian will pay."

Sweetie Belle sighed sadly. As the three fillies had grown, she'd noticed Uncle beginning to struggle a bit more to keep up with them. His joints became more stiff, he took longer each morning to wake up, and he'd started going outside less and less often. He pushed himself for the sake of the fillies...but Sweetie Belle had worried, and asked Santa to make Uncle younger again. She knew it was a long shot...but feeling how much magic Santa had inside him had given her a bit of hope.

Scootaloo hung her head even as Santa turned to her. "Guess what I asked for was kinda stupid anyway..." she muttered.

"Not really," Santa replied, "and it was well meaning. But no power in this or any world can join two worlds together, and even if it were possible the raw magic of the land you come from would overwhelm - and overwrite - this one if I even tried." Noticing the despair on the fillies faces, he smiled warmly at them. "Now don't be like that," he gently chided. "It's a good thing you are awake now...because while I can't grant the wishes as they are written, I can give gifts based in the sentiment behind them."

"Huh?" all three fillies asked, looking up in confusion.

Smiling widely, Santa touched his finger to the side of his nose, and the tip of that finger glowed as he focused his magic there. Leaning down, he touched the finger to each of the fillies' 'pendants of normalcy'. The pendants flared with shimmering light as they absorbed the magic, almost more than the pendants could contain. "There is your present, Apple Bloom," he explained. "Your wish came from a desire to keep yourself and your loved ones safe...and this magic will prevent your magical nature from drawing the attention or ire of any purely human threat. Animal threats you're all well equipped to handle...and Uncle will surely teach you three how to handle yourselves against those threats that are magical, and more than human."

Apple Bloom smiled widely, tears in her eyes. "T-thank you, Santa..." she murmured gratefully, hugging him as much as she could.

"Ho ho ho," Santa chuckled, returning the embrace even as Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo piled onto him as well. "Now, I can do more..." He pulled back and waved his hand over their faces. "But for now...it's time for you three to wake up." He snapped his fingers.

He smiled to himself as he watched that special bit of spatial warping kick in. The three fillies would wake up the following morning in their beds, fully rested, as though the entire event had been naught but a dream. He used that when children who were otherwise good snuck down to see him. After all, it was the faith in the magic and spirit of Christmas that made it so potent. True knowledge of it got in the way of that, unless those who knew were also of a magical inclination, and knew how big a part of magic belief that it would work was. Standing upright, he got to work, leaving the presents under the tree and filling the stockings before turning to the last few gifts. "Hmm..." he murmured to himself as he rolled up his sleeves. "These might be tricky..." With a beckoning motion, he called Scootaloo's cloud over to him. "Might as well start with the simplest ones..."


Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo awoke in bed with a start. The sun was high in the sky, showing it was well after sunrise. They weren't sure why they'd slept so late, but they were very relaxed and happy. "I had the strangest dream," Apple Bloom muttered. "Santa came and put magic in our pendants..."

"After telling us he could grant the spirit of our requests, but not the letter?" Sweetie Belle asked, eyes wide.

"And then told us to wake up?" Scootaloo added.

Eyes wide, the trio raced downstairs to find Uncle and Jackie already awake and waiting for them. "Children that sleep in late on Christmas morning," Jackie joked. "Will the miracles never cease?"

Scootaloo blew a raspberry in protest, startling laughter out of all present. She then gasped, however, as she spotted something floating beside the tree. It looked like her cloud, but it was now a bright cyan. A note hung nearby, and she raced over to read it. "Your cloud now lives, and will come when you call, and support the three of you without additional magic," she read carefully. "His name is Cumulo."

As she spoke the name, the cloud zipped over to her, leaving a rainbow contrail behind it as it moved. She hopped up onto it eagerly, for some reason that alone making her warm and happy inside as she snuggled into the cloud.

Sweetie Belle opened a large present with her name on it, and found several mannequins in the shape of the fillies, obviously designed to hang clothes from...especially since different outfits already hung from them. While the three had never had much to do with clothing aside from their Halloween costumes, something about the sight of clothes hanging from pony-shaped mannequins was very comforting to Sweetie.

Uncle gasped as he opened a narrow package with his name on it. "Aiyah!" he called out in surprise. "Is Chi Master Fong's lost Joint Ail potion recipe! Been searching all over for this! Help ease joints for years!"

Sweetie Belle smiled widely, realizing what Santa had done for her wish.

Apple Bloom glanced around, looking for something that might be for her...until she noticed a note pinned to the tree. Walking over, she read it.

Apple Bloom,

Check the back lot.
Santa

Gasping, Apple Bloom raced out to the back lot, a part of the property that the group rarely used and mostly ignored. What she saw there stunned her beyond belief, and she felt the need for confirmation. "Girls! Jackie! Uncle! Come quick!"

The four summoned quickly raced out to see what had caused Apple Bloom's excitement...only to come screeching to a halt, their eyes lifting. "Aiyah..." Uncle breathed, staring up at the apple tree that had not been there the day before, and the plant life that bloomed so readily around its roots in an otherwise bare lot.

Jackie walked up to the tree, placing his hand against it. "It feels...so alive..." he murmured. "More than any other tree I've encountered..."

"It gives off magic..." Uncle murmured as he rested his own hand against it, noticing the parchment seal on the rope around the trunk, keeping the tree's magic self contained. "It's from...where the fillies are from...but how?"

"My letter to Santa!" Scootaloo spoke up as Apple Bloom leaned happily against the tree. "We'd felt so out of place here in San Francisco...I asked him to bring a bit of home here."

"I asked him to help you fight aging!" Sweetie Belle squeaked out.

"I asked him to help keep us safe..." Apple Bloom murmured, still leaned against the tree, feeling warm and safe as though cuddled between two larger ponies.

Smiling softly, Uncle knelt down, pulling the three fillies in a warm embrace. "Uncle is so proud of you three..."

Ancillary Alliteration: Adventure Away

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The next few years were rather uneventful for the three fillies. Their time in school went well, even if the teachers they had after Miss Cheer weren't nearly as fun. Their academics never suffered, though they didn't excel either...mostly because the amplified pendants caused anything they did academically to be perceived as 'normal' for them, meaning that nothing could be perceived as excelling. They worked around this by picking up their lessons with Uncle back at the shop, and helping research for Jackie's archaeological expeditions.

Unfortunately for the trio, making friends amongst their classmates proved to be just as difficult. While they were frequently invited to join in various games or other activities, they were never specifically invited, always as just part of the crowd. The pendants that kept them safe once more caused other problems, since they didn't stand out socially either, more often than not little more than extra warm bodies for the various activities. This was not to say they didn't enjoy being invited and joining in...but all three felt an obscure loneliness and exclusion in the knowledge that they'd never really be welcomed amongst their fellow students specifically for themselves.

Still, they pressed on. Unable to find such inclusion amongst others, they spent more and more time doing crazy things together around the city of San Francisco. The knowledge that anything they did would be overlooked as 'normal' made many things they'd normally never consider doing exciting challenges. Cumulo played a huge part in many of these endeavors, buzzing the tallest buildings around town before leaping off and finding ways to break their fall before they hit the ground, taking turns for how to do it. The favorite so far was Apple Bloom's bunge-ivy, when she called Ivy growing on the building walls to stretch out and catch them before flinging them back up into the air when they reached the bottom of the stretch, only to be caught by Cumulo on his return flight.

With all their activities together, the sense of loneliness and exclusion faded, though the trio still found themselves desperate for a real friend who liked them for them, someone to bring into their world of magic and embrace all the weirdness and excitement they lived with every day. They all doubted the chance something like that could happen, since ordinary humans couldn't notice anything magical about them - they'd checked, even having Scootaloo ride Cumulo into class, and while the comments of 'cool ride' had been promising, the teacher'd just told her he belonged at the bike rack - and anything magical they encountered likely wouldn't be able to be part of 'ordinary life', and any friendships found there were unlikely to be the sort to invite over for board games or a movie night.

So it was rather unsurprising to Uncle that, despite riding a cyan colored cloud with a rainbow colored contrail that could break the sound barrier, his three little girls arrived home with sad looks on their faces. Unpleasant, but unsurprising. However, he thought he had a few pieces of news that ought to cheer them up. "Welcome home, girls," he greeted them warmly, stepping out from behind the counter. "How was school?"

"...it was okay..." Apple Bloom answered morosely.

"Boring..." Scootaloo grumbled.

Sweetie Belle, ever the sort to try and find the good in things, offered, "The lunch you packed us was tasty?"

Chuckling, Uncle watched as the trio trudged to the table and got to their homework, working studiously away like good little girls...a true sign that they were feeling down in the dumps. "Well, Uncle has good news for you!" he chimed out happily. "Jackie will be coming back from his dig tomorrow!"

All three fillies immediately perked up. "Really?" Sweetie Belle squeaked out. "He'll be here tomorrow?"

"With all sorts of stories of his adventures?" Scootaloo added eagerly.

"And he can test me for my next belt?" Apple Bloom called out happily, her eyes going to where her gi hung in the closet, a red belt wrapped around it.

Uncle chuckled softly, pleased to see how much the three had grown to love and welcome his nephew. It was nice to see how their family had grown. Which, as it turned out, led into his next bit of news. "Although he won't be here until after school, most likely, so you'd best behave yourselves at school and not get detention."

Scootaloo blew a raspberry. "Like we ever do," she replied disdainfully...and more than a little morosely.

"One more thing!" Uncle spoke up, getting their attention. "Jackie is not only family showing up tomorrow. His cousins from Hong Kong are sending their daughter, Jade, to live with us for a year. She will be bunking with you." He smiled impishly. "She is about your age."

"We have a cousin?" Apple Bloom gasped out happily.

"And she's coming to stay with us?" Sweetie Belle squeaked, her voice cracking as she hit the high note.

As the pair started squealing happily, Scootaloo scratched at her chin thoughtfully. "How come they're sending her out here?" she asked curiously. "It's not one of those 'broaden her horizons' things, is it? I mean, if she's our age, isn't she a little young for that?"

Uncle winced. He had hoped he'd get by without spilling this part of what he had to share. "Well...it seems she has been...a bit of a troublemaker back home," Uncle admitted. "They are hoping Jackie will straighten her out."

Scootaloo's eyes widened eagerly. "You mean she knows how to have fun and isn't above stepping around the rules at times?" she asked happily. "And she's someone we can tell about us, because she's family?"

"Well..." Uncle began.

A high pitched squeal cut the air as the three fillies began cheering together.

Sighing, Uncle shook his head, rubbing his fingers in his ears. He didn't have the heart to disillusion them, not when they were this happy.

A Friend Like Me

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Jackie smiled softly to himself as he led Apple Bloom through her katas in the upstairs dojo above the antique shop. He'd arrived back from his latest archaeological expedition just the day before, and the three girls had been overjoyed to see him. Of course, there had been a moment when they'd looked at Uncle in confusion and Scootaloo had asked about 'that other thing', only for Uncle to tell her it would be tomorrow...today now. Jackie had shrugged it off, assuming Uncle had plans for a family event today. For now, he would focus on teaching Apple Bloom more of the martial arts, as of the three she was the only truly dedicated student. She'd even cleared the test to get her next belt level, and she was so proud.

He paused in the teaching as the bell near the exit to the dojo began to ring. He quickly moved to the stairs, followed by Apple Bloom. Down below in the antique shop, Uncle was examining the shield Jackie had brought back with him, working on translating the inscriptions. Uncle smiled up at Jackie. "Come," he called warmly, "give Uncle a hug."

Smiling widely, Jackie performed a careful flip off the top of the stairwell to land lightly on his feet in front of Uncle. When he turned to embrace him, however, he received a two finger strike to his temple. "Ow!"

"You no make coffee this morning!" Uncle snapped, sipping from a cup. "Scootaloo had to do it, but is your job. You want dead Uncle, no?" When Jackie helplessly shook his head, Uncle continued, "Then you make the coffee."

Sighing, Jackie nodded.

"One more thing!" Sweetie Belle called out from another desk, where she spent her time on weekends - like now - helping with the shop paperwork and taking phone messages since Uncle still disliked the more modern phones and the 'fax machine'. "The university called, Uncle Jackie. They want you to translate some parchments."

"One more thing!" Scootaloo called out from the library. "I'm having trouble finding any other examples of the writing on the shield. It must be really old. Uncle, I think you need to look at your journals, I still can't read them."

"One more thing!" Uncle called out to everyone present. He then gestured to a young girl of Asian descent standing in front of the counter, somehow having gone unnoticed until then. She had black and blue hair that hung in bangs that framed her heart shaped face, save for one that seemed to determined to fall over her eyes. Her hazel eyes stared piercingly at all around, seeming bored and frustrated. She was dressed in an orange hoodie and blue jeans, looked about 10 years old, and had three bright pink suitcases of various sizes arranged behind her...which also had somehow gone unnoticed until then. "Jackie, this is Jade, your niece. She will live with you for a year."

The three fillies gasped happily as they rushed over to meet Jade. Jackie's reaction, however, suggested to Uncle that he had been overexposed to the 'Amulets of Acceptance', as Sweetie Belle had eventually termed them. "Okay," he stated, as though this were something that happened every day. He then expressed a sudden, stronger reaction as he almost choked on his words. "I have a niece?"

"You cousin Shin's girl from Hong Kong," Uncle explained. "Jade is not behaving well there. Doing poorly in school. Your cousin thinks she will do better in America, with you." As Uncle spoke Jade let her eyes wander, keeping her expression neutral as she refused to look at anyone.

"Wouldn't she do better with you?" Jackie asked quietly. "I mean, you've been raising the girls so far-"

"Uncle has his aging hands full with three!" Uncle insisted. "You want to unleash chaos on San Francisco by making Uncle responsible for four?"

As Uncle and Jackie discussed this, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo had decided to go greet the new family member and make her feel welcome. "Howdy, cousin!" Apple Bloom greeted warmly.

Jade, for her part, simply stared at them, her eyes widening.

"Wait, maybe she doesn't speak English!" Scootaloo offered. "She did just arrive from Hong Kong, after all."

Smiling, Sweetie Belle greeted her. "Nǐ hǎo qīn qi."

Jade stared at Sweetie Belle. "...Qílín..." she whispered at last.

All three fillies stared at her. Sweetie Belle then seized her in her telekinetic aura. "Uncle, we're gonna play with Jade upstairs!" she called out as the three absconded with their new cousin.

"See?" Jackie pointed out to Uncle. "They are connecting already."

"Uncle still cannot handle four in antique shop!" Uncle countered. "Took years to adapt to three!"


Once upstairs, Jade quickly found herself tied to a chair with a light being shone on her face. "See?" Scootaloo said smugly. "I told you having all this set up ahead of time just in case was a good idea."

"Ah don't know whether ta be impressed or upset that you're right," Apple Bloom grumbled.

"Shouldn't we focus on the issue?" Sweetie Belle asked. "I mean, she saw right through the 'normal' aura. No human should be able to do that!"

"Right!" Scootaloo insisted as she swung the lamp close to Jade's face. "Alright, talk! What are you that the pendants don't effect you? Demon? Spirit? Planeswalker? Reverse aged chi wizard? Witch?" She thrust her face into Jade's. "Are you a spy?"

In response to the rapid-fire questions, Jade...squeed. "I'm being interrogated by three talking, candy-colored miniature ponies...and one of them's an honest to goodness unicorn! America...is so...COOL!" She seemed to be vibrating with contained glee.

Scootaloo blinked in confusion. "This doesn't seem to be working..."

"Probably cuz we're overlookin' something," Apple Bloom offered. "Sweetie Belle, touch her face."

Shrugging, Sweetie Belle pressed her hoof against Jade's cheek. The only thing that happened was Jade getting even more excited. "What does this prove?" Sweetie asked, confused.

"That she's not dark magic," Apple Bloom explained. "And what about that spell ya got ta see someone's magic?"

Nodding, Sweetie Belle pulled her hoof back and closed her eyes, focusing her magic inward. When she opened her eyes, they glowed green. To her vision now, each of the trio glowed with a literal bonfire of chi and magical energy, flowing all around them and endlessly pouring out. When she looked at Jade, however, she yelped in shock. To her altered vision, Jade blazed with chi and magic that dwarfed the trio's, though it flared out randomly, endlessly shifting and ebbing every moment, never still, the sure sign of untrained magic however powerful it was. "...that's a lot..." she muttered, rubbing her eyes as she shifted her gaze back to normal.

"Thought so," Apple Bloom stated firmly, looking somewhere between smug and sorrowful.

"Going to explain it to the rest of us?" Scootaloo grumbled.

"Lots of magical creatures have some natural ability to blend with their surroundings to keep from being noticed," Apple Bloom explained. "An innate version of our pendants. But anyone with enough magical potential can see through 'em." She looked compassionately at Jade. "That's why yer grades started sufferin', didn't they? There's lots and lots o' those critters in the Far East, and ya couldn't focus when ya were seein' 'em everywhere?" Jade sighed, nodding sadly.

Sweetie Belle's eyes lowered. "And when you tried to tell them what you saw, no one believed you, because they couldn't see them, and they thought you were just making things up to get out of trouble?" Jade nodded again.

"And if you're going to get blamed for trouble anyway, why not just make trouble?" Scootaloo asked. Jade lowered her gaze as Sweetie undid the ropes.

"Well, I've got good news for you!" Sweetie reassured Jade. "You're not crazy or anything like that. You've just got really powerful innate magical ability. The creatures you've been seeing are real, just like us! And we're your cousins!"

Jade managed a warm smile as she blinked away a few tears as the group piled into a group hug. After a time, Apple Bloom spoke up. "So...how come ya weren't sayin' anything downstairs?"

Jade shrugged. "I kinda figured I'd face the same sort of thing I did back home, and I thought I could get away with more if I pretended I couldn't understand instructions."

Scootaloo grinned widely. "I can get behind that. Don't worry, we won't tell."

Jade grinned widely as the trio started to lead her back downstairs, only to pause at a window. "Say...it looks like Uncle Jackie's tailing someone."

The three fillies quickly joined her at the window, eager for something interesting for once. "Wonder what's up with that?" Apple Bloom asked curiously.

"Must be important," Sweetie Belle murmured.

"Let's tail him and find out!" Scootaloo offered eagerly.

"But how are we going to keep up?" Jade asked curiously.

All three fillies grinned widely at her. "Cumulo!" Scootaloo called out.

Before Jade's very eyes, a cyan cloud zipped up to the windowsill trailing a rainbow behind it. The three fillies hopped up onto it, and Apple Bloom held out her hoof. "Come on!" she offered eagerly.

Cautiously, Jade allowed herself to be pulled onto the cloud, only to grin widely as it took her weight. "So...cool!" she squealed as the cloud shot off with the group atop it.



(1) Looking back at the show, I noticed Jade took to all the magic and craziness a...little too quickly, if you get what I'm saying. While I overlooked it when I first watched it, I couldn't help but question it as I watched it again. Of course, I recently saw some fanart of "The Life and Times of Juniper Lee", another old show I liked but can't find much of online, and that connected her ready acceptance of magic to the problems she was sent to Jackie to 'fix'.

When a Kid's In America

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Tailing Jackie, even while riding a tame cloud, proved to be far more entertaining than the group had anticipated. First off, much to their surprise, Scootaloo had to guide Cumulo much higher than normal to avoid being spotted, since one of the first things Jackie did was make his way up the side of a building to the top to track the car he was after. Jade's biggest amazement there was when Jackie seemed to literally run up the wall a good distance on hands and feet, before racing along to leap from rooftop to rooftop. When he tried to climb down a drainpipe, however, it proved to not be anywhere near as attached to the building as Jackie was, leading to him crashing atop the car he was tailing, making Jade and the others wince.

This had then led to a chase across town as the three thugs inside the car - all three tall and skinny, each with their own unique 'style', if it could be called that - attempted to take down Jackie, who was easily able to stay one jump ahead of them until he got past a fence surrounding the school playground. While the school was closed that day, the playground was still open to the students as a 'safe play environment'. As none of the three pursuing thugs looked physically fit enough to jump the fence as Jackie had, it looked like Jackie was safe...until they pulled out what could only be described as 'lightning swords' - short, sword-shaped batons surrounded by focused electrical energy - and cut through the fence to go after Jackie. Scootaloo was getting ready to swoop down and give the thugs a taste of her own lightning, until she saw Jackie manage to disarm and disable the thugs with a pair of windshield wipers, the playground tether ball, and the swing set. At that point, the thugs ran for it, showing they actually had a brain between them.

Jade managed at that point to convince Scootaloo to set them down so she could run up and tell Jackie how cool he was, but by the time she got there, all she managed to do was distract Jackie just as a bald man in a black trench coat sprayed him with a green gas from a canister, knocking Jackie out cold. This news was not well received by the fillies as the bald man and two others loaded the unconscious Jackie into an unmarked blue van.

"I say we zap the van with some lightning!" Scootaloo insisted. "Bet that'd teach them to abduct our Uncle Jackie!"

"Except Jackie's in the van," Sweetie Belle pointed out logically. "He'd get zapped, too."

"Oh..." Scootaloo offered sheepishly. "Kinda forgot about that..."

"Maybe I could get one of the trees they drive by tear the van apart with its roots and branches?" Apple Bloom suggested. "Jackie won't get zapped by wood."

Jade stared at Apple Bloom, stunned. "You...you can do that?" she asked, her voice awed.

Apple Bloom smirked a bit mischievously. "You can't?" she teased.

"Be nice," Sweetie Belle chided. "Besides, if Jackie's still unconscious..."

"Oh, yeah," Apple Bloom muttered. "I guess that's a concern..."

"I don't suppose you have any viable suggestions?" Jade asked. "Instead of just poking holes?"

"I figured we could follow to wherever they're taking Jackie and then storm the place," Sweetie Belle offered. "With our magic, we could probably tear the building apart if we feel the need. Pretty sure we can get him out safely." She rubbed the pendant she was wearing. "And as long as we're just dealing with humans, we won't even get in trouble, as long as we wear these."

"Seriously?" Jade gasped out. "How could that work?"

"As long as we're wearin' these pendants," Apple Bloom explained, "anything we say, do, or are gets shrugged off as 'normal' for us by anyone who sees us, as long as they don't got any magic in 'em."

"So...with those pendants, you could get away with just about anything?" Jade asked excitedly.

Apple Bloom glanced down nervously. "Well..."

Sweetie Belle looked somewhere between uncertain and ashamed. "Umm..."

Scootaloo grinned conspiratorially. "Yup!"

Jade grinned wickedly. "We'll have to talk about that later... For now, let's focus on saving Jackie."

As they watched, the van pulled into a dead end alley, and details proved difficult to see. They were, however, able to see the bald man make his way through a hidden door and down a staircase, and were able to follow him, where they saw the immense base he'd walked into.

"Uncle Jackie's been absconded to some sort of secret underground base!" Jade whispered in awe. "We gotta figure out how to get him out!"

"There's a garage over there," Scootaloo pointed out. "Maybe there'll be something in there you can drive to get him out?"

"What about you three?" Jade asked worriedly.

"We'll make a distraction and walk right out," Apple Bloom replied. She wiggled her pendant. "Sides, I think I see some plants and an experimental growth formula over there..."

Sweetie Belle sighed. "Here's hoping this doesn't blow up in our faces..."


Jackie groaned as the crazed action finally slowed down enough for him to wrap his mind around it all. First, his old friend Augustus Black shows up...to kidnap him and take him to a secret underground anti-crime base. Then he finds out the thugs who were after the shield and threatened his family were part of a secret crime organization that basically ran the criminal world, and was after artifacts...and Augustus wanted him to work with him to research what artifacts this 'Dark Hand' would be after.

And just as he was coming to terms with all of it, a giant plant creature he could only define in his mind as 'Audrey III' came bursting out of one of the labs and began lashing out with vines while singing 'Never Gonna Give You Up' in a deep, bass voice, the sprinkler system started releasing fog that shaped into thunderclouds indoors, and Jade came riding up on a moped through the middle of the chaos trying to pull him out of the base. He was glad he was able to shut the moped down easily, even if it did leave him crashing into a wall.

Sitting up, his head cleared enough that he could see Jade struggling in the grip of two agents, even as other agents tried - and failed - to contain the plant monstrosity. "Young lady, how did you get in here?" Augustus demanded angrily.

Jade pulled free of the grip of the two agents - mostly because a pair of vines had grabbed hold of them - and smirked smugly. "The stairs."

"Where did you get the bike?" Jackie demanded angrily. "And...all this?" He gestured at the rest of the chaos. "You could have been hurt!"

"The bike's from their garage!" Jade bragged as she pulled him close. "I snuck it out to help bust you out of here while the girls provided a distraction."

Jackie groaned as things began to make sense. "Apple Bloom?" he asked morosely, pointing at the singing plant. When he got the confirming nod, he pointed at the thunderclouds. "Scootaloo?" Another nod. "...I don't want to know what Sweetie Belle's up to, do I?"

"She's checking the computers for a self destruct system," Jade confirmed, only for Jackie to groan and bury his face in his hands.

"Jade," Jackie finally groaned out, "these people are my friends."

Jade stared up at him. "Your 'friends' knocked you out and took you to a super secret underground base?" she asked incredulously.

"Uh...yes?" Jackie offered.

Jade's face split into a wide grin. "America...is so...cool!" Turning, she let out a piercing whistle. "Girls!" she called out. "Friendly fire! Friendly fire!"

The thunderclouds immediately began to dissipate. Jackie also heard Apple Bloom bark out, "Sit!" leading to the singing plant settling down instead of rampaging, carefully setting down the agents it had snatched up.

"Care to explain how our security was penetrated by a child and her friends?" Augustus asked blandly.

"I'm not a child!" Jade insisted. "I'm Jackie's niece!"

Augustus smirked cheekily at Jackie. "I didn't know you had a niece."

"Join the club," Jackie responded tiredly.

"You seem rather blase about the giant plant monster and the indoor thunderclouds," Jade pointed out to Captain Black.

"It's not the first time it's happened," Augustus responded mildly. "Admittedly, your friends' ability to contain the situation so readily is something I'd like to look into."

"You mean this sort of thing happens often here?" Jackie asked disbelievingly.

"We develop our own tech by the Thomas Edison method," Augustus answered enigmatically. "That's all I'll say."

At that point, Jackie gently pulled Jade aside so he could talk to her about what happened. "Jade..."

"Come on, admit it!" Jade piped up happily. "Weren't we brave?"

"Yes," Jackie admitted. "But your actions lacked wisdom, to know when challenges are too big, or when actions are too risky. Many people could have gotten hurt from this, you four included. Courage without wisdom is foolishness." He smiled reassuringly, hoping to take any sting out of the rebuke. "Understand?"

Jade glanced away. "Uh...my English must not be too good," she offered nervously.

At that point, Jackie's phone rang. Sighing, he picked it up. "Hello?"

"Jackie!" Uncle greeted warmly from the other end.

"Uncle!" Jackie answered even as Jade turned away with a smirk.

"Where are you?" Uncle asked curiously.

"Uh...can't say," Jackie responded nervously, glancing around.

"Oh," Uncle answered, saying no more on it. "One more thing! Have you seen Jade?"

"Yes, she's with me," Jackie groaned out.

"See?" Uncle countered. "I knew you two would get along! One more thing! Have you seen the girls?"

"They're here too," Jackie grumbled, glancing up at 'Audrey III' again.

"See? And you said you couldn't handle children," Uncle jibed. "One more thing! How are they getting along together?"

"Thick as thieves," Jackie grumbled, once more glaring slightly at Jade.

"And you were worried about rivalries!" Uncle chided joyfully. "One more thing! I have been doing research on the shield. Jackie, I have found what the inscriptions mean. They are incantations."

"Incantations?" Jackie demanded, shocked.

"Magic," Uncle confirmed. "Very powerful. But the shield not important!"

Jackie choked a bit over his words. "Of course the shield is important, Uncle! Everyone I've met today wants the shield!"

"Ah," Uncle responded calmly. "Shield not important!" Before Uncle could say anything else, the line went silent.

"Uncle?" Jackie called out worriedly. "Uncle? Uncle!"

Hūn náo

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Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Jade watched carefully as Jackie spoke on the phone. "Uncle?" he called out worriedly one more time. His eyes then widened, then narrowed as his body stiffened in fear. "Yes, yes, I understand," he continued, his voice level. "I will bring it. I will tell no one." When he hung up, Captain Black approached him curiously. "A favor, between friends," Jackie explained.

"Does he seriously think he's being subtle?" Scootaloo whispered to Jade, who nodded in understanding.

"Watch the girls," Jackie requested of Captain Black, pointing to the four as he turned to race out.

"Jackie, where are you-" Captain Black began.

"Please!" Jackie pleaded as he reached the elevator. "Don't ask questions."

"Okay, he doesn't think he's being subtle," Sweetie Belle mused.

"That's a relief," Apple Bloom agreed. "I'd hate ta see what he thinks is blatant if he thought that was subtle." A flash of light surrounded the four, unnoticed by anyone else.

Captain Black sighed. "Alright, young ladies-" His words stopped as he turned, and saw only the plant monstrosity, that had shrunk down to roughly the size of a Great Dane rather than the size of King Kong.

The plant looked up at him imploringly, despite the absence of eyes. "Feed me, Augustus?" it sang out pleadingly.

"No," Captain Black replied firmly, turning to see if he could track down where Jackie was going so he could locate the girls.


When the light faded, all four girls found themselves back in the antique shop, though more than a little singed. Jade coughed as she arrived. "What was that?" she demanded irritably.

"Teleportation spell," Sweetie explained as she brushed soot out of her mane and tail. "Sorry it was a little rough. It's the first time I ever tried it."

"Pretty accurate, though," Apple Bloom offered through her own coughs. "At least, ah assume ya were tryin' ta come here."

"I was," Sweetie Belle confirmed. "We should have time to clean ourselves up before Jackie gets here." She glanced nervously at the others. "Can we...not mention the teleporting? Uncle said I'm not supposed to try that spell yet..."

"I won't snitch!" Jade promised as she brushed soot from her hoodie. "So...what's this all about anyway?"

"Jackie brought back a shield from his last expedition," Apple Bloom explained. "Everybody wants it fer some reason. Least, ah think that's what ah heard him sayin' to the Cap'n afore we started busting up the place."

"It has magic inside it, though it's mostly focused in the stone in the center," Sweetie Belle added. "I felt it the moment Jackie brought it in, though I didn't say anything."

"So where is the shield, anyway?" Jade asked curiously, looking around.

"Bottom of that stack on the chair," Scootaloo pointed without looking. "It's the only part of the shop that's arranged differently than it was when you arrived. Whoever snagged Uncle to make Jackie give up the shield was careful as they went through, to not break anything."

Jade stared at Scootaloo. "How do you know it's the only thing arranged differently?" she asked curiously.

"I fly," Scootaloo stated bluntly. "Part of that is having a heightened awareness of your surroundings from the air. Otherwise, it's called crashing."

"How do you know it's a ransom trade?" Sweetie Belle asked Apple Bloom curiously as she started carefully levitating the objects stacked on the shield off of it one by one so Jade could pull the shield out without making a mess.

"Ker-duh!" Apple Bloom replied. "Why else would Jackie be actin' all cagey and not tellin' his friend the Cap'n what was up when he was on the phone with Uncle earlier?"

"So how are we going to convince Jackie to let us help rescue Uncle?" Sweetie Belle asked hopefully. "I don't want to be left behind when Uncle's in danger. I think I'd go crazy!"

Scootaloo's wings twitched in response to something, and she grinned widely. "Yeah," she added, "I don't think I could sit still not knowing what's happened to Uncle. I'd probably go stir crazy."

Apple Bloom glanced over at Scootaloo, then hid her own grin. "And ah don't think ah could keep my magic in check if ah was left here ta fret like crazy. No tellin' what would happen!"

"I'm sure Jackie will be reasonable," Jade offered consolingly, balancing the shield. "We just want to go with to make sure everything's okay. I mean, with what you three are capable of, I doubt we'll be in any sort of danger, right?"

A disgruntled sigh echoed behind them. "And you'd be on Cumulo following me before I even made it to the door if I sent you all to your rooms, wouldn't you?" Jackie groaned, having walked up behind them while they spoke, making Sweetie and Jade jump.

"...possibly..." Scootaloo offered noncommittally, lowering her face to hide her grin.

Jackie groaned softly. "Fine!" he grunted out finally. "You can come, but you have to stay out of danger."

"Scout's Honor!" all four girls responded readily, Jade raising her hand to her forehead while the fillies mirrored the action with one forehoof.


As Jackie left the four girls at the bottom of the skyscraper where the exchange was to take place, the four exchanged amused glances. "Pssh, like I'm a scout!" Jade joked playfully.

"Sing it, sister!" Scootaloo agreed, bumping her hoof with Jade's clenched fist. "So what's the plan?"

"You ride Cumulo up there to scout from above," Jade explained. "I'll go up through the building. Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, you two stay down here as backup. Apple Bloom, focus on waking up any nearby plants to act as a distraction if we have to make a quick getaway. Sweetie Belle, conserve your magic for something big in case we need it. There's no telling how many baddies we'll be dealing with."

As Scootaloo hopped on Cumulo and Jade rushed into the building, Apple Bloom grinned widely. "She's good." Turning, she started searching around for amenable plants.

Sweetie Belle sighed. "Still going to call Captain Black as soon as Uncle's not in immediate danger," she muttered, holding Jackie's cell phone close. "Now...what's his number, anyway?"

B(F?)G

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Tohru sighed inside as he waited for the one bringing the shield to arrive. He didn't like his job. It went against his nature to hurt people just because someone said. But physically, he was made for such a job, and it paid well. It made his mother proud. And so, he hid the pain it caused him, and his true nature, and presented to the world the face of a merciless killer...and hands that could crush a skull yet had never spilled blood. He was glad the appearance of ruthlessness and his own bulk proved more than enough intimidation for anyone he'd faced before. If it ever came down to actually having to kill someone...privately, he prayed that would never happen.

He kept his large hand on the shoulders of the old man at his side. Thankfully, the old man had been surprisingly cooperative. All it had taken was an agreement not to break anything in the shop, and he'd allowed himself to be carried away. Yet another example of how Tohru's pure intimidation factor smoothed everything for him so he never actually had to kill or seriously hurt anyone. He'd taken the job of 'bodyguard', only for the title to change to Enforcer...but he could not back out now. He could not disappoint his mother.

And there he was. The young man with the shield under his arm, stepping out on the rooftop. "The shield," he insisted firmly.

"Why does your employer want it?" the man demanded.

Truthfully, Tohru didn't know. His job description did not include asking why he was ordered to do things, only obey orders. He stopped himself from thinking about the whys - and even the whats - to help himself sleep at night. Keeping his stern expression, he revealed none of this as he firmly stated, "That is not your concern."

The young man seemed to glance to the side, jerking his head a few times. Presumably, he was having some trouble figuring out how to guarantee his Uncle's safety while handing over the shield. He likely didn't want to get too close to Tohru. Tohru was used to this, and waited for him to reach the only proper conclusion. The young man smiled. "Okie dokie! You want the shield? Catch!" He hurled the shield like an oversized frisbee.

Tohru's eyes widened. That was not the conclusion he had expected. He quickly reached up with both arms, trying to catch the shield, only for it to fly over his head. He turned to try and track its flight, only for it to fly back like a boomerang, just out of reach again, landing back in the young man's hands. Tohru narrowed his eyes angrily. He had to do it now. He couldn't show weakness by allowing himself to be played like that. "Fool!" he barked out. "Say Sayonara to your Uncle!" Turning, he drew back his fist...at nothing. Looking up, he saw a young girl - maybe ten years old if that - towing the old man after her into the stairwell. He let out a yell of anger.

"I bet I run faster than you!" the young man called out as he turned to run off.

Tohru ignored him, heading for the elevator. The Shadow Kahn - the ninjas Valmont's 'client' had summoned to back him up - would handle the young man. Tohru's job was to handle the escaped hostage and his backup. An old man and a young girl...he didn't expect any problems.

As he entered the elevator, he silently thanked the Kami for the girl anyway. At least he hadn't been forced to kill a helpless old man, and recapturing and intimidation should prove no problem.


Jade panted briefly for breath as she pulled Uncle out of the building and towards Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle. She expected cheers, since everything seemed to be going exactly according to plan. Instead, she saw their eyes locked on the building's roof. Turning up, she saw Jackie with the shield, cornered at the corner of the roof by a bunch of ninjas. "Jackie!" she called out, waving her arms.

Much to her surprise, Jackie casually tossed the shield off the roof, letting it slowly spiral down towards her. With a shout of, "Mine!" she rushed forward to catch it. She saw a pale green aura grip the shield, obviously Sweetie Belle trying to slow it, but the aura sloughed off the shield like a snake's shed skin, unable to grip it. The aura then surrounded Jade herself, which led to her not being knocked as far back as she expected when she caught the shield. Turning, she began to run with it, only to slam face first into the knee of the giant from the roof.

He glared down at her angrily. "The shield," he demanded insistently.

"Leave her alone!" Scootaloo called out, shooting down on Cumulo with a small black cloud clutched in her forehooves. Pushing it in front of the giant, she turned and struck it with both hind hooves, discharging its lightning into the giant...who stood there staring at her, seemingly unmoved as the lightning raced through the bulk of his body into the ground through his thin sandals, doing very little damage. "...uhh..."

The giant continued to stare at her, then lifted a hand. Gripping Cumulo gently, he gave a mighty shove, sending both Cumulo and Scootaloo flipping crazily off into the distance, screaming. He turned back towards Jade, only to find all four of his limbs bound by vines that shot out of the ground, towing him backwards, obviously Apple Bloom's attempts to bind him. It looked like it was going to work...until he pulled hard flexing his right arm and one of the vines snapped. This weakened the others, allowing him to pull himself free with all four limbs.

"Can't ya levitate him or something?" Apple Bloom demanded of Sweetie Belle.

Sweetie Belle, for her part, gestured from her body, to her horn, to the size of the giant they were dealing with.

"...right, stupid question," Apple Bloom muttered.

"The shield," the giant demanded firmly again, glaring down at them, his face a visage of barely contained fury.

Desperately, Uncle lunged forward, delivering his strongest strike to the giant's belly...and failing to even make him flinch. Sighing, he gestured Jade forward.

As she'd watched all this, Jade's mind had been working fast. Sweetie implied the important part of the shield was the stone in the center, marked with a stylized rooster. While the others had kept the giant distracted, Jade had carefully worked the stone out of the shield and slipped it into the pocket of her jeans. Stepping forward, she nervously handed the shield over to the giant. He took it without even looking and walked away. She breathed a sigh of relief. Looking up, she saw the ninjas leap away into the night and vanish...and Captain Black arrive in a helicopter just too late.


As Tohru walked away from the scene, he looked around carefully to make certain no one was watching him. Once he was certain, he lifted the shield to hide his face...and allowed himself a warm smile that transformed his visage to reveal his true gentleness. Those ponies were so cute! he squealed internally, keeping it suppressed as much as he could to maintain at least an image of ruthlessness. He quickly got himself under control as he reached Valmont's building.

Reaching Valmont, he knelt down before him, holding out the shield proudly. "Master!" he proclaimed.

Glancing out of the corner of his eye, he saw Valmont smile widely...only to frown. "Tohru..." he growled out, his voice echoed from the statue.

"What?" Tohru asked confused, lifting his head. "I have brought the shield as ordered..."

"You fool!" the statue shrieked out. "The shield is useless to me without the Talisman in its center!"

"The what?" Tohru asked again, glancing down at the empty hole in the center of the shield.

Groaning, Valmont buried his face in one hand. "This is my fault, Shendu," he admitted, turning to face the statue. "It appears I have mis-balanced secrecy and efficiency in this. Torhu obeyed his orders to the letter, and retrieved the shield. As per your instructions, no mention was made of the Talisman."

The statue growled for a time. "Perhaps you are right," it admitted finally. "And as far as his orders went, Tohru was indeed efficient. ...very well. You will read them into this...carefully."

"As you command, Shendu," Valmont replied with a bow, turning to leave the room. As he was supposed to, Tohru fell in behind his boss.

Once they were out of the room, Tohru swallowed convulsively. "Thank you, Mas-"

"Embarrass me like that in front of a client again, Tohru, and you will regret it," Valmont cut in fiercely.

Tohru swallowed convulsively. "Understood, Master. I won't fail you again."

For the pride his mother had in him, and his love of her, he prayed he could keep that promise.

The Magic Within

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After the hectic events of that day, the extended Chan family stopped for a late dinner at the House of Wu, a local Chinese restaurant. As their food was brought to them at their large table, Jade expressed her dissatisfaction with the choice. "Chinese food?" she whined. "I just moved here from Hong Kong. Can't we get some TexMex or something?"

"Meat doesn't agree with our digestion," Sweetie Belle pointed out to her, sitting beside her. "None of the TexMex restaurants around here serve tofu."

Jade grumbled to herself, but let it slide, trying to enjoy her meal.

"Jackie," Uncle spoke up, "the Rooster Talisman possesses enormous power."

"What's it do?" Jade asked eagerly, happily distracted as she snatched it up in her hand to examine it.

"Manners Jade," Jackie scolded, taking it back and setting it down, not noticing it glow briefly.

"Ancient legend speaks of 12 talismans," Uncle continued, his tone serious holding up the restaurant's place mat for the conveniently expositionistic design. "One for each animal of the Chinese Zodiac, each possessing a different magic."

"What kind of magic?" Jade asked eagerly, only to be silenced by Jackie.

"Legend also says the talismans were scattered to the four corners of the globe," Uncle continued. "If this, or any Talisman, should fall into evil hands-"

"Jackie will give 'em smackie with his lightning fists of steel!" Jade piped up, pantomiming inaccurate combat moves before bringing her clenched fist down on the table, making the dishes jump, drawing attention from around the restaurant and earning her a glare from Apple Bloom.

"Ah'm havin' enough trouble with mah chopsticks with the bowls holdin' still," she grumbled, looking down at the vines that had grown out of her wooden chopsticks to wrap around her hoof in order to manipulate themselves for her with a sigh. "...ah hate when they do that..."

Jade chuckled nervously as she righted the dishes. "So Jackie, when are you going to teach me some of your moves?" she asked eagerly.

"Later, Jade," Jackie promised, hoping to calm her down. As Jade pouted, he picked up the Talisman. "Uncle, do you really believe in such a myth?"

Three candy-colored heads turned towards him. Sweetie Belle cleared her throat. "Hi, I'm your talking unicorn cousin," she offered pointedly.

"And I'm a pegasus who can manipulate weather, sitting on a kinto un straight out of "Journey to the West"," Scootaloo added pointedly, gesturing to Cumulo beneath her as he floated beside the table.

"And I'm sitting on a walking, talking, carnivorous plant cause wooden chairs tend to sprout when I sit in them," Apple Bloom added irritably.

"And you think magical talismans are mythical?" Audrey III - the name had stuck when Jackie brought it up - spoke up in a sing song voice over her head, his leaves, vines, and stems arranging themselves into a comfortable seat for her.

Before the plant could say or sing anything else, Jackie grabbed a skewer of chicken off the table and shoved it in its bulbous head/mouth. "Touche," he told Sweetie Belle. "Touche," he added to Scootaloo. "Very much touche," he offered Apple Bloom. "And don't you start," he concluded, waving a finger at Audrey III, only to jerk back as the plant apparently decided that he was offering the finger to snack on.

Jade, however, had gotten bored listening and rushed out to an open space in the restaurant, the excitement of her day not having worked its way through her body yet. "Jackie, check me out!" she called out, once more attempting to mimic his movements from earlier...once more demonstrating her somewhat limited coordination and, despite Jackie's shouted warning, succeeding only in creating near absolute chaos as she managed to kick a waiter's tray, sending its contents into his face, causing him to stagger back into a table and send a large bowl flying straight into Uncle's face. As Jackie rushed to clean up, however, he lost track of the Talisman.

Once the mess was cleaned up and Jackie had made Jade apologize and sit back down, the meal somewhat resumed. "I was just trying to get you to teach me, Jackie..." Jade whined.

"You coulda just waited till morning, then," Apple Bloom pointed out irritably. "Ah've been takin' lessons from him for years. Ya coulda joined in easy." Jade chuckled a bit nervously.

"Besides," Jackie added, "the first lesson I teach...the wise seek power within. The foolish seek it within others. Until you harness the power within yourself, I cannot teach you."

"Ah'm trying!" Apple Bloom complained, trying to shake the chopsticks off her hoof, the vines unwilling to let her go just yet.

"And you are doing an excellent job," Jackie praised. "When this first started happening, the table would be sprouting, too."

Apple Bloom lowered her head. "...Audrey III's absorbing most o' that..." she admitted.

"Harnessing the power within isn't always about having total control," Jackie offered. "Sometimes, it is simply finding ways to ensure it does no harm." He gestured to Audrey III. "Considering how big he was, the fact he has not grown further from absorbing that energy is surely a good sign."

"I don't wanna grow up!" Audrey III sang out. "I'm a Toys R Us sprout-"

This time it was Scootaloo that stuffed Audrey's mouth with some sweet and sour pork. "Yeah, we got it. You're keeping yourself in check. Now quit singing."

"Besides," Jackie continued, "what I meant was that you must have the discipline to behave and control yourself." He smiled down at Jade and the others as a trolley with large bowls of noodles and soup arrived. "Now eat your food," he instructed Jade as the bowls were set out.

"Power within," Jade muttered. "Got it." She promptly began slurping up her noodles.

"Don't eat like a baboon!" Jackie scolded. "Chew your food."

"Chew...soup?" Sweetie Belle asked, more than a little confused as she slurped her noodles daintily, dealing with each mouthful before taking the next.

"What she said," Jade added, continuing to slurp her food.

"Help me out, Uncle!" Jackie pleaded.

Uncle raised an eyebrow. "She's your niece," he countered simply. "Besides, I still haven't managed with Scootaloo." He gestured to where the pegasus had buried her face in her bowl and was snarfing away.

"Scootaloo!" Jackie complained as Jade giggled.

"What?" Scootaloo countered, lifting her dripping head. "Cumulo wants a taste, too." With that, she buried her head in the cloud she sat upon, pulling it out completely clean and dry as the faint rainbow corona surrounding the cloud pulsed happily.

"Don't you dare," Jackie warned as Jade grabbed her bowl.

"Aww..." Jade whined, satisfying herself with just drinking the remaining liquid down. She then grabbed a fortune cookie and broke it open, eating the cookie fragments as she read the fortune inside. "Danger looms...in your future."

"Wow," Sweetie Belle murmured. "An honest to goodness misfortune cookie. I didn't think they actually made those."

"Is bad omen," Uncle warned. "We must be very cautious."

Jackie chuckled. "You listen to a cookie?"

"Evening, Chan," the thin thug in the white jacket said as he stepped up behind Jackie.

"Never mock the cookie," Uncle chided.

As the man started to open his mouth, Sweetie Belle piped up. "Before we start wrecking the restaurant fighting each other, do you think we could introduce ourselves?" All eyes promptly turned to her. "What? Just because we're enemies is no reason not to be polite. And they already know your name, Uncle Jackie."

"She's got a point," the other tall thug, wearing a black jacket with a bandaid on his nose, offered, a bit of friendliness in his voice. "I'm Ratso." He gestured first to the one who'd spoken first, and then to his shorter companion who was wearing sharply angled orange glasses. "This is Fin and Chao. Pleased to meetcha."

"I'm Sweetie Belle!" Sweetie Belle replied. "This is Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, Jade, Uncle Jackie, and Uncle!" She then gestured to Audrey. "This is Audrey III."

"Hello hello, how are you?" Audrey III sang out. "Hello hello, how have you been-"

Uncle promptly stuffed some noodles in Audrey's bulbous mouth/head. "No more songs!"

"...that is so cool," Ratso gasped out.

"Yeah, whatever," Fin interrupted, trying to regain control of the situation. "Now where's the Talisman?"

"Uhh..." Jackie began, unsure what to say as he glanced around, taking in the scene.

At a signal from Fin, Ratso grabbed the front of Jackie's shirt and pulled back his fist.

Sweetie Belle sighed softly. "So much for dinner..."

Hunting Stone

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As could be expected, Jackie and the three thugs immediately got into a brawl that took them through the entire restaurant, Jackie using his own tactics to minimize actual confrontations and damage to the restaurant itself. Each of the thugs tried to adapt to Jackie's tactics, but it quickly became plain that they were used to functioning on pure intimidation and the occasional 'hold him still while I punch' tactic, neither of which worked against one of Jackie's skills. In fact, the sum total damage of the first minute of fighting was the other customers safely fleeing the restaurant.

Jade, of course, was cheering Jackie's efforts on, and at one point tried to help by tripping one of the thugs who was coming up behind Jackie, using a broom. Uncle promptly took the broom away from her. "Leave the rough stuff to Jackie!" he insisted, before using the broom handle to jab Ratso in the gut hard enough to make him drop without even looking. He then spun the broom into an upright position without even seeming to try.

"Go Uncle," Jade commented with a grin. She then noticed the three fillies still sitting at the table. "How come you three aren't pitching in?"

"Not much I can do indoors," Scootaloo pointed out. "Not enough room to build momentum for ramming, not enough weather to manipulate." She jerked her head at Sweetie Belle. "And she's too much of a goody-four-shoes to 'misbehave' when Uncle's watching."

"Just because one of us likes to handle a meal with decorum doesn't make me a goody-four-shoes!" Sweetie countered irritably. "Two at the most."

"And my intervention'd cause too much collateral damage," Apple Bloom admitted. "Either I hop off Audrey III and the wooden floor starts sproutin, or I unleash him and break the whole buildin'."

"I'm just a mean green mother from outer space-" Audrey began to sing, only to get struck on the bulb by Uncle's two fingers. "Ow!"

"Uncle said no more songs!" Uncle insisted. Audrey grumbled petulantly.

By then, all three thugs had fled the restaurant. "Thank you for dining with us!" Jackie called out playfully before returning to the table. "Well, shall we continue our meal-" He gasped in shock. "The Talisman!" He quickly searched the table. "It was right there!"

"Sweetie Belle, can you sense it?" Uncle asked quickly.

Sweetie shook her head. "I could only sense it in the shield because the runes around the Talisman were designed to actively tap and suppress its magic. Once it was out, it went dormant. Unless something activates it, I'm just not attuned enough to Talisman magic to sense it."

"They took it!" Jackie concluded worriedly.

"Come on, we can catch 'em!" Jade called out, turning to run out of the restaurant, only to be pulled up short as Jackie grabbed her by her hood.

"Stay with Uncle!" Jackie insisted as he turned and rushed out.

Once Jackie was gone, Uncle turned to invite Jade to sit with him...only to notice three wide-eyed gazes of worry directed towards the door where Jackie went. He sighed, rubbing his head before moving to Scootaloo's side. "Move over," he instructed, clambering onto Cumulo before pulling Jade into his lap.

Four eager faces grinned up at him as he rolled his eyes. "Stay together!" he instructed as Cumulo absorbed enough moisture from the air around him to carry all six of them.


Shendu grumbled to himself after having sent out his Shadow Khan with the relic he'd produced, the Eyes of the Dragon. In addition to acting as a compass responding to the presence of the Talismans, it enhanced his link to the Shadow Khan holding it, letting him see through the shadow warrior's eyes. He was currently focused through that gaze as the warrior watched from a dark alley as Jackie pursued the Enforcers. As he quickly discovered, Jackie Chan did not possess the Talisman. The statuette did, however, respond to the next group...as did Shendu.

A chi wizard riding a kinto un? The threats arrayed against Shendu's efforts in the city were greater than he'd anticipated. Odd that the statuette indicated the little girl carried the Talisman...but the other three creatures were of much greater concern.

Though they were all very different creatures, magically Shendu recognized them all as variants of the baseline Qi Lin mystic energy, having the same basic good magic of purification and strength. But in addition to having a genuine Qi Lin with an obvious strong bond to the magical fields - strong enough to manipulate actual spells - the pegasus had command of weather magic that rivaled two of his brothers with the strength of the bond, and the last was a Gaian who already possessed a fully manifest Dryadic Familiar!

"Valmont," Shendu demanded coldly, "did your Enforcers simply forget to mention the creatures alongside Jackie Chan?"

"Creatures, Shendu?" Valmont asked curiously. "Ratso made mention of the strange plant-"

"I meant the ponies!" Shendu growled. "Why was no mention of creatures of such powerful good magic made?"

Valmont stroked his chin. "...I will inquire," he responded firmly. Something about what Shendu said niggled at his memory, but the thought was quickly discarded.


Jackie sighed to himself as he watched the car with the three Enforcers inside drive away. "Bad day..." he muttered under his breath. He started to walk away, but paused. He recognized that familiar sound he just heard. "Scootaloo," he grumbled as he turned, "what are you-BWAH!" He leapt back in shock as he patted his chest.

"Hi Jackie!" Jade said happily as Uncle waved from his seat on the cloud.

"Uncle!" Jackie complained. "I wanted you to keep them out of trouble!"

"I am!" Uncle proclaimed happily.

Jackie's eyes widened as he looked past Uncle. "Then what do you call that?" he shouted out, pointing at the large group of shadowy ninjas rapidly approaching.

"AIYAH!" Uncle shouted as he saw them. "Back to shop, quickly!"

Taking the directive, Scootaloo grabbed Jackie and pulled him onto Cumulo as they shot off down the road, the ninjas hot on their tails.

Heart and Soul

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As the Chans fled from the black-clad, blue-skinned ninjas, Jade looked up at Jackie in confusion. "Aren't you gonna whomp 'em?" she demanded, somewhere between confusion and irritation.

"Ancient proverb," Jackie responded. "Do not fight when you can run!"

"We're outnumbered at least 50 to 1," Sweetie Belle pointed out after a quick count. "And it looks like they keep getting reinforcements out of every shadow."

"I do not know what they are, but they are made of Dark Magic!" Uncle warned. "Apple Bloom! Sweetie Belle! Scootaloo! Do not touch them if you can avoid it. Your magic has not yet fully stabilized in development, and until it does touching these beings will be as painful to you as it will be to them!"

"Also that," Scootaloo added as she pushed Cumulo for all he had.

"Then why haven't we taken to the air?" Jade demanded. "It's not like they can fly!"

"Too much weight on Cumulo!" Scootaloo explained. "Uncle and Jackie each weigh as much as the four of us combined, and Audrey's really dense!" Seeing Audrey's offended look, Scootaloo added, "Physically."

"Then we should split up!" Jackie insisted as they passed an intersection, leaping off the cloud. Uncle followed suit. "You four go that way, and stick together!" he insisted. "Uncle and I will go this way. You'll be safer away from me!"

"Aiyah..." Uncle groaned as he hopped off, letting Cumulo shoot off down the other road. "Uncle is getting too old for this..."

"We have to give them time to get away!" Jackie insisted as he raced ahead, Uncle behind him. However, before long he paused, noticing an absence of the sounds of pursuit. Turning back, he saw the ninjas were nowhere in sight. Rushing back, he saw they were in pursuit of Cumulo. "Uh oh."

"Aiyah!" Uncle cried out. "They must be tracking magic, and fillies have much! We must protect the girls!" He immediately raced after them, Jackie close behind.


Scootaloo glanced back over her shoulder and frowned, not happy with what she was seeing. "We've still got ninjas after us!" she called out.

"Keep your eyes on the road ahead!" Sweetie warned. "We don't have a clear sky!"

Looking forward, Scootaloo began maneuvering between vehicles as they raced ahead and down the upcoming steep hill, the downward slope allowing her to pick up speed. "Will one of you keep yours eyes on the ninjas, then?" she demanded angrily.

Jade kept her eyes back, watching. "Looks like they've grabbed onto...two vehicles, only one following us? Why would they do that?"

"Jackie and Uncle must have noticed they were following us!" Sweetie gasped out. "They must have split up to try and put them on the wrong path!"

"Then we need ta make sure they can see us!" Apple Bloom called out. "Scoot! Can Cumulo get us higher?"

Scootaloo urged Cumulo upward, but the cloud barely moved. "Still too much weight!" Scootaloo shouted out.

"Well we gotta do something!" Jade screamed out, gripping Cumulo with both hands. "Come on! Come on!"

Without warning, Cumulo shot upward into the air.

"Whaaa!" Apple Bloom screamed out as Cumulo started swerving amongst the upper reaches of the Golden Gate.

"The hay?" Scootaloo demanded, stunned.

Sweetie's eyes widened as her horn blazed. "The Talisman! I can feel its magic! It must be countering our weight somehow to let Cumulo get much higher!"

"Wait, we have it?" Jade asked in confusion. "But where?" She took her hands off Cumulo, and he began to drop again.

"You have it!" Sweetie pointed out. "Did you slip it into your pockets or something?"

"No!" Jade countered. "I haven't seen it! The bad guys must-AHHH!"

As the four were distracted with their arguing, a group of ninjas that had taken shape in the shadows of the Golden Gate's peak had hurled a smoke bomb into Cumulo, its specific composition on explosion causing the cloud to erupt, sending the group flying. Scootaloo spread her wings, managing to catch hold of Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom, landing them on one of the bridge's supporting pylons. Looking up, she breathed a sigh of relief as she saw Cumulo slowly stabilizing. "You girls okay?" she asked worriedly.

"I'm alright," Sweetie admitted as she shook slightly, trying to dispel her fear.

"Ah'm okay, but ah don't see Jade or Audrey!" Apple Bloom pointed out.

High above, Audrey III gripped the cables holding up the suspension bridge as he stared down at where the large enforcer had hold of Jade and was carrying her away, along with a small statuette with four dragon heads, one pointed in each direction. Audrey thought about the situation. He was supposed to serve Apple Bloom, the one who brought him to life, in return for feeding on her magic, that was the arrangement. At the same time, Apple Bloom obeyed the wizard, which told Audrey that she was an apprentice, and the familiar of an apprentice was supposed to obey the apprentice's master unless the apprentice ordered otherwise.

His senses showed that Apple Bloom and the other two with similar magic he could not eat were together. However, no one was with the girl. No one was presently with him. Logic dictated that he should, therefor, be with the girl, doing what was necessary to carry out the 'stay safe' directive. As such, as the large one carried the girl off, Audrey extended his vines and swung from cable to cable, following him towards the docks.


After securing the girl, Tohru went into the other room to communicate the conundrum he'd encountered to his boss. "Master," he said into his communicator, "the tracker points to the girl, but she does not have the Talisman."

"Well it must be hidden on her somewhere, Tohru!" Valmont insisted. "I'm sure she didn't eat it!" He then paused, his expression changing as he gave the idea some serious consideration.

"Man is much the wiser when he looks within," the voice of the statue 'client' echoed over the line.

Tohru flinched internally. He knew an order when he received it, even if it was couched in metaphor. "I...understand." Closing the line, he sighed. Schooling his expression, he walked into the other room. There, he saw where he'd strapped the girl to a table. She was writhing against the bonds and screaming defiantly, but he blocked out her words, not wanting to face what he was surely going to have to do. Holding the tracker over her, he watched as it blazed from all four points as he held it over her stomach, identifying the location of the Talisman. "A ha," he stated firmly, not letting his emotions show in his voice.

Once more ignoring the girl, he pulled out the cutlass he had with him to retrieve the Talisman. He knew the methods of The Dark Hand, and he would be ordered to leave the girl's body for Jackie Chan to find, as a warning to him to stay out of their business. He would now have to cross the line he'd hoped never to face...and cut the girl open and leave her to die.

Glancing at the edge of the cutlass, he took it over to a nearby grinding wheel and held the blade against it as it spun, bringing the edge to razor sharpness so he could try to minimize the pain she would be in before shock blocked it out entirely. As he worked at sharpening the blade, he thought to himself, trying to determine how he would bring himself to live with what he was about to do.

He remembered the Tanto amongst his possessions, a blade passed down through generations of his family, along with the traditions of their heritage. When he realized why his mind went to the Tanto, he found a measure of peace. Idly, he wondered who he could ask to be his kaishakunin, and wield the katana...

Putting those thoughts from his mind, he lifted the blade as he saw it had achieved a razor's edge. He then turned towards the girl, who stared up at him in fear. "Hold still," he instructed, lifting the sword high...

...only to feel a thick, thorny vine wrap around his wrist as it punched through the roof of the building. "What the-?"

He got out no more as he was promptly ripped out of the building through the roof, and lifted up until he was face to tooth with a giant plant monstrosity straight out of a B horror movie. As he stared as the massive jaw opened wide, he thought to himself, I wonder if anyone else was ever this happy to be kaiju food?

The creature hesitated, then lifted him up towards the base of the top half of the bulb. He felt wind being pulled past him as a loud snorting noise could be heard. The bulbous mouth closed...and the plant kaiju hurled him away, sending him flying straight for Valmont's building.

That was different- Tohru's thoughts were cut off as he slammed through the wall, crashing into Valmont's desk and losing consciousness.

Making Preparations

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Once Audrey had brought Jade back from where she'd been held - the other three Enforcers had possessed enough common sense to not tangle with an angry giant plant monster that isn't presently looking for a fight - Jackie, Jade, the fillies, and Audrey followed Captain Black to Section 13. With Jade being able to inform them that she'd managed to swallow the Talisman, she was taken to get her stomach pumped to get it back out, if only to prevent having to collect it from the other end. Of course, the fact that Jade and Audrey had floated back once Audrey shrank down enough was enough to convince Jackie of what he'd been told...but his attempts to convince Captain Black proved less than successful.

"I'm telling you, Uncle was right!" Jackie insisted. "The Talismans do possess magic powers."

"Sure they do, Jackie," Captain Black replied, plainly assuming Jackie was disoriented from sleep deprivation.

"Captain, how can you not accept the possibility?" Jackie demanded. "You saw what Audrey III can do!"

"And while Apple Bloom's ability to control such a plant is impressive, it's hardly proof of magic," Captain Black responded readily.

"Well, how else would you explain it?" Jackie demanded. "I mean, just look!" He gestured behind them to where Apple Bloom was walking beside Audrey, plants sprouting up in her wake through the cracks between floor panels. "What else but magic could make such a thing happen?"

"I'm afraid that information's classified," Captain Black responded curtly. "Why don't you get some rest, Jackie? You look tired." He pulled open the door he'd been leading the group to, revealing an exact duplicate of Jackie's apartment above the shop.

"All my stuff?" Jackie gasped out, stunned.

"Ours, too?" Scootaloo gasped out in surprise, pushing herself in on Cumulo, who'd made a full recovery.

"How'd it get here?" Sweetie Belle asked.

"Until we can take down the Dark Hand, it's safer for you all here inside Section 13," Captain Black explained. "I hope it feels like home."

"Then how come Uncle ain't here?" Apple Bloom inquired.

"He...refused to move," Captain Black admitted. "Something about messing up his...Fung Shway?"

"Hey Sweetie, Bloom, help me out with this!" Scootaloo called out from a corner of the room where she'd gathered a small cyclone. The other fillies quickly rushed over, Apple Bloom drawing runes on the floor as Sweetie's horn glowed.

"What...are they doing?" Captain Black asked curiously.

"No idea," Jackie admitted.

In a flash of bright light, the cyclone turned green and stabilized, swirling in the spot. Through it, Uncle could be heard shouting, "Aiyah! Scootaloo, what have I said about weather magic in the shop! Keep it upstairs!"

"Sorry!" Scootaloo called out as she ran into the cyclone and vanished, the other two fillies following her. "It must have locked onto your protective charms."

Jackie turned to Captain Black and gestured at the obvious teleportation circle. "And how is that not magic?" he demanded irritably.

"Several possible ways," Captain Black responded. When Jackie looked to be getting even more irritated, he rested his hand on his shoulder. "Look Jackie, it doesn't matter if I believe what you're saying about the Talismans being magical. The Dark Hand wants them, which means I want to prevent them from falling into their hands. As long as we both have the same goal, does the Why really matter?"

Jackie sighed to himself as the fillies came back through the cyclone. "I suppose not," he admitted.

At that moment, two other agents brought Jade in, looking rather unwell. "Stomach successfully pumped," one of the agents explained as Jade groaned.

"What about her?" Jackie asked quietly.

Captain Black said nothing, merely pointing to where Jade's suitcases - still not yet unpacked - were sitting in a pile in one corner. Jade gasped happily at the sight. "I trust you'll keep your niece in check?" Captain Black asked teasingly. Jackie didn't answer, but the three fillies and Audrey III burst into laughter.

"Jackie!" Jade called out eagerly, her eyes alight. "Does this mean I'm a secret agent?"

"No!" all the adults present stated firmly simultaneously.

"Aww..." Jade pouted.


As everyone unpacked and got settled in, Jade decided to address a point that had caught her attention. "Say, Apple Bloom...Audrey's a carnivorous plant, right?"

"Eeyup," Apple Bloom confirmed as she carefully set up a bonsai apple tree she'd grown from a seed from the tree Santa had brought her, making sure it would continue to thrive in the new environment.

"And...he can grow to gigantic size, right?" Jade continued.

"You noticed?" Scootaloo teased, getting a blown raspberry for her trouble.

"So...at giant size, there's nothing stopping him from eating people, right?" Jade continued, trying to focus in on the point that had her concern.

"Other than mah disapproval, no," Apple Bloom admitted. "He knows ah wouldn't like it, though...unless they were people tryin' ta hurt me or those ah care about."

"Then that wouldn't hold him back from eating that giant guy when he found him about to cut me open with a cutlass?" Jade clarified.

"However oddly appropriate the name of the blade?" Sweetie joked, only to get several odd stares. She pouted. "Nobody gets my jokes..." she grumbled.

"Hmm...nah," Apple Bloom told Jade. "Ah wouldn't have objected then."

"So...why didn't he?" Jade asked. "He was ready to eat him...but instead took a sniff and tossed him away."

"Huh," Apple Bloom muttered. "No idea why he'd do that..."

"You could ask him," Scootaloo offered.

Turning, Jade faced Audrey III. "So why didn't you?"

"Cause it's so easy when you're evil!" Audrey sang out.

"I'm trying to sleep!" Jackie yelled back.

"Yeah, didn't think I'd get a straight answer there," Jade grumbled, returning to her unpacking.

The Sign of the Ox

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Apple Bloom looked up with a smile as Jackie and Jade arrived back in the hotel room from the pyramid. "So how'd it go?" she asked curiously. "Did ya find a Talisman?"

"No," Jackie murmured softly, sitting down with a groan. "I found where it was stored, but there was no Talisman there. Someone else must have gotten to it first."

"Not the Dark Hand, though!" Jade crowed out. "They were trying to get it away from Uncle Jackie, and I got there just in time to scare them off with a mummy!"

"At least one of you stayed in the hotel doing homework as instructed," Jackie grumbled. "Where are Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo?"

"Scootaloo's racing Cumulo," Apple Bloom explained. "She loves the thermals down here...but ah don't really like the look of all this desert from so high. Mexico ain't agreein' with me or Audrey..." She looked over to where Audrey III was slumped over in a shady corner looking wilted. "Guess he ain't no succulent..." She shrugged her shoulders. "Anyway, Sweetie decided to go look fer some souvenirs."

"How come you didn't go with her?" Jade asked curiously.

"Without Audrey, every step out here in the dust has a cactus shootin' up mah tail," Apple Bloom grumbled. "Not exactly comfertable..."

Jackie stroked her mane sympathetically. "I'm sorry to hear that, Apple Bloom. How about I give you a lift and we can go meet Sweetie and Scootaloo outside to look for clues?"

"Well...ah guess..." Apple Bloom muttered. "But...ah don't really like bein' carried. Ridin's one thing, but bein' carried makes me feel like a foal, and I've outgrown that..."

Smiling, Jackie picked Apple Bloom up and set her on his head. "How's that?" he asked affectionately. "I know Sweetie still likes riding on Uncle's head when he's up to it..."

Smiling, Apple Bloom curled up so she could look forward with Jackie. "This works," she confirmed.

"Just beware of low branches and door frames," Jade teased with a giggle.


Sweetie Belle smiled to herself as she settled yet another gift into her saddle bags, this one to give to Captain Black when she get back to San Fransisco. She'd managed to collect a souvenir gift for everyone while staying in budget, and was quite proud of herself because of it. She made her way back towards the hotel to check in on Apple Bloom, hoping Scootaloo and the others would be back by now.

Before she made it there, however, she saw Jade in a heated debate of some sort with a local boy in green over a flyer. As she got close, she was able to make out what they were saying.

"Can not!"

"Can too!"

"Can not!"

"Can too!"

"What are you two arguing about?" Sweetie Belle asked as she got close.

"This guy thinks some wrestler can beat Jackie," Jade spoke up. "As if."

"Then the two best should meet, don't you think?" the boy suggested. "I will see you, and your mouse man, tonight, Senoritas!" With that, he turned and left.

Sweetie glanced back and forth between Jade and the boy as he left. "So...no Talisman?" she asked, hoping to drag things back onto important matters.

"No luck," Jackie admitted, coming out of the nearby nick-knack shop with Apple Bloom now riding in the sombrero he was wearing, a matching one on her head. "Only sombreros...but in everyone's size." He placed one each on Jade and Sweetie's heads.

"Jackie!" Jade spoke up. "I told this boy you were the best wrestler in the world, and you have to prove it-"

"But Jackie doesn't know a thing about wrestlin!" Apple Bloom complained. "Just kung fu!"

"...there's a difference?" Jade asked, plainly confused.

"Besides, Jade, one should not fight for the sake of fighting," Jackie pointed out sagely. "Only when there is no other choice."

Jade was about to respond, but Scootaloo buzzed down, settling on Cumulo as he came up beside her. "Hey, how come I'm seeing the Ox Talisman on posters of some masked wrestler all over town?" she demanded irritably. "I thought it was going to be in the pyramid?"

Blinking in surprise, Jackie and Jade examined the poster the boy had given her closely, where they saw the Ox Talisman in the wrestler's mask. "Guess you'll be fighting him after all?" Jade asked hopefully.

"Only if there is no other way," Jackie corrected.

"Well how else are you going to do it?" Sweetie demanded. "Mexican wrestlers never remove their masks unless they're defeated in the ring, because removing the mask is a huge dishonor! Unless you can figure out a way to get the Talisman out of his mask without taking it off..." Her voice trailed off as she noticed the others staring at her. "...what?"

"And you know all that...how?" Jade inquired pointedly.

Sweetie Belle tossed her head, putting her nose in the air. "Everyone has hobbies," she admitted with aplomb.

"Alright," Jackie spoke up, focusing the attention back on the matter at hand. "We need to get the Talisman off this El Toro Fuerte's mask, preferably without letting him or anyone else know our intentions. If we can't find another way, I will enter the ring against him and remove his mask after beating him. Can anyone think of any other possible approaches before that?"

"Nope, no ideas!" Jade spoke up quickly. "Guess you'll have to fight him!" She grinned widely, only to chuckle innocently as all eyes were locked on her.

"If'n we wait till night, ah could maybe sic Audrey on him," Apple Bloom offered.

"No!" Sweetie Belle insisted. "You are not feeding El Toro Fuerte to Audrey until after I get his autograph!"

"In that case, why don't you sneak into his dressing room to get his autograph, and sneak the Talisman out with magic somehow?" Scootaloo suggested.

"When a Talisman's magic is inactive, I can't touch it with my telekinesis," Sweetie Belle countered pointedly.

"Then why not use it on the stitches holding it in place?" Jade concluded logically.

Sweetie Belle paused thoughtfully. "I...guess that could work...and I get an autograph in the process!" She bounced happily. "Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo! I can hardly wait!"

The Diplomatic Attempt

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El Toro Fuerte carefully finished his preparations for his upcoming match, going through his usual rituals before a big fight. First, he made certain his cape clasp was well maintained, so it would fall away easily without a struggle once he was in the ring. Then he made certain his championship belt was polished to a brilliant sheen, to show his pride in the ring he fought in and the honor his foes had paid him with their defeats. He then made certain his mask had no tears or stains, and that the stone Ox sewn in - his lucky charm - was situated firmly at his forehead where it belonged. It would be terribly embarrassing if part of his mask fell off during the ring.

With that done, he began limbering up his muscles in preparation for the match, which was still some time away. Having already changed into his wrestling outfit, he worked his well muscled figure through a series of warm up exercises. Before he'd made it through more than a few, however, he heard a knock on his dressing room door, low to the ground. This was odd, as everyone who worked there knew better than to disturb him as he prepared for a match. Besides, they didn't have anyone that short working here. "Who is it?" he demanded, his voice firm.

"Autograph, please?" a high-pitched, feminine voice pleaded.

El Toro couldn't stop the smile from crossing his face. One thing he enjoyed even more than a match in the ring was meeting his more adventurous fans. While he did have a set time where he officially signed autographs, many fans wanted a more personal touch, and often tried to sneak into his dressing room to meet him face to face...and possibly get away with a memorabilia of some sort. The staff at the ring preferred to discourage this, so only the quick and cunning of his fans made it to his door...or window. Someone as young as the voice dictated...this was a fan he definitely wanted to meet. "Un momento, por favor!" he called out, schooling his expression to give the appearance of the strong, unbeatable warrior that his fans most enjoyed on first glance. Once that was done, he opened the door, looking down to greet this fan.

He found himself staring at a pristine white unicorn with large green eyes and a curling pink and purple mane, wearing a curious pendant around her neck and clutching an autograph book and pen in her mouth as she stared up at him eagerly. "Hurfee!" she cheered around the notebook.

Realizing he was staring, he stepped back. "Please, come in," he instructed. Once the unicorn entered the dressing room, he shut the door and sat down. He hadn't thought the meat in his lunch sandwich had been off, but he did tend to eat fast...

The unicorn glanced up at him as her horn ignited, levitating the notebook and pen out of her mouth. "Sign, please?" she begged, floating it over to him.

"...forgive me if this seems an odd question, but is the notebook floating?" he asked curiously.

The unicorn tilted her head, seeming confused by his question. "Uh...yes?"

El Toro breathed a sigh of relief. "That is a relief. I was beginning to get concerned about the condiments of my lunch." He took the notebook and pen out of the air, seeing the glow fade as he took them. "Who am I signing to?"

"Sweetie Belle!" the unicorn piped up happily, offering a spelling on request, since he wasn't sure if that was ie or y, or if it was 'shake to ring' or 'French beauty'.

Having finished signing, he handed it back to her. "I have never signed an autograph for a unicorn before," he mumbled, still unsure if he actually was.

Sweetie Belle froze. "Huh?" She tilted her head to stare at him...and then her eyes and horn glowed green. "Hmm...no innate magical ability, but a strong synchronization with the artifact...I guess that makes you immune..."

"Immune? Artifact?" El Toro asked, now thoroughly confused.

Sweetie Belle tapped the pendant she was wearing. "This generates a magical field around me that makes me seem normal to non-magical vision. Unless you have a natural talent for magic or are magical yourself, you aren't supposed to notice anything odd about me." She giggled softly. "It's how I got in here so easily. Everyone who worked here just assumed I was supposed to be here."

"I see," El Toro admitted cautiously. He had always believed in magic himself, but it was one thing to say "I believe" and another to have it presented to you complete with instruction manual. Still, he could feel the old excitement of discovery stirring inside him. "What did you mean about synchronization with an artifact?"

"The Talisman in your mask," Sweetie Belle explained, floating up her pen to tap his lucky charm. "It's one of a set of 12 magical Talismans based in the signs of the Chinese Zodiac. You've had it for a while, haven't you?"

"But of course!" El Toro insisted. "I found it when I was very young, exploring the ziggurat on a dare. I took it as a sign, and strapped it to my forehead as I trained myself, until I became as strong as an ox. I have worn it ever since, making it a part of my mask when I began my wrestling career."

"That explains the strong synchronization," Sweetie deduced. "Your chi has realigned itself to naturally flow along the same lines as the Talisman's magic as you trained yourself. Still doesn't tell me what magic it has, though..." She shrugged her shoulders. "Either way, it puts you in danger."

"Danger?" El Toro asked, surprised. "El Toro Fuerte laughs in the face of danger!" Putting his clenched fists on his hips, he let out a loud belly laugh.

"Even if the danger is ninjas made of living shadow that come in an unending swarm?" the unicorn clarified.

The very idea of such a thing sent a chill down El Toro's spine, but he steeled himself. Finding the Talisman in the ziggurat had taught him the rewards of confronting and dominating one's fear. "They may come from sunrise to sunrise, and I will neither flag nor falter! El Toro Fuerte will conquer whatever foe tries to face him!"

Sweetie Belle sighed softly. "If you're that synchronized to the Talisman, you just might be able to," she admitted worriedly. "Still, you're a wrestler. While I don't doubt your prowess, the ones coming after you won't be following any rules." She scratched her chin. "I have...a rather skilled relative. While he isn't a wrestler by training, he is a powerful combatant. Will you accept his challenge? If he wins, you'll let us take the Talisman to be protected from the forces of darkness. If you win, it will be proof you can be trusted with its protection. Deal?"

"El Toro Fuerte never turns down a challenge!" El Toro proclaimed proudly. "Tell your relative I will see him in the ring after my match tonight, and to make sure to wear a mask!"

Sweetie Belle smiled and nodded. "Will do," she promised, turning and leaving. As the door closed, El Toro could hear her mumbling, "Jackie's not gonna like this..."

The Direct Approach

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Jackie, Jade, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo sat alongside Paco - the boy who had been handing out flyers - as they watched El Toro's championship wrestling match, which he won quickly and easily. They then waited around until the arena was empty, El Toro having requested permission from the manager to use the ring for a private match unrelated to the championship. As it emptied, Apple Bloom and Jade worked on making a mask for Jackie under Sweetie Belle's guidance, so as to give him a good 'masked' identity for the match.

Once everything was ready, Scootaloo took the place of the announcer, clearing her throat. "Today we have quite the match lined up, folks!" she called out from over the ring on Cumulo. "In this corner, we have the reigning champion, El Toro Fuerte!" She paused as Paco let out a loud cheer and El Toro stepped away from his corner. "And in this corner, our favored challenger...El Mono Bailando!"

As Jackie stepped out from his corner wearing a brown and gold mask, Paco's peals of laughter nearly drowning out the others' cheers. "S-Seriously?" he gasped out. "That is your fighting name?"

"Am I missing something?" Jackie asked, confused.

El Toro suppressed his own amusement behind a smirk. "You let one of the girls pick it, didn't you?" he asked consolingly.

"What?" Sweetie Belle demanded irritably. "It suits him and his fighting style! Isn't that how you picked the name El Toro Fuerte?"

El Toro shrugged his shoulders. "Fair enough."(1)

"Now, this won't be a standard match!" Scootaloo called out. "Unlike in a normal wrestling match, any combat technique is allowed here. The only rules are nothing lethal, and nothing below the belt! The fight goes until one of the fighters is knocked out or pinned for 3 seconds by my count, surrenders, or is thrown out of the ring! Are you ready, fighters?!"

"Ready!" El Toro proclaimed quickly, taking his fighting stance.

"You are getting far too into this, Scootaloo," Jackie chided as he took his own stance.

"Round one...FIGHT!" Scootaloo screamed out as Jade rang the bell.

El Toro immediately rushed forward as the Talisman at his brow briefly flared, tried to pin Jackie to the corner pillar of the ring, but Jackie quickly rolled to the side, kicking El Toro in his butt to force him to overbalance forward as he came to his feet. El Toro quickly recovered, now approaching Jackie more slowly as he realized that charging strikes would not catch him off guard.

As El Toro attempted a grapple, Jackie knelt down, ducking under the grab and delivering two quick, powerful jabs to El Toro's gut, briefly winding his foe and letting him dance back out of range of the grapple. El Toro got back upright, taking a few calming breaths as he reassessed the situation. Closing the distance again, he began swiping at his opponent instead for a one armed grab.

Jackie swayed back out of reach of each sweeping grab, watching until El Toro overextended himself and then delivering a swift kick to the open side, aiming at the back of the shoulder, the hip, or the belly with each kick to weaken El Toro's ability to continue fighting. In desperation, El Toro performed a low dive, trying to catch hold of Jackie at his waist, but Jackie leapt into the air, kicking down at the small of El Toro's back with both feet as he leapt out of the way. Although this briefly knocked El Toro prone, Jackie knew he lacked the size or strength to keep El Toro pinned from that position, so he allowed his foe to recover.

As El Toro got to his feet, he began to think about the fight so far. As Sweetie had said, the name chosen for Jackie was highly appropriate, as he danced out of the way of each strike, conserving his own energy while letting El Toro expend his, and striking at vulnerabilities. No matter how El Toro tried to grapple, Jackie would move just out of the way, sometimes mere millimeters between El Toro's fingertips and Jackie's flesh or clothes, before countering.

That 'mere millimeters' thought gave El Toro an idea of how to change the flow of the fight. He could tell there was a great deal of cheering from those watching, but he put it from his mind as he focused. Getting to his feet, he charged Jackie, his left arm outstretched ahead of him. As he'd expected, Jackie swayed to his right, and El Toro brought up his right arm in a wide sweep, managing to wrap it around Jackie's waist in a grapple.

To Jackie's credit, despite his surprise, he didn't go down without a fight. Swinging his leg up, he caught El Toro a firm kick on the kneecap, causing him to drop to the floor on top of Jackie before reaching the edge of the ring. El Toro was forced to release Jackie to get to his feet, but the impact had briefly weakened him, enabling El Toro to get hold of his feet. With a quick swing, El Toro attempted to hurl Jackie from the ring.

Jackie let out a desperate scream as he flew through the air, managing to catch the top rope of the edge of the ring, pulling him back to it and bracing his feet on the outside of the ring. El Toro turned his head to Scootaloo, expecting his victory.

Scootaloo flew over to where Jackie was. "...technically, he has not touched down outside the ring," she pointed out. "So...it's not a ring out."

"Seriously?" Jackie gasped out in surprise.

"You are a challenging opponent!" El Toro called out happily as Jackie threw himself back into the ring. "I have not had this much fun in the ring for a long time!"

"See?" Jade called out, turning towards Paco. "I told you Jackie was grea-WAUGH!"

Hearing that scream, everyone turned to find Tohru holding Paco in the air in one hand, while another enforcer - one they didn't recognize - stood in front of Finn, Chao, and Ratso with a knife to Sweetie's throat.

"The Talisman," Tohru stated firmly, holding out his free hand. His intentions were made quite clear.

Jackie swallowed convulsively as he stared at the scene, knowing he didn't dare take action. El Toro, for his part, stepped forward, knowing debate would be useless against that impassive face. "You will release the children?" he demanded insistently.

Tohru nodded. "One Talisman for two children. A fair deal."

"I have your word on that?" El Toro insisted.

"I swear by the blood of the samurai in my veins," Tohru confirmed. "The moment the Talisman is in my hands, both children will be released unharmed."

Nodding, El Toro reached up to his face.

"El Toro!" Paco called out desperately. "No!"

Grasping his mask, El Toro pulled it off without hesitation. "Take it," he called out, tossing his mask to Tohru, the weight of the Talisman carrying it through the air.

As soon as the mask landed in Tohru's hand, he dropped Paco. Once he'd pulled the Talisman from the mask, Sweetie was released.

Jackie quickly lunged forward, trying to kick the Talisman out of Tohru's hand...but it flashed, and Tohru drove his clenched fist into the floor.

And everything seemed to explode.



(1) For those not using google translate..."El Toro Fuerte" means "the strong bull", and "El Mono Bailando" means "the dancing monkey".

The Spirit of the Ox

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El Toro awakened slowly after the explosion that rocked the ring. The first thought that came to his mind as he regained consciousness and saw the wreckage was, The manager is not going to be happy about this...

As more of his mind came back to him, he shot up into a sitting position, looking around worriedly. "Paco? Girls? Jackie?" he called out worriedly.

"Easy there, El Toro," Jade told him, putting a hand to his chest. "Paco's okay, and so are the girls and I...but the Dark Hand took Jackie! We need to help him!"

El Toro stared at her, then sadly. "I cannot," he offered apologetically. "Without my mask, I have no power..."

Jade thrust his mask into his hands. "Then put it back on already!" she insisted.

"It is not that simple," El Toro explained. "I removed my mask. I have forsaken the spirit of the Ox, and cast aside my honor. I am no longer a warrior..."

Jade stared at him, then scrunched her face up in frustration, plainly trying to come up with some way to convince him. "If you can't be a warrior, then be a hero!" she offered finally. "You gave up a lot to save Paco and the rest of us, that was pretty heroic!" Taking the mask, she tried to force it onto his head. "Come on!"

"It will do no good," El Toro told her. "With the Ox in that man's hands, his power is overwhelming. I cannot match him."

"Well you aren't going to let a bunch of girls go after them alone, are you?" Jade demanded angrily, grabbing the front of his wrestling outfit.

"I am pretty sure a unicorn, a pegasus, and one who commands plants need no assistance from me," El Toro answered readily.

Jade blinked in surprise. "You're aware of that?" she asked, shocked. Paco hadn't even reacted to the tame cloud, after all.

"Of course," El Toro replied softly. "Sweetie Belle said I had become synchronized to the Talisman..." His voice trailed off as an idea occurred to him. It was stupid, reckless, and probably wouldn't work...but it sounded plenty heroic. "Perhaps you are correct," he stated, standing up and pulling his mask back on. "Perhaps there is something...heroic I can do. Which way did they go?"

"Audrey saw them going west..." Jade began, unsure what had come over El Toro.

"Stay here," El Toro instructed, turning to race west towards the air field.

"Pssh," he heard Jade grumbling behind him. "If I don't listen to Jackie when he tells me that, what makes you think I'll listen to you?"

As El Toro ran, he prayed in the depths of his mind. Spirit of the Ox, hear me...though I forsook you to save those in need, I beg that you do not forsake me. One who is a worthy opponent, one who has helped me enjoy battle for the first time since I took the belt, is now in great danger, and only with your help will I be strong enough to assist him, and stand up to one who would misuse you! You did not choose me to be a champion...you chose me to be a hero! I see that now! Spirit of the Ox, one last time, lend me your strength that I might be the hero you chose me to be!

Though El Toro was unaware of it, the symbol of the Ox Talisman appeared in both of his eyes, flaring with light...and then he felt his blood burn, the familiar feeling of the power of the Ox flooding his body, though less intense than before. Still great strength, but not quite what the Talisman would give the giant. Still, it would be enough.

When he reached the air field, he saw that the thugs who had threatened the children were already on a plane, and it was about to take off. "HIYAAAAAH!" he screamed out as he leapt, bringing his arm down in an overhand chop.

KERRRUNCHHHH!!!

El Toro stared as he saw his arm shear through the tail of the plane, severing the entire portion as it fell off, rendering the plane incapable of take-off. He pulled back his arm, staring at it in shock. He didn't even feel pain.

Before long, the giant stepped off the plane, the Talisman clutched in his hand and glowing. El Toro knew he didn't have enough strength to meet him head on. He would need a different strategy...especially now that Paco and the girls had caught up and were watching. As the giant's fist pulled back, Jade shouted out, "El Toro! Duck!"

Remembering how Jackie had fought him, El Toro consciously imitated the moves of El Mono Balando, ducking under the strike as it came. He repeated the move with the next punch, and rolled back out of the way at the attempt to grapple. The giant snarled in fury and pulled his fist back, plainly intending another explosive punch to the ground. Rushing in, El Toro once more mimicked Jackie's tactics, delivering solid punches to the giant's stomach.

Once.

Twice.

Thrice.

And a kick!

To his surprise, the strike of his leg sent the giant off the ground, flying backwards several feet to land on his back, clutching at his gut. Taking full advantage of the situation, El Toro lunged forward and seized the giant by his ankles. Aid me, Spirit of the Ox! he pleaded silently.

Feeling the fire in his veins blaze, he began to spin, swinging the giant around him before hurling him up into the air, screaming. El Toro then watched the shadows on the ground carefully, and took two steps to the right before raising his fists. The giant came down with a choked grunt of pain as he came down with El Toro's fists in the center of his back, on either side of his spine. His hands opened convulsively, sending the Talisman bouncing away. El Toro then deposited the now unconscious giant in the flatbed of a nearby truck.

Noticing the other thugs staring at him in shock and fear, El Toro cricked his neck, then extended a hand, beckoning them.

"Let's get out of here!" one of them shouted, racing for the truck.

"New guy is out!" the one who'd threatened Sweetie Belle screamed as he ran, only to scream even louder as thorny vines dragged him into the underbrush, followed by the sound of shaking trees and something snapping.

The others leapt into the truck and drove off with the giant, leaving Jackie tied up and staring in the plane. "Whoa," Jackie murmured, stunned. "Bad day for Tohru..."

As soon as the truck was out of sight, the flames left El Toro's veins, and he collapsed to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

"El Toro!" Paco cried out in shock, racing forward.

El Toro tried to respond, but no sound would come out.

"He burned up a lot of his chi mimicking the magic of the Talisman!" Sweetie Belle called out. "He needs more, but I don't know how-"

"I've got an idea!" Jade called out.

El Toro felt something cold made of stone pressed against his forehead, and his breathing became easier as familiar energy flowed into his body from his forehead. Opening his eyes, he saw Jade holding something against his forehead as Jackie approached. "Thank you, Jade," he said softly as he put his hand to his forehead, holding the Talisman there himself.

"How'd that work?" Sweetie Belle asked in confusion.

"Well, you said he burned his chi to make Talisman Magic," Jade explained. "And he said you said his chi was attuned to the Talisman. So I figured the Talisman could use its magic to restore his chi."

"It appears you were correct," El Toro murmured as he sat up, more than a little surprised as Paco glommed onto his side briefly. He took the Talisman from his forehead once he felt his strength returning to normal. "And you were correct as well, Sweetie Belle. I am not cut out to defend the Talisman." Turning, he handed it over to Jackie. "But you are."

Jackie chuckled nervously, obviously flustered. "Thank you, Mr. El Toro," he replied awkwardly as he took the Talisman.

"But, what will you do now, El Toro?" Paco asked worriedly. "The ring..."

"I am no longer a warrior of the ring," El Toro explained. "As Jade said, I am a hero now, and I must train as such." He turned to Jade with a smile. "Should my skills and strength ever be needed in this struggle the Talismans have created, feel free to call on me, and I will answer."

"Will do, El Toro!" Jade replied, giving him a thumbs up.

"I'll miss seeing you in the ring!" Sweetie Belle offered. "You were my favorite!"

"I shall miss it too," Paco added sorrowfully.

"Do not be so dismayed, Paco," El Toro reassured him, ruffling his hair. "After all, I am certain Jade will confirm...every hero needs a sidekick."

Paco's eyes shone with eagerness.

The Failed Hunt

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Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo looked up from working on their homework as Jackie and Jade staggered into the living area of Uncle's shop, looking rather exhausted from their trip to the jungle in search of the Snake Talisman. "So, how did it go?" Sweetie Belle asked sweetly as she fetched a cup of tea for Jackie and a juice box for Jade.

"It was so awesome!" Jade squealed out happily but tiredly. "We went searching through the jungle and into a deep cave, found a secret temple, and Jackie climbed all the way to the top to retrieve the Talisman, and then he had to fight a giant snake!"

"So...awesome!" Scootaloo squealed out.

"So where's the rock?" Apple Bloom asked eagerly.

"We don't have it," Jackie groaned out as he sank into his chair. "A phony archaeologist in it for the profit and TV show by the name of Wesley Rank managed to get it out of my pocket while we were running from the giant snake and the Dark Hand."

"Oh, the guy from 'Just the Artifacts'?" Sweetie Belle asked as she set down the tray of drinks and snacks for the adventurers. "Uncle hates that guy. Says he gives historians and archaeologists a bad name."

"I'll say," Jade grumbled irritably. "Not only did he steal the Talisman, he erased an ancient cave drawing so it could only be seen on his show! We had to sneak into his trailer to get the directions we needed to find the temple." She smiled as she took a sip of her juice. "Admittedly, that was kind of fun."

"Jade..." Jackie cautioned as he sipped his tea, plainly not liking the idea of Jade enjoying breaking and entering.

"I know, I know..." Jade responded, waving it off. "It would have been a lot easier if you three came along, though. How come you didn't?"

"Exactly how much help would I be?" Scootaloo asked. "In amongst all those trees, there aren't enough steady air currents for Cumulo to ride, or me to manipulate. And I wouldn't have been able to follow you from above the treetops."

"And I'd have gotten all manner of creepy crawlies in my mane!" Sweetie Belle whined. "And some of those creatures are big enough to eat me in one bite!"

"Well...okay," Jade admitted, accepting Scootaloo's answer as valid and ignoring Sweetie's. "What about you, Apple Bloom? I'd have thought you'd love the jungle!"

"Too hot and humid for Audrey," Apple Bloom pointed out, gesturing to the plant she still sat on. "He's no tropical or succulent. Without him, I'd have to be walking. Can ya imagine what my magic runnin' amok woulda done to the jungle?" She shuddered. "I got enough o' that in Mexico when I kept getting cacti up my tail!"

Jackie chuckled softly. "Yes. Until you can control your magic so you can prevent plants from sprouting randomly, perhaps it would be best if you did not go anywhere without Audrey."

Jade sighed fitfully. "But it's not nearly as much fun without them..." she grumbled under her breath.

"We'll go with on the next one," Scootaloo spoke up. "Promise."

"Well, the new episode of 'Just the Artifacts' should be on soon," Sweetie Belle pointed out. "Maybe we can use that to find out where Rank took the Talisman. If not, we can always sic Captain Black on him."

"I suppose so," Jackie murmured softly as the group gathered around the sofa to watch the TV.

The show soon began, the musical number and title screen coming up, before showing Rank himself. "Welcome. I'm Wesley Rank and you're watching 'Just the Artifacts' at the legendary once-lost Temple of Culibra Gigante. I have just braved a treacherous climb to the temple's harrowing heights to bring you this..." He lifted the Snake Talisman into view. "The Snake Talisman."

"No!" Jade perked her eyes up as she saw herself punching Rank in the gut.

"I'm on TV!" Jade gasped out as she watched.

"Rank didn't edit that out?" Jackie asked in surprise as the fillies burst into giggles.

"Liar liar liar!" Jade on the TV continued to shout as Rank pushed her off the shot.

"Ow, that hurt," Rank complained, rubbing his belly.

The shot then shifted, showing Rank running in terror from something before locking on his screaming face. That shot then shifted to the corner of the screen as the slightly bulky cameraman chuckled, now dressed in his own version of Rank's outfit. "Welcome to a special edition of 'Just the Artifacts'! Wesley Rank may not know how to treat little girls, but he sure knows how to scream like one." He let out another laugh as the screen focused on him. "I'm Dino Stephenson, and I'll be your new guide."

Jade joined the fillies in laughing. "Go camera guy."

"Look!" Jackie called out as the screen showed the Snake Talisman.

"You'll also get the full scoop on how we recovered this rare Snake Talisman from the local pawn shop Rank sold it to," Dino continued. "We, of course, donated the artifact to the New York Museum."

"Well, we know where it is now," Scootaloo spoke up.

Jackie sighed in relief as he turned off the TV and stood up. "After what we went through, getting the Talisman back from the museum should be a snap."

"We're off to the jungle!" Jade crowed happily.

"Eh?" Jackie asked, confused.

"New York," Jade explained. "The concrete jungle."

"Audrey should do fine there," Apple Bloom pointed out.

"And the thermals in a big city like that..." Scootaloo purred eagerly.

"And so many places to shop!" Sweetie Belle crowed happily. "I'm going to get so many souvenirs!"

Jackie sighed fitfully. "Aiyah," he moaned softly. "Bad day..."

Snake in the Grass

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Jackie looked rather harried as he returned to the hotel room after his visit to the museum, quickly going to the closet to look for various things, especially all black clothing. Jade and the others looked up from a rather intense looking poker game to see what he was up to. "No luck convincin' the curator to let you take the Snake Talisman, ah take it?" Apple Bloom asked curiously.

"No," Jackie replied ruefully. "Apparently, the museum's security has recently been upgraded to protect the Pink Puma diamond, and they're pretty certain they can handle the Dark Hand. So they weren't willing to listen."

"Well, to be fair, with the exception of Tohru, the Dark Hand isn't really that impressive," Scootaloo pointed out. "Short of sending in a swarm of Shadow Kahn, I don't think they'd have much of a chance against a good security system. And the fact they haven't already done that suggests to me they can't, for some reason."

"Unfortunately, I bumped into Ratso while I was in there," Jackie pointed out. "He was taking pictures with a spy camera."

"In that case, call Captain Black," Sweetie Belle suggested reasonably. "Have him flex some law enforcement muscle. He's government, right?"

"Secret government," Jackie pointed out. "This isn't exactly the sort of situation he can just step in and make demands on. And even if he could, he wouldn't have anything in place by midnight."

"Midnight?" Jade asked curiously. "What's so important about midnight?"

"Nothing important," Jackie replied evasively. "I need to head out. Don't do anything reckless while I'm out." With that, he stepped into the next room to change into his black clothes, a duffel bag full of various things he'd grabbed around the hotel room over his shoulder.

The four young girls glanced at each other. "Jackie's going to break into the museum to steal the Talisman before the Dark Hand go after it at midnight, isn't he?" Scootaloo asked flatly.

"Eeyup," Apple Bloom confirmed as she tossed a sandwich into the air for Audrey III to snatch and devour.

"And he doesn't want us to come along because it's 'too dangerous'," Jade added, rolling her eyes in frustration.

"Eeyup," Apple Bloom confirmed as she looked down at her cards.

"So...what are we going to do about it?" Scootaloo asked curiously.

"I don't know about you, but I'm going to call Captain Black so he can file these actions as an official op so that if Jackie gets into trouble, he can cover for him," Sweetie Belle offered, pulling out her cell phone.

"I think we should help a bit more directly," Jade countered. "We could sneak into the museum and help him. Anyone working there wouldn't even think it odd that the three of you were wandering around, thanks to those pendants of yours, and I can always ride Audrey in from the roof or something. Security guards never look up."

"I think we should do what Jackie said and not do anything reckless," Sweetie Belle grumbled. "I don't want to get in trouble!"

"You could just stay here then," Jade pointed out.

"Nuh uh!" Scootaloo interrupted. "We do anything, we do it together!"

"Do what together?" Jackie asked as he stepped back into the room, dressed in black with the duffel bag over his shoulder.

"Playing Poker," Apple Bloom spoke up quickly.

Jackie chuckled softly. "Well have a nice game, you four," he told them before heading out the door.

Once the door was closed, Scootaloo glanced back and forth between Jade and Sweetie Belle. "Look, we all want to help Jackie, and none of us like feeling left out...but we also each have our own ideas how we can best help him. So here's what I suggest. Whoever wins this hand decides what we do. Fair?"

"Sounds good to me," Jade replied smugly as she glanced at her cards.

"I've got no problem with that," Sweetie responded readily.

"Alright then everyone," Scootaloo spoke up. "Lay out your cards."

"Jack high flush!" Jade and Sweetie Belle spoke up together, laying out their hands simultaneously. They had identical hands, Jade in hearts and Sweetie in diamonds. They stared at each other in shock.

Scootaloo grumbled under her breath as she laid her hand out. "Full House," she spoke up, not looking forward to having to choose sides after making such an effort to be the peacemaker. "Apple Bloom, what's your hand?"

"Four of a kind, deuces," she replied, laying out her cards. "So...that means ah choose what we do?"

"Yup," Scootaloo confirmed. "So...what do we do?"

"Well...ah certainly think Sweetie's idea's a good un to start," Apple Bloom began. "Ah mean, covering in case somethin' goes wrong is never a bad idea." Sweetie smirked at that, and Jade pouted. "But..."

"But...?" Scootaloo prompted.

"Well...tomorrow's Thanksgiving," Apple Bloom pointed out reasonably. "Families are supposed ta stay together on Thanksgiving, right? Since we can't be with Jackie and Uncle, we should at least be with Jackie, right?"

Jade grinned widely as Sweetie Belle sighed. "So much for being responsible..." the unicorn muttered, unable to find fault with that logic.


Jackie carefully made his way past the security on one of the museum's skylights, rappelling down a rope made of bed sheets from the hotel. He carefully made his way past the laser security grid, ducking in and around each laser to avoid crossing it. Maybe I should have brought Scootaloo along, he thought silently. Cumulo would have been real useful there. ...or the Rooster Talisman. Discarding such thoughts as counterproductive, he made his way to where the Snake Talisman was displayed.

Once there, he prepared to disable security so he could remove the Talisman...only to pause. Something was off. Looking closer, he noticed what it was. The Snake carving on the Talisman was backwards.

"A fake?" he gasped out, shocked. "Did the Dark Hand come early?" He started to turn and run, only for something else to catch his eye.

A tiny leaf was stuck to the top of the Talisman.

Groaning, Jackie reached behind him at about waist height, his hand almost unerringly finding Jade's shoulder.

"Wow," Jade murmured, stunned. "You are good."

"You are so grounded," he grumbled at her, turning to find himself face to face with all four of them. "Where's the Talisman?"

"Here you go!" Apple Bloom spoke up, handing over a cloth bag.

Grumbling under his breath, Jackie took the bag and turned to lead the group back out, only to pause as he glanced to his side between two displays, spying a female figure across the hall in a black jumpsuit. "...I think this mirror is broken," he spoke up.

Cold Blood, Warm Heart

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As Viper slowly made her way out of the museum with the Pink Puma in sack, she paused as she heard many footsteps from across the hall. Turning, she was startled to see a man dressed in black and not wearing a ski mask to conceal his identity...not that she recognized him in the first place. Still, it was an amateur move. If the museum had even the most rudimentary of security camera systems - which it didn't, but still - he'd never escape anyone chasing him.

On top of that, with him were four little girls who weren't even dressed in black. What is this, a field trip? I didn't think New York had a Thieves' Guild. Her eyes quickly took in the girls' appearances. One had enough familial resemblance with the man to be his daughter, or at least a niece. The other three seemed perfectly ordinary, and she turned her focus back to-

She stopped her mind from skittering away. She never classified anything she encountered as 'ordinary' or 'normal'. That kind of mental trap got thieves caught when they overlooked important details. The very fact her mind tried to classify it that way made her suspicious. As such, she focused her attention discreetly on the three girls. Yet again, she found her senses didn't want to register anything out of the ordinary about them, but she wasn't going to let it go at that. Her stomach wanted high end chocolates every day, but keeping her figure was important to performing all aspects of her job well, and she wasn't weak-willed enough to take chances with that, so she wasn't going to give up just because her mind didn't want to register-

Three candy colored ponies somewhat larger than house cats, one with a horn, and one with wings, wearing pendants whose light pierced her eyes in an attempt to prevent her awareness.(1)

Viper found herself staring, frozen in the realization of just what she was seeing, until the man finally spoke up. "I think this mirror is broken."

Pulling her attention away from the ponies, Viper leapt, striking at this other thief with a jump kick, managing to catch him right in the face. Apparently, he hadn't expected the attack. She hadn't really planned on a fight, but the longer he remained the more likely he'd be caught, and her theft blamed on him, allowing her to get off scot-free. Alternatively, it also prevented him from trying to get her loot.

She saw his loot sack sliding away, and lunged in to knock him out quickly, only for her to get flipped over him. Crap! Didn't expect martial arts skills. He certainly doesn't carry himself like a fighter. Can't underestimate him again. By the time she finished her thought, she'd rolled from her back where she'd landed to her feet, keeping track of where her loot sack slid to...right next to his. Better be careful to grab the right one, she grumbled internally, not wanting to leave someone else with her loot, or get stuck with whatever this amateur was stealing.

Rushing back in, she was able to catch the man off guard, managing to knock him back. Unfortunately, his defense was, again, greater than she expected, and he managed to block more than half of her strikes.

"Wow, she rules!" the human girl called out eagerly, making Viper smile under her mask. She wasn't above enjoying a little praise from youngsters when she got to show off.

"Ahem!" all three ponies interrupted, glaring at her.

"I mean...go Jackie?" the girl offered, causing the man to roll his eyes.

So his name's Jackie, then, Viper thought, running her mind back through everything she'd researched. Don't know the name. She quickly lunged in to continue the fight.

He proved to be a skilled opponent, only his own underestimation of her allowing her to get any sort of advantage. Unfortunately, she was forced to give that away after a quick exchange of blows to keep him from falling into the security lasers. When he stood up to continue the fight, he glanced at his watch, and then his eyes widened. "You guys are 20 minutes early!"

"What guys?" Viper countered irritably. "I'm an independent."

"You're not with the Dark Hand?" Jackie asked, confused.

Understanding dawned in her mind. She'd recognized the - rather incompetent - Dark Hand Enforcer casing the joint over a different item while she'd been casing it for the Pink Puma. Apparently, this guy was some sort of anti-crime agent, specifically here for the Dark Hand...though with how amateurish he behaved as far as thieving, it was probably his first field op or something. Should be able to talk my way out of this, she decided as she pulled her mask off. Or flirt. "Name's Viper."

"Someone else is after the Talisman?" Jackie, the human girl, the unicorn, and the yellow pony all said at once. The Pegasus, however, gasped eagerly.

"Ohmygosh!" she squealed happily. "You're the infamous jewel thief! You must be here for the Pink Puma!"

"No autographs, kid," Viper countered quickly, though inwardly she was pleased to encounter a fan. Talisman? she thought to herself. What's so important about some rock carving?

"Wow!" the human girl crowed happily. "When I grow up, I wanna be just like her!"

"A criminal?" Jackie demanded, anger and shock warring in his voice.

"A female Jackie Chan!"

While Viper didn't enjoy the idea of being referred to like a knock off, she recognized hero worship when she saw it, and took it as the compliment she knew it was meant as. At the same time, she ran through her mind to see if the full name rang any bells.

"She is nothing like me!" Jackie barked out indignantly.

"So, what's with the minors?" Viper asked curiously. "Youth outreach? Guild field trip?" The yellow pony was the only one to giggle, so at least one of them caught her joke.

"Stay out of this!" Jackie countered, stepping between Viper and the girls. "In fact, you are under arrest!"

Yup, rookie government agent, Viper thought to herself.

Before she could respond, however, the pegasus spoke up. "Yeah, good luck with handing her over to the cops while you have 'stolen property' as well, Jackie."

Huh, Viper thought curiously. An unsanctioned op at that. She sauntered up to him, deciding to try a different tact. "Yeah. We'd both go to jail."

"I am not a crook!" Jackie cried out angrily. "I am an archaeologist!" As he screamed, he swung his arm back...knocking a large urn over and shattering it and setting off an alarm. He seemed more concerned about the urn than the alarm, though.

"Way to go," Viper chided, surprised to see the human girl voice the exact same opinion. Grabbing her loot sack, Viper raced out of there. A security door closed long before she could get to it, so she pulled out her gun and fired off the explosive round, blasting the door open, letting her - and Jackie's group - out of the museum through the front door. She hated being so messy, but once the alarms went off she was just glad to have the option when she needed it.

As she turned to leave once outside, the girl tried to go after her. "Viper!" she called out, only for Jackie to pull her back.

"Okay, no more 'follow the Viper'," she chided, definitely not ready to take on an apprentice.

"No problem," Jackie retorted firmly, letting Viper run off her own way.


Evasive maneuvers meant that Viper didn't make it back to her hotel room until early morning, at which point she was able to read the paper as she relaxed. The headline about Jackie Chan stealing the Pink Puma made her chuckle. "Should have gotten out of there when you had the chance," she muttered under her breath. She sighed sadly to herself. "Still, those ponies...probably the only chance I had at getting to cuddle a talking pony. Gonna regret that in the future."

She flopped back onto her bed, reaching into her loot sack. "Still, I got what I wanted-" Her words stopped as she felt something that was not a diamond. Pulling it out, she saw the Snake Talisman Jackie and the others had been making a fuss about. "Damn," she muttered under her breath. "Must have switched bags. So that's how he got caught..." Shrugging her shoulders, she turned it over and over in her hand. "What's all the fuss about this thing, anyway?" she asked as she squeezed it in her hand.

The Talisman ignited in light, and she vanished.

"...whoa..."



(1) As you can see, the pendants' protections aren't perfect. Those aligned with magic, or those who have trained their minds against deception, will be able to see past them. In Viper's case, it's the Batman effect.

Legal Loopholes

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Captain Black stared back and forth between the newspaper, his own files, and the four girls as they sat in the hotel room. "Well girls, I have good news and bad news." He frowned, interlacing his fingers and bringing them up under his chin. "Which do you want to hear first?"

"Good news," Sweetie Belle offered hopefully from on the bed. Scootaloo was sitting on her cloud near the ceiling, Apple Bloom on Audrey III nearby, and Jade in the chair across from Captain Black. "We could really use some."

"Well, the good news is that the police have no actual evidence against Jackie," Captain Black explained. "He was found outside the museum when the alarms went off, dressed all in black with an empty bag, and there were missing artifacts in the museum, including two he had been discussing with the curator earlier that day. Pure circumstantial. As long as he has the sense to keep his mouth shut, he won't even go to trial."

"Hope the bad news is better," Apple Bloom grumbled. "Jackie's a lot o' things, but tight lipped ain't one o' them."

Captain Black couldn't help but chuckle. Jackie was pretty tough and good at keeping his own council, but he himself doubted Jackie's ability to hold up under an interrogation, even one by normal police. He panicked a little too easily. "The bad news is that I'm not in a position here to take any action on Jackie's behalf. If I try to claim he's one of my agents, there will be all sorts of inquiry as to what he was doing there, and anything less and we won't be able to get him out. So unless we can recover the Pink Puma and Snake Talisman, we're stuck until things process out...and even then, we don't know where the Snake Talisman is."

The four girls glanced at each other thoughtfully, and Captain Black steeled himself. He could tell they were plotting something, and he was certain whatever it was, he would walk away from it with a migraine, a successful mission, or both. Eventually, Jade spoke up. "What if you were able to bring in the Pink Puma?" she asked curiously. "Could you say he was working for you on a sting operation for the Dark Hand, and the operation got blown when Viper showed up?"

"Yeah!" Scootaloo called out. "You could say he got away with the Pink Puma which he handed off to you for safekeeping before he went after Viper, only to get caught by the police at the worst time."

Captain Black chuckled. "As far as that goes, that could work," he replied readily. "You've got good heads on your shoulders, kids. Keep thinking." He ruffled their hair playfully. "Still, that assumes I had the Pink Puma, and that still leaves the Snake Talisman unaccounted for. Not to mention throwing the weight of Section 13 around like that could have consequences, and if we don't recover what the Dark Hand's after, I won't have anything to show for it."

"So..." Sweetie Belle began cautiously. "So if we were able to get you the Pink Puma and the Snake Talisman, then you could get Jackie out without this even being on his record?"

"Easily," Captain Black confirmed. "Not that we have them..." He narrowed his eyes as he noticed the conspiratorial glances. "Or do we?"

"We know exactly where Viper is right now," Apple Bloom spoke up readily. "And we can locate her at any time."

"How?" Captain Black demanded insistently.

"When the Snake Talisman was first retrieved, Audrey left a small thorn on it," Apple Bloom explained. "When Viper first handled the Talisman, that thorn pricked her skin, leaving a tiny bit o' non-harmful venom in her veins. It lets him track her anywhere."

"Useful," Captain Black replied calmly, though inwardly he was very impressed. Tracking criminals through their loot was one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with crime. Every technological method of tracking could be defeated, sometimes with incredibly simple things, making it sometimes an effort in futility. But a biological method of tracking that could be hidden inside the criminal just from them handling their ill-gotten gains... "I don't suppose Audrey III might be sporing or anything of the like soon? Or if you might have a way to make more of him as controlled as he is?"

Apple Bloom shook her head. "Ah'm not even entirely certain how ah made him so well behaved in the first place."

"Pity," Captain Black mused. "Still, it's good you know exactly where she is. We can make a plan-"

"Actually..." Jade interrupted, "we've already got a plan on how to handle this. And it would probably be best if it were just us involved. The less Viper learns about what Jackie is actually involved in, the better, right?"

Captain Black grumbled under his breath, but couldn't deny Jade's logic. "I don't feel right about putting you kids in danger like that..." he began, pausing when this resulted in all four giggling. "What?"

Smiling, Apple Bloom gestured to Audrey III, who smirked smugly at him.

"You'll be bringing him along?" he asked, surprised. At the nods all around, he sighed. "Well, that's your safety taken care of, but can you try and keep things as discreet as possible?"

"No promises!" Scootaloo called out jokingly, laughing.

"Scootaloo!" Sweetie Belle snapped, glaring her into a semblance of good behavior. She turned back to the Captain. "I...can't promise we won't make a mess, but we'll do our best to keep the collateral damage to a minimum. Is that okay?"

Captain Black groaned softly. "I suppose that's the best I can hope for," he mused. "Anything I can do to help?"

"Actually..." Jade began, her voice somewhat wicked.

"Yes?" Captain Black asked curiously.

"Can you direct us to Skid Row?" Sweetie Belle asked innocently. "And possibly ensure it's empty around noon?"

"The Thanksgiving Day Parade is today," Captain Black pointed out. "It's not going to be anywhere near there, so I seriously doubt anyone will be there. Why?"

Audrey III began to laugh wickedly.

"...oh god..." Captain Black murmured, torn between horror and amusement as he realized what the girls must have planned.

The Upper Hand

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Viper made her way carefully towards Skid Row. The message that had literally flown in her window just as she was planning how best to make use of the Snake Talisman's invisibility had been quite plain. It stated that they knew exactly where she was, would continue to do so at all times, and unless she wanted to face a far worse situation, she'd meet them on Skid Row during the Thanksgiving Day parade, to trade the Snake Talisman for the Pink Puma. Viper wasn't one to even consider such things normally - pre-arranged trades just screamed trap - but the idea that whoever sent the message could somehow track her location had her reconsidering.

As she made her way to the street, her caution rose up all the way to paranoia. She didn't recognize the people at either edge of the blocked off section of road dressed in construction worker outfits, but she recognized the way they were standing. These were government agents, and professionals at that. If the road was actually under construction, she'd eat her ski mask. For whatever reason, a few agents were in position to ensure no one who wasn't supposed to be there was on the road during the trade, just in case the parade - which went down a parallel street - didn't provide enough secrecy.

She thanked her lucky stars and sign that she'd made preparations for just such a situation. She wasn't about to walk into a trap without a way out, or make a fair trade with amateurs if she could get around it. Especially not with government agents.

She went in over the buildings, and saw something that made her even more nervous. There weren't agents lining the street, like she'd expected. Instead, they were only at either end of a marked off section, leaving the area between practically deserted for a long stretch. This was beginning to seem less and less like the promised trade, and more and more like a trap...one with potentially deadly consequences if she sprung it.

However, that suspicion was somewhat assuaged when she saw only the four girls - one human, three equine - from the museum waiting for her, staring down the street as though waiting for her. She quickly and quietly dropped in behind them, planning to catch them off guard, but as she dropped she saw the pegasus' feathers twitch, and the group immediately turned to face her, two sitting on a small cyan cloud and the unicorn and human standing on the ground.

"You bring the Talisman?" the unicorn demanded bluntly.

"You bring the Puma?" Viper countered back, deciding to keep the tone as at least somewhat professional. At least none of them were wearing black hats and trenchcoats...even if the three fillies could probably get away with it, given whatever was making them seem 'ordinary' and 'normal'.

Jade pulled the Puma out, revealing it in her hand, while holding her other hand out. Recognizing what was being asked, Viper held out the fake Talisman she'd prepared, making the swap at the same time. "Pleasure doing business with you four," she said warmly, and meant it. Even if she was cheating them, it was refreshing to see such optimistic idealism in the young. Beyond that, their approach was much more straightforward than that of anyone else in the criminal community.

"In that case, how about you give us the real one in your back pocket?" the unicorn stated pointedly.

Viper flinched. Probably should have expected that when dealing with a freaking unicorn, she thought to herself. "Can you blame me?" she asked disarmingly, as she slipped her hands into her back pocket. "It's my sign..." Her hand closed around the Talisman and tightened even as she deposited the Pink Puma in her other pocket. "And so is 'Exit'." With that, she vanished, and she took to her heels.

She expected pursuit, but heard none. Did they give up already? she thought in confusion. She started to turn her head back to look, but instead focused on a loud crash from inside a nearby shop. She was able to take in the sign above the window - "Mushnik's Flower Shop" - before the front window shattered, and thorny vines lashed out, unerringly seizing her four limbs in a thorny grip before lifting her into the air. Viper had just enough time to wonder which unrealistic situation she'd seen enough of to know what sort of situation she'd stumbled into - B movies or Hentai - before the bulb of a massive Venus Fly Trap extended through the broken window, seeming to glare down at her before opening its mouth and revealing dozens of razor sharp teeth.

B movies it is, and my favorite at that, Viper thought to herself, her fears reverting back to just 'for her life' as - unexpectedly yet unsurprisingly - the flower began to sing.

"Better wait a minute
Ya better hold the phone!
Ya better mind yer manners
When ya tangle with mah girls!
Don't you mess with my lady,
You got a lot of gall!
We do things our way
...or not at all!"

Viper was torn as the plant continued to sing. She was, of course, abjectly terrified just from the idea that the ones she was tangling with could field the original 'Mean Green Mother From Outer Space', let alone the fact it looked like she was about to become a meal to said being. On the other hand, it was taking a lot of her willpower not to bob her head along to the tune and snap her fingers.

She was saved from this dilemma by the approach of the four girls. She felt Jade clambering up the vines behind her until she was plainly visible. "Now, I'm sure you've reconsidered the matter somewhat, haven't you?" Jade asked calmly, once more holding out her hand.

Feeling the vine holding the hand actually gripping the Talisman lax somewhat, she knew exactly what was expected of her. Reaching over, she deposited the Talisman in Jade's hand, smiling nervously as she turned visible again. "No hard feelings?" she asked worriedly.

"None at all," Jade promised. "To be honest, we expected you to run." Reaching out with what to Viper was incredible bravery, she patted the side of the bulb as she would a hunting dog that had brought back a large goose. "It's why we had our backs to this guy."

Viper allowed herself to chuckle as she was gently lowered to the ground, not even a prick on her skin from the thorns. "I knew the government was starting young, but this is ridiculous."

"Oh, we aren't agents," the pegasus corrected. "...yet..." she added hopefully.

"Still, I think I'll get out of this game before I have to tangle with you lot again," Viper decided. "When the opposition can field something like this..." She gestured helplessly to the plant as it - much to her surprise - shrunk down to the size of a German Shepard rather than the size of an elephant, and calmly arranged itself for the yellow pony to sit on it under the bulb. "Well, I got into this game to be on the winning side."

"Ya still could, ya know," the yellow pony suggested, getting surprised glances from the others. When she put her hooves above her ears like horns, the others nodded in understanding. "If'n ya want, we could give ya a call when we need yer skills, and put in a good word for ya with the higher ups."

"Grease the wheels for you going legit," the unicorn added.

Chuckling, Viper reached into her back pocket and pulled out a card, handing it to Jade. "Don't share that with just anyone," she requested firmly, "but you can reach me here." Turning, she sauntered off, certain that they were done with her now...and she was ready to start actually going legit.

She hadn't even been surprised to find an ordinary rock in place of the Puma in her pocket. These kids were good.

Post "Op"

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Jackie looked up in surprise when he saw who was opening his cell door. "Captain Black?" he gasped out in shock.

"Shh!" Captain Black responded quickly, silently motioning for him to follow. Confused, Jackie did as bid. To his continued surprise, the police did not interfere with Captain Black walking him out. In fact, as best as Jackie could tell, they were pretending not to see them. With this cooperation, it wasn't long before they were out of the precinct. "Here," Captain Black spoke up again as he handed over all of Jackie's things that had been confiscated when he was arrested, along with - surprise again - the Pink Puma and the Snake Talisman. "Now we can talk."

"What is going on?" Jackie demanded immediately. "Am I still a criminal? Are Jade and the others alright? How did you get the Snake Talisman back? And where did you get the Pink Puma? I don't understand anything!"

"Officially, you're one of my field agents and the local precinct has tendered a formal apology for interfering in a long running operation against the Dark Hand," Captain Black explained simply. "You aren't really, of course, but it worked as a cover story to get you out of jail once we had both artifacts in our possession again. And while we weren't able to catch any Dark Hand agents, the Op is classified as a success, since we were able to gain a prominent member of the criminal community as an informant and unofficial agent."

"What?" Jackie demanded, confused. "Who?"

"The Viper," Captain Black explained. "She's one of the most notorious jewel thieves in the world, and she works for us now."

"How did you manage-" Jackie quickly cut himself off, shaking his head. "You can't trust her!"

"Your nieces sure seem to think otherwise," Captain Black countered.

Jackie groaned, putting his hand to his head. "What did they do this time?"

"Managed to convince one of the most skilled members of the criminal community that it was better for Audrey III to consider her an ally than food," Captain Black explained quickly. As Jackie stared in amazement, Augustus changed the subject. "Now, you need to go back into the museum and give the Puma and Talisman back to the curator. He'll thank you for your efforts on their behalf, apologize for not listening to you earlier, and then you'll be able to head home without any trouble, and this incident will be officially wiped from your record."

"Really?" Jackie gasped out, stunned but relieved. "But...isn't it bad to just leave the Snake Talisman out like that?" He lifted the Talisman out to look at it.

"Don't squeeze it too hard," Captain Black interrupted quickly. "It's not the real one. It's a fake Viper made to try and trick the Puma out of your girls, but they expected it and caught her in a trap with Audrey III. Since she went to the trouble of making it, we're using it to try and lure out the Dark Hand, letting them think your release was of higher priority than securing the Talisman ourselves, especially when the museum's getting another security upgrade."

"Then you'll be watching the museum?" Jackie asked curiously.

"No," Captain Black countered. "The fake's been hollowed out and filled with Audrey's thorns. If the Dark Hand takes it, it will likely break and the thorns will embed in flesh, letting Audrey track them anywhere. With luck, this will lead us right to the Dark Hand's primary base of operations."

Jackie grinned widely as he carefully set the fake Talisman back down. "Wow. You think of everything, Captain Black."

Captain Black glanced away. "Actually...that was Jade's idea. And it was Sweetie Belle who figured out how to hollow out the fake Talisman without breaking it or letting that be noticeable. And Scootaloo and Apple Bloom who figured out how to craft the 'thorn bomb'." He shrugged his shoulders. "Your girls have good heads on their shoulders. When they grow up, they'll be good assets to whoever they end up working for. Consider them scouted."

Jackie groaned as he hung his head again. "Bad day..." he moaned. "How am I ever going to get them to behave now?"

"Oh, one more thing," Captain Black mentioned. "I won't be out here when you're done in the museum. The girls will be waiting for you at the airport. I suggest you head home immediately. The less time you spend here, the less likely someone will poke holes in this flimsy cover story of ours, and the safer you'll be."

"Thank you, Captain Black," Jackie offered fervently. "I owe you one."

"I'll keep that in mind while I'm dealing with the paperwork for this mess."

With a chuckle, the pair of friends parted ways.


Valmont frowned as he went over the information he'd been able to gather regarding the situation in New York. While he didn't doubt that Chan was working with an actual law enforcement agency in this matter to counter their efforts to gather the Talismans, he didn't buy the story of him being an official agent. No official agent would let a child along, for one thing. And beyond that, 'official' agents were disavowed if they failed as spectacularly as Jackie had in trying to acquire the Snake Talisman. This stank of a setup.

As such, he'd sent Ratso in with the Eyes of the Dragon to check. Sure enough, there was no response from the artifact to the Talisman now on display. It was a fake, likely set up specifically to trap them somehow. As per his orders, Ratso had casually vacated the museum the moment that had been discovered. Nobody suspected anything, thankfully. Ratso's innocent seeming face and genuine good nature when not beating someone to a pulp had been very useful in such ways before. It was difficult but fruitful to find an agent who could be either teddy or grizzly with ease.

And so one more Talisman had fallen into Chan's hands, beyond the Dark Hand's reach...for the moment. However, Valmont was not deterred. He would continue to watch, and wait. The perfect opportunity would present itself. It always did, one way or another. Perhaps Chan might even be...useful. That first encounter had shown that he could be leveraged. All that required was to find the right leverage, and the right moment to apply it.

And he did, after all, have four young female relations he obviously cared deeply about who had a penchant for getting into danger. And Shendu would be overjoyed to eliminate such creatures of powerful good magic as threats.

"All in good time..." he murmured to himself. "Yes. All in good time..."

Game of Stones

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As Jade took her seat in the classroom, Scootaloo quickly noticed that she seemed to be put out about something. Deciding to find out what was bugging her, she scooted her desk closer to Jade's. "What's bugging you?" she asked curiously.

Jade groaned fitfully. "I spotted a new Talisman on TV this morning, and Jackie's investigating it while I'm in school so I can't go with him."

"Really?" Apple Bloom asked curiously as she nudged Audrey to bring her closer. What with how anything made of dead wood reacted to her, Audrey served as both chair and desk while in class. A statement to the teacher that she 'couldn't sit on wood' had been all it took for that to be allowed, much to Scootaloo's frustration as the same didn't allow her to sit on Cumulo. "Which Talisman, and where is it?"

"It's the Rabbit Talisman, according to Jackie," Jade explained. "It's in the back of a giant tortoise at the aquarium named Aesop."

"Well, that's rather blatant," Sweetie Belle grumbled, rolling her eyes.

"What do you mean?" Jade asked curiously.

"Aesop was an ancient Greek philosopher who wrote a number of tales meant to teach a moral," Sweetie Belle explained. "So many, in fact, that stories of that type are now known colloquially as Aesops. One of the more famous of 'Aesop's Fables' is about the Tortoise and the Hare. And now the Tortoise named Aesop has the Rabbit Talisman."

"Uh...that's probably why the folks who found him called him Aesop," Apple Bloom pointed out.

Sweetie Belle blinked. "Oh...yeah, right." She blushed slightly in embarrassment. "I keep forgetting that natural animals get their names from humans..."

"Jade!" Mrs. Hartman snapped out from the front of the class, her eyes narrowed through her glasses as the four jumped. "Perhaps you or your companions can answer the question for us?" A long division problem was written out on the board behind her.

"Uh..." Jade began nervously. "That question, or the one before it?"

"The question you would have heard if you'd been paying attention," Mrs. Hartman replied, glaring around at each of the four. Unlike previous teachers Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo had been taught by, the pendants made Mrs. Hartman see them as just her students...and as such, she pushed them as hard as they could be pushed to excel. As a result, they couldn't coast as they had been anymore. Sweetie Belle was the only one happy about this, as it gave her motivation to excel again, which had been lacking before.

Unfortunately, long division was an area Sweetie Belle struggled with...mostly because she could do those computations in her head too quickly to figure out how to show work. As such, none of them were able to answer the question in an acceptable amount of time.

"Perhaps you four need an extra credit group assignment," Mrs. Hartman suggested firmly.

A grin slowly spread across Jade's face. "Dibs on the topic?" she suggested, leading to matching grins on the fillies' faces.


Jackie was startled out of his examination of Aesop's shell and the Talisman embedded therein as one of the scientists called out, "Little girls! This area is off limits!"

"Little girls?" Jackie asked, startled. Turning, he caught sight of a cyan cloud and sighed. "Did you get your homework done?" he grumbled out.

"Doing homework!" Sweetie Belle piped up. "Extra credit group project on Aesop!"

"Did Uncle approve this outing?" Jackie demanded.

"Yup!" Apple Bloom confirmed.

Jackie sighed, knowing there was no way to win this argument with Jade if Uncle was approving of it with the fillies. "Jade, stay with the group, and don't run off on your own," he instructed before going back to examining the Talisman as he plotted how to remove it. Despite being told they didn't need to worry about Aesop's shell, he still wanted to be careful...and get the job done before any Dark Hand thugs showed up.

Just as that thought crossed his mind, a wall of the aquarium was blasted open. Jackie quickly positioned himself between the girls and the flying rubble, even though the distance was such that they likely weren't in danger from shrapnel. When the smoke cleared, Tohru, Ratso, Finn, Chao, and someone else they didn't recognize were standing in the hole that had been made.

"Get out of the way!" Jackie immediately ordered the girls, pushing Cumulo out over the water surrounding the little island that Aesop was resting on. "Go! Go!" he shouted at the scientists, though he didn't have to tell them twice as they were already racing out of the room. Jackie quickly struggled to get the Talisman out of the shell with his hands, but before he could manage anything of the sort, Tohru had tossed him aside bodily.

Jackie quickly leapt to his feet, ready to do battle with the Dark Hand agents...only to see the first get sucked up by a mud funnel and hurled against a nearby wall and into the water. Turning, he followed the funnel out to where it was taking shape out of the water. Scootaloo was buzzing her wings rapidly as the three fillies focused all their attention on the funnel, keeping it under control as all three of them poured magical energy into it, Sweetie Belle keeping it contained as Scootaloo shaped it and Apple Bloom kept the dirt from flying around.

"So cool..." Jade murmured as she watched. Turning, she gasped. "Jackie! Tohru!"

Turning, Jackie saw what Jade meant. Having apparently decided that the magical interference had prevented any sort of numerical advantage, Tohru had simply decided to pick up Aesop and take him with them, to figure out separating out the Talisman later. Jackie quickly raced up to stop him, only to get backhanded into the water with the other Dark Hand agents, who promptly moved to keep him from interfering with Tohru.

When the Dark Hand thugs pulled off, Jackie and the girls raced out after them, only to see a sea plane flying off into the distance.

Race Into Danger

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Jackie rubbed at the back of his head as he watched the sea plane zooming off into the sky and sighed. "Great..." he mumbled to himself. "Now what?" Before he could say anymore, a cyan blur followed by a rainbow colored contrail zipped past him. "Wha-?"

"Don't worry Jackie!" Jade called out from atop Cumulo, the three fillies alongside her. "We'll track 'em!"

"We need to finish our report!" Sweetie Belle added.

Jackie groaned as he stared after them. "Bad day..." he groaned out. Turning, he saw Ratso running out of the aquarium with an octopus on his head. "...that can work."


Jade and the others tracked the sea plane to a far dock. Once there, they found a spot where they could spy from to plan their next move. "Okay," Scootaloo began. "We need to find a way to recover the Talisman and Aesop without getting captured ourselves. Any ideas?"

"Charge in and beat the crap out of them?" Jade suggested eagerly, punching the air.

Sweetie Belle gazed at her flatly. "Chao's the smallest of them, and he outweighs the four of us combined. And there's four or five of them, including Tohru."

"Huh," Jade mused, rubbing her chin. "Well, couldn't you do that magic thing you did back at the aquarium?"

"That took all three of us to keep contained," Scootaloo explained. "And that was in a confined area. Even if we managed to get something like that stirred up out here, we couldn't contain it and would likely level a good chunk of San Francisco if we lost control of it." She turned to Apple Bloom. "Don't suppose you could call Audrey?"

"He's too far away, and salt water doesn't agree with him," Apple Bloom explained. "Swoop in and snatch Aesop and the Talisman when they aren't looking?"

"Cumulo's having enough trouble maintaining speed and altitude with just the four of us," Jade pointed out. "How much does a giant tortoise weigh again?"

"About 417 kg, or 919 pounds at the heaviest," Sweetie Belle explained quickly. "Aesop himself only hits 700 pounds, but-"

"And Tohru just hefted him like he was groceries?" Scootaloo squeaked out. "Just how strong is that guy?"

"Too strong," Jade murmured worriedly. "And El Toro and Viper are too far to call in for help, too..."

The four girls put their heads together as they tried to figure out a method of attack. Finally, Apple Bloom spoke up. "Wait for Jackie to find his way here and cover whatever he misses?" she offered.

Jade sighed. "Probably our best bet," she grumbled to herself.

The wait wasn't as dull as it could have been, since Sweetie Belle had a deck of cards on her and they happened to find a metal roof panel they could all sit on while watching the dock to see what happened. It wasn't until after sunset, however, that anything interesting happened. Just as they caught sight of Jackie tailing Ratso to the dock, a ship pulled in and someone stepped off it.

Grinning, Scootaloo pulled a strange device attached to a speaker out of her bags. "Borrowed this from Section 13," she explained as she turned it on. With it on, all four of them could clearly hear the discussion on the dock as the red suited man with a goatee introduced himself as Dr. Carl Nibor, an acquaintance of Valmont's who was, apparently, interested in purchasing Aesop.

As the discussion moved on, a man dressed as a chef stepped off the boat to give Tohru money for Aesop. "Wonder why he wants to buy Aesop-" Apple Bloom's words died as Dr. Nibor's next words came through, speaking of having an 'endangered' 'turtle soup' for dinner. "He's...he's gonna..." Apple Bloom looked ill just contemplating it.

"He's gonna eat Aesop..." Jade murmured, her voice terrified.

"New plan," Scootaloo spoke up. "Our pendants should help hide the three of us from anyone on that ship, and in that confined space we should be able to take care of any single person we come across. We let them take Aesop onto the ship and sail off, then take over the ship and steer it back to the aquarium, and let Jackie handle getting the Talisman back."

"But...won't he need our help?" Sweetie Belle asked curiously.

"That's the beauty of it," Scootaloo explained. "We let Jackie see Cumulo on our way out, so he knows we aren't there. Without having to worry about us being in immediate danger from the fight, he won't have to hold back...but the Dark Hand thugs will be constantly looking around for us because they'll expect us to be there!"

"Good plan, let's do it!" Jade agreed quickly, now glaring daggers at the back of Nibor's head.

It didn't take long for Nibor's chef to fetch a forklift to get Aesop onto the boat, and the four quickly followed. Down below, Jackie - as they'd expected - prioritized the Talisman, proving well capable of handling the Dark Hand.


As the four reached the ship, they discovered that it was almost empty. "Huh," Sweetie Belle murmured. "Must be completely automated or something."

"Then the only ones on board are going to be Nibor and his chef?" Jade clarified.

"Probably," Scootaloo agreed. "So let's split up. Jade, Apple Bloom, you two see about getting this ship turned around. Sweetie Belle and I will see about making sure Aesop doesn't get cooked in the meantime."

The four nodded and split up for their tasks, Jade and Apple Bloom heading for the bridge, and Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo heading for the kitchen.

At the bridge, Jade and Apple Bloom found their most significant hurdle being that the controls were entirely computerized, and needed a password to access. "Well, so much for that plan," Jade murmured. "Now how are we going to get Aesop back to shore?"

Apple Bloom shrugged her shoulders. "Think he can swim?" she asked hopefully. When she got no answer, she sighed. "Hope Sweetie and Scoot are doing better..."

Unfortunately, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo had encountered their own problems. Aesop proved incredibly difficult to move, and Nibor's chef had proven unexpectedly quick and strong. The pair now found themselves being held by the backs of their necks before Carl Nibor himself...who seemed to be staring at them in an uncomfortably unwholesome manner.

Eventually, he spoke up. "You know, a man of my palate has to be careful. Too many would seek to deceive me with creatures made to look like something endangered in order to cheat me. There's been...unpleasantness over that. Still, it's led me to be exceptionally skilled at gauging the true nature of any creature before me, no matter how it is concealed."

He leaned forward, licking his lips as the pair flinched back. "Which is why I'm certain you'll be shocked when I say...I never thought I'd get the chance to sample unicorn or pegasus." Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo gasped in shock as he licked his lips. "Tonight's feast will be of...mythical proportions."

Molten Wrath

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After successfully managing to retrieve the Rabbit Talisman from Tohru - and discovering its magic of super speed in the process - Jackie knew exactly what he had to do next. Having seen the girls flying out after the boat on Cumulo but not return, he quickly realized he could use the Rabbit Talisman to race across the surface of the ocean, moving fast enough that surface tension provided enough pressure for him to run without sinking. He wasn't entirely certain how the physics of that worked, especially when magic was involved, but it worked, and that was enough for him.

When he caught up to the boat, he found Jade and Apple Bloom pacing back and forth on the deck looking queasy and terrified. They both let out startled gasps when he zipped up over the side of the boat to stop right in front of them. "Hello!" he greeted warmly.

"Jackie!" they both wailed out, clinging to him, tears in their eyes.

Jackie blinked in surprise, but quickly knelt down to pat them on their backs. "It's alright," he said reassuringly. "I'm here, and I got the Talisman. Now we can save the tortoise." He glanced around curiously, noticing the absences. "Now where's-"

"Forget Aesop!" Apple Bloom wailed out. "That creepy Nibbler guy's gonna eat Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo!"

Jackie felt himself go cold all over as fear settled into his heart. "What? But...why? Why would he eat-"

"We...we saw it on the cameras from the bridge," Jade chocked out between terrified sobs. "He...he somehow knew what they were...and he talked about tasting unicorn and pegasus! A feast of mythical proportions!"

Jackie closed his eyes as he felt something else flow through his veins besides the fear. Unnoticed to him, the white glow of the Rabbit Talisman took on a reddish tinge.

Seeing that, Apple Bloom backed up worriedly. "J...Jackie? What-"

"Stay here," he said firmly, looking Jade and Apple Bloom right in the eyes. "I mean it." The normal kindness and gentleness in his voice was gone, replaced by a hard edge that sent both girls scooting back in surprise. Turning, he zipped off.

As he moved, his mind raced, desperately trying to outrun his magically enhanced feet. He remembered every lesson in martial arts he'd gotten from Uncle, every lesson in discipline about controlling his temper, how dangerous it was - to him and others - to lose control. He heard Uncle's frequent remonstrances from when he was younger.

"Aiyah! Jackie, martial arts is not about power," Uncle insisted. "Turn body into secret weapon, yes, but not one to be used willy-nilly! You must be cautious and controlled. One more thing! That temper of yours will destroy you if you let it! You are like volcano, always about to erupt! Be dormant! The earth shake is more controlled than the eruption, and does not harm the mountain's peak."

Jackie knew how true the words were. The anger and bitterness that had built up in his life from how hard he had to work to overcome the cards he'd been dealt - he tried not to think of the reason why it was Uncle who had all but raised him - was always seething just beneath his gentleness, his kindness. He knew exactly how easily he could go from being a calm, controlled, good influence for Jade and the others to being a true monster.

But when he reached the kitchen of the ship, what he saw blasted all thoughts of self control out of his mind. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were bound and gagged on the counter, a cork stuck on Sweetie's horn, terror in both their eyes as the chef raised the cleaver.

The cold fear, the cool calm, and any trace of self control was erased by the eruption of pure molten wrath. The chef didn't even know what hit him when a clenched fist slammed into his solar plexus at somewhere above 200 miles an hour, knocking the wind out of him and audibly cracking the base of his sternum. The only reason Jackie's fist didn't go completely through the man was because Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were both watching, and enough of Jackie's rational self was still in control to not want them to see him commit murder. The impact was still enough to send the chef flying back through the kitchen. Before he reached the opposite wall, Jackie was behind him, having untied the fillies and catching the chef by his neck and squeezing, his eyes burning as he glowered into the man's terrified gaze.

"Where's. Your. Boss?"


Dr. Carl Nibor was startled out of his calm reverie of classical music as a foot slammed at high speed into his gut, striking hard enough to shatter the antique wooden chair beneath him and send him flying back into the grill in front of the fireplace. "W-what-?"

Lunging forward, Jackie grabbed Carl by his throat and slammed him against the wall, his eyes boring into him. "The only reason your chef is still alive is because my nieces, the ones he was going to cook for you to eat, were watching," he growled out. "Nobody is watching now. A call has already gone out to my friend, Captain Black, to bring government agents to bring you in. If by the time he's here I tell him my only way of keeping my nieces safe was to kill you, he'll sweep the whole thing under the rug...no matter what condition your body's in by the time he gets here, as long as you're already dead."

For all his suave, debonair behavior before, it seemed Carl Nibor had all the courage of a gerbil. "Please, no!" he cried out, desperately cowering behind his arms. "I'll do anything, just don't hurt me!"

Jackie stared down at the one who had put such fear into his nieces that the four were now cuddled under Aesop clinging to each other for comfort. It would be so easy. Just one strike, and he'd pay for everything he'd ever done. Just kick the grate aside and plunge him into the fire, and he'd suffer as he deserved to suffer, as he would have made them suffer. It would be so easy...

Too easy...

"When Captain Black gets here, you are going to tell him everything," Jackie growled out. "Everything you've ever done that could even remotely be considered illegal. And you'd best hope it's enough to get you life in a maximum security prison." He leaned in close, close enough that even with human nostrils he could smell the man's fear. "Because if I ever come across you again..."

Carl's eyes rolled up into his head as he slumped into terrified unconsciousness.

Jackie stared down at the man for a time, then let him drop limply from his grip. Desperately, he struggled do draw in calming breaths, to reign in his anger. So close...he'd come so close to crossing that line...he'd wanted to cross it, just to make him suffer...

Staggering into the next room, he curled up in the corner and wept silently. And that's exactly where Captain Black found him half an hour later when the team arrived to take Dr. Carl Nibor into custody and bring the rest - including Aesop - safely home.

After the Blast

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As Captain Black walked Jackie onto the chopper off the boat, he saw the four girls looking up at Jackie worriedly. "He's going to be okay, girls," he promised them. "He's just a little shaken up, is all."

"W...what happened to him?" Jade asked worriedly.

Noticing Jackie was still insensate, he beckoned the girls onto the chopper with him. Sitting down, he faced the girls, choosing his words carefully as far as how to explain this without breaching confidences or terrifying the girls. Finally, as the choppers left the boat behind, he settled on the proper approach. "You've heard that Jackie and I have been friends for years, right?" When he received four nods in response, he continued speaking. "Well...this isn't the first time I've seen Jackie like this...and I have seen what puts him in such a state. Though...I'm not certain what caused it this time-"

"Carl was going to eat Scootaloo and I," Sweetie Belle whimpered softly.

Captain Black felt his fists clench on their own. As troublesome as the girls could be, he'd grown fond of them as well, and could easily understand Jackie's reaction now. "I'm glad he and his chef are locked up on the other chopper, then," he murmured, knowing just how hard it would be in this moment to resist the temptation to push Carl - chained up - into the shark infested waters they were currently flying over. "Anyway, Jackie's...had a rough life," Captain Black explained. "The reason he stresses the discipline aspect of the martial arts so much is because its the part he needs the most." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he mentally looked over his next words. "He told me once that he saw what his rage could push him to, when he was younger, before he started his training. He's been afraid of his anger ever since, though he wouldn't put it that way."

Though I'd certainly put it that way, he added silently as he remembered the incident he wasn't talking about. Back when he'd last encountered Jackie years ago when he was working for Interpol, Jackie had stumbled across the object of Captain Black's investigation at just the wrong time and been exposed to a little more of the criminal world than was truly healthy for his psyche. Augustus had managed to clean all the blood off Jackie before anyone else had arrived, and had fudged a few reports as far as exactly why the members of that particular ring had to be put in an ICU prison rather than a standard maximum security. He also remembered, after they learned exactly what had caused Jackie's rage, how difficult it had been for him to overrule the local law enforcement agents desire to 'let them lie there', though he'd done that for Jackie's sake. ...the little girl had kept her eyes closed through the whole thing, so she was probably just fine now.

Coming back to the present, Augustus turned to the four girls. "Unfortunately for Jackie, he's learned to control his rage, but he's never learned healthy ways to let it out. Unless it truly overwhelms him, he's in complete control of himself...but when it does..." He shook his head ruefully. "He is truly a gentle soul...but that's because he's afraid of what he could become if he stopped being gentle."

"I know what you mean," Scootaloo spoke up. "When he caught up to the chef who was about to swing the cleaver, he took him out with just one punch to the gut. For a moment, it looked like it was going to go right through! Would have been pretty awesome if I hadn't been terrified just then..."

"Yeah, I'd believe that," Captain Black admitted. "That's pretty much Jackie in a nutshell, actually. Awesome on the battlefield...right up to the point he becomes terrifying." He looked over at Jackie. "But when his rage does break free, it burns him out, eats him up inside. He's left...empty and broken."

As they were talking, Aesop had been watching them, idly chewing a carrot. As he swallowed his mouthful, he ignored the agent offering him another and turned towards Jackie, walking slowly over to him and nudging him with his head. Jackie blinked, and looked into the tortoise's eyes. As it locked gazes, it slowly took a breath. Without seeming to think about it, Jackie matched his breathing to Aesop's. As the others watched, they remained like that, staring at each other and breathing together. After a time, Aesop seemed to smile, and laid his head in Jackie's lap. Jackie managed a soft chuckle, and stroked the dark green head. "Good tortoise..." he mumbled softly.

As the girls rushed to Jackie's side to cling to him, Captain Black let out a sigh of relief. At least he could count on the fact that Jackie would recover fully this time around. He had too many people in his life who wouldn't let him mope for that not to happen.


Shendu slowly pulled his gaze away from the Shadow Khan that had been watching the events on the boat. Initially, Shendu had meant to send a whole squad there to retrieve the Talisman, but then he'd felt the energy from the stone, the power of rage that shook him from its sheer ferocity. Shendu had lived a long time, and there was one type of warrior he always stepped carefully around: the berserker.

As such, he'd instead sent only one Shadow Khan to watch, to see who was causing the Talisman to respond that way. Through that ninja's eyes, he'd seen Jackie's rage unleashed, seen what he was capable of if he stopped holding back...and saw just how much he was still holding back.

Drawing back into himself, he noticed Valmont was still waiting. Shendu had been in the middle of giving him a firm dressing down over letting the Talisman slip from their grasp due to his agents' little 'side trip'. When he'd felt the rage through the Talisman, he'd paused, and Valmont was still staring.

"...perhaps in this case, the outcome was inevitable," Shendu finally admitted in his hissing voice. "We appear to have drastically underestimated Jackie Chan, and what he and his clan are capable of. You will be more watchful of this in the future."

"O-of course, Shendu," Valmont promised, still a little freaked out from nearly getting a new haircut, fricassee style.

"And for future reference, you can consider that 'associate' of yours unavailable," Shendu continued. "It appears he pushed Chan a little too far."

Valmont looked startled. "Really? I didn't think Chan had it in him to go that far."

"Rest assured," Shendu confirmed, "he most certainly does." Just because Chan hadn't done so in this case made it no less true that it was well within him to cross that line without hesitation if the situation demanded it. That was not something one wanted to discover in an opponent to one's own detriment. Perhaps this outcome was for the best. They now knew more of Chan's true nature...and the loss of the Talisman was only temporary.

Shendu could be patient, all appearances to the contrary. He'd outwaited his siblings upon this world, to claim his own kingdom. He could continue to wait. The way to retrieve the Talismans from those who protected them would reveal itself soon enough.

And in the meantime, those Talismans they could not claim were all in one place, wherever that was. Once all 12 were gathered, opportunity would present itself.

Time On Our Side

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"Are you sure I should go, Uncle Jackie?" Jade asked worriedly as she turned back towards him before leaving their rooms in Section 13. "I don't mind skipping a day if you're still upset."

"Jade, that's the fifth time you've asked me that," Jackie groaned, shaking his head to hide his smile. "Trust me, I will be fine. You get to school. You need your education."

"Apple Bloom's staying," Jade pointed out logically.

"Apple Bloom has a stuffed up nose, and every sneeze causes her magic to go haywire," Jackie countered. As he spoke, a loud sneeze echoed through Section 13, followed by an explosion from the greenhouse. "Do you really want to see what that would do to the school?" Noticing Jade's mischievous smirk, he spoke up, "Don't answer that."

Jade managed a giggle. "Would be fun to see, but you're right that it wouldn't be good for Apple Bloom. Besides, what if she's got some sort of magic-powered germ that will infect humans and turn them into magic powered zombies?" Her eyes lit up in excitement as her imagination ran away with her. "Oh, that would be so cool! Dangerous, but cool!"

"Apple Bloom has been sick before," Jackie pointed out. "Each of them has. They tend to recover quickly."

"Aww!" Jade pouted. "And here I was hoping maybe the magic germs would give me super powers!" Jackie only rolled his eyes. "So...you're sure I should-"

"For the last time, Jade, yes!" Jackie insisted. "Go to school. Study. I'll be fine here. Captain Black and I are going to take some time to talk about things from a long time ago. That will help too."

"Alright," Jade agreed finally. Glancing around, she grabbed her book bag and lunch box, making sure she had everything. She then glanced at the clock. "Oh no! I'm going to be late!" She started towards the table where the small box the Rabbit Talisman was sitting in, only to pause, then retract her hand.

"Jade?" Jackie asked curiously.

"I was thinking of using the Rabbit Talisman to get to school on time," Jade began contritely, "but...that wouldn't be a very disciplined use of magic, would it? Besides, what if the Dark Hand were out there with that thing they use to detect Talismans?"

Jackie smiled widely. "Very good, Jade," Jackie praised, reaching out to muss her hair affectionately, even if it did simply fall back into her preferred style. "You are quite right that you shouldn't use the Talisman so recklessly like that. I'm proud of you."

Jade grinned happily, pleased that her following the lesson she took from the previous day had cheered Jackie up. "Still going to be late, though," she murmured softly.

Jackie chuckled. "How about I write you a note saying you stayed back to take care of Apple Bloom? I'm sure Mrs. Hartman will excuse that."

Jade shrugged her shoulders helplessly. "Doubt it, but thanks anyway-"

At that moment, the green column of light in the corner of the room flared, and Scootaloo stepped out. "Hey, Jade! Need a lift to school?"

Jade grinned widely. "Oh yeah! Forgot you had a cloud ride that can break the sound barrier!" She waved happily as she raced into the column of light. "See you after school, Jackie!" With that shout, the pair vanished in light.

Jackie chuckled to himself, shaking his head as he made his way out of the little apartment. Stepping back out into the main area of Section 13, he began to stroll around, taking the time to look at everything for once. The walls were still plain metal, and the people were still the same, but he'd never really taken the time to see it before...as much for his own sense of reality as out of any rush. If he took in too much here, he was afraid he'd start wondering if he was still just an archaeologist, or if he'd really become a secret agent. That was the last thing he wanted to actually happen, but at this point the change over felt inevitable...and beyond that, he couldn't deny that part of him enjoyed the race against the 'bad guys' to the artifacts, in the same way part of him had always enjoyed dealing with booby traps. The thrill of it wasn't something he'd ever escape enjoying, no matter how much he disliked the part of him that actively sought out those thrills.

He let out a thoughtful sigh as he finally made it to where Captain Black was waiting for him, two cups of coffee and two rice bowls on the table. "Hello, Augustus," Jackie greeted as he took a seat.

"Hey Jackie," Augustus replied, taking a sip of his own coffee as he glanced through some papers. "Glad to see you doing better. You've gotten better at recovering from these episodes."

Jackie shrugged his shoulders. "I am not entirely certain that is a good thing," he countered as he picked up his chopsticks. "Then again, I have more people in my life wanting me to be better. That could explain it."

"It probably does," Augustus agreed. "Your nieces are determined young ladies, and frighteningly resourceful."

Jackie chuckled softly. "Don't remind me..." He began eating the prepared food. "You've gotten better at making these," he pointed out happily.

"Thanks," Augustus replied as he picked up a fork to eat. "Why so great a sigh earlier, Jackie?"

Jackie shook his head. "I'm just...unsure of where my life is going now. All this...given a choice, I'd avoid it like the plague...and yet part of me revels in it." He looked thoughtfully at an old scar on his arm. "I remember what it was like when I listened to that part more..." His voice trailed off as he stared at the scar.

"Something bothering you, Jackie?" Augustus asked.

"You ever get the feeling something was supposed to happen, but didn't?" Jackie asked cautiously.

"All the time in this job," Augustus answered readily. "You get lots of weird feelings like that when you work unofficial law enforcement. The problem is sorting out which actually mean something, which are paranoia, and knowing you can't really do anything about it either way."

"How do you deal with it?" Jackie asked, hoping for some help to deal with his own issues.

"I just accept that my life is going to be weird," Augustus explained.

At that moment, Audrey III began to dance his way across the doorway, swinging his roots up as he waved a top hat and cane, towing a highly amused Apple Bloom behind him in a little wagon, wrapped in a blanket and sipping from a thermos of soup as her nose almost glowed red from stuffiness. As usual, Audrey was singing.

"Hello my baby
Hello my honey
Hello my ragtime gal..."

"Meeting your nieces has made that much easier," Augustus observed idly as he flipped a piece of chicken at the plant before digging into his rice.

Counting Sheep

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Uncle shook his head in amusement as he watched Jade and the fillies bouncing around the shop excitedly. Jackie was going to get back today, and Jade had managed to get Jackie to promise to take the four of them to Mooseworld as soon as he got back. "I do not understand your fascination with these roller coasters," Uncle offered thoughtfully. "Why insist on rides that do not agree with Uncle's digestion when you can have better rides on Cumulo? Roller coasters limited by gravity, cannot break sound barrier."

"Theme parks aren't just about the extreme rides, Uncle," Scootaloo pointed out. "There's a bunch of other stuff there, too! Like the food-"

"One more thing bad for Uncle's digestion," Uncle murmured softly.

"-the games, the prizes..." Scootaloo continued, seemingly not having noticed Uncle's interjection.

"It's about the experience," Sweetie Belle explained. "All of us going out to do something special as a family where we all have fun together. It's about making memories."

Uncle smiled softly. "Has been a long time since Uncle could enjoy such things. I am sorry I was old by the time you three were ready for such things."

"And that's why ah'm still lookin' for a spell ta turn you into a teenager," Apple Bloom spoke up happily.

"AIYAH!" Uncle shouted out in surprise, leaping to his feet. "Do you have any idea how dangerous messing with age spells can be?"

"Of course I do!" Apple Bloom responded. "The fact ya ain't done it yerself tells me that! That's why ah'm gonna make sure I know everything about the spell and everything that could go wrong before testing it out. Do ah look like Jade to you?"

"Hey!" Jade snapped out angrily as she stopped bouncing. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You...do have a tendency towards recklessness," Sweetie Belle pointed out.

"Especially when it comes to magic," Scootaloo added.

"Yer almost as bad as Scoots!" Apple Bloom piped up playfully.

"Why you!" Scootaloo barked out as she lunged for her, the pair of ponies tussling on the floor, being careful not to knock anything over. Jade, meanwhile, crossed her arms and grumbled under her breath.

"Aiyah..." Uncle groaned softly. "Uncle needs-"

"Here you go!" Sweetie piped up happily as she levitated a hot, full cup of tea over to him.

"...to be less predictable," Uncle chuckled softly, taking the cup. "Thank you."

At that moment the door opened and Jackie stepped in, bags hanging limply from his shoulders and eyelids drooping, slumped over like he was barely staying upright.

"Jackie!" all four young girls shouted out, rushing forward to hug him.

"Hello..." Jackie murmured, patting heads as he stumbled forward.

"We're going to Mooseworld!" Jade squealed out happily.

"Have fun," Jackie murmured as he let out a yawn. "I am going home to sleep..."

Jade pulled back in surprise. "What? But...Mooseworld!"

"You said you'd take us!" Scootaloo whined.

"Please!" all four girls begged, giving their most adorable pleading expressions, eyes wide and hands - or hooves - clasped together under chins with winsome smiles.

Jackie smiled absently and took another step into the shop as he let his bags sink to the floor. The girls stepped back in surprise, having been certain the concerted cuteness assault would have broken through his tiredness. "Wow," Sweetie Belle murmured softly. "He must be really tired..."

"Jackie!" Uncle called out warmly.

"Uncle!" Jackie responded tiredly, spreading his arms for a hug.

"What did you bring me?" Uncle asked, bending towards Jackie's bags.

Sighing, Jackie fished a small stone out of his pocket. "The Sheep Talisman," he mumbled, showing the carving of the sheep on the front and other runic symbols on the back.

"Good!" Uncle proclaimed happily as he took the Talisman. "Then we must do research!"

Jackie stumbled blindly after Uncle as the older man towed him towards the back room, but Apple Bloom quickly inserted herself between Uncle and the door. "Uncle, Jackie's dead on his feet!" she pointed out. "Ah don't think he's gonna be able to stay awake to research the Talisman. Ah mean, it's a sheep!"

"But Uncle needs capable assistance to research Talisman!" Uncle pointed out.

"Scoots and I can take care of that!" Apple Bloom pointed out. "Scoot can grab books off the high shelves, and I can grab 'em off the low shelves. The wood of the shop's floor has adapted ta my magic so it doesn't try to sprout with every step."

Uncle frowned thoughtfully. "That is true. You are both good with research. One more thing, Jackie must mind store-"

"Jade and I can do that!" Sweetie Belle offered. "I can even use my magic to sweep!"

"One more thing!" Uncle insisted. "Jackie sleepwalks! Who will keep him from breaking many antiques when that happens?"

"Ah'll tell Audrey ta keep him in bed!" Apple Bloom insisted.

Uncle thought about that for a time, then nodded. "Very well. Is good plan. For now, time to copy inscriptions from back of Talisman for research. Then we must prepare magic box that will keep Talisman from perception of Dark Forces."

"I know how to do that!" Apple Bloom squealed happily, racing to the lab as Jackie stumbled off to sleep, Audrey at his side.

It wasn't long before Sweetie Belle was engrossed in tending the shop, Jackie in his dreams, and Uncle, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo in their research. As such, no one noticed Jade slipping the Talisman out of the box and sneaking upstairs.

"I'll show them who's reckless," she muttered to herself. "I'll find out what the Talisman does before any of them!" She frowned somewhat nervously. "Just...hope this isn't the exploding head talisman..."

Demon-strations of Affection

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After working in the back room with Uncle for a time, Apple Bloom paused. "Jade's being pretty quiet up there," she pointed out idly.

"Well, Jackie is sleeping in the next room over," Scootaloo pointed out. "Maybe she's being considerate of him?"

"If that were the case, she'da come down by now," Apple Bloom countered. "None of us are all that good at sittin' still."

"Sweetie Belle is," Scootaloo corrected, "but I see your point. Maybe she's taking a nap of her own?"

Apple Bloom nodded. "That could be it," she admitted. "Still...I'm gonna go check on them."

"One more thing!" Uncle called out. "If Jade not busy, tell her to make refreshments!"

Apple Bloom grinned. "Will do, Uncle!" With that, she turned and headed up the stairs.

Apple Bloom smiled as she saw the runes Uncle had inscribed into the wooden stairwell. While the sheer amount of magic in the back room from everything they'd done together and the books themselves meant that it was safe for her to walk on those boards rather than riding on Audrey, this wasn't the case in the rest of the shop. Uncle, however, had taken steps as soon as Apple Bloom's magic had started causing anything made of plant matter around her to sprout. The runes on anything made of wood kept them from bursting into bloom, letting Apple Bloom walk across them safely as they repelled her magic rather than absorbing it.

Once upstairs, Apple Bloom saw that Jade was on her back on a couch, sleeping peacefully. She chuckled at that, and decided to leave Jade to her nap as she moved to the door and stepped into the next room.

Once in there, she found Jackie and Audrey sitting at a table in the corner, sipping tea while wearing pointed 'princess' hats. The rest of the room looked like it had been trashed. Apple Bloom's eyes went wide, and she opened her mouth wide.

Audrey quickly lifted a vine to his lips, and pointed to Jackie...who was still asleep.

Apple Bloom quickly shut her mouth as she tip-hoofed over to Audrey's side. "What the hay happened here?" she demanded in a whisper. "When ah left here, ya had Jackie tied down to his futon with yer vines so he wouldn't thrash about and sleep walk!"

"Everybody was kung fu fighting," Audrey sung back in a whisper, pointing at Jackie with one vine, and then at the damage to the room.

"He...sleep fought?" Apple Bloom gasped in surprise. "Then...how'd ya get him under control?"

"Trust~ in me, just~ in me," Audrey sang soothingly, wiggling vines.

"...suggestions?" Audrey nodded in confirmation. "...well, as long as he's getting some rest..." With that said, she turned to go back to the other room.

As she entered, she was surprised to see Jade sitting up awake. "Oh, hey Jade!" she greeted warmly. "Didja have a nice nap?"

"Of course, dear...cousin," Jade replied, her voice sweet and kind.

Jackie or Uncle might have thought this an odd but welcome change to the responsible, but Apple Bloom knew better. Hearing Jade talking like that left her feeling queasy...aside from the fact that she could swear she could also hear Jade screaming at her about something she couldn't quite make out. "Jade, are you alright?" she asked worriedly. "Ya...don't sound like yerself."

Jade seemed to flinch. "It's nothing to worry about," she offered quickly. "Just a little...disoriented." Her eyes seemed to light up. "It was probably taking a nap here, instead of back in our bed at Section 13. Do you think dear Uncle Jackie would be up to taking me there?"

"Jade...yer really freakin' me out," Apple Bloom said as she stepped forward, hopping up onto the couch. "Are ya sure yer alright-" She put her hoof to Jade's forehead...and both of them pulled back with a hiss of pain. Apple Bloom's eyes went wide at that burning sensation in her hoof. Seeing no actual burn on her hoof, she backed away swiftly, standing between Jade and the stairs. "Demon!" she screamed out at the top of her lungs. "Demon!"

A snarl appeared on Jade's face, and she turned to lunge for the window.

"Order 66!" Apple Bloom shouted into the other room. "Order 66!"

As Jade's body leapt out the window, Audrey's vines shot out of the other room and wrapped around her. An unhuman scream of pain erupted from Jade's mouth as her body was dragged back into the room.

"Apple Bloom!" Uncle shouted as he rushed up the stairs. "What is going on?"

"Jade's been possessed by a demon!" Apple Bloom shouted out. "When I touched her, it burned but my hoof didn't get marked!"

"Aiyah!" Uncle shouted out in surprise. "But only way demon could possess Jade is if Jade's spirit isn't in her body!"

"Uncle!" Jackie cried out as he stepped out of the other room. "What's all the racket?"

"Jade's possessed by a demon!" Apple Bloom called out again.

"Then...that wasn't a dream?" Jackie asked, confused.

"Dream?" Uncle asked incisively.

"Jade showed up in my dream," Jackie explained. "She said she used the Sheep Talisman, and found herself out of her body. But when she came back, the Talisman was gone and some evil spirit had taken her body and was hurting Apple Bloom. Then all this noise woke me up."

"Aiyah!" Uncle cried out. "Sheep Talisman must have magic of Astral Projection!"

"And the Dark Hand must have stolen the Talisman from her when she wasn't in her body without us noticing!" Scootaloo deduced in shock. "Sweetie, how come you didn't notice them sneaking in?"

"It was only a two minute potty break!" Sweetie Belle wailed out, blushing. "But how do we get Jade back in her own body?"

"Patience," Uncle insisted. "Uncle will take care of this. Astral Projections can only interact with dreamers, empty vessels, or the auras of those with incredibly high innate magic."

"Is that why I heard Jade shoutin' at me?" Apple Bloom asked curiously.

Uncle nodded. "One more thing! If demon has possessed Jade's empty body, only three ways to banish demon! First, kill Jade's body."

"What?" everyone else screamed in shock.

"Second, perform exorcism spell that will banish demon," Uncle continued.

"Do we have time for that?" Jackie asked worriedly, turning to where Audrey still held Jade's body up...who had gone limp.

Uncle smiled. "Three, expose demon spirit to enough stable Good Chi Magic - like Audrey's vines - to damage its spirit body enough that it can no longer maintain its projection, and will be unable to project again until it heals."

At that moment, Jade stirred. "Oh...that was not pleasant..." She noticed the stares being directed her way. "...I'm grounded, aren't I?"


Shendu stared at the vicious burn scars crisscrossing his Astral Form as he fled back to his stone prison. This was unbearable! If he didn't return to his stone body immediately, he ran the risk of full discorporation. If he did, he wouldn't be able to leave his body until his spirit healed, which wouldn't happen until either he possessed the Horse Talisman, or a body of flesh and blood again. And he didn't have the energy to take another empty vessel to heal in!

As he resettled in his stone body, once more unable to leave it, he promptly began spouting curses in various dead languages that hadn't been dead the last time he'd had a flesh and blood body. Valmont and his men were wise enough to not interrupt.

Proper Strength

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"...and that's when Valmont's men escaped with the Talisman," Jackie apologized, brushing the soot from his half scorched off clothes as he walked carefully along the metal floors of Section 13. While the cool metal was comfortable to his slightly burned soles when flat, there were too many floor grates for a truly comfortable walk.

"And you didn't follow or bug them?" Captain Black demanded insistently. "It could have led us to Valmont himself!"

"They had a helicopter!" Jackie countered defensively. "Does it look like I have wings? And all of Audrey's thorns got toasted, as I nearly did!" He lifted his foot to show how little of his shoe and sock was left.

Captain Black sighed ruefully. "Sorry Jackie. Valmont's men have escaped our grasp that closely too many times for my comfort or pleasure. With how skilled you are, it's easy to forget you're not a professional field agent."

"I've noticed," Jackie observed dryly, making Captain Black wince. "But that's not important. The Dark Hand has the Dragon Talisman now, and if they discover what magic it has..." His voice trailed off as he noticed Captain Black's eyes turn skeptical and judgmental. Jackie frowned irritably, remembering how determined Captain Black was to not accept the idea of magic. He decided to make an attempt to find some other explanation his friend could accept. "Captain...could you accept the idea that ancient civilizations had developed scientific ways of doing things that we are unable to fully understand now due to the loss of records?"

"Easily," Captain Black responded immediately. "Kepler has seven of those things he's actively researching between his new inventions. But the Talismans are much too small to be anything like that. Even a communications device - modern or ancient - is bigger than that."

Jackie groaned as his hand met his face. So much for that idea, he thought to himself.

"Jackie!" Jade called out. Recognizing her excited voice, Jackie turned and caught her as she leapt up to wrap her arms around his neck and slip her legs under his arms as he returned the embrace. Not far behind her, Uncle, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo followed along, the three fillies watching with amusement while Uncle looked grumpy. Jade quickly pulled back from the hug as Jackie held her up. "I missed you so much! You look like you had a rough day. Can I get you a cup of tea? Maybe some cookies?" As she dropped down, she noticed the state of his footwear. "...new shoes?"

Jackie gave her a suspicious look. "Jade," he began softly, "I would love to believe this is a sign of your growing maturity and the consideration you showed after we retrieved the Rabbit Talisman...but the fact that your cousins are so amused at your antics rather than pleased tells me that you're buttering me up for something. What is it?"

Jade gave the fillies a dirty look, making the trio giggle. "Traitors," she grumbled.

"Jade is in trouble at school," Uncle spoke up. "Cup of tea sounds good, thank you."

To Jackie's surprise, Jade rushed off to make tea. He found himself feeling a bit guilty. Just because she was trying to butter him up didn't mean she wasn't also trying to be genuinely considerate. He made a mental note to give her a bit more benefit of the doubt in the future.

"One more thing!" Uncle called out, turning to Captain Black. "Your place is too big! I have to walk very far to find a bathroom!"

"We gave you a room with an attached bathroom," Captain Black pointed out.

"And I have three girls!" Uncle pointed out logically, gesturing to the fillies. Captain Black groaned out at the logic of that, nodding rueful assent.

"Wait..." Jackie began in confusion. "Uncle, why are you and the girls here?"

"The landlord made us leave the shop for three days," Scootaloo offered quickly.

"Apparently, it needs to be sprayed for bugs," Sweetie explained.

"Pfeh!" Uncle snapped irritably. "This is how Uncle sprays for bugs!" He stomped the floor with his booted foot.

"Why didn't Audrey eat the bugs?" Jackie asked curiously. Audrey promptly made a very realistic vomit sound, despite the total absence of the digestive tract aspects required for such things. "...never mind..."

Captain Black rolled his eyes as he took it all in. "A real family affair here at Section 13," he mumbled to himself. "Hope my superiors never hear about this..."

As Jade came back with tea and cookies for everyone, Jackie knelt down beside her. "Jade, what kind of trouble are you in at school, exactly?"

"Mrs. Hartman wants you to come to a Parent-Teacher Conference," Jade explained, handing over the note.

As Jackie took the note, an agent approached Captain Black. "Sir, the US Mint's under siege."

"Patch me into their surveillance!" Captain Black snapped back immediately.

The group followed to the screens, where Valmont and his men could be seen marching into the Mint, somehow blasting their way in.

"Valmont," Captain Black growled out. "Mobilize!" he ordered his agents. As he saw Jackie starting to move, Captain Black stopped him. "As you've reminded me today, you're not a field agent," he pointed out softly. "Take care of your niece." With that, he rushed off.

Nodding, Jackie knelt beside Jade. "Now...why exactly does Mrs. Hartman want to speak with me?"

Jade chuckled nervously.

Proper Discipline

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Jackie, Uncle, Jade, and the fillies sat across Mrs. Hartman's desk. The teacher had raised an eyebrow at the other girls being there for Jade's Parent-Teacher Conference, but the information that Jackie and Uncle had no one to watch them while they were both there smoothed it over. Mrs. Hartman instead went to the meat of the issue. "Mr. Chan, this is not the first time we've had a problem with Jade," she explained as the girl in question hunched in on herself. "Swinging from gym lamps, stilt walking with ladders, scaling the building with a fire hose..." She looked up from reading the material.

"Just like Jackie!" Uncle offered happily. "He reminds me of a chimpanzee!" He winced as he received an elbow to the gut from Sweetie Belle, who sat in his lap now that she was too big to sit on Uncle's head for Uncle's older spine. "What?"

"Uncle Jackie has studied parkour extensively," Scootaloo offered. "He's taught all of us some of the basics, too."

"I see," Mrs. Hartman offered, surprised and impressed. "Still, there's the issue of her fighting. I don't know where she learned it-"

"From Jackie!" Uncle piped up again. "He is good instructor!"

"Uncle!" Jackie snapped out warningly, only for Uncle to smile impishly. He then turned back to the teacher. "Mrs. Hartman, the martial arts I've taught Jade and the others are for self defense and discipline." He glanced over at Jade. "Not for picking fights."

"I didn't pick a fight!" Jade complained. "I was just standing up for everyone! Meynard is such a bully-"

"Jade!" Jackie scolded, making her fall silent. "Meynard?" he asked Mrs. Hartman.

"An older student," Mrs. Hartman explained. "He's been held back a couple of years for academic issues. He's the one who Jade 'whomped', as per testimony from other students who witnessed it."

"Jade..." Jackie began warningly.

"Ahem!" Sweetie Belle spoke up, holding up a video tape. "If I may?"

"What is that?" Mrs. Hartman asked.

"I've been studying filming as a hobby," Sweetie Belle explained as she walked over to the TV/VCR in the corner of the classroom. "I happened to be filming when Jade and Meynard had their...altercation. I just now finished prepping the tape to play." With that, she stuck the tape into the VCR, turning the TV on.

The video played, showing Meynard having one of the weaker, nerdier students held upside down to shake out his lunch money. Then Jade stepped up behind him.

"Put the kid down, Meynard," Jade spoke out on the TV.

"Or what, shrimp?" Meynard replied as he bent to pick up the fallen change.

On the screen, Jade visibly twitched, but took a breath and let it down. "Step away from the lunch money and no one gets hurt."

"Oh yeah?" Meynard offered disdainfully. "Hey, there's enough here for fish sticks and pie!"

"I'm warning you, I'm trained in martial arts," Jade spoke up, taking a defensive stance.

Meynard laughed as he turned to face Jade. "Then let's see what you got, shrimp!" Stepping up, he put out his hand to push Jade.

Sweetie Belle paused the tape. "For this part, I should play it slowly." She then made it play forward bit by bit, giving everyone time to see everything that happened.

Jade's hands came up, gripping Meynard's wrist and pulling back as she turned into him, the bully falling forward slightly. Her foot slid back, pushing Meynard's foot back to put him even more off balance as she leaned forward, pulling the larger boy over her shoulder to slam onto the ground on his back, completely dazed.

Mrs. Hartman's eyes were wide as the tape continued to play at normal speed, showing Jade taking a calming breath, seeming nearly as stunned as the dazed Meynard. A pleased smirk crossed her face when the other students started cheering...one that faded as Mrs. Hartman arrived. As Sweetie Belle stopped the tape, the teacher spoke up. "What was that?" she asked, stunned.

"A defensive throw I taught her," Jackie explained, "meant to protect her if she should find herself in danger. I've been teaching her that one until it happens automatically, or at least that was the goal." He smiled down at Jade. "It seems I succeeded."

Jade chuckled softly, brushing the lock of hair that always fell across her face behind one ear.

"Do I understand this correctly?" Uncle spoke up. "Meynard picks on other students as a bully. One more thing, Meynard physically assaulted Jade after she stood up for others, and she defended herself. One more thing, Meynard is twice Jade's size!" His voice changed from easy and laid back to suddenly harsh, his eyes opening into a gimlet glare. "And Jade is one in trouble? This makes sense to teacher, no?"

Mrs. Hartman flushed, plainly unhappy being caught in this situation. "Why didn't you mention this at the time, Jade?" she asked.

For her part, Jade sat back in her chair, arms crossed, every inch the jaded child. "Would you have listened?" she asked flatly, coldly. Mrs. Hartman visibly winced.

"I can't blame Jade for this," Jackie spoke up. "She is...highly precocious, but was unable to truly reach her full potential back in Hong Kong. In trying to explore her full abilities, she...got into a great deal of trouble." He gave Mrs. Hartman an understanding look. "You are a teacher. I am sure you well understand the trouble of precocious students who lack appropriate challenge." The teacher nodded understandingly. "Her parents sent her to live with me for a year, hoping I could both help challenge her, and give her schooling here where she would have a clean slate. But I can't blame her for thinking she can't count on school authority in these situations, when she's so used to being seen as the 'problem child'." He rested a hand comfortingly on Jade's shoulder. "I have been there myself."

Mrs. Hartman sighed regretfully. "I'm afraid I can't blame either of you, myself," she admitted. "I want what's best for my students, but for all my good intentions, regulations as far as what I'm allowed to do as far as these situations..."

"Can only act on what ya see fer yerself?" Apple Bloom offered. Mrs. Hartman nodded.

"Hmph!" Uncle grunted. "And I thought schools supposed to get better on these things as time goes on. No better than when Jackie was in school!"

"Except now we've got cameras!" Sweetie Belle spoke up happily.

"And I thank you for that," Mrs. Hartman told Sweetie. "With that evidence, I can now actually address the situation with Meynard directly, and future student testimonials about his behavior can be given more credence." She turned to Jade. "I am sorry I put the blame at your feet right away. It was undeserved."

Jade still looked grumpy about the whole thing, but a look from Jackie made her relax. "Apology accepted," she relented.

"And in the future, do you think you could engage in your emulations of Jackie somewhere other than school?" Mrs. Hartman requested. "In return, I'll see what I can do about giving you a more challenging academic and physical lesson plan, so you don't get bored with school as easily." Noticing the eager looks from the other girls, she nodded. "You three as well."

Jade managed a smile. "I think we can agree to that."

"And from now on, please tell me if you are having problems of this sort," Mrs. Hartman concluded. "I want all my students to excel, and that means addressing any problems they might be having. But I can only address the problems I'm aware of." She offered Jade her hand, and Jade accepted the handshake with a smile.

Uncle nodded happily. Mrs. Hartman was a good teacher, stuck in a bad system. She was tough, but fair. He approved.

At that moment, Jackie's phone rang. Confused, he picked it up. "Hello?" he asked calmly. He then gasped out in shock. "No! ...we'll be right there!" He quickly hung up the phone. "We need to get to the hospital," he said quickly. "It's Augustus!" Everyone quickly got to their feet.

"Go," Mrs. Hartman stated quickly. "Check on your friend. I've got new lesson plans to lay out."

Proper Control

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Uncle, Jade, and the girls waited outside the hospital room while Jackie stepped in to hear from the other agent Captain Black's status. Augustus himself was laid out in the hospital bed, unconscious, bandaged and hooked up to life support, the machines reading his steady if reduced vitals. "The doctors say he's lucky to be alive," the agent spoke up softly, nearly a whisper as though he was trying not to wake the Captain. "Valmont used some sort of advanced explosive device. Powerful stuff."

"The Dragon Talisman," Jackie growled under his breath.

At that moment, a nurse pushed in a trolley with a vase full of 'get well' flowers. "Who sent these?" the agent asked curiously. Seeing a card, he pulled it off the bouquet...only to reveal Valmont's signature.

Before the agent could react, Jackie had let out a cry of pure rage and slammed his arm into the vase. Pausing as he saw this, he immediately left the room. The agent could only stare in shock as, seconds later, the vase split down the middle and crumbled into fragments.

"Jackie..." Uncle warned softly, seeing the beginnings of Jackie losing himself to his rage.

Jackie nodded slowly. "I know...I shouldn't let my rage control me..." He slowly took several calming breaths. "Let's...let's get back to Section 13." Feeling a weight on his head, he glanced up, seeing Apple Bloom perched there, gazing down worriedly at him. Smiling, he reached up and patted her mane. "I'll be okay...oof!"

His loss of breath came as Jade leapt to cling to him from in front, Scootaloo glomped onto his back, and Sweetie clambered up to sit around his neck like a scarf. An extra weight revealed that Audrey had wrapped roots around Jackie's waist to cling to him as well for additional emotional support.

Uncle chuckled as he saw this. "Five more things," he singsonged teasingly, resulting in Audrey blowing him a raspberry.

"I am not a jungle gym..." Jackie grunted out, though without much feeling behind it. The emotional support was welcome.


Back at Section 13, Jackie led Jade and the fillies through a few katas, trying to regain his calm. Unfortunately, that quickly proved to be difficult for him, as several agents stopped in to ask how Captain Black was, as status reports hadn't been forthcoming through proper channels. As each such inquiry led to Jackie losing control of his anger - and the third such one led to Jackie delivering a spinning kick to a bookcase that collapsed moments later - Jade, the girls, and Audrey took turns redirecting conversation away from that. Audrey was only allowed to do so once, however, as his method - while direct - was considered overdoing it. After all, they were just concerned about their boss. That was no reason to grab them by their ankles and dangle them off the third floor walkway that led to Jackie's base apartment.

...admittedly, it was a long time after that last agent before another had come to call about anything.

Jackie eventually decided he wasn't emotionally equipped to instruct in the martial arts at the moment, and so he stepped out to get some air. As he was getting the air, however, an alarm went off, and he rushed over to hear the report.

"A big rig was just blown to bits by a well dressed gentleman on Route 64," the agent at the computer read out. "Outside Corydon, Indiana."

Looking at the map, Jackie made a quick deduction. "Spitting distance from Fort Knox, Kentucky!"

"And the US Gold Reserve!" the agent confirmed. "Mobilize!"

As agents rushed to make it to the scene, Jackie moved to join them. "I'm going too!" he called out, only to be pulled up short by four worried females clutching his shirt.

"Jackie," Jade asked worriedly. "You're an archaeologist, not a field agent, right?"

Jackie smiled down at the four, knowing they were worried about him. "I know. That's why I'm just going to retrieve an artifact, the Dragon Talisman."

As Jackie turned to go, he felt his shirt being tugged again, and found Apple Bloom looking up at him. "Uncle Jackie," she began softly, "you...you taught us that discipline comes from mastering the power within, right?"

Jackie nodded. "Yes, that's right."

"But...you ain't masterin' yer anger..."

Jackie lowered his gaze, unable to meet those worried, adoring eyes. "I..."

"Have you ever used it?" Sweetie Belle piped up.

Jackie turned to her in surprise. "Come again?"

"Your anger," Sweetie explained. "Have you ever used it? Instead of being used by it?"

Jackie once more glanced away.

"Then use it this time," Scootaloo spoke up, catching Jackie off guard. "You're angry. It's okay to be angry. But use it, don't be controlled by it." She fluttered over to him, clutching his shoulder. "Promise?"

Jackie looked her in the eyes, then nodded softly. "I promise." Pulling her and the others into a hug, then set them down before turning to go.

Uncle stepped up behind the group. "Do you think that was enough?" he asked carefully.

"Dunno," Jade replied. "I...feel like we should follow on Cumulo...just in case."


Once the convoy arrived at Fort Knox, Jackie found it relatively simple to slip out and over the outer walls while the agent driver was distracting the MPs guarding the gate. Distressingly easy, he thought to himself as he made use of equipment from the confidence course just inside to conceal his presence and make his way to the top of the building. When Augustus wakes up, I'll suggest he recommend a full security upgrade...not that anything here is light enough to sneak out this way.

Once inside, he saw Valmont overseeing his Dark Hand agents taking away pallets of gold bars with fork lifts, driving through a tunnel that had been blasted upwards through the floor. As Jackie landed silently on the catwalk, he heard Valmont chiding one of them. "Faster Tohru, and lift with your legs." Tohru, for his part, hefted an entire pallet of gold in his arms and walked off with it.

Looking at the pallet, Jackie made a few quick mental calculations. Stacked 12 bars high, 12 across, 2 or 3 deep, hard to tell from this angle...each bar is about 27.5 pounds, so not including the pallet... His eyes popped as he finished the calculations in his head. And Ratso thought I wasn't human for racing up a train falling off a cliff!

Looking straight down from the catwalk, Jackie saw the Dragon Talisman embedded in the flesh of Valmont's hand. As he stood to make his way down, however, Valmont spoke up.

"A shame Captain Black won't be visiting today!" he called out jovially. "I understand he had a doctor's appointment!"

Jackie felt the red covering his vision as the men surrounding Valmont burst into laughter. As he felt himself losing control, he heard Scootaloo's words in his mind.

Your anger is a weapon. Use it.

It felt as though something in his mind simply...relaxed. His gentle, more peaceful nature seemed to withdraw to a corner of his own mind, and he stared down at those below. He did not see humans. He saw enemies, those who had hurt his friends and profited from the misery of others. And he saw opportunity.

Silently, he leapt down from the catwalk. One of them - Ratso, he distantly recalled - let out a startled oath at the sight of him, but it was too late. Jackie landed lightly atop the pallet of gold directly behind Valmont. Even as the crime lord turned towards him, Jackie spun, his foot impacting hard with the man's chin and sending him sprawling. As he spun, his hands shot down, grabbing gold bricks off the pallet he stood on. As the thugs drew weapons, the bricks went flying, striking shoulders, foreheads, and stomachs, sending them sprawling to the floor.

Jackie heard the report of several guns, but he was already flipping backward through the air. As he came down on another pallet, he grabbed two more gold bricks. When he landed, he hurled them at two of those who remained standing, sending them tumbling as well as one brick struck a solar plexus and another struck a man in the crotch.

Ratso proved to be somewhat sensible at this point. "Let's get out of here!" he cried out, grabbing one of the lighter downed thugs over his shoulder and pulling them out. Fin and Chao followed suit, with Tohru loading the remaining into an empty pallet and kicking it down the tunnel while lifting Valmont - still dazed - onto his shoulder. He then backed slowly down the tunnel, eyes on Jackie.

Jackie stood up calmly, staring after Tohru as he backed away. He knew he wouldn't be able to win with Tohru on the defensive. The tunnel was just wide enough for Tohru to walk through on his own, meaning he could easily trap Jackie against the walls, and most of Jackie's best maneuvers against the big man relied on turning his strength against him. But they were getting away...

His eyes caught sight of a Cyan spark leaving a rainbow blur, circling in the distance. He remained where he was until Tohru was out of sight down the tunnel, then left the building.


Valmont shivered in his office as he clutched an ice pack to the back of his head, rubbing his palm with a thumb where the Talisman no longer was on the other hand. The heist at the US Mint had gone off without a hitch, but the Fort Knox job could not have ended worse. First Chan had shown up, moving silent as an assassin and devastated his men. Then when they'd escaped down the tunnel, Section 13 had them cornered backed up by the Coast Guard, their barge having no way to go. Valmont had intended to dragon blast their way out, but apparently the blow to his head meant that channeling the Talisman's magic now caused a massive spike of agony through his head, rendering him all but incapacitated.

He probably should have considered himself lucky that Shendu had sent the Shadow Khan to retrieve them - more the Talisman than them, but still - but after being pulled through shadows back to the office, Valmont - and certainly his men - were reconsidering whether or not they would have preferred prison.

Still, it wasn't a total loss. The Talisman was retrieved, and was now placed in the proper slot on Shendu's stone body. At least Chan didn't take that away from them. "Since when did Chan fight like that...?" Valmont murmured as he mentally went over the injured list. Several of his men would be in the hospital for days, if not weeks, due to injuries from those hurled gold bricks. He especially felt sorry for the poor man with the crushed scrotum.

"I did warn you," Shendu hissed out in response. That was the worst part of this, in Valmont's opinion. Shendu, rather than ranting or raving, had simply let Valmont and the others stew in their agony, content to remain insufferably smug. "Perhaps now you will keep in mind to not underestimate your enemies..."

Valmont chose not to respond. He already had a big enough headache as it was.


Captain Black groaned as he came to, pulling the sensors off his body as he tried to get out of the hospital bed.

"Take it easy, Augustus," Jackie warned, gently pushing his friend back into bed. "The doctors said you can leave in a few days."

Augustus let himself be pushed back, as much because he was still in pain as because he trusted Jackie's word. "Valmont?" he gasped out.

"I'm afraid he got away," Jackie admitted. "Along with the Talisman. However, he did not get away with any of the gold from Fort Knox." He chuckled softly. "Thank the girls for that. And Sweetie's speed dial."

Augustus managed a chuckle. "And you, Jackie?" he asked softly. "I see it in your eyes."

Jackie leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. "I...I used my anger, to fight Valmont and his men. It felt...strange. Liberating, yet...terrifying. I was still me, still in control...but it was like I was someone else, someone much more ruthless..."

Augustus was silent, unsure what to say in response.

"I don't think I'll be doing that again anytime soon," Jackie murmured softly. "It's as I thought. I don't like me when I'm angry."

"I doubt the Dark Hand liked you any better," Augustus offered jokingly.


Jade breathed softly as she went through her katas at school. Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo went through their own beside her in an open space on the playground. True to her word, Mrs. Hartman had found a way to give the four girls an extra challenge in school, while also resolving the bullying situation to try and address the issue of them being 'different'. With the school board's permission, Jade and the others were now offering informal martial arts lessons to their fellow students during morning recess, and anyone who wished could volunteer to take lessons from them for PE extra credit, as well as gaining extra fitness and discipline.

Much to Jade's surprise, the very first volunteer had been Meynard, who was finding his own inner peace through those lessons.

Enforced Relaxation

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Apple Bloom sighed happily as her hooves clip-clopped over marble. She made no secret of the fact that she loved indoor malls, especially when it was a family trip such as this one. While Jackie was off retrieving another Talisman from an auction somewhere - really sounded like more of an agent job than an archaeologist one, but what could they do? - Uncle had taken the four girls on a trip to a local mall, knowing how much they would enjoy it. Each of them had their own reasons for enjoying the mall.

Scootaloo loved the mall because she could fly around on or off Cumulo to get all sorts of places. The ornate halls between stores were among the few interior structures long enough to have enough contained weather patterns for her magic to kick in. Beyond that, she loved the game stores and sport outlets, though she rarely bought anything. Of course, the biggest temptation for her was Build-a-Bear, especially ever since they introduced the panda pattern. They had trouble getting her out of there sometimes, although they once lost track of her for three hours in a Toys-R-Us because she curled up on a display of stuffed animals and fell asleep. They finally found her at the cash register due to her not having a bar code.

Sweetie Belle loved malls because she loved to shop. Didn't matter what sort of outlet she found, she was in there browsing and probably finding something somebody needed, and she was never above splurging to give someone a thoughtful gift 'just because'. While this normally would have been problematic in terms of budget, the trio's contributions to Uncle's antique and magic business had greatly increased his profits, to the point all threes allowances measured in three figures on a monthly basis. They only still lived in the rented apartment above the shop because they liked the place and Uncle hadn't yet managed to talk the landlord around to selling him the building flat out.

Jade loved the mall for all the things she could find there that she simply couldn't find in similar places back in Hong Kong, as well as how much more open they were. Even in the middle of the day, she was able to wander around without worrying about being crushed by a rush of people, and hopping from display to display was more out of a sense of adventure than a necessity to maneuver. Today she was at the toy store, having been given permission from Uncle to buy the 'Turbo Troll' companion toy to her 'Gnomekop' action figure.

Uncle enjoyed this particular mall because of a cafe that was positioned in such a way to give him a great view of the girls favorite spots throughout the mall. Not only were the acoustics such that all four girls could hear him from there if he called out to them, but the cafe served his favorite tea, and their garlic scones were fluffy and flaky enough that they didn't cause issues with his teeth or digestion, and were made with real garlic!

Apple Bloom's love of the mall was harder to define to the others, as she would go from store to store, never buying anything and never staying in one spot for long, with rare exception. The sound of her hooves against the marble, tile, or carpet echoed behind her as she moved, Audrey getting sun back at the antique store. She never hurried, but only rarely tarried either, and tended not to look around all that much.

The truth was rather simple, though. The floors of the mall were all marble, tile, or carpet layered over stone and bedrock. What few planters were around were easily avoided, and the one type of shop this particular mall lacked was a gardening shop. This meant she could walk on her own four hooves anywhere she wanted without having to worry about her magic creating a mess. This was incredibly relaxing for her, and a wonderful way to spend a free day.

The other thing she loved about the malls were the fountains. Not only were they far more complex than similar water features at parks and the like, but they also tended to be bigger and stretched out over an entire hall, giving the sense of an indoor river almost with how the water cycled. Apple Bloom could while away hours just sitting on the marble side of the fountain, watching the flow of water.

Of course, this particular mall had greater enjoyment for her, as it had a jet of water that shot up at regular intervals to shower back down on the largest pool. She always brought a supply of pennies with her when she stopped at this pool, and would attempt to flip the pennies such that they would land on top of the jet, just to see where they would land when launched.

She was very careful not to think of any wishes when doing so, despite a lot of people treating mall fountains like wishing wells. It would be just her luck that she'd be magical enough to trigger any latent wish magic the fountain might have from so many wishes made, just for her wish to go horribly awry due to bad phrasing.

Still, as she tossed her last penny into the fountain, landing just on the jet as it was idle, she thought about how great it would be if Jackie could stay home for a while, instead of having to run off somewhere after another Talisman.

"Girls!" Uncle called out from his seat. "Time to go home!"

Apple Bloom turned to go meet up with the others, not noticing the penny becoming lodged in the jet until pressure built up enough to propel it into the air and embed itself in the ceiling, an emerald green shine briefly flickering over its surface in a reflection of the water.


Jackie sighed with relief as he stepped back into the Section 13 apartment. The Rat Talisman was safely retrieved, and was being researched. He had clean clothes here, so he could change out of those that had become filthy from running down a collapsing building, amongst other things. The girls were all here in a relatively clean place, as the girls had taken to storing their extra toys and the like in large boxes - one for each of them - to meet their responsibilities. He couldn't be more proud of them about that. He smiled widely as he turned towards his desk, ready to finally relax.

"Jackie, watch out!" Scootaloo called out.

"What?" Jackie began, half turning towards her.

And then his foot came down on a plastic panda bear which let out a loud squeak as it partially compressed before shooting out from under his foot, making him lose his balance, sending him tumbling into a pile of boxes, the twist of his body making him land badly on his leg.

Four concerned sets of eyes locked on him as he clutched his leg. "...bad day..." he whimpered softly, not wanting to distress the girls further with how much pain he was actually in.

Enforced Inactivity

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Uncle was doing his best not to laugh at his nephew's misfortune, but he wasn't doing a very good job. Only the girls' worried expressions kept him from truly voicing his amusement. Still, as he stared at Jackie in the hospital bed, his leg in a cast and elevated, he had to say something. "Run down the side of an exploding building, no problem. But step on a child's toy, break your bones!" Though he wanted to laugh, the look of absolute guilt and mortification on Scootaloo's face dampened his amusement. "Sounds like a Chinese proverb," he contented himself with saying.

"I...I'm so sorry, Jackie," Scootaloo whimpered, the panda that had been stepped on clutched tight to her chest. "I never meant for you to..."

"Pfft!" Uncle dismissed her concerns, eager to get her smiling again. "Jackie is young and strong. He will heal quickly!" To prove his point, he gently knocked his knuckles against Jackie's cast. Jackie was sturdy enough to hide his wince.

"It is not your fault, Scootaloo," Jackie reassured her. "I was so focused on how proud I was of you all keeping the place so clean and neat, I did not see the one toy that hadn't been properly put away. Between that and my exhaustion from the trip..." He shrugged his shoulders. "Sometimes, bad things happen even when we do everything right. That doesn't make it anyone's fault." He paused as he heard Apple Bloom sniffle loudly. "Apple Bloom?"

"It's...it's my fault," she whimpered. "At the mall...I think I accidentally wished for ya to be able to stay home with us for a while instead of having to go after another Talisman right away. Stupid fountain pulled a monkey's paw..."

Jackie started to open his mouth to dismiss the idea entirely, only for a glare from Uncle and Audrey to remind him of the last time he dismissed something magical out of hand, the night Jade first arrived. Instead, he took a different approach. "Apple Bloom, if you did make an accidental wish, you did it with the best of intentions. It is not your fault. As I said, sometimes these things happen."

"Well, ah'm still gonna make it up ta you," Apple Bloom promised. "Audrey and I are gonna take care of ya until yer back on both feet!"

Jackie sighed at that declaration, feeling somewhat torn. On the one hand, he personally preferred to recuperate on his own, taking care of himself as much as possible. On the other, he did want to encourage all the girls to take more responsibility. On the one foot, he didn't want the girls feeling they had to take on more than was good for them. On the broken foot - shooting straight to his heart - he couldn't say no to that face when she looked at him like that, lower lip pooched and quivering with dewy eyes. "Alright, Apple Bloom," he relented. "Just don't push yourself too hard."

"Promise!" Apple Bloom responded immediately.


Back in the Section 13 apartment, Jackie and Jade were both surprised at just how thorough Apple Bloom was at tending to Jackie. First, she ensured the place was completely tidy, even going so far as to scour the walls and ceiling with cleaning agents with Audrey's help. She made sure to stay well out of the way of Jackie's workstation, where Uncle had insisted he spend his inactive time in intellectually stimulating activities...by helping research the Rat Talisman. As such, Jackie found himself turned to the side in his wheelchair as his immobilized leg was propped up on the rest with a pillow under it, reading through ancient tomes.

What truly unnerved him was just how efficient Apple Bloom was in tending to him. The instant his teacup was empty or started to cool, fresh hot tea found its way into the cup unless he said he didn't want any. The moment the pillow under his leg started to feel flat, Audrey was lifting his leg up gently with vines so Apple Bloom could fluff or replace it. If he needed a tome that wasn't on his desk, Apple Bloom and Audrey had the entire shelf beside him to select from before he could even reach the wheels. He wasn't entirely sure what to do about that, especially since she did it so quietly. He made a mental note to ask Uncle if the trio had studied ninjitsu at any point. There was that cultural project they did on Japan, after all...

"Any luck?" Jade asked, hopping over to look at the Talisman over his shoulder.

Jackie shrugged his shoulders. "Not yet. Maybe I'll get lucky, and this will be the 'heal a broken leg' Talisman."

"Unlikely," Apple Bloom spoke up. "I know all the ancient language characters for 'healing', and while I don't recognize all the runes on the back of that Talisman, 'healing's nowhere on there."

Sighing, Jackie looked at the translation he'd found so far. "The power of the Rat brings motion to the motionless..."

"Can I take a look at it?" Apple Bloom asked hopefully. "Maybe ah can put somethin' together?"

Jackie smiled softly. "Alright," he replied, lightly tossing the Talisman to the filly.

Apple Bloom lifted her hooves to catch the Talisman, but mistimed the grab, sending the Talisman bouncing across the room, where it landed in the open book Jade had been reading, though plainly more out of amusement than taking the contents seriously. "I got it!" Apple Bloom insisted, rushing over. However, in her eagerness to help, she forgot that the wooden floor of the apartment was not protected from her magic as the floors of the Antique Shop were. A sudden sprouting in response to her approach caused the book to slam shut on the Talisman.

A blaze of light erupted from the Talisman, as the strong spiritual magic contained within reacted with the powerful psychic energy that surrounded the book, as imbued by both the author and those who believed too strongly in what was written within, causing the Rat Talisman to instead turn its magic to activate a spell that the fillies had once attempted before, using the book as material to bring life to a character within. As the light blazed, the author's name was briefly illuminated.

Lovecraft.

As the light faded, the book turned into a pool of black ooze, twisting on the ground before lunging out the door of the apartment, trashing everything it came across as it grew, sprouting tentacles as it started to grow bigger and bigger as it raced for the surface, screams and shouts echoing in its passage as guttural snarls followed its wake, eldritch runes being etched into the very walls and floors by its acidic substance.

Jackie blinked, staring after it. "...bad day..." he finally brought himself to say.

Enforced Insanity

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Tohru sighed to himself as he followed along behind Finn, Chao, and Ratso. Valmont and Shendu were very upset with their failure to acquire the Rat Talisman or eliminate Jackie Chan. As such, they were tasked to wander around the city of San Francisco - on foot - with the Talisman Tracker in the hopes they might stumble across the Talisman. On top of that, Shendu could track the movement of the artifact as long as it was intact, and would know if they stayed in one spot for too long. If they did so without calling in an explanation, they would be in trouble.

At this point, Ratso was the only one who still had a smile on his face. Finn was surly as usual, and Chao was still nursing a sore shoulder from the Fort Knox incident, and winced every time his foot came down on the pavement too hard. Tohru was already feeling a little winded from hefting his body so far. Even if the vast majority of his bulk was pure muscle - his last physical showed him with only a 15% body fat index, very good especially considering his size and weight - it was still a great deal of effort to move it long distances without taking a break. He could manage a surprising sprint, but he was no marathon runner...although he still remembered the one time he'd tried to run a marathon and technically won by rolling. Ratso, on the other hand, was irrepressibly cheerful and saw the whole thing as a relaxing outing. As such, the others had stuck him with artifact duty.

"Whoa!" Ratso suddenly murmured, coming to a halt as the artifact started shaking in his hands, all four heads illuminating in sequence. "What's this mean?"

Tohru stared at the artifact for a time, then decided to ask. Pulling out his communications device, he made a phone call. "Master, the artifact is...behaving oddly."

As the screen showed Valmont and Shendu, Valmont spoke up, plainly irritated. "How so?"

Deciding it was more efficient than trying to describe it, Tohru pointed the camera at the artifact.

"I suggest you all take several steps back," Shendu spoke up. "The Talisman is either above or beneath you, and approaching rapidly, under the guidance of some other form of magic."

All of them immediately backed away. The artifact continued to shake, but now only one head was illuminated. The pavement in front of them began to crack, and unearthly chanting began in a low murmur. A black shape about the size of a Great Dane burst out of the ground, all writhing tentacles and oozing flesh. In appearance, it seemed to be a nightmarish fusion of octopus, man, and dragon.

"Aww, it's a tiny Cthulhu!" Ratso cooed happily. "It's so adorably unholy!" To the shock of his companions, he reached out and attempted to scratch it on one side of its squishy dome head, only for it to writhe and lash at him. "Huh, guess he's not friendly."

"Cthulhu?" Shendu demanded, his voice somewhere between angry...and terrified? "How do you know that name?"

"Oh, I've read all of Lovecraft's books," Ratso admitted happily. "They're really funny, especially when you know enough about his psychological problems to recognize the derivation of the ideas that went into the story and contrast that to just how many people take the stories at face value as a genuine mythos instead of recognizing it as a look into the mind of a suffering madman-" He stopped as he realized everyone was staring at him. "...what?"

Shendu seemed to sigh. "Why are mortals always opening the doors to their own undoing?" he grumbled ruefully.

"Wait a minute!" Ratso suddenly interrupted. "If this is Cthulhu, shouldn't we all be going mad now?"

"It is not the true Ruler of R'lyeh," Shendu corrected. "It is only a facsimile, likely created from the Rat Talisman falling into one of this...'Lovecraft's books. Because of the nature of the Old Ones, any tome containing knowledge of them will have enough of a connection to them to act as the mental aspect of a spell, if the proper other elements are involved." His statement was greeted with silence, and he sighed irritably. "All spells are made of physical, mental, and spiritual components. One must have all three for a spell to work properly. The Talismans act as shortcuts when used individually, as they possess a great store of spiritual energies. When activated, they use the chi of the wielder to provide the physical aspect - however large or small - and the shaping of the wielder's thoughts as the mental aspect, triggering the spell form. This is why they activate more readily when one knows what they do. In the case of the Rat Talisman - which brings motion to the motionless - the shaping of the object provides the mental aspect, and the energies of its manufacture provides the physical."

"So...this is not the true Cthulhu, but the Rat Talisman animating a book?" Tohru clarified as the creature lunged for a car, tearing it apart and hurling the chunks aside, slowly growing as it did so before racing away, too fast to follow.

"For now," Shendu hissed. "Because of the nature of the Elder Ones' connection to this plane of reality, the mental aspect draws from them. The Rat Talisman provides more than enough spirit...but if it causes enough destruction and death to absorb sufficient body magic, the summoning ritual will complete itself, and the spirit of the Lord of R'lyeh will be called from his sleep to infuse the facsimile, and it will become the true Elder King. And then he will tear open the veil that keeps his brethren from entering this world, and they will battle here to determine who shall rule anew...and that battle will consume this world and more."

"I don't think we want that," Finn murmured worriedly.

"The mission in this case has changed," Shendu hissed out. "Your priority is to get the Rat Talisman out of that facsimile, using whatever methods you find viable. If this means joining forces with Chan and his Qi Lin, so be it, even if it means they leave with the Talisman at the end of this. There will always be another opportunity to recover it if they take it. There will not if the ritual completes itself."

Tohru and the others looked surprised, but Tohru couldn't say he wasn't pleased inside. It was an opportunity to maybe get to know the little ponies, instead of always having to battle them. "It shall be as you say," Tohru confirmed.

"One more thing!" Shendu hissed. "So long as that thing is active, you are not to speak my name. Speaking my name will bring me to its attention, and my destruction would instantly provide it with the necessary body element to complete the ritual. As well, you are not to speak my name where that chi wizard might learn of it."

"Understood," Tohru confirmed as he hung up. As the group now made their way to the antique shop, he made a mental note of that discussion. Apparently, Shendu's name would somehow provide the chi wizard with an advantage against the Demon Sorcerer. Tohru did not like the statue creature, and only did his bidding because Valmont willed it, as he was the present client. However, should that ever change...Tohru now knew a way to spoke the stone dragon's wheel.

Enforced Cooperation

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Sweetie Belle stared out the window of the antique shop, staring as a massive black creature that her mind somehow classified as half-dragon, half-squid, and half-human - despite her mathematical side telling her that was too many halves - and she somehow knew that she was only aware of the merest fraction of what the creature could really be. Even as she watched it uproot a lamppost to use like a golf club on a Volkswagen to send it flying into the bay, she felt a shudder race from the depths of her soul as she saw the destruction make the creature grow. "U-Uncle?" she called out, fear stealing the strength from her voice.

"Sweetie?" Uncle called out worriedly, approaching her. "What is scaring you-" His eyes widened as he caught sight of the creature. "AIYAH!"

"Uncle?" Scootaloo called out, running down the stairs. "Something's wrong with Cumulo. He can't support me, and-" She screeched to a halt as she caught sight of the creature. Letting out a shriek of terror, she dove into the nearest vase to hide. Uncle didn't even have it in him to chide her about it being yet another rare Ming vase.

The wind warp upstairs burst with light before collapsing as Jade and Apple Bloom tumbled through it, Audrey III catching them before they could injure themselves on landing. "That's not good..." Apple Bloom muttered worriedly.

"Uncle!" Jade called out, getting to her feet quickly and running downstairs. "The Rat Talisman fell into a Lovecraft book and turned into Cthulhu! What do we do?"

"...we die," Uncle offered morosely. Noticing the girls all staring at him, he shook his head sadly. "Chi magic cannot stand against Old Ones. Old One is manifest in physical world. All is doomed. If we die by our own hands, our souls will still be part of the natural cycle. If we die to that..." He didn't say anymore.

"CHANS!"

That bellow caught the attention of all those in the shop. Looking to the side, they saw Tohru lowering his hands from his face, having shouted to get their attention.


Having got the attention of the old man and the girls, Tohru stepped back, deciding to let Ratso explain things to them. He was the most good-natured of the group, and the least rattled by what was going on.

Ratso took to it quite well. "Hey. Long story short, our boss wants us to work with you to stop the fake-Cthulhu from destroying enough to become the real one." He frowned, scratching his chin. "I...think I got that right. Something about mind magic, spirit magic, and body magic...I didn't really get it-"

"Aiyah!" Uncle gasped out happily. "Facsimile is not yet complete Old One! It is still a summoning ritual, and rituals can be stopped!"

"Then you know how to stop it?" Tohru demanded eagerly, only to pull back from a sharp pain at his temple. "Ow..." He rubbed his head as Uncle pulled his hand back.

"Of course not! Uncle is wizard, not miracle worker!" Uncle pointed to his chi lab. "We must do research!"

"Do we have time?" Scootaloo asked worriedly. "How big is that thing going to have to get before...well, before?"

Tohru glanced at the Talisman tracking statuette in his hands, noticing how the erratic illumination continued, a reaction to the energies of the Rat Talisman going haywire. "An hour at the most."

"We need more time than that!" Sweetie Belle squeaked out, terrified.

"Good thing I grabbed this then, huh?" Jade asked, pulling out the Rabbit Talisman.

"That only increase speed, not comprehension!" Uncle chided. "One more thing! Uncle too old to use Talismans willy-nilly. Must save chi for whatever stops magic beast from becoming Old One!"

"Oh..." Jade drooped sorrowfully.

"What if you used the Talisman on the shop?" Ratso asked curiously. "Or the library? Couldn't you, I dunno, make the room faster relative to the rest of the world, and give yourself more time?"

Uncle rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Hmm...is worth a shot." Taking the Talisman, he slammed it into the door of his chi library. The Talisman flared brightly, and he stepped inside, teapot in hand. The door closed behind him with the sound of a hermetic seal and an ominous click of the doorknob.

Twenty minutes later, Uncle staggered out, a sheaf of papers in his hands and a harried look on his face. "Aiyah..." he gasped out tiredly as the Talisman fell off the door.

"You okay, Uncle?" Jade asked worriedly as she caught the Talisman. "You've been in there for twenty minutes-"

"Five days," Uncle corrected. "At least, that is what I experienced..." He staggered into his chair. "But...Uncle found solution."

Tohru sat down nearby. "Go on."

"We need to match power of false Old One," Uncle explained. "We need to make being that is equal parts body, mind, and spirit, with enough power to meet creature on even footing."

"Uh, it's about the size of a building now," Finn pointed out, looking out the window. "Where are we gonna find that much power?"

Smiling, Uncle pointed at Tohru.

"M-me?" Tohru stammered out, stunned, his face actual losing its usual fierce scowl and becoming far less threatening. "I'm strong, but-"

"You have much chi inside you!" Uncle insisted. "More than enough for what we need." He handed the sheaf of papers to Sweetie Belle and Jade. "Set up ritual outside. Apple Bloom, fetch Audrey." The girls scampered to obey.

"So, what's the plan then?" Scootaloo asked. "Feed Tohru to Audrey so he's got enough energy to go toe to toe with Not-Old-Enough One out there?"

"Almost," Uncle corrected. "Apple Bloom will act as medium so Tohru's chi can feed directly into Audrey, allowing them to fight together as a giant. Enough damage to facsimile will destroy it."

Tohru and Apple Bloom's eyes both widened as they heard this pronouncement.

Enforced Extremes

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Tohru sat nervously on the lower branches of Audrey's form. The plant creature had expanded enough that he and Apple Bloom could both sit within its branches, and the last time Tohru had encountered it at this size he had thought he was going to become plant chow. Admittedly, at the time it was one of the better possible imagined outcomes, but it still made him nervous now.

The part that made him oddly overjoyed, however, was that Apple Bloom was sitting on his head. Apparently, this was important for the ritual that was being set up, but Tohru had more important things to focus on at the moment. The adorable pony sitting on his head where she rested perfectly comfortably, for one thing.

"Ow!" he cried out as yet another two finger strike from the old wizard struck his temple.

"Pay attention!" Uncle snapped out. "You want stop world from ending, yes? Then you listen to Uncle!"

Sighing, Tohru nodded, accepting that there were more important things at the moment than how wonderful it felt to have an adorable pony sitting on his head.

"One more thing!" Uncle continued as he explained the effects of the ritual. "When chi energies mix to infuse Audrey with power to meet magic beast, minds will mix too. Not conscious thought, since that is more controlled, but subconscious essence. Things that make you who you are will be felt by each other. Do not let it overwhelm you!"

Tohru nodded a little worriedly. After all, he wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea of opening up the core of his being to someone he knew so little about. Feeling Apple Bloom shivering atop his head, he reached up and stroked her mane with one large finger to relax her. He supposed she had the same concerns.

"One more thing!" Uncle continued. "Once ritual complete, push conflict to bay! Creature may have battle advantage because Cthulhu is sea creature, but less things to destroy to complete its ritual."

Tohru nodded firmly. This he could accept easily. He was used to fighting, and this just meant the odds weren't entirely on his side this time.

Stepping back, Uncle began to chant. "Jiārù yīqǐ shēnghuó...Jiārù yīqǐ shēnghuó...Jiārù yīqǐ shēnghuó..."(1)

The circle drawn around the three of them glowed brightly, and Audrey's vines and branches began to close around Tohru and Apple Bloom. Tohru swallowed worriedly as he felt himself being enveloped.

Tohru felt his senses fade one by one as his mind opened. He felt the touch of Apple Bloom's consciousness. Her dedication to her family, her determination to master herself, her sense of self-sacrifice, her fun loving side, her youthful energy...he felt it connect to his own inner core. He knew she was perceiving his true nature as well. His dedication to honor and duty, his loyalty and love for his mother, his own inner good, gentle nature...he doubted he'd ever be able to intimidate her genuinely again.

And then he felt the mind of the plant. It was almost completely alien to him, perceiving the world in ways his mind simply couldn't comprehend. But as those were pushed aside, he found qualities that oddly resonated with him. Undying loyalty, the iron fist/velvet glove mindset of a gentle giant, the knowledge of an overwhelming power and the determination to control it...

It seemed the three of them were more similar than they were different, where it counted.

As this realization overwhelmed them all, Tohru's senses returned to him. They were different this time. He saw the world around him cast in green. Words on signs had no meaning, and vehicles were just moving rocks. Buildings were hollow trees with life running around inside them. And the creature was a blight, devouring the magic that gave the world life.

Tohru flexed his muscles, finding that he was now composed of vines and branches, shaped to his form but scaled to the size of Audrey at his largest. Bellowing a war cry, he charged the beast, feeling an endless mass of roots grasping the ground as he lunged forward, massive thorny fists slamming into The Blight as the charging tackle carried it straight into the bay.

As The Blight crashed into the bay, Tohru could see it drawing strength from the waters, but not the strength it needed to be complete. As it rose again, Tohru leapt. To his surprise, he flew up above The Blight, bringing the clenched plant fists down hard on its crown before lunging forward and opening his bulb head wide, chomping down on The Blight and tearing it open.

The Blight roared in agony, and lashed back at them. Its tendrils burned across their joined flesh, a searing agony lancing through them all. Tohru felt Apple Bloom and Audrey starting to withdraw, neither of them accustomed to pain. But he was, and he took the pain in its entirety into his own mind, the agony burning but controlled.

Apple Bloom's scream of anger echoed into the sea. The kelp grew at an alarming rate, wrapping around The Blight from beneath and locking it in place as it struggled to break free. Audrey bellowed, lunging in and lashing The Blight with vines, thorns, and fangs.

Tohru grasped The Blight and began to tear it apart. He heard Apple Bloom chanting in their shared mind. "Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao...Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao..."

Audrey began singing, channeling magic into the spell with his song. "This is the mash...this is the Monster Mash..."(2)

Torhu felt a chant of his own rise up in his mind. "...Ōse rareta kodai no waru...Ōse rareta kodai no waru..."(3)

The magic gathered in the three of them, from the world and from their own souls...and blasted into The Blight.

Everything went white...


Tohru groaned as he sat up in the flatbed of a truck, driving back to Dark Hand headquarters. "What...happened?"

"You won, big T!" Finn praised excitedly. "You and that pony and plant thing ripped an Elder God a new one!"

"It was so awesome!" Ratso cheered happily. "It was the biggest geyser I've ever seen."

Chao leaned out the back window of the truck to talk. "After the explosion, the three of you washed up on the shore, carried there by a whole bunch of kelp. No sign of the Talisman, though. So we just loaded you up, and we're heading back to base."

Tohru remembered the Talisman bursting out of the shreds of the book. He remembered it being...in his mouth? Then he remembered the spell holding them together failing. He remembered none of them wanting to let go of each other...

"So...what was it like?" Chao asked curiously. "Being even larger than life than you normally are, and having a pony and a plant in your head?"

Tohru lay back thoughtfully. "It was...an enlightening experience..."



(1) According to Google Translate, "Join Life Together".
(2) My Mom suggested this song reference for this situation.
(3) Japanese, "Begone Ancient Evil".

Enforced Exhaustion

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Jade chuckled to herself as she carried around bowls of soup and cups of tea for her patients. Jackie still was recovering from his broken leg, but seemed to be well on his way to a full recovery. Uncle needed extra tending, as the extra time he'd given himself in his study had finally caught up to him, and Sweetie estimated it would take at least a week - if not two - before he was fully recovered. Oddly enough, that put his recovery on the same schedule that the doctor's predicted for Jackie's leg.

The main concerns were Audrey and Apple Bloom. The 'fusion' had been very draining for both of them, despite the fact that most of the energy had been drawn from Tohru, who Uncle claimed had vast, untapped reserves focused throughout his entire body. Given the things he'd done with the Talismans, that was believable. Despite him taking the brunt of the drain, however, Audrey was all but wilting - even worse than when he'd been in the heat of Mexico - and Apple Bloom could barely walk, staggering this way and that when she tried. What was of greater concern in Jade's eyes was the fact that when she did walk, plants didn't sprout with her steps like they usually did.

Once she'd given Apple Bloom her soup and tea - both in bowls big enough for the poor filly to just stick her head in and slurp - Jade did the same for Audrey. In the plant's case, tea was poured into his pot for his roots, while soup was poured into his bulb where it hung open. As before, Jade was careful not to pour the soup on the Rat Talisman, where it was clutched between tongue and teeth. According to Uncle, Audrey was so drained that - until he received a new infusion of chi from Apple Bloom - the Talisman was all that kept him from reverting to an ordinary plant. Still, Jade's concern was great, so with her rounds done she made her way through the reestablished warp between the Section 13 apartment and the antique shop, hoping Uncle was up to answering questions.

As she entered the apartment above the shop, she found Uncle sitting up in bed and reading. That was a good sign, at least. "Hey, Uncle," she called out hopefully, making her way towards him.

Uncle set his book aside. "Jade," he greeted warmly, holding his arms open. "Come give Uncle a hug."

Jade started to rush forward, then paused. She remembered what happened the first time she saw Uncle give Jackie that instruction. "Should I get a helmet first?"

Uncle managed a weak laugh and beckoned her forward, embracing her as she got onto the bed. "You do good, tending all your weak relatives," he offered softly. "You, Sweetie, and Scootaloo."

Jade looked up at Uncle worriedly. "Are you sure you're going to be okay, Uncle?" she asked in concern. "You...you seem so weak...weaker than normal..."

Uncle smiled softly. "All magic has a price, Jade. Pay now or later, with your substance or that of another...but the price will always be paid. Using Rabbit Talisman gave me more time when it was short, but now when time is not I can do very little." He sighed as he lay back against the pillow. "I cannot even read my book right now, despite attempts to do so. I hold it as though I read for comfort...and because when I can read again, I know I will be close to a full recovery."

Jade shifted worriedly. "That's...actually part of why I came to speak with you. I'm...worried about Apple Bloom. She's just so...listless."

Uncle nodded. "Apple Bloom is still young, and her magic is not yet fully stable. Expending so much was not good for her, but was only option. She will recover in time."

"What do you mean, not yet stable?" Jade asked curiously.

"Is something I read in book on pony magic," Uncle explained, holding up the tome that Jackie had brought unwittingly to the store along with the pendants. "Young pony magic is unstable, and susceptible to violent shifts. One more thing, young ponies also leak more magic than adult ponies."

"But when does pony magic stabilize?" Jade demanded. "I mean, they're my age...right?"

"Book mentioned something about it...but Uncle not understand yet," Uncle admitted. "Perhaps it will make sense when it happens." Besides, Uncle thought to himself, the sage who sent book and pendants advised not mentioning these 'Cutie Marks' to the fillies unless or until they manifested. Apparently, they caused a great deal of chaos when they knew to quest for them...and they do enough of that as is! "One more thing. Does Captain Black believe in magic now after seeing fake Cthulhu eating San Francisco?"

Jade burst into giggles, remembering Jackie's face when he'd tried to confront Captain Black on that very thing. "Captain Black didn't see it!" she laughed. "And every recording device - both in and out of Section 13 - that captured an image of it as it was moving shorted out due to the magic, so no captured images remain. Even an old Polaroid picture that was taken burst into flame before it could develop!"

Uncle blinked for a time, then burst into laughter himself. "And no one in San Fran will make fuss over giant kaiju battle in bay because Apple Bloom was still wearing pendant when fused, and fusion amplify pendant's power as well!"

Jade nearly fell off her bed laughing at that, suddenly picturing a weary traffic cop waving people away from the massive battle with the classic monotone, "Nothing to see here, move along people," and people not even blinking. Another thought struck her, and she laughed even harder. "I wonder what people driving on the Golden Gate thought when one of the tentacles torn off flopped over all lanes!"

Uncle wasn't the only one to burst into laughter at that, as Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo stabilized the tray they carried together on an end table before it could dump its contents all over them from their laughter. Uncle smiled down at them all. "Is true what they say...laughter is best medicine."

Security

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Jackie smiled as he finished relating the tale of his acquisition of the Horse Talisman to Jade and the other girls. As usual, they were completely enthralled in the story, more than eager to hear every little detail. However, as they followed Captain Black to the vault, Jackie noticed Apple Bloom looking worried about something. "What's wrong, Apple Bloom?" Jackie asked curiously.

Apple Bloom shifted awkwardly on Audrey III. "It's...it's nothin'," she offered, glancing away.

Jade, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Captain Black all immediately turned to face her, disbelieving looks on their faces, though Captain Black resumed his attention on his path shortly after. The girls, however, were not so ready to give it up.

Sighing, Apple Bloom voiced her concern. "It's just...ya think Tohru's gonna be okay?" she asked worriedly. "Ah mean, ya took his shirt in sub-zero weather just before he got covered in snow. What if he got sick?"

Jackie's eyes widened in shock. "Wha? What brought this on?"

Jade tilted her head. "Yeah, Apple Bloom! Tohru's the bad guy, remember?"

Apple Bloom looked away. "Just cause he's bad don't mean he's bad..." she mumbled sorrowfully.

Sweetie Belle rested her hoof on Apple Bloom's shoulder. "Don't worry so much, Apple Bloom. Tohru's a giant, and he's got a huge amount of chi in him, even for someone his size. Even if he does get sick, his immune system's top notch, and he's sure to be fine before long. You don't need to worry, okay?"

Apple Bloom nodded, smiling gratefully at Sweetie Belle.

Scootaloo glanced back and forth between everyone in confusion. "Did I miss something?"

"We'll talk back at the shop later," Sweetie Belle explained.

Captain Black shrugged the conversation off, leading the group into the vault, where the Talismans they'd collected so far were stored. Jade and Scootaloo both paid close attention to the security, though they weren't so audacious as to try and crack it. Once in the vault, Captain Black turned to Jackie. "Ready to put horsey in his stable?"

Jackie blinked in surprise. "The Horse Talisman? Uncle still has it. He's still-" He stopped himself, knowing how Captain Black would react to the rest of that sentence. "Well, you know Uncle."

Captain Black sighed. "Indeed I do..."


Once back at the shop, Uncle let the group know that he was still working on the Talisman runes. Taking the opportunity, Sweetie Belle pulled Jade and Scootaloo aside. "For Apple Bloom's sake, I think we should avoid saying anything bad about Tohru."

"Why?" Jade demanded irritably. "Why is she suddenly so concerned about him?"

"Does it have something to do with that fusion spell?" Scootaloo asked curiously.

Sweetie Belle nodded. "I went over what Uncle researched about it. When they were fused like that, the three of them basically shared a single consciousness that was made up of the most prominent portions of the core of their minds. Apple Bloom saw into the depths of Tohru's heart...and he into hers. Some sort of connection was made, and it's still there now that they're separated."

"You mean...like a really big brother or something?" Scootaloo clarified, trying to understand.

"Something like that," Sweetie Belle confirmed. "She's probably still trying to figure it out herself. The books on the spell mentioned 'long term effects' of being fused like that, and stated that having anyone who wasn't an adult fused could be...well, could be bad."

Jade and Scootaloo both glanced over to where Apple Bloom was settled on Audrey, gazing out a window thoughtfully. "We need to help her through...whatever it is," Jade said firmly. "What can we do?"

"For starters, not talk bad about Tohru, or make her feel guilty for being concerned about him," Sweetie determined. "Beyond that...don't make a fuss about it."

"We can do that," Scootaloo agreed. "Or...not do that."

"And distract her," Sweetie added.

"Uncle has translated inscription on the back of the Talisman!" Uncle called out.

"Like that," Sweetie chuckled as everyone gathered around Uncle.

"A very perplexing riddle," Uncle explained, showing Jackie what he'd written down.

Jackie read it carefully. "If activated, the Noble Horse expels all alien forces from within. Hmm..."

Glancing over at Apple Bloom, Jade decided to try being a little silly to cheer her up. "I bet those alien forces inside the Talisman fly out and latch onto human brains and turn them into mind control zombies to take over the world!" she proclaimed, gesticulating to act out her words playfully.

Everyone turned to stare at her. Sweetie Belle raised an eyebrow inquisitively.

"The...alien forces signal the mothership to begin the invasion?" Jade suggested nervously.

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "Jade, back in the days the Talismans come from, they didn't even have the concept of other planets, let alone life on them. Anything that 'came from the stars' woulda been called Celestials, probably."

"Oh," Jade replied, chuckling nervously.

Uncle patted Apple Bloom on her head. "Very good! You remember your studies well."

"So...not the Martian Talisman, then?" Jade asked playfully.

"There is no such thing as Martians!" Uncle insisted firmly. "Chi fields are all wrong for life to have developed there of any sort, even Stone Elementals."

Just as Jackie was about to speak about that, his phone rang. "Hello?"

"Jackie, the mainframe located another bogey," Captain Black told him. "Pack your toothbrush. You're going to Mount Rushmore, South Dakota."

Stone Secret

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Scootaloo frowned as she stared at what she had laid out before her. If anyone asked her, she would say that she hated puzzles and riddles, but that wasn't entirely true. She loved finding puzzles and riddles that needed solving, and she loved solving them. What she hated was situations like what she encountered now, where she had just enough information to start solving a riddle, but not enough to actually find a solution.

Jade, Sweetie Belle, and Apple Bloom were helping Uncle unravel the nature of the Horse Talisman's power through research. That is to say, Sweetie Belle was helping research, Apple Bloom was collating the information, and Jade - who couldn't read the older of the texts they were researching from - was making sure everyone ate and drank something so they could maintain their focus. Scootaloo, however, was approaching the same thing, but from a different direction.

Uncle had once said that whoever acquired all 12 Talismans would achieve untold power. Ever since the Horse Talisman's description had been so vague, that detail had been bothering her. She had set up her research on the shop desk, so she could man the shop while she worked. Laid out in front of her were paper cutouts of each of the eight Talismans they'd encountered, and a list of the powers each Talisman provided, along with the inscriptions the'd managed to transcribe. She wished she had the text from the back of the Dragon Talisman to work from, as she felt it might have given her some clue as to how the Talismans were supposed to be combined.

"Combustion..." she mumbled, setting the Dragon cutout at the top of the circle again. "Invisibility, Super Strength, Super Speed, Levitation...Astral Projection and Animation." She stared at the seven cutouts she'd laid out, then lifted up the Horse cutout. "Where do you fit in all this? I've got more than half the puzzle. I should be able to see enough of it to start logicking out the other pieces. How does it all come together?" After a time, she slammed the cutout down angrily and turned back to the descriptions, grumbling to herself. "I hope Jackie gets back with the new Talisman soon. Maybe that'll give me more to work with." Hearing the shop bell ring, she looked up eagerly. "Speak of the devil!" she called out happily. "Uncle Jackie! You're ba..." Her voice died on her lips as she raced forward, coming to a halt as she spotted his right ring finger...grey, hard, and lifeless. "UNCLE!" she screamed out in terror.

Everyone from the back room came racing out at Scootaloo's scream. Uncle took one look at Jackie's hand and screamed, "AIYAH!"


Jackie laid out the story swiftly for everyone, having insisted that no one interrupt since time was of the essence. "I have until six AM," he explained. "Valmont's men will be waiting at the Coit Tower with the antidote."

"W...what are we going to do?" Apple Bloom whimpered, reaching out towards Jackie's hand.

"Wait!" Jade gasped out, grasping Apple Bloom's hoof. "If anything in the poison is plant based, your out of control magic might accelerate it!" Apple Bloom let out a horrified whimper at the very thought, sinking in on her self as Audrey wrapped himself around her.

"Good thinking Jade," Uncle complimented. "As for what we do...riddle of the Horse Talisman can wait. I will make an antidote! Sweetie Belle, you will assist me! Apple Bloom, fetch any magical plants you have grown that are harvest ready!"

As Uncle led Jackie, Sweetie Belle, and Apple Bloom back into the back room, Scootaloo went back to her work, pushing the cutouts around, having trouble focusing now. Jade, meanwhile, paced angrily back and forth. Both of them groaned every time they heard a strange noise or an agonized choke from the back room...or Uncle or Sweetie Belle cursing.

Finally, after the sound of something bursting into flame, Jade threw up her hands in frustration. "I can't take it anymore!" she screamed out angrily. Turning, she started gathering various items.

"What do you think you're doing?" Scootaloo demanded irritably.

"The Dark Hand will make a trade of the five Talismans in Section 13 for the antidote," Jade explained, determination filling her voice. "I'm going to go make that trade."

"You're just going to walk in and swipe them?" Scootaloo offered sarcastically.

"I have to do something!" Jade snapped out. "I'll figure something out."

"And what about those security systems?" Scootaloo countered angrily. "Think about what it'll do to Jackie, to the rest of us, if you get killed doing this! You don't have save points in the real world, Jade! This isn't a game!" Scootaloo's eyes widened as she suddenly realized something.

Jade stared at her friend. "Scoot...?"

"A game...that's it!" She turned back to the cutouts. "I was looking at it all wrong!" She grabbed the Ox cutout. "Bull's Strength!" She grabbed the Snake cutout. "Greater Invisibility!" She continued through each of them, giving them names from tabletop gaming. "Haste! Fireball! Spirit Walk! Create Golem! They're not super powers, they're spells!"

"How does that help us-" Jade began.

"If activated, the Noble Horse expels all alien forces from within," Scootaloo interrupted, rounding on Jade as she quoted the Horse Talisman description. "You've played more video games than me. Off the top of your head, what spell does that sound like flavor text for?"

"Esuna," Jade responded immediately. "But I don't see-"

"And what does Esuna do?" Scootaloo pressed.

Jade rolled her eyes. "It's the cure-all for status effects," she grumbled. "Like paralysis, sleep, poison...and..." Her eyes widened. "And stone!" Grabbing the Horse Talisman off the table, she raced into the back room. As she got there, Jackie's body was going into another paroxysm as the poison started to turn another part of his body to stone. Rushing forward, Jade slammed the Talisman into Jackie's right hand as his middle finger started to change. The stone ran up from the tip of his finger towards his palm...until the transformation brushed the Talisman. The Horse flared with light.

When the light faded, Jackie had returned to normal, no sign of stone transformation. "I...wha?" he gasped out in surprise.

"Aiyah!" Uncle cried out in amazement. "Horse Talisman is the healer! Jade, how did you know?"

"Don't thank me," Jade responded modestly as Apple Bloom leapt into Jackie's arms, burrowing into his embrace. "Thank Scootaloo. She's the one who logicked out what it had to be, once she looked at each of the Talismans as a spell."

"You're the one who put it together that the Horse description meant a healing power," Scootaloo added as she came in. "And figured out how to use Jackie's transformation to activate it."

"You both did excellent job," Uncle praised, rubbing both their heads affectionately. "I was right to have you two work together."

"So...what about the Dark Hand agents?" Sweetie Belle asked curiously. "Won't they still be waiting at Coit Tower for the Talismans?"

Jackie grinned softly. "Yes, they will. I think you know how to handle that, Sweetie."

Giggling, Sweetie Belle opened up her phone and went down her speed dial list.

Safety

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Tohru sat huddled up in his penthouse apartment, paid for by Valmont to give him the best of the best of accommodations so long as he worked for him. A blanket big enough for an elephant was wrapped around him as he sat in front of a space heater, a hot pack on his head and a thermometer in his mouth as he tried to watch TV to relax, flipping through the channels as he tried to keep his mind off his physical state. Still, it had been quite a surprise that as soon as he started sneezing in the office, Valmont had told him flat out to take a sick day. Tohru still felt upset he hadn't had the strength to refuse, claiming he could work through the cold. Valmont hadn't given him the chance to argue, and sent him straight home with full pay for the day.

A massive sneeze tore its way out of Tohru's throat, sending the thermometer flying across the room to embed itself in the opposite wall, alongside no less than 20 others already there. Sniffling, Tohru reached to the side table, fished another one out of a bowl, and stuck it into his mouth to keep track of his body temperature. Reaching to his other side, he jotted down the temperature on the thermometer he'd just embedded in the wall. He figured between sneezes was a good amount of time to get an accurate temperature.

As he pulled his arms back under the blanket and wrapped himself up tight again, he wondered why it was that he was so sick just from being under dressed at the north pole. He'd dealt with more hostile environments than that with just his normal attire without problems, and the shirt wasn't exactly thick or effective at retaining heat. So why was he so weak now?

All unintended, his mind turned back to the weakness he'd dealt with after being merged with Apple Bloom and Audrey III, a weakness he hadn't fully recovered from before the North Pole, since he hadn't felt completely 100% when he was sent on the mission. It had only been a slight headache and some stiffness in his joints...but now he could barely move. Despite his own discomfort, he couldn't help but wonder if Apple Bloom was experiencing a similar weakness. He had tried to take the majority of the burden of the fusion, but...

A knock on his door interrupted his thoughts. Grumbling to himself, he staggered to his feet and over to the door. He looked through the peephole, but saw nothing. Muttering under his breath, he started to turn away, but the knock repeated...far below him. Confused, he pulled it open.

Looking straight out, he still saw nothing until a cleared throat drew his attention downward. Apple Bloom was there, sitting in Audrey's vines and helping him balance a massive Tupperware container that steamed from within, big enough for Apple Bloom to take a bath in. "A-Apple Bloom?" Tohru asked, shocked.

"Sweetie heard from Ratso that you were home sick," Apple Bloom offered nervously. "Ah...ah wanted ta check up on ya. Brought ya some chicken soup and honey-lemon tea."

Tohru blinked in surprise. "T-thank you," he stammered out, stepping back. "Come in, please."

Audrey slithered in on his roots, carrying Apple Bloom, the massive bowl of chicken soup, and two huge thermoses of steaming tea. "Ah made sure to cut the chunks of chicken and vegetables small enough that ya could chew 'em if yer up to it, or just swallow if you'd rather drink it straight down. Same with the noodles."

"How did you find where I live?" Tohru asked curiously as he sat down, letting Apple Bloom and Audrey prepare food and drink for him. "Did you...pick something up from my head?"

Apple Bloom shook her head. "Again, Ratso told Sweetie Belle."

"Why was Ratso telling her so much?" Tohru pressed gently.

"Well, we used the Horse Talisman to get rid of the poison Jackie was infected with," Apple Bloom explained, "so the trade for the antidote instead turned into a sting. Sweetie Belle went up first so she could spy things out, but it was just Ratso, Finn, and Chao. Since she had enough magic to handle all three of them, she asked where you were. Once Ratso said you were taking a sick day, she said she'd give them all a chance to get away if they told her where you lived."

Tohru nodded. He wasn't at all surprised they jumped at the deal. None of them were all that eager to be enemies of the little fillies, now that they were all aware of the fact they were fillies. "But why would she make that trade?" he asked curiously.

Apple Bloom paused in her work preparing the food, letting Audrey finish. "Cause...cause she knew I was worried about ya. So by finding out where ya spent yer sick day, I could come take care of ya."

Tohru turned to meet Apple Bloom's gaze. A slow smile split both their faces.

The soup and tea were both delicious. But it was the company that truly chased away the sick and the doldrums.


As Shendu turned his mystic gaze away from Tohru's penthouse, he brought his attention back to Valmont. "Are you aware of the company your large Enforcer is having on this 'sick day' of his?" Shendu hissed out angrily.

"No, and I don't really care," Valmont responded as he went through some papers, marking down a few details.

"Even if it is the Qi Lin with the dryadic familiar, and said familiar?" Shendu growled out.

"Especially not then," Valmont responded readily. "Ratso already reported he traded Tohru's home address to escape the sting that came of the 'antidote trade'. Apparently, the Horse Talisman is the healer?" He turned and gave Shendu a raised eyebrow.

Shendu seethed in rage, but held it in check. "An oversight that would have been easily avoided had I been informed it was the Horse Talisman. But that does not explain-"

"After what Tohru contributed during the fiasco with the Rat Talisman, I would not hold it against him if he chose to retire tomorrow," Valmont interrupted. "That despite being faced with literal eldritch horror, he still remains loyal to me...I have no doubts about his loyalty."

"And his effectiveness?" Shendu demanded coldly.

"That's a completely separate matter," Valmont continued. "I never hired him for his effectiveness as an Enforcer. I hired him as a bodyguard, and for the intimidation factor of his sheer size. If I want someone who won't hesitate to crush those fillies into paste if that's the order I give, I will hire someone who is willing and capable of doing so. Tohru, Ratso, Finn, Chao...none of them were hired for that sort of ruthlessness."

He smiled softly as he came across a specific paper. A resume, submitted by one 'Black Tiger'. "After all, that sort of ruthlessness is easy to find...so long as one knows where to look."

Career Day

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At lunch recess on Career Day, Jade was surprised to find Scootaloo sitting off in the corner on Cumulo, looking rather down in the dumps and sighing. "Something wrong, Scootaloo?" she asked curiously.

"It's...it's nothing," Scootaloo replied morosely.

Jade frowned, crossing her arms. "Scoot, that's the exact face and response I gave my parents after I realized they'd never believe me about the crazy things I saw that I now know to be magical. Don't try it on me. So what's bothering you?"

"It's...it's stupid," Scootaloo prevaricated, obviously not wanting to talk about it. "And silly. And not really important."

"And that's how I explained my reasons for misbehaving when I got sick of being punished for things I didn't do so I started doing them," Jade countered bluntly. "Something is bothering you, and however silly or stupid it may sound, it matters to you and I want to be here to help you through it." She rested her hand between Scootaloo's wings. "Now talk to me, okay?"

Sighing and lowering her eyes, Scootaloo shifted her hooves to show she was gripping the Horse Talisman.

Jade's eyes widened. "Scoot, are you sick? Or hurt? Or-"

"No, nothing like that," Scootaloo interrupted quickly. "I..." She looked away. "I snuck it into the Long Term Care Ward at the hospital. You know, for cancer patients or those with wasting diseases and the like." She lowered her eyes. "The area the orderlies call the death watch ward..." She closed her eyes. "I thought...if the Horse was the healer and 'purged alien forces', then maybe it could save them..."

Jade's eyes widened. Despite everything with the magic, she'd have never thought to use the magic that way. "That's a wonderful idea!" she praised happily, but her joy drained away as she saw Scootaloo's face fall even more. "W...what happened?"

"Each time I pressed the Talisman into one of the patient's hands, conscious or not, the Talisman started to light up...and then the light faded." Tears welled up in Scootaloo's eyes, and she sniffled. "I...I offered those people hope...and it was nothing. Uncle...Uncle told me it wouldn't work...but I wanted to try anyway..."

"Why wouldn't it work?" Jade asked, confused. "I mean...it's magic!"

"It still needs its power from somewhere," Scootaloo explained. "When used alone, the Horse Talisman draws its energy from the one being healed, using their vital energy to accelerate their natural healing process. If their body doesn't have enough energy in it to fight off the infection or purge the sickness...the magic won't trigger, to keep from burning them out in the attempt. That's...that's what happened." She rubbed at her eyes. "I knew I probably wouldn't be able to save all of them, or even most...but I'd hoped..." She started to hiccup. "I'd hoped...I could save even one...then it...would have been..." Tears poured down her cheeks.

Jade didn't know what to say. All she could do was pull Scootaloo into a comforting hug and let her cry.


Later in class, Jade was still distracted with thoughts of what she could do to try and cheer Scootaloo up. This meant that she wasn't really paying attention as Jackie gave his presentation about his work as an archaeologist, talking about carefully excavating and preserving artifacts from the dirt with tiny tools to avoid damaging them. Glancing over, Jade noticed that Scootaloo had started to look interested, but was quickly growing morose again. A desperate thought filled her mind. She knew not to bring up the Section 13 work, but he hadn't been working for Section 13 when he'd brought in that shield...

Jackie paused as she noticed her raised hand. "Yes, Jade?" he asked worriedly.

"While I'm sure movies and television have 'sensationalized' archaeology to a certain extent," Jade began carefully, her eyes frequently flicking over to Scootaloo, "surely their characterization has to have some basis in fact, right? Have you ever come across anything like the booby traps we see in TV and movies?"

Jackie raised an eyebrow, not understanding why Jade would be asking that...but noticed Scootaloo slowly raising her head in interest. Smiling, he leaned down conspiratorially, stage-whispering loud enough for the whole class to hear, though they still leaned in with interest. "Well, I'm sure my experience isn't standard for most archaeologists, but there is a reason the museum sends me in when ruins are uncovered mostly intact. Ancient civilizations were very protective of their secrets, and fiendishly clever when it came to security. I've had my share of encounters with such systems..." He then moved on to describe at length the journey that had led to him recovering the shield the Rooster Talisman had been in, but leaving out any mention of the Talisman itself.

Jade grinned widely. Tales of magic or not, this would lend some credence to anything she talked about as far as things she got up to with Jackie. At the same time, Jackie's 'awesome' story was quickly bringing cheer back to Scootaloo's face. As far as Jade was concerned, that was two birds with one stone.

As Jackie finished his story, Uncle stepped up to do his Career Day presentation as Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo's guardian. "I run Uncle's Rare Finds," Uncle began softly. "It is antique store, where I sell ancient items, some that Jackie brings me from digs that museums don't want. I also translate inscriptions on ancient artifacts to discover any magical powers hidden within."

As a few students - and Jackie - groaned, Mrs. Hartman cleared her throat. "Uncle, I'm certain you're exaggerating. There's no such thing as-"

"Drink this," Uncle said quickly, sticking a vial of bubbling pink fluid in the teacher's mouth and pouring it down her throat. "Excellent exfoliation...but do not look in the mirror."

"What?" Mrs. Hartman asked in confusion as the entire class gasped in shock. She opened her compact and gasped, seeing her skin green and leathery like a lizard.

"I told you not to look in the mirror!" Uncle shouted out as the entire class first gasped in shock before bursting into laughter.

"What did you do to-"

Uncle interrupted Mrs. Hartman by pinching her cheek and tugging off a bit of the green skin, revealing smooth, healthy pink skin beneath. "Lizards shed their skin. Leaves much healthier skin behind." As the entire class burst into spontaneous applause while Mrs. Hartman shed the rest of her skin, Uncle gave a playful bow. As Jackie buried his face in his hands, Uncle shot Jade a wink.

Jade grinned widely. Apparently, Uncle was aware of Scootaloo's somewhat downtrodden state, and had shaped his presentation to cheer her up. Now if only between them they could think of something to keep her happy...

"And don't forget, children," Mrs. Hartman called out to the class as she discarded the last of her lizard skin, now looking easily five years younger and blushing at the whistles from one of the single dads, "next week it's your turn to report on your parent's job...after you accompany them to work!"

"One more thing!" Uncle spoke up as Jade cheered at the idea of having an excuse to go on the next assignment and Jackie groaned in frustration. "Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo live at shop with me. See my work every day. Might be better experience for them if they went with Jackie on his work and wrote report with Jade?"

Mrs. Hartman rubbed her chin. "Well, they do turn in top of the line work when they work as a team...I'll allow it, if they'll also each include a report on their day to day lives in the shop."

Seeing Scootaloo beaming from ear to ear, Jade shot Uncle a thumbs up.

Under the Sea

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The next pinpointed Talisman was in Micronesia, at the bottom of the ocean. As such, the first hurdle Jackie had to deal with as far as acquiring the Talisman occurred before the trip even began. "How am I supposed to get proper deep diving gear for you three?" he asked of Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo, staring around the shop as they packed. "I walk you into the store, they will see ordinary children, and give suits to match Jade's, which you can't wear. Only way to avoid that would be to walk into the store without your Normalcy Pendants, and the consequences for that could be disastrous."

"Couldn't you take us in and ask for a custom fitting?" Sweetie Belle asked curiously. "Maybe they won't even realize what they're making for us as they get the measurements?"

"That's...probably stretching things a bit," Jade offered worriedly. "I'd actually be worried about how powerful the pendants are if they pulled that off."

"Well, none of us know enough about sewing or fabric or engineering to make our own scuba suits!" Scootaloo complained. "So what are we supposed to do?"

"Wait until Tohru finds out Valmont's sending him to Micronesia, come to the conclusion we'll be there too, and get suits in our sizes without questions asked through sheer intimidation factor just to make sure we don't drown if we end up fighting?" Apple Bloom suggested diffidently.

Jackie rolled his eyes. "Apple Bloom, I know you have this...odd bond with Tohru, but I seriously doubt that could happen. What even made you suggest it?"

"Because he's at the door with a large package in his arms," Apple Bloom explained, pointing.

Tohru gave Apple Bloom a brief smile, then dropped the box in Jackie's arms with his usual scowl. "I was never here," he stated bluntly before turning and stalking away.

Jackie blinked in shock for a time. Setting the box down, he opened it up to find three filly-sized scuba suits. All three had flippers on all four hooves, one had an extra bulge to the helmet for Sweetie's horn, and one had extra flaps for Scootaloo's wings that would buzz with her movements, letting her speed herself along as she did on her scooter. "...that's going to take some getting used to," he stated finally.

"Well, if he's that worried about them, he can't be all bad, right?" Jade offered hopefully. "Maybe we can even flip him to our side-"

"Nuh uh," Apple Bloom interrupted. "He's honor bound to serve Valmont until that honor is betrayed, or he's dismissed. He won't change sides. Pretty sure the only reason he can do this much is because Valmont didn't order him not to act to keep us out of environmental danger." As everyone stared at her, she shrugged. "What? Mind link, remember? Ah don't know his thoughts, but Ah know how he thinks."

"You gotta be kidding me..." Jackie groaned. However, he wasn't about to turn his nose up at this...once he'd had Captain Black scan the suits for bugs. Maybe it would even make Captain Black realize that talking candy-colored ponies were magical.

...he wasn't holding his breath on that, though.


Fortunately, there had been no tracking devices of any sort in the filly-sized scuba suits. Unfortunately, Captain Black didn't notice anything else unusual about the suit configurations. As such, the group of five made their way to the designated location, ready to dive for the Talisman.

Jade had the camera, snapping pictures of everything as they swam down to an underwater ruin nearly overrun with coral, seemingly frozen in time. Seeing how the four youngsters were marveling at the sight, Jackie could only smile indulgently, letting them enjoy it. They had several hours of air, and they weren't deep enough to worry about decompression, so he could let them enjoy themselves, as long as they were careful.

Once they were at the bottom, he directed each of them to take a different area. "Remember, you must be careful shifting the silt and soil aside when searching for artifacts." Sweetie Belle and Jade nodded, each of them pulling out their little brushes, Sweetie in her magical aura and Jade in her hand. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, however, had greater difficulties as they lacked either method of holding the tool. "Umm...Apple Bloom, you stay close to Jade, Scootaloo stay close with Sweetie Belle. You should be using the buddy system anyway."

Nodding, the two pairs swam off while Jackie focused on the hill he'd decided to start with. Much to his frustration, Jade found the Monkey Talisman before he'd even begun to dig. Still, he didn't want to discourage the happy children, so he smiled and led the way back to the boat. If the Dark Hand didn't show up, they could always look for more artifacts...

Unfortunately, as they swam for the surface, Ratso, Finn, and Chao came into view swimming towards them. "Go, go!" Jackie ordered. "Split up! Stick to the buddy system!" The two pairs of children immediately split off from each other while he went straight for the thugs.

As they swam for the surface, Apple Bloom got an idea. Closing her eyes and clinging to Jade, she focused her magic into the water around her, unsure how well it would work. Sudden screams from below caused her to look down, where Ratso, Finn, and Chao were now fleeing from attacking seaweed. "...not what Ah was goin' for, but Ah'll take it."

Before long, the four kids reached the boat, with Jackie hanging behind to make sure the thugs didn't catch up to them. As they climbed aboard and shed their helmets and flippers, Jade pulled out the Monkey Talisman. "One more for the good guys-" Her voice died at the sound of familiar heavy footsteps.

Tohru held out his large hand. "The Talisman," he offered, his voice sounding almost bored.

At that point, Finn and Chow leapt out of the water and onto the boat. "Here's this song and dance again," Finn groaned.

"How many more times are we going to have to do this?" Chao grumbled.

"At least four," Scootaloo offered. "Three more Talismans, and then once when we clash somehow to determine who ends up with all 12, since you guys have two to our seven."

"Let's make it three to six," Tohru stated flatly. "That way, no one has to get hurt."

The girls glanced at each other, trying to come up with a plan.

Animality

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As Tohru and the other Enforcers cornered the girls against the edge of the boat, Jackie leapt up out of the water, standing between his nieces and the criminal agents. Raising his hand out, he ordered, "Stop!" As he spoke, the storm that had been gathering broke with three flashes of lightning behind him that cast shadows over his face, the rumble of thunder shattering the silence left by his word.

Everyone held perfectly still for a moment. Finally, Finn spoke up. "Why are we listening to him?"

"Didn't you hear through the grapevine what he did to that Nibbler guy?" Chao hissed back, backing away slowly.

"So we'll be careful of the girls, then," Finn snapped, moving forward. "We'll deal with him, then get the rock from the half-pint."

"Yeah, good luck with that," Jade taunted as the four girls scattered across the boat, trying to make room for Jackie to fight the Enforcers.

Unfortunately, between the breaking storm sending waves over the ship and tilting it, the resulting wet decks, and Jackie not having time to remove his flippers, the fight didn't go smoothly for anyone. Jackie was able to hold off Finn, Chao, and Ratso - once he leapt out of the water - but Tohru was heavy and stable enough to move about at leisure, and no one was able to get enough leverage to do anything to him. Luckily, the slippery deck worked to their advantage in evading him for the most part...until Jackie slid right into Tohru's belly, allowing the massive man to grab him.

Seeing this, Jade did the only thing she could think of to turn the tide: tried to use the Talisman. "Monkey magic better be good," she mumbled as she started shaking it to make it activate. However, much to her frustration, it remained inert. "Come on...come on!" As she struggled, a large wave rocked the boat. "Ugh..." she groaned out. "Do something before this boat ride makes me yak!"

The talisman in her hand glowed and shot out of an arc of energy. She just barely managed to point it away from herself, where it impacted into Jackie. In a blaze of light, Jackie turned...into a brown yak, which licked Tohru's face, making the massive man drop it.

The fillies gathered around Jade to stare. "Wow..." Scootaloo murmured in wonder. "How'd it do that?"

The Enforcers reeled back in shock, murmuring about what could have happened. Tohru, however, thought much faster. "The Talisman!"

"Uh...Yakkie?" Jade asked nervously. "I mean, Jackie?"

The yak snorted, unamused.

"I've got an idea!" Sweetie Belle called out, snatching the Talisman. Pointing it at the yak that had been Jackie, she shouted out, "Dragon!"

All the Enforcers - Tohru included - reared back in terror as the light flashed out to strike the yak...leaving behind a low slung brown reptile, approximately ten feet long. It glowered at Sweetie Belle for a time, then turned on the Enforcers and hissed, revealing small, pointed teeth and a waving tongue.

Sweetie Belle's eyes went flat. "I didn't mean Komodo..."

"Nobody move!" Ratso barked out. "Maybe he won't see us as a threat."

"He's just an overgrown lizard-" Chao started to say.

"Komodo Dragons can reach 12 mph on land, and their bites will rot your body from the inside out with the amount of toxins and bacteria in their saliva," Ratso interrupted. "Do you want to risk that?" He noticed everyone - Jackie included - staring at him. "What? I like to read."

Finn blinked, then turned to Chao, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Ratso. "Dude, we should totally get him on Jeopardy."

"Look out!" Scootaloo screamed out, diving for the others as a massive wave crashed over the boat just as a bolt of lightning - possibly drawn by the released magical energy - struck the cabin. The boat burst apart as it tipped over, dumping everyone into the roiling sea.

As Apple Bloom gasped for air, she got a mouthful of water and a rock stuck in her teeth. As she struggled to get it dislodged, she realized it was the Monkey Talisman. Seeing everyone slowly sinking into the water, she tried something she hoped would work. Storm Dragon! she thought as hard as she could, hoping that being more specific would get a better result.

The bolt of magic lashed out of the Talisman, then arced back around to hit her. In a flash, she had changed.

She was covered in dark blue-black scales, with short horns growing from her forehead. Each of her four legs ended in claws. She felt gills along her neck filtering oxygen out of the water and feeding it into her lungs, letting her breathe. She felt the wings on her back, pushing water as easily as air. At first she was ready to whoop for joy...until she realized she was only two feet tall.

"Dagnabbit!" she barked out as she pulled the Talisman from her mouth. "What good does this do me?" Turning, she saw the others slowly sinking, being dragged away by the currents. Desperately, she lunged for them, catching up to them quickly as she felt the water respond to her will, drawing them all - Jackie, the girls, Tohru, and the Enforcers - closer together. However, she was unable to do much more than that...and she soon realized why. "It turned me into a baby Storm Dragon!" she wailed out. "How am I supposed to-" She felt her magic lose its grip on one of them. "Jackie!"

She though quickly, trying to come up with something - anything - she could do. It wouldn't let me turn him into a magic creature... Desperately, she pointed the Talisman at Jackie. "Elasmosaurus!"

The magic flashed out, and Apple Bloom's eyes widened as the massive form rose up under everyone, pushing them to the surface.

Stretching the Bounds

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Tohru was the first to regain consciousness as the storm slowly passed. Opening his eyes, he found himself staring up at a cloudless sky as wind raced over him, water splashing at him from brief waves. He found himself laying on something warm and rubbery, and somewhat slick. "Wha...where...Chan!" He quickly tried to sit up, only to find himself held down. Looking down, he found bands of solid water - not ice, but solid water somehow - holding him down to something that was a pale blue-green and big enough to support himself, Ratso, Finn, Chao, Jade, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo. His eyes widened in worry. "Apple Bloom?"

"Over here," a familiar voice spoke, calling his attention to his left. There, a dark blue dragon sat riding Cumulo, her tail hanging off it and waving in the breeze with her wings tight to her back. "Don't move too much. I'm not that familiar with water magic, and it's hard enough to hold all of you on Jackie's back as is."

Tohru stared in disbelief. "Apple...Bloom?" he managed to gasp out.

The tiny dragon giggled. "Yeah, it's me Tohru. Was trying to turn someone else into a Storm Dragon, but it rebounded on me. Don't know why, but it gave me a chance to turn Jackie into an Elasmosaurus, so the rest of you get a safe ride back."

Tohru turned to stare at the long neck lifted just barely out of the water, the head resting on the surface as the massive reptile sped towards the distant shore. "...it can do that?" he asked worriedly.

"Apparently," Apple Bloom admitted. "Don't know why it didn't do what I wanted it to sooner, though." She paused as she heard the others stirring. "Whew, I was startin' ta get worried."

Jade was the first to wake up. "Ugh...what hit me?"

"Some wood planking, I believe," Tohru offered.

Jade blinked, taking in her surroundings as she shifted under her bindings. She quickly proved just how quick her mind was as her eyes widened. "Holy shitake, Apple Bloom! You're a dragon! That is so cool! And Jackie's a dinosaur!" She let out a happy squee.

"Shitake?" Tohru asked, confused.

Jade chuckled nervously. "I'm not supposed to use swear words. Figured if I made an effort on the little things, Jackie might be more lenient on the big ones."

Tohru rolled his eyes. "Kono gaki," he grumbled under his breath.

"You know it!" Jade proclaimed proudly.

Tohru blinked in surprise. "You speak Japanese?"

"No, I've just been called 'rascal', 'troublemaker', and 'brat' often enough that I know how to say all three in just about any language you're likely to encounter in Hong Kong," Jade explained cheekily. "You start recognizing a few words if you hear them often enough."

Tohru did his best to suppress his giggles, but failed. "So much for ever being intimidating to you lot," he grumbled, laying back. "That's half what I have my job for."

"Just cause yer a teddy bear don't make you any less a bear," Apple Bloom pointed out. "Just cause yer a teddy off duty don't make ya any less a grizzly on duty."

"What makes you think I'm off duty now?" Tohru asked grumpily.

"Do you honestly think you have any chance of getting the Talisman from us at this point?" Apple Bloom asked logically.

Tohru glanced from the Elasmosaurus Jackie presently was to Apple Bloom as a dragon. "No."

"Then this is lunch break," Ratso spoke up, laying back to relax as he stared at the startled seagulls. "So relaxing. Only thing missing-Ah!" With a jerk, he tugged hard with his leg, jerking up the fish that had latched onto his dangling shoestring, catching it with his hands. "Any chance you got fire breath?" he asked Apple Bloom.

"Uh...storm dragon," Apple Bloom explained. "I might have lightning breath..."

"Yeah, better not risk it," Ratso agreed as he twisted the fish's head hard, killing it instantly. "Eh, I like sashimi." He then tore the belly open, dumped the guts into the water, and proceeded to dig in.

Apple Bloom stared at Ratso for a time, but said nothing. For some reason completely beyond her, she found herself picturing him with a snail on his butt(1), and the absence of logic behind this mental image disturbed her. The only saving grace, in her mind, was seeing the same confused/disturbed look on Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo's faces, hoping that meant they were picturing the same thing and it was a pony thing and not a personal revelation.

Once everyone was awake, Jackie turned towards a beach. Seeing what he was doing, Apple Bloom smiled. "Alright boys, this is your stop!" she called out as she dispelled the bonds holding them on.

"Wait, wha-?" Finn wasn't able to get anymore out before Jackie made a sharp turn, sending the four of them flying off his back and onto the beach before making for the pier at the end of the road leading right to Uncle's Rare Finds.

As soon as they came in range of the pier, Apple Bloom used the Talisman to reverse the transformations, landing them all safely on board. As they shook themselves off, Captain Black arrived. "Rough trip?" he asked casually.

"You could say that," Jackie admitted, shaking water out of his hair. "We did get the Talisman, though."

"That's good," Captain Black agreed. "Can you take it back to Section 13 yourself, though? I need to investigate something...classified down here."

Jade looked up at him flat eyed as she wrung out her bangs. "You aren't about to tell us that some sort of prototype camouflage submarine got taken out of dry dock without permission and you're following possible sightings which were reported as 'Loch Ness Monster in San Francisco Bay', are you?"

Captain Black blinked. "...well, I wasn't going to say anything-"

As Jackie's face met his palm, Sweetie Belle expressed their shared sentiment. "Oh, come on!"



(1) Ratso doesn't think about anything. Ever.

Conservation of Magic

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"Pony!" Jade shouted once again, pointing the Monkey Talisman at herself. In a flash of light, the horse talisman was clutched in the teeth of a tiny brown and white horse for a brief few seconds before an angry whinny reversed the transformation. "Aw, come on! I've been trying to get this to work for hours! Why isn't it working?"

"It's doing what you tell it to do," Sweetie Belle explained softly. "I mean, I didn't mean komodo when I said dragon, but that's what I got."

"But how do I be more specific?" Jade asked curiously. "I tried pegasus, but I was this big white thing that looked like a horse. I even tried pegasus pony, but I was just a smaller version! And it shorts out every time I say Qi Lin."

"Have you tried unicorn?" Scootaloo offered, gesturing at Sweetie Belle.

Jade frowned, crossing her arms. "I did. I wound up a white horse-looking thing with a horn. Not like Sweetie Belle, even when I said 'unicorn pony'. What's it take to get this thing to turn me into something like you girls?"

Apple Bloom shrugged. "Maybe the magic just don't work that way. Maybe it's somethin' about us that the Talisman can't handle."

"But it transformed you into a Storm Dragon!" Jade complained angrily, waving the Talisman towards Scootaloo while gesticulating at Apple Bloom.

A light flashed out of the Talisman, and Scootaloo stared down at her transformed state. "Sweet!" she purred happily as she spread her much larger wings.

"There's a thought," Jade murmured. She pointed the Talisman at herself. "Storm Dragon!"

The light flashed out, arced around Jade, and struck Sweetie Belle. "Where's my horn?" she screeched out, starting to panic as she pawed at her forehead with her claws, her sense of magic seriously twisted. "Where's my horn?"

"Change back!" Jade called out quickly, reversing both transformations with blasts of light. "You okay, Sweetie?"

"I don't think I like this Talisman very much..." Sweetie whimpered, putting her forehooves to her horn with relief. "I'm gonna go sit in the corner where I'm not in the crossfire."

"Don't be such a baby, Sweetie," Scootaloo scolded. "It wasn't that-"

"What if you'd been turned into something without wings?" Sweetie interrupted acidly.

Scootaloo's eyes went wide, and Cumulo shot up to the ceiling out of range at her silent mental command.

"Uh...?" Jade asked, confused.

"Accordin' to the book Uncle's got, horn and wings are the primary magical foci for Sweetie and Scoot, and those like 'em," Apple Bloom explained. "Also a direct link to the magical fields. Without 'em...it'd be like suddenly being unable ta see color, or movement, but more so. Really not fun for the brain."

"Oh..." Jade gasped softly. "I'm...I'm so sorry, Sweetie-"

"Not your fault," Sweetie Belle hastened to assure her. "...still gonna stay over here until the Talisman is safe in the vault."

"Well, there goes my other idea..." Jade murmured softly. "For you two, anyway..."

"Other idea?" Apple Bloom asked curiously.

Jade rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Well...it might work for you still, Apple Bloom." She leveled the Talisman at the red-headed filly. "Human!"

The beam of light shot out, split around Apple Bloom, and struck a broom directly behind her, transforming it into a wooden sculpture of a human.

"Stupid useless hunk of magic junk!" Jade snapped out angrily, hurling the Talisman across the room before turning around and sinking into a sulk. The Talisman flew right through the warp into the Section 13 apartment, followed by a 'thunk' and a pained exclamation from Jackie.

Apple Bloom blinked in confusion. "Uh...don'tcha think that was a bit extreme?"

"Probably," Jade murmured grumpily. "But...I know how much it bugs you that you can't control your magic, and all three of you that you have to wear the pendants to go around when that just means you're always overlooked. I thought...I thought I could turn myself into a pony like the three of you so we could spend time together...or that I could turn the three of you into humans so you could walk around with me without the pendants, and get noticed for your skills. So you could show how special you are...instead of everyone overlooking you as 'normal'..." She blinked her eyes, refusing to let the tears at the corners fall.

Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo exchanged glances, then swiftly moved to Jade's side to wrap her in a three way embrace.

"I thought...magic could finally be used to fix something..." Jade whimpered, hugging them back. "I mean...I know Scootaloo's attempt didn't work out...but this wasn't that big..."

"Still a lesson you needed," Uncle offered softly as he stepped into the room, a tray of cookies and sweet tea in his hands as he sat down amongst them. "It is why I insisted Jackie let you try."

"Uncle?" Jade asked in confusion, wiping away the tears she hadn't yet shed as she accepted the offered sweets. "What do you mean?"

"You quest for magic eagerly," Uncle explained. "Not bad thing in of itself...but you must exercise caution and wisdom. You see magic as a fix all, but that is not so. Magic has its own rules, and limitations. Different from those of physics, but just as limiting in their own way." He rested a hand on Apple Bloom's head. "Apple Bloom learned this in bringing her own magic under control." Another hand stroked Sweetie Belle. "Sweetie learned this as she struggled to master chopsticks."

"Uncle!" Sweetie Belle whined with an embarrassed blush as Apple Bloom and Scootaloo giggled. Jade just tilted her head in confusion.

"But things came easily for both of you as you've adjusted," Uncle explained as he pulled Scootaloo and Jade into his arms. "This is why I let you both experiment with Horse and Monkey Talismans. This is most important lesson of magic, and one only truly understood when experienced. Only so much can be gained through instruction."

All four girls snuggled up in Uncle's embrace. "Not exactly a happy lesson..." Jade grumbled softly.

"The important ones seldom are," Uncle allowed wearily.

The Loved

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Jade and the fillies were huddled up together on the second floor of the antique shop, staring down as they watched Uncle at work dusting. "Alright, the preparations are almost complete," Jade whispered to the others as she hung up the phone. "Jumping Jackal will be in the den in time for Operation Surprise...though I don't know what he got as a present. Everyone else's preparations complete?"

Sweetie Belle nodded eagerly. "The decorations are in place, ready to expand back to normal size for visibility with a single casting. Unc- sorry, 'ancient rabbit'," she corrected herself as Jade glared at her playfully, "won't suspect a thing."

"And I've managed to find a cake recipe that he'll be able to digest without problems that'll taste good to us, too," Apple Bloom spoke up, not quite as eagerly as Jade or Sweetie had been.

"And I've got an accurate weather report for the big day!" Scootaloo added excitedly. "The early morning gentle fog that Uncle loves so much, burning off with the first rays of the sun as the sky lights up, with just enough cloud cover to keep it from being too bright for his eyes or skin so he'll be perfectly comfortable, ending on an orange and violet sunset painting the sky in my colors."

Three sets of eyes spun to stare at Scootaloo. "And how do you know all that much?" Jade asked flatly.

"I...may have bribed a few fairies with a cupcake to get the info," Scootaloo admitted. "Turns out Uncle's got a real big rep with the local Unnoticeds, and they'd been retroactively shaping his birthday to have perfect weather for him...once I told him what would be best. They reached back several weeks to ensure nothing got destabilized by the shaping, and everything would be within the natural error tolerances of the existing weather systems."

"...wow..." Jade murmured softly, shaking her head. "You'd think I'd be used to this sort of thing by now." Clearing her thoughts, she grinned. "So how's everyone doing on presents? I figured a good memory would make a good gift, considering how much Uncle wants to make memories with all of us, so I got a picture of all of us together at dinner when we were dealing with the Rooster Talisman-"

"The 'chew soup' incident?" Sweetie Belle asked teasingly, causing giggles all around.

"Yeah," Jade confirmed, rubbing the back of her head. "Anyway, I've got it in a nice picture frame with 'Happy Family' written at the top in hanzi. What about the rest of you?"

Sweetie Belle grinned widely. "I did something in the same vein. I wasn't able to find a single good image to capture what I was going for, so I made a collage of happy times from Uncle raising the three of us. Not all pictures, though. I had to draw a few things, and also added a few mementos-"

"Broken chopsticks?" Scootaloo offered teasingly, ducking Sweetie Belle's swung hoof.

"So what did you get Uncle, Scoot?" Jade asked intently.

Scootaloo's grin split her face. "I got him his own personal rainbow," she explained eagerly. "Two tiny clouds stuck together with a rainbow between them. He can pull them apart to let the rainbow light shine out, to always put a smile on his face. You know how much Uncle likes rainbows."

Jade's smile began to fade. "Okay, I definitely need to start learning magic at some point. There's no way I can compete with you three, otherwise."

"It's not a competition, Jade," Sweetie Belle chided playfully. "What matters is the effort we put in, not the result. That's what Uncle will value."

"Speaking of effort," Scootaloo added, turning to Apple Bloom, "you haven't shifted from your potion kit since you finished the cake. What have you been trying to make, anyway?"

Apple Bloom lowered her head. "Umm...remember back when Jackie brought home the Sheep Talisman? When I talked about a spell to make Uncle a teenager for a few hours so we could all do stuff together?"

"Vaguely," Jade offered nervously, fearing she was about to be outshone again.

"Well, I thought I'd figured out how to make it a potion, so Uncle could just drink it for a few hours full of youthful energy, and I wanted ta perfect it as a birthday present." Her eyes dimmed. "But ah just can't get it ta work right. All it does is grow nerves back..."

"Grow nerves back?" Scootaloo asked, shocked. "How'd you manage that?"

"Got some ideas from the Horse Talisman," Apple Bloom explained. "Mixed in a few petals from the blossoms on mah tree out back. Gives it a boost. But all it does is restore dead nerve cells all over the body and in the brain, but Uncle don't need that."

"You...made a potion to regenerate brain cells, and you're disappointed?" Jade asked, stunned. Scootaloo also looked a little miffed.

"Well ah can't make enough ta mass produce it," Apple Bloom countered. "Takes too much magic and apple blossom petals from just mah tree, and not any other, ta work. And it's not like Uncle has memory problems or paralysis, so it's useless ta him. Some birthday present..."

"Well, you managed to make and perfect a new magical potion formula," Jade offered comfortingly. "You could offer that as a way of showing how much you value all he taught you. Give him the gift of a skilled student?"

Apple Bloom managed a small smile. "Ah guess...just wish it was what ah actually wanted. Ah'm just...missing something..."

"You'll figure it out," Sweetie Belle offered confidently.

"And if you can't do it alone, we'll help!" Scootaloo added.

"Me too," Jade concluded as the group pulled Apple Bloom into a reassuring hug.

Apple Bloom managed a more genuine smile. "So...what about music for the party?" she asked, turning the discussion towards something happier.

"Maybe some hip hop?" Jade offered hopefully.

"Uh uh," Sweetie Belle instantly shot down the suggestion. "Trust me, Uncle's hip does not hop."

Giggles followed, leading to a more leisurely discussion.

The Loyal

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Uncle smiled softly as his birthday celebration slowed to a crawl as the sun set. It hadn't been anything big so far. Jade had scrounged in the attic and found one of his old 8-track tapes and a player that still worked, playing some of the music Uncle had loved back when he was still trying to sell 8-tracks before he switched to antiques. Apple Bloom had made up a delicious dinner that the five of them had shared. And then Jackie had arrived, and Sweetie had waved her horn and made the decorations appear.

"Happy Birthday, Uncle!" all five of them cried out happily as they pulled him into a warm embrace. Uncle's smile widened as he returned the embrace. Apple Bloom brought out a rather delicious cake that she guaranteed would not cause issues with his digestion, and after everyone had at least one piece, the presents began.

Jade's gift of a framed memory was happily accepted, with a promise to always treasure it. Sweetie Belle's collage was hung in Uncle's bedroom, where he would always see it. Uncle had chuckled at the rainbow Scootaloo had given him. "It is just bright enough to read by!" he offered happily, setting it over his favorite chair.

Apple Bloom offered her gift of a potion and recipe somewhat sorrowfully. "I still can't get it to do more than regenerate neurons," she mumbled morosely. "It was...supposed to be a youth potion..."

Uncle quickly shushed her. "Apple Bloom, seeing how far you've come with my teachings is gift enough. Regenerating neurons...I have never heard of magic that could do this. I am so proud of you." He pulled her into a warm hug, glad to see that put a smile on her face. "Besides..." he started to say, then shut his mouth. "Never mind." This is a happy occasion, he thought firmly. I won't depress them by saying it won't be too long before I will need that potion.

Once he managed to successfully deflect interest there, he turned to Jackie. "So...what did you bring me?"

"Ta dah!" Jackie offered hopefully as he set down what looked like a gift basket from a Bavarian airport gift shop. The nervous expression that appeared on his face as three fillies and one young girl shot him a glare suggested that was exactly what it was.

Uncle sighed as he started to go through the contents. "Ugh...chocolate stains my teeth! And cheese makes my-" He paused as he remembered the ages of some of the listeners. "Umm...none of your business."

"Uh...oh!" Jackie's expression became more eager as he pulled the Dog Talisman from behind his back. "I brought you one more thing!" He smiled as Uncle took it. "It's your sign."

Uncle sighed softly, pushing himself up from the table. "I will do research now," he offered sadly. "One can't rest when the fate of the world could be at stake."

"But..." Apple Bloom whimpered softly. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo echoed her expression, ears flat and eyes teary. Jade also sent him a pleading expression.

"I am sorry, girls," he apologized. "This has been...a very happy birthday. But I have seen far too many birthdays, and I fear the best of them are far behind me. Please, feel free to keep celebrating. I..." He took a few calming breaths as he felt the weight on his old bones. "Good night, children."

He closed the door to his library against the disappointment and sorrow of his family. Taking a seat at his desk, he set the Talisman down, removed his glasses, and wiped away the blurry vision that had nothing to do with his glasses needing cleaning. "I'll make it up to you girls...somehow," he whispered his promise.


Hours later, Uncle was hard at work decoding the runes of the Dog Talisman late into the night. He'd heard his family head to their beds, and had sighed sorrowfully over that. However, he'd finally managed to translate the runes somewhat. "The Noble Dog is best friend to man," he translated. "It restores youthful energy to its holder..." He turned it over to examine the etching on the front. "And grants...eternal life." He set the talisman down, tapping it with his pencil eraser. While any other day, the latter would have brought more focus... "Youthful energies..." he murmured softly.

Without warning, the Talisman blazed with light as the magic flowed into Uncle. He felt the years wash away from him as the strength of his youth returned to his body. His face retained its wrinkles, but his limbs firmed as his skin smoothed. His fingers toughened as blood flow increased, and his eyes sparked as he saw clearly without his glasses. He felt decades younger in moments. "Aiyah..." he murmured softly as he clutched the Talisman. "Such...such power. This is what Apple Bloom sought to give me, so we could make memories again..."

He paused as that thought hit him. They wanted so badly to make more memories with him. They'd wanted to give him a happy birthday, but he'd ruined that by being too old to enjoy it. Part of his mind reminded him that magic like this was dangerous. The Talismans were being actively hunted. Every day this one - especially this one - was out of the Vault at Section 13 was another day it was in danger of falling into the wrong hands. He felt safe leaving them at Section 13 partially because of Captain Black's flat refusal to believe in magic. He'd never be tempted by power he didn't believe in.

But the faces of his daughters as he'd been forced to turn his back on the joy they'd tried to share with him... Those three fillies had brought so much joy into his life. They'd given him purpose and drive at a time when both had been running out. Each day with them was a new challenge that kept him vital, his mind sharp. He owed it to them to give them more happy memories in these formative years. He owed them so much more than that. He had turned his back on them, on their offered gift...he could not do so again.

Quickly fashioning a pendant to hold the Talisman, he hung it around his neck under his shirt. "Just a few days," he promised himself. "Just a few days to show them the joy they bring me. A few days of memories to treasure for a life time..."

The Lies

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Tohru hung his head in shame as he faced his Master, Valmont, and their client. Once again, he'd failed to bring back the Talisman, leaving yet another of the 12 in the possession of Jackie Chan and Section 13, wherever it was. And on top of that, his fall had broken the Talisman tracking statuette. He was pretty sure he was reaching the end of whatever good will he'd built up from the Lovecraftian episode, and knew this would likely be when he truly faced consequences. He waited patiently for whatever would come.

He hated to admit it, but part of him hoped for dismissal. While losing this job would be great disappointment to his mother, he would no longer risk being sent against Apple Bloom. Facing against her just felt wrong now, for some reason. If he was dismissed...well, maybe Uncle was hiring.

"You failed to retrieve the Talisman," Valmont said softly, staring up at Tohru. "And you sat on this." He held up the broken pieces of the tracker.

"The seeking device was forged by magic," Shendu hissed angrily. "Such things are hard to come by."

"Apologies, Master," Tohru offered sincerely, awaiting what he was certain would be a harsh judgement.

Valmont looked up at Tohru for a time. "The fault is mine, I suppose," he admitted, surprising Tohru. "It's been obvious for some time that Chan is skilled enough to make your raw power inefficient at dealing with him without the backup of appropriate skill. Today merely hammers the point home." He glanced at the broken pieces of the seeking device. "Expensively, I'll admit, but that's to be expected that I ignored it for so long."

Tohru blinked in shock. He...wasn't being dismissed in disgrace? "I won't fail you so again, Master," he promised, bowing his head gratefully.

"No, you won't," Valmont agreed. "I have acquired the services of a freelancer, who will be paid by the successful job. He will lead the next expedition to pursue the Chans in acquiring a Talisman. You may go with or remain here as you choose."

Tohru bowed his head, pleased that the only penalty he faced was a reduction in his duties. "Understood, Master. Who is this freelancer?"

Valmont gestured to the entrance to the chamber. "Allow me to make known to you Hak Foo."

"The Black Tiger?" Tohru asked, surprised. He knew this man by reputation. He had been a professional fighter once, in mixed martial arts tournaments. Unparalleled in both fighting ability and viciousness, rumor had it that his abrupt departure from the professional circuit was due to 'unfortunate accidents' that had happened in the ring, and several of his opponents who hadn't made it out of the ring alive. Already, he feared what would happen if this man encountered the Chans, especially should his reputation be deserved.

The man who stepped in looked every inch a fighter. He stood just taller than Valmont, and every inch of his lean body bulged with muscle. His crimson hair stuck up from his head before flowing down his back, like he was growing a strawberry out of his head. He wore a blue vest that left the muscles of his torso bare, red pantaloons that fit his legs loosely to give maximum movement, green socks, blue slip on shoes, and two black armbands on each forearm. A thin mustache extended from under his nose, with a pointy chin beard, and tiny narrowed eyes, the color of which could not be determined, only lethal intent visible in them.

Tohru frowned. Nothing about this man raised his confidence in him having any sort of self control. He would have to test that. "He does not look so ferocious," he offered tauntingly.

Hak Foo's eyes narrowed further. His teeth clenched as veins bulged from his head. He quickly shifted to a wide-legged stance. "Angry Crow takes flight!" he roared out, leaping high into the air. Tohru tracked his flight as he came towards him. With a roar and a double midair flip, he growled out, "Emu stands on mountaintop!" before landing on Tohru's shoulders. "Monkey plucks two peaches!" With that, Hak Foo's hand snapped down, two fingers curled to aim right at Tohru's eyes.

Tohru shivered, but not from fear of himself. His minor taunt told him flat out that Hak Foo had no control. If he had to deal with Apple Bloom or the others, his solution would be to kill. "...looks can be deceiving," he offered to hide his intentions from Hak Foo...and from Valmont.


Jackie paced back and forth in Uncle's shop over Jade's latest discovery. Since Uncle had expressed no interest in the gift basket from Bavaria, Jade and the fillies had been working their way through the cheese and chocolate...and one of the chocolates Jade had opened looked exactly like a Talisman. Same shape, same artistic style of the engraved image of a pig, everything. "The pig is one of the signs of the Zodiac we haven't located," he admitted, "and the resemblance is uncanny. So once again...I'm off to Bavaria..."

"I could use a change of scenery!" Uncle offered happily as he walked out of the back room, carrying his suitcase. "Travel will make good memories for the girls and I. We will go with you."

Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo looked like they could burst with excitement...at first. However, all three paused as they looked at Uncle. There was something...off. Jade lacked their perception, however. "Awesome!" she crowed happily. "No babysitter means I get to go, too!"

Jackie got very flustered at the idea of having to keep track of all four girls in a foreign country. "But you never leave the shop!" he pointed out. "And what about the Dog Talisman?"

"Bah! Research can wait!" Uncle countered, leaning on a ladder...only for it to slide away from him, leading to an old vase tumbling off a high shelf, which Uncle quickly leapt and caught before it could hit the floor.

Scootaloo quickly spoke up. "Okay, I don't know how Uncle's got so much energy now, but I don't wanna waste it! Vacation in Bavaria, here we come!"

Jackie sighed, knowing he had lost this debate. However, at least this meant Uncle could help keep track of the girls.

Only Apple Bloom noticed Uncle tucking something into his shirt before leaping back to his feet. "So," Uncle asked quickly, "what are we waiting for?"


Tohru listened quietly as Valmont went over the latest report. "The mainframe indicates that one Mr. Chan has purchased seven airline tickets to Bavaria."

Seven? Tohru thought in confusion. Chan, Uncle, the four girls...Audrey?

Valmont turned to face Hak Foo. "The Dark Hand jet awaits. When you meet our friend, Jackie Chan..." He held up a picture of the man they spoke about.

Hak Foo used his foot to send a cantaloupe into the air. "Smashing Melon Fist!" he roared, punching the melon hard enough to shatter the rind and splatter the insides.

Tohru shivered. He knew he couldn't let that sort of violent maniac near Apple Bloom and the others. "Master," he spoke up, "perhaps I should accompany the Black Tiger in case he needs assistance in dealing with things of a...less than mundane nature. After all, the Chans have access to...unexpected resources."

Hak Foo's eyes narrowed angrily, but Valmont nodded. "An excellent suggestion, Tohru. However, remember that Hak Foo is in charge of this expedition. What he says goes."

"Understood, Master," Tohru confirmed, turning to follow Hak Foo to the jet. Inside, he felt sick. He was lying to his Master about both his intentions and his willingness to obey Hak Foo. He was disobeying orders, and had full intention of assisting his Master's enemies should it come to that. What had become of him?

Still, one thing he knew. He would not let Hak Foo hurt Apple Bloom...even if that meant preventing him from hurting Jackie Chan.

Only one Talisman left after this mission...maybe when all were gathered, Valmont would choose something else to pursue, and he would never come against the Chans again...

The Gift

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The six Chans walked carefully down the streets of Bavaria, Jackie leading the way with Uncle holding Jade's hand, Sweetie Belle on Uncle's head, Scootaloo on Cumulo, and Apple Bloom on Audrey. It had been surprisingly easy to get Audrey on the plane at the Los Angeles International Airport. All it had taken was sticking a fake mustache on Audrey, and everyone from the one selling the tickets to the flight attendants treated him like a human. The only thing really odd was one other passenger - who claimed to be from Van Nuys - who kept asking Audrey if he was related to a Mr. Mumbles. As he had no idea how to respond to that - and no musical ways to explain his confusion - Audrey had remained silent.

"I will do some sleuthing at the chocolate factory," Jackie spoke up. "But you girls should stay with-" His voice trailed off as he saw Uncle tugging Jade off towards the square, the fillies following him. "...Uncle."

"Jade, I hear you like Hip Hop?" Uncle asked curiously. "You know, they have it here in Bavaria, too."

"Really?" Jade asked in surprise.

"Yes!" Uncle confirmed. "They call it Oom-Pah!"

Uncle and Jade burst into giggles. Apple Bloom tilted her head. "...ah don' get it."

"I don't think it matters," Sweetie Belle observed. "Uncle's feeling good enough to go out and do things with us. What's it matter if we don't get the 'Dad jokes'?"

"Good point!" Scootaloo agreed. "Come on, let's go find some Oom to Pah to!"

Jackie rolled his eyes, heading off to find the chocolate factory as the others burst into laughter at Scoot's wordplay.

It wasn't long before the group found some musicians playing in the square, playing a drum, a saxophone, and an accordion. Uncle quickly led the girls - save Apple Bloom, who remained at her perch on Audrey - into a bit of dancing, Audrey following along with a wave of his vines. At the end of the dance, the whole group shared more laughter. "And Sweetie said your hip didn't hop!" Jade pointed out gaily as they approached a table set with food, plainly there for anyone to come up and have a snack.

"Ha ch-ch-cha!" Uncle murmured eagerly as he lifted up a large slab of cheese on a piece of bread.

Sweetie Belle gasped in shock. "Uncle! Cheese!"

"Yummy!" Uncle responded eagerly as he moved to take a bite.

"But cheese and other dairy products don't agree with your digestion!" Apple Bloom pointed out. "It's why I made a lactose-free cake!"

Jade frowned. "There's something different about you," she pointed out incisively.

"Like what?" Uncle asked evasively.

"Well, for one thing, you haven't said 'one more thing' since we got here," Jade insisted.

"I only say that when I am in an irritable mood," Uncle offered quickly, his eyes shifting back and forth. "Travel agrees with me."

"Actually, you haven't said 'one more thing' since just after your birthday party," Scootaloo pointed out. "Not to mention you just feel...younger."

Apple Bloom gasped in shock. "Did...did my potion actually work to make you younger?" she asked hopefully. "I didn't think it would, but maybe with how much magic you've been exposed to training as a chi wizard and raising us..."

Uncle sighed softly. He couldn't let her lead herself down a mental path like that. He'd have to tell them the truth. "No, Apple Bloom...it was not your potion." Reaching into his shirt, he pulled out the Dog Talisman, showing it to the five of them.

All five stared in shock. "No...way..." Jade responded, stunned.

"Way," Uncle replied with a grin.

"The Dog Talisman makes you act younger?" Sweetie Belle asked, surprised.

"Kinda fits," Scootaloo offered. "I mean, well cared for dogs act like puppies for their entire lives right up until those lives catch up to them and everything fails at once. Though with the magic setup, it probably makes you immortal too, or something. Those sound like they'd go together."

"Very astute, Scoot," Uncle praised teasingly, slipping the Talisman back under his shirt and booping Scootaloo on the nose with one finger.

"Does that mean Rhino's part Noble Dog, then?" Sweetie Belle asked curiously. "I mean, we got him nearly a decade ago, and hamsters normally only live for about three years."

"I know!" Scootaloo agreed. "Heck, I took him into show and tell once as the world's oldest hamster when he turned six! Then someone showed me that stupid Guinness book that showed the record was seven..."

"Well, he is still acting as young as when we first got him, so it is possible..." Sweetie observed.

"Maybe he just got into Uncle's chi lab and ate some magic stuff?" Jade suggested helpfully.

"Uncle," Apple Bloom spoke up worriedly, shifting the conversation, "you told us magic always exacts a price. W...what price are ya gonna pay for doing this?"

Uncle sighed softly. "One I will willingly pay," he replied warmly, kneeling down to wrap his arms around the girls. "You are in the prime of your lives. You deserve to have many happy memories, and you try to give them to me too. Normally, I can only do so much for you all. But with this...I can give you all the happy memories you deserve, even if it's only for a few days."

Blinking away tears, the three fillies piled into the Uncle hug. Jade joined them, a calculating look on her face. Immortality, huh? she thought softly. Maybe there's something there to fix that...

The Savage

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Hak Foo stood silently in the darkness of the chocolate factory, waiting when Jackie Chan showed up. He had seen the man visiting the factory earlier, and was certain it was in search of the Talisman, now identified to be the Pig Talisman. As such, Hak Foo had slipped in to search the entire facility, intimidating what few security personnel were there into not crossing him. He had found nothing, however, and had instead decided to wait for Chan to show up so he could grill the man for information. He idly wondered if he should use real fire.

As he saw the man enter, Hak Foo smiled softly. Once Chan approached the chocolate molds, he stepped out of the shadows. "Seeking a Talisman?" he asked grimly, flipping one of the chocolates in one hand, reveling in the shock and fear appearing on Chan's face. He held up the chocolate. "Only counterfeits here." Inwardly he grinned, certain that Chan would know him on sight and that sheer intimidation would be all it took to make him break and talk, but ready to add a bit of physical force-

"Do I...know you?" Chan asked curiously.

Hak Foo's eyes narrowed irritably. He had a reputation, and it was upsetting when the mere sight of him didn't cause his foes to cower. Still, perhaps his name... "I am Hak Foo, the last human you will ever lay eyes upon." When this still did not create the fear reaction he'd hoped for, he hurled the chocolate he was holding like a shuriken, making the vat of chocolate behind Chan burst as he just barely evaded. When Chan turned to face the vat, Hak Foo began flipping forward, ready to tear Chan apart until he talked, and then finish the job.

"Mantis Boxing Style!"

"Serpent Pouch Technique!"

"Float Like Lotus Blossom!"

"Sting Like Scorpion!"

The sequence of Hak Foo's signature attacks left Chan staggered back, clutching his stomach. Hak ended the sequence with his foot in Chan's face. As Chan looked up, he named the technique. "Flamingo Stance."

Chan showed surprising ingenuity and courage as he grabbed the extended foot. "These little piggies went to market!" He threw the foot into a spin.

Hak Foo followed through with the spin, rotating his entire body in the air before landing, calling out as he did, "Flying Dragon Corkscrew! Cat Lands on Feet, and Bares Claws!"

The exchange of blows, counter blows, and named attacks continued, showing Hak Foo that Chan was skilled, but had not faced one at his level in a long enough time that his skills in true combat had atrophied. Were he at his best, he would have proved a true challenge for the Black Tiger, possibly even proved victorious. As it was, it wasn't long before Hak Foo was grinding his feet into the man's back. "Black Tiger crushes Chan."

"Jackie!" three voices called out in fear.

Hak Foo turned, spotting four girls and an old man. This was nothing new to him. Since he started hiring himself out, he'd frequently dealt with the families of those he'd been sent after. Three of the girls were closer to him than the fourth girl and the old man, moving forward somewhat aggressively. It was oddly amusing...and somehow adorable. Hak Foo lifted his head, glaring down dismissively at the trio. "Take your leave," he growled out. "This does not involve you...yet."

...he somehow felt he had to look a lot higher than normal to look down at one of the trio, but paid it no mind.

"You don't scare us!" the redhead growled angrily, her voice having a distinctive southern drawl.

"You get off Jackie!" the second girl with paler hair - blonde, perhaps? - cried out, her voice high pitched and more cultured.

"Before we make you!" the third girl with darker hair - was it black? - snapped out, her voice sounding tough.

"What's a Jackie?" Chan mumbled in a dazed tone, plainly still shell shocked from the assault.

Hak Foo blinked a few times as he tried to process just what he was being confronted with, something about what he was seeing difficult to process. Am I...dealing with Powerpuff Girl cosplayers? Unable to think what else he could be dealing with, he steeled himself. "I am here to recover the Talisman and crush Jackie Chan. I will deal harshly with anyone who gets in my way." He took an angry step forward, intending to intimidate them into backing off.

He could see the girls shaking in fear...but to his surprise, they matched his forward step.

"Hearts of warriors you have," he offered softly. "Then I will treat you as such. Crocodile Catches Unwary Cubs!" With that roar he rushed forward, his arms spread wide to seize and crush the girls in a single blow.

Before he'd even closed half the distance, the old man had blurred between him and the girls, and sharp pain shot through his entire body emanating from his groin. The old man stared up at him, eyes like gimlets staring cold hate into his own. "Papa Wolf pulls no punches," the old man hissed out before spinning, striking Hak right on the temple with a roundhouse kick that sent him flying across the room.

Hak Foo coughed in pain as he extracted himself from the brick wall he'd impacted against, clutching at his head and groin. He quickly shook it off, regaining control of himself as he faced off against the old man. "You caught me off guard. You will regret that."

"I have regretted a lot of things in my life," the old man offered softly. "Many decisions I'm left wondering if I should have done otherwise, ones that keep me up at night, days I will never forget as I pray for reassurance that I did the right thing. Breaking a punk who threatens my little girls?" He spat to the side and took a wide legged combat stance. "It's just Monday."

The Guardian

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Jade had seen a lot of things in her young life. Back in Hong Kong she'd seen magical creatures no one else could, leading to many problems for her life. When she was sent to America, she saw magical, talking, candy-colored ponies who were her cousins and soon became her best friends. Add to that a tame cloud she could ride on and magical Talismans, and her life had been full of the unbelievable. Through all of it, she had come to look up to her Uncle Jackie as an ideal to aspire to. Consummate self control, fierce power, calm wisdom, compassionate heart... She saw him as something she should shape herself to be like, a good human who was strong enough to be unbeatable. Seeing this Black Tiger trounce Jackie had shaken her, and filled her with fear.

And then Uncle had stepped up, and showed skill that she could never have imagined, and a calm ruthlessness that made Jackie's explosive bursts of temper look like like the flailing of an angry toddler.

"Monkey plucks two peaches!" Hak Foo roared out, lunging for Uncle and extending two fingers towards his eyes.

Uncle's hand came up flat right between Hak Foo's extended fingers like a game of Jan Ken, before closing his hand around one finger and twisting. Hak Foo winced visibly as his finger and wrist were both twisted against the joint, only to gasp for air as Uncle sent his other open hand forward to slam into the larger man's throat. "Monkey goes hungry," Uncle responded flatly, his eyes glaring death into Hak Foo's.

Rubbing at his throat, Hak Foo glowered angrily before charging forward again. "Gorilla snaps frail twig!" he roared as he leapt into the air, seeking to come down on Uncle's head.

Uncle leapt straight up into the air, easily clearing Hak Foo's jump, leaving him to come down on the ground. The ground cracked under the mercenary's feet, and he staggered from the unexpected shock before going sprawling as Uncle kicked off the back of his head. "Springy branch snaps back," Uncle pointed out calmly.

Seeing Jackie starting to stir, Jade raced over to him along with the fillies. "Jackie, you okay?"

"Ooh...Uncle?" he asked in shock, seeing Uncle duking it out with Hak Foo.

"Rabbit Punch!" Hak Foo proclaimed, lunging for Uncle only for him to sway to the side, spinning and driving a bony elbow into the back of the fighter's head. "Mule Kick!" Hak Foo attempted again, only for Uncle to dance back from the lunging strike and catch his temple with a sudden snap kick. "Lobster Claw!" This upward strike was countered with a Judo throw, slamming Hak Foo face first into the ground.

The trade of blow and counter blow continued, Hak Foo unable to land even a single strike on Uncle while Uncle took his time taking the mercenary apart. All the time, Uncle's expression remained twisted in fury, and yet his tone of voice whenever he spoke showed no sign of it. It was almost disturbing to watch.

"Angry Crow takes flight!" Hak Foo cried out desperately, leaping into the air.

"Thank you for sharing, Angry Crow," Uncle countered, racing forward and leaping into the air from below, punching Hak Foo in the gut, catching Hak's head between his feet, and flipping over to slam Hak Foo into the floor beneath before leaping away. Once he landed next to Jackie and the girls, he took off his glasses, wiped them clean, then put them back on before calmly taking his stance again.

"Jade!" Jackie gasped out in shock. "Uncle just leapt 20 feet into the air!"

"Go Uncle!" Jade shouted out eagerly. Apple Bloom and the others, however, looked even more concerned than they had when the fight started. Jade quickly understood why. Uncle had said he'd happily pay the price the Talisman exacted from him...but would they be as happy with what it cost?

Hak Foo got to his feet, shaking his head angrily. A crafty expression crossed his face as his eyes lit up. Leaping to his feet, he charged towards the girls. "Elephant stomps infant gorillas!" he cried out.

Jackie struggled to get to his feet as the girls screamed, scrambling away. Uncle lunged to get between them, only to take a hard fist to the underside of his chin, sending him flying into the brick wall and making it collapse on top of him.

As the others stared in shock, Hak Foo smirked as he rubbed his wrist. "Sorry, I meant...punches silverback."

"Uncle!" Jackie and the four girls cried out, rushing to the pile of rubble.

Hak Foo smirked, turning to once more put Jackie Chan down - or to issue some cryptic warning, whatever he felt was appropriate - only to freeze. Apple Bloom, in a fit of worry, had stomped her forehooves at the edge of the pile of rubble and sent every brick in it flying, smashing most of the factory machinery as she violently uncovered Uncle's unconscious form. His smile quickly vanished. Maybe not cosplayers after all, he thought, turning and beating a retreat. I don't think I'll be mentioning that to my employer...


Uncle lay unconscious in a pile of bricks that softened into a comfortable bed even as he lay there. He could just barely hear the girls and Jackie calling his name, but he could feel himself fading. And then he heard his own voice shouting.

"Uncle!" he yelled at himself. "Aiyah! Tiger man pound you like rice pudding! What you have to say for yourself?"

"He was...going to hurt the girls..." Uncle responded softly. "I...had to protect them..."

"He played you!" Uncle shouted at himself. "He threaten girls to make you stop guarding self!"

"Oh..." Uncle murmured softly. "I...missed that...why did I miss that?"

"Dog Talisman make body work like young!" Uncle told him. "That include brain!"

"...which is why I missed that, too..." Uncle mused.

"One more thing!" Uncle shouted. "Still must get Pig Talisman and discover the power it possesses!"

"But...I am dead," Uncle pointed out.

"Aiyah!" Uncle screamed at him. "How can you be dead when you are wearing the immortality Talisman!"

"...I should eat more fish..." Uncle mused as he realized yet another thing he'd overlooked.

"One more thing!" Uncle yelled, then promptly struck Uncle on the Temple.

"Ow!" Uncle cried out as he sat up.

"Uncle!" five voices cried out in relief, though one in confusion.

Glancing around, Uncle saw that the four girls were torn between worry and relief, while Jackie was plainly confused. Knowing Jackie would insist he surrender the Talisman - and also that he couldn't do that just yet - he quickly came up with a logical explanation for the younger man. "See! Lots of garlic is good for you!"

The Protector

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With Uncle fully recovered, the group made for the clock tower not far from the chocolate factory, likely owned by the same company. Jackie was confused by it at first, as all he'd been told was that was where the Talisman was. It was only when they reached the top from the inside that he saw what they were talking about. The pig caricature that banged cymbals together to chime the hour had the Pig Talisman embedded in his green hat.

"Elwin's sporting a pork pie hat," Jade explained as Jackie stared. "I spotted it earlier when the clock chimed-"

Heavy footfalls went unheard as they spoke, and Tohru grabbed Jackie from behind.

"Tohru!" Apple Bloom cried out in shock as the group turned to face him, Scootaloo quickly taking to the sky on Cumulo.

Hak Foo stepped up from nearby. "Many thanks for leading us to the prize," he purred menacingly, like a hunting cat who'd just cornered its prey.

"You are not welcome," Uncle stated irritably as he stepped into Hak Foo's sight from behind Tohru.

Hak Foo's eyes widened as he stepped back in fear. "But...Elephant Punch!" he stated worriedly, lifting his fist as he glanced from it to Uncle, shaking like a leaf as Uncle stepped forward.

Tohru glanced between Hak Foo and Uncle in confusion. He readily admitted to being afraid of Jackie Chan at times. He knew the fillies had their own powerful magic, and that Jade could be fiendishly clever. He also knew that Uncle was a powerful chi wizard...whatever that meant. Still, he couldn't think why any of that would terrify someone as ruthless as Hak Foo. "What did you do to him?" he asked Uncle curiously.

"Well, after he tried to attack Apple Bloom-" Jade started to say, but Tohru heard no more than that.

His eyes narrowed to slits as he dropped Jackie Chan unceremoniously. "You what?" he snarled angrily, turning to face Hak Foo.

Hak Foo snarled defiantly. "I was hired to find the Talismans, and eliminate obstacles! If they are an obstacle-"

Before he could get another word out, Tohru had lunged forward with an angry yell, his massive hand grasping Hak Foo's entire head. Yanking him forward, Tohru punched Hak hard in the gut before flipping him over his head, slamming him into the floor several times before spinning and slamming him bodily into the gear works of the clock tower. The sheer force of the charge and slam caused many of the gears to crumple, causing the entire gear works to start to fall apart and the tower to begin to collapse.

"Run!" Jackie screamed in fear. Uncle, Jade, Audrey III, and Sweetie Belle were quick to take the advice and follow, racing out of the clock tower.

As they got well out onto the street below, they turned back and saw the entire structure collapsing. As it fell, one large gear flew free of the tower, spinning rapidly, before coming down on the chocolate factory. For some reason, this impact caused the entire building to catch fire.

"Bad day..." Jackie murmured softly as he stared at the devastation.

"Aiyah..." Jade, Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle agreed.

"So...we're booking before the cops show up, right?" Scootaloo asked hopefully, the Pig Talisman clutched in her hooves as she floated down, having gone out via the roof when she'd raced for the Talisman as soon as Hak Foo had made an appearance.

"Excellent idea," Uncle agreed, leading the race back to the hotel.

Behind them, Tohru slowly sat up from amongst the wreckage of the clock tower, pushing it aside as he uncovered himself and a badly injured Hak Foo. He hadn't realized just how badly he'd lost his temper, and found himself more than a little afraid he'd caught Apple Bloom and the others in the destruction he'd caused. Catching sight of the group racing off in the distance, he sighed in relief.

An angry groan from below caught his attention. "You..." Hak Foo snarled. "Valmont will hear of this. You will pay for your betrayal."

Tohru let out a 'tsk' sound as he once more lifted Hak Foo by his head, but this time leaving his face visible. "Master already knows that Chan is more than capable of cold blooded murder to protect his girls," he countered, a minor - in his opinion - exaggeration of the facts. "It is why the rest of us know better than to actually attack them. If I crush your skull now, then go back and tell Master you tried to hurt the girls leading to Jackie snapping your neck, or being eaten by Apple Bloom's size-changing carnivorous plant kaiju Audrey III, or being crushed to death beneath a collapsing clock tower due to your own incompetence and misuse of Talisman magic, Master won't even question. He'll write you off as a loss and purge all records of official contact or employment of you before the day is out."

He pulled Hak's face close to his own. "So if you expect to make it back to San Fransisco in one piece, instead of dying by my hand or being pushed into shark infested waters from the plane while bleeding...I suggest you come up with a story to explain your injuries and failure that doesn't involve what I did to you...and stick to it."

Hak Foo stared into Tohru's cold, merciless, remorseless eyes, felt the apathy and antipathy within that gaze...and whimpered.

"I'm glad we understand each other," Tohru stated bluntly. He threw Hak Foo over his shoulder and turned to walk back to the Dark Hand jet. "I look forward to hearing your story. I'm sure it will be...creative."

The Cameos

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Uncle lay back in his seat in First Class, his body being gently massaged by his chair as they flew back to San Francisco. At Apple Bloom's insistence, he'd taken the Dog Talisman off as soon as they were back on the plane...and the cost kicked in. Everything his body had been through while wearing the Talisman was now taxing both his physical energy and his chi. Had he not built up such huge stores of chi from his wizard training and study, he might well have wasted away as so much of his chi was rapidly directed to repairing the damage done. As it was, he was struggling to breathe and move. Apple Bloom had insisted that she and the others move to a different part of First Class so as not to disturb him, so he could rest easy with the flight attendants fetching whatever he needed.

Reaching out, he carefully lifted his cup of tea and took a small sip, trying to ignore the sippy-cup lid placed for his own safety in case of turbulence or his muscles failing him. Plainly, using the Dog Talisman was not something he should try with any frequency. However, he would recover...so in his mind, it was worth it. Though, probably not again for a long while. Being young was exhausting.

As he rested, however, he was distracted by a heated argument two empty rows in front of him. The man that had asked if Audrey was related to 'Mr. Mumbles' was on the same flight back, along with the lady he'd been travelling with. They were now arguing over something.

"I can't believe the place blew up before we even got there!" the man growled out angrily, throwing his hands up in the air in frustration. "Of all the inconsiderate gall!"

"It's not like we missed anything," the girl offered placatingly. "I mean, we were going to blow the chocolate factory up ourselves..."

"No less than they deserve for trying to poison me!" the angry man insisted.

"Snukikins, I don't think the mislabeling of those regular chocolates as lactose-free was intentional," the woman suggested affectionately. "Sneaking explosives onto an international flight - after getting you off the No-Fly list finally - and off the flight might have been a bit excessive. I mean, we could have just bought them there."

"Never trust foreign markets," the angry man grumbled. "Besides, it's the principle of the thing! We came all this way and we didn't even get to get vengeance ourselves! We're supposed to be the carriers of karma, not the world at large!" He crossed his arms, lowering his head. "Should have just borrowed the super-spy jet again..."

"The whole reason she got you off the no-fly list was because she didn't want us doing that again," the girl chided gently.

"But this whole trip has been such a waste!" the angry man proclaimed angrily. "Who knows what's happening at the bakery without us to ride hard on the idiots and nutcases we have working there?"

"Hmm...maybe I could come up with something to make the trip worth it?" the girl purred suggestively.

The man let out a surprised yelp. "Hey! What happened to keeping our displays of affection less public?"

"These couples cocoons I sprung for come with a soundproof dome," the girl purred hungrily. "Now...let's see about this 'Mile High Club' I've heard so much about, shall we?"

As the dome closed over those seats, Uncle let out a long sigh. Even when it wasn't happening to him, being young was exhausting!


Hak Foo stared up at Valmont from his kneeling position, struggling not to wince from the pain of his injuries. He knew this would not be a pleasant interchange. Valmont finally spoke up. "Hak Foo, do you have an explanation for how exactly you failed in your mission? And how you came to be so injured as a result?"

Hak Foo swallowed as he felt Tohru's gaze boring into his skull from across the room. "I...I'd rather not say," he offered lamely.

Valmont's frown deepened. "Hak Foo, I am giving serious consideration to shifting your payscale to on commission, with payment on successful completion of missions."

Hak Foo felt himself begin to sweat. He needed the steady income of a retainer desperately. "...you won't believe me," he offered hopefully. He had only managed to come up with one way to explain what had happened without mentioning Tohru, and it sounded absurd even to him.

Valmont gestured to the statue behind him. "My present client is a talking, fire-breathing statue who lends us ninjas made of living shadow for backup force. Our targets are magical Talismans. My credulity stretches quite far."

Hak Foo sighed, finally forced to give his 'explanation'. "I was defeated soundly by Splinter and the Power Puff Girls."

Valmont blinked. "...I admit, that's the last thing I expected you to say. I'm not entirely sure..."

"Master," Tohru spoke up as he got his suppressed laughter under control, "the Chans do have access to the Rat Talisman, and it's magic to animate the inanimate."

Valmont sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "There is that, I suppose. Dismissed, Hak Foo. And I expect much better performance in the future."

Nodding, Hak Foo went to his quarters. Once there, he made a note that his exercise routine the next day had to be much more intense. Tonight's workout, however, had to be cancelled. He needed...therapy.

Going to his freezer, he grabbed a gallon of Fudge Ripple ice cream, then sat down in front of the TV. Sticking in a DVD, he watched and listened as the show began to play.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eznOQk3j3vo

As he watched, tears ran down his cheeks. "Kaoru-chan...doushite?" he whimpered softly.


Apple Bloom stared from the Dog Talisman to her 'nerve restoration' potion. She knew she was on the verge of a breakthrough, and could only hope she would get the one she wanted. She had a few ingredients arranged to add to the potion, and wasn't sure what she would need. However, recognizing the runes from the back of the Dog Talisman from the books she'd done her research in for what should have been a youth potion had given her a crazy idea.

As such, she lit the burner under the potion vial, waited for it to start to bubble...and added a few hairs she'd gathered from the tail of a puppy dog (painlessly to the pup, of course).

She watched as she saw the potion change colors, beginning to glow. "It's...it's almost there...maybe...?" Carefully, she added a few snips taken from the garden, and a tiny amount of snail trail slime. Before her eyes, the glow of the potion started to blaze...and the vial began to shake. "Unstable? I need to balance it, but how...?" Thinking quickly, she grabbed a teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of cinnamon, tossing them into the vial. Not sure what else to do for the last ingredient, she focused her chi into her pendant, drew out a merest fraction of the Christmas Magic inside, and fed it into the blazing potion.

The vial and burner both exploded, though no shrapnel appeared. As the smoke cleared, all that was left was a tiny red crystal that Apple Bloom didn't recognize, though when she picked it up she could feel power stored within.

"...okay, not what I wanted..." she groaned, burying her face in her free hoof. "But...maybe it can do something? I mean...what is it?" She gently set it rolling along the table, where it fell into Rhino's water dish, making the water sparkle.

At that moment, Rhino crawled slowly up to get a drink. After a few sips, he raced away as quickly as he had five years prior, looking as fresh as a youngin.

Blinking, Apple Bloom lifted the stone again. "It...gives energy to liquid?" she mumbled thoughtfully. "Hmm..."

Unsure what else to do with it, she went over to Uncle's favorite tea cup and affixed it to the bottom of the cup on the inside. To her surprise, the crystal shifted to match the coloration of the inside of the cup. Shrugging her shoulders, she made a mental note to only serve Uncle tea in that cup from now on. With luck, it would actually help him.

What no one knew was that the paint on the bottom of the outside of the cup was lead based, though it never reached far enough for any of it to ever enter Uncle's systems. Had Apple Bloom looked a little longer, she would have noticed the paint taking on a golden sheen.

Final Contest

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A pie eating contest.

A pie eating contest.

Jackie couldn't believe that this last Talisman hunt had ended at a pie eating contest. He rubbed his forehead as he mentally went over how it had happened.

They'd tracked the Talisman to where it was hidden according to the inscriptions, only to find it wasn't there anymore. When they tracked down who had removed it, they discovered it was as part of a family tradition to bake a clean, odd-shaped rock into a pie as some sort of traditional prank on whoever found it. The man who'd done so had done it for his ill daughter, who was born under the sign of the Tiger. Unfortunately, she hadn't made it to try the pie. Unable to look at it anymore, he'd donated the pie to the pie eating contest.

As such, all they knew was that the Talisman was in one of the pies at the contest. This meant the only way for them to get the Talisman was to enter the contest so they could search the pies. Jackie intended to just search each pie with a fork, while the girls intended to actually eat their way through, enjoying the contest itself. Jackie sighed to himself once more as he settled on the stage. At least their only competition was an old man who could barely keep his dentures in his mouth.

At least, that was so until Tohru sat down at the opposite end of the table, right next to Apple Bloom and Audrey. "Bad day..." Jackie groaned to himself. So much for a relaxed hunt.

At the whistle, everyone began to eat. The old man went one careful bite at a time from his pie. Jackie went pie by pie, stabbing his fork into them all over in an attempt to find stone. Tohru lifted a pie in each hand, shoving them into his mouth and devouring them, pausing just long enough after each one to search his mouth with his tongue before swallowing. Jade ate rapidly in forkfuls, as did Sweetie Belle with multiple floating forks. Scootaloo buried her face in each pie as she got to them, devouring them eagerly and quickly becoming quite messy.

The spectacle, however, was Apple Bloom. It started when she struck the edge of the first pie tin with her hoof, causing the pie to hop out and over her head. Opening her mouth wide, she caught it in her mouth, searched for stone with her tongue, then swallowed whole. Even as she was swallowing, she had struck the next tin, sending that pie after the first one. She repeated the pattern endlessly, it eventually looking like some sort of strange rhythm game. At one point, she even struck three tins in rapid sequence before catching the pies in her mouth one by one. This caused a huge round of applause from the audience, and drew the attention of the other competitors.

Jade quickly attempted to duplicate the feat, but she only succeeded in splattering pie all over her face. "Stupid OP pony magic," she grumbled under her breath in a half-hearted pout.

Tohru watched in amazement for a few moments before redoubling his efforts, having apparently become bitten by a competitive bug.

As the pace reached a fever pitch, the old man suddenly spoke up. "There's somethin' crunchy in mah pie." Reaching into his mouth, he pulled out his dentures...and the Tiger Talisman, caught between the teeth.

"Go!" Jackie ordered quickly, leaping to the table and rushing to grab the Talisman.

Apple Bloom's strike to the last pie tin was off because of that, sending the pie flipping multiple times in the air before landing in Audrey's open mouth. Tohru started to stand up, only to freeze as Apple Bloom was between him and Jackie. This allowed the whole group to get away as Tohru was stopped as the winner of the contest, with a new record of 47 pies.


In Valmont's office, Shendu was most upset. "After nine centuries, all 12 Talismans have finally been recovered," he growled viciously. "And yet, I only possess two. The Chans possess ten! You have failed, Valmont."

"Not yet, Shendu," Vlamont countered. "We need only discover the location of Section 13, and recover the Talismans from there."

"And how, pray tell, do you intend to manage that before the new year?" Shendu hissed angrily. "If the Year of the Dragon ends before I acquire all 12 Talismans, their powers will seal themselves, and I will be unable to complete my resurrection! If that happens, you can kiss the treasure of Shin Shi Wa goodbye!"

"For a dozen more years, anyway," Valmont observed calculatingly.

"For much longer than that," Shendu countered. "Stars attuned to Dark Chi are coming close to an alignment. When that alignment occurs, it will alter the balance of chi across the entire planet for many years to come. If the Talismans' power is sealed during that time, they will not unseal for another nine centuries! And unlike demons like myself, you lack that much time to wait. And with how I have seen human technology and chi magic advance since I was bound to this form, I seriously doubt I will be able to succeed nine centuries hence."

"Then it's a good thing Chan's not off the plane yet," Valmont observed dryly. "Hak Foo is spying on the old Chi Wizard's shop, with orders to follow Chan when he arrives and leaves. He always brings the Talismans there first, so the old man can determine their magic. We will discover the location of Section 13 by following Chan when he goes to lock the Talisman away." He grinned wickedly. "Failing that, we shall simply bring him here and...extract the information we need. I know a few specialists in that regard..."

Final Power

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Once the group had returned to the shop, Jackie immediately took the Talisman into the back room with Uncle to research its powers. Jade and the girls, meanwhile, put their focus instead on the basket of candy on the table in the center of the shop. "Chinese New Year rocks!" Jade spoke up happily, reaching into the covered basket to pull out a bag. "Especially the sweets."

"Jade!" Jackie called out without bothering to look up before Jade had even managed to grab one of the bags. "Leave it be. Two more days till New Years."

Grumbling, Jade pulled her empty hand back amidst the giggles of the fillies. "How did he know-"

"And that goes double for the rest of you," Jackie added absently. "I'd like to go at least one year without having to buy a second basket the day before New Years when the prices are highest, Scootaloo."

"Hey!" Scootaloo complained as Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle giggled. "I'm not the only one to empty the basket before New Years!"

"No, but Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle have the courtesy to give me a full week in which to get a good deal on a replacement basket," Jackie responded, again without looking up.

"So...is there anything I can do in the way of mischief you three haven't already done?" Jade asked hopefully.

"One more thing!" Uncle called out without looking up from his tome. "Sweetie Belle, make sure Rhino doesn't get into the candy! Too much sugar not good for hamsters!"

Sweetie Belle giggled as she caught the mischievous rodent in her magic, stuffing him back in his hamster ball. "We'll let you know if we come up with anything."

"Hatcha!" Uncle spoke up quietly, catching Jackie's attention. "The Tiger Talisman possesses the power of Balance!"

"Physical or spiritual?" Apple Bloom asked quickly before Jade could try something crazy and likely make a mess of it.

"Good thinking, Apple Bloom," Uncle praised. "It is spiritual balance. Within each and every one of us lies conflicting forces, Yin and Yang. Light and Dark. Good and Evil."

"And what sort of power is that for a magical Talisman?" Jade demanded grumpily.

"Dunno what it does on its own," Scootaloo spoke up, "but if my theory about the Talismans being meant to be used together is true, that one's probably what lets someone use the other 11 at the same time without overburdening their chi."

"Exactly!" Uncle praised. "According to my research, Tiger Talisman is the glue that binds the other Talismans together. Other Talismans can be used one at a time, or interchangeably...but with rare exception, should not be used together without the Tiger Talisman. To do so would be to court Chi Exhaustion."

Scootaloo's eyes widened considerably. "Then...the Immortality and Youthful Energies of the Dog Talisman would be channeled through the Tiger Talisman to become the fuel on which the other Talismans ran, keeping the wielder's own chi stable?"

Uncle nodded. He then raised his hand. "One more thing! You should not try to combine Dog, Horse, and Tiger Talismans in an attempt to empty out the hospital. Too much magic applied to someone in bad health state can be lethal before any magical effect can take place as their chi paths are overloaded."

"In other words, for someone to survive using the Horse/Dog/Tiger combination to recover from any illness, they need to be well enough that just the Horse Talisman would do it?" Sweetie concluded acerbically as Scootaloo's face fell.

"More or less, yes," Uncle allowed. "As I have said many times, magic is not a fix all."

Scootaloo idly kicked at the floor. "...I'll be on Cumulo," she offered softly, taking wing and heading for the second floor window.

Uncle sighed softly as he watched her go. "The important lessons are rarely pleasant," he allowed sadly.

Jackie nodded, taking the Talisman from Uncle. "For now, I will take this powerless Talisman to Section 13," he explained softly. "Uncle, are you certain I cannot take it through the warp spell the girls use?"

"Aiyah! You want take dangerous magical artifact through magical warp you do not fully understand?" Uncle demanded in terror. "Even Jade knows enough of magic to not do that!"

"Yeah-hey!" Jade shouted out, her cry quickly shifting from pleased to angry, much to the amusement of Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle.

Chuckling to himself, Jackie turned to go. "Then I will walk. It is a pleasant day, after all, and it will be nice to finally put this quest to rest."

"And Jade and fillies make tea for dear old Uncle?" Uncle suggested eagerly. "Has been tasting especially good as of late."

Jackie chuckled as he watched the girls go to the kitchen as he walked out into the shop. As he walked, he noticed a brief flare of light from the Tiger Talisman. "What?" Examining it closely, he saw a crack running in a curved line the whole length of the Talisman. "A crack? How did that-" He paused as he remembered the sound the old man's dentures had made as they had cracked down on the Talisman. "Maybe...but that doesn't make any sense. Talismans are magical stones. They wouldn't have survived this long if they were that fragile..." His voice trailed off as he got a closer look at the shape of the crack. "Wait...that looks a lot like the dividing line in most Yin/Yang symbols-"

His words were interrupted as the Talisman split down the middle, shedding some stuck on dirt and stone chips as the two tigers - one in each half of the Talisman - glowed brightly, and the world went white.

Final Thoughts

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Jackie slowly sat up after the flash of the Talisman, rubbing his head. The headache was annoying, but his heart felt unburdened for the first time in as long as he could remember. There was no rage to hold back, no pain always lurking at the corners of his memories. He felt...cleansed. Was this the power of the Tiger Talisman? To bring him into balance with himself? If so, perhaps he should hold onto it-

No, he had to be responsible. He shook his head to clear it, and noticed his reflection. Hardened from experience he looked, but he didn't seem upset with himself. He really should talk with Uncle about this Talisman. If it could help him so much...

His thoughts drew his eyes to the Talisman...to the half Talisman in his hand. "Wah!" he cried out...his voice oddly echoing, but that could be focused on later. The more important issue was, "Where's the other half?" He quickly began to search for it, fearing what might happen. If even half the Talisman could do this, what would happen with the whole thing? And what would the other half do, if this half meant calming his heart? If it was Balance, would the other half cause the carrier's heart to be in turmoil?

His thoughts raced as he struggled to find answers and the half Talisman, but a squish under his foot drew his attention. When he saw what had happened, pain shot through his heart. He had killed! He had taken life! What had he become?

Tears in his eyes, he raced for Uncle as he had since he was a child, desperate for comfort. Tears poured down his cheeks as he cried out to his caretaker, his protector, his guardian, his friend, "Uncle!"

Uncle quickly got up from his research to see to Jackie, as he always had. "What is it?" he asked worriedly.

"I stepped on a bug!" Jackie wailed out, knowing Uncle would find a way to make it all better. He wasn't sure why Uncle was staring at him oddly.


Jackie slowly sat up after that irritating flash of light, rubbing his head. Other than the pain, his head felt the clearest it had in years. Each thought came clearly and precisely, without hesitation or worry. There were no doubts making him question, nor any need to question. Each thought had a sense of rightness with it, of certainty. Was this the power of the Talisman, to cleanse his mind and bring balance to his thoughts? If so, he should keep it. This was useful.

Turning, he saw his reflection, clear of all doubt. This was definitely the better way. Definitely keeping this Talisman, and if anyone tried to take it from him, he could just break them. There was no reason not to.

He glanced down at the Talisman in his hand...the half Talisman in his hand. "Wah!" he cried out, not caring about the choral tone of his voice. "Where's the other half?" He went to go look for the missing half. After all, if one half had done this for him, what could both halves do? Besides, why should he share?

As he looked, he noticed the basket of candy on the counter. Eh, he'd probably search better after a snack. Besides, he liked candy. Walking right up to the counter without hesitation, he began to raid the basket for the best bits, his favorites from his childhood. They were as delicious as ever, so it wouldn't hurt anything to binge. It wasn't long before the basket was almost entirely empty of all but wrapping paper.

"Tea is ready, Uncle!" Jade called as she and the fillies exited the kitchen, pushing a small trolley with the tea tray on top. When they caught sight of Jackie, however, they froze.

Jackie shrugged as he tossed the last bit of candy into his mouth, chewing and swallowing. "Good," he commented idly, rubbing his belly.

"Jackie!" Jade wailed unhappily.

"That was our candy!" Scootaloo added her voice to the complaint.

"Not anymore," Jackie replied bluntly. Walking up, he idly ruffled Jade's hair and Apple Bloom's mane. "Got milk?"

Apple Bloom looked to be on the verge of tears. Sweetie Belle actually was crying.

Jackie tsked irritably. "Grow up," he grumbled as he made his way to the kitchen. If that was all it took to make the girls cry, then the outside world would eat them alive without their pendants. They needed to toughen up and quick. He couldn't solve all their problems after all. He headed for the fridge to grab the milk.


Uncle backed out of his study in confusion. Noticing Jade and the girls over by the kitchen, he called out to them. "What happened to Jackie? He is such a crybaby!" He figured they might know what was up, especially if magic was involved.

"He's such a jerk!" Jade snapped out, more anger and hostility in her voice than had been there since she had arrived as she and Scootaloo tried to comfort Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle.

Uncle blinked, wondering what the heck had gotten into the girls. "He is in the library, weeping all over my research!" he insisted, defending his point.

"No," Scootaloo corrected. "He's in the kitchen raiding...the fridge..." Her voice trailed off as she felt something odd in the wind of the shop.

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle looked up as they wiped their eyes. Maybe things weren't how they seemed? "Jackie!" Apple Bloom called out at the top of her voice, hoping she'd find something to tell her that her beloved uncle hadn't taken her candy and then callously left her in tears without even an apology.

Jackie stepped out of the study, wiping tears from his eyes. Jackie also stepped out of the kitchen, chugging milk straight from the carton before lowering it.

"WHA!" Uncle, Jade, and all three fillies called out at the sight of two Jackies.

The Jackie drinking milk belched. The other Jackie turned, and both caught sight of each other. "Wah!" they cried out in stereo.

"Prepare for trouble," Audrey III sang out. "Make it double..."

Final Face-Off

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Once everyone stopped freaking out - and Audrey III stopped singing - Uncle brought everyone back to his lab so he could look into what happened and why. His research quickly provided an answer. "When the Talisman broke, Jackie's Yin was separated from his Yang."

"Whoa," Jade murmured softly. "Jackie Light...and Jackie Dark..."

"I am the dark side!" the weeping Jackie spoke up. "I murdered a bug!"

"Ugh!" the other Jackie growled out. "You can't really be that much of an idiot? Don't you ever listen to Uncle's lectures? That's your job!"

The crying Jackie blinked. "Well...Dark isn't necessarily evil...so I am the evil side!" He promptly went back to crying, making the other Jackie facepalm.

"You're the side who ate our candy?" Sweetie Belle whimpered, looking up at the angry Jackie. "Are...are you evil?"

"Not evil," Uncle corrected. "Just lacking sound judgement-"

"In your opinion," the gruff Jackie interrupted in an irritated growl, arms crossed and vibrating like a coiled spring.

Uncle frowned, not liking being interrupted. However, he decided to move on to the next point. "So, each of you has half of the Talisman?"

The two Jackies each pulled out their Talisman half.

"Good!" Uncle praised. "You must put them together, to unite into one Jackie."

"Not a chance!" The gruff Jackie growled, knocking the gentle Jackie's arm aside as he pocketed his Talisman half. "I will never be one with him again!"

Everyone pulled back in shock at the intensity. The gentle Jackie stood up. "Works for me! I don't want you inside me again, trying to make me a monster-"

"Make you a monster?" the gruff Jackie growled, slamming his fist into the wall. "You're already a monster, or I wouldn't exist! And I'm not going back into that cage!"

"Cage?" gentle Jackie demanded, stunned. "What are you talking about? You're the one always trying to hurt people!"

"You made me that way!" gruff Jackie snarled. "All these years, with the world tearing you apart inside and out...but you won't show that! No, you won't let it twist you into 'something you're not'. So instead, all that pain and misery-" He slammed his hand against his chest. "You bottle it up here, stick it into me! Who cares if the world is really awful, if nine times out of ten we're the punching bag! No, can't skew that happy perspective, so dump it on me! All that I'm left is the anger, the pain, the hate!" He crossed his arms, looking down on his counterpart. "And you call me the monster."

"You were going to kill that Nibbler guy!" gentle Jackie pointed out.

"He deserved it!" gruff Jackie snapped. "He was going to eat our girls! He left them with nightmares that still plague them! He deserved to be ripped apart and sent straight to hell!"

Gentle Jackie gasped in shock. "You...you said a bad word in front of the girls! You are evil!"

"You really think you can sanitize the world for them?" gruff Jackie snapped. "Someday they'll have to face the world without their pendants. Either their magic will need to be unleashed, or it will grow too strong to hide! And you know as well as I what the world will do to them then." He stomped forward angrily. "It will chew them up and spit them out, just like it did to us. If they aren't strong enough, they won't survive. And you'll let that happen, because you can't bear to hurt their 'innocence'."

"I don't want to hurt them!" gentle Jackie wailed. "And I don't want them hurt!"

"And no matter what, that is inevitable," gruff Jackie snapped. "The world hurts. You either deal with it, or you're left like us or worse. You want this for them?" Both fell silent for a time.

"This is what comes of being out of balance!" Uncle yelled, getting in the middle of them. "You must restore balance!" Reaching out, he struck both Jackie's on the temple.

"Ow!" gentle Jackie complained, rubbing his forehead.

Gruff Jackie struck back.

"Ow!" Uncle complained. "Oh...you want a piece of Uncle?"

The gruff Jackie and Uncle proceeded to exchange finger strikes to the temples as all others glanced back and forth between them. Jade stared wide eyed, shocked beyond belief at what her uncle had shouted at himself. Audrey was humming something to himself as he watched. Apple Bloom had curled up in Audrey's vines, covering her ears as she no longer wanted to hear any of it. Sweetie Belle had climbed into Jade's arms for comfort.

Scootaloo sat atop Cumulo, focusing on the aerial view...but her wings twitched, dragging her attention away. A familiar red-headed figure was approaching the shop, closely followed by a familiar white limo. "It's the Crow guy!" she called out, pointing. "And the Dark Hand!"

Gentle Jackie quickly seized the girls. "Run! This is no place for children!"

"Hide the Talismans!" Uncle warned.

Gentle Jackie pocketed his Talisman half as he pulled the girls into the back of the shop. Gruff Jackie pocketed his, then shifted himself. "I owe him some payback," he growled, spitting into a nearby teacup as he made his way to the front.

Hak Foo growled as he caught sight of him. "Chan! You will give me the Talisman or I-"

He was cut off as a spinning kick caught him in the solar plexus, sending him straight out the front door of the shop, across the street, and embedding him in the wall opposite. Gruff Jackie cricked his neck. "Next?"

Final Negotiation

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Tohru, Finn, Chao, and their companion in their assault group stared from Hak Foo embedded in the wall to Chan glaring at them. Ratso was leading a couple others around the side of the shop, but it didn't seem to be necessary at this point...or particularly wise. Finn finally managed to find his voice. "So...is this a bad time?" he asked nervously.

"Not at all," Chan responded. "I have some anger to work out. Your timing is perfect."

"Not it!" Finn called out immediately.

"Not it!" Chao followed up quickly.

"Not it!" the new guy called out.

"Wait, wha-oh..." Tohru rubbed his forehead, turning to smile nervously at Chan. "I don't suppose if we asked politely-"

"I'd give you a ten second head start, yes," Chan interrupted quickly.

"Run for it!" Finn yelled out, racing for the car they arrived in.

Chan grinned as he took off in hot pursuit as the car drove off.


Ratso panted for breath as he pushed himself in pursuit of Jackie, leading his two lackeys. At the start of the day, he'd felt great since he had lackeys to push around for once. He was even happy to be assigned to the back door, since it reduced the chance he'd end up in traction by day's end. Then Jackie had popped out of the door, pushing the four girls back into the shop behind him before saying, "Fighting is not nice!"

That's where the chase had begun, with the three of them racing after Jackie after he'd run along the wall to get past them to the street. He was rather grateful when he saw a commotion ahead, which resolved itself into people watching a celebration of Chinese New Year complete with a dragon dance. It meant Jackie would stop running to hide.

When the trio did track down and corner Jackie...they could be forgiven for overlooking the thundering cyan cloud hovering over a box of fireworks.


Valmont moved down to the lower levels of his building as he saw one of his dispatch vehicles returning, certain this meant that his men had successfully captured Chan so they could extract information from him. He'd already had an illuminating conversation with Shendu regarding the recently claimed Talisman...specifically a detail that Tohru had recalled before leaving.

"The Tiger Talisman is the glue that binds the others together," Shendu had explained. "On its own, it has no inherent magic. It only reacts to magic it is used with."

Valmont stared at the image of the Talisman he'd found in the old tomes. "The design is different than the other Talismans," he observed. "The others all have the single animal etching...but this one seems to be two tigers back to back."

"The design represents the balance of Yin and Yang," Shendu explained tersely. "Surely you understand that much."

"It's just that Tohru heard the sound of stone cracking when the Talisman was bitten into," Valmont pointed out. "Can Talismans break? Or...be designed to break?"

Shendu hummed to himself for a moment. "It is feasible," he admitted. "It has not happened before, but it could be possible that should the Tiger Talisman become divided, it would divide the Yin and Yang of the one holding it, ungluing them from each other. But the odds are unlikely."

"Pity," Valmont observed sadly. "It would be a perfect way to get Chan on our side if we could separate his goody-two-shoes self from that core of fury. If he weren't so dead set on being the good guy, he'd make an excellent enforcer..."

It was as he thought these things that he reached the front door in time to see something that greatly unnerved him. Chan stood there wearing Chao's jacket and shades. Chao and Finn were collapsed just inside the door, bruised and battered and looking torn between wanting to crawl away and staying as still as humanly possible. The third thug sent with them was unconscious and bent in an unpleasant fashion. Tohru was collapsed on his stomach with Chan standing on top of him.

"You tried to hurt my girls," Chan growled, cracking his neck and knuckles as he stared down at Valmont. "You know what's coming."

Valmont's eyes quickly raced around the room, seeking any advantage. The time had come for some fast negotiations, and he needed an edge. He found one...in the edge of a half Talisman laying on the ground near Chao. I suppose it's true that one should be careful what one wishes for, he thought to himself. The powers that be always deliver it in the worst possible way. Straightening his tie, he shifted to a completely neutral stance and put a friendly smile on his face. "Mr. Chan, let me apologize for any misunderstanding in this case. My men were under firm instructions not to harm the youngsters. While I admit the threat of harming family members can be useful in my business, I've found the actuality of it far too often comes back to bite one." He shrugged his shoulders. "Whether it be from encountering one like you, or because many of ones own enforcers have young relatives of their own." He nodded towards Finn and Chao. "They'd no more harm your nieces than their own nephews. And I'm sure I don't need to explain why Tohru would never dream-"

"Hak Foo," Chan interrupted flatly.

Valmont sighed theatrically. "A freelancer. One whose contract unfortunately grants me very little oversight as far as his methods. I promise you, Chan, neither I nor my organization intend any harm to those precious angels you watch over."

Chan spit to the side. "And I'm supposed to take your word for it?" he demanded angrily.

"Mr. Chan, I'm a businessman," Valmont explained simply, buffing his nails against his suit. "Our interactions thus far have been business, pure and simple...something in the nature of a hostile takeover. So let's talk business. I want the Talismans, not for myself but for a client. Said client has promised to reward me handsomely for acquiring all 12 for him. As long as I make a profit from this interaction, I'm willing to use whatever methods are most efficient."

"...I'm getting bored," Chan growled, flexing his fingers. "Get to the point."

"The point is simple Mr. Chan," Valmont stated flatly. "Bring me the Talismans from Section 13, and I will make you rich." He watched as Chan's eyes gleamed. He could see it there, the look of someone who had been trampled over and over again by the world around him who suddenly found a way that he could do the trampling. For one without hesitation who'd lived on the bottom, nothing was more tempting than getting on top.

"...and if you or your client pulls something on me?" Chan demanded coldly.

Valmont smiled. He'd thought this side of Chan would grab the bait right off the bat. He was rather pleased to discover that even the most brutal half of Chan was still a worthy opponent. "Should that happen, you know where to find me, Mr. Chan."

Chan grinned. "...works for me. I'll be seeing you, one way or the other." With that, he turned and left.

Valmont quickly checked to make sure his men would recover without immediate supervision, then sent for the on staff medical personnel before racing back up to his office. "Shendu, how many Shadow Khan can you spare me as backup today?"

"An odd request," Shendu hissed. "Why do you ask?"

"Remember our talk about Chan being split by the Tiger Talisman?" Valmont explained quickly. "Well, it's happened...and I could use a couple thousand ninjas as backup if you can spare them."

Final Deception

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It didn't take long for Jade and the others to get Jackie away from Ratso and his goons. However, Jackie had bad news for them. "My other half...I think he plans to attack the Dark Hand en masse all by himself!"

"He could probably pull it off," Scootaloo pointed out dryly.

"But what if he kills someone?" Sweetie Belle asked worriedly. "If Jackie gets all the memories when they combine back together, he'll never be able to live with himself!"

"And what if he hurts Tohru?" Apple Bloom added. "Or if Tohru hurts him?"

"So we need to get to Section 13, put Nice Jackie's Talisman half into the vault for safe keeping, and call in the backup," Jade concluded. "Audrey, tell me you got one of your thorns on both Jackies."

"You can count on me like one two three," Audrey III sang out happily.

"But how do you plan to explain this to him?" Jackie asked as he gave Jade his Talisman half. "Augustus still doesn't believe in magic!"

"We could...have you stay outside?" Jade suggested thoughtfully. "Not mention the whole 'two of you' thing."

"But what if Gruff Jackie shows up while we're getting backup?" Sweetie Belle asked. "All well and good if he's okay, but our credibility will be shot."

Jade tapped her chin. "I...think I have an idea..."


Captain Black blinked in surprise as Jade ran into his office, followed by her cousins and Jackie. "Captain Black! Jackie's attacking the Dark Hand headquarters solo!"

Captain Black blinked for a time. "Uh...do you have your tenses crossed, or...?" He pointed to where Jackie was plainly in the office.

"Oh, not me!" Jackie offered sweetly. "My other half. The Tiger Talisman split me in two!"

Captain Black groaned. "Not more of this 'magic' nonsense..."

"RRGH!" Jade finally snapped. "It's not nonsense! There's magic all around you and you've been to blind to see it! The Talismans all have magic, the Dragon Talisman fireblasted you, the Rat Talisman led to a huge Cthuhlu vs Audrey Kaiju battle in San Fransisco Bay, ninjas made of living shadow have backed up the Dark Hand agents on numerous occasions, and my cousins are candy colored magical talking ponies from another dimension but you aren't even aware of it because they have magical pendants that make anyone who looks at them see them as normal, despite the fact one of them rides a tame cloud, one rides a singing plant out of a B horror film, and one's a freaking unicorn!" She took a few calming breaths. "What part of that sounds like nonsense?"

Captain Black chuckled as he ruffled Jade's hair. "Got quite the imagination on you, squirt," he observed playfully. "You ought to get into fiction. That sounds like it would make a good story(1)." He leaned back in his chair...then froze. "Jackie...how are you also over there?" He pointed to where Chan had just walked by with a tackle box.

The group spun. "My other half!" Jackie called out, rushing forward. "You're al-"

"Don't touch me!" Chan snarled, pushing him back. "I don't want to have anything to do with you ever again!"

Captain Black stepped up. "Alright, one of you tell me what's going on before you both go under-"

"Nap Time," Chan stated as he grabbed Captain Black's shirt, pulled him forward, and slammed his forehead into the other man's. Captain Black fell back, unconscious.

Jackie gasped in shock. "Knocking out our friend is not nice!" he called out chidingly.

"Oh shut up," Chan growled. "Now where's your half of the Tiger?"

"But I don't want to be one again!" Jackie complained.

"No more do I, but full payment's for ten, not nine and a half."

Jade gasped in shock. "You...you're stealing the Talismans to sell them to the Dark Hand?"

"And now you know why I knocked out Black here," Chan growled angrily. "He'd have kicked up the same fuss you all are."

"I can't let you do that!" Jackie spoke up, shifting into a combat stance. "If the Dark Hand gets all 12...bad things could happen!"

Chan spat to the side as he dropped the tackle box. "I get to beat you up, too? It must be my birthday." He too took a combat stance, one much more aggressive than Jackie had. "I'm going to enjoy this..."

As the four girls watched in shock, the two Jackies lunged for each other. Jackie fought more defensively than he normally did, apparently trying to make his opponent wear himself down and use the environment to his advantage, showing much more use of Aikido than he normally did. Chan, on the other hand, fought very aggressively, lunging in with powerful strikes in an attempt to disable or break his opponent, drawing heavily from Krav Maga. Despite the difference in styles, they continued to be evenly matched, the fight taking them all across the office and wrecking the furniture as it was used as makeshift weaponry.

Jade swallowed as she glanced between the fight, the tackle box, and her shoe. With luck, Chan put his half of the Talisman in there. If she could just put the Talisman back together-

"Vulture steals kill!" Hak Foo suddenly shouted out as he snatched the tackle box from the floor after dropping down from the ceiling, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. He then unlimbered what looked like Section 13 weaponry, apparently having liberated it before coming here. "Osprey snatches four fish!" he cried out as he fired a net from the weapon, trapping all four girls in it as they were yanked away. "Skunk discourages pursuit!" he proclaimed as he hurled what looked like a grenade into the room. It went off in a flash of light and released noxious smoke. As Jackie and Chan coughed and Audrey groaned weakly, Hak Foo spoke normally. "I'll be taking these girls...to make sure you two behave..."

"JACKIE!" all four girls called out despairingly as the smoke cleared, leaving Jackie and Chan alone in the chamber with a partially wilted Audrey and an unconscious Captain Black.



(1) Wrenched my shoulder just a bit here. :P

Final Reconciliation

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(Suggested Listening)

Chan let out a roar of rage, slamming his clenched fist into the wall hard enough to dent metal. "That bastard!" he snarled. "He dared..."

Jackie sank to his knees, sobbing. "The girls...I...what am I going to do now?"

Both remained where they were, lost in their own turmoil. Jackie desperately wanted to save the girls, but every plan he came up with presented so many risks he didn't dare try them, and he knew he couldn't wait too long or the Dark Hand would find the Talisman half Jade had, and then something really bad would happen. Chan, on the other hand, was filled with uncontrollable rage, and wanted to march right down to the Dark Hand's building and rip out the white-haired man's heart...but if they saw him coming, the girls could get hurt. And all they'd have to do is send those shadow ninjas at them, since their Dark Magic nature would hurt the fillies just from touching. He had no plan.

Jackie was finally the one who broke the silence. "...this is all my fault..."

"Your fault?" Chan snapped in confusion. "I'm the one who tried to trade the Talismans for cash-"

"I'm the one who made you," Jackie interrupted. "You were right. I was so determined to try and stay happy I refused to face the pain and anger. Everything I felt made me a bad person...I balled it up into you. Because I couldn't face the world for what it really is...they're gone..."

Chan stared at him for a time. Finally, he spoke up as well. "We're both to blame for this," he said simply. "I was so focused on finally making you pay for lumping all your suffering onto me that I lost sight of my real job: keeping them safe. I was happy to take risks I shouldn't have."

"I don't know what to do..." Jackie murmured softly.

"Duh," Chan responded. "We save them."

"But how?" Jackie demanded despairingly.

"Together."

Jackie jerked his head up in response.

Chan snorted. "I may be strong enough to protect them, but I also plainly can't do that on my own. And even if I could...I can't raise them healthy. For their sake, I need you."

Jackie lowered his gaze. "I'm not strong enough to save them. I'll hesitate, show too much caution, and all will be lost. I can't save them..." He lifted his gaze to look back at Chan. "...without you."

Chan nodded. "Then we're in agreement. I know where their base is. What's the plan?"

"What sort of building?" Jackie asked quickly.

"Tall, lots of floors, elevator in the back," Chan detailed swiftly.

Jackie rubbed his chin. "Room for plenty of troops...and they'll see us coming in. We'll need to find a way to keep them from threatening the girls to stop us-"

"I'm on it," Chan stated quickly as he turned and grabbed Captain Black's security pass card. "How do we know where to find the girls?"

"Top floor," Jackie responded immediately. "Even if they won't have them there initially, once they see us coming they'll run there. Only logical."

Chan nodded and left the room. Before long, he came back with two technological looking swords. He passed one hilt first to Jackie. "We go in swinging these," he stated firmly, gripping the hilt of his. It instantly began to vibrate, energy humming along the edge. To demonstrate what it did, he swung it at one of the broken pieces of furniture from their earlier fight. The blade sheared through effortlessly.

"Wha!" Jackie yelped, leaping back. "We can't use these! They're killing weapons!"

"The shadow ninjas are magic constructs, not really alive," Chan stated bluntly. "As for the humans, they either know to get out of our way, or are willing to threaten children to get what they want. Either way, I won't hesitate to swing...and if you want to save the girls, you can't either."

Unable to find fault with this, Jackie nodded sadly.


Valmont was not happy as he placed the Talismans from out of the tackle box into the slots on Shendu's stone body. On the one hand, it seemed they had all the Talismans they needed, and he'd soon get the promised reward. On the other hand, Hak Foo had captured the four girls, which meant that he'd soon have two Chans out for his blood. On top of that, Tohru actively showed signs of mutiny over the situation, much as Valmont expected he would.

Admittedly, if Valmont had his way, Tohru would have taken the girl, the ponies, a huge check, and an apology letter and made straight for Uncle's Rare Finds. However, as soon as he'd laid eyes on them, Shendu had insisted the fillies be chained up close to the wall, stating flat out that he'd take care of things personally. Valmont had worked too long in the criminal world to have any doubts about what that meant.

Still, he silently counted out the Talismans. He kept telling himself he had come too far. The treasure of Shin Shi Wa would give him more than enough to retire, and never touch any enterprise ever again. He'd buy his own island and never think about any of this. He was through messing with magic if he could at all avoid it.

When the tackle box was empty, however, he had only inserted...eleven and a half Talismans. "Where is the other half?" Shendu demanded angrily.

"If it please you, I shall find it," Hak Foo offered eagerly, plainly trying to redeem himself in the eyes of both employer and client.

"By what method?" Shendu inquired carefully.

Grinning, Hak Foo walked over to the girls. Shendu's Dark Magic aura had weakened the fillies' magic to the point they couldn't get themselves free this close, and with eleven and a half Talismans installed they were completely powerless. He then bent over Jade. "You will tell me of your own free will where the remaining Talisman half is quickly, or one of these three will tell me slowly." He cracked his knuckles. "Your choice."

Jade whimpered, looking down at her shoe. She hoped Jackie - either of them - found them soon.


As Chan had predicted, the sight of two Jackie Chan's with angry expressions cutting their way through the front door with vibrating swords that cut through glass without it shattering, wood without splintering, and stone without stopping resulted in every human guard running in any direction but the one they were approaching from, leading the path clear for them. "Let's go," Chan stated gruffly as they made their way to the elevator.

"Ooh! Express!" Jackie pointed out with a grin. "Only one floor to go to!"

"Then that's the floor we're going to," Chan stated firmly as the door closed around them.

Final Transformation

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As Jackie and Chan stepped off the elevator, the hallway in front of them filled with the shadow ninjas. Chan smirked as he gripped the sword he'd brought tighter. "Told you," he stated simply as he reactivated it.

Nodding, Jackie reactivated his own. "No need to rub it in." The pair took twin offensive stances, swords at the ready.

The ninjas lunged for them, and the pair struck back.


Shendu watched as the Shadow Khan were ruthlessly and methodically slaughtered with sword slashes, devastating punches and kicks, and at one point a snapped neck. He watched longer than he'd actually intended, as he'd only meant to observe to see if either Chan had the remaining Talisman half, but the studied brutality of the assault had seized his attention. He was a demon, after all, and such things were quite intriguing to him. However, his connection to the artifact that let him summon the Shadow Khan was starting to become costly in terms of magic expenditure, so he withdrew to his normal sense. "Both Chans are in the building," he informed the assembled group. "Neither has the missing Talisman half."

Before anyone else could speak, Hak Foo grinned. "I have located it!" he cried triumphantly. "The nervous movements gave it away!" Taking hold of Jade's right shoe, he looked her straight in the eye. "You can cooperate with removing the shoe, or I can remove the foot-"

"Enough!" Tohru roared angrily as Jade whimpered and the fillies screamed in fear, stomping forward to seize Hak Foo by the head. "Leave them alone!"

"Get me my Talisman!" Shendu snarled angrily.

"Will someone please try to stay calm?" Valmont pleaded desperately. "We don't want the Chans angry with us, remember?"

A ripping sound in the air was followed by the doors falling apart in pieces. "Too late," Chan snarled angrily.

"Let her go!" Jackie insisted angrily as they both lunged forward.

Tohru, deciding he'd finally had enough of the Black Tiger, hurled him towards the Chans as Valmont ducked behind his desk. Unfortunately, Hak maintained his grip on Jade's shoe, causing it to pop off and send the Talisman half bouncing towards Valmont's desk. Seeing his chance, Valmont lunged out, seized the Talisman half, and slammed it into its slot. As the Talisman fused, Jackie and Chan were fused back into a single entity, holding a single sword.

Shendu let out a roar as the Talismans were absorbed into his stone body, letting him move for the first time in 900 years. As he uncurled from the uncomfortable twist and extended his arms and legs, he lifted his head to the sky. With a powerful flex of muscle and magic he cried, "I...LIVE!"

At full size, he stood fifty feet tall and a dozen feet wide at the shoulder, easily dwarfing even Tohru's massive bulk. His form rippled with muscle and magic as he glowered down at all around him. "At long last...my powers fully restored...Speed...Invisibility...Astral Projection..." He turned towards the Qi Lin foals who so troubled him. "And my personal favorite...Combustion!" With that, he hurled a massive fireball at the group of four. He heard them scream, heard and saw the explosion of impact...and stared in stupefaction at the slightly scorched sumo that stood between him and his targets, arms crossed over his face. "What?" he demanded in shock. "How do you still live?"

Tohru snarled in fury as he glowered up at the demon before him, burn marks on his limbs and half his shirt burned away the only marks from the impact of a fireball larger than his entire body. "Master!" he called to Valmont. "Consider this my two weeks' notice!"

"Understood, Tohru," Valmont responded in understanding. "The apartment's paid up through the end of the month, and your severance check will be in the mail before the week is out."

Shendu found himself torn between rage at the seeming betrayal and being impressed that Valmont - despite his seeming humanity - could be both so cold-blooded and so magnanimous. Humans were so unpredictable. He found his distraction over that negated when Tohru lunged forward, attempting to grapple him. It was rather amusing, since the sumo couldn't even wrap his arms completely around him. "It seems pure nerve and determination to protect grants you some resistance to my magic," he commented dryly. "In that case, main strength will do the trick!" Reaching forward, he seized Tohru with one hand, yanked him off his feet, and delivered a powerful punch to his gut that tore him from the demon's grip and sent him flying through the wall and out of the building.

Valmont watched that with some nervousness before turning back to Shendu. "Well, the office is in shambles, but I'm certain the lost treasure will more than cover the expenses..."

Shendu narrowed his eyes. On one hand, he more than wanted to stab Valmont in the back by denying him the treasure, especially since the man knew now he had no leverage at all. On the other, neither dryadic familiar nor kinto un were in sight. The forces of good had powerful allies, so it would be best to keep those he had, however useless, to counter the human element until he could summon his minions. Besides, nothing said he had to let Valmont keep the treasure once he'd taken over the world. "The treasure is in my temple," he growled out. "You know where it will be. Meet me there to receive your payment. Until then, begone from my sight!"

"As you wish," Valmont agreed as a chopper came down from the roof at the hole Tohru had been knocked through, giving Valmont, Ratso, Finn, Chao, and Hak Foo an exit.

Once that headache was gone, Shendu turned back to the girls. "And now, nothing is left to protect you from my wra-" He stopped as he heard an oddly familiar sound.

Jackie walked calmly towards the group, his eyes narrowed in determination and his mouth a grim line. The sound was the tip of his sword dragging along the floor. As he stepped between Shendu and the girls, he drew a line in the carpet with his blade as though daring Shendu to cross it. He then took an ancient battle stance, leveling his blade at Shendu's heart.

Shendu's eyes widened. He remembered that stance...


The Demon Sorcerers had just claimed the full mantle of their power, released upon the human world. Shendu marched through Ancient China, taking whatever caught his fancy and destroying anything that got in his way. As he journeyed, he caught sight of a fair maiden, and decided he would have her. As he approached, however, a voice momentarily stayed him.

"Touch not my niece, fell beast!"

A somewhat old man with crimson hair dressed in blue stepped out of a nearby homestead, marching calmly until he stood between Shendu and his intended prey. Pulling a sword from its sheath, he drew a line in the ground between himself and the demon, taking a combat stance with the point of the blade aimed at the demon's heart. "Cross that line, and face my wrath."

Shendu laughed at the mortal's audacity. "You amuse me, human!" he gloated. "Tell me your name, that I might remember it as the first fool to fall to me!"

The human stared him right in the eyes. "Lü Dongbin."


"Im...impossible..." Shendu murmured in shock as he took a step back.

At that moment, the sound of many pounding feet echoed as Captain Black and the troops of Section 13 charged in. "Freeze!" Captain Black shouted out, only to gape in shock. "What...is that?"

Snarling, Shendu activated his magic. He would have to deal with the Qi Lin and Chan another time...when he had adequate backup. Lifting into the air, he sped through the hole he had made with the power of the Rooster and the Rabbit, making his way towards China.

Final Research

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Jackie sighed in relief as the demon flew away. He didn't know what had possessed him to stand between a demon and the girls, or why he thought he had a chance. Still, he had to protect them...and that now meant freeing them. Turning, he swung the sword and shattered the chains that held them before setting it down, kneeling to pull them into a hug.

Once they all managed to calm down, Scootaloo was the first to speak. "So, uh...should we call you 'Fei' now?"

"Huh?" Jackie asked in confusion as the other girls giggled. "I don't get it."

"Uh...someone?" Captain Black gasped out nervously. "Explain?"

"Well, I already tried," Jade spoke up a tad bitterly, "but you said I should get into fiction."

Augustus blinked a few times, deciding to sort that part out later. Preferably much later, over several - possibly dozen - stiff drinks shared with Jackie. "And...the rest of it?" he pleaded, gesturing to where the...thing...had flown off.

"Oh, that was just it using the levitation of the Rooster Talisman and the speed of the Rabbit Talisman for supersonic flight," Scootaloo explained readily.

"Okay..." Augustus allowed, making sure to call in sick for the three days immediately following sharing those drinks with Jackie, just to be on the safe side. "And...what did all that for supersonic flight?"

"Some sort of demon, ah'm pretty sure," Apple Bloom spoke up. "At least...ah think so."

"It used to be a statue!" Sweetie Belle offered helpfully.

"I...think we should go ask Uncle about this," Jackie suggested, hoping they could get going before thoughts of Tohru's fate bothered Apple Bloom too much. He picked up his sword as they turned to go.

My sword? Jackie thought as he looked over it in confusion. Why do I think of it like that now? And...where'd the other one go? As he took a closer look at it, he noticed something startling. "AIYAH!" he screamed out in shock. "Inscriptions!"

Indeed, runic inscriptions now ran the full length of the blade on both sides, though the overall shape was unchanged.

"...definitely going to see Uncle," Jade murmured in awe.


Back at the antique shop, Uncle seemed much more interested in the inscriptions on the newly shaped sword than in anything Captain Black had to say about the demon. "Jackie...you say each of your selves was holding one sword when you rejoined?"

"Yes Uncle," Jackie confirmed.

"One more thing...your two halves came to an acceptance and understanding, yes?"

"Yes Uncle." This second confirmation came much more easily, as Jackie felt that for the first time in his life he was no longer fighting himself. The rage and anger was still there...but he'd accepted it as part of him. Knowing that, he was no longer afraid of it...and accepting his own former fear of it went a long way to finding peace with it.

"Aiyah...sword absorb magic of Tiger Talisman!" Uncle proclaimed in amazement. "That is what these inscriptions mean...Balance Breaker."

For some reason, Cumulo thundered dramatically as Uncle translated the descriptions, making Augustus jump.

"I don't understand," Jackie spoke up worriedly. "What...does it do?"

"See this edge?" Uncle asked, pointing to where the metal stopped with a visible flat spot with no true cutting edge...though he was careful not to actually touch the metal. "Observe." Turning, he swung the blade at a steel pipe Apple Bloom had brought in from out back. The pipe fell apart, flaking in rust where it had touched the blade. "Sword strikes at the aura of the target, cutting pieces off to break its internal balance of energies."

"So it cuts chunks off someone's magic?" Jade gasped in surprise.

Uncle nodded confirmation.

"So cool!" all four girls chorused.

"Yes," Uncle agreed as he handed the sword back to Jackie. "Cool."

"And I'm sure it'll be a great help against the demon," Augustus spoke up irritably. "Once you've researched it and told us where to find it!"

Uncle frowned at Augustus. "Did the demon have any distinguishing markings?" he asked coldly.

"Glowing red eyes, razor sharp claws, and giant teeth isn't specific enough for you?" Captain Black barked out at the edge of his patience.

"Hellhound girls summon as pet when they were three had red eyes, razor sharp claws, and giant teeth!" Uncle countered hotly. "And even if I limit research to demon sorcerers, there have been thousands throughout history! I need something unique! A symbol! A name! Anything!"

"Shendu," Tohru suddenly spoke from the doorway, startling everyone as they spun to look.

Tohru had certainly looked better. A large bruise on his forehead swelled his left eye shut. One arm clutched at his torso over broken ribs, while the other hung limply at his side. One leg dragged behind the other, and he swayed listlessly as though it was only sheer force of will that kept him upright, and even that was starting to run out. Blood flowed sluggishly from several cuts across his body, and the burns from the fire blast looked worse. "Tohru..." Apple Bloom whimpered fearfully.

"The demon said...not to let you learn its name," Tohru continued. "When he...attacked you, and I could not stop him...I knew what I had to do..." His swaying became more pronounced as his open eye began to glaze. "His name...is Shendu..." He toppled slowly forward.

Vines lashed out all around the store, anchoring in the rafters before wrapping around the falling giant, shifting his weight until he settled on his back in a hanging hammock that provided extra support to his damaged limbs. "Hush now, quiet now, it's time to lay your sleepy head..." Audrey began to sing quietly as he slowly rocked the gentle giant.

Uncle nodded firmly. "Now that I can use..."

Final Preparations

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With the demon's name, Uncle was easily able to look up the fell creature and discover his nature and goals. Upon learning that Shendu's goal - now that he had completed his resurrection - was the destruction of all of Asia, Jade was stunned beyond belief. After all, her Mom and Dad lived in Asia, Hong Kong specifically. On learning the palace was near Hong Kong, and the vengeance was scheduled to begin at the toll of midnight ushering in Chinese New Year - which left them less than a day due to Hong Kong being 16 hours ahead of San Francisco - everyone began moving as fast as they could.

"We'll take Section 13's fastest transport," Captain Black stated firmly. "It should get us there with an hour or so to spare if we leave now."

"Finding the demon is not enough!" Uncle insisted. "One must have a means of defeating it..." He stretched to reach a book on a high stack...only for Tohru - having managed to regain consciousness, if not full mobility - to reach over with his unbroken arm to grab it off and hand to him. "Thank you."

"That Balance Breaker sword of Jackie's seems to be pretty effective-" Captain Black began.

"Shendu has Immortality and Healing Talismans!" Uncle insisted. "It will not matter how much magic or body Jackie carves off, Jackie's own magical aura is not strong enough to make a killing blow, and Shendu will continue to recover from all damage faster than Jackie can inflict it. You might as well try rockets and lasers!"

"We do have quite a few of those..." Captain Black pointed out.

"Horse and Dragon Talismans will let Shendu absorb rocket explosions to boost his firepower, and Horse and Pig will let him do same with lasers!" Uncle countered.

"How about lightning guns?" Captain Black offered desperately. "Liquid nitrogen sprayers? Rail cannons?"

Uncle scratched his chin for a moment, then leaned over. "Scootaloo, do you know what a 'rail cannon' is?"

"Uses magnetic force to launch solid projectiles at supersonic speeds," Scootaloo explained quickly. "At least, if they're anything like the video game version."

"Those would stun Shendu," Uncle allowed in a louder voice. "For a time. Also would distract him momentarily, until he turned and destroyed said weapons. One more thing, unsafe to use if someone is engaging in melee combat with demon."

"Shendu seemed to spook when Jackie confronted him like that with the sword," Jade pointed out. "Any magic we can make for the battle, we should let him use."

"How about power armor, then?" Captain Black offered desperately. "There must be something in Section 13's arsenal worth fielding!"

"Shendu hits too hard," Tohru spoke up softly. "Any armor that would provide adequate protection would interfere with Chan's ability to fight in other ways. Chan is not a tank..." He bit his lip to hold back a groan of pain. "And you already witnessed how Shendu deals with tanks..." Apple Bloom brought over her herbal satchel and began applying some compresses to Tohru's injuries.

"How about just manpower?" Sweetie Belle offered hopefully. "If we get enough people chanting whatever spell we come up with to strengthen Jackie or weaken Shendu, it might shift the balance of power."

"That is so," Uncle agreed. "While it is better to have those with stronger chi for spells, small amounts from many can be just as effective, as long as they believe."

"Captain Black's the only one in Section 13 who didn't see the quasi-Cthulhu," Scootaloo pointed out. "I think they believe."

"So pack as many people as we can on that plane," Captain Black observed. "Got it."

"And we're coming too!" Jade spoke up urgently.

"Jade, no!" Jackie spoke up warningly. "It's too dangerous-"

"Uncle said its best to have those with a lot of chi!" Jade interrupted. "Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo are creatures of good magic, so Uncle's going to need them to power the spell and focus all that energy. And Sweetie Belle said the reason I could see magical creatures my whole life - the reason I had so many problems back home that I was sent here - is because I have an inordinate amount of chi magic inside me! If Tohru were in any condition to move, we should be bringing him too!"

"Jade has valid point," Uncle observed idly. "I like it even less than you, Jackie...but we are facing Demon Sorcerer. We can take no chances."

Jackie groaned as he buried his face in his hands. "Bad day..."

"I...I can come," Tohru insisted, trying and failing to get to his feet. "Let...let me help..."

"Why go so far to help us?" Captain Black asked curiously.

Tohru glanced at Apple Bloom, then glanced away. He didn't really want to admit to this stranger the strong bond he had with the little filly. It would probably be misconstrued. Casting his mind back, he recalled something Chan had once said in trying to convince him to change sides. "I am told Section 13 serves donuts on Thursdays," he offered with a bashful smile.

As Captain Black shot a confused glance at Jackie - which received a sheepish grin in response - Uncle stepped up to Tohru. "You are in no condition to travel. Stay and watch the shop."

"I'll send a couple medics over to tend to his injuries in the meantime," Captain Black offered, an offer that was quickly accepted.


Once Uncle had gathered the supplies he needed, the group boarded Section 13's supersonic jet to make it to Hong Kong as soon as possible. Uncle and the fillies commandeered the lavatory as a laboratory to research something that would work against Shendu, while the rest of the jet was packed as tight as safely possible with agents equipped only with sidearms in case Valmont and his men were encountered. Between the four of them, two possible ways of dealing with Shendu were determined that would put no one - save Jackie who would be fighting - in danger. It was hoped that the first would be effective, as the second was chancy given it utilized magic from the book that had come with the pendants, and thus covered magic not native to the Earthly Plane.

In the fields and forests outside Hong Kong, Uncle led the group to the spot the inscriptions indicated...which presently was an empty clearing. "The palace!" Uncle proclaimed, gesturing.

"Where?" Captain Black demanded, wondering how he was going to explain this to his men.

"Here, where the inscriptions indicated!" Uncle insisted.

As Captain Black started to speak up, Sweetie Belle spoke quicker. "5...4...3..."

The earth began to shake, and a gold and crimson palace of ancient Chinese design rose out of the ground just as Sweetie hit one.

"Never question the inscriptions!" Uncle chided Captain Black firmly.

Captain Black glanced at his men, glad to see they were all united in being freaked out by seeing a building rise out of the ground. It meant the next part would be that much easier. "So what now?"

"Now we begin," Uncle stated firmly as he pulled out two beakers of green liquid, one large one small. "Jackie, remove shirt and use this to soak hands and blade. Will allow you to remove Talismans from inside Shendu." As he spoke, Shendu blazed in overhead, coming to a landing inside the palace grounds. A black copter came in to land nearby, plainly Valmont's vehicle.

Jackie quickly did as instructed. "Why do I need to remove my shirt?" he asked petulantly.

"So I can do this!" Jade explained, dipping her fingertips in the other vial. She then began drawing various runic shapes she'd practiced painstakingly the entire way there all over Jackie's torso and face. The green liquid held shape once applied, neither running nor fading. "It'll provide magical protection based on the willpower and chi the rest of us are able to provide you."

"Magic armor," Captain Black concluded. "Neat."

As Valmont and his crew made their way into the palace proper to gather the Treasure they'd come for, Shendu began opening a portal in the center of the courtyard. Seeing this, Jackie stood upright. "I need to get down there."

Uncle nodded. "Go!" he insisted. Once Jackie was on his way down, Uncle turned to the gathered agents. "Repeat after me."

All those gathered obediently began chanting. "Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao...Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao..."

Final Battle: MORTAL KOMBAT!

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BMAL6jJAOM

Shendu slowly dragged his talon through the air as he chanted in his mind, opening the door for his demon dragon minions. As he worked, he felt something niggle at his mind that distracted him. A chant...a chant endlessly repeating that came from voices in his own plane and beyond.

Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao...

A surge of good chi behind him caused him to instinctively duck to the side. The slash of a sword that would have taken his head clean off instead disrupted the portal he was shaping, dispersing the magic within and wounding the minions who had been closest to the exit, their screams of pain mingling into a gong like sound as Shendu spun to face his foe.

Chan had changed. He stood with fierce determination, his stance aggressive and his blade held confidently as good chi blazed from his entire body. He was shirtless, and runes inscribed all over his torso and face wrote protection from demonic force as bright as the sun. Similar markings ran the length of the blade, and blade and hands glowed with the chi spell that could extract his Talismans. "So...you think you can face me, Demon Sorcerer of Fire, in Mortal Kombat?" The ancient tradition was known throughout the realms, even if this set was off limits to the ancient tournament. "Fine! Let us see who shall triumph here!" With that, Shendu lunged in, refusing to be seen as a coward a second time.

To Shendu's surprise, Chan's abilities seemed to be increased by his enchantments somehow. Despite striking with the speed of the Rabbit, Chan was able to easily flip back over the strike, landing on Shendu's outstretched arm and slashing with his blade through Shendu's flesh before racing up the arm to deliver a ferocious kick to his head that felt like it had the force of the Ox behind it. A second slash as Chan flipped towards the ground on the opposite side sent a second Talisman flying.

As Shendu cleared his head from the blow, he saw the Rabbit and Ox Talismans bouncing across the ground. Even if speed hadn't helped him as much as he hoped, he couldn't let those Talismans go. Even if he wasn't using the power a Talisman granted, its energies lent the spells of the others power so long as the Tiger was active. As a distraction, he fired a beam of energy that animated a nearby dragon statue to attack Chan.

He knew that distraction wouldn't last long. In fact, a single slash and punch left the statue so much gravel. However, it gave Shendu the time to summon the scattered Talismans back to himself with the Rooster, reabsorbing them in time to channel their energies into a massive fire blast that consumed the entire area. He grinned to himself. There was no way Chan could have avoided a blast that large-

The searing pain of good chi in his skull broke his train of thought and made him roar in agony before Chan leapt off his head, the only damage from the fire blast being his pants having been torched to shorts. ...Shendu had no idea why the chi armor protected the clothing only around Chan's genitals. He made a mental note to look into it after he won, but first he had to retrieve-

He was a rabbit. Yes, that was the Monkey Talisman. Still, momentarily being a smaller target proved an advantage as he use the Rabbit's power to evade Chan's strikes with his sword and strike from multiple sides until he successfully knocked the Talisman from his hand. Once Shendu had reabsorbed it, he resumed his natural form and braced himself. As much as it galled him, he needed to take a defensive posture at this point. The danger was too great: he could not fail here!

Chan plainly wasn't willing to wait, charging in for another assault. Shendu focused the Rabbit into his reflexes and the Rooster into Chan's sword. While the magic surrounding Chan and the sword prevented Shendu from simply sending the sword flying as long as Chan was focused, it did let him shift the angle of the strikes slightly. Between that and the Rabbit in his reflexes, he was able to dodge every strike as he searched for his opening.

He saw it as Chan lunged to grab another Talisman out of his body. Grabbing the extended arm, he flung Chan away. He knew that wouldn't put Chan off for long: already he could see him flipping to land safely. However, that wasn't Shendu's intention. In this case, moments were what he needed, and moments were what he could seize. Dashing forward, he focused the power of the Tiger into the back of his left arm and backhanded the blade. The energies of Talisman and blade - being the same spell form - negated each other briefly, momentarily breaking the connection between warrior and weapon as the blade went flying. Seizing the momentary gap in the spells protecting Chan, Shendu unleashed the power of the Sheep and forced Chan from his body.

Chan had never astral projected before, or been projected forcefully. He would be disoriented without his body for a few moments...which would be all Shendu would have before the spells on Chan's body dragged his spirit back in. Taking those moments, Shendu grabbed with both hands, one seizing Chan around his head and the other grasping his arms and torso. As Chan came back to his body, he found himself immobilized.

Shendu heard the voices of his brethren watching from the nether realm. "Finish him!"

The urgency in their voices echoed his own sentiments. Chan's allies had proven too clever, making Chan simply too dangerous to the demons to be allowed to live. While the spells would protect him from brute force crushing, Shendu had something more...brutal in mind. He began to pull his hands apart.

He heard Chan crying in pain as the spells struggled to hold his head on his neck, but time was all it would take to force the separation at this point. Shendu was done with the kid gloves!


Jade gasped as she saw Jackie caught by the demon dragon. "Jackie!" she screamed in shock and fear. Breaking free of Uncle's grasp, she ran as fast as she could go down the hill towards the battle site. Scootaloo was right behind her on Cumulo.

"Bad idea, bad idea, bad idea!" Sweetie Belle muttered under her breath as she raced right behind them, Apple Bloom racing at her side as the plants parted for them to give them a clear path.

"Aiyah!" Uncle cried out in exasperation and fear. Seeing Captain Black and the others starting to falter, he rounded on them. "Keep chanting! Spell is all keeping Jackie's head on shoulders!" He nodded firmly as the chant continued. "One more thing! Stay here!" Turning, he raced after the girls. "I am too old for this!"

Captain Black directed his men to keep chanting. Meanwhile, he unzipped a duffel bag he'd brought with him from the plane. Maybe it wouldn't do any permanent damage to Shendu, and as an experimental weapon it could very well blow up in his face and take his arms - and possibly face - with it, and at best only distract Shendu for a moment...but a distraction at the right time could turn the tide of a battle. Captain Black knew that all too well.


Back in San Francisco, Tohru swayed gently in Audrey III's vines as he sat behind the counter, overseeing the shop as the medics from Section 13 saw to his injuries. Idly, he used his uninjured arm to pick up a book that caught his eye. Opening it up, he flipped through the pages to find something worth looking at.

The book fell open to a page that showed six jewels arranged in a circle, five surrounding a sixth. Lines emanated from the image, representing light, and tiny fell creatures cringed back from it. A chant was written beneath in Chinese. While he didn't know how to pronounce it in Chinese, he was able to read the kanji for its Japanese pronunciation, mentally rearranging it into a more grammatically correct sentence.. "Ni yotte hikari no chōwa, akuma satta..." A compulsion filled him, urging him to continue to chant. "Ni yotte hikari no chōwa, akuma satta...Ni yotte hikari no chōwa, akuma satta..."

The medics from Section 13 backed away with startled oaths as Tohru began to glow with a pink light.


Shendu flinched as he felt the sword become embedded in his thigh. "Get off him!" the girl shouted.

Snarling, the demon willed the sword out of his flesh as he turned. There were the four thorns in his side, the girl and the Qi Lin. "So...all that has stood in my way will die in one blast!" he crowed in triumph. As the chi wizard arrived, Shendu began conjuring the flames that would consume them.


Uncle desperately wrapped his arms around the girls, trying to offer them what protection he could. He needed a spell - any spell - to drive back the demon. Something that could draw on the power his girls had brought with them from their world.

As pink light that was not the sunrise arose from the East, Apple Bloom's eyes widened and she began to chant. "Yóu héxié de guāng èmó qǐtǎo...Yóu héxié de guāng èmó qǐtǎo..." An orange glow began to surround her.

Not knowing where the chant came from, Uncle desperately added his own voice, the other girls chanting along with. "Yóu héxié de guāng èmó qǐtǎo...Yóu héxié de guāng èmó qǐtǎo..." Each of them became surrounded with light. Blue for Uncle, dark purple for Sweetie Belle, crimson from Scootaloo, and magenta around Jade.

The pink light slowly descended towards them.


Shendu didn't know what the light was, but it was painful even to be in its presence. As it gathered power, it pushed back his flame, blistering his flesh as it shone upon him. It felt...sacred...

His eyes widened in fear. Turning, he lifted Chan in hopes of disrupting the gathering of power by using him to bludgeon the old man to death. Before he could, a shot rang out and a beam of focused light punched through his skull, causing him to drop Chan as he staggered back. Turning, he saw the bald man holding a strangely configured sniper rifle in the distance. Before he could react, a mighty chord rang out, shaking the very world.

Turning back, Shendu saw the pink light had joined the others in the image of Tohru. The six colors swirled around each other in a powerful cyclone that pushed Shendu back several steps as the sacred power gathered. The chord rose in volume to shake the very vaults of heaven...and a rainbow arced up out of the cyclone before slamming down towards the demon.

Shendu screamed in agony and fury as the light burned into him...

...and his body exploded.

Final Revelations

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Jackie stared at the explosion as it happened, ever so slowly. Shendu's body was slowly torn apart as the rainbow colored energy slowly expanded, and the Talismans were blasted backwards as the demonic flesh burst into light around them. The palace was leveled and erased as the wave continued to expand. The wave continued to expand...and a blinding rainbow exploded outward, spreading out over all of China, and surely beyond. As Jackie fell back onto his butt, the three fillies, Jade, and Uncle fell back to the ground, completely spent. For some reason, the entire area was covered in tree sap.

The tinkling of metal and gemstones caught Jackie's ears, and he gasped as he saw the source. The Normalcy pendants the three fillies had worn for so long were so much slag on the ground, even the chains that had held them dissolved. "That's not good..." Jackie murmured worriedly. Glancing down, he saw that the runes drawn all over his body had vanished, though his sword was still in sight. Taking it, he made a mental note to find somewhere safe to hide it, unless more demons showed up. Hopefully, that wouldn't happen.

"Jackie?" Captain Black called out as he approached, the sniper rail gun clutched carefully in his grip. "Is everyone alright?"

"Looks like we're all alive," Jackie allowed. "Umm, except the demon."

"Right...well, good riddance." Putting the gun back in the duffel bag, he came closer. "...why are your girls' flanks glowing?"

Blinking, Jackie glanced at the fillies just as the light faded. Three different symbols had appeared. On Apple Bloom's flanks, a cauldron had appeared with two apple slices floated in it, sitting on a fire of good chi with no wood. Sweetie Belle had seven glowing green music notes arranged in the pattern she normally sang - rather than chanted - Uncle's usual chi spell. Scootaloo had six glowing green lightning bolts crossed on her flank in the shape of the Seal of Solomon. All three marks bore the green glow of good chi. "...I'll ask Uncle about that when he wakes up. It's probably important..."

"For now, let's get everyone back to base," Captain Black insisted. "We've got one near here. We can get everyone a medical checkup, just to be sure."

"Right," Jackie agreed worriedly.

As the agents carried off the unconscious fighters, Valmont snarled to himself as he watched them go. With the destruction of Shendu and the palace, the treasure was no more. His only hopes of making a profit from this venture seemed dashed. As he pulled his foot back to kick a nearby rock, he paused. The rock was too regularly shaped...

Leaning down, he picked it up and brushed it off, revealing the mark of the Rabbit. Clutching it, he grinned as he saw it glow with light. "My main objective may be no more...but I seem to have a nice consolation prize..."


When Uncle regained consciousness, he found himself back in the shop. "...Harmony..." he murmured in amazement.

"What's that, Uncle?" Jade called out in confusion.

"The power we used...Harmony," Uncle explained. "It's...it's from where the girls are from..."

"We blasted the demon with pony power?" Jade asked eagerly. "Sweet!"

Uncle's eyes widened as he noticed something missing. "The girls! Where are they?"

"Tohru's taking them shopping," Jade explained. "Apparently, part of the Harmony energy came from him, and that healed all his injuries. They wanted to just deal with seeing the world without their pendants straight away."

"Without pendants?" Uncle gasped in shock. "Aiyah! They will be mobbed for being otherworldly magical!"

"About that..." Jade began carefully. "I...don't think that's something we need to worry about."

"...eh?"

Jade kicked awkwardly at the ground, unsure how to explain.

"Jade's parents said that it would be best she learn to master her magic here, since you are an accomplished chi wizard," Jackie explained. "You didn't tell me you told them about that, Uncle."

"I didn't tell Uncle I told them about that!" Uncle proclaimed in shock. "Uncle is not going senile! Magic is ahoof-I mean, afoot!"

"Does it have anything to do with the Harmony power overloading the pendants?" Jackie asked, holding out the slag that was all that was left of the pendants. "And the rainbow released afterward covering the entire world?"

Uncle took the slag, examining it carefully. "Hmm...pendants were very powerful...if combined with Harmony as demon banishing spell..." He let out a sigh of rueful relief. "Whole world now thinks magic is normal, in same way ponies' magical nature was shrugged off by pendant power."

"You mean no one notices anything magical anymore?" Jackie asked in terror.

"No!" Uncle corrected. "People notice. Magic just not important unless they're magical."

"You mean it's like this in everyone's minds?" Jade lifted her two hands and pantomimed a conversation. "Ohmygosh! Talking candy colored ponies! Uh, yeah, they've always been ponies. Oh, so nothing important? No. Now shut up, I'm trying to watch the game."

"In...essence," Uncle allowed as Jackie buried his face in his hands. "That would explain your parents. If magic is normal, they knew your issues were magic related, and knew of my magic. So you live here. Makes logical sense."

"Awesome!" Jade crowed, leaping into the air.

"But...what about the marks on the girls' flanks?" Tohru asked as he walked in, Apple Bloom trailing along behind him without vegetation springing up in her wake. "It seems to have had...an odd effect on their magic."

As the three fillies rushed forward, Uncle pulled out the book and flipped to the page he knew he needed. "I was waiting for this day. Girls, those are your Cutie Marks." Seeing the way the girls' faces lit up at just the words, he knew the advice to wait unless/until they got them to bring this up had been right. "They represent your special talents, now that you've discovered them." He examined the marks carefully. "Each seems to be related to chi magic. Apple Bloom, yours expresses itself through potions. Sweetie Belle, yours expresses itself through music. Scootaloo...I believe yours is best expressed through the manipulation of your environment, the choreography of body and weather." After examining the patterns more closely, he nodded firmly. "And it seems to be naturally attuned to combating demonic power."

Scootaloo gasped eagerly. "You know what this means, girls?"

All three leapt into the air, high-hoofing as they shouted together, "CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS DEMON HUNTERS! YAY!!"

Making Her Proud

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Tohru sighed softly to himself as he went through the motions of his chores around the antique shop. While no charges had actually been leveled against him - between a dearth of testimony against him, his own willingness to turn on his employer to protect others, and his assistance in stopping Shendu allowing Captain Black to clear most of it away (mostly due to his being defenseless against a certain redheaded filly's puppy-dog eyes) - he was still under observation from 'interested legal parties', which basically meant he had to stay on his best behavior if he wanted to keep his record clean...something he was more than willing to do. For the first time in a long time, he was happy with himself and his life. He knew that he would not be asked to do today something he would regret tomorrow. And when the invitation had been extended, he'd been happy to move into the antique shop's residential area, and keep his apartment lease empty until it ran out.

However, all the good in his life did nothing to push back the worry and sorrow that plagued him now. She was coming, and she would be disappointed.

As he turned to carry the tea out of the kitchen, a hoof stopped him. "Forgot the tea," Apple Bloom pointed out, indicating the pot of hot water he was about to carry out.

Tohru groaned softly. "Apologies...and thank you." He turned to the cupboard to fetch the tea for the pot.

"No worries," Apple Bloom offered warmly. "Ah get it."

And there was the one spot of comfort. Apple Bloom did get it. She had been inside his mind. She knew just how important her good regard was, and knew his fears of losing it as well as he did. He didn't need to explain anything to her beyond the one comment he'd made about her coming. Sympathy, understanding, and support had been overwhelming...though he couldn't help but notice that Apple Bloom had a look about her...the sort of look that said she had plans to be clever.

His overall morose demeanor seemed to match the stormy weather, to the point it went unnoticed by Uncle and Jackie. Jade noticed when he could only barely follow her talk about the upcoming Japanese Cultural Expo (which only reduced Tohru's mood, since she was visiting because of it). He was unsurprised that Jade followed him into the kitchen, where Apple Bloom and Audrey III were now playing cards. Apple Bloom was enjoying being able to sit in a wooden chair without making it sprout, since the arrival of her Cutie Mark had stabilized her magic.

"What's bothering you, T?" Jade asked worriedly. "You've been off the past couple of days."

Tohru sighed, not really wanting to get into it. Before Jade could start making guesses, Apple Bloom explained for him. "His Mom's comin' ta visit for the Expo. She's a big fan of Kara Noki and her yodeling kabukis."

"The screeching country singer?" Jade asked, sounding both shocked and disgusted. Noticing the fish eye Apple Bloom was sending her way - and Apple Bloom's own music preferences - Jade quickly added, "Key word screeching." With her cousin mollified, her mind snapped back to the more interesting part of the conversation. "Wait, you have a Mom?" she demanded of Tohru.

"What, ya think he just appeared one day outta the ether?" Apple Bloom demanded waspishly.

"You did," Audrey III teased, getting a raspberry from Apple Bloom, a giggle from Jade, and a smile from Tohru for his troubles.

"I'm just having a hard time picturing the woman who could squeeze him out!" Jade explained, gesturing to Tohru. "I mean, look at him! She deserves a medal for that!"

"I wasn't always this large," Tohru pointed out mildly, though he was glad for the humorous direction the conversation had taken for the moment.

"So...isn't her visiting a good thing?" Jade asked in confusion.

"My mother is...very hard to please," Tohru explained. "I am...the black sheep of the family. I...all my life, I've just wanted her to be proud of me. But...it is difficult to get her approval."

"How could she not be proud of you?" Jade demanded in confusion. "You went toe to toe with a demon!"

"And lost," Tohru pointed out.

"He was fifty feet tall!"

Apple Bloom's look increased. "Jade...how much bald faced truth do ya think ya can dump in casual conversation?"

"Depends on the opening," Jade replied. "You have a plan to make his Mom proud?"

Apple Bloom grinned eagerly. "Just get Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo downstairs the moment she arrives, okay?"

Tohru found a worried smile beginning to cross his face. Maybe, just maybe...things would work out.


As Tohru served the tea and cookies to Uncle and received a 'thank you', a loud knocking echoed from the front of the shop. As the door swung open to the sound of the bell, lightning flashed to illuminate a shadowed figure.

The woman had Asian features very similar to Tohru's own, save for a beauty mark to the left of her mouth. Her girth was somewhat rotund, and pleasantly contained in a white blouse under a red jacket and skirt combination, her hair done up in a topknot. ...said topknot just barely cleared Tohru's waistline.

"M-Mommy?" Tohru greeted, his voice warm but childish as he knelt for a hug...that was not returned.

"Mommy?" Jackie and Uncle both gasped in shock.

"This where you live?" Mrs. T demanded irritably as she handed Tohru her umbrella. After checking the dust in the shop, she let out a disgusted grunt. "You gave up cushy job with that nice Mr. Valmont for this?"

Tohru couldn't prevent the wince that crossed his face. One of the other things that had made Valmont a good boss despite his criminal activities: if family members stood large in the lives of his high ranking Enforcers, he took the time to get to know them personally. For all the job turning into something Tohru wasn't comfortable with, Valmont had earned his loyalty over the years.

Jade started to step forward to ask Tohru something, only to be pulled back by a discreet vine.

Mrs. T let out another disgusted grunt. "My son...a servant in a-"

"Onii-chan!" Apple Bloom suddenly called out as she rushed up to Tohru, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo not far behind her. To Jade and Tohru's surprise, plant life - or at least, the image of plant life - was springing up in her hoofsteps. "Onbu yo!" she pleaded as she put her front hooves against Tohru's side. Tohru, for his part, couldn't stop the smile that crossed his face as he lifted her into his arms, gently booping her nose with one finger.

There was a small thud as Mrs. T dropped her bag. "Wha...how...who...?" She rubbed at her eyes. "Onii-chan?" she demanded, struggling for an explanation. "Son, why is pony blessed by Amaterasu calling you big brother?"

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo's eyes lit up as Apple Bloom shot them a wink over Tohru's shoulder. Their Japanese studies were bearing fruit in unexpected ways. As they suppressed their giggles, Tohru explained. "We...met through my work for Valmont," he began carefully. "And...one particular meeting resulted in a...rather strong bond." He rubbed the back of his head, unsure how to explain that part.

"You mean when you, Apple Bloom, and Audrey III were magically fused to do battle with the Cthulhu facsimile to keep it from completing the summoning ritual?" Jade spoke up, deciding it was time for her to 'dump bald faced truth'.

"Wait, what?" Mrs. T gasped in shock.

"It's...not as impressive as it sounds..." Tohru demurred, not really liking being made much of this way.

"Yeah, you should have seen it, Mrs. T!" Jade continued. "With the three of them magically fused, Tohru became a sort of giant plant kaiju version of himself, and he beat that not-quite-Cthulhu into submission with his bare vine-hands!"

"You punched out Cthulhu?" Mrs. T whispered in shock.

"I...had help..."

Mrs. T managed to shake herself out of her shock. "But if work for Mr. Valmont so good, why quit to work here?" she demanded angrily.

"Opportunities with Valmont's organization were...drying up," Tohru explained carefully. "It reached a point where I had to choose between working with him, or being there for this little one." He gently stroked Apple Bloom's back. "I...made the choice that was right for me..."

Mrs. T frowned with crossed arms, staring at her son. "...that so..." Though her tone and stance remained mildly hostile as she had been, her expression seemed...thoughtful.

Making Her Smile

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Mrs. T watched Tohru interacting with the fillies for a time - doing an impressive job suppressing the grin that tried to consume her face when she saw him doing tasks around the store with the three of them on his head and shoulders for 'pony rides' - before finally speaking up. "Hmph!" she grumbled at last. "I don't know about some of your choices, but..." Walking up to Tohru, she gently tugged him down to his knees so they could hug. "You made the right choice for your heart, and it is plain you have done - and will do - great things from it. I am so happy for you...and so proud of you."

"Mommy..." Tohru whimpered in joy, holding her close. Several of those watching wiped away a few tears.

When the hug broke, Mrs. T reached up to pet Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo. "And I look forward to getting to know these little angels." As grins split the girls' faces, Mrs. T once more turned to examine her surroundings. "But is this really the best job you could get to be here for them? Servant in junk shop?"

"Hey!" Jade complained petulantly. "It's not a junk shop! It's an antique store!"

Mrs. T made a dismissive 'pfuy' sound. "Only antique I see here is billy goat behind the counter!"

Uncle immediately shot to his feet. "Billy goat?" he demanded angrily as he stalked towards her. "Dragon lady should watch her mouth!"

To everyone's surprise, Mrs. T...smirked. "Seems billy goat has forgotten how world has changed," she offered calmly before throwing one hand forward, tossing a strange dust into Uncle's face, making him stagger back. When the dust cleared, Uncle had two horns atop his head, and his face was...furry. "Cause he try say 'blah, blah, blah', but all I hear is 'baa baa baa'!"

After putting his hands to his face in shock, Uncle let off an angry growl. "Oh...should not challenge in my own shop, dragon lady!" he snapped, hurling similar dust into Mrs. T's face. When it cleared, she too had horns...and scales.

"A challenge, is it?" Mrs. T countered, spinning in place. When she came to a halt, her face was back to normal...but she was dressed as a Miko, and looked decades younger. Clutched in her hands was a metal staff with a curved top, metal rings jangling against each other at the head. "Billy goat should remember how the last one ended!"

Uncle brought his hands together and spread them, causing his own transformation to reverse...and leaving him in wizard robes and turning his hair black. "I still chi wizard! But housewife like you, skills get old and rusty!"

"Naw, you get musty like books and dusty like junk in your shop!" Mrs. T proclaimed, thrusting forward with her staff and launching a fireball at Uncle.

Uncle backhanded the fireball away carelessly. "Uncle will not fail in front of his wards!" he proclaimed as he countered with lightning.

"Nor I before my son!" Mrs. T declared as she caught the lightning on her staff, driving it into the floor before unleashing a wave of earth.

As the waves of magic shot back and forth, Jackie raced around trying to save the antiques while Jade, Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle took shelter behind Tohru. Scootaloo started to join them, but paused as she twitched her wings a few times. Her eyes widened, and she promptly hopped onto Cumulo, close to the action.

"Scoot!" Sweetie Belle called out worriedly. "What are you doing? You need to get to cover!"

"And miss this show?" Scootaloo countered, reaching into Cumulo and pulling out a packet. Cupping her hooves close together in Cumulo's cloud stuff, a bit of lightning sparked between them around the bag, causing it to release a great deal of popping sounds as it expanded. When she finished, she ripped it open and began eating popcorn.

Apple Bloom glanced around for a bit...and then a wide grin split her face. "Move over!" she called out, leaping off Tohru's back and onto Cumulo.

"Save some popcorn for me!" Sweetie Belle called out, joining them.

Jade and Tohru exchanged confused glances, shrugged their shoulders, and took seats.

The duel of spells continued for a time...and then both Uncle and Mrs. T collapsed into each other in exhaustion, their appearance returning to normal and all evidence of magic usage vanished. "That used to be easier..." Mrs. T panted.

"Maybe still would be if not waste illusion slot for vanity!" Uncle teased, poking her beauty mark.

"Says man who used one for hair dye," Mrs. T teased right back, ruffling his hair affectionately.

"Uh...?" Jackie spoke up in confusion.

After a time, Uncle got to his feet, helping Mrs. T to hers. "Did Uncle ever tell girls about time in youth when Uncle was in travelling theater troupe?"

"I loved those stories!" Scootaloo crowed happily.

"For real?" Jade gasped in shock.

Uncle chuckled softly. "'Dragon Lady' here was in rival troupe."

"Mommy?" Tohru squeaked out, his eyes bulging from his disbelief.

Mrs. T chuckled softly. "Some of my happiest memories. We used to do dueling magic shows whenever our troupes got double booked."

Sweetie Belle's eyes widened, then narrowed. "You two seem...pretty close."

Uncle laughed softly. "If things had turned out different, Tohru would be calling Uncle 'Daddy' instead of 'Sensei'."

Jackie - who had gone to have some tea to calm down - promptly spat his tea all over the wall. "WAAAUGH?!" he screamed out in shock.

Mrs. T chuckled softly. "But my parents would not hear of me 'dilluting our noble samurai bloodline', and Billy Goat couldn't support us in China. So we parted with happy memories and a very strange friendship-"

"Don't start, Sweetie Belle!" Uncle suddenly snapped out. "Uncle is much too old to look for romance. Happy with friendship!"

"Double for me there!" Mrs. T insisted. "Last thing I want is romance. I'm so far into menopause, I cook holiday turkey by giving it a big hug!"

Jackie coughed several times, while Tohru covered his mouth.

Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Jade all tilted their heads. "I don't get it," they said in unison.

"Now where I stay, son?" Mrs. T demanded irritably.

"No room here!" Uncle insisted. "Only room left taken by Tohru and fillies!"

"I can take care of it!" Apple Bloom called out, rushing to the wall. "Been wantin' ta try this, but didn'a have a reason before." Placing her forehooves against the wall, she closed her eyes. Magic flowed out of her forelegs and into the wall.

After a time, the building shook slightly, and the sound of rapid plant growth could be heard. When it stopped, Apple Bloom slumped over. "Got room on the third floor."

"Uncle's shop does not have third floor!" Uncle insisted as Mrs. T climbed the stairs.

"It does now..." Mrs. T marveled as she stared at what looked like an entire floor carved out of the inside of a tree trunk. "Hope it meets building code."

Making Her Laugh

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The Chans, Tohru, and Mrs. T decided to go to the Japanese Cultural Expo together. While waiting for the performance Mrs. T was hoping to see, the group went together to view the other exhibits, including the Kyoto Octopus. Jade and the fillies marveled at the golden, jewel-encrusted sculpture that clutched a huge gem in the tentacles that rose up to resemble a crown, as Mrs. T lectured them on its history and various other important details. Jackie had declined Captain Black's request to act as additional security for the Octopus, though knowing that Jackie, Tohru, and the others would be there had been a big comfort for the Agent.

After having seen the Octopus, the group split up to explore the Expo in whatever direction they wanted. Scootaloo and Jade raced off together, Scootaloo on her cloud and Jade on Scootaloo's old scooter. Sweetie Belle wandered around with Jackie in tow, hitting every stall that looked like it sold something as she looked for any souvenirs she might want to collect, while also carrying a large bag for anything she could pick up that was being given away free. She didn't know if there would be anything like that here, since it was an Expo and not a Convention, but she figured it paid to be prepared. Apple Bloom raced off with Tohru close behind, enjoying the fact that she could now walk on normal terrain without causing plants to spring up at random unless she willed it. Audrey III, also enjoying the freedom to wander separately from Apple Bloom, explored the Expo while wearing the fake mustache that somehow still caused everyone who didn't know he was a giant plant to see him as human.

On seeing that, Uncle idly wondered to himself if he'd ever needed the Normality Pendants, or if fake mustaches would have been all it took for the fillies to blend in. He eventually came to the conclusion that he didn't want the answer to that question, and instead went with Mrs. T to reminisce and to see Kara Noki and her yodeling kabukis. Of course, after the show the pair had gotten into an intense debate as far as the validity of 'yodeling kabukis' as part of Japanese culture, arguing history, comparative music trends, Japan's history of cultural appropriation of outside trends, and the applicability of the term 'yodeling' to the music thus presented. The debate got so lively that a large portion of the audience thought it was part of the Expo, and staff decided to take advantage of it by placing microphones near the two debaters without them noticing. When the debate got especially heated, an enterprising staff member managed to attach mics to Uncle's vest and Mrs. T's jacket so the debate could still be heard as it extended into a demonstration of traditional Japanese martial arts as compared to Chinese martial arts, as well as how the practice thereof helped preserve vitality far into old age.

The 'old age' comment on the part of one of the staff members acting as announcer brought Uncle and Mrs. T's ire, bringing an end to both debate and demonstration, along with the announcer's dignity. However, both walked away with Kara Noki's autograph, so overall it was a profitable interchange.

As they continued to explore the Expo, Mrs. T grilled Uncle regarding recent events, especially in regard to Tohru and Apple Bloom. Uncle was vague regarding Apple Bloom's origins, as well as the nature of the 'Harmony Blast' that had fundamentally altered the world at large even if Mrs. T wasn't aware of it, but did bring up Tohru's indispensable contributions to the battle with Shendu. On learning of Shendu's apparent fate, however, Mrs. T frowned darkly. "This not good, Billy Goat," she pointed out dourly. "If Shendu is dead, then Yin and Yang out of balance."

Uncle snorted derisively. "I may be old, but not senile. I know this...not to say Yin and Yang haven't been out of balance since girls arrive. Good chi is strong with them, and not of this level of existence."

Mrs. T shrugged that aside. "If no greater evil appeared since their arrival, then balance took them into account somehow. But death of Demon Sorcerer? That great blow to darkness, and balance will restore itself. New, stronger evil will replace it."

Uncle nodded. "I am already making preparations. With luck, I will be able to handle things on my own, with help from children."

"Pfui!" Mrs. T derided. "Billy Goat can barely take care of himself! How he handle demons alone?"

"Will not be alone," Uncle corrected. "Fillies have very strong magic, and have studied books very carefully whole lives. One more thing, their magic seems designed to be combined amongst the three of them, to work together as a greater whole."

"While good chi creatures using good chi against demons is good, how will that be different than before?" Mrs. T demanded coldly.

"Because fillies' magic has stabilized with appearance of Cutie Marks," Uncle explained. "As such...the three of them together are now the equivalent of a complete Master Chi Wizard. I will trust them to make their own plans and preparations to battle demons."

"Is that all you have up your sleeve?" Mrs. T demanded. "Nothing else to hold back the evil that will come?"

As she spoke, the disparate groups gathered back together, Audrey III towering over all but Tohru as Captain Black approached. "Any sign of that gang you were worried about, Augustus?" Jackie asked curiously.

Captain Black shook his head in frustration. "We know they were here at the Expo, they were sighted making their way towards the Octopus...but then it's like they vanished!"

Audrey belched loudly, then said nothing as everyone looked towards him suspiciously. Idly, he began to whistle 'Oops, I Did It Again'.

Uncle grinned widely at Mrs. T's shocked look. "One more thing," he offered impishly.

Devil in the Details

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Shendu seethed angrily as his spirit floated in the demon nether realm. It had taken him some time to recover enough from that blast - even as a spirit - to the point he could even think again. Now, not only could he think, he could perceive the world around him to know where he was. The nether realm wasn't exactly easy to mistake, being nothing but a cloudy orange backdrop with floating chunks of rock scattered about. However, that wasn't really of significance. What was of significance - immediate significance at that - was the fact that all seven of his siblings were surrounding him, sitting on their own chunks of rock or floating in the ether as was their prerogative. "B-brothers and sisters," he greeted warmly but nervously. "What brings you to my dearly departed side?"

Dai Gui - the crimson, Minotauresque Demon Sorcerer of Earth - was the first to respond. "We were merely waiting for you to recover enough to regain your senses."

"Indeed," Xiao Fung - the grey-skinned, frog shaped Demon Sorcerer of Wind declared. "It's no fun tormenting someone for eternity if they can't be aware of it."

"T-torment?" Shendu gasped out in shock. "Eternity?" A lock of purple hair wrapped around his serpentine spiritual form, pulling him back.

"The punishment for betrayal, Shendu," Tso Lan, Demon Sorcerer of the Moon, explained simply. His grey-blue skin gleamed in the pale light of the nether realm, and his red and purple robes flowed in the windless air. "You spent your time reigning over China..."

"While we withered in this bone dry prison!" Bai Tsa - the mermaid-like Demon Sorcerer of Water - proclaimed as she swam through the empty ether around Shendu's spirit.

"You never even attempted to free us!" Po Kong - the giant green Demon Sorcerer of Mountain - proclaimed in her booming voice.

Shendu shifted back worriedly, uncertain how he was going to talk his way out of this one. "Your...rescue was in the planning stages...but then I was imprisoned in a statue-"

"Excuses!" Tchang Zu - the massive blue ogre Demon Sorcerer of Thunder - proclaimed with a flash of lightning. "You desired the Earthly Realm for yourself!" To punctuate his declaration, he threw a blast of magic into Shendu, making him scream in pain.

As the magic passed, Shendu turned to the one Demon who hadn't spoken yet. "Hsi Wu, brother...surely you believe me-"

"I could care less about the truth of your words or intentions," the wizened gargoyle like Demon Sorcerer of Sky snapped. "I am more concerned with the nature of the magic that destroyed you. For it to have left scars upon your spirit that took so long to heal, it must be potent." Tso Lan nodded agreement as he floated over to Hsi Wu's side. "What can you tell us of its nature?"

Shendu sighed in relief. Of all his siblings, Tso Lan and Hsi Wu were always the most level headed and scholarly, even if Hsi Wu had an almost human penchant for fiendish pranks. When the group acted in concert, it was generally one of them that came up with the plan while the other took the lead in carrying it out. They might just hold the others back from tormenting him long enough to get the knowledge they wanted...long enough for Shendu to talk them into sparing him his fate. "I am afraid I know nothing of the nature of the magic beyond the chant, the visual effect, and the fact it felt sacred without being holy..."

"Then we already know all you could tell us," Tso Lan declared dismissively, turning away as the others gathered to unleash their power.

"But I know what brought it to the Earthly Realm!" Shendu spoke up quickly. "Three young Qi Lin have been raised and trained by a Chi Wizard. It is their magic that brought this power, wherever it came from!"

"We are already aware of these three," Hsi Wu stated flatly. "I have been observing them from the moment they entered the Earthly Realm from their own dimension."

Shendu's eyes widened. "What? But you could have told me! Why didn't you give me warning?"

Hsi Wu grinned wickedly. "You didn't ask," Hsi Wu jibed, sparking laughter from the other siblings.

Inwardly, Shendu seethed at the jibe he walked right into, but he didn't let it show. His mind had come up with a way to get out from under his siblings' intent to torment him. "My brothers and sisters! I have come up with a way I may yet free you!"

"Do not toy with us!" Bai Tsa snapped angrily, her voice echoing as though she were underwater. "The doors can only be opened from the other side."

"The human side," Dai Gui clarified.

"And as a bodiless spirit, I can pass through the barrier unhindered, to possess a human vessel with which to seek out and open the portals," Shendu explained. "My death leaves a void for you all, my brothers and sisters, to fill as a stronger evil. Shall I...proceed?"

They all stood silently for a time. The seven flesh and blood Demons then cast a binding spell upon Shendu without warning. "You have proven crafty, brother," Hsi Wu pointed out. "While your plan has merit, we don't trust you that much anymore."

"Our spell will bind you to the first human vessel you take," Tso Lan explained. "We will remove it when the seven of us are freed, and not before. In the meantime, it will let us keep track of you..."

"Just in case we decide to begin your torment," Bai Tsa purred eagerly.

Shendu seethed inwardly at that, but showed no sign. If he was completely honest with himself, he expected something like this. Still, he could work with it. "Then I shall choose my vessel carefully. I already have the perfect one in mind."

"The one who so frequently thwarted you, Jackie Chan?" Tchang Zu asked curiously.

"Do you take me for a fool?" Shendu barked angrily. "While he is an effective combatant, his only resources derive from his connections, who will not aid me without reason...and three Qi Lin, a fully manifest Dryadic Familiar, and a Master Chi Wizard would be able to contain me until I could be exorcised and banished, if not destroyed. If I am to have a chance to free you, my host must have the resources at his own command to fly hither and yon across the globe to reach the portals, and do so with enough force under his command to keep Chan and the others at bay."

"You seek to claim Valmont as your host?" Xiao Fung asked with a chuckle. "Do you really believe he will assist you?"

"Once I am bound to him, he will not have a choice," Shendu replied. "And if he has reason to believe that he will profit from this, he will even do so willingly, if not eagerly. I kept my bargain with him - at least until my death destroyed my treasure - so he has no reason to believe a bargain I make on behalf of the rest of you won't be kept. Have I leave to make such a bargain?"

"If treasure is all he desires, treasure we can provide," Bai Tsa allowed. "It is not like he will keep it long once all seven of us are free and reshaping the world to our will."

"Do be sure to inform him that said reward will only be provided if he is able to prevent Chan and the others from banishing us back through the portals," Hsi Wu added. "That should be incentive enough to perform better for us than he did for you."

Nodding, Shendu turned and flowed out into the Human Realm.

Devil Went Down to San Fran

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Valmont growled under his breath as the truck drove down the road towards the beach where it had all culminated. He'd planned everything out carefully, meticulously, to ensure that the first big Talisman powered heist would go off without a hitch. ...where had it gone wrong?

His first step had been dividing up the Talismans. He had four Enforcers to wield them, which meant three each. However, the Talismans didn't all have equally versatile abilities, so he'd divided them up carefully. Four of the Talismans had 'Power Type' magics: Ox for strength, Dragon for fire blast, Pig for eye lasers, and Rooster for Levitation. Four Talismans had 'Defense Type' abilities: Horse for healing, Dog for immortality, Snake for invisibility, and Rabbit for Speed. The remaining four - Sheep of astral projection, Monkey for animal transformation, Rat for animation, and Tiger for Yin/Yang split - were more 'wild card' abilities.

He'd grouped the Talismans so each enforcer got one of each 'type', and balancing abilities based on what worked well together. Ox, Snake, and Sheep were given to Ratso, since he seemed best suited for invisible knock-out blows. Being the best strategist of the group, Finn got Rooster and Rabbit for free flight, and Monkey to give him a ranged ability. Chao received Pig, Dog, and Rat, since Valmont trusted he could be creative with that set. Hak Fu received the Dragon for a surprise energy blast from a palm strike, Horse since he insisted on close combat, and Tiger because he was the only one willing to take it. The last thing Valmont wanted to risk was one of his Enforcers splitting into light and dark halves like Chan did.

The setup certainly seemed to work, as initial reports showed that the Enforcers had blasted their way into the bank and made off with a good haul, brushing aside the Section 13 agents that tried to stop them. And then things had gone screwy.

Jackie Chan had shown up, that was to be expected. Jade and the fillies showed up, accompanied by cloud, plant beast, and a jetpack. Save for the last, this was also expected.

A squad of government agent battle mages showing up on the beach to back them up? Valmont felt like he'd fallen down the rabbit hole. Since when did the government use magic?

Thankfully, balancing the Talisman powers as he had gave his Enforcers a bit of an advantage, especially when Ratso and Finn found a trick where they crossed the streams from Sheep and Monkey so that the spirits expelled through astral projection were turned into animal spirits, and thus were blocked from syncing back with their original bodies until this was corrected...which happened on its own over time, but time was what they needed more of in that situation.

As the truck turned around the cliffside towards the beach, he signaled the driver to stop. Jackie stood at the edge of the cliff watching the tail end of the battle. Hak Fu was holding Audrey III back with fire from the Dragon Talisman, which also neutralized most of Apple Bloom's contributions. Finn was barely holding his own against Scootaloo and Jade. Ratso and Chao had Sweetie Belle on the ropes, and Captain Black was unconscious. If Jackie reentered the fray, the fight could swing the other way. That couldn't be allowed to happen.

Still, Valmont had to be careful. Chan was unaccountably lucky as far as survival, so trying to kill him at the clifftop was asking for trouble. Pushing him off could also be problematic, as if he charged and missed he'd go over instead. He needed to catch him off guard and trip him up, and do so in a way that maximized the chances of disabling Jackie while minimizing his opportunities to counter.

Much to his surprise, he managed to get right behind Chan, just out of arm's reach...and just in cane's reach. Just as Chan leaned over to watch Jade descend towards the ground from her jetpack running out of fuel, he spoke up. "Enjoying the view, Chan?"

As Jackie spun to face him, Valmont slipped his cane between the other man's feet, tripping him up. A jerk of the cane pulled the near leg up, overbalancing Chan and sending him tumbling off the cliff. The fall wasn't enough to kill him - Valmont disliked casual killing anyway, a true professional in his business should be able to avoid it...or at least avoid getting his own hands dirty - but with that tumble, it would be enough to knock him out if not injure him.

As he watched Chan fall, he felt his body rock back as something slammed into him, and the world seemed to fade...


Shendu growled to himself as he settled into Valmont's body, the spell binding him to it until his siblings revoked it. It galled him to be trapped in a human form, but at least this one had resources that would be useful. The sooner he was free - especially since the world now apparently accepted magic as a given - the better.

Still, he was pleased with what he'd seen as he made his way here. He'd long thought Valmont a buffoon for his bungling of the Talisman hunt, though much of that could be written off due to the involvement of Qi Lin. However, Valmont plainly knew what he was doing when it came to using resources and commanding troops. Now it was time to make use of those abilities.

Once in the truck again, he made his way down to the beach to confront the Enforcers, who looked to be considering finishing Chan and the others off. Shendu considered letting them, but the nearness of the Qi Lin - who were still fully active - made him reconsider. "Leave them!" he barked out, not turning to face the Enforcers. "We have more important things to do!" He was pleased to see they responded immediately, but frowned when they turned towards the bags of money. Were they really such idiots? "Finn! Use the Rooster to move all the money at once! The rest of you, keep those ponies off his back!"

"Oh, duh!" Finn groaned as he facepalmed. As a result of the directive, it wasn't long before the entire group - loot in tow - was on its way.

When the group reached the secondary hideout - the fish cannery - the Enforcers began to stash the money. Shendu turned to face them, interrupting the action. "Sit!" he ordered them intensely. "We will speak further later. For now, silence!"

The Enforcers immediately sat, Ratso even going so far to cover his mouth with both hands to ensure silence. Rolling his borrowed eyes, Shendu made his way to a nearby mirror. Just in time, as Valmont regained control of his body.


Valmont groaned, rubbing his head as he came back to himself. "Wha...what happened?" he asked no one in particular. "How did we get-"

"Question later, Valmont," Shendu hissed from the mirror, the demon's face superimposed on Valmont's own. "For now, it appears we have entered a new form of partnership, whether you like it or not."

Valmont frowned, crossing his arms. "I'm listening," he growled out. He'd hoped he was rid of the dragon after the treasure disappeared. He was apparently mistaken there.

"I have possessed your body," Shendu stated bluntly. "Due to the actions of my siblings, the possession cannot be revoked save by their hands. Help me to free them from their imprisonment, and you will be free of me and be rewarded richly from their own treasuries. Refuse or fail, and you're stuck with me until you die. Consider the Talismans your 'down payment' on this job."

Valmont smirked slightly. "At least you're being fully up front, this time. And you're right, I don't have a choice here." Sighing, he turned back to his men. "It seems an old client has a new job for us..."

Devil Dealing

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Shendu growled in Valmont's mind as he watched the man doing the seemingly pointless task of going over his employment records. "This is a foolish and fruitless endeavor!" Shendu snapped out.

"Only so far," Valmont countered softly as he continued to scan through the records, pausing every so often for no apparent reason before moving on.

"You won't find what I need in there!" Shendu snarled. "It's a waste of time!"

"You don't even know what I'm looking for," Valmont responded calmly, flicking to the next entry.

"I know where to find what I need!" Shendu screamed angrily. "We will simply go to the shop! The chi wizard will have a book containing the location-"

"Oh that's brilliant," Valmont interrupted, sarcasm heavy enough in his voice that Ratso noticed it. "March the demon possessed individual into the shop of a chi wizard who has four exceptionally powerful creatures of good chi living with him, whose very touch will cause you excruciating agony, thus neutralizing the one advantage we'd have going in. Not to mention giving away the one thing we know that the Chans don't yet, that you're still here in spirit and can infuse me with your magic. With planning skills like that, I'm amazed you were in stone for a whole 900 years, and not out after a week!"

Shendu growled unintelligibly for a time before subsiding somewhat. "Your sarcasm is noted. But how is whatever you're looking for supposed to aid us? ...what are you looking for, anyway?"

"Discrepancies," Valmont responded readily as he paused on one data file before going over to a large box of papers and sifting through the hard copy.

"Discrepancies?" Shendu inquired, confused. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"The reason I'm such a success in the criminal underworld despite being what some would call a 'soft touch' on the corporal level is that I earn the loyalty of those who work for me," Valmont explained. "I know their names, faces, likes, dislikes, hobbies, family histories, dreams... I have my employment records memorized."

"And you're looking for something that isn't how you remember it...why?" Shendu inquired carefully.

"Before the rainbow wave that covered the entire globe, magic was a closely guarded secret," Valmont explained. "No one in power knew it existed, and so no one in power had access to it. After that wave, however...magic is normal. Everyone knows, nobody cares. Only mages make use of it...but the government has access to battle mages to send in to deal with magical powered criminals, and no one blinks an eye. Meaning as far as the world is concerned, there were always government battle mages protecting them from magical threats." He smiled as he found the file he was looking for. "And I know my mind. If the world is as it would have been if magic had always been a part of it, then I would make sure I had access to the same resources the government did, but better. And where there is light, there is dark. Where there is good...there is evil."

He tossed the file onto his desk, letting it flip open to a sigil on a page as he looked at it. "Isn't that right...Daolong Wong?"

The sigil blazed violet, and the image of a wizened old man with white hair in black and blue robes clutching a gnarled stick with a crystal at the end appeared over it, seeming to hover in meditation. Two tattoos marked his face, one in the center of his forehead representing his third eye, the other a lightning bolt that traced down over his left eye. His eyes opened, revealing a yellow left eye and a blue right eye. "Valmont," he greeted softly, his voice reedy and strained. "You have need of my services again? I must say, better to deal with you than anyone else. Despite dealing with magic, your expectations have always been reasonable...and the use of your network to acquire hard to find magical ingredients and tomes has always been ample recompense." He shook his head. "Forgive me, I'm rambling. An...old memory has left me irritable, and your summons is a pleasant distraction." Setting his staff across his crossed legs, he brought his palms together in front of his chest. "So, how can I serve you today?"

Shendu had to admit to himself...he was impressed. He could see just how powerful a Dark Chi Wizard Daolong Wong was, and Valmont having one such as he being respectful on an unannounced summons for service spoke volumes of just how effective a leader he was. He may have no magic of his own, Shendu thought silently, but his skills in other areas are impressive...and valuable. Perhaps he would serve better as a General when we take this world back, rather than a jester...

"Forgive me if I skip any customary pleasantries, Daolong Wong," Valmont spoke up politely, "but I'm afraid my own situation has left me somewhat irritable as well. I've...suffered a bit of a setback due to things going sour with a recent client...mostly due to the interference of a particular Good Chi Wizard and his family." He sighed theatrically. "I'm afraid I underestimated his talent, and that of his family. I should have called you in."

Daolong Wong smiled, waving it off. "My battle services don't come cheaply, Valmont. Understandable you would not want to call on me for that unless you had to." His eyes narrowed. "But tell me, what Chi Wizard did you face? I know of few who could pose a threat to your operation...especially when dealing with demons."

Valmont smiled softly, unsurprised that Daolong Wong could see - or sense - Shendu. "A man seemingly known only as Uncle, of the-"

"CHAN?!" Daolong Wong suddenly snarled out, his eyes glowing red as he seized his staff. He fired a discharge of rage filled magic into the background off the image, and an explosion could be heard. A few moments later, Daolong Wong calmed down. "Forgive me, Valmont. The particularly upsetting memories I mentioned specifically relate to that particular Chi Wizard." He stroked his staff, his teeth bared. "An old grudge I would love to have the opportunity to repay..."

Valmont's smile widened to a bargaining grin. "Does that mean I can expect a discount on your combat services if it means fighting him?" he asked jovially.

Daolong Wong waved a finger chidingly, but he was grinning. "Now now, Valmont, you know why my services are expensive. Dark Magic doesn't come cheaply. And there are some resources that even your network can't come by-"

"Such as pegasus feathers, unicorn water, and dryadic sap?" Valmont inquired innocently.

Daolong Wong's eyes widened. "You...you have found a supply?"

Inside, Valmont grinned widely. He'd always been rather good at shooting in the dark. "It just so happens a few Qi Lin are in the custody of our mutual irritant...one of the traditional unicorn variety, one a pegasus, and one possessing a dryadic familiar. Of course, should Uncle meet an...unpleasant end, those three - and their potent magic - would be up for grabs for whoever made the first move..."

"We have a deal!" Daolong Wong stated firmly. "Now, what is the need that furthers this conflict?"

"Uncle has in his possession a tome detailing the location of a certain artifact," Valmont explained. "The..." His voice trailed off as he tried to remember.

"The Pan'ku Box," Shendu provided.

"Yes, that," Valmont explained. "Of course, the less Uncle knows about what we can bring against him, the better for us..."

Daolong Wong's answering grin was positively wicked. "No need to disturb the old fool yet, then," he explained. "I happen to know exactly where it is stored..."

Valmont grinned as he sat back in his chair. "You see, Shendu? You really should trust me more."

"I trust you as much as you trust me," Shendu responded coldly.

Valmont's eyes narrowed at his reflection. "Then it seems we are both wise..."

Heroes Gather

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Jade paced back and forth worriedly on the third floor of Uncle's shop. Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo watched carefully as she paced, their own expressions reflecting similar anxiety. Audrey III hung from the ceiling, completely relaxed. Finally, Jade exploded. "I can't believe it! How did those idiots beat us so badly that we needed magic government backup...and how did that backup get beaten so badly?"

"The baddies ain't as goofy as they seem," Apple Bloom offered. "Tohru told me a bit about 'em...they wouldn't be so high ranked in Valmont's organization if they didn' have talent."

"And Valmont wouldn't be in charge of a criminal syndicate that Section 13 can't take down despite knowing who's in charge if he were incompetent," Sweetie Belle adds. "Plainly, he took the time to plan out Talisman power combinations before handing them out."

"Well of course he did!" Scootaloo pointed out. "You really think an international crime organization is going to flick magical Talismans out to a bunch of goofballs at random and hope magic will fix all his problems?"

Audrey glanced in a seemingly random direction with a wide grin.

"Well what are we supposed to do?" Jade demanded worriedly. "We're dealing with competent foes using Talisman power. And either Jackie's going to go charging in unprepared, or stay out of it because it's 'not our problem'! But if someone doesn't stop Valmont and get the Talismans back, he could end up running the world!"

"Well what can we do about it?" Sweetie Belle demanded. "Our shared special talent is in Demon Hunting, not crime hunting or problem solving."

"Yeah!" Scootaloo agreed. "It's not like you can just throw a 'destiny' problem at us and we'll magically come up with a solution!"

Audrey's seemingly undirected grin widened.

"Well you're all I've got!" Jade gasped out at last, slumping in on herself. "If I talk with Jackie about this, he'll tell me it's not my business to worry about all this. If I talk to Uncle, he'll say Jackie can handle it. Tohru won't go against Uncle." She wrapped her arms around her legs. "I...I don't want to see Jackie get hurt..."

The three fillies cuddled up around her. "We dun wanna see that, neither," Apple Bloom agreed.

"But what can we do?" Scootaloo asked softly. "We're just kids. Even with our magic stable, we don't know what to do with half of it."

"It's not like we know a couple people tough enough to take care of themselves, familiar with Talisman magic, and willing to take our calls and drop everything to help us!" Sweetie complained. She then noticed everyone staring at her. "...what?"

Jade chuckled. "Sweetie Belle, you're a genius!"

"And here I thought she was a dictionary," Scootaloo joked.

"Just because I like knowing what I'm talking about-"

Jade quickly tuned out that conversation as she raced for the phone. She had a couple of calls to make.


Uncle worked calmly cleaning the shop. While nothing untoward had happened since Jackie's abortive attempt to fight the Dark Hand, he'd been on edge ever since. Having caught sight of Jackie incorporating his sword into his katas, he knew he wasn't the only one. He just wished he knew something that could tell him what he could do to fix whatever had gone wrong to create this situation.

As he thought this, he heard the bell at the front of the shop ring. "Go away!" he called out as he turned towards the pair of shadowed figures. "We are closed!"

The larger figure stepped out of the shadows, revealing a well fitting suit and a crimson mask. "We are not...customers," he stated ominously.

Uncle's eyes went wide. "JACKIE!" he screamed out. "We have a burglar!"

Jackie leapt out of the dojo on the second floor, sword drawn and chest bared, the 'mystic armor' runes inexpertly applied, giving him a bit of a 'wild man' appearance that made the masked figure flinch back in shock. However, at the sight of the figure, Jackie's face softened and he lowered the sword. "Uncle, he is not a burglar-"

Uncle promptly struck Jackie across the temple. "Of course he is a burglar! He is wearing a mask!"

A small Mexican boy stepped out of the shadows. "No, no, no, El Toro Fuerte never removes his mask," he proclaimed proudly, as though that explained everything.

Uncle frowned as something niggled his memory. Something about Sweetie Belle's hobbies and interests...

His thoughts were dashed as Tohru stepped out of the backroom, looking around in concern. As soon as the masked figure - 'El Toro Fuerte', apparently - caught sight of him, his expression hardened. "Dark Hand enemy!" he proclaimed, shifting into an angry crouch. Before he could leap, however, thorny vines shot out of alcoves in the walls to wrap around him, holding him to the ground. "Evil plant?" he gasped in shock.

"Audrey is not evil," Tohru stated firmly. "He is Apple Bloom's familiar...and apparently has little patience for comedic misunderstandings that cause fiscal collateral damage. I no longer work for the Dark Hand, and am firmly allied with this family."

"It's true!" Jackie confirmed.

El Toro relaxed, and the vines released him. "Apologies," he offered sincerely as he straightened his tie. "I was not informed of this."

Tohru nodded his head. "Apology accepted."

"Perhaps we can meet in the ring sometime, since we are now allies?" El Toro added hopefully.

"I look forward to it," Tohru agreed warmly.

"Looks like a real friendly reunion here," a young woman in a pink dress said as she stepped out from behind Jackie.

Jackie leapt in shock with a loud, "WUAAAGH!" After patting his chest for a time, he glowered at the woman. "Viper! What are you doing here?"

"Who'll save the day?" Audrey suddenly sang out. "The Superhero Squad! They'll hero up...AGAIN!"

"I think the plant summed it up nicely," Viper responded warmly, a chuckle in her voice.

"Aiyah..." Jackie groaned, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Jade reads too many comic books..."

"It's a good thing I'm here, though," Viper spoke up. "I found out from my contacts in the magical community that Valmont's been in contact with a Dark Chi Wizard named Daolong Wong, who was last seen in Tibet. Not long after the contact, Valmont's Enforcers booked a flight there."

"Then we know where we are going," Tohru stated firmly.

Jackie opened his mouth to argue, then closed it. "Even if I try to tell you all not to come and Tohru to stay and watch the shop and the children, you'll all end up coming anyway, won't you?"

"Isn't it adorable the way he thinks he's in charge?" Viper teased playfully, making El Toro chuckle.

Jackie buried his face in his free hand. "Bad day..."

"By the way, Jackie, I like the new look," Viper added, looking him up and down and playfully licking her lips.

Jackie glanced down, realized he was shirtless, and let out a startled yelp. "Bad day bad day bad day!" he cried out as he raced up the stairs.

Heroes Prerogative

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Jackie sighed to himself as the larger than he expected group settled in for the night at an inn in Tibet. He had been thoroughly outvoted as far as the inclusion of such backup, and now he was stuck with it. The group had two connected rooms at the inn. Jackie, Uncle, Tohru, El Toro, and Paco were in one room, while Viper, Jade, and the fillies were in the other, while Audrey had planted himself outside for the night. Jackie didn't like the idea of leaving the children in with the former thief - reformed or not, he didn't believe she was a good influence for them - but when he'd raised that objection, the response had quickly made him withdraw it.

"If she's such a bad girl, maybe you two should share a room so you can keep an eye on her?" Sweetie Belle had suggested in a deceptively innocent tone of voice.

Where did she learn to talk like that? he asked himself as he made his way to the bathroom. He still remembered the entire group laughing at his expense...or perhaps at Sweetie's shouted "Oh, come on!" when he'd retreated so quickly. He opened the door to the bathroom, praying he'd be able to just wash his face, brush his teeth, and go back to bed.

He was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he nearly walked right into the bathroom to clean up next to Finn and Ratso. He caught himself just in time, shutting the door and hiding behind it when they opened it back up to leave. Finn let out a loud yawn as he opened the door. "Glad Valmont talked Wong into going at our pace," he groaned softly.

"Yeah," Ratso agreed, stretching. "Talisman power is all well and good, but it takes a lot out of you. Just because he only needs two hours to recharge his 'Dark Chi' in meditation doesn't mean we can do the same."

"And we don't even need to stand watch," Finn yawned tiredly. "He's got his Dark Warriors taking care of that. What'd he call them? Gan, Ren, Chew?"

"Chui," Ratso corrected sleepily. "Like the Wookie, but Chinese."

Jackie pushed the door back closed, rubbing his face where he got bumped before following them to their room.

He stayed at the doorframe as he watched them enter, the door remaining open as they curled up in their beds. There were four beds, now with one occupant each. An elderly figure Jackie didn't recognize - the 'Wong' they'd mentioned, he presumed - floated in the center of the room, a gnarled scepter in his lap, his eyes closed in meditation. Scattered around the room were three orange skinned figures in black with solid black eyes and neon blue body paint. Looking at them, he felt a shiver run over his entire body. Is this what Uncle means when he gets the willies? he asked himself silently.

However, something else caught his attention. The vast majority of the 12 Talismans were left on end tables, and those that weren't were in plain sight. If he could make it past those 'Dark Warriors', he could snatch them all back. Even if that wasn't the mission priority, it would still be a huge advantage.

At the same time, it would alert the group to the fact that they had pursuers, and that said pursuers were right behind them. Of course, that was assuming he could get past the Dark Warriors to swipe the Talismans. Still, getting the Talismans away from the Dark Hand agents would give them a distinct advantage when the inevitable confrontation over whatever they had come to retrieve happened. After all, the four of them had trounced Jackie and Captain Black with the Talismans, and as effective as El Toro, Viper, and Tohru were...he didn't think it really evened the playing field. And as powerful as Audrey was, he was exceptionally vulnerable to flame...which the Talismans were naturally attuned to.

After a time of trying and failing to plan this out, he realized he was going the wrong way. He was considering a theft...and the team had a former professional thief amongst its number. All he had to do was ask for her help...without letting the girls know that's what he was up to. If they found out what was going on, Jade for certain and the others possibly would try and come along. How was he to get Viper out of that room without the girls following?

A light touch on his shoulder nearly made him leap out of his skin. Turning, he saw Viper standing there, putting a finger to her lips. He quickly nodded in relief, glad to see she was there. He quickly held up his hand to pantomime a four legged walk, indicating an inquiry about the fillies. Viper gestured back to the room she shared with them, which had an oddly sweet scent wafting out of it. She then pointed to outside, where Audrey was waving a few of his leaves in the window of that room.

Jackie relaxed. Viper was a professional, after all. And as much as he didn't like her former profession - and wasn't entirely sure he trusted her yet - her skills were invaluable here...just so long as he was able to keep his eyes on those skills, and not the way she looked in that catsuit.

In his mind's eye, he saw tiny versions of his selves that had taken shape when the Tiger Talisman split him on his shoulders. "We have to stay focused on the mission!" the tiny 'Light Jackie' insisted.

"I'd rather stay focused on that rack!" the tiny 'Dark Jackie' purred. "She takes real good care of herself!"

"We should not treat women as sex objects!" Light Jackie insisted.

"She's the one who practically drooled over our bare chest!" Dark Jackie countered. "We aren't made of stone!"

Jackie quickly dispelled that line of thought by brushing off his shoulders nervously. Seeing Viper ready to move, he tapped her on the shoulder. Once she turned to him, he motioned from the visible Talismans to the floating wizard. He then paused, trying to think how else he could silently indicate not letting the Dark Hand know they were already pursued.

Viper smiled under her mask. Reaching into a bag at her side, she pulled out 12 Talisman copies, much like the one that had been left as bait at the museum where they'd first met. She handed six of them to Jackie, pointing to the half of the room the six were on. Jackie gestured insistently to the Dark Warriors.

Grinning, Viper pulled out a small metal sphere and gently rolled it into the center of the room. As it reached there, it popped silently open and released an almost invisible mist that hugged the floor before climbing the walls. As it climbed up the Dark Warriors, the neon glow of their body paint dimmed. Viper then slipped into the room, seeming unnoticed by the Warriors. She held up her hand, five fingers raised.

Nodding, Jackie moved swiftly. Two and a half minutes later, they were back outside the room, the Talisman copies swapped for the real things. Holding out her hand, Viper let the sphere roll back to her as the light returned to the Warriors tattoos.

Jackie followed Viper outside and let out a sigh of relief. "You think of everything, don't you?" he asked quietly.

"I try," Viper confirmed. "Pick one Talisman you feel you can readily use without problems." She'd already pocketed the Snake, the Ox, and the Horse.

Looking through the rest, Jackie took the Rabbit. "Faster strikes would always be welcome," he observed calmly. "I know what to avoid at high speed."

Taking the rest, Viper walked over to Audrey, who opened his mouth wide. She promptly dumped the Talismans they hadn't parsed out into the open maw. "That's as good a place to keep them as any," she explained softly. "I'll give Ox to the wrestler, and Horse to the big guy. He's got enough extra chi he should be able to use it for a heal beam or something."

"I'll...see you in the morning, then," Jackie offered, deciding now was time to go back into hiding from the Dark Hand until they knew what they were after.

"Till then...handsome." With that, Viper sauntered off to the room she shared with the girls.

Light and Dark Jackie promptly reappeared on Jackie's shoulders. "Nnnf, dat ass!" Dark Jackie purred appreciatively.

"Stop that!" Light Jackie chided angrily.

Jackie groaned, putting his face in his hands. "Bad day..."

Heroes Clash

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With the Talismans swapped for convincing fakes, it was only a matter of waiting for the Dark Hand to be rested enough to make their move. As a result, everyone kipped down for the night, leaving Audrey III on watch to wake them once the Dark Hand made their move. Audrey had expected this, since he didn't actually need to sleep. As long as he found sufficient nutrients in the soil, he'd be able to pull up roots and head with the others after the Dark Hand. And with vines stretched into the rooms wrapped around the legs of the beds, it would be easy enough to silently wake the group when the Dark Hand made their move.

Relative to Audrey's perception of time - which was entirely related to "things happening in his vicinity" - it wasn't long before the sun had cleared the horizon and the Dark Hand were moving. The dark wizard led the way on foot, with his Dark Warriors and Hak Foo at his side. "Keep up!" he snarled angrily as Ratso, Finn, and Chao staggered out into the sun.

"We're coming, we're coming..." Finn groaned, rubbing at his eyes.

"Yeah, keep your robe on..." Ratso grumbled with a yawn as he settled his Talismans.

As they stumbled off, Chao glanced in Audrey's direction to get the sun's glare out of his eyes as he pulled on his shades. He then froze, staring at Audrey. Audrey turned his bulb to look right back at him. After a time, Chao slipped his shades on, turned, and walked back to the rest of his group.

"Something wrong?" Ratso asked curiously.

"Nope!" Chao responded firmly.

Audrey couldn't help but grin as he shook the beds to awaken the others. "Na na na na na na na na, na na na na na na na na, Bat-Plant!"(1)


With everyone gathered, it didn't take long to tail the Dark Hand agents to an old temple, in time to witness the Dark Wizard ordering his Warriors to cut their way through a sealed door. They then made their way into an ancient chamber, the walls covered in inscriptions, all surrounding a single pedestal with the artifact resting upon it. It was a somewhat elongated octahedronal box, dark blue with gold at the four compass points of the middle and on the top and bottom. There appeared to be grooves around the outside horizontally and vertically, dividing the box into sixteen pieces like some strange puzzle. There were green markings on the flat top, and presumably on the bottom, though they couldn't be seen.

"There it is," the Dark Wizard proclaimed. "The Pan'ku Box. Now, one of you grab it!" he instructed the humans with him firmly.

As the four moved forward, Finn glanced at the wizard. "Uh...Daolong Wong, dude? Why don't you take it?"

"We went over this!" Daolong Wong snapped. "It is an artifact forged of pure good magic! As I have enhanced my physicality with the Dark Magic I practice, I can no more touch it than a demon could. And my Dark Warriors are creatures of Dark Magic, touching it would banish them!"

"...seems a real design flaw," Ratso murmured. "I mean, if you've made Dark Magic constructs, isn't good magic the thing you're going to need them to fight the most? Kinda seems to defeat the purpose of making 'em. I mean, I never heard of Good Magic constructs going poof just because they touched something Evil. Quite the opposite, really."

Daolong Wong glared daggers at Ratso. "Just...take the Box," he growled out.

"I think not," Jackie stated boldly as the group stepped into the room.

As Daolong Wong and the others spun, they found Jackie, El Toro, Viper, Tohru, Uncle, Jade, Paco, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Audrey III arranged to battle them. Daolong Wong's eyes locked on Uncle, narrowing to enraged slits. "You!" he snarled out angrily.

"Daolong Wong," Uncle responded coldly. "I have heard of you..."

Daolong Wong began to choke and splutter. "Heard of? You...you...do you know what you cost me? What I could have been if you'd simply kept your nose out of it? The secrets of Light and Dark were in my grasp, and I would have had it all if not for you and your lizard!"

"Uhh..." Ratso began worriedly. "Should you...really be talking like that in front of kids? I mean, there's evil, and then there's just inappropriate-"

"Oh!" Scootaloo suddenly gasped out. She turned to Uncle and pointed at Daolong Wong. "He's the 'Liar Liar Pants on Fire' kid from chi magic school! I loved when you told that story!"

"...uhh..." Chao deadpanned, unsure what was going on.

"Oh!" Uncle declared as he remembered. "You bad kid Fireball burned pants off, got expelled cause it made you drop dark magic items you weren't supposed to have!" He burst into laughter. "Hated me for that all this time? Pfeh! You need to get a life!"

"Oh, I intend to," Daolong Wong growled out angrily. "I intend to take yours! Kill them all!"

The Dark Warriors immediately drew their weapons - a three-section chain staff, a windmill shuriken boomerang blade, and a sledgehammer - which glowed blue-purple with their dark magic.

"Wait, kill?" Finn gasped out in surprise. "Look, Wong, I get that-"

"You will shut your mouth and fight or you will die first to put your Talismans to better use!" Daolong Wong snarled viciously, swinging his staff towards Finn.

Finn swallowed convulsively. "Y-you're the boss," he confirmed as the group brought forth their Talismans.



(1) See Author's Note.

Heroes Battle

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As everyone faced off, Finn, Ratso, and Chao attempted to use their Talismans...only to discover that they wouldn't work. "What the?" Finn demanded, stunned.

"Looking for these?" Jackie asked as he held up the Rabbit Talisman. El Toro had affixed the Ox Talisman to his mask, Tohru had the Horse hanging around his neck, and Viper had the Snake buried in her cleavage under her bodysuit...something that only became noticeable when its glow shone through the cloth before she vanished.

"...well, that just made us useless," Chao muttered as he stared around at the group assembled against them. Rabbit speed Jackie, Ox powered El Toro, endlessly healing Tohru, invisible Viper, the three fillies magic, Uncle's magic, and Audrey III behind them all.

"Then make yourselves useful and grab the box!" Hak Foo barked out. He took a battle stance. "I need no Talisman to best a warrior." He squared off against Tohru as Chui held his Sledge towards El Toro, Gan spun his staff in Jackie's direction, and Ren spun his shuriken boomerang in the direction of where Viper - already invisible - had been seeking a sneak attack.

As the three Enforcers rushed to obey, Daolong Wong faced off against Uncle as they each readied their spells for battle. Jade and Paco sat back watching with Audrey. While the plant may have been seeking the best opportunity to strike, the sheer amount of power present made it plain the two human children had best stay put...especially when Audrey had to shift to protect the pair from magical splash damage from the impact of Uncle and Daolong Wong's spells.

"I had been curious as to why Valmont's Enforcers did not recognize me at this most recent meeting," Daolong Wong called out as the spells clashed. "When I heard of the magic wave and the normal pendants, I understood. Magic was only always an accepted fact of the world after that wave, wasn't it?"

"What is important in that?" Uncle demanded as he barely deflected a curving shadow snake.

"Simply this: you were at the epicenter. You were unchanged." Daolong Wong grinned as he reached into his robe and pulled out a strangely configured skull, slipping it over his head like a helmet. "In the old way, we would have been evenly matched. If we were both altered, we would still be so. But you are new to the changes...and I have now had a decade in service to one who has access to the whole world for magical ingredients and boosters. This skull may only be that of a lesser demon, but what it does for Dark Magic..." Leveling his staff forward, he unleashes a barrage of dark blasts that swirled and arced around the room towards Uncle.

Smirking, Uncle pulled out a glowing green hairbrush and proceeded to smack the blasts out of the air like it was a tennis racket. "And I have been raising three Qi Lin who need daily brushing!" he countered. "You know how potent unicorn hair is for Good Chi spells!"

Chui and El Toro squared off. Much to El Toro's frustration, the Dark Warrior had strength to match his normal strength, and his speed and evasion made it difficult to bring the full power of the Talisman to bear against him. On top of that, the sledge the Dark Warrior wielded hit with enough force to send him flying if El Toro didn't manage to block with Talisman energy focused into his arm. Even his one moment of luck in catching the Sledge by the handle and ripping it from Chui's arms only lasted a moment and a few heavy blows as the Sledge flew at El Toro from behind before returning to Chui's grip.

Jackie found himself having his own troubles with Gan. The three-piece staff proved exceptionally effective at deflecting Jackie's fast strikes, even when amplified by Rabbit Speed. Admittedly, Jackie's defense was able to match Gan's offence as well, leaving them in a pure stalemate. Despite this, Jackie knew it was a delaying action doomed to fail, as the Dark Warrior's stamina was limitless, while Jackie was already feeling himself start to flag from so much use of the Rabbit Talisman.

Viper found herself distinctly frustrated as she attempted to get the drop on Ran. While invisibility didn't hide his senses somehow, she was able to disrupt his ability to track her with some of her magical tools. Unfortunately, Ran adapted to them quickly, and his windmill blade - when thrown - obeyed his will rather than the laws of physics as far as when and how it ricocheted, and he seemed exceptionally well practiced in terms of guiding it while also fighting hand to hand. Viper would think she had him distracted and on the ropes as she delivered a few blows, only to have to roll just before delivering an exceptionally powerful finishing blow to avoid being bisected or having her head cut off. It was supremely frustrating.

It was a relief for Jade and Paco to see that Tohru at least was doing much better against Hak Foo. While Hak Foo's combos were certainly impacting, the Horse Talisman was kicking in as soon as each blow landed, undoing the damage almost before the man pulled his fists back and leaving Tohru to continue to fight at full strength. The only concern there would be Tohru's stamina...but he fought smart, moving very little to conserve his wind while letting Hak Foo wear himself out as he delivered more and more complex and futile attacks. "Minnow wallops whale!" Hak Foo roared out as he moved for one last strike, plainly aiming for a one-hit knockout.

Tohru apparently took offense to being referred to as the 'whale' in the attack, as he changed tactics. "Excuse me," he asked softly, lifting a hand to forestall the attack, "but what was that last part?" He lifted a hand to his ear as though to hear better.

Hak Foo growled irritably. "I said...Minnow-" Before Hak could get another word out, Tohru shifted his side-on stance into a shoulder check that slammed Hak into the opposite wall. "...what was that last part?" Hak growled sarcastically as he struggled to get his bearings, only for Tohru to seize him by the ankle and proceed to flip him like a flapjack.

While all this was going on, Finn, Ratso, and Chao moved to try and take the Box as they'd been directed, only to find their path blocked by Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo. Finn spoke up first. "Look, kids...we don't wanna hurt you, but we've been ordered to get that Box...and I'm pretty sure you don't want to fight us."

"We don' have ta," Apple Bloom replied warmly as she leapt into his arms, catching him off guard enough that he caught her. "Say...these plant based fabrics?" she asked as she glanced at the tags on his clothes.

"Yeah," Finn replied easily. "Wool gives me a rash, I can't afford a full silk wardrobe at the rate the job makes me go through clothes, and I worry about the environmental impact of producing so much synthetics-" His eyes widened as he saw the filly grin widely, magic gathering around one hoof. "How about I stand perfectly still, and you not do whatever it is you're thinking of?" he asked hopefully.

"Ah reckon that could work," Apple Bloom answered impishly.

Chao frowned as he squared off against Sweetie Belle. "Well, I know you can't pull something like that on-whoa!" He waved his limbs wildly as he was lifted into the air in Sweetie's magical grip as her horn glowed. "...that mark on your butt made you a lot stronger, huh?"

"Seems that way!" Sweetie piped up happily.

Ratso squared himself as he faced down Scootaloo as she sat atop Cumulo, floating between him and the Box. The staring match continued for some time, neither moving, flinching, or even blinking. After a time, Ratso suddenly said, "Yoink!"

Startled, Scootaloo spun on Cumulo, checking the Box. Seeing it still there, she spun back to Ratso. "Nice try, but that's not going to work."

"Guess not," Ratso admitted with a shrug as he pulled his arms back from under Cumulo. "Looks like we're overmatched here. Either you guys will beat the Dark Warriors, or Audrey will eat them when they get the upper hand." As Tohru hurled a dazed Hak Foo into Dalong Wong, knocking them both prone, Ratso backed quickly to the Dark Wizard's side. "So I think it'd be best for us to cut our losses," he stated significantly to the Dark Wizard, giving him a gentle nudge that - for some reason - caused him to hiss in sudden pain.

Jade gasped as she saw what had happened. "Ratso's got the artifact!" she cried out, pointing to the blue and gold in the goofy man's hand.

Spinning, Scootaloo saw the empty pedestal and realized Ratso had slipped his arms under Cumulo when she'd spun to check after the 'Yoink!', and grabbed the box after she'd taken her eyes off it, hiding it up his sleeve while his arms were still under the cloud. "Why you little-"

"Gotcha!" Ratso said with a wide grin with the box held high as the Dark Warriors seized Finn and Chao just before Daolong Wong unleashed a dark purple smoke cloud that enshrouded them all, making them vanish. Apple Bloom fell to the ground as Finn vanished out from under her.

Realizing the fullness of what had happened, Scootaloo began to faceplant into Cumulo repeatedly, deciding that actually banging her head against the wall would be bad.

"Is not so bad," Uncle comforted the pegasus filly. "Daolong Wong will get little use of that artifact on his own. If mere touch is painful, then it is made of strong Good Chi. I will translate inscriptions, and see if we can learn why he was after it." Turning, he began to examine the inscriptions.

Heroes' Quest

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Uncle carefully examined the inscriptions all around the room, translating what he discovered for the listeners as he went. "Hmm...it seems Shendu was only one Demon Sorcerer...and not the only one. He was one of eight siblings, each with dominion over different aspects of the natural world. In addition to Shendu's Fire, there is Wind, Sky, Moon, Earth, Mountain, Water, and Thunder."

"If there were eight of these guys, how come that didn't enter the more prominent records?" Viper asked curiously. "I mean, if they were all as powerful as Shendu and running amok all at once, that would have left a mark on the world."

"Because when they first tried to conquer, they were defeated by the Eight Immortals, great mages of ancient China," Uncle explained. "Once defeated, they were banished to the Demon Netherrealm, and the portals they were banished through sealed away, the keys to those portals locked away."

"What does this have to do with the box?" El Toro asked intently.

"The box..." Uncle gasped in shock as he reached the last of the inscriptions. "Aiyah! Pan'ku Box! It is where the Immortals sealed the spells they used to banish the demons! In evil hands, it can be used to unseal the portals and unleash Demon Sorcerers upon the world once more! But why would Daolong Wong want that?"

"Daolong Wong was working with the guys from the Dark Hand," Viper pointed out. "The question should be why does Valmont want that?"

"I think I know," Jackie grunted morosely. "If we hadn't killed Shendu, Valmont would have gotten everything he wanted out of that deal. He's probably after the same thing from his siblings, now. Wealth, power, control...that's what Valmont wants. And by backing Demon Sorcerers in taking the world...he probably thinks he can get all that."

"Then we must return home, and prepare to do battle with Demons," Uncle stated firmly. "It is good thing we have on our side three Qi Lin who share a talent for Demon hunting!" He smiled down at the fillies. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle both blushed happily at the praise. Noticing Scootaloo's sorrow, Uncle stroked her mane. "One more thing, Scootaloo...even monkeys fall from trees."

"Huh?" Scootaloo asked, confused.

"It means everyone messes up sometimes, no matter how good you are," Jade translated. "It's not your fault you underestimated Ratso. If humans have special talents like ponies do, his is making people underestimate him."

"What would a Cutie Mark in that look like?" Apple Bloom asked curiously.

Sweetie Belle tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Not sure why...but I wanna say 'bubbles'."

"We will lend a hand when we can," El Toro offered warmly, "but for now, my apprentice and I must return to Mexico, to continue our training."

"I can always snag a hotel-" Viper began.

"We've got a room to spare!" Jade and Sweetie Belle simultaneously interrupted. They then exchanged glances and giggles as Jackie facepalmed.

"Come!" Uncle proclaimed. "We must do research!"


Valmont sat back as he heard the report from Daolong Wong, the Pan'ku Box sitting on his desk between them. "So...it seems the Chans have become all the more effective obstacles when it comes to this particular endeavor," he mused softly.

Daolong Wong nodded. "My Dark Warriors were able to match them for a time, but even without Talisman power, I believe it is only a matter of time before they become skilled enough to conquer them, or until that old goat finds artifacts or develops spells to neutralize them completely. Not only that, they are aware we have the Pan'ku Box. It is only a matter of time before they learn why, and begin researching ways to banish the Demon Sorcerers as you summon them."

"That chi wizard continues to be a thorn in my-"

"Patience, Shendu," Valmont interrupted his spiritual companion. Part of the agreement they'd come to as far as cooperation was that Shendu would not claim total control of the body outside of an immediate combat situation, and that Valmont would have primary control of the mouth during any negotiations. "There are many ways to deal with such obstacles. At the moment, your preferred method would only needlessly expose us. Of a certainty, they will have increased the defenses of their primary base, and attacking it directly would be walking right into a trap designed specifically to trap us. A different approach is obviously required."

"Oh?" Shendu hissed angrily. "And just what did you have in mind?"

"When dealing with a situation where there are factors you can't control, focus on those you can so you can minimize the impact of those you can't," Valmont explained. "Do either of you know how to work the Pan'ku Box?" Silence greeted his question. "Where the portals are, exactly?" Again, silence. "Then despite us having the Box, if all we do is unleash the Demon Sorcerers, the Chans have the advantage. A different strategy is necessary."

"What sort of strategy?" Daolong Wong asked curiously.

Valmont smiled as he turned to the nearest mirror. "Shendu...can you put me in contact with your siblings?" He found an odd sort of pleasure in the sight of Shendu's ghostly face paling in fear.


As Uncle opened the door to the shop, the group found themselves staring down at a rather warty frog. "...where's Captain Black?" Jackie asked, confused. "We left him in charge of the shop."

Three facehooves and three facepalms greeted the statement. Viper snickered softly.

Friends on the Other Side

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Valmont sat back in front of the mirror, waiting for Shendu's response. After a telling amount of time, Shendu finally responded, "I can."

"Then do so," Valmont directed immediately. "Before we move for the portals - or even attempt to open the box - we need to discuss a few things. Strategies, capabilities...terms." He smiled softly. "After all, if I've been hired to do this job, I want to be sure I have all the details I need."

"I can tell you-"

"And I don't deal with middle-men, Shendu," Valmont interrupted. "You aren't the client here, since you have no power to pay for my services. It will be your siblings who reward me when the job is done, so it is them I will discuss these terms with."

"I like him already, my siblings," a hissing, purring voice suddenly spoke from the mirror as a pale blue-white face with mer characteristics appeared, shortly followed by others.

Valmont gave a courtly half-bow from his seated position. "I aim to please, my lady. Might you honor me with your name?"

"And a gentleman!" the largest green face proclaimed warmly. "You made a good choice here, Shendu...for once."

It wasn't long before each of the Demons had introduced themselves, and Valmont could put a name to each face, since he had only faces to work from. He then focused on Tso Lan. "Correct me if I'm mistaken, but from how you all speak - both to each other and to me - I believe you are the one who holds the most authority in your family. I suspect you are the eldest?"

"Not entirely accurate," Tso Lan corrected, his face tilting obliquely. "However, if you are asking for the one who holds the most trust amongst our band - and thus the one who would oversee any group negotiations - then yes, that would be me."

Valmont nodded. "I am glad to hear it. Negotiating one to one is far more efficient than attempting to do so via committee. And now, before negotiations actually begin...should events result in the only available action left being resuming your chosen torment to Shendu for his betrayal, would that do harm to my body or soul if he's still bound to me?"

"He actually told you about that?" Dai Gui growled in surprise. "He's more desperate than I thought!"

"Oh, he didn't have to tell me," Valmont replied, waving one hand dismissively. "His hesitance to get in contact with you all told me on its own. Besides, I did have dealings with him for well over a decade. I know his character."

Tso Lan's expression didn't change - given the odd shape of his mouth, it would be impossible to tell if it had - but Valmont got the impression from his eyes that he was grinning. "A mind such as yours is rare amongst humans, and a valuable asset. I can guarantee that within the month, the spells of torment shall be altered in such a way that you will experience no harm from their use, even if Shendu is still bound to you."

Valmont grinned widely. "In that case, I think I might want to delay opening any portals for a month and stock up on popcorn!" he joked, causing Shendu's eyes to widen in terror as his siblings burst into uproarious laughter.

"Brother, once we are free, can I have this one?" Bai Tsa purred eagerly to Tso Lan. "He is most entertaining, and it has been eons since I've observed a mortal I judged even remotely worthy."

To his surprise, Valmont found himself blushing. While his position as head of a crime cartel meant he had the money and power to attract plenty of possible female companionship - and his looks were such that he could draw such on their own merits - those had always had him in the position of power for the 'negotiations'. A demoness capable of controlling the oceans themselves - as he understood Bai Tsa's power - asking if she could keep him was...a very different experience. "I...I'm honored by such high regard," he finally managed to stammer out, tugging at his shirt collar. "And I would be overjoyed to discuss such arrangements...after your successful release has been arranged, and I am free of...awkward hangerons for such negotiations." He gestured obliquely at the silhouette of Shendu's horn.

"Agreed," Tso Lan spoke up firmly, a turned gaze silencing Bai Tsa even if she was visibly pouting.

To Valmont's surprise, he felt a message directly into his mind from Po Kong. You made quite the impression on Bai, she murmured in his mind. She hadn't been this bubbly over someone new since she was a teenager. Keep things up, and I expect your 'reward' for services from her might turn out to be more than just wealth or power.

Valmont did his best to school his expression as Tso Lan continued the discussion. "Now then, what is there to discuss? Our wishes are straightforward, as are the terms. You free us, we will reward you."

"And that's where the issue comes in," Valmont spoke up. "Aligned against us is a highly skilled Chi Wizard of Daolong Wong's...acquaintance, three powerful if immature Qi Lin, a skilled martial artist who possesses a recently crafted magical weapon, and as yet unknown government related magical resources to draw on...not to mention a fully manifest Dryadic familiar and two other skilled warriors. Or, to put it in other terms, we're dealing with a ragtag band of heroes touched by destiny." He interlaced his fingers. "To be blunt, I don't like our odds."

"You don't strike me as the sort to throw in the towel so easily," Tso Lan pointed out as the other demon heads in the mirror growled back and forth to each other.

"I'm not," Valmont confirmed, "but I'm also not the sort to be reckless. I make plans, and to make plans I need to know what resources are at my disposal, and how cooperative those I'm working with will be. And that leads me to one major question." He stared Tso Lan straight in the eyes. "How many of you are capable of assuming a human form?"

He was rather surprised that this question was greeted with dead silence. Tso Lan finally spoke up. "It is your intention that we hide?" he growled out angrily.

"It is my intention that we are successful in freeing you all," Valmont corrected. "That means not confronting the Chans and their allies until we have overwhelming force on our side...which means having all of you free. If you can assume human forms, it will be very easy to hide you from their eyes...especially since they'll expect you to be unwilling to do so."

"Your conclusion, however unpleasant, is accurate," Tso Lan concluded. "Very well. What are these terms you wished to discuss?"

"Simple," Valmont explained. "I will arrange each of your release. So long as you follow my directives as far as keeping you from being banished by the Chans, I will guarantee you will remain free. Once all the portals have been opened, whoever has managed to remain free by those dictates will owe me a payment from wherever their personal treasuries are stored. If that's all of you, this will also include releasing Shendu from his bonds to me...though what you do with him after that is none of my concern."

"And if we refuse to abide by these terms?" Hsi Wu snapped out angrily.

Valmont grinned as he leaned back in his chair. "Then the Pan'ku Box gets locked up where only the Dark Hand will have access, and I stock up on popcorn. I leave the decision up to all of you."

Silence greeted this assertion. "...we will discuss these terms and get back to you," Tso Lan concluded finally. The faces of the Demon Sorcerers vanished one by one.

Bai Tsa vanished last of all...shooting Valmont a smile and a flirtatious wink before she did.

"Goodness," Valmont murmured as the magic faded from the room and Daolong Wong let himself start breathing again. "I seem to have made...quite the impression on Bai Tsa."

"Hope you like drowning," Shendu growled out petulantly.

"Daolong Wong," Valmont called out, "do be a good sport and research a way to magically give me gills and deep ocean pressure resistance, just in case such things slip the lady's mind?"

Preparations, part 1

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Once Captain Black had been changed back to a human and sent on his way with an admonishment against experimenting with magic beyond his knowledge, Uncle immediately got to work. While at first this was understandable and tolerated, his intensity swiftly drew the concern of his family. "Uncle, you need to slow down," Jackie cautioned worriedly as Uncle raced back and forth through the library with stacks of books and bags of various comestibles.

"Yeah!" Jade agreed. "You need to chill-" She quickly found her mouth blocked by three warning hooves.

"If I chill, demons will be dancing upon all our graves!" Uncle insisted angrily. "I must research the proper chi spells to seal the seven portals! All required ingredients must be on hand at all times!"

"At least let us help!" Sweetie Belle complained. "All of us!"

However, her timing couldn't have been worse as Uncle spun on them all. "What do you all know of magic of this caliber? I studied under Chi Master Fong for fifteen years!"

"And you've been training us for ten!" Scootaloo insisted. "We can help!"

Uncle blinked in surprise, then rubbed his forehead. "...apologies," he murmured softly. "So much happening all at once, the world in such danger..."

"You felt you had to do it all yourself," Jackie offered comfortingly. "We understand."

"It runs in the family," Jade added teasingly.

"We can all help!" Apple Bloom offered. "Sweetie, Scoots, and ah know yer filing system. Jade's really energetic. And Tohru and Uncle Jackie can do the heavy lifting!"

Uncle sighed softly. "I do not think that will be enough," he muttered. "The fight with Daolong Wong...I am plainly not cut out for this world where magic is the norm, and not closely guarded secrets. I cannot face it alone in battle. The time has come...for me to train an apprentice of my own."

Sweetie Belle frowned as those words left Uncle's mouth. She knew why Uncle was so reticent about training an apprentice, to the point he'd never even officially declared the three of them his apprentices. Training him had been the last thing Chi Master Fong had done before his untimely demise at the hands of a Dark Wizard...who, Uncle did not know. Uncle blamed himself for his Master's death, since he had not been there to help primarily because he had gone to gather the ingredients for the last spell he needed to perfect to achieve Mastery. To Uncle, taking on an apprentice was tantamount to admitting he was done for as a Chi Wizard...that it was time to pass the torch.

Uncle, however, was apparently doing his best to take it in stride. "My apprentice must have sound judgement," he began, listing off qualifiers for the job, "whom I can trust with my chi knowledge."

"Me me me me me!" Jade offered eagerly. "I'll put some focus in your hocus!"

Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo all exchanged glances. Considering Jade's reason for being in America in this 'new magic world' was for Uncle to teach her to control her magic, the outcome was almost a given...and likely to be highly amusing to observe, seeing Uncle trying to keep Jade under control.

"Tohru," Uncle declared firmly, causing everyone to gasp in shock. "You have ample reserves of chi that you barely use. With training and discipline, you can become a great Chi Wizard...and in the meantime, it will do you no harm should I need to draw on your strength to power some of my spells when my own strength wanes."

Tohru blinked several times, then bowed his head. "I will not fail you, Sensei," he promised.

"Uh...Uncle?" Sweetie Belle asked carefully. "Are you sure-"

"If this is about Jade's eagerness, you think I have it in me to dedicate another ten years to taming the wild spirit of a child with more magic in her than good sense?" Uncle interrupted pointedly.

"Hey!" Jade complained irritably.

"As entertaining as such things might have been to watch, world is in peril!" Uncle continued. "I do not have time for that! One more thing!" He crossed his arms with a wide smirk. "I think it's my turn to be entertained."

"Huh?" Scootaloo asked worriedly.

"Between the three of you, you have more magic than I," Uncle explained. "One more thing, I have indeed trained you three for a decade. One more thing, your magic is by nature antithetical to demons, especially as you have a special talent for demon hunting that stabilizes your magic auras. As such, between the three of you, I am confident in declaring you one competent Chi Wizard." Stepping beside Jade, he pushed her towards the fillies. "So training her is your job. At least you three should be able to keep up with her."

While Uncle plainly thought this was a brilliant idea, and Jade was simply overjoyed to be getting formal training in magic no matter where it was coming from, Jackie was busy having nightmare images of the four children running amok as 'magic training' turned into a worse disaster for the world than Demon Sorcerers running amok...and for some reason, these nightmare images included tree sap everywhere. "Bad day..." he muttered, burying his face in his hand.

Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he turned to see Viper standing behind him with a soft smile. "It won't be as bad as you think," she offered gently. "Those girls take their magic seriously, and they definitely don't want to disappoint Uncle. They'll keep the little hellion in check. And I'll keep an eye out, too."

Jackie sighed, feeling somewhat relieved. While he still didn't entirely trust Viper or consider a thief - former or otherwise - a good role model for the girls, he did respect her skills. "Thank you, Viper," he offered warmly.

"Come on," she beckoned, tugging him upstairs. "You should get whatever rest you can before you go toe to toe with another demon, and I know just the thing to help relax you..."

Blinking in confusion, Jackie followed her up the stairs to the third floor...much to the amusement of Jade and the fillies.

Preparations, part 2

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Captain Black sighed as he stared at the vidphone. This was not a conversation he was looking forward to. He was going to have to tell the higher ups that the Dark Hand was dealing with demons, and request help in dealing with it...and there were protocols in place he didn't know about. The dispatch of combat magi when the Dark Hand Enforcers had used Talisman power made it plain that government agencies now had a means of dealing with magic, which meant there were protocols for it...and he was going to have to bluff his way through it. Finally, he reached out and clicked the link.

As usual, his superior appeared on the screen almost immediately. "Yes, Captain?"

"Sir, I need to requisition additional backup," Augustus explained. "It appears the Dark Hand have dealings with...demons." Despite knowing the world was different, he still braced himself for derision if not dismissal.

"Which ones?" his superior asked. "What ranking?"

Captain Black blinked. That was not the response he had expected. Now the bluffing came in. "I'm afraid the information I have available is...incomplete in that regard. I-"

"Do you have a name?" his superior asked. "For the demon they have dealings with?"

"Only one at the moment," Captain Black replied. "Shendu."

To Augustus' surprise, his superior pulled back...afraid. "This is above my pay grade," he stated simply. "This is against all sorts of protocol, but you are the lead agent in all Dark Hand matters. You know Valmont and his operations better than anyone...however much that is or isn't saying. I'm patching you through to the Veil Liaison Officer for North America." The signal went to static.

"Uh...what?" Captain Black asked in confusion. This was not going at all how he expected it to.

After a time, the screen cleared...and a young man who couldn't be more than 19 was shown. He had Asian features, black hair with green tips, and was wearing a red jacket. "Long, here. What's the situation?"

"...I have no idea anymore..." Captain Black whimpered, totally lost.

The young man looked at Captain Black for a time. "...you're in way over your head, aren't you?" he asked consolingly.

"So far," Captain Black confirmed. "The man I was reporting to said it was above his pay grade. I mean...Veil Liaison? What's that about?"

The young man - Mr. Long, presumably - shook his head in wonder. "Fully Mundane," he murmured in amazement. "How'd you get dragged into all this?"

"My friend Jackie Chan's Uncle is apparently a Chi Wizard-"

"Oh, Uncle!" Long responded warmly, glancing at a file. "1st Class Chi Wizard, Class 4 Magi, more medals and awards than you have time to listen to. Yeah, that explains it." He closed the file, then crossed his arms. "Let me do some hand holding here. The whole world knows about magic. What it doesn't know is just how much magic there is, and how dangerous it can be. The Veil keeps things that way. Because of the Veil, anyone without magic can't see magical creatures unless they go out of their way to draw attention to themselves, and people like me-" He jerked a thumb at his chest. "-deal with those that breach the Veil. If they're good, we acclimate them for normal lives. If they're evil, we beat the crap out of them."

Captain Black nodded. "And I'm sure you're effective at such things," he replied, a tad condescendingly.

Long glared at him for a time, and for a brief moment his face became draconic.

"YAAUGH!" Captain Black screamed, shooting back from the phone.

"Geeze, I didn't mean to scare you that much!" Long joked. "Just let you know who you're dealing with. You don't make Liaison rank unless you're Class 5 or higher."

"Sorry," Augustus replied, making mental note about what was said about Class ratings. "The last dragon I encountered...well, his name is what put me in direct connection with you."

To Augustus' surprise, Long paled. "Shit. You're talking about Shendu. Class 3 Demon, last pureblood dragon native to this layer of reality. Yeah, I can see why you'd be nervous about dragons after that."

"Well, Shendu is a non-issue at this point," Augustus responded. "He's dead."

"WHAT?" Long demanded in shock. "What moron did that? Do you have any idea how long it took to achieve the perfect balance of magical Light and Dark forces in the world so that human civilization could progress as far as it has without being trampled by constant magical warfare?"

Captain Black gulped, terrified. "Uncle's unicorn did it!"

Long stared at him for a time. "Ugh...look, I'm gonna need to cut off. I need to contact Asia's Liaison and make sure extra security is put around the Pan'ku Box-"

"The Dark Hand has the Pan'ku Box," Captain Black interrupted, "and I'm pretty sure Valmont intends to free Shendu's siblings. That's what started this call in the first place."

"Okay, forget cutting the connection, we're going conference!" Long started tapping away at the console at his end as Black's screen divided in four. "Congrats, Captain. Just for being involved in this mess, you can expect at least three promotions just to get proper security clearance."

"I don't want promotions, I want to put Valmont behind bars!" Captain Black snapped back. Then he blinked. "Wait, at least?"

"Glad you're one of the good ones," Long joked. "Looks like we're through to Europe."

The second screen illuminated, revealing...a young redheaded British boy wearing a white robe and glasses, sipping from a cup of tea. To Augustus' dismay, he didn't look much older than 10, if that. "Oh, hello!" he spoke up in surprise. "What's this all about so early-"

"Springfield, we're going conference," Long interrupted. "I'm trying to get Asia but-"

"Oh, I was in call with Kinomoto," Springfield replied. "I was trying to arrange a field trip for my class. I'll connect the calls."

The third screen lit up, showing a young Japanese girl in a poofy red and white dress with brown hair and green eyes. "Hoe?" she squeaked out in surprise. "What's going on?"

The fourth screen illuminated, revealing an exceptionally voluptuous woman with yellow hair gradiating to green at the tips, one green eye and one yellow eye, and two horns growing out of either side of the head. "Ara, ara...you weren't going to leave me out now, were you little D-boy?" she purred towards Long's screen.

"I was trying to reach you, Lucoa-san," Long responded in a tone of long suffering. "Things are serious."

"Serious?" Springfield asked. "How so?"

"Shendu is dead, and the Pan'ku Box is in play," Long responded. "Captain Black here-"

"UUUEEEH?!" Kinomoto wailed out in surprise. "Ooh, I knew I never should have taken this job! I have enough trouble with Cards without messing with demons! I only took it for frequent easy travel because my boyfriend lives in China!"

"You think you have it bad?" Springfield snapped back. "I only took the job for the portal back to England so I didn't have to sleep in the school dorms anymore! It was hard enough teaching secondary education at an all girls boarding school before puberty kicked in!" Closing his eyes, he put his hands together and began to chant to reassure himself. "I am a British Gentleman, I am a British Gentleman..."

Lucoa-san giggled a trifle wickedly. "Young people are so energetic, aren't they?"

Long sighed. "Captain, the Veil Liaison Officers for Europe, Asia, and South America," he groaned softly. "And you wonder why I prefer to handle things solo."

"What about Africa? And Australia?" Black asked curiously.

"Africa prefers to handle its own magical issues, and does not deal with the rest of the world on those matters," Lucoa explained. "That...and the magic of Africa scares most mortals."

"And nobody would dare claim magical dominion of Australia," Long added. "That's...just a big no-no."

Captain Black groaned, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Maybe I'd have been better off just working it off the books, and let Uncle and those fillies take care of it. They are stronger since they got their Cutie Marks..."

Lucoa perked up happily. "Oh, you didn't say ponies were involved!" she proclaimed happily. She turned to the other screens. "No worries, everyone! Situation is Shining Faust."

Springfield and Kinomoto both let out explosive breaths of relief. "We'll stay out of your way then," Springfield offered.

"If you need any local resource access when pursuing the Portals, let us know!" Kinomoto offered eagerly.

The call was cut.

Captain Black blinked in surprise. "The hell just happened?" he gasped out in confusion.


Valmont smiled as his mirror darkened, heralding Shendu's siblings returning with their decision. He was mildly surprised to see only Tso Lan's face reflected back at him. "We have decided to accept your offer," Tso Lan began swiftly. "We will abide by your terms, and take human form and hide until such time as combat with this world's defenders is viable. While there is not complete agreement on this point, it is the logical course of action. You also will not be held responsible for any of us who are banished back here who failed to heed your advice once you have freed us."

Valmont gave a half bow. "I am so glad we were able to come to such a mutually beneficial arrangement," he purred softly. "Do tell Bai Tsa to be ready for release soon. I expect to have her freed before the week is out."

Tso Lan raised an eyebrow. "Any particular reason you are releasing her first?"

"Several, both practical and personal," Valmont explained. "Her power seems most subtle and versatile as long as she has ready access to water...which is rather easy to come across. And once she's safely acclimated here in my operations, she'll be most helpful in slipping out to where each portal is without catching government attention." He smiled disarmingly. "Besides, can't a dashing crime lord believe in chivalry?"

"You make me sick," Shendu growled irritably.

"My torment spell is already altered, Shendu," Tso Lan pointed out dryly, making the dragon spirit silence itself. "For your 'ladies first' assertions, Valmont, I am afraid you must leave our sister Po Kong of Mountain until last. Due to her size, not only is her portal the most prominent...she is also the only one of us who cannot assume a human form."

Valmont nodded understandingly. "We'll keep that in mind-"

"So which one of these is the water lady's?" Ratso asked curiously, pointing at the symbols on the Pan'ku Box. "Cause, if you can tell me that, I can get this open on her setting."

"...the Lake trigram," Tso Lan explained. "Top to bottom, broken line, solid line, solid line."

Nodding, Ratso flipped the box around in his hands until that symbol was up. He then twisted the top level of the box a quarter turn, followed by the second level. He then twisted the right half 180 degrees, rotated the whole box 90 degrees, then rotated the right half 180 degrees again. The box floated out of his hands, rotated several pieces rapidly, and then projected a map onto the wall with a portal marking somewhere in Italy. A riddle speaking of 'battles' and 'lions' ran across the bottom of the projection.

Valmont grinned at Tso Lan. "Speed up the time table," he purred. "We'll be in Rome before the day is out."

Water You Waiting For

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As Uncle and the Crusaders began their training of Tohru and Jade respectively, they were interrupted by the sound of jet engines descending towards the shop. "Jackie!" Uncle roared out. "Find out who is making all that noise!"

Groaning, Jackie descended the stairs to the front of the shop, feeling rather self conscious in bright pink yoga pants and a muscle shirt. Admittedly, Viper's choice of relaxation activities - leading him through some yoga exercises - hadn't been what he expected, but it had done the trick. He was feeling much better and ready for whatever the world could throw at him. Confident in this, he opened the door.

An SR-71 Blackbird was parked on the street in front of the shop, gremlins visibly racing around inside of it. A young man who Jackie could have sworn had wings instead of arms - until he blinked - saluted. "Jet's ready to go, got the gourd, spellbook, and ingredients loaded up. Here to pick up warriors and chi wizards for demon hunting."

"...what?" Jackie asked, confused.

"We're from Veil Liaison Offices," the young man explained. "Valmont and his goons were seen in Rome, which means he's gunning to free Bai Tsa. Everybody load up!" Turning, the young man leapt into the open cockpit of the jet, settling into the front seat.

"...I was not ready..." Jackie murmured softly.


Valmont glanced around worriedly as he, Ratso, Finn, Chao, and Daolong Wong entered the Roman Colosseum, certain it wouldn't be long before Jackie Chan and his extended family showed up to attack. Whatever he did here, it would have to be fast. Thankfully, he'd brought a few backup plans...but he always liked having an extra edge. "Shendu," he asked suddenly, "can you still generate Talisman magic without the Talismans? And can you call on the Shadowkhan without your body?"

"The Shadowkhan are always at my command," Shendu hissed in response. "As for the Talismans...other than dragon fire, the rest will greatly drain my strength if overused, and yours as well."

"How big a drain for five seconds of Rabbit speed in my arms?" Valmont inquired.

"...negligible," Shendu responded, though his tone was plainly curious. He had begun to respect Valmont's cunning, and was genuinely intrigued by his mind. He wondered what sort of plan he had.

"Ratso, find the portal and open it," Valmont instructed. "And everyone, make sure you have your thermoses."

Shendu's confusion increased as Daolong Wong's Dark Warriors brought out a table and each of the Enforcers set down a thermos glowing with Dark Chi. Ratso, meanwhile, brought the box over to a lion carving at one end of the arena. The Box shot a beam of light at the carving, transforming it into a diamond pattern with a hole for Bai Tza's trigram. The Box floated out of Ratso's hand and embedded itself in the keyhole. The outer side irised open, revealing the green core before sending a beam of chi into the ground, opening a green gateway that swirled with red and yellow within.

A torrent of water swarmed up out of the portal, taking the shape of a blue skinned, fish-faced mermaid with blue tentacles for hair, white and blue armor garbing her form. "At last...freedom!" Bai Tza cried happily as the portal closed behind her and she hovered in the air. "You are most efficient, Valmont," she purred softly, giving the young man bedroom eyes.

"As much as I would love to speak with you at length, especially when such a lovely creature is paying me compliments..." Valmont smiled to himself as he saw Bai Tza actually giggle at the compliment. "I'm afraid we must make haste. The Chans have more resources at their disposal than anticipated, and the best way to avoid conflict is to make them believe we haven't achieved our objective here yet. How soon can you assume human form?"

Bai Tza frowned as she glanced around. "Unfortunately, my powers derive entirely from my Element," she explained. "Near or within my domain, I can do anything I can visualize my powers accomplishing. Outside it, I am...far more limited."

"So you must be immersed in water before you're able to take a human form," Valmont concluded. "Inconvenient, but I was prepared for this eventuality. Was your departure from the portal magical effect alone, or can you assume pure water form at will?"

"That power is readily at my disposal," Bai Tza confirmed.

Valmont pulled out a thermos marked with Dark Chi runes and popped it open. "Then as undignified as it is, I am afraid I must ask you to do so and enter here. It will be an uncomfortable trip, but it is roomier than it seems."

Bai Tza's frown deepened. "You ask a great deal-"

"I fear to lose your regard, dear lady, but I'm afraid I'm not asking," Valmont interrupted. "It's either this or fight the fully prepared Chans!"

Bai Tza blinked in surprise at being told off...and smiled. Her body softened, and in liquid form she dove into the thermos, the small bottle somehow completely containing her. Valmont instantly capped the thermos and screwed it shut. "How close are the Chans?" he demanded of Daolong Wong.

"Close enough to have seen that," the dark wizard reported, his eyes glowing yellow as he looked through his Dark Warriors as they kept watch.

"Plan B it is," Valmont concluded as he walked over to the table, standing behind it as the Chans arrived in a high speed buggy.

"Jackie!" Uncle proclaimed as they all poured out of the vehicle. "Thermos is protected by powerful dark spell! Banishment spell will not reach demon through it!"

"Then we'll just have to get it open!" Jackie declared as the group gathered.

"Which one?" Valmont asked curiously. "This one?" He held up the thermos that had Bai Tsa inside. Rabbit power now, Shendu!

Shendu immediately put the power of super speed into Valmont's arms...and watched in amazement as he blurred them over the thermoses, rapidly switching them around until the naked eye couldn't track which one was which. Shendu now understood Valmont's plan, as all four thermoses had identical spells on them and were visually identical.

"Or this one?" Valmont asked, holding one of the thermoses up. "Or maybe this one?" he asked, setting that one down and picking up another.

"Then we'll just have to grab 'em all!" Jade shouted out, her and the fillies charging for the table.

Flame! Valmont snapped in his mind, taking a deep breath. Shendu provided, and a blast of fire shot over the heads of the youngsters, making them duck. Tohru grabbed Uncle, Jackie, and Viper and pulled them aside...and the blast of flame reached its true target, destroying the Chans' vehicle. "Scatter!" he ordered his troops as he tossed a thermos to each of them. Daolong Wong, Finn, and Chao each caught one, while Daolong Wong sent Ratso - who still held the Pan'ku Box - directly back to their base.

"Dark Wizard warping spell not strong enough to carry demon!" Uncle called out. "Get thermoses!"

Valmont grinned as the group split up to pursue. As he'd expected, the arid environment that had been of such great discomfort for Bai Tza also limited Audrey's ability to act and Apple Bloom's resources, meaning the biggest concern was Scootaloo on Cumulo. The rest could run, but not quite fast enough. To his surprise, the Chans played even more into his plans since Jackie pursued him while Uncle - on Tohru's shoulder - pursued Daolong Wong, Viper chasing Finn and the fillies on Cumulo chasing Chao.

He kept up his run until he reached the alleyways he'd been looking for. Shendu, can you give me command of one Shadowkahn?

You have it, Shendu replied immediately, afire with curiosity.

Feeling the tug of darkness, Valmont visualized what he wanted...and a blue-skinned hand wrapped in black cloth extended out of a shadow portal. Tossing his cane lightly into the air, Valmont reached into his jacket and pulled out a fifth thermos - the one that held Bai Tsa, which he'd slipped in there while dazzling the Chans with the shell game - and placed it in the hand. As he'd hoped, the summoned ninja pulled the thermos through the Shadow Realm, and he felt it deposited safely on his desk.

Now all that was left was for each of the group to be cornered. Daolong Wong would warp himself away as soon as he was cornered for the thermos, and each of the others - Valmont included - would open theirs. As soon as each thermos opened, it would release a prepared warp spell that Daolong Wong had bottled at Valmont's instruction, warping them back to base.

While the least pleasant plan - especially for Bai Tsa, who would have to endure travel through the Shadow Realm while in sensory deprivation - it had gone off without a hitch.

Water Under the Bridge

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Jackie frowned as he paced back and forth in the shop, going over everything that had happened in Rome in his head. "Those abilities Valmont demonstrated...you don't think Shendu is involved, do you Uncle?"

"Pfeh!" Uncle countered dismissively. "If demon spirit were inside Valmont, eyes would glow red when he took control. Only way Valmont could use power of demon spirit inside is if demon let him, and no demon of sorcerer rank would subsume self to human dominance! One more thing! Already know spells can duplicate Talisman power in small bursts from El Toro, and Valmont has Dark Wizard on payroll! Occam's Razor!"

"But then what happened to the Demon?" Jackie demanded worriedly. "You said that warping spell couldn't warp a demon."

Uncle frowned. "Do not know. But Valmont is tricky. Enforcers raced by several fountains and storm drains. Maybe dump demoness when you weren't looking?"

Jackie sighed. "I suppose that is possible," he admitted. "But I don't like it. It feels like we are missing something obvious..."

"We have bigger concerns than 'how'," Uncle pointed out irritably. "Demons are arrogant, vicious, and cruel...so why would Demon Sorcerer allow herself to be transported? And why is she not doing anything to claim part of world for herself?"

"I think that should be obvious," Viper spoke up worriedly as she came down the stairs. "Valmont's under contract to free the other Demon Sorcerers. Somehow, he's convinced them his way is more effective than theirs, and has talked them into being patient. He has a plan...and we need to be prepared for it."

"And there's no telling what he will do next, or where," Jackie agreed. He sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Bad day..." His phone rang, and he picked it up. "Hello? El Toro? Slow down, I'm trying to understand...a chupacabra? But that's...yeah, I realized what I was saying too. Tablets? Well, I suppose I can get down there and translate. ...you've tried to fight it how many times already? You should have called me sooner. We'll be right there." He hung up the phone with a sigh. "Well, at least this is just a monster-"

"Did you say chupacabra?" Uncle demanded worriedly. "Must be careful! Goat-eater might try to eat fillies!"

"But their Good Magic-"

"Chupacabra is wild magic, not dark magic!" Uncle snapped out. "Uncontrolled, and feeds equally on light and dark! If wild magic creature feeds on young qi lin, it will gain strength to overcome its weaknesses, and become unstoppable!"

"Then maybe they should stay here?" Viper suggested. "I could keep an eye on them."

"And having to stay with her teachers would mean Jade would stay here as well," Jackie observed hopefully. "That would be a load off my mind. Thank you Viper."

"Don't mention it, handsome," Viper replied, shooting him a flirtatious wink.

Jackie chuckled nervously, rubbing the back of his head as his cheeks colored slightly.


Bai Tza was not happy. Transport in a thermos in liquid form was bad enough, especially after the way Valmont had spoken to her. While she could respect his points and skills, she had expected better treatment after her flirtations. And then being jostled so much in sensory deprivation - and then pulled through the Shadow Realm of all things - had left her feeling almost physically ill. And now she was once more being carried, and still wasn't being released? She was going to-

Before she could complete the thought, the top of the thermos was pulled off and she found herself being poured out into...was that sea water? Yes, it was! And it didn't have any of the man-made impurities she'd felt in the air back in Rome! It wasn't the ocean, just a large man-made pool...but there was a current! Valmont had built a miniature ocean for her?

She heard his voice, and turned her awareness towards him. She did need to assume a human form at this point...and perhaps Valmont deserved a treat. After all, it was time to establish that she was in charge when it came to her...intentions.


Valmont smiled to himself as the warp faded, leaving him in his office. His plans had gone off perfectly, and he had discovered everything he'd hoped to learn. First, the Chans had some serious backup, but that backup was bound by the same bureaucratic nonsense that had hobbled Section 13 back when magic wasn't widely known, which once more left Valmont on an even footing with government agencies...just the way he liked it. These games weren't very interesting if the other side couldn't play.

Second, he'd learned that the Chans weren't invincible or unbeatable. Caught off guard and treated with the caution their skills and abilities deserved, it was possible to trick them, and even lead them into traps. As long as plans were worked out well ahead of time along with contingencies - and the demons listened to him when they were released - he would easily be able to free them all, and then destroy the Chans. He would then stand as the right-hand man to the Demon Sorcerers as they ruled the world, since he'd have proven himself as invaluable in dealing with the existing world.

And third and most important, the demons were human. He could have discussed all his plans ahead of time with Bai Tza and Shendu, but that would have given them both opportunities to object or reconsider. By planning for all possible ability sets and then throwing the plans out to the demons at the last moment, he'd forced them to take him at his word. He had successfully buffaloed them both. For all their power and eons of experience, dealing with these demons was no different than dealing with a successful human criminal. The only difference was what they could do to him if they became perturbed with his performance...but Valmont had made his name in the criminal world by being strictly honorable. If he told someone in the underground that he would get them something, he got it for them. If he named a price, that was the price. If he said he'd make payment, he made it. As such, no other criminal organization would betray him, because he was too valuable...and he could create the same situation with the Demon Sorcerers.

Picking up the thermos with Bai Tza inside, he decided it was time to start being indispensable in other ways. He carried it to a special chamber he'd had prepared specifically for the water Demoness. A large sea water infinity pool big enough to swim laps in formed the centerpiece to a full spa and sauna, complete with an artificial hot spring. The attendants - all female - were sworn to a Memory Oath, which would cause them to forget everything about their service in Valmont's organization (including Valmont himself) if they tried to betray him, whether by choice or coercion. (He'd been rather surprised to discover that in the new 'magic' world, that was standard practice for all his employees, placed by Daolong Wong himself, with only his primary Enforcers exempt as having been within the 'eye' of the change.) Opening the thermos, he poured the contents into the pool.

"I do apologize for the rough transit, my lady," he spoke gently, genially. "The proximity of the Chans made it a necessity." He smiled as he saw Bai Tza solidify under the pool's surface, smiling up at him. "I hope you'll find the amenities I've provided you ample compensation for your discomfort, and ease any lingering ills."

Bai Tza slowly swam to the surface...and as she broached it, she changed. The water pouring off of her seemed to reveal her human form. Her skin was moon pale, her hair a shimmering blue, and her almond-shaped eyes emerald green in her heart shaped face. As she continued to rise from the water, Valmont found his heart beating much faster as blood raced through his body in response. Her limbs were strong but delicate, her fingers graceful without seeming fragile, and her curves generous without being excessive...and to top it off she was just shorter than him, such that she'd be exactly eye level with him in high heels. Between all this, the length of her hair, and the fact she came out of the water wearing nothing but, he wasn't sure whether to compare her to Honey Ryder or Aphrodite.

"It is forgiven, Valmont," Bai Tza purred, the only difference in her voice being the absence of the almost aquatic echo it had possessed in her demon form. She stepped up to him, gently running a finger under his chin. "You kept your word to free me, and see to my safety. And until I can reclaim Atlantis..." She turned to survey the facility. "This will make an amply sufficient mini-kingdom of my own. Attendants, the perfect facilities for both relaxation and practice with my powers...all it is missing is subjects to worship me."

Valmont stepped back, gathering his wits. He then gave a smirk and a cordial bow. "It would be an honor to give you the worship you desire, dear lady," he offered, putting an odd spin on 'worship' to get a different point across. His smirk widened as he saw Bai Tza give a girlish giggle in response.

His bravado fled when she leaned in and gently bit his earlobe before whispering, "Give me a few hours to relax myself with the services you have provided, then join me in the hot spring. I owe you a...proper reward." She then licked between his ear and skull before pulling back. She trailed a finger along his neck, and he felt gills briefly shape before vanishing. Turning, she then sauntered over to the attendants for pampering.

Valmont staggered out of the chamber, leaning against a nearby wall to catch his breath. "How under the sun did she just make me feel like a virgin?" he gasped out in desperation.

"To be fair, you are one compared to her," Shendu pointed out. "We each had centuries to...enjoy ourselves before our banishment...and before she joined our brotherhood, she was known as 'Queen of the Sirens'."

"It shows," Valmont murmured as he struggled desperately to get his heart rate, breathing, and complexion under control.

Me, Myself, and I

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When Jackie arrived in Mexico, he was surprised as El Toro drove up almost immediately to collect him. "We must hurry, Jackie!" he greeted insistently. "It is almost nightfall. Soon the beast will attack again!"

Jackie promptly climbed into the van, Uncle following after him. "Swing by where the inscriptions are on the way," Jackie instructed. "We'll drop Uncle off to translate." He smiled to himself, glad Tohru had stayed behind to watch the children with strict instructions that they stay in San Francisco.

"Are you certain there will be time?" El Toro asked worriedly.

Smiling, Jackie placed the Ox Talisman against El Toro's forehead, where it affixed itself to his mask where it had sat for so long. "When I realized we'd be fighting a magic beast, I came prepared." He gestured to the choker he wore around his neck where the Rabbit Talisman was affixed, and to Balance Breaker strapped to his back.

"I thought it was not safe to have them loose in the world, and that was why you had to lock them up in a secret location?" El Toro asked, confused yet relieved.

"The Dark Hand has other interests at the moment," Jackie explained calmly. "One day with them out won't make much of a difference."


The chupacabra proved to be a fierce beast. Almost humanoid in shape, it held itself slung low to the ground for battle. Its body was covered with coarse, spiky brown fur and actual spikes, and each hand and foot ended in three crimson claws. Its eyes glowed red, and its battle cry was an unearthly shriek. It blurred forward almost too fast for the naked eye to follow, and it struck with the force of a speeding truck.

With the help of the Talismans, Jackie was fast enough to keep up with the beast, and El Toro was strong enough to match it. Jackie would race ahead of the beast and threaten with his sword to drive the creature towards El Toro, who attempted to get it in a submission hold so Jackie could deliver a killing blow. While the attempt worked flawlessly the first time, the chupacabra proved flexible enough to break the simple hold El Toro had taken, and too crafty to be readily herded into the trap a second time.

However, the two still proved too much for the creature, and eventually a backhand from El Toro sent the beast flying. It spun to try and land on all fours, only to end up impaled on Jackie's blade. It let out a cry of pain and rage as it lashed forward, trying to get at the one who had killed it. It only managed a single glancing cut of its claws to Jackie's neck - barely breaking the skin and only severing the choker - before the sun rose, dispelling the creature completely.

Jackie and El Toro both slumped back, panting for breath after the intense combat. Jackie reached up to rub the cut on his neck. There wasn't any blood, but it irritated nonetheless. He decided not to put the Rabbit Talisman choker back on until it healed. Perhaps open air would help it pass.


With the beast's defeat, the town that had been under attack celebrated. El Toro invited Jackie to participate, and he welcomed the relaxation. However, his good mood - and El Toro's - faded as Uncle approached, his face grim.

"I have translated the inscriptions!" Uncle proclaimed happily. "Chupacabra is a beast of night that eats goats. Sunlight kills it!"

"We noticed," El Toro observed sardonically.

"Ah, so it is slain. Good." Uncle rubbed his chin. "One more thing! Did it scratch anyone? The curse is passed through its claws, and anyone scratched will became the Chupacabra with the next setting of the sun!"

El Toro looked over himself. "I was not scratched..." he observed cautiously. "Jackie?"

Jackie's hand went to his neck, where the irritating minor scratch still hadn't healed.

Uncle immediately pulled Jackie's hand away...and saw that the cut glowed green. "Aiyah! Jackie, you have contracted Curse of Chupacabra!"

"Can you cure him?" El Toro asked hopefully as Jackie staggered back in disbelief.

"Of course!" Uncle insisted, tugging on the satchel on his back. "Have all ingredients for cure...except for Capsicum. Must go to top of Devil's Peak and talk to wise elder to acquire some."

Jackie sighed in relief. "Well, that shouldn't take me too long-OW!" He rubbed his forehead as Uncle pulled his hand back.

"No! No Talisman Magic!" Uncle insisted. "Wild Magic of Curse will feed on any magic used in its presence until it is cured, becoming more powerful."

"Then we will run," El Toro declared firmly. "Senor Uncle, I will carry anything you need to bring, so Jackie can conserve his strength for the struggle with the beast, should we not make it in time."

Jackie rubbed the back of his head, not sure he liked the fatalistic overtones of that decision.


Unfortunately, El Toro's prediction proved accurate. They hadn't even made it halfway up the mountain when the sun dipped beyond the horizon. As light faded, Jackie felt pain shoot through his body, and he clutched at his head as he struggled to hold onto his humanity. He could feel the shape of his hands and jaw changing, and he heard his shoes rip as the crimson claws tore their way out of the leather.

As he struggled against the change, two tiny Jackies appeared on his shoulders, sidestepping quickly to dodge the spikes that erupted from his shoulder blades. "This is stupid," Dark Jackie observed flatly.

"What are you talking about?" Light Jackie asked worriedly. "If we don't fight the beast-"

"I mean fighting the transformation!" Dark Jackie interrupted. "It's hitting us all at once. Do you really think we have the mental discipline to control every cell in our body against Wild Magic?"

Light Jackie frowned as he shifted around the dark fur sprouting all over Jackie's body. "You have a point, but what's the alternative?"

"Don't fight the transformation," Dark Jackie pointed out logically. "Let it happen, and save our strength for when the beast attacks our mind."

Light Jackie blinked in shock. "...I never thought of that," he allowed. "But how do we take our mind off the pain?"

Dark Jackie grinned lasciviously. "We think about how it felt when Viper was pressed against our back pushing us deeper into the yoga pose, and how she looked doing that standing split in those yoga pants-"

"She is our friend, not just a sex object!" Light Jackie interrupted insistently.

"And if it were any more obvious she was blatantly trying to seduce us, she'd have to invite us to shower with her while wearing only a towel!" Dark Jackie countered. "Let me put it to you this way: if we go back to San Fran and tell her we were able to maintain our humanity by thinking naughty thoughts about her, how do you think she'll feel?"

Light Jackie blinked a few times, rubbing his chin. "Umm...flattered?"

"Definitely," Dark Jackie confirmed. "I won't argue she's a good friend...but you can't argue that she is a very naughty girl."

"I suppose I can't," Light Jackie allowed.

With the focus decided, Jackie relaxed his entire body, letting his mind slip back to thoughts of that more pleasant time as Viper helped him to relax, gently pushing him through the stretches and forms until all stress had washed away...and he felt the tension of the transformation fall away as it completed, leaving him hunched over as he completed the change.

Dark and Light Jackie glanced at the back of Jackie's head, where Chupa-Jackie was digging its way in. "We shall devour them all," it growled out in a gravely voice. "Give me goats!"

Dark and Light Jackie immediately closed on the manifestation, proceeding to thrash it from both directions as a miniature dust cloud formed at the back of Jackie's head. Before long, the dust cloud faded, leaving Chupa-Jackie tied up with Light and Dark Jackie standing to either side of him.

"This is impossible!" Chupa-Jackie proclaimed angrily. "How can you resist me?"

Light Jackie jerked his thumb at his counterpart. "I've spent decades trying to keep him caged."

"And I've had decades to learn every trick to escape said confinement," Dark Jackie added.

"With us working together, you didn't have a chance," Light Jackie concluded.

Chupa-Jackie thrashed angrily. "This shall not stand!" he proclaimed. "You will not conquer me so easily! I am ancient! I am powerful! I hunger! I-"

Dark Jackie interrupted Chupa-Jackie with a kick to the head. "Talk too much," he finished for the interloper, taping over his mouth with duct tape.

"Where did you get that?" Light Jackie asked curiously.

"When you stopped keeping a lid on our libido, there was a great deal to spare," Dark Jackie pointed out with a wry grin.

Light Jackie facepalmed. "Bad day..."

Jackie opened his crimson eyes, the transformation complete. However, much to his surprise, his mind was still his own. Standing upright, he stretched, working out the kinks of his transformed state. Turning to El Toro - who had taken a defensive stance - he curled two claws and stuck the thumb claw pointing upward.

El Toro's jaw dropped. "Jackie? You...you retain your mind?"

Jackie nodded.

"How?" Uncle gasped in awe.

Jackie responded by giving his best tiger snarl.

"The balance you achieved through being split by the Tiger Talisman allowed you to retain command of your mind against the beast's interference?" When Jackie nodded confirmation, Uncle's eyes popped wide. "Aiyah..."

"But the transformation...how did you endure its pain?" El Toro asked curiously.

Jackie looked down, twiddling his claws, uncertain he wanted to try explaining that...even if he had any idea how to begin.

El Toro suddenly chuckled knowingly. "Senorita Viper is a very fine woman, no?" he teased, thumping Jackie firmly on the back. "Be certain to tell her that she aided in retaining your humanity when you return to her!"

Jackie wasn't sure how to feel about the discovery that the coarse fur of his cheeks failed to hide a blush.

Ready to Rumble

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Valmont lay back in his chair behind his desk, idly rubbing his neck as he stared up at the ceiling. He swore he could still feel the gills there, even though the enchantment Bai Tza had placed to let him breathe under the surface of the artificial hot spring had long faded. Of course, his hand kept going to the abrasion from when - in the heat of the moment - she had actually bitten him. Shendu had been right about him being a virgin compared to Bai Tza: it was an experience unlike anything Valmont had ever imagined. He was pleased to discover that he'd managed to impress the Demoness in that area as well, if her completely relaxed, content humming in the afterglow had been any indication.

And if that hadn't, the flat out promise that she'd be seeking him out for such things frequently certainly did. "Woof..." Valmont muttered under his breath, half gasp of relief and half exclamation of awe. "What a woman..."

"That is my sister you're talking about," Shendu pointed out acidly. "My little sister, at that."

"Just be glad I made sure to ask about blocking your perceptions during, then," Valmont grumbled in response. "She didn't seem to care one way or the other." To his surprise, he felt the demon spirit inside him shudder. "You really are glad, aren't you?"

"Her title of Queen of the Sirens isn't just because she reigned over them," Shendu pointed out. "She was a Siren originally, but achieved such great power and mastery of their dark magic that she achieved a Demonic Metamorphosis under her own will. That's when she gained the title of Queen...and when we approached her about joining our fledgling brotherhood."

"I fail to see-"

"She tended to keep the Siren promise before her victims died," Shendu elaborated. "That's how she gained so much magic...and how she became so...how do I put this delicately?"

"She's a Siren that gives Sucubi a run for their money?" Finn suggested diffidently from across the room.

"...I suppose that is the most delicate way to put it," Shendu observed dryly. "Though her eldest daughter was worse in her own way-"

"She has children?" Valmont asked in surprise.

"Had," Shendu corrected. "She dallied with a creature of chaos and disharmony, and bore three daughters who inherited powers from both sides. However, they became so disruptive that Li Tieguai banished them to another plane after sealing Bai. She hasn't heard from them since. It's a sensitive topic, so as long as I'm sharing a body with you, I recommend you don't bring it up."

"Have you picked the next demon to release, Ratso?" Valmont asked quickly, deciding to change the subject.

Ratso nodded. "I figure our best bet next would be somebody who can fly, cover all our bases," Ratso explained. "So...I'm thinking the wind guy, solid line, solid line, broken line." He began turning the box.

"Did you ask Bai Tza about that?" Valmont asked curiously.

"Nah," Ratso corrected. "Looked up the meanings of the Trigrams. Did ya know Bai's is lake, and there's another one on here that means water? You'd think she'd be water."

"Water represents my brother Tso Lan, the Moon Demon," Shendu explained carefully. "Wind, however, is Xiao Fung..." His voice trailed off as the Pan'ku Box opened, displaying a map.

Valmont quickly snapped a picture of the map and sent it to Daolong Wong. "Do you know the area?" he asked the dark wizard over the phone.

"I can investigate," Daolong Wong confirmed. "I will be able to determine the general area of the portal before we send anyone in, and before the Chans or their allies become aware of our actions."

Valmont smiled as he sat back, waiting for the report. As he did so, Bai Tza sauntered into the room. She was still in her chosen human form, though she now wore one of the robes provided by the attendants Valmont had assigned her. She purred as she cuddled up to Valmont's side. "I see the Box is open," she murmured softly. "Xiao Fung's turn?"

"Yes," Valmont confirmed, raising his hand to caress her cheek. "We're just now waiting for Daolong Wong's report of the area. If he can locate the portal, or at least any structure that has been built on top of it-"

"Hollowlands Penitentiary," the dark wizard's voice interrupted. "The portal is somewhere within Hollowlands Penitentiary. I am returning now before I am spotted."

As communications were cut, Chao moaned. "That's the maximum security prison they send the bigshots in organized crime," he groaned irritably. "Are we gonna have to break into the place Captain Black would send us if he ever caught us?"

"If it is where he would send you if you were caught, why not just let him catch you?" Shendu suggested idly.

"Aside from tipping our hand about wanting to be there, it gives us an existing criminal record," Valmont pointed out acidly. "Not to mention freezing many of our assets. Besides, why do we need to get in there when there are dozens of inmates already in there who'd be more than happy to do me a favor if it meant getting them out?"

"And how do you intend to acquire their help?" Shendu asked acidly.

"There can't be any new magical security at Hollowlands," Valmont deduced. "First, it would likely react with the portal, constantly causing issues. Second, Daolong Wong would have mentioned it if he detected any. As such, there's nothing easier." He smiled up at Bai Tza. "Ready for a bit of infiltration?" he purred softly.

A wide grin split Bai Tza's face, her legs twitching as though she still had a tail that had started to wag idly. "Go on..."

Big House Rock

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Bai Tza carefully pushed her way past the foliage as she made her way towards the prison. Valmont's plan had been exceptionally clever, especially since it involved absolutely no hint of Dark Hand involvement getting back to any authorities. The only drawback as far as Bai Tza was concerned was that it had her doing all the legwork, and most of it had to be done in her human form to minimize attention...which meant being on her legs a lot more than she liked. As much as she'd based her human form on how she'd looked as a Siren before her Demonic Ascension - save trading her fish tail for legs - it had still been eons since she'd been limited to this level of strength, and the first time in her life she'd spent an extended period of time on two feet. It wasn't entirely pleasant.

Given the environment and her intended roles, Valmont had selected an outfit for her that would be fitting and she'd used her magic to shape it over her body so it would change with her if she had to go liquid. She was wearing a two-color blue striped bikini top, a black vest, and tight fitting blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up, the combination looking somewhat dignified while still allowing her to show off and accentuate her figure. She didn't bother carrying anything with her this trip, since once she made it as far as the prison she'd be finding a different way in that didn't allow for belongings to be brought with.

Reaching the walls, she searched around and found the drain she'd been expecting. Smirking, she knelt down and slipped her hand into the drain, turning first her arm liquid before letting her entire body follow slowly and steadily. Her magic mapped the plumbing ahead of her, and led her to the prisoner Valmont had told her to look for...a silent bruiser by the name of Mongo. A giant of a man - easily eight feet tall and as broad at the shoulder - Mongo was the muscle of a gang that had been captured, and he'd been thrown in here as it was the only facility that could contain him. In his gang, he'd been the 'safe cracker', as he had frequently broken safes open by ripping them out of walls and digging his fingers into the hinges.

Three things made him ideal for Valmont's plan. First, despite being mute, he was surprisingly intelligent. Second, a long time on good behavior had given him free reign of the prisoner areas, including such areas as the unloading dock for supplies and the laundry room, granting him more than enough leeway to find the portal once he had the Pan'ku Box...which he could easily hide just by closing one hand around it. Third and most important, he had a son on the outside by the 'street name' of DJ Fist, a skilled mechanic and bruiser in his own right. A promise to reunite the man with his son once he was outside would get his cooperation...and the promise coming from Valmont would earn his loyalty.

Still, it was one thing to be told about such a man. Even for a Demoness like Bai Tza, being confronted by the reality of a man who needed to have his own bathroom in his cell because he'd walk through the bars if he needed to go in the middle of the night and had enough thick black hair to be mistaken for a black bear was quite another. "Well aren't you a morsel," she found herself purring. She couldn't help it. As a Siren, she'd seduced quite a number of sailors to a last dalliance before drowning them, and she'd been especially fond of the Vikings. Even underwater, they lasted much longer, making the experience far better for her.

Mongo turned towards the sink and stared into the water, a thick, bushy eyebrow raised inquiringly.

Bai Tza made sure it was her human face visible in the water, then spoke more carefully. "I bring a message from Valmont of the Dark Hand," she explained softly. Seeing this immediately got her the giant's full attention, she continued. "Valmont has business here in this facility. If you act as his agent, you will be freed from here, recruited into the Dark Hand, and reunited with 'DJ Fist'. Is this agreeable to you?"

Mongo stared down at her for a time, then cupped a hand to his ear, beckoning with the other.

"My brother is imprisoned here, though not physically," Bai Tza explained. "Valmont will arrange for the key to his cell to reach the loading dock. You will then carry the key around until it finds his cell, somewhere in this prison. Once my brother is released, he will give you further instructions to keep his escape hidden, and the pair of you will escape during the night."

Mongo stared at her for a time, then nodded.

Bai Tza grinned. "The warden's birthday is coming up. This includes a delivery of a cake and a huge carton of ice cream for the guards. Volunteer to carry the ice cream to the kitchen. The key will be a blue box hidden in the carton of ice cream. I will be waiting for you and my brother the night of the planned escape. With luck, no one will know of our involvement, and we'll all be home free."

Mongo nodded, then turned back to his own business as Bai Tza withdrew out the plumbing, making her way back to her pick up point to spend some time with Valmont. He'd promised a 'suitable reward' to appease her complaints about doing all the leg work...and there was a mountain resort not far away he owned a good number of shares in...


Mongo had 'volunteered' to carry the ice cream by the simple expedient of being there at the loading dock when the truck arrived. When one of the guards picked up the cake and called for a forklift for the ice cream, Mongo had stepped up, wrapped his arms around the tub, and hefted. The guards had been surprised at his eagerness to help, but had thanked him, glad they didn't need to bring any machinery around.

Mongo had then made his way down the hallways of the prison towards the kitchen. Stepping into the freezer, he set the tub down and lifted the lid. The box was right where he'd been told, and he enfolded it in his right hand as he turned and left. Given the layout of the prison hallways, the fact that the 'key' hadn't reacted at all eliminated most of the wing, leaving only the laundry as far as areas he had free access to check. It was either that or solitary, and those cells were too small for him.

Once in the laundry room, he felt the box in his hand vibrating, and he opened his hand. It floated into the air, embedded itself in the wall, and opened a glowing portal. From out of the portal, a figure that resembled a giant purple-grey and green poison dart frog leapt out...though giant was a relative term, since Mongo looked down on him.

The figure stared up at him in surprise as the portal closed, the box falling to the floor. "Well, aren't you a large figure," it declared in an echoing voice, its red eyes glowing. He looked Mongo over for a time. "...yes, this is a form I can take. Grab the box."

Mongo stepped over and picked up the box. When he turned for further instructions, he looked at...himself.

"Stay here," his copy said in the frog's voice. "Crouch behind the machines so no one will see you. Stay perfectly still until my sister comes for you."

Nodding, Mongo stepped behind the machines, crouched down, and waited. He heard his copy walking out of the room and back towards his cell.

Mongo waited.


Night fell, and Bai Tza slipped into the prison in liquid form. Leaving the pipes, she made her way to the electrical systems. She didn't like this part as dealing with electricity hurt, but Valmont's method gave her the least interaction with it. Reaching the power room, she found the cables connected to the security cameras and the spotlights, carefully cut the rubber casings open, and shed a few droplets. The current arched, and she flinched back as the system went down. A quick restoration spell on the rubber, and no one would be the wiser. It would seem like a perfectly ordinary short in the system.

Heading back for the laundry room, she revealed her human face to Mongo. "Follow me," she instructed firmly before zooming down the halls. Mongo was hot on her currently-nonexistent-heels. She quickly led him to the prison grounds, avoiding the guard patrols as they met up with Xiao Fung.

"Grab hold," Xiao instructed Mongo, who immediately grabbed hold of his copy. Bai Tza took human form and latched onto her brother, who promptly leapt over the walls with the three of them and into the woods beyond. "Now run!" Xiao Fung ordered, racing forward as fast as he could go, shifting his own body into a much smaller temporary human form.

Before long, the three of them reached a road where a bus was waiting for them. Valmont - dressed in exceptionally plain blue clothes and a cap - handed Mongo clothes in his size. "Get changed and get on," he ordered firmly. Mongo did as instructed as the group clambered onto the tour bus, which was filled with Dark Hand agents in 'tourist garb' that the Chans hadn't met.

Getting behind the wheel, Valmont turned the engine over and drove at a sedate pace down the road. Once they'd made it a few miles along, he relaxed completely. "We'll reach the coast by sunrise," he offered warmly. "Bai, can you handle the four of us underwater?"

"Easily," Bai Tza praised. "But tell me, what would you have done if I couldn't?"

"I would have called in a transport for Mongo and I," Valmont explained simply. "Then you and Xiao would have made your way back however you could manage. This way, no one will even know we were here."

Xiao Fung chuckled to himself. "Very clever, human," he offered warmly. "You picked a good one, sister."

"In more ways than just that," Bai Tza purred suggestively, shooting Valmont the naughtiest pair of bedroom eyes he'd ever seen outside porn.

Swallowing nervously, he continued driving, wondering - not for the first time - how he was ever going to keep up with this woman. It seemed that even if it was not water that killed him, he'd still eventually drown in her affections as all her previous human suitors had...though it certainly promised to be a pleasant final fate.

New World Order

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Getting Mongo settled in proved even easier than expected once Valmont and his group returned to his base in San Fransisco, funneled in via the fish cannery at the Bay (which now doubled as their 'sea dock' when travelling via Bai's powers). Once he was dressed in normal clothes and shaved, he hardly resembled himself from before. Even arranging the meeting between him and his son - DJ Fist - proved to be less a drain on resources than Valmont expected. He had been fully prepared to arrange to incorporate the young man and his 'buds' into the Dark Hand despite their less than subtle approach to criminal activities, but both Mongo and DJ Fist seemed to be of independent natures. The meeting had involved exchanged glances, a single fist bump, and then parting ways. Apparently, the desired meeting was more of a 'reconnect/ensure living' than the emotional sort Valmont had expected.

Getting Xiao Fung settled in also proved rather simple. The look he'd chosen for his human form blended surprisingly well with the Dark Hand as well. He was tall without being gigantic and broad shouldered without being bulky. He was well muscled like a linebacker, and had gray hair slicked back in a pointed pompadour, giving him a very punkish overall look complemented by a green shirt, blue slacks, a purple jacket, and dark blue shoes. The only point that might make him stand out was his pale purple eyes, but that was difficult to spot at a distance and easily shrugged off given how magic - now world known - could affect a person's appearance. The slight stubble between his lower lip and chin made him look that extra bit scruffy that made sure anyone who looked at him decide to look away before he noticed. He seemed equal parts dangerous and disinterested...and thus blended perfectly with those members of Valmont's organization that were 'the muscle'.

Presently, Xiao Fung was enjoying a rather lavish feast Valmont had ordered prepared to welcome him to safety in his base, prepared to Xiao Fung's requests prior to the operation. Much to the demon's surprise, Valmont shied away from none of the dishes. "I'm honestly surprised you have the stomach for some of these," Xiao Fung observed as he picked up a bowl of roasted locusts and maggots in sauce and poured the contents into his mouth, slurping it up.

Valmont, by contrast, was taking each individual meat morsel - whether insect or otherwise - into his mouth with chopsticks. "These are considered delicacies in many countries, especially in Africa," he observed calmly. "My business takes me all over the world, especially where 'World Law' is weakest. It isn't good business to refuse the local delicacy...or to throw up when you try to eat it. While not the sort of thing I seek out for pleasurable dining, I have...built up enough of a tolerance that I can enjoy such a repast, or at least appear to."

"Though you seem to have eschewed these," Xiao observed as he grasped a large, wriggling green grub off a platter and stuffed it into his mouth. "Not that I blame you. Though delicacies for demons, I doubt they'd even be digestible for humans, let alone palatable."

Valmont chuckled softly. "Actually, Daolong Wong provided me with these...and a method of preparing the meat so that a human could consume them." He gently lifted a circle of meat from a sauce platter. "Not only do we share the same dishes, as is only polite, but the recipe is even palatable." Placing it into his mouth, he chewed...then swallowed, looking somewhat pale. "Though barely..."

Xiao chuckled softly. "Too much for you?"

"Just more...piquant than I am used to," Valmont assured, plainly struggling to maintain his composure.

Bai Tza chuckled softly as she waved her hand over his water glass, making the liquid sparkle. "Just drink before your pride damages your tongue," she instructed him.

Gratefully, Valmont chugged the glass, looking much better afterwards. "My thanks, milady. I suppose even now, I feel I have something to prove."

"Not with us," Xiao Fung offered. "I must admit, I am impressed. I had forgotten that humans could be so interesting. You do realize of course that once we are all free, it is our intention to conquer the world and bind it to demon rule."

"I will not fight you if you do," Valmont pointed out. "If you fail, the damage you'll do will make it that much easier for a criminal empire to seize immense resources. If you succeed, there will be a rebellion if not several, and a General who knows how humans think will be quite useful to you all in suppressing said rebellions." He gently patted his lips with his napkin. "Speaking of, we should free whichever of your brothers is the flashiest next. At the moment, the Chans are still in a reactive position, waiting for us to take action and moving to stop us. But if the balance of power in this world sways too much towards you from too many of you being free, someone somewhere will notice, the Chans will be informed, and they'll become more proactive on the assumption we're being sneaky in freeing you all, and try to hunt down your hiding spots. We need another confrontation so they stay reactive, too concerned about missing one of you being freed to hunt for those already free."

Xiao Fung and Bai Tza exchanged startled glances, their eyes wide. Bai Tza then moved to Valmont's side and began probing gently at his temples with her fingertips.

"...as pleasant as that is, milady, why are you doing it?" Valmont asked curiously.

"You don't need to be magical to achieve the sort of apotheosis Bai Tza underwent," Shendu explained, "though it helps."

Valmont blinked. "You think I might..."

"It's unlikely," Bai Tza pointed out thoughtfully, "but not unheard of. And being Shendu's vessel could nudge things towards there. Despite his spirit presence, the place of Demon Sorcerer of Fire is presently vacant."

"And between your adaption to magic within you, your ready grasp of how our own powers can work, and your almost demonic cunning and forethought, you would make an excellent Demon Sorcerer," Xaio Fung added. He then smirked wickedly. "Though I think it is more wishful thinking on dear sister's part."

Valmont raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Why would it be wishful..." His voice trailed off as his eyes locked on Bai Tza's face. As her human form was based so closely on her original body, certain physical reactions couldn't be hidden...in this case, the slight embarrassed flush of her cheeks. "...oh..."

"I'm honestly not surprised," Xiao offered with a chuckle. "You're brilliant. You're chivalrous. You're cunning. You're ruthless. You meet us on our own terms and prove yourself an equal player at our games. You're ready to trade your own species away so you and yours can have a place at our table should we win, or the chance to make it your table should we lose. And you're able to keep up with her, if just barely. And despite eons of being a Demon, her Siren nature still shines true...making her emotions far more intense than for one born a Demon." Setting down his empty dishes, he stood up. "If flashy is what you want, Tchang Zu should be next. His Trigram is thunder...appropriate, as he is the Demon Sorcerer of Thunder." As he turned to go, he paused by Valmont's side. "...though none of us were born to the same parents, our Brotherhood has endured long enough that our bonds of family are far stronger, far more intense than what humans can experience in their comparatively short lives. And Bai was the last to join us, the youngest of us." He leaned in close. "Think about what that means...when our little sister feels this way about you."

"I imagine it means that if I hurt her, or she comes to harm because of me, what the rest of you will do to me will make Shendu's punishment - should we fail to release all of you as promised - look tame by comparison?" Valmont asked carefully, still not taking his eyes from Bai's gaze.

"I knew you were clever," Xiao chuckled before heading off to look for something fun to do. Valmont had mentioned something about a service he could avail himself of, something called a 'nuru massage'...

Valmont stared up into the eyes of the Demoness before him. In thoughts guarded so deep in his mind Shendu could not see them - and truthfully, even Valmont was not entirely aware of them - he wondered if any punishment even eon old demons could come up with would manage to equal not having this amazing, fascinating, frustrating woman at his side. Somehow...he doubted it.


Jackie sighed as he hung up the phone. "Girls, don't bother packing!" he called out, sitting back.

"What do you mean?" Jade asked. "What about the jungle trip?"

"Didn' ya say some rich guy hired ya ta help him find the Lost City o' the Muntabs or somethin'?" Apple Bloom demanded.

"We were really looking forward to it!" Sweetie Belle added.

"Yeah!" Scootaloo confirmed. "A trip into uncharted jungle, back to archaeology as we search for ancient ruins and secrets, where the fate of the world isn't on the line!"

"I know girls," Jackie replied. "I was looking forward to it to give us all a break, too. But apparently there are some new things we need to get used to, considering magic is now a 'norm' in this world."

"How so?" Tohru inquired as he poured tea, his tone between confusion and curiosity.

"Trip's cancelled," Jackie explained, jerking his thumb at the phone. "That was the Muntabs. They don't want to be found."

Showtime

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A phone call from Captain Black brought Jackie an unexpected surprise the following day. "I'm sorry, Captain, could you repeat that?" Jackie asked carefully.

"Valmont is in Hollywood," Captain Black explained simply. "Unfortunately, there is nothing criminal about his actions that we can see or prove, so we can't send in our own agents or call on more magical authorities. The red tape in that regard is just as thick as I expected it to be."

"So we can't expect any official backup in this case," Jackie groaned as he rubbed his forehead. "At least tell me we'll still get transportation?"

"You'll have to make your own way there too, I'm afraid," Augustus admitted. "I have a few contacts down there who can help you get a few resources, but that's about it."

"Well, that's something," Jackie grumbled under his breath. "We're certain this is demon related?"

Captain Black was silent for a time. "Actually...we aren't. All we know for certain is that Valmont's in Hollywood with an unknown young lady, and his usual Enforcers are close at hand. To all appearances...it almost seems like a vacation. Still, my instincts say something's off."

"And you want us to check it out, just in case he's releasing another demon," Jackie concluded. "We still have no idea where he's squirreled away Bai Tza..."

"Exactly," Augustus agreed. "So I can count on you?"

"We'll be there!" Jackie confirmed, hanging up the phone.

"So where will we be, exactly?" Jade asked hopefully as she came down the stairs.

"Hollywood," Jackie explained. "And yes, I do mean all of us. With everything Valmont has at his disposal, if there is going to be a confrontation, we need everything we can bring to bear. And if it's not, any accidental confrontation could be smoothed over if it's a 'family trip'."

"And there's that event for the big star Jade's so fond of," Viper added as she came down the stairs. "What was his name? Raphaelo Di'Capizzio, or something like that?"

"That's him! That's him!" Jade cried out, bouncing eagerly. "And he's only the biggest star of anything since...ever!" She gestured to a couple posters she had hung up. "And it's not just any event! He's getting his footprints in cement at the Chinese Theater!"

"So does anyone else think that'd be the perfect place in Hollywood for a portal to release a Chinese Demon to be hidden?" Sweetie Belle asked Apple Bloom and Scootaloo as they went over their lesson plan for Jade's magical training.

"Makes sense," Scootaloo confirmed.

"Ah'd put money that way," Apple Bloom agreed.

Uncle chuckled over the fuss Jade was making. "Greatest ever, eh? Then I guess you have never heard of John Wayne?"

Tohru sighed nostalgically. "The Duke..." He lifted one hand as though lifting a cowboy hat. "Saddle up, pilgrim," he continued, feigning a Western accent.

Viper shrugged. "I dunno. I was always more a fan of Bruce Lee."

"What?" Jackie demanded, finding himself offended for some reason. "What's so great about him?"

Viper shrugged coyly. "What can I say?" she asked teasingly, smirking at Jackie. "I've always liked a real fighter."

Jackie blushed, chuckling nervously as he rubbed the back of his head.

"Hey, maybe we could find a producer down there and turn Jackie into a movie star!" Jade suggested eagerly.

"And when's he gonna have time ta be a star between huntin' demons, archaeology, helpin' raise us, and Viper?" Apple Bloom asked playfully.

"Yeah, I guess his schedule's kinda full," Jade admitted. "Especially that last part."

"Wait, what?" Jackie demanded in confusion as Viper joined in with the girls in giggling at his expense.


Valmont smiled to himself as the limo drove his group down into Hollywood. Finn, Ratso, and Chao were here as his bodyguards, looking forward to enjoying themselves while they were down here. Bai Tza sat behind him, silently marveling at how advanced human machines had become since she last walked the Earth. Given their cover story this time around, she had traded her more revealing garb for a shimmering blue dress that hung down from her right shoulder to just past her knees and seemed to flow in the air as though it was made of water. Much to Valmont's insanity, despite having gotten just such a dress made for her, Bai Tza insisted on actually wearing one made of water...one specifically held together by her power and concentration. She had teasingly suggested to him what might happen if said concentration were to...slip...

She loves to drive me wild, doesn't she? he thought to himself, not for the first time. Thinking back to the revelation he'd received from Xiao Fung earlier, he reminded himself, But that's not all she loves... Smiling, he moved to rest his hand on hers.

To his surprise, she turned to stare at him wide eyed, only to look down in a vain attempt to hide a blush.

He smiled to himself. Well, it seems the balance of power here isn't as entirely one sided as I'd thought. ...good. That makes it more fun. Seeing the sudden smirk that crossed her features, he realized he wasn't the only one to come to that realization.

As the limo pulled to a halt, Valmont waited for the door to be opened before stepping out, turning back to chivalrously help Bai Tza out. This was going to be a nice little vacation...and releasing another of Bai Tza's siblings, to boot.

Planning Ahead

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As Valmont and Bai Tza walked through Hollywood to 'see the sights', they were briefly caught off guard as an unfamiliar voice called out, "Yo, Mr. V! You didn't tell me you'd be here!"

Turning, Valmont was surprised to see a young blonde man with green eyes and a healthy tan running towards him from a movie lot. He recognized the young man, of course, but he hadn't expected him to come seeking him out. "Ah, Raphaelo. How goes the movie business?"

The young star grinned widely. "As good as ever, Mr. V. I'm the hottest star in Hollywood right now, and I wouldn't have any of it if not for you getting me that agent! Did you come all this way to see me get my footprints?"

"Among other things," Valmont allowed. "I have quite a few things to do here in town, you know how it is."

"Ugh, do I!" Raphaelo groaned. "I'm starring in a deep space movie coming out next month, and as part of a publicity stunt I'm gonna be riding in a rocket up to the space station - get this - flown by a chimp!" He shivered violently. "Why'd I have to take that part?"

Valmont chuckled softly. "The hazards of stardom," he allowed. "It's why I've always preferred to work behind the scenes." He sent a smile Bai's way when he noticed how she kept glancing back and forth during the conversation.

Noticing her, Raphaelo let out an appreciative whistle. "Oh, where are my manners! Mr. V, introduce me to this charming girl!" He reached out to take her hand, only for Bai to jerk it back angrily. "Uh...?"

Valmont chuckled softly. "My...Tabitha is rather eccentric in some areas," he explained, coming up with the pseudonym on the spot. He was pleased to see Bai didn't even blink. "Especially regarding who touches her."

Raphaelo's eyes widened. "Your Tabitha?" he gasped in shock. "You don't mean...?"

Grinning, Valmont leaned in with a conspiratorial whisper. "As far as being picky about touching her...I'm the only male allowed the privilege." He let that sink into the star's mind.

"Dude, how do you get all the luck?" he demanded in shock. "She's...damn!"

Valmont smirked widely. "You have no idea," he confirmed. "But speaking of her, she was hoping to break into the movie business herself. I don't suppose you know of a film crew that might be free for a few test reels? Perhaps a low budget starting flick?"

"Should be one here on the lot!" he confirmed, waving back to the studio only to notice his agent tapping his watch. "Shoot, I need to get going! If you need anything Mr. V, be sure to let me know!" With that, he turned to race back into the lot.

"I certainly will!" Valmont called back loudly. "I certainly will..." he repeated much quieter.

Bai Tza turned to look Valmont straight in the eyes. "I know that look...you're coming up with another plan..."

"Could you turn into him?" he asked obliquely.

Bai blinked a few times. "Easily," she admitted. "But I didn't think that was to your interest-"

"Could Tso Lan?"

Her eyes widened as she realized where his mind was going. "You think...?"

"One of the Sorcerers I need to release is tied to the Moon," he explained quickly, "and the portals are scattered across the globe, meant to be difficult to access. If I'd been one of those setting the portals up, I'd have put one outside the atmosphere, and it even makes sense for it to be Tso Lan's. I don't know if his portal will be in space, but I know his is the only one that might be...and a celebrity who owes me big is going into space as a stunt soon, where it will be just him and a monkey." He turned to Bai with a cunning grin. "I don't believe in coincidences."

Bai Tza purred eagerly as she pressed up against him. "And I believe we'd best find a broom closet before I...'lose focus'," she teased playfully, licking her lips before leaning close to lick his lips.

"Now that's an offer I'd be mad to refuse," Valmont purred right back.


As Jackie stepped out with the rest of his family in Hollywood, he looked around carefully. "So first things first...we need to find Valmont."

"Actually, first things first is finding Captain Black's contact!" Jade corrected. "He said he'd be able to give us resources."

"Correct!" Uncle insisted. "Uncle needs ingredients for Chi Spell to banish demon...and needs to know what demon he is banishing!"

"Yeah, that'd be me."

Everyone turned at the sound of the laid back voice. A young man of about eleven stood in front of them, leaning on a suitcase. He had black hair, brown eyes, and was wearing a loose jacket and slacks around a red shirt with an odd design in the middle. His features showed Chinese ancestry.

"Aiyah!" Uncle gasped out in shock. "You are the demon?"

"No no no!" the boy insisted. "Nothing like that..." He chuckled softly. "Though my big sis might agree with you."

"Good lord, it's a male Jade," Jackie murmured jokingly, getting a chuckle out of Viper and Tohru.

"I'm your contact!" the boy proclaimed. "You can call me Ray Ray."

"You?" Viper asked in surprise. "Just how could you be Captain Black's contact?"

"Hey, don't let looks deceive you!" the boy snapped out. "My big sis is the Veil Guardian, and I've got some of her power! You wanna go a long way from crossing me!" He pouted as his boasts were greeted with dubious glares. He crossed his arms with a grunt. "Hey, the other stuff will come in eventually..."

"So what'd ya bring us?" Apple Bloom asked curiously, hoping to smooth things over.

Ray Ray grinned widely as he opened up the suitcase, revealing eight layers of carefully packed vials and jars along with diverse other symbols. "Demon Hunter's travelling kit. It has the ingredients for each of the banishing spells for the Eight Demon Sorcerers sealed by the Eight Immortals all bottled up and ready to mix, along with the recipes and the symbols. Perfect for the Hunter on the go."

"That will be most useful!" Uncle proclaimed happily. "Tohru will carry it!"

Tohru smiled as he picked up the suitcase once it was closed. "Our thanks."

"Eh, just a favor for my sis," Ray Ray explained. "She couldn't leave our hometown to take care of this herself, since she has to stay at the Veil Anchor. Besides, it means I get to see the sights and do whatever I want!" He glanced around carefully. "As long as I stay ahead of-oops, that's him! See you later!" He quickly dashed off.

From the opposite direction, a squat pug stomped along, seeming to grumble under its breath. When it caught sight of Apple Bloom, it turned towards her and the other fillies. "Excuse me!" he called out, his voice carrying a distinct Scootish accent. "Hav' ya seen a young lad 'bout yer age, lookin' and actin' like that girl wit' ya got gender swapped?"

"Hey!" Jade complained angrily.

"That way," Jackie replied, pointing where Ray Ray went.

"Thank ye kindly." The dog turned and began to race after the boy.

"...that was different," Sweetie Belle murmured, surprise in her voice.

Star Shine

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As Valmont and Bai Tza began to explore the lot with film crew in tow - post a very enthusiastic interlude in a broom closet that required the services of a makeup artist to 'un-muss' Valmont - he kept his eyes open for any sign of Ratso - who once again had the Pan'ku Box - and for the Chans. As innocuous as his travel here had been, he knew Captain Black too well. The Chans would be here with whatever cover story meant Valmont wouldn't have grounds to press 'police harassment' charges against Captain Black and Section 13, and they would be looking to confront him. Still, he was prepared with a rather unique counter to the Chans' usual tactics if they showed up before his Enforcers found Tchang Zu's portal.

"Valmont!"

"And speak of the devil," Valmont murmured under his breath as he saw the Chans approaching, Jackie in the lead. Turning towards the film crew following him, he gave a discreet nod. "Chan," Valmont spoke out, loud and calm as he pitched his voice to fill the room. "I should have known I would encounter you here this day."

"Then you know why we are here!" Jackie declared defiantly.

"Honestly, no," Valmont responded graciously. "I simply am unsurprised to find you dogging my steps as you always have. But I have no fear this day, for nothing I do here could possibly be to your interests...and I'm sure you wouldn't want to cause problems for your own visit by throwing accusations around without proof." He gestured obliquely to the cameras all around them. "I'm rather big in this town...and the police here don't take kindly to slander unless the Press is doing it." He smiled as he saw Jade and the fillies struggling to hold back snickers, and even Viper and Tohru hiding smiles.

"We don't need to say anything!" Uncle proclaimed defiantly. "We are prepared for everything!"

"A wise state to be," Bai Tza offered pleasantly. She then turned to Valmont. "Dear, why are these people bothering us?"

"Business associates, dear heart," Valmont responded immediately. "Nothing to concern your pretty little head."

Tohru stepped forward, his face conflicted. "I once called you Master," he spoke, his voice calm and collected. "Though I have no personal rancor towards you, I am now firmly allied with these people, my new family. And we are allied against you, and I will hold nothing back."

"I would expect nothing less," Valmont confirmed with a smile. "I hope your mother is proud of you."

Tohru managed a smile. "She is."

Nodding, Valmont turned back to Jackie Chan. "So...is this your choice of battlegrounds? Will you throw down here? Or is this where you withdraw?"

Jackie frowned for a time...then smirked, his face transparently cunning. "Why should we?" he asked calmly. "You say you are doing nothing that would bring a conflict...then I see no reason why we can't traverse together. We have no true schedule of our own."

Valmont chuckled darkly, lightly tapping his cane against the ground. "You think to catch me in a compromising situation? Cleverer men than you have tried. I welcome the challenge."

"And cut!" the director proclaimed, catching Jackie and the others off guard. "That was brilliant! This film is going to be amazing! Okay, makeup and effects, we're going to start getting things ready for an actual fight scene! Somebody find me those weapons!"

A small horde of effects people and makeup artists rushed in, placing the entire group in folding chairs - even one large and strong enough for Tohru - before getting to work on them. While Valmont and Bai Tza lay back to let it happen, Jackie spluttered. "W...what is this?" he demanded angrily.

"Exactly what it looks like, Chan," Valmont offered dryly. "We're making a movie."

"You really expect me to believe-"

"Hey, save those confrontations for on camera!" the director called out. "You've got a great rival chemistry going, don't waste it!"

Jackie stared at the director in shock.

"It's really quite simple, Chan," Valmont explained. "Tabitha here wanted to break into movies, and I'm afraid she's charmed me so thoroughly that I'm willing to do anything to please her. But I didn't want my name attached to a bad movie or one that didn't do well, so I had to make certain it succeeded. And what makes a good movie better than real action, real tension, and real drama? I knew if I made a big fuss about coming here to Hollywood with an entourage, you'd all come after me here at Captain Black's directive. All I needed then was to make sure you confronted me in front of cameras, and I can make all of you stars."

"Why would you want to make us stars?" Viper demanded incredulously.

"Really, Viper, I expected you of all those here to understand," Valmont chided patronizingly. "I am a businessman, pure and simple. Everything between my organization and your group has been simple business. We're just in competition on objectives, but there was never anything personal in it. Why shouldn't I let you all reap the rewards of a project I'm getting your help with? Not only is that simply good manners, it might just make the lot of you look a bit more favorably on me should our competition end in your favor, and you won't take it personally."

"Not take it personally?" Uncle demanded angrily. "You are trying to free ancient demon sorcerers of China! They tried to conquer world in ancient times!"

"Thousands of years ago, yes," Valmont confirmed. "But it's just a contract. I free them, they pay me. Again, nothing personal." He then crossed his hands on his cane as he smirked at the group. "Besides...are their crimes really so bad that they should be sentenced to an eternity in the magical equivalent of sensory deprivation without any chance of appeal or parole? That's just cruel and inhumane. Even prisoners facing a life sentence get basic cable."

"But they're not..." Jackie's voice trailed off as he actually thought about what he was about to say. "I mean...but..." He rubbed the back of his head. "The Eight Immortals wouldn't have enacted such a sentence without reason!"

"Wouldn't they have?" Valmont countered. "I admit they were known to be wise and benevolent...for their era. But that period of time was far more savage than our modern era...or so we'd like to believe, at least. Surely we have become enlightened enough as a civilization to give these ancient 'evils' a chance to choose a peaceful life, and judge them by their actions and choices today?"

Jackie fell silent, now completely uncertain what to say or do...just as Valmont had planned.

"I think we should go for it!" Jade suddenly spoke up.

"Wha-Jade!" Jackie declared angrily. "Do you know how dangerous-"

"He's got a point!" Jade pointed out. "Let's judge him based on his actions. If he's lying, we're right here when the Demon gets out, and fully prepared to send whichever one it is packing. If he's telling the truth, we get to be movie stars! It's win-win!"

"Out of the mouths of babes," Bai Tza purred playfully. "What do you say? Care to help me break onto the big screen?"

Jackie leaned back in his chair with a groan. "I am not a movie star...I am an archaeologist!"

"Oh, we absolutely need to work that line into the film somehow!" the director declared excitedly.

"Can we, Jackie?" Apple Bloom asked eagerly.

"Please?" all four girls pleaded together, turning their most winsome expressions on their uncle.

Jackie groaned as he put his face in his hands. "Bad day..."

Valmont chuckled softly as he watched that interchange. Oh, the profit I could make just weaponizing that look of theirs, he thought to himself.

Lights

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Bai Tza wasn't certain what Valmont's plan was anymore, and she couldn't be more excited. She was used to humans being barely able to keep up with a Demon's ability to plot, plan, and anticipate, while being evenly matched with the brighter of her siblings and far smarter than Shendu. But despite Valmont having explained his plan in detail, she still was never certain what he was going to do from one moment to the next. She found herself wishing there was someone she could pray to so that he'd achieve a Demonic Ascension of his own so they could share eternity. Even eternity in the Demon Netherrealm wouldn't be so bad if it was the two of them. She made a mental note to ask Santa if she was still on Earth come the Christmas season. She doubted anyone else would hear her out, and unlike most higher powers, Santa had never inflicted her with pain for praying to him, since it was hard to send a letter from a place without paper.

As she leaned back in her chair thinking such happy thoughts, she was startled by the touch of good magic on her skin. She thanked her lucky stars she'd based her human form so closely off her siren form, since that meant her siren Wild Magic created a buffer between her demonic Dark Magic and any Good Magic she touched...not enough to directly handle the Pan'ku Box without pain - since it was directly attuned against her and the others - but enough that she didn't jerk back with a hiss of pain when that hoof touched her. Instead, she only jumped in surprise, glancing down at the little yellow filly that was looking up at her with a smile. "Can...can I help you?" she asked carefully.

"I'm Apple Bloom!" the filly offered eagerly. "Are you and Valmont dating?"

Bai Tza blinked in confused surprise. "...why does this matter to you?" she asked finally. "I was under the impression your family and Valmont were..."

Before she could find the proper word, Apple Bloom shrugged. "Valmont seemed to put it right. We're business rivals. He wants to do a job, we don't want him ta succeed, but it ain't personal either way. Sides, Tohru still respects him even though we're on opposite sides, so he can't be all bad. And if'n he ain't all bad, then he deserves ta be happy. So do ya make him happy?"

Bai Tza couldn't help but chuckle at that innocent perspective. "In ways your guardians would be unhappy with me talking about with you," she replied teasingly, a throaty purr in her words. "We've gone a way past dating."

Apple Bloom gasped happily. "Are ya gonna get married?" she demanded eagerly.

"Probably not," Bai countered. "I've...never had the best relationship with god, upper or lowercase." She tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Or with law, for that matter. But then, if you know anything about Valmont, you already know that."

Apple Bloom shrugged. "Grown ups care too much about Law vs Chaotic," she admitted dismissively. "I care more about Good vs Evil, and I'd say Valmont's at least a Neutral given how well his men are treated."

"That's an odd way to look at things," Bai observed curiously.

Apple Bloom shrugged as the other two ponies - Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, Bai recalled - and Jade joined her. "We're pretty close ta Chaotic ourselves," she pointed out. "We ain't ones ta judge."

Bai Tza couldn't help but chuckle at that. "So you four are little troublemakers, then?" she asked teasingly.

"You bet!" Jade crowed eagerly. "We get up to no end of trouble!"

"It's not our fault all the fun stuff is against the rules!" Scootaloo insisted.

"Well, not all the fun stuff," Sweetie Belle pointed out disapprovingly.

"Just the best stuff," Apple Bloom countered.

Sweetie Belle opened her mouth to counter, then sighed. "Yeah, guess I can't argue there."

Bai Tza chuckled at their antics, only for her throat to catch suddenly as tears beaded her eyes. Three faces appeared in her mind, superimposing themselves on the three troublemakers before her... D'gi...A'ri...S'na...

"Are you okay?" Apple Bloom asked softly, reaching up to touch her cheek.

Bai managed to get herself under control. "I'm...older than I look," she explained evasively. "I...once had three daughters, real troublemakers in their own right. You...reminded me of them for a moment." She gasped in surprise as Valmont placed his hand on hers. She turned to face him curiously.

Valmont's gaze was comforting and serious. "I'll help you find them," he stated firmly.

Bai's lip trembled. "You...don't know what you're promising-"

"Not don't know, don't care," he corrected. "And I don't care if it expends every resource at my disposal and the remainder of my life. I will find them, and bring them back to you." Leaning in close, he kissed her cheek and whispered in her ear, "Even if it takes another thousand years, I will make it so."

Bai Tza couldn't stop the tears at that point. Part of her wanted to throw herself onto Valmont no matter who was watching, but she couldn't bring herself to do so. All she could do was smile at him, holding both his hands in her own. A part of her mind registered the shadow of Shendu within Valmont, looking nearly as stunned at this sudden proclamation as she was, but she didn't care. She didn't want this moment to end.

"Aww..." the three fillies and Jade said together, touched at the scene.

A sudden sneeze jerked attention towards where Ratso was wiping his nose with a hanky, the Pan'ku Box in his other hand. "That's...so sweet..." he murmured, the Box slipping from his hands, bouncing back over his shoulder...and shooting a beam of light at a prop door on a nearby set. "Oops."

The girls gasped as they raced back to their family, Valmont and Bai Tsa standing up. "Well, so much for the touching scene," Valmont observed dryly, a twist of rueful humor in his voice. As the Box embedded itself in the lock and generated the portal, he lifted his hands. "Rise, Demon of Thunder! Rise and face your jailers! Your trial is at hand!"

Seeing nearby cameras still rolling, Bai Tza did her best not to laugh aloud. Then she realized she should be dramatic at this point, and let loose with her best maniacal laugh. She was pleased to see it send delighted shivers down Valmont's spine. Still got it...

Camera

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The portal opened up in an odd zigzag, shaped not unlike a stylized lightning bolt and twisted almost on top of itself. Two large, blue, clawed hands extended out, forcing the portal open wider as Tchang Zu forced his way out of the Demon Netherrealm. He was a massive figure, with Valmont only coming up to his waist. He resembled nothing so much as a blue ogre dressed in blue-black samurai armor edged in gold. His crimson eyes stared down at the assembled as everyone stared up at him.

"My, he is a big fellow," Valmont murmured softly. He then raised his arms. "Demon of Thunder! Once more after eons uncounted, you walk this earth, free of the bindings laid upon you by the Ancients! And yet already come those who would bind you anew and all the more firmly! Behold the enemies of your clan!" He dramatically gestured with one hand towards the Chans. "What say you to them? What argument do you have for your freedom?"

"I have no argument," Tchang Zu growled out as he gathered energy between his palms. "The only thing I have for them is obliteration!" Thrusting his arms forward, he shot a massive bolt of magic lightning at the group, forcing them to lunge to the side to dodge.

"Well, so much for negotiation," Valmont murmured softly before leaping back as Chan charged him, dodging swings of his sword. "Already choosing up opponents, Chan?" Valmont asked curiously.

"Knight takes King," Chan replied cryptically as he tossed his sword into the air before delivering a flurry of punches and kicks at Valmont, only for him to flip into the air off one to deliver a floating bicycle kick back. "How did you-"

"Isn't Hollywood grand?" Valmont replied as he spun to kick Chan in the chest, only to withdraw a few feet as the sword came back down. To his surprise, one of the studio crew tossed him a live sword from filming. "Seems things have evened up."

Bai Tza moved to aid Valmont, only to be cut off by Viper. "Not so fast, sister," Viper growled as she drew an extending bo staff from her waist. "You wanna dance, dance with me."

To Bai Tza's surprise, Chao had made it to the weapons rack and tossed her a trident of all things. "I think you'll find difficulty matching my steps," she purred softly, expertly spinning the weapon she hadn't wielded in a very long time.

As Uncle moved towards Tohru and the chi spell kit, a pillar of smoke appeared in his path. "Not so fast, old man," Daolong Wong growled out as he appeared, staff in hand. "You've been a thorn in my side for far too long!"

"Leave Sensei alone!" Tohru roared out as he charged.

"Gan! Ren! Chui!" Wong declared, summoning his Dark Chi Warriors to battle Tohru, forcing him to toss the kit to the girls so he could engage in physical battle.

Jade managed to catch the kit. "Okay, looks like everyone's keeping the bad guys engaged, so we're going to have to cast the spell-"

"Look out!" Sweetie Belle screamed out, seizing Jade in her magic's grip and yanking her out of the way of Tchang Zu's next blast of lightning.

"I got this!" Apple Bloom declared. "Audrey!"

"Here I come to save the day!" Audrey III sang out as he moved to attack Tchang Zu...only to come under assault from a swarm of Shadow Khan armed with herbicide sprayers of all things. While it didn't affect him the same way it would a mundane plant, it was highly unpleasant and forced him to deal with the ninjas instead of the demon.

"...okay, ah don't got this," Apple Bloom admitted.

"In that case, you get the potion!" Scootaloo insisted. "I'll handle big blue there!"

"Are you insane?" Jade demanded in terror. "You think you can solo a demon?"

"No, I think I'm the only one who has a chance to stall him long enough to get the spell off!" Scootaloo countered as she hopped onto Cumulo. "I've been hit by lightning before, it tingled. I think I can handle this." Before the others could say anything, she zoomed up to face down the Demon of Thunder.

Tchang Zu chuckled wickedly as he saw her charge. "Feeble creature," he derided as he hurled a bolt from one hand straight at her. "Do you really think-what?"

His shock was because Scootaloo had jerked hard on Cumulo, causing the cloud to rear and absorb the lightning as it hit. "First rule of fighting magically!" she roared out as she sent the cloud into a spin. "Bring your A game!" Hopping off Cumulo, she gave the cloud a hard buck with both hind legs, discharging the lightning - now charged with Good Chi - right back into the demon.

Tchang Zu roared in pain and rage, then lashed out with his arm, managing to backhand Cumulo right out from under Scootaloo. "Second rule," he growled as Scootaloo buzzed her wings to stay in the air. "It is still combat!" He brought his hands together firmly in an attempt to crush Scootaloo between them. She managed to zip up out of the way, but the impact of the demon's hands released a thunderclap that knocked Scootaloo for a loop as the shockwave hit her. "Third rule...know your place!" While Scootaloo was still dazed, Tchang Zu charged up his lightning once more before rushing forward and delivering a powerful electrified uppercut to the tiny filly that sent her shooting up towards the stratosphere.

"Scootaloo!" Jade cried out in terror, desperately clinging to the others.

Action

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As Valmont and Jackie crossed swords, shifting back and forth through the battlefield, Valmont quickly noticed that Jackie's expression - as intense as it was - showed conflict. "Something bothering you, Chan?" he asked as he attempted a disarming strike, hoping to capitalize on his opponent's distraction.

Jackie readily blocked the disarming strike, shifting into a fierce counter almost without seeming to think as he sighed sadly. "What you said before, about the Demons deserving a second hearing...it made me think." As he had Valmont briefly on the defensive, he pressed forward as he mused. "They have been locked up for a long time. Legends say it was for trying to conquer the world...but humans did that back then, too. In fact, many old human cultures indulged in the same things Demons are derided for from our modern perspective. Rather hypocritical of us to not allow Demons a chance to grow, when we have as a species. So if any Demons who come out the portals just want to live on Earth and are willing to behave by the laws of the magical side of the world...maybe they should be given a chance to."

"So if Tchang Zu had come out ready to live peacefully..." Valmont began as he backflipped away from the blade before bringing his own back up to clash.

"I'd have tried to talk Uncle out of banishing him," Jackie confirmed as they each pressed forward, applying pressure through the blades.

And I've outsmarted myself, Valmont thought silently. "Still, your pursuit is necessary in its own way," Valmont observed. "If you lot weren't actively hunting them, I wouldn't be having near as much luck getting them to listen to me."

Jackie smirked. "Is that how it is?" he asked calmly as they leapt back, ready for another clash.


As Viper continued to swing her staff back and forth against her opponent's trident, the clash of metal sounded over the battlefield, overlaid only by the occasional peal of thunder. She didn't know who this woman was, but the fact that she ran to Valmont's aid when Jackie attacked him told her Viper she was more dangerous than she appeared. The fact that the trident was still holding up despite striking it with enough force to shatter stone told Viper that there was something magical going on here. The magic-reading contacts she wore confirmed that, as it showed magic flowing out of the woman to surround her and infuse the trident. "Well well, it seems you've got more tricks than I expected. You aren't just a pretty face on a criminal's arm."

The woman chuckled darkly. "And you're just full of surprises," she purred softly. "Do try and keep me entertained while Big Blue over there lays waste. I haven't had this much fun in a long time, and I live for the challenge!"

Viper grinned as she started putting the pieces together. "So you've been helping him release the Demons?" she asked curiously.

"I came here to break into movies, remember?" the blue haired woman purred back.

"Nice cover story, but a woman with as much magic as you have wouldn't need help breaking into movies," Viper countered. "Natural magic users can demand top dollar in Hollywood. Which tells me that's a cover story based on information that isn't accurate anymore. So what has Valmont offered you to get you to cooperate this much...Bai Tza?"

As Viper expected, the correct identification of her opponent caused her focus on the magic she was pumping into the trident to waver, and Viper lunged in. Her enchanted staff split the trident down the middle before sweeping up to shatter the tines. Bai Tza staggered back, but then smirked. "You are full of surprises..."

"And the level of magic in the sets here means you can't tap any underground pipes for water," Viper snapped out, leveling her staff towards the disguised demoness. "Which means you are out of water, out of weapons, and out of options."

To Viper's surprise, Bai Tza laughed. "Only one out of three...and you were doing so well." Putting her hands to her dress, the entire thing shifted as it turned into water. Two bits solidified into a jungle-style tube top and loincloth, leaving the rest as writhing masses of water in Bai Tza's hands. "Ready for Round 2?" she demanded before lashing at Viper with a water whip that gouged the pavement when the ex-thief dodged.


Tohru struggled as he fought against all three Dark Warriors at once. It was proving exceptionally difficult, despite his size advantage. While he could easily outpower any of the three in a direct confrontation, he found he was in the same situation as he had been fighting Jackie while in Valmont's employ, as the three were too slippery to stand still and take it. On top of that, they were all able to hit hard enough to do real damage to him...though he'd thankfully managed to avoid Ren's boomerang blade. At first he hoped to get aid from Uncle, but it quickly became plain that Uncle was fully engaged in a struggle with Daolong Wong, sparing attention only to try and see what happened to Scootaloo. On the other side of the battlefield, Audrey III was trying to find ways to deal with the Shadow Khan without exposing himself to their herbicide weaponry. Tohru was on his own.

Thankfully, he did have one new trick of his own for just such a situation. Some deep meditation exercises had revealed that the reason he was so strong and released such devastating power when wielding the Talismans was because he had an excessive amount of Chi in his body...but it was naturally aligned perfectly with every cell. According to Uncle, Good Chi Warriors trained for years to achieve such things, and Dark Chi Warriors were created to be that way artificially. That Tohru was such naturally said he was meant for a great destiny. As such, Uncle had looked up a spell that Chi Warriors had used when pushed to their limits, one that allowed them to activate the Chi in their bodies to protect those that mattered most to them. Tohru spoke the spell now.

"Wǒ de shēntǐ shì dùnpái...Wǒ de shēntǐ shì dùnpái..."(1) As he chanted, his entire body began to glow the green of Good Chi, and he saw the Dark Chi Warriors flinching back. When Ren hurled his boomerang blade, Tohru lifted one hand and deflected the blade off his bare flesh, not even getting as much as a paper cut.

A grin crossed Tohru's face as he continued his new mantra. The tables had turned...


Scootaloo continued to tumble upwards past the clouds, surrounded in an aura of demonic lightning that prevented her from tapping her own magic and left her in pain on the verge of unconsciousness. She kept struggling to get past it, but the charge Tchang Zu had put into her was enough to keep her trapped like that well into LEO. This would prove to be the Demon of Thunder's biggest mistake, one he would never had made if he'd known any modern science.

As everyone who has studied weather or electricity knows, lightning is the result of opposite electrical charges in ground and sky being drawn violently towards each other to balance the charge. The greater the imbalance, the more intense and powerful the flash of lightning as positive and negative charges rush along the bridge between sky and ground. Magic functioned on rules similar to science, and thrived on balance. Where there was light, there was dark. Where there was good, there was evil. Where there was demonic...there was divine.

And Tchang Zu had just sent a naturally gifted wild magic creature up into the clouds super-charged with demonic electricity. It was only natural that such would draw a balancing power when it was in its own realm.

Scootaloo found herself sticking to the bottom of a cloud. Two heads - one green, one red - stuck out over the edge of the cloud, examining her curiously. When they saw the charge trapping her magic, the red face grinned widely as a rapid drumbeat began with the sound of rumbling thunder. "...I dressed up as you once..." Scootaloo murmured dazedly. The answering grin was vicious.

Scootaloo's body tensed as she felt divine lightning surge through the aura of demonic and into her body. Blue lightning patterns raced up her legs and along her feathers as the energy filled her, attuning her to the power so she could contain it. As the designs crossed her face, her eyes blazed blue, and she dove with the sound of a thunderclap, divine lightning trailing along behind her.

As she struck Tchang Zu hoof first with enough force to send him sprawling, she could only think one thing. This movie's gonna be AWESOME!



(1) "My body is a shield."

Climax

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Tchang Zu pushed himself to his feet, shaking his head to clear it from the impact. "What hit me?" he growled out as he winced from the burning on his forehead, one he recognized as the touch of Divine Chi, a most dangerous force for a Demon Sorcerer to encounter.

"That would be me."

The demon's head jerked up at that calm voice, and the feeling of power in it. The filly he'd batted up into the sky hovered there, surrounded by a divine aura of lightning, her limbs showing the marks of strong chi infusion. Apparently, a divine thunder being had its eye on the filly when he'd dealt with it before. While at first glance it looked hopeless, further looks showed him that the struggle of containing the Divine Chi - let alone using it - was taking all the filly had. If he could outlast her, he would still win. "You will regret that," he growled at the filly as he gathered his strength.

The filly smirked in response, slamming her front hooves together and hurling a divine bolt straight at him, forcing him to dodge...right into a body slam that sent him bouncing through the lot again. "Doubt it," she stated bluntly. "I think you'll be the one with regrets."

Growling, Tchang Zu charged back into the fight.


As Jackie and Valmont's sword fight continued, Viper found herself harder and harder pressed by Bai Tza's attacks. Had the demon's water tendrils behaved like the whips she was using them as, Viper would have been able to adapt and gain an advantage. If they behaved like swords, she could have gained an advantage easily. If they'd behaved like living tentacles...she'd have been a little uncomfortable and need to give the body suit she was wearing under her 'casual clothes' a thorough washing when this was over, but she'd still be able to pull through a victory.

But they didn't behave like any of those. They behaved like telekinetically controlled water, responding to thoughts and will and limited in movement only by their wielder's focus and imagination. Much to Viper's chagrin, she was discovering that a centuries old Demon Sorcerer who had once been Queen of the Sirens had a great deal of focus and was fiendishly imaginative. When Viper tried to block a strike with her staff near the tip of a tendril, it would withdraw a few millimeters until it could pass the staff before extending longer than it was before to lash her. If she blocked in the middle, it would split around her staff before reconnecting on the other side. When she struck out, the water would slow the blow just enough to let Bai sidestep, or redirect it just enough to miss, both of which giving Bai an opportunity to counter-attack.

"Realizing just how far out of your league you are?" Bai Tza taunted smugly. "Good. I'd hate to crush you when you still thought you had a chance." To Viper's surprise, the demoness gathered all her weaponized water into her right hand before starting to run forward. Hoping for a momentary advantage, Viper closed the distance.

Bai Tza thrust forward...and the water in her hand seemed to explode, lashing forward like a storm of tentacle spears that pierced Viper's clothes and flesh. Each strike was only a needle-prick equivalent, but the sheer volume was doing serious damage to her in aggregate on top of the injuries she'd gotten so far. On top of that, with each penetration of skin, the salt water Bai Tza was wielding left a little salt behind in the wound, leaving Viper's entire body a burning, stinging, bleeding mess as she fell back with a shocked scream.

"Viper!" Jackie cried out as he heard her scream. Ignoring Valmont, he turned to rush towards her, eyes expressing worry and rage. Valmont gestured peremptorily, and Daolong Wong's Dark Chi Warriors moved immediately to keep Jackie away from Bai Tza.

Jackie seemed to blur past the Warriors, and when he resolved next to Viper his sword was strapped to his back. A few heartbeats later, the three Warriors split horizontally down the middle before bursting into smoke. The backlash of such a forceful 'dismissal' shot back into Daolong Wong, who staggered away from Uncle's next assault.

As Jackie checked on Viper, Bai Tza rushed to Valmont's side. "Do you have a plan for this part?" she demanded worriedly.

"I do," Valmont confirmed as he ducked a second divine lightning bolt from Scootaloo, noticing that the bolts had fallen to the ground rather than dissipate after being thrown, something Tchang Zu hadn't noticed...especially since he was standing at the intersection. "Time for us to withdraw!" Valmont called out loudly, trying to get Tchang Zu's attention.

"I will not flee from mortals!" the demon bellowed as he gathered more power. "Your troops are not that diminished-"

"Wǒ de shēntǐ shì máo!"(1) Tohru suddenly roared out, switching spells as he was no longer stuck in a brawl. All the magic focused throughout his body focused in his hands. Turning towards the largest concentration of Shadow Khan between him and Audrey III, he thrust his hands forward. A beam of pure Chi launched forward, not enough to damage a Demon beyond the kinetic impact but more than enough to disperse the weaker Khan...and it fed directly into Audrey at the opposite side of the yard.

Audrey roared eagerly as he expanded, overwhelming the remaining Shadow Khan as he seemed to infest the entire lot now. His vines lashed out, sending anything he could reach flying as he struck out at Tchang Zu, trying to keep him pinned once the sixth divine bolt missed him only to drop to the ground, intersecting the other five at vertex points in a design that exactly matched Scootaloo's Cutie Mark. He then began to grapple with the Demon as Scootaloo shot back into the sky.

"We are leaving now!" Bai Tza snapped out, seizing Valmont and pulling him away as Daolong Wong warped the other Enforcers away. Before Valmont could object, she had turned her entire body into water, enveloped him completely, and dove with him down a drain pipe where they both vanished.

Scootaloo shot down out of the sky, slamming right into Tchang Zhu's head as he was held in the exact center of the Divine Lightning design. With the makeshift Seal of Solomon completed with that final point, the energy reaction triggered Tchang Zhu's portal, sucking him back into the Demon Netherrealm as Audrey released him.

Scootaloo buzzed weakly down to the ground. "When you get to...that place...tell them Scoo..." The light faded from her markings and she slumped to the ground, unmoving.



(1) "My body is a spear", the counterpart to Tohru's previous spell. Where the last one focused all his chi into his body to turn him into a tank, this creates a massive discharge of unfocused chi. Basically a Breaker Beam, but one that can be absorbed by a properly prepared ally for a temporary boost.

Denouement

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Sweetie Belle hovered nervously over Scootaloo as she remained slumped over unconscious on the way back from Hollywood. "Is she going to be okay, Uncle?" she asked worriedly. "She's never been like this before..."

"Pfeh!" Uncle countered, dismissing Sweetie's concerns. "Never channel Divine Chi before. Got off lucky she got a full infusion before battle."

"Divine Chi?" Sweetie inquired curiously.

"Three main types of magic for each aspect of reality," Uncle explained as he continued examining the lightning marks that remained on Scootaloo's limbs. "Wild magic grows, Dark magic consumes, and Good magic purifies. On human level, there are shamans of Wild Magic, and wizards of dark or good. On animal level, there are Wild Creatures, Dark Monsters, and Pure Guardians. Qi Lin are Pure Creatures, both Wild and Good." He gently stroked Sweetie Belle's mane to calm her since she was still tense. "On spiritual level, balance is Spirits, Demons, and Gods. Gods are source of Divine Chi, which is not same as Good Chi but has same focus: purification. Divine Chi incredibly effective against Demons, especially those of same Element or those vulnerable to said Element...but is incredibly dangerous for any but a God to wield, as it burns through mortal Chi frightfully fast." Reaching out, he stroked Scootaloo as she slept. "Scootaloo is now Avatar of a thunder god, and thus capable of wielding Divine Thunder Chi...but without the proper foci, attempts to do so will rapidly drain her strength to lethal levels." Uncle rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Must do research on which thunder god, to know what focus is proper."

"...dressed up as him..." Scootaloo murmured softly before slipping deeply into slumber.

"Dressed up-" Uncle began in confusion.

"Oh, Raijin!" Sweetie deduced. "Remember? After our extra credit project researching Japanese mythos, we dressed up as Fujin, Raijin, Susano-o, and Amaterasu for our first Halloween?"

"Ah!" Uncle proclaimed happily. "That will help with research! In mean time, Scootaloo get plenty of rest."

"I'll keep an eye on her," Sweetie offered firmly.

"And what about Tohru?" Apple Bloom asked worriedly as she sat on the large man's stomach, looking worriedly down at him as he slumbered deeply.

"His second spell discharges all chi reserves!" Uncle announced. "While not as potentially damaging as what happened to Scootaloo, same exhaustion. Will be fine after sleep and lots of food."

"That's a relief," Apple Bloom murmured, snuggling into Tohru in an attempt to offer comfort. To her surprise, one huge hand came up to rest on her like a blanket. Smiling, she closed her eyes to get her own rest.

While Uncle was dealing with the fillies, Jade brought a vial of glowing pink liquid over to where Jackie was trying to clean the salt out of Viper's wounds to treat them. "Here," she offered, holding up the vial. "Cleansing and healing potion. Apple Bloom taught me the recipe, and it's made with herbs from her garden."

Jackie smiled as he uncorked the vial. "Thank you Jade," he offered warmly as he brought it to Viper's lips.

"Jackie, wait!" Jade interrupted, pulling his arm back. "It's a topical medicine!"

Jackie rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "Probably should have asked. Why don't you apply it?"

Smiling, Jade poured a tiny amount of the vial's contents onto her fingertip and began spreading it over the tiny holes Bai Tza had left in Viper's body. "Qīngjié hé zhìyù...(1)" she murmured softly with each application, smiling as the liquid glowed and then faded, leaving Viper's breathing much easier as she finished.

As she got her breath, Viper blinked. "Wait...if we're all back here...who's driving?"

In the driver's seat, Audrey straightened the cowboy hat and mustache he was wearing. "On the road again..." he sang happily as he steered them through traffic.

"Does he even have a license?" Sweetie Belle asked Apple Bloom.

"It honestly would'na surprise me," Apple Bloom allowed sleepily.


The return trip to his base had been...disorienting to Valmont. Losing all sense of cohesion of his own body had been a...unique experience. He refused to think of it in more accurate terms, as he didn't want to think unflatteringly of Bai Tza...especially not when she'd shown such immediate concern for his safety by pulling him with her as she did. That had rearranged his thinking on a few long term plans.

Beyond that, while the experience had been disquieting...the most disquieting aspect was that it hadn't been entirely unpleasant. Some part of him liked the feeling of having no body. He would have to keep careful watch on that part of his mind...it could easily problems if such urges were allowed to run rampant.

As he stabilized himself, he found Tso Lan already waiting for him on the mirror. "My apologies for failing to properly secure Tchang Zu's release at this time," he offered sincerely. "I had not realized the strong presence Divine entities had in the world at this time, or that some would be observing the battle. An oversight I do not intend to repeat-"

Tso Lan lifted one hand to silence Valmont. "This outcome is not your fault," he corrected. "We have discussed the outcome, and have determined by majority conclusion that the fault for Tchang Zu's defeat and return to imprisonment rests on his shoulders...first for so carelessly casting his opponent into undisputed territory where her energy would draw divine attention, and second for not withdrawing when you gave the order. You continue to prove your skill as-" Tso Lan froze as his eyes widened. "But what did you mean, 'at this time'?"

Valmont grinned widely. Tso Lan was certainly intelligent. He looked forward to having that mind more readily available. "There are Eight Portals for Eight Demon Sorcerers...but there are presently only seven. But you enchanted Shendu's spirit, which means he was in the Netherrealm with you. But if he can pass back and forth at will as a spirit...well, his portal is open, isn't it? Available for two Demons to pass through, should the Chans cause problems at other portals."

"Two?" Tso Lan, Bai Tza, Xiao Fung, and Shendu all demanded in surprise.

"But only one can pass through the portal-" Shendu began.

"Each time it is opened, yes," Valmont confirmed. "Once when opened with the Pan'ku box, and once when the banishment spell is cast on your spirit. After all, the banishment spells that seal the portals are keyed to the Demons, not whoever happens to come through the portals."

To Valmont's surprise, Tso Lan began to laugh. "You are clever indeed, Valmont!" he declared eagerly. "Every seeming defeat you are handed you turn to an advantage! I am glad you are on our side, as I would not relish having to go through you to escape."

Valmont chuckled softly. "You won't have to worry about that, I don't think," he observed dryly, his hand slipping into Bai Tza's. Before anyone could comment, he continued, "Speaking of, Tso Lan, you're next...and I don't anticipate any interference...or, if we do it right, even any awareness...though we'll have plenty of time to prepare. Let the Chans think we're licking our wounds after our 'defeat'." He suddenly frowned. "Speaking of the banishment spells, though, Tchang Zu was banished through a different means. Is it possible his portal might still be reopened at some point, should we have need of it?"

Tso Lan was silent for a time. "Valmont, whatever else happens at the end of this, I shall endeavor to find a way to Ascend you to Demonhood, should you not accomplish it on your own. I want us to have access to that mind of yours for many years to come."

Valmont blinked in surprise. "I...I am honored, Tso Lan," he replied, knowing not what else to do but bow.

As the communication broke, Bai Tza threw herself forward, cuddling up to Valmont. "Forever..." she purred, softly and happily, making him blush.



(1) "Cleanse and heal"

Many Short Tails

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Despite the intensity of events in Hollywood, it was some time before anything else major happened in the fight against the Demon Sorcerers. This gave the Chans time to get back to their own lives for a while, allowing for a few small adventures to happen, though not all were world shaking...or even noteworthy.

The larger size of the family had encouraged Jackie to acquire a larger vehicle for long family trips - such as driving Uncle to acquire new stock for the shop - which still managed to lead to an overcrowded trip back once all the artifacts Uncle bought were loaded into and tied down on the van. On an impulse, Jackie had stopped on the way back in an Old West ghost town where they found a book detailing the adventures of someone they believed to be Jackie's great-great grandfather. Jade and Uncle got more into the story than the fillies could, as the two human listeners found characters within the story that could easily be analogues for themselves. No such luck for the fillies.

Of more pertinent interest was the results of a search Uncle sent Jackie - and Jackie alone - on, to find an ancient Archive. The tome was apparently a book of dark magic spells written by the Demon Sorcerers themselves, but may yet contain information they could use against the Demons. Uncle was very firm about Jackie going alone, however. "Is very dangerous Dark Magic book!" he had insisted. "Might hurt fillies or Jade if they touch, now that Jade is learning magic! In dangerous place between ignorance and Mastery where most vulnerable! But Jackie has no magic of his own, not be hurt by magic book!"

"That's a relief," Jackie had groaned with a role of his eyes.

When Jackie had returned, he had the Archive with him and a tale of the Shadow Khan attacking him in an attempt to retrieve the Archive themselves. While the fillies rushed to assist Uncle with researching the tome, Jade had what she felt were more pressing concerns. In amongst numerous other questions and comments said very fast she asked Jackie, "Can I get a tattoo?"

"Why do you want one?" Jackie asked curiously.

"All the kids at school are getting them!" Jade insisted...admittedly a minor exaggeration.

"If all the kids at school were jumping off-" Jackie cut himself off. "You'd be first in line for that, wouldn't you?"

"You bet!" Jade responded eagerly. "Does that mean-"

"No," Jackie countered flatly.

"But Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle-"

"Those are Cutie Marks," Uncle interrupted. "Magical symbols of special talents!"

"Like the kids at school can tell the difference," Jade grumbled irritably.

"...our butts are trend setting?" Sweetie Belle asked in surprise.

"Tell you what Jade," Jackie offered in a conciliatory manner. "When a magical symbol of your destiny spontaneously appears on your butt, you can keep it and show it off. But until then, no tattoos."

Jade returned to grumbling irritably under her breath. She momentarily thought about copying the symbol off the front of the Archive as a 'fake tattoo' just to flaunt for a day or two at school, but quickly decided against it. With the training the other girls had given her, she could feel the evil in the symbol, and between that and what Uncle had said about her being especially magically vulnerable right now, she didn't want it anywhere on her body...especially not on her butt like Jackie suggested.

"Say girls?" Apple Bloom asked as they read through the book with Uncle. "Do the hanzi here look...off to you at all?"

"...kinda?" Sweetie Belle offered uncertainly.

"Honestly look more like kanji to me," Scootaloo observed idly.

"...when they're this old, is there really that much of a difference?" Apple Bloom asked uncertainly. "Ah know there's a lot more difference in modern Chinese and Japanese than people would think, even when it comes ta the use o' Chinese characters..."

"Something about the way these are arranged feels more Ancient Japanese than Ancient Chinese," Scootaloo pointed out. "But...the shape of the characters is more Ancient Chinese..."

Sweetie Belle's eyes widened. "You mean...like if someone from Ancient China had taken a book-worth of spells from Ancient Japan and recorded them in Chinese for the pronunciation?" she suggested.

"Yeah...yeah, that's it, Sweetie!" Scootaloo crowed as she pointed to a specific set of characters. "In fact, I'm pretty sure this phrase is talking about 'legions of Oni', not 'legions of shadows' like it's written. And the Oni-"

"O...oni?" Tohru gasped in abject terror, shivering violently. "Do...do we have enough onions?"

Smirking, Audrey lifted his roots out of his pot, dangling several onions where Tohru could see them. The gentle giant breathed a huge sigh of relief even as the youngsters who saw it giggled.

"Hmm...interesting theory," Uncle observed. "Had not thought Demon Sorcerers would steal magic...but makes sense." He traced over the page for a time. "If that is the case...this research waste of time for now!" Closing the book, he placed a parchment seal upon it before locking it up in a secret compartment of the library. "Not help deal with Chinese Demon Portals if book of Japanese Dark Magic." Smiling, he pet all three girls on the head to praise them. "Is good thing you did that project on ancient Japanese mythology and make effort to study it in original, untranslated language. Uncle only knows hanzi, and Tohru only knows kanji. We would not have spotted difference like you did!"

All three girls beamed with pride.

More Short Tails

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Another family trip for the Chans proved to have a bit more excitement than Jackie had expected. The purpose for the trip - for Jackie, at any rate - had been to authenticate some new artwork at a museum, as requested by an acquaintance of his. Uncle, the fillies, and Jade would be touring Paris together. Tohru stayed in San Francisco to keep an eye on the shop and demonic activity. Viper was originally meant to tour with them to help Uncle keep their interest...but she had changed her plans the moment she learned from Captain Black of all people that the 'acquaintance' Jackie was going to meet was a woman. Jackie wasn't sure whether or not to find the change frustrating or endearing.

However, it did wind up proving helpful to Jackie. Viper remained in the secured 'art chamber' with Jackie when said acquaintance left to fetch the authentication forms once Jackie had authenticated it, locked in together. "Isn't this ironic?" Viper chuckled softly as she glanced around at the valuable pieces. "Back before meeting your girls, getting into a room like this would have been a fun challenge. Now I'm invited in..."

"Feeling any...temptation?" Jackie asked teasingly.

Viper chuckled wickedly. "Not to steal," she purred softly. "But I don't think it will take that long for Miss Amber to get back with those forms. The museum isn't that big..." Her voice trailed off and she lifted a hand, signaling Jackie to silence.

Jackie jerked up as he heard it too, the sound of paper unfolding. Reaching to his shoulder, he seized Balance Breaker's hilt, glad Sweetie Belle had insisted casting a 'notice-me-not' spell on it so he could carry it around with him as long as he kept it sheathed. Unusual noises in silent places once would have made him just wonder. In this new world, he automatically assumed it was something that would try to kill him...or someone with him-

Viper let out an aggressive cry as she spun, attempting to deliver a kick to...a life-size origami samurai? Much to her frustration, the folded paper being simply folded itself out of the way as it moved towards the painting Jackie had just authenticated. Viper quickly rolled between the creature's legs, coming upright between it and the painting.

Jackie saw the arm fold into a sword and lift. Light flashed.

Much to Jackie and Viper's surprise, a seemingly ordinary gentleman with Chinese ancestry and a rune-inscribed scroll reeking of magic fell to the ground. Viper quickly slipped on white gloves with runic circles inscribed on the back before scooping up the scroll and rolling it up tight. "Not sure what's going on, but this is definitely dangerous magic," she told Jackie. "Definitely want to take proper precautions-"

"Give that back!" the man screamed out, moving to lunge for Viper.

Jackie was immediately behind the man, sword at his throat. "Hold...still," he instructed calmly.

At that moment, Amber returned, gasping as she dropped the authentication forms. "Umm...should I call the police?" she asked worriedly.

"Make sure to tell them it's a Spell Case," Viper responded, holding up the glowing scroll.

Nodding, Amber turned to place the call.

Mere moments later, several officers appeared out of nowhere just outside the vault room, quickly taking control of the scene. The man was led away under arrest, his place later to be searched for stolen artwork or other magical artifacts. The scroll - an ancient relic that granted whoever it bonded to the power to fold themselves into living paper creatures - was taken to be more properly protected and stored.

Having little else to do at the museum, Jackie and Viper decided to join the others for the rest of the tour of Paris.


Tso Lan smiled as he stepped into the limo, the last stage of his release having gone off as smoothly as Valmont had promised. As predicted, the Pan'ku Box identified the location of his Portal as being in Earth orbit, at exactly the altitude to be intersected by the very space station Raphaelo Di'Capizzio was to be flown up to by a trained monkey pilot, before later descending in a pod to be picked up by a landing crew. It had been easy enough for Valmont to convince the movie star to let a 'body double' make the flight for him, and Bai Tza was able to impersonate the man easily on the way up, especially since she spent most of her time in a space suit which hid her features.

The space suit was bulky enough that Bai Tza could easily carry - and handle - the Pan'ku Box through the gloves, keeping it hidden any time she was on camera. Careful calculations between Valmont, Tso Lan, and an expert in astrophysics and engineering determined the exact location on the space station where the portal would intersect, as well as exactly when. A simple observation spell allowed Daolong Wong to determine when the space station was about to intersect, and a simple hack disrupted signal reception for five minutes. This gave Bai Tza all the time she needed with the camera signal reaching no one to open the portal, slip herself into another thermos carrier, and allow Tso Lan to slide himself into the space suit before taking on Raphaelo's appearance as well. With that done, he simply maintained the facade until descent, at which point he was collected by agents Valmont kept specifically clear of any criminal activity so they could operate without drawing Section 13 attention.

As the blackout doors closed behind him, he set the thermos down beside him and opened it. The Pan'ku Box had already been collected and would return to Valmont's offices through other means, so all that was left was a leisurely ride there. He watched as water flowed out of the thermos to solidify into his sister Bai Tza, in her human form. "You can discard Raph's face now, brother," she informed him as she settled into the seats. "This very limo will later be seen dropping him off elsewhere while we return to Valmont's base of operations. Have you decided on a human form for yourself as yet?"

Tso Lan smiled as his form shifted. The form he chose was tall, though not as tall as his natural form, with pinkish skin and violet hair. Long sideburns hung to either side of his narrow chin, reminiscent of the mandibles of his demonic form. He kept his angular face, red eyes, and topknot, though traded red robes for a red business suit with purple tie. Black shoes completed the look. "Do you think I will...blend in?" he asked Bai teasingly as the transformation finished.

Bai Tza nodded readily. "I don't think anyone will suspect a thing," she agreed. She then frowned, growing pensive. "...brother, about...what you said when Valmont discussed his plans with you...and what we said when Shendu first suggested him as a possible ally-"

"I admit I did not speak for our Brotherhood when I said I would assist in seeking out Valmont's ascension once we had all been released," Tso Lan allowed. "I spoke for myself personally. And I do intend to work to achieve that, and have access to his mind as long as possible." He grinned impishly. "And if that puts you in my debt for giving you an immortal beloved..."

"See how deep you end up in his debt before this is over before counting those favors," Bai teased back, though it was plain she was pleased at the idea of keeping Valmont around for a long, long time...and not the least embarrassed about him being referred to as her 'beloved'.

Tso Lan sat back, frowning thoughtfully. "Besides...it is not just I or our Brotherhood I would have him be available to," he murmured softly, his thoughts turning to...a certain being who would have mixed feelings about his release, and his choice of actions...


In a dark chamber somewhere, a shadowed figure lifted her head from her studies, a frown crossing her face. "That is...unusual," she murmured softly, her voice containing a hissing echo as her blue tongue tasted the air.

"Mistress Luna?" a hissing voice whispered as a figure approached, kneeling before the shadowed figure. The being was male, green-skinned and striped with spikes on his shoulders. He was dressed in brown slacks, army boots, a black muscle shirt, and black fingerless gloves. His only other garb was an oddly configured gas mask hooked to a jewel embedded in the flesh of his chest.

"Pascal," the shadowed woman responded. "It would seem that my Father has escaped his imprisonment...and has taken no action. This requires...investigation."

"What are my orders?" Pascal inquired, his voice becoming guttural as he raised it above the whisper, as though he were constantly gargling liquid behind the mask.

"The same as always," Luna responded calmly. "Investigate human dabbling in demonic forces. The stability of the world and its continued growth requires balance. Determine if the balance has shifted, and act as you see fit." A thin, blue finger reached out of the shadows as a globe floated over in the grip of gravity magic. "A great deal of magic has come to focus here," she hissed gently as her finger touched on San Francisco. "I suggest you begin your investigations here."

"And what actions should I take if I encounter your Father?" Pascal inquired carefully.

"I leave that to your judgement, based on what you discover," Luna replied. "Inform me of any major revelations as you discover them. Should your actions lead to imprisonment to my Father or his 'siblings'..." She shrugged her shoulders in the shadows. "Well, I only have so much control over you, after all."

"Plausible deniability," Pascal responded firmly.

"Your race does come up with most amusing concepts," the hissing voice responded playfully.

Pascal said nothing for a time. "I will not fail you," he concluded finally, reaching up to press his fingers against the gemstone in his chest. Green, noxious gas released from inside his mask to swirl around him, completely obscuring his appearance. When it dissipated, he was gone.

"His skill grows every day," Luna murmured softly. "Had Father found him, he might have tried to incorporate him into the Brotherhood. ...for Pascal's sake, it is good that I found him." With that, she returned to her studies, reading the balance of the world's power as she focused on chains of events.

By the Light of the Moon

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Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Jade sat together in a tent in the bamboo forests of China. It was yet another archaeological expedition, this time to find the lost Lotus Temple. The only others along for the trip were Jackie and an old monk who'd volunteered as their guide. The four girls were having a bit of difficulty as just before the expedition, they'd goaded themselves into watching a scary movie about a monster in the woods that attacked campers. While Jade had long considered herself tough enough to handle mere movie monsters and thought her dealing with actual demons would make it even easier. She'd overlooked how much more realistic and terrifying movie monsters could be made with the normalization of magic, as the only limit to the shaping of the monsters was the imagination of the illusion mage on the special effects crew...and illusion magic came more easily to those with more active imaginations. This was why Audrey hung amongst the bamboo in an exceptionally large form, with instructions to eat anything that came too close to the camp unless it was a mortal animal (like a panda) or a person.

Which is why all four jumped up with a scream when Jackie pulled the tent flap back to look in on them.

"WAUGH!" Jackie cried as he leapt back, patting his chest to calm his fast heart. "What are you girls doing? I thought I said for someone to gather firewood."

"And go out into the bamboo grove alone where the slavering maw awaits to devour lost little girls?" Jade asked fearfully. "With its thousand tongues and gnashing teeth and countless hands and-"

"The only 'slavering maw' out there is Audrey," Jackie pointed out flatly. "And he's on our side."

"But what if there's another Audrey out there?" Scootaloo squeaked out worriedly.

"Then Apple Bloom will make it behave itself," Jackie chided calmly, rolling his eyes.

"What if it feeds on Dark Magic and eats good kids!" Apple Bloom asked in terror.

"Then sic Audrey on it," Jackie instructed tiredly. "There are no monsters out there."

"But there are tons of monsters out in the world!" Sweetie Belle squeaked out, holding up 'The Monster Book of Monsters', a complete tome of all magical creatures known to exist throughout the world.

"I checked before we came here," Jackie countered flatly. "The only creatures of a size or strength to even conceivably be considered threatening are pandas and Qi Lin."

"We're Qi Lin!" Sweetie squeaked out fearfully. "What if the locals are territorial?"

"I checked the rules," Jackie continued. "They won't hurt you, even if they do judge you as Qi Lin from another herd, since you're all children and virgins." He raised an eyebrow. "Or at least you'd better be."

All four girls' eyes widened before squinting shut as they let out a concerted, "EWWWW!"

Jackie managed a chuckle. "Anyway, even if you do come across a local Qi Lin, they'll simply lead you back to camp."

"But what if Valmont's released a Demon with control over plants to attack us?" Jade asked hurriedly.

"One, we know all eight Demon Sorcerers, and none of them are plants," Jackie pointed out. "Two, even if one was, they wouldn't dare enter a Qi Lin range. Three, go get the firewood."

Groaning, all four girls got up to move.

"It only takes one of you," Jackie pointed out.

"If you think we're going out into a potentially monster infested forest without proper backup, you're crazy!" Scootaloo declared intensely.

"But I just said-" Jackie groaned, rolling his eyes. "Fine. If you all encounter a dangerous monster and get eaten, feel free to tell me 'I told you so'."

Nodding firmly, the four girls marched out into the bamboo.

"Stay in sight of the camp!" Jackie called out before sitting on a log seat, turning to roast a hot dog over the fire. "Kids."

"Ancient wisdom," the old monk offered. "The young cats often bite off more than they can chew. The watchful alpha does not let them wander."

Jackie frowned thoughtfully, only to become distracted as a sudden pop of the bamboo in the campfire resulted in his hot dog becoming so much charcoal.


The four girls stayed very close together as they made their way through the bamboo grove, gathering up the fallen, dried stalks for use as firewood. "So...one of us still has a bead on the camp, right?" Jade asked nervously.

"I...I thought you still had an eye on it," Scootaloo whimpered.

"Apple Bloom, can Audrey guide us?" Sweetie squeaked nervously.

Apple Bloom glanced around as a cloud shifted aside, the full moon shining its light down. "I think-no!" The last word came out in a fearful gasp. "There's a surge o' magic here! I lost track of him!"

"Look!" Scootaloo screamed out, pointing to a large temple that had literally appeared before her eyes, fading in in place of the bamboo as the moonlight shone down.

"...is that the Lotus Temple?" Jade asked hopefully.

"Must be," Sweetie pointed out nervously. "There aren't any other temples in the area."

"But where did it come from?" Scootaloo demanded. "It...it just appeared in the moonlight!"

"That...actually makes sense," Apple Bloom offered thoughtfully. "Ah mean, ah hadn't given it much thought...but the Lotus is the symbol of He Xiangu, and she's the one that sealed Tso Lan. Maybe this is her temple, built ta respond to the phases of the moon to keep watch against a return o' his magic? We are here lookin' for magic ta use against the Demon Sorcerers, after all."

"In that case, what are we waiting for?" Jade offered eagerly. "Let's go!" She quickly raced for the stairs up to the Temple.

"Jade, wait!" Sweetie called out as she raced after her. "There might be dangerous magical booby traps! Let me go first so I can read them!"

Secrets of the Moon

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Sweetie managed to reign Jade in just before she managed to actually enter the Temple proper, leaving the foursome stopped at the top of the Temple stairs. However, what actually brought Jade to a halt was the sight of a young Chinese girl about their age dressed in green, curled up on the floor in tears. As she heard them, she lifted her head to look towards them. Her long black hair hung in twin braids to either side of her face, and her brown eyes stared at them in a mix of fear and hope. "You should not be here!" she called out worriedly.

"Why?" Jade asked worriedly. "What's the matter?" She started to take a step forward. "Why are you-"

Sweetie Belle yanked Jade back with her magic. "Have you learned nothing from adventure movies? If mysterious stranger little girl in a temple gives you a warning, you listen!"

"But-"

"And she's absolutely enveloped in the magic of the Temple!" Sweetie Belle continued. "She's probably some sort of Temple Guardian or something."

"Your Qi Lin companion is correct," the girl spoke up sorrowfully. "I am the Guardian of the Lotus Temple...though not by choice."

Apple Bloom tapped her chin. "Lemme guess. Ya wandered in one night when you were cold, next thing ya know the sun's up, Temple's gone, and you with it?"

"And that's how you find out you were drafted as Temple Guardian?" Scootaloo inquired. "Probably a result of some sort of preservation spell to keep anyone inside the Temple when it vanishes with the Moon alive by binding them to the magic of the Temple."

"But the only reason something like that would happen is if there were a way to circumvent it so people could leave," Sweetie Belle pointed out. "Otherwise there'd be dozens, if not hundreds of Temple Guardians, and no one would be able to move without bumping into each other."

"Or tripping over corpses as they died of starvation or old age," Jade murmured worriedly.

"Your deductions are accurate," the girl spoke up. "Five years ago, I wandered into the Temple...only to vanish with the dawn. I have been the Temple Guardian ever since, and I transform into a fell beast to drive out intruders. I did not want to hurt any of you, so I warned you away."

"So...can we come in?" Jade asked hopefully.

"I just said-"

"Yeah, you have to chase down and drive out intruders," Jade confirmed. "But if we're invited guests, then we aren't intruding, right?"

Apple Bloom grinned widely. "That's some good out-o-the-box thinkin', Jade!" she praised proudly.

The girl's eyes widened, as though she'd never thought about that. "Please, do come in as guests," she offered warmly. "But if I start to change into a monster, please run away!"

"How would we tell?" Scootaloo asked curiously. "Gotta be honest, even after growing up with them, humans look kinda freaky to me."

"I'm guessing horns," Apple Bloom suggested. "Humans don't normally got horns."

"But I keep reading about humans getting 'horny' in my stories!" Sweetie Belle complained. "What else is it supposed to mean?"

"Is...is this normal for all of you?" the girl asked Jade worriedly.

"You get used to it," Jade confirmed as she stepped over the threshold and towards the girl.

The Guardian winced, reaching her hand up to her forehead. When she felt no horns, she sighed in relief. "My name is Xu Lin," she introduced herself warmly.

"I'm Jade," Jade greeted happily. "This is Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo."

"And we're the Cutie Mark Crusaders!" the three fillies called out together.

Xu Lin turned to a nearby cabinet and pulled out a large jug. "For some reason, the Guardian magic insisted I carry sap remover for as long as you are within."

"Where are we gonna find tree sap in a bamboo grove?" Scootaloo demanded crossly. "I mean, come on-"

"Bamboo has sap," Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle pointed out together.

Scootaloo grumbled irritably.

"So, you will help me find a way to leave the Temple so I will no longer be bound as Guardian?" Xu Lin asked hopefully.

"Yup," Sweetie Belle agreed. "And the first step is to find the library."

"I will guide you there," Xu Lin responded eagerly.

"Wait!" Scootaloo yelled out. "What if Uncle Jackie comes looking for us and wanders in? He'll be an intruder."

"That's a good point," Apple Bloom murmured worriedly.

"Couldn't we hang a sign on the door that says we're inside, and Xu Lin could write that Jackie's allowed to come in?" Jade suggested. "That'd be an open invitation to him, right?"

"And we could add that all others should stay out!" Sweetie Belle insisted. "I don't trust that monk guiding us. He looks creepy. I mean he's a sleazy mustache and a snake staff away from being Jafar."

"I can not step past the threshold to hang the sign," Xu Lin spoke up. "But if I write it, could one of you hang it prominently?"

"I'll take care of that," Scootaloo responded eagerly. "I'm the only one who can get to Jackie's eye level-"

"We should make sure Audrey III's invited too," Apple Bloom added. "Wouldn't want two monsters dukin' it out amongst all those rare books and scrolls, and who knows what other artifacts."

"Audrey...III?" Xu Lin asked curiously.

"Mah Dryadic Familiar," Apple Bloom explained. "Giant flesh eating Venus fly trap that sings."

"Should we include Cumulo, or do kinto un not count as separate creatures as far as intruders go?" Scootaloo asked curiously.

Xu Lin shook her head in wonder. "You keep amazing company," she told Jade. "How can you be so calm amongst such wonders?"

Jade shrugged her shoulders. "Like I said, you get used to it."

In the Name of the Moon

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Once the sign was completed and prominently hung at exactly Jackie's eye level - along with placing a filly-height sign that read "Look up" directly underneath it, just in case Jackie was looking for them rather than where he was going when he came up the steps of the Temple - Xu Lin confidently led the group of youngsters deeper into the Temple. As they moved, the group found their concept of spatial dimensions and physics greatly challenged. Not only was the space within the Temple far vaster than its exterior dimensions should have allowed for, pathways did not follow logical patterns either. One chamber that looked to be large enough to hold the entire Temple's exterior dimensions looked like it had been lifted from an Escher print. Stairways went in every conceivable directions with doorways on both the top and bottom leading to completely different rooms, with 'down' always feeling like it was in the direction one was standing on...even when one leaned over the side and stared at another doing the same, to the point you could reach out and take their hand. Some stairways even twisted mid-path, or looped around on themselves.

Scootaloo took one look at the massive chamber as the first entered and promptly came in for landing, fixing her hooves to the stairs and folding her wings tight. "Not flying here, nope nope nope..." she muttered worriedly, her eyes tight shut. "Not opening my eyes either. Those air currents are crazy..." The markings on her legs glowed slightly as she generated static electricity within them just to anchor herself more securely to the stairs.

"Yes, that would probably be best," Xu Lin observed nervously. "The Temple does not like it when one tries to take shortcuts in this chamber. The paths can become...irritable." She shivered nervously. "That was not a pleasant full moon..."

"Then we'll stick to the paths," Sweetie Belle stated firmly. "I don't like breaking rules, anyway."

"What are you doing?" Jade asked Apple Bloom as she dragged one hoof behind her, leaving a string of glowing moss.

"If Uncle Jackie shows up lookin' for us, we dun want him wandering around willy-nilly, right?" she asked simply. "And this place makes Minos' masterpiece look like the back o' a cereal box. Figure living moss works better than ribbon any day. After all, Jackie won't have Xu Lin to guide him."

"Good idea," Jade concluded. "I guess it's too much to hope for that we'll be finished here before he comes looking for us, right?"


"Jade!" Jackie called out loudly as he searched through the bamboo grove, trying to locate the girls. "Apple Bloom! Sweetie Belle! Scoota-WAGH!" His scream was a reaction to the monk seeming to appear out of nowhere as he pulled some bamboo aside, smiling up at him.

"Perhaps the wayward cubs are closer than you think," the monk offered helpfully, pulling more bamboo aside to reveal the towering structure that sat glimmering in the moonlight.

"The Lotus Temple?" Jackie gasped in surprise, only to shake his head in wonder. He should have known the girls would be drawn to the magical structure. They were obviously somewhere inside. As he moved to climb the steps, he noticed the monk not moving. "Aren't you coming?" he asked curiously.

"I will wait here," the monk offered calmly. "I would not want to...intrude."

Jackie immediately noticed the odd emphasis placed on that last word, as well as the odd way the monk twiddled his fingers.

"There's a Guardian to the Temple meant to pursue intruders," Dark Jackie stated bluntly from Jackie's left shoulder. He drew his Balance Breaker sword. "We should grill him for everything he knows. There's plenty of bamboo around to help."

"No!" Light Jackie insisted from Jackie's right shoulder. "That is the sort of thing bad people do! We are not bad! Besides, if the girls are inside, the guardian might be attacking them!"

"If Apple Bloom was in danger, Audrey would have made a move," Dark Jackie countered.

"He's not above us," Light Jackie indicated.

"...which means we need to get in there before monster fight destroys everything we're looking for," Dark Jackie concluded as Jackie turned to race up the steps. "Damn. I was really looking forward to grilling this monk. If that mustache were any more sleazy and grew into a goatee, I'd think he was Jafar."

"Why didn't you warn me?" Jackie demanded of Dark Jackie.

"He knew what we needed," Dark Jackie responded. "Besides, like I said, I was looking forward to grilling him."

"Wait, you can see and hear us?" Light Jackie asked in surprise. "I thought we were just an artistic representation of an internal mental debate."

"With how much magic we live with on a daily basis, you're honestly surprised we manifest as a literal shoulder angel and devil?" Dark Jackie demanded. "I'm surprised - and disappointed - I don't have a pitchfork and bodysuit and you lack a dress, harp, and halo."

"One, it would be a robe," Light Jackie corrected primly. "Two, we aren't good vs evil representations. Yin and Yang aren't so cut and dried, especially with us. I'm the gentle peacemaker, you're the ruthless scrapper. We're two different worldviews, but both grounded in world reality rather than ethical or moral considerations."

"Three, you two are very distracting," Jackie interrupted irritably as he made it halfway up the steps, "not to mention seriously confusing. Do you have any idea how hard it is to pretend I don't see you when someone's there? The last thing I need is Viper or Augustus thinking all this magic craziness has caused me to have a psychotic break."

Both Shoulder Jackies gave Jackie speculative looks. "Funny you list Viper so quickly on that list," Dark Jackie observed teasingly.

"Augustus is understandable, since he's military and remembers the old world," Light Jackie pointed out. "But why are you so concerned about what Viper thinks of you?"

"Besides, maybe she'd like it if she thought you were a little crazy," Dark Jackie pointed out teasingly. "You know what they say about crazy people in bed."

Light Jackie pointed challengingly at Dark Jackie. "Okay, you deserve the pitchfork for that one. Or at least the horns."

"Yes, Viper does make me-"

"Enough!" Jackie wailed as he waved his hands in an attempt to disperse the metaphysical manifestations of the different aspects of his mind. "I need to focus on finding the-WAGH!"

His distraction with his Shoulder Selves caused him to trip on the top step, landing at eye level with a sign that said, "Look Up!" When he got to his feet, he saw another sign.

Enter only with written or spoken invitation,
Or be pursued by the Guardian
Jackie, Audrey III, come on in!
Everyone else, STAY OUT!

Jackie blinked at that for a time.

"I guess we aren't 'intruding'," Light Jackie offered playfully before finally vanishing.

"This is the part where you groan and say, 'Bad Day', right?" Dark Jackie teased before vanishing.

Jackie let out a pained groan. "...bad day..."

Beneath the Moon

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Thankfully for Scootaloo's calmness and state of mind, it didn't take long for Xu Lin to lead the group through to the library. However, that wasn't the end of their amazement. The shelves soared upwards, seemingly into the very sky, and they stretched out in all directions beyond sight. All four girls stared around as they took it all in. "Are...are those clouds up there?" Sweetie Belle squeaked out as she stared upward.

"No, just a visual magic effect," Scootaloo corrected. "No actual moisture in them. It'd be bad for the books with that formation, anyway. If you want clouds to help in a library, they need to be white thin clouds with attraction magic embedded in them, so they'll naturally leech just the right amount of moisture out of the air to keep the books dry but not too dry. Either that or have them sapient, like Cumulo."

"But kinto un are incredibly rare and hard to find," Xu Lin pointed out.

"Guess that's why I had to get mine from Santa," Scootaloo concluded.

"I thought Santa just added magic to the cloud you already took everywhere?" Sweetie Belle asked curiously.

"I guess that is what the note suggested," Scootaloo concluded. Her eyes widened in amazement. "Say...you think that means now that I've got this divine lightning chi, I can make my own kinto un?"

"Can we focus on helpin' Xu Lin?" Apple Bloom demanded. "Ah mean, there's a lot o' scrolls here, and Ah dun' wanna spend an entire month till next full moon figuring out which scroll ta read, let alone decipherin' it ta learn how ta get around tha bindin' magic."

"Oh, we probably won't be able to help this Full Moon," Sweetie Belle allowed matter-of-factly. "But we won't be sticking around here, either."

"But...but how are we going to help Xu Lin, then?" Jade demanded angrily.

"Next month," Sweetie Belle allowed. "You're okay with waiting one more month so we can get Uncle to look at the scrolls and figure out what to do safely, right?"

Xu Lin shrugged. "I have searched and waited for five years. One more month with new hope will fly by."

"Wait...your plan is to take all this back to Uncle?" Jade gasped in shock, gesturing to the entire library at 'this'. "How?"

"This box," Sweetie explained, reaching into her saddlebags and pulling out a folded cardboard box bigger than the bags themselves.

"How..." Jade began in confusion. "How is it all going to...fit?"

"Same way the box fit in the bags," Sweetie explained as she unfolded it into a decent size box, the flaps magically affixing themselves into a closed bottom of their own accord. "It's a box of holding."

"But I thought an artifact of holding could not be placed inside another?" Xu Lin gasped worriedly. "How did you manage it?"

"The holding enchantment isn't active on the cardboard box unless it's unfolded," Sweetie explained. "Really useful for packing. Now stand back, I need to shape a couple spells. Scootaloo, help me spread the smoke? Apple Bloom, you've got the potion?"

As the three fillies gathered, Jade stepped beside Xu Lin worriedly. "So...you're going to raid the place?" she asked curiously.

"That'd probably trigger the transformation, since raiders likely qualify as intruders," Sweetie Belle corrected.

"We're usin' a duplication spell with a closed limit o' one ta make copies of every scroll and book in here!" Apple Bloom explained as she uncorked a bottle, letting a pink smoke float up out of it. "The spell will last a month."

"And we're taking the copies with us," Scootaloo explained as she wafted the smoke to flow around the entire library.

"And I'm going to energize it with an extra packing spell, so we only take the copies without having to sort them out ourselves," Sweetie Belle concluded. She stuck her tongue out the side of her mouth as she focused energy into her horn. "Now...how did this one go? Higitus...Figitus...bigitus bum...Prestedigitonium!"

As the green magic lashed through the pink smoke, copies of every scroll began to dance to unseen music, marching slowly into the box of holding and laying themselves flat on the bottom, seeming to vanish into the shadows as they did.

Jade and Xu Lin watched in awe as the magic guided all the tomes safely into their resting place. "Could I not escape through this box?" Xu Lin asked hopefully. "Holding items obey their own laws of magic, after all..."

"Bad idea," Jade spoke up quickly. "If it didn't work, you'd be ripped out of said pocket space as we carried it out of the Temple. I don't know how much damage tearing a Holding space open would do, but I really don't want to find out."

"Oh..." Xu Lin concluded sadly as the copies finished filing into the box, allowing it to seal itself up on top as the music came to an end. "I...suppose you are done for tonight then?" she asked morosely. "And it...is time for goodbyes..."

"Don't be silly!" Scootaloo insisted firmly. "It's several hours before sunrise. I'm sure you didn't spend the entire five years just searching for answers. I bet you know a few places around here to have a ton of fun!"

"The least we can do is give you some company!" Sweetie Belle agreed.

"At least until Uncle Jackie comes and finds us," Apple Bloom allowed playfully.

"And you never know," Jade pointed out wickedly. "We might stumble on the way to get you out completely by accident!"

"Or by asking me," a soft voice asked from behind them, tone warring between amusement and annoyance.

"Or we could-WAUGH!" Jade screamed out as all five girls leaped in the air in fear, spinning towards the source of the voice.

The young woman who stood leaning against a bookcase could almost pass for human, at least in shape. However, her coloration definitely painted her as magical. She had pale blue skin, purple hair, crimson irises, pale red corneas, and a blue-green mask marking on her face. Two thin arms ending in clawed hands extended through the short sleeves of her top, the higher arms with fingerless gloves on the hands, which ended in four fingers, while the lower arms ended in three-fingered hands. She wore a uniform that seemed achingly familiar to Scootaloo...except she was pretty certain the one she saw all those years ago was yellow, not red and purple(1). "Considering this is my library you're raiding, I feel like I should be the one screaming," she pointed out dryly.

"Your library?" Jade demanded in shock. "What are you talking about?"

"Well, not originally," the woman explained. "It originally belonged to He Xiangu, but the Veil Council left it in my care 200 years ago as thanks for helping create and maintain the Balance of the world. It was a big project, after all." She glanced at the five with a frown. "The name probably doesn't mean anything to you, but I'm Luna, daughter of Tso Lan-"

"One of Shendu's brothers?" Sweetie Belle gasped in shock. "Are you helping Valmont free them?"

Luna's eyes narrowed. "Oh, is that what's going on?" She rubbed her forehead. "Look, I honestly don't care if someone's messing with that side of the Balance. I did my part, so I just want to be left alone to follow my own project, making sure no one tries tapping a hell dimension on a massive scale. That's what I have this Temple for now, to focus my studies and not be disturbed." She turned to Xu Lin. "Normally I don't interfere with the Guardian aspect of things here, but I'm not about to keep a little girl prisoner when she just wants to go home. Just inside the Temple entrance are suits of armor, meant to be worn by the Soldiers of the Moon when they go off to battle. For those who lack their own means of warping in and out of this Temple, donning a suit will let you leave."

Xu Lin smiled happily. "My thanks for telling me! I look forward to seeing my family again!"

"Why didn't you tell her sooner?" Jade demanded irritably.

"I didn't know she was even here," Luna countered dryly. "Like I said, I leave the Temple to more or less take care of itself unless I need something. I only even came out here because your little musical packing spell disturbed my concentration."

Sweetie Belle's ears went flat against her skull. "...sorry about that..."

Luna shrugged. "No big deal. Been a while since a Qi Lin got this close to me." Leaning forward, she gently stroked Sweetie's mane. To the girls' surprise, neither Sweetie nor Luna showed signs of pain. "And in case you're wondering, I'm half-human...which means as long as I'm not actively doing evil, Good Magic doesn't automatically hurt me."

"Good to know," Apple Bloom spoke up happily as she lifted the box onto her back. "We won't bug ya no more."

"If you can find someone who might make a better Guardian, please send them my way," Luna called out as the group left. "Having one around is...useful."



(1) This refers back to the chapter "Crazy Customers"...specifically, the first customer to visit that chapter.

The Path of the Moon

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On their way out, the four girls encountered Jackie who was following along the path of glowing moss Apple Bloom had left. He glanced around at the five of them, then sighed ruefully. "I want to be angry with you four for going too far from the camp and stumbling into yet another adventure without proper adult supervision. That sort of thing is just too dangerous, and I worry about you all." His eyes then moved to Xu Lin. "However, in this case I don't think I can blame you all." He knelt before Xu Lin. "Temple Guardian?"

"Yes sir," Xu Lin offered nervously.

"Trapped here against your will?"

"Yes sir."

"Girls figured out the loophole about intruders and came to help?"

"Yes sir."

"Have a way out?"

"Yes sir!" she offered more enthusiastically.

He nodded. "Then I can't hold this against the girls." Turning, he indicated the box on Apple Bloom's back. "And this?"

"Box of holding," Sweetie explained. "Has a magically crafted copy of every scroll and book in the library. Would have looked for artifacts, too...but the librarian didn't approve."

Jackie blinked in surprise. "There's a librarian?"

"She was nice, if a little weird," Scootaloo observed.

"And you had the spells for copies and fast packing prepared already?" Jackie inquired of Sweetie Belle.

"We were out here looking for a magical library," Apple Bloom pointed out logically. "Kinda figured we'd be pressed fer time one way or anot'er."

He sighed ruefully. "Then I can't really complain. It's hardly your fault you girls are drawn to magic." Bending over, he hefted up the box. "Let's go."


Getting Xu Lin out of the Temple proved easy enough, and Sweetie Belle conscientiously levitated the armor back into the Temple once they were done, right where they'd picked it up from. As interesting as it would have been to study armor connected to such magic, they decided it was better to not actually take anything out of the Temple save knowledge. As they left the area immediately surrounding the Temple, Apple Bloom felt guidance from the bamboo, allowing them to walk straight to Xu Lin's village, reuniting her with her parents.

The monk, meanwhile, noticed the group leaving the Temple one person strong. Realizing there was no longer a Temple Guardian, he moved freely to enter the Temple, making his way unerringly to the Library in search of the Scroll of Hung Chao, which contained secrets of ancient power.

Unknown to him, Luna had removed any scrolls with actual magic power imbued or recorded in them into her personal study after the girls had left. Since the Temple was receiving visitors and no longer had a Guardian, she felt it better to keep track of anything that was actually dangerous. This meant the monk's search was fruitless...and continued well past dawn, as the library had no windows to protect the parchment from changing light conditions. Luna felt the new Guardian would work out splendidly. Driven by greed, he would never ask anyone to assist him as he would fear having the power he sought stolen from him...and he'd never seek to leave until he found that which he sought. And one without innate Moon magic could not touch the scrolls save while the Temple was within the real world under full moon light.

The Temple would be secure for quite some time to become...and it troubled her mind not at all that an old man who sought to use magic for personal gain be trapped for an unknown length of time by his own greed.


While Jackie and the others were investigating the Lotus Temple, Captain Black had his own research to contend with. He'd finally received his information packet regarding the Veil and everything involved with it. Thankfully, the initial packet was the same for everyone, giving him the 'For Dummies' lowdown on the new world he found himself in. This would help him to adjust to the world as it was, and figure out exactly what the laws were and weren't now so he could act against Valmont more efficiently. At the moment, he'd reached the segment covering the 'Class' levels of various living beings. He decided to read through it aloud, just to make sure he was understanding it.

"All things are rated by the magical Class system, ranked from 10 to zero. Identifying the proper Class of what you're dealing with is fundamental to dealing with it properly, as misClassifying a being can cause any number of problems. However, with rare exception, it's relatively easy to determine what Class of being you're dealing with.

"The lowest is Class 10, the fully Mundane..." Captain Black paused as he read that. After all, Mr. Long had referred to him as 'fully Mundane'. This was important to read. "These are beings - humans mostly, but also domestic and wild animals - that have no inherent magical ability or talent. From the perspective of Magical Law Enforcement (MLE), these are civilians, the ones meant to be protected. Mundane means and only the smallest of magics should be necessary for dealing with these." He sat back to stare at the ceiling briefly. "Yeah...that was my world not too long ago..."

After a time, he turned back to the document. "Class 9 have latent magic, but can only use it to maintain the overall balance and functionality of the world. These include the Minish - also called Wee Folk or Borrowers, amongst other names - and Nature Sprites. These can be more or less ignored, as they do their jobs and take care of themselves.

"Class 8 are inherently magical, but have no means of expressing that magic. Examples are difficult to give, as this most commonly manifests randomly amongst Class 10. More often than not, Class 8 tends to be the subject of illegal trafficking, and otherwise will not become an issue.

"Class 7 are beings with inherent magical power that they are able to use by their own will. This is the level most 'magical creatures' will be classified in, such as griffons, manticores, salamanders, and pixies. Specific countermeasures for those magic should be utilized, but otherwise can be handled like normal wild animals, or be reasoned with.

"Class 6 includes any inherently magical being with the capacity to either project its magic as a projectile or spread its magic to other beings. This includes the weaker Fae, vampires, were-creatures, and other similar entities. These must be treated very carefully. Special notation re: The Big Man." Captain Black frowned at that part, but made a note to look at that if he saw it mentioned again.

"Class 5 are those with some ability to command the magical fields naturally," Captain Black continued, pausing here. After all, this was the rank that was apparently important. "This includes magical creatures that work spells, wizards, witches, warlocks, sorcerers...you get the idea." He frowned at the fact 'you get the idea' was written into actual official documentation. However, he quickly discarded his upset and continued reading. "However, one can only be Class 5 if they are above a certain level of capacity to influence the magical fields, the exact judgement of which varies from region to region.

"Class 4 can be divided into two primary categories. The first are magical hybrids who - due to their magical heritage - have a capacity to influence both events and the magical fields above and beyond most normal beings. The second category are magi who have enough power and skill to meet Class 3 entities on an even footing." Captain Black set the papers down for a time. "Uncle...can meet demons on an even footing? ...wow..."

Picking the papers back up, he continued to read. "Class 3 are immortals. This specifically refers to creatures that will not die natural deaths. This can be achieved via various forms of Apotheosis, or impressing the beings of The Jade Council to a degree that it is awarded. However, none have been granted this award since the Eight Immortals that sealed the Demon Brotherhood. Demon Sorcerers, Archangels, Arch Fiends, and other such beings are in this Class.

"Class 2 is demi-gods. There are three types of entities classified as such. The first and smallest group are those whose power is so great that they rival the divine. The second are those who have some degree of divine power, generally through heritage. It is important to note that in this case there is no correlation between 'divine' and 'holy', as it refers to a specific type of magical energy that is not bound by normal magical laws. After all, there are Demon Gods, just as there are Sacred Ones." Captain Black blinked in surprise. "Demon gods? That's...concerning..." He quickly read on. "The third group are those Gods who - for whatever reason - have been removed from The Jade Council. While retaining the full strength of their divine power, they have sacrificed much of their rights as far as its exercise in this regard, and are governed by The Jade Council as all are.

"Class 1, as can thus be deduced, are the Gods. All Gods - whatever their alignment - are members of The Jade Council ever since The Unification which led to The Balance, which allows civilization to continue to grow. The Council is divided into three factions. The Jade Emperor nominally leads The Good faction out of seniority. Oberon, ruler of the Fae, leads The Wild faction. Lucifer Morningstar nominally leads The Dark faction. These three factions debate the laws of Divine which manage magic within the world, and maintain the Veil. So long as they do not break the Laws of the Council, they are allowed free reign within the regions of their power base. The only exception is for Santa Claus, Re: The Big Man."

Seeing this mentioned again, Captain Black flipped ahead to the segment in question. "Santa Claus is classified generally as a Class 6, as 364 days out of the year he is only a focal point of Good Magic. However, in the 24 hours starting on Christmas Eve he is a Class 1 Heirarch, as during that time he can use his magic anywhere in the world to do anything within his dominion, the granting of Christmas wishes. The only thing he is incapable of doing during this time is anything requiring the exercise of magic outside that period of time, and he is not bound by the Laws of the Council in that time."

Captain Black slumped back in his chair as he thought about that. Learning Santa Claus was real was hard enough. Learning that he outranked the Gods on Christmas...he banished the thoughts and turned back to the segment on Class Zero. However, the first thing he noticed was a notification not to read the segment aloud. Curious, he continued.

Class Zero entities are those capable of altering the very fabric of reality with a thought. There are only two Class Zero entities in existence. One is The Creator, the one who with thoughts brings existence into existence. The other is Beast Ragnarok, who with thoughts can erase things from existence. They are equal and opposite, balancing each other. It is one of the duties of The Jade Council to ensure no other beings of Class Zero ever arise, for fear that the possibility of alliance undo that balance and cast all of existence into eternal chaos.

It is for this reason Australia is No Man's Land for magic, and violation of this edict save on direct orders from The Jade Council is punishable by immediate execution and destruction of the Soul.

Surprised, Captain Black quickly flipped through the packet for the segment on Australia...only to find it completely blacked out. Plainly, his security clearance wasn't quite that high...

Wings Folded

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Valmont sat at his desk, sipping tea with Tso Lan. Bai Tza had decided to let the two brainiacs plot out the next move on the chess board without her, preferring to finish cleansing herself in her spa since - apparently - she found wearing a face not her own somewhat distressing. Tso Lan had been highly amused that Valmont's first response to that was to offer to tend to her personally to ease her mind, and that Bai Tza had to practically order him to stay and plot with Tso Lan and that she desired 'feminine privacy' to get Valmont to stay. He pushed the amusement from his mind as Valmont spoke up. "About your siblings who remain..."

Tso Lan nodded. "Dai Gui, Po Kong, and Hsi Wu," he elucidated. "Tchang Zhu will have to remain for some time, if only to keep our options open."

"And we've established Po Kong is last," Valmont confirmed. "So that leaves Dai Gui and Hsi Wu as choices for next. Describe them for me, please."

"Given our shared ability to shape shift, I presume you are asking for my personal opinions and perspectives on them?" Tso Lan pressed, his tone completely neutral.

"It would be useful," Valmont confirmed. "I would ask Shendu, but...to be blunt, I don't trust him."

"A wise move," Tso Lan observed in amusement. "And yet you trust me?"

"You said it yourself, my mind is valuable to you," Valmont explained. "Valuable enough to invest personal time and effort towards its upkeep by seeking to bring about my demonic ascension should the need arise. That means it's in your personal self interest to be straight with me, and work with me. So yes, I trust you."

Tso Lan let a smirk touch his human lips. "Brilliant, devious, ruthless, and amusing..." He chuckled softly. "If my sister hadn't already staked a claim..."

Valmont swallowed in surprise. "I...I'm flattered, but I don't-"

"I arose as a Demon Sorcerer from the Elemental Force of the Moon's gravity, upon the dark side," Tso Lan interrupted. "I came into existence without gender. I only shaped myself as male in the past because they held the political power, making it easier to make mortals heed me. What bonds I have shaped have been based entirely on intellectual and emotional connections. Physicality is a minor concern at best. It would be neither a difficulty nor an adjustment to take a female form should I so desire for such companionship...again, if my little sister had not already staked her claim."

Valmont closed his eyes and took a few calming breaths. Yet again, he'd been caught off guard by his own preconceptions. Yes, when it came to the deeper motivations the Demons were very human, which was to say talking animals. All the same motivations drove them...but their means and methods to achieve those motivations went far beyond what most humans would even conceive of, let alone utilize. He carefully reorganized his thinking as he put this new detail into account. "Perhaps we should table that discussion so as to not upset-"

"She'd find it kinky," Tso Lan interrupted, "and if it weren't me, she might actually extend an invitation for a one-night indulgence. However, she knows all such bonds I make are permanent, and she is unwilling to share you on that scale. But yes, let us return to the original discussion. I've had my fill of tormenting Shendu this way for the moment, and I have no desire to torment you." He smirked wickedly. "That's Bai's purview now.

"Dai Gui is headstrong, fierce, and not very bright," Tso Lan continued as Valmont steadied himself. "His first response to any situation is to smash something, and if that doesn't work he tries again from a different angle. He's implacable like the Earth that is his Element, but he has a very difficult time changing. Like Tchang Zhu, he was one of us who was outvoted as far as accepting your plan, and part of why I stated you would not be penalized for the fates of those of us who did not heed your guidance in achieving our freedom.

"Hsi Wu couldn't be any more his opposite. He is cunning, clever, nearly as skilled a mage as myself, and fiendishly creative where it comes to the use of his Elemental abilities. When he comes across a problem, his first response is to withdraw, study it carefully from all angles, and then find either the most efficient or most fun means of ripping it to shreds. He is a pure demon like myself, though the youngest of us save Bai Tsa. However, do not let that lead you to underestimating him." He crossed his hands and narrowed his eyes. "After all...was it not four children who most greatly thwarted your efforts for Shendu?"

Valmont nodded in understanding. "It sounds like you have a great deal of respect for your brother Hsi."

"Indubitably, and it is well earned," Tso Lan confirmed. "His Element gives him command of the Sky and all within it...and he has used that power to tap all our Elements in his own way. Commanding the weather, reshaping the air currents..." He shuddered violently. "Though the most terrifying was when he defeated an entire squadron of mages and magic-protected warriors come to banish or slay him by - as modern science would define it - peeling back the electromagnetic field to cook them alive with the sun's unfiltered rays."

In that moment, Valmont desperately regretted being atheist. He couldn't help but think that having some sort of religious gesture that warded away evil would be of great comfort right at that moment. "That sounds...impressive."

"Terrifying," Tso Lan murmured. "The unfiltered Eye of the Sun would be lethal to any of us if exposed directly...and he was so excited to discover that he could unleash it. He went on and on about what he could do with it, the ways he could use it...he is very excitable, and very passionate about new things. Of all of us, he is the one most suited to change."

Valmont managed a smile, though it lacked conviction. "Then he is one we want to free quietly, if we can manage it. As you put it, that is a mind we cannot be without."

Nearby, Ratso began unlocking the Pan'ku Box to the Trigram of Sky.

Wings Spreading

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Valmont smiled to himself as he and Bai Tza sat in the stands, watching a baseball game of all things. While Valmont himself had no interest in sports beyond the money made in gambling, pretending to take an interest provided good cover for why he was at the stadium, while he let Ratso wander around on his own in search of the Portal. Besides that, Bai was plainly interested in the sport for her own sake, though her interest had admittedly waned somewhat when she learned the bats were for use in propelling balls into the field and not for striking the opposing team. Still, she seemed to enjoy the sight of leanly muscled young men racing about a field, flaunting their capabilities and physics and getting dirty as they slid to base. "You know, if that's what you like about baseball, I could take you to see a football game, or perhaps rugby," he offered sweetly, though inwardly wincing at suggesting the American style of football. "That one, I understand, sometimes gets bloody."

Bai Tza shook her head, her eyes still locked on the field. "I've seen some footage of those games. The players are all far too top heavy for my tastes, with all their muscles in their shoulders and arms for smashing into each other. That sort of physique doesn't really appeal to me. I much prefer the leaner builds that could easily stay afloat, or swing from ship to ship." She turned a teasing smirk Valmont's way. "Soccer, on the other hand..."

Valmont blinked in surprise, then grinned widely.

"What do you mean you can't do anything?"

Valmont's eyes narrowed as he heard that familiar voice. "Chan?" he murmured softly under his breath. "What is he doing here?"

"Talking to Captain Black," Bai murmured without bothering to look, her magic letting her see out of any nearby liquid...of which there was plenty at a sports event in the form of soft drinks.

"It's the same reason we've never managed to nail him for anything before," Captain Black told Jackie firmly. "Unless we actually catch him doing anything illegal, we won't be able to make any charges stick, and he'll have more than enough to hit us with harassment counter suits."

"But he's releasing Demons!" Jackie insisted.

"And except for certain specific circumstances we'd need to prove, that could easily be justified," Captain Black responded.

"But in Rome-"

"With no video or magical evidence he was ever there, and a rock solid alibi elsewhere," Augustus responded. "Not only that, that was Bai Tza, and he could easily make a case that he was acting to acclimate her to the modern world to become a productive part of society."

"He's a criminal!"

"As long as she doesn't try to take over the world or engage in other acts of magical terrorism, The Veil Authorities don't care what side of the civil law she ends up on," Augustus countered. "And even then, we'd have to prove she was engaging in criminal activities just like Valmont, and prosecute her same as a human."

Jackie sounded strangled for a bit, as though struggling for words. "Well, she was released in Rome! Couldn't-"

"She already has a valid green card, and the application for full American citizenship was being processed before she showed up in Hollywood."

"Well what about Hollywood?" Jackie demanded angrily. "All those cameras-"

"Making a movie," Captain Black interrupted morosely.

"Are...are you telling me it's legal to open a demon portal in Hollywood to make a movie?" Jackie demanded angrily.

"How do you think they made Doom? You think someone can dream up devils that look that bad on the screen?"

Valmont bit his lip until it almost bled. "One of these days, Chan and the good Captain will be the death of me...from holding back laughter..."


While Jackie, Viper, Uncle, and Tohru were in the stands keeping an eye on Valmont and Bai Tza - though not preparing a banishment spell for her, at the girls' request - Jade and the fillies were making a snack run while also keeping an eye out for Ratso, Finn, or Chao. Unfortunately for the four girls, the snacks at a sports event tended towards the high salt and spice content - in order to encourage the purchase of more and larger drinks - and all four of them had been rather indiscriminate in consumption of food and beverages. As such, all four were now making a beeline for the public women's restroom, jostling each other as they struggled to get there first and fully expecting an incredibly long line.

Much to their surprise, the inside of the restroom was incredibly clean, almost sparkling, and there didn't appear to be a line to get in. However, as they entered, all the stalls were occupied. "Come on, come on..." Jade muttered as she rushed up to one stall, hoping whoever was inside would be finished soon.

To her surprise, the stall flashed with light, and a new stall appeared in its place, unoccupied. When she pushed the door open, toilet and paper were arranged at the perfect height for her. "What the...?"

Curious, Apple Bloom walked up to another stall. It flashed at her approach, revealing an unoccupied stall containing a small garden patch with leaves at just the right height. "...wow..." she murmured, stunned.

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo had their own surprising discoveries, as each of them found a stall with Japanese style squat toilets and bidets. "What is...?"

"Okay, this part of magic being normal rocks!" Jade affirmed before dashing into her stall to relieve herself. Understanding what she meant, the four girls quickly took advantage of this to hopefully get back to the game quicker, if not finding the demon portal quicker.

Wings Spread

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Ratso, Finn, and Chao wandered around the stadium together, enjoying some snacks and beverages as they did their best to look completely normal even as they explored to try and find the spot where the Pan'ku Box would respond, signifying Hsi Wu's Demon Portal. Despite their unique appearance, they weren't drawing all that much attention...except when they reacted strongly to the sight of a magical creature - ogre, troll, or satyr - wandering around doing the same. This was apparently quite the popular sporting event for whatever reason, drawing quite a number of peaceful non-humans to watch, which took some getting used to for the trio. "How are people not freaking out over all this?" Finn groaned in frustration after he'd had to stifle his reaction to an honest to goodness jorogumo manning the souvenir stall, selling shirts she claimed were made from her own silk.

"This is normal for everyone else," Ratso pointed out. "That's what Valmont said, anyway. We're the only ones who notice a difference since we were at the epicenter of that normal wave."

"It's certainly taking some getting used to for us," Chao grumbled, shivering as he rubbed his shoulders. The lady had been rather pretty and flirtatious, but seeing those extra eyes open in response to the query about 'her own silk' had freaked him out. "How does Valmont handle dating a girl who changes shape at will like that?"

"He's the boss," Ratso offered as though that sufficed for an explanation. As the trio approached the public restrooms, Ratso paused. "Hold this," He told Chao insistently, handing over the cotton candy he'd been eating to pull the Pan'ku Box out of his jacket, the extended prong glowing as the whole box vibrated. He slowly turned, and the box glowed brighter when he pointed it towards the door to the women's restroom.

"I'm...not so sure I'm comfortable with this," Finn murmured worriedly. "Are we...gonna have to go in there? What if there's new magical security to keep us out? Or to turn us into girls if we enter-"

A beam of light shot out from the Pan'ku Box to strike the symbol on the door denoting it as the entrance to the women's restroom, changing it into the keyhole symbol.

"Or you could be worrying for nothing, because we don't have to go in," Chao pointed out. "Looks like he's the one coming out."

"So the demon we were told is most suited to change," Ratso began carefully, "is going to be coming out of the women's water closet?"

Finn and Chao both blinked as they processed that. "So many jokes..." Finn murmured thoughtfully.

"That we really shouldn't make when the demon in question might hear," Chao added nervously as the Box flew out of Ratso's hands and embedded itself in the door before opening the portal.

A massive windstorm whipped up as the portal opened, and Hsi Wu stepped out. Between his whipping tail, his grey skin, his large ears, and his huge, bat-like wings, he resembled nothing so much as an ancient, wizened gargoyle. The three antennae raising from his head like blades quivered as he flexed his large claws. "Jokes, you say?" he hissed out, his red eyes glowing as he grinned, showing off all his teeth. "Do tell, do tell...I have an excellent sense of humor."

With how his fists clenched together to draw the wind back to him on 'excellent' as the Box dropped from its place, Finn was pretty certain actually telling any of the jokes would probably get him killed. Unfortunately, he didn't see any way out of it.

At that moment, the door to the restroom opened slightly, and Jade peaked out. "WAUGH!" she screamed out as she caught sight of Hsi Wu, quickly trying to slam the door shut.

Hsi Wu let out a strangled shriek of pain as the door slammed on his wriggling tail, trapping part of it. Desperately, he spread his wings and took to the air, trying to break free. However, Jade held the door fast.

"Apple Bloom! Sweetie Belle! Scootaloo!" Jade called out desperately. "We've got a demon at the door!"

"Right!" Sweetie Belle responded immediately, fishing a flute that seemed to shimmer with inner green fire from her saddlebags. "I just need to play this then."

"What about the banishment spell?" Jade asked worriedly.

"Treated the wood the flute is made of with the mixture as it was being shaped," Apple Bloom explained. "Spell should be inbuilt into the flute as is. Just chant while Sweetie plays!"

"Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao..." Jade chanted as instructed as Sweetie Belle started playing the flute, matching the notes to the cadence of Jade's chant. "Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao..."

Hsi Wu clutched at his head as the magic in the music struck him. It wasn't enough on its own to banish him, but it was rapidly draining his strength. If he didn't get away from it soon, he'd wind up sunk to the ground immobile, ripe for trapping and who knew what else! Acting quickly, he took the only action that was certain to get him free. Spinning around, he struck out with his claw and severed the last two feet of his own tail. He let out an angry shriek of pain as he came free. "You three!" he barked out. "Tell my sister that I will see about joining her after I have retrieved my tail...and tell our contact I consider his part of this endeavor complete. I will handle the rest myself!" With that said, he turned and took to the sky, flying as fast as he could to get out of range of the music.

"So...should we try and grab the tail?" Ratso asked curiously.

"Apple Bloom's in there," Finn hissed out. "Audrey and Tohru can't be far!"

"I'm not," Tohru growled from directly behind them.

"Scatter!" all three screamed out, dashing off in three different directions before Tohru could react.

Tohru groaned, bringing one hand to his face. "Grab then taunt...how did I forget that?"

Apple Bloom couldn't help but giggle as the four girls left the bathroom, Jade holding up the still wriggling severed tail since it writhed and sizzled if any of the fillies tried to touch it. "Well...now what?"

Wings Aloft

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Hsi Wu frowned to himself as he tailed the Chans back to their base as discreetly as he could manage. While he could have done so openly as long as he kept his magical energy somewhat suppressed thanks to the Veil, he didn't want to risk being spotted by the Chans. While he was as clever as any of his siblings, being among the youngest - and a born demon at that - meant that he had the smallest magical reserves, and relied far more on his elemental connection than any of his siblings save Bai Tza. The fact that said element was literally everywhere one could breathe helped make him more durable and helped him draw extra power from his surroundings...the higher he was, the better.

Still, the world had changed. Humanity now climbed much higher into his domain, and other magic had followed. He had to be careful, and expend as little of his own reserves as possible. It's why he was so creative with how he used his magic, since he more than any of his siblings had to do the most with as little as possible. This led him to push the limits of magic, ignoring the rules of 'this is how it works' to understand why it worked that way. It was why, given what he'd seen of the world from the Demon Netherrealm, the first thing he intended to do as soon as he had his tail and full freedom was to raid a library for science textbooks. He was especially interested in the subjects of chemistry and gas formations.

First, however, he needed to retrieve his tail. Landing on the building across the street from the Chans' base, he watched through the window as Jade - under the instructions of the three fillies - managed to wrangle the tail into a chest, at which point the old wizard laid a protective spell upon it. Using a very small amount of his own magic, Hsi Wu enchanted the local wind currents to carry sound better. Between that and his large ears, he was able to hear every word said clearly.

"So now what, Uncle?" Jade asked curiously. "Got some trick with the tail to deal with Hsi Wu? Some special plan to trap him?"

"I have a very good plan," Uncle responded calmly. "Uncle plans to prepare for the next demon."

"What?" Apple Bloom - Hsi Wu recognized the voices he'd heard through the restroom door before - demanded, shocked. "What do ya mean?"

"Valmont move fast!" Uncle insisted. "Hsi Wu is free now, but not causing ruckus. Either peaceful, or tricky. If peaceful, can be ignored. If tricky, is good test for girls as Chi Wizards. Sky Demon is your responsibility, while I prepare for other demons."

"A-are you sure we can handle it?" Sweetie Belle asked worriedly.

"Uncle is certain," Uncle confirmed. "I have full confidence in you all."

"What if Hsi sneaks in?" Scootaloo asked curiously.

"Shop is protected!" Uncle insisted. "Bad magic cannot enter unless invited!"

Hsi Wu let his magic subside, returning the wind currents to normal. He'd have to be careful about the fillies, but the old man would regret leaving something so important to children. He needed to be invited in? Fine. He would get an invitation. And he already saw a way. Mortal children of powerful magic were always lonesome, and the adventures they were involved in would have left Jade and the fillies even more outsiders socially. All it would take would be the perfect opportunity, and the right strategy. Until both presented themselves, he would watch and wait.


The following day, Hsi Wu stared down at the school playground in glee. The perfect opportunity had dropped itself in his lap! The fillies were elsewhere, and Jade was being confronted by a glasses wearing boy with a large audience whose stance made it plain this was hazing waiting to happen.

"You going to the Spring Dance next week?" the boy began, his tone playful as an opening play, waiting for Jade to walk into a trap.

"Maybe," Jade countered. "What's it to you, Drew?"

Drew smirked as he lifted his hands in a facsimile of a fighting pose. "Who are you going to take? A ninja? Or do you just fight them?" The audience laughed as kids do, though not too strong. Given Jade's expression, Hsi Wu concluded this was a common taunt, probably from her being too free with stories of adventures.

Seeing his opportunity, Hsi Wu swooped down nearby, taking on a human form. His body was that of a child Jade's age, with features showing Chinese descent. His outfit was entirely green in different shades for pants, long sleeve undershirt, and short sleeve overshirt. His antennae blades shortened into a similarly shaped hairstyle, his hair black-blue and his eyes brown like his shoes. The look and outfit complete, he rushed in at just the right moment to deliver the telling rejoinder. "Who are you going to take to the dance, Drew? Your Mom?" Not the cleverest counter Hsi Wu could have delivered, but good for the target audience. Considering the laughter and Drew's stammered flailing, it accomplished its goal.

As the group dispersed, Jade turned to him. "Thanks for standing up for me." She frowned thoughtfully. "I don't think I've seen you around before."

"I'm new," Hsi responded immediately. "Just moved here."

"And you stuck yourself in the middle of something like this?" Jade asked, surprised.

Hsi shrugged. "Being in your shoes in things like this is why I moved," he responded, surprising himself. That hadn't been the cover story he'd planned...but it was somewhat accurate. On Earth, he could meet all his siblings as equals, if not as their betters due to how he used his magic. But in the Netherrealm, there was no Elemental energy to draw on, and only Tso Lan had access to his Elemental Magic due to its nature. As such, Tso Lan and Bai Tza were the only one of his siblings that didn't push him around while they were trapped there. Hsi privately suspected it was because they feared what he could do with his magic. The exceptions were because Tso Lan respected his mind, frequently engaging in various games of skill with him to pass the time, whereas Bai Tza...well, Hsi Wu and Tso Lan were the only human sized members of the Brotherhood besides Bai, leaving them the only options for her preferred games.

He pushed all that from his mind as Jade smiled, holding out her hand. "Well, us targets have to stick together. I'm Jade."

Hsi Wu immediately accepted the handshake. "Hs-" He cut himself off. He'd almost given her his true name. That would have been disastrous...and now he needed a new name starting with the same sound. "Seymour Jahoositz," he managed to spit out, wincing internally at how ridiculous it sounded.

To his surprise, Jade winced sympathetically. "Talk about unfortunate," she murmured under her breath.

Hsi decided it was time to change the subject. "So is it true?"

"Is what true?" Jade asked, confused.

"Do you really...fight ninjas?" Seeing the grin spreading across Jade's face, Hsi knew he'd hit on exactly the right approach. A girl like her craved an eager audience.

Wings Mantled

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‘Seymour’ walked beside Jade as she made her way towards the shop, excitedly describing some of her past adventures. Hsi listened intently, knowing that information would be his greatest asset in the present struggle, and the more he knew about his opponents, the better able he’d be to counter anything they threw at him. Besides, most of her stories were of how she had assisted her family thwarting Valmont’s work for Shendu, and anything involving the suffering of his fire-brother was worth listening to.

Admittedly, some of the stories even caught him off guard. “Cthulhu?” he asked in surprise as Jade got to that story. “You accidentally summoned Cthulhu?”

“Not completely!” Jade offered contritely. “It was just a facsimile, and it didn’t last long enough to summon the real thing.” She then went into the full story of that incident.

As Hsi listened to the rest of Jade’s stories, he began to come to a realization. Jade, the Qi Lin, the Wizard...they were all fully capable of handling anything thrown their way. Even the plan of overwhelming power by attacking them with the entirety of the Brotherhood at once - well, six of them now - had at best an equal chance of succeeding or failing. Trying to confront them solo as he was to recover his tail seemed tantamount to suicide with all they had at their disposal. ...he’d never been more excited in his life!

Early on in his life, ever since he’d been born from the heart of an atmospheric storm caused by an uncontrolled discharge of Dark Magic, Hsi Wu had discovered that even for one as weak - relatively speaking - as him, there was little that could prove a true threat to a pure-blood Elemental Demon Sorcerer. Tso Lan had come to a similar conclusion, and both had begun actively seeking out those that could potentially be such threats. However, where Tso Lan sought them out to either eliminate them before they could threaten him or recruit them to serve him, Hsi Wu sought to push them towards the fullness of their power so he could challenge them. As much as the Brotherhood sought total global domination, Hsi Wu only went along with it because he knew that meant they’d be fighting the entire world. The world would produce those who could battle Elemental Demons, and he lived for the chance to battle them! Of all the siblings, he’d be the most likely to turn against the Brotherhood if only for the chance to battle them, if he could manage it without facing the fate of traitors by being targeted by all of them in concert. Pushing his mind, his body, his magic to their limits...that was his ultimate desire.

But now he needed more information. “Some of what you’re saying seems off,” he pointed out to Jade. “If things were that intense, wouldn’t authorities have stepped in?”

“Authorities to handle magic didn’t already exist yet,” Jade responded ruefully.

“...wat?”

Jade chuckled. “It has to do with how Shendu died, and those pendants of my cousins’ I told you about. There was...some sort of wave of power...” She shook her head. “I’m still making sense of it all, but it made magic ‘normal’ for the entire world, and history...adjusted to take that into account. We’re still figuring out where everything fits in. Since we were at the epicenter, we don’t remember the changes.” She smirked eagerly. “It’s been kind of fun, piecing it all together.”

It was a struggle not to grin from ear to ear for Hsi Wu. An advantage! While the Chans may have powerful allies and the resources of magical authorities, they didn’t know who to ask for what! A bit of misinformation at the right time could easily turn the tide. This was going to be fun!

“You want to see something really cool?” Jade asked as she stepped up to the shop, pushing the door open.

Hsi Wu started to follow, only to notice the glow of the protective charm. “Are...are you sure it’s okay to come in?”

Jade shrugged. “Uncle’s not strict about bringing friends over.” A frown crossed her face. “Or at least I assume not. Never had friends to bring over before...” She shook her head. “Well what are you waiting for? Get in here!”

Smiling, Hsi Wu crossed the boundary, the invitation granting him entry. It wouldn’t be long now. Soon he’d have his tail, and he’d be able to begin his campaign against the Chans, to see who would emerge triumphant. He would not seek to strike death, though. He would only strike death on those who sought the same for him, and he already knew that the Chans only sought to reimprison him. As such, he wanted to force them to submit. His endgame was to have them bound to him by magic, sworn to his cause. Not only would that be the penultimate triumph...it would grant him an ace in the hole should he ever decide to break ties with his brothers!

...it was a pity he wouldn’t get to have more conversations like this with Jade, though. She had quite the mind, and he found he wanted to see more of it outside the battlefield. Still, there were always regrets.

As Jade moved up to the chest, three cleared throats derailed Hsi Wu’s thoughts. He and Jade both spun, seeing the three fillies staring at them, Apple Bloom tapping one hoof disapprovingly. “Really, Jade?” Apple Bloom demanded irritably. “Ain’t we taught ya better than showin’ off like that?”

“I wasn’t going to open the chest enough for the tail to escape!” she insisted defensively. “Just enough for Seymour to get a look at it!”

“Hsi Wu is the Sky Demon,” Scootaloo pointed out. “We don’t know what all he’s capable of. What if he can turn himself into mist and hide himself in someone’s pocket? Or remotely turn his tail into mist and summon it to him once it has a way to him?”

...mental note: find out if I can actually do that, Hsi Wu thought to himself.

“Wouldn’t he have done so by now if he could?” Jade pointed out. “Like, to escape without losing his tail?”

“We caught him off guard, and the flute was weakening him,” Apple Bloom countered. “At full strength and with preparation, he might be able to make it rain frogs fer all we know...or sic Sharknados on us!”

...also find out what a sharknado is, that sounds ridiculously awesome.

“But-”

“Jade, I know you just want to impress the new boy and make a new friend,” Sweetie Belle interrupted. “But when we took you on as our student, there was an understanding. You aren’t just a kid anymore. You have to take responsibility for the magic you’re learning, and the magic you interact with.” Jade lowered her head. “So why don’t you go look up a spatial binding spell so we can keep the tail within the chest even with the lid up? Then we can let your new friend see it.”

Jade’s eyes lit up. “I’ll get right on that!”

“In the meantime, we’ll talk with Seymour upstairs, okay?” Sweetie offered. “Maybe we can find something a little less dangerous for all of us to do.”

As Jade raced off to the library, Seymour obediently followed the three Qi Lin upstairs, doing his best to maintain a properly awed expression at being in the presence of such magically potent creatures. It wasn’t that difficult.

When a door slammed behind him and he found himself standing in a runic circle he didn’t recognize with a massive venus fly trap based plant monster staring down at him, he began to regret not taking better precautions.

Apple Bloom stomped her hoof at the edge of the circle, and it glowed with an orange light, filling the air with the scent of apples. “What’s your opinion of Jade?” she asked calmly.

“She seems really interesting,” Hsi Wu responded immediately. “A really quick mind, very clever, and very intense. It would be really enjoyable to spend more time with her and get to know her better. I haven’t met anyone like her in hundreds of years-” He bit his lip. Why did he say that last part?

“What’s your name?” Apple Bloom asked.

“Hsi Wu-” Hsi bit his lip again, then tried to force out the other name. “I mean, Hsi Wu-” His eyes widened. “What did you do to me?”

“Harmony Circle of Honesty,” Apple Bloom answered immediately. “It links two beings through it, making it impossible for them to lie. Lots more efficient than other interrogation methods.”

As Apple Bloom stepped back, the circle dimmed. “So now what?” Hsi Wu demanded angrily, shifting his hands towards claws. Any magic would take too long to gather in this confined space, so he would have to rely on brute power and hope he didn’t take too much damage from striking good magic creatures.

“We have a proposition for you,” Sweetie Belle offered sweetly. “Put your claws away, and we’ll talk civilized.”

Seeing the good magic charged vines of the plant beast slithering his way, he replaced his human form. “Go on.”

“Jade has a hard time making friends,” Scootaloo began. “Probably because of all the magic we’re involved with, among other things. But you seem to be on good terms with her.”

“You know I did that just to get my tail,” Hsi Wu pointed out dryly.

“Accordin’ to the circle, ya like hangin’ with her regardless,” Apple Bloom countered.

Hsi Wu ground his teeth, but said nothing. His interest in Jade beyond the immediate concerns was not something he’d wanted potential enemies to know.

“There’s a Spring Dance coming up at the school,” Sweetie Belle continued. “Jade wants to go, not that she’ll admit it. We’d like her to go too, just so she can have a bit of normal. So here’s the deal. You be her friend, spend time with her, take her to the dance, and make sure she has a good time. Take no hostile action against us or the world until then. In exchange, we return your tail with no spells on it.”

“And how do I know you’ll keep your word?” Hsi demanded irritably. “Or that I’ll keep mine?”

“Because we’ll swear it with the Circle active,” Apple Bloom answered readily. “It’ll bind us all to the promise.”

Hsi Wu frowned. He didn’t like trusting magic he didn’t fully understand. “...and if I refuse?”

“Then we’ll feed you to Audrey,” Scootaloo responded immediately, gesturing to the now grinning plant beast. “You’ll end up stored immobile in his stomach dimension where you’ll be slowly digested by good magic charged stomach acid to provide him with energy over the course of 1000 years.”

Hsi Wu raised an eyebrow. “He doesn’t look part Sarlacc,” he pointed out dryly.

The three fillies shot wide grins at each other. Sweetie Belle then turned back to Hsi Wu. “Well? Do you accept the deal?”

Hsi Wu shrugged. “It’s not like I have a choice,” he responded gruffly. Inside, however, he was actually quite pleased. These opponents proved just as capable as he’d hoped, to have already outmaneuvered him to this extent. Not only that, the binding promises would actually give him an umbrella of safe activity, since being bound to not do harm would mean magical authorities couldn’t take action against him. He would have plenty of time to prepare.

Grinning, the three fillies stepped up to the circle. They placed their hooves on it, and it once more glowed orange with the scent of apples. Script took shape in the air between them, detailing the discussed oaths and no more. “Repeat after us,” Apple Bloom instructed.

“Cross my heart, hope to fly,” they intoned together, making motions with their hooves to indicate what they stated, “stick a cupcake in my eye.”

Hsi Wu shivered. Somehow, that promise held a great deal of power behind it, a power he couldn’t quite grasp. He made a mental note not to even try to break the promise. “Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.” As he spoke, he used his hands to mimic the motions.

The magic of the circle sunk in, binding all four. “Now let’s see what progress Jade’s made on that spatial binding spell!” Sweetie declared eagerly before the three fillies raced for the door.

Hsi Wu shivered a bit, but quickly followed. This was going to be quite challenging...he could hardly wait!

Wings Settling

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Hsi Wu was somewhat unnerved that Audrey decided to follow him down the stairs, but was pretty certain the plant wouldn't attempt to eat him unless he broke his promise. As he had no intention of doing that, he did his best to ignore it as he raced down after the fillies and back into the chamber with the chest...where Jade had already lifted the lid, glowing runes marking the spatial binding spell she'd crafted. Hsi Wu could already see his tail bumping curiously against the wall of pure force that kept it from escaping, or even sensing his presence. "So how'd I do?" Jade asked eagerly.

"We're going to have to dock points because you opened the chest without letting us check the spell first," Scootaloo pointed out dryly.

"Aw, come on!" Jade complained bitterly.

"Potion mix seems good," Apple Bloom observed as she sniffed at the runes. "Nothin' unneeded mixed in, proportions about right..."

Sweetie's eyes glowed as she examined the magic. "Got the spell just right! Good job overall. It's safe for viewing, as long as no one touches the chest or spell wall."

"Why?" Jade asked curiously. "What happens if they do?"

"They'll leave fingerprints and we'll get in trouble," Scootaloo teased, causing all four girls to burst into giggles.

Hsi Wu approached carefully to get a good look at the tail. He seriously doubted fingerprints were a concern, but it did give him an excuse to not expose himself by touching good magic. It was still frustrating to see his tail so close but completely out of reach. After all, if he managed to acquire his tail through deception without causing any harm before the dance, one could assume the oath would be null and void. ...not that he'd break it even if it did work like that. He made a promise and he intended to keep it. He just loved finding loopholes too much not to try. "That is so cool," he murmured appreciatively to Jade, ready to start buttering her up towards friendship.

"I know, right?" Jade responded eagerly. After watching the tail wriggle around for a time, she closed the lid. "Pity there isn't really much else like that to show you..."

"Well, what do you do for fun around here?" Hsi Wu asked curiously, ready to start bonding.

"Feed me!" Audrey suddenly sang out.

Hsi Wu blinked. "Uh...what does he eat?"

"Feed me!"

"Just about anything," Scootaloo answered readily.

"Feed me!"

"But mostly the flesh of our enemies!" Sweetie Belle piped up happily, making Hsi Wu shiver slightly.

"Feed me, Seymour!" Audrey sang to Hsi Wu.

Apple Bloom turned a fisheye gaze Audrey's way. "Ya been waitin' a long time ta say that, ain't ya?"

Audrey shrugged, a huge grin on his bulb.

"How come you didn't make that joke when you met him upstairs?" Scootaloo asked curiously.

"If I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it right!" Audrey sang back.

"Wait, you took Seymour upstairs to introduce him to Audrey?" Jade demanded petulantly. "Geeze, girls, I expect that kind of thing from Jackie if I bring home a boyfriend! Don't you think that was a little overboard? What if you'd scared him away?"

"Then you could blame us for it, instead of getting depressed when he fled after getting to know you!" Sweetie Belle teased playfully.

"Why you!" Jade yelled, lunging for Sweetie as she raced up the stairs, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo quickly following. Not knowing what else to do, Hsi Wu followed along after them.

The path led up to the third floor, a chamber that still looked like it had grown rather than having been built. There was one large bed, an attached bathroom, a huge television, several game systems, bookshelves full of books, and an open chest full of games. Jade and Sweetie Belle were attacking each other with pillows when he got there.

Noticing his staring, Scootaloo grinned. "This is the guest room," she explained, "though we use it as the game room when we don't have a guest."

"Very nice," Hsi Wu purred as he looked around. Walking over to the chest, he looked through it until he spotted something he'd observed from within the Netherrealm, having always wanted to try it. "Can we play this?" he asked, pulling out the Dungeons and Dragons box set.

All four girls stopped and turned towards him. "Well, that does take a bit to set up..." Apple Bloom observed idly.

"Good reason for me to keep coming back?" Hsi Wu offered playfully.

"Let's see what you're made of!" Jade insisted as she grabbed the box and popped it open. "So who's dungeon master?"

"I'll do it!" Sweetie Belle insisted. "I've got the rules memorized."

"So what rules do you play by?" Hsi Wu asked as he flipped through the papers he was handed to make his character.

"We actually have our own set," Apple Bloom explained, pointed to a sheaf of documents. "We like to get creative."

Hsi Wu glanced through the rules packet before grinning. "I'm liking this 'Elementalist' class," he purred softly. "I can choose either to be a master of an element or be able to summon Elementals related to my level."

"Yeah, that's a fun one once it's leveled," Scootaloo agreed. "Especially the way we play. We don't stick to the core Elements. It's whatever Elements the DM says."

"So...does that mean I could summon Periodic Elementals?" Hsi Wu asked Sweetie Belle ingratiatingly.

"Science textbook stays in the backpack!" Sweetie snapped back, making the entire group laugh.

Once the characters were ready, Jade noticed something on the board. "What's this 'enhanced mode'?" she asked curiously, pointing to a labeled crystal embedded in the cardboard. "It's new."

"Let's find out!" Scootaloo declared eagerly, reaching over and twisting the crystal until it read '1 hour'.

The entire room blazed with light.


An hour later, the group popped back out of the game, looking somewhat breathless but all grinning ear to ear. "That...was...awesome!" Scootaloo squealed excitedly. "We actually became our characters inside the game world! We have to do that again next session!"

"Becoming the Dungeon Master is trippy," Sweetie Belle murmured thoughtfully as she rubbed her head. "It was like being everywhere and nowhere all at once..."

"Well, I think we've had enough of that for now," Jade murmured, putting the board away. "Time to veg out some. What do you want to watch, Seymour?"

Hsi Wu shook his head, resettling himself in his human body. "Well...actually, there's something Scootaloo mentioned earlier I was wondering about. What's a...sharknado?"

All four girls turned to stare at him. "Where have you been the past few years that you haven't heard of it?" Jade asked intently. "It's been all over SyFy and cable!"

Hsi Wu thought quickly. "I only just moved here, and I didn't have cable where I used to live."

"Damn, that sucks," Jade murmured sympathetically. She then grinned widely. "In that case, you're in for a treat!" Turning on the TV, she called up the movies in question.

Hsi Wu sat back, curious to see what human ingenuity had in store for him.

Other Wings

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The next several days passed relatively peacefully in San Francisco. 'Seymour' continued to spend time with Jade and the fillies, enjoying the antics they got up to - both well behaved and prankish - while studying all the more about the modern world and seeing what he could adapt to his magic. Valmont waited for contact from Hsi Wu before engaging the next stage of Demon release to avoid drawing undue attention to him at the wrong moment. And without further activity in that regard, urgency somewhat subsided in the city.

However, the interest in the antics of the Brotherhood wasn't limited to one city, or those directly connected. Higher powers were concerned with the events, and had selected agents to perform their own investigation in that regard. As a result, a hypersonic VTOL private plane was en route to San Francisco from New York, moving almost completely silently on the most advanced magitek engines available. The plane piloted itself, and had only two passengers.

One was an older man with dark brown hair, mustache, and beard, dressed in a plain blue shirt, grey slacks, and a grey jacket. He sat in an exceptionally comfortable chair sipping a glass of something deliciously expensive as he let his brown eyes shift between his company's latest financial report, a book he was reading for pleasure, reviewing the written instructions he had received for this trip, and his travelling companion who was pacing back and forth. "You know you can take a seat and relax, don't you?" he pointed out urbanely, his calm voice exquisitely disciplined.

His traveling companion turned towards him, his eyes glowing white. Where the one sitting was plainly human, the one pacing obviously wasn't. Clad in only a long loincloth and belt, he bore a passing resemblance to Hsi Wu's demon form...but where Hsi Wu was wizened, this being was anything but. Easily topping eight feet in height with an entire body rippling with thick muscle, at first glance one could easily think he was a statue carved from stone that had somehow come to life...which wasn't far from the truth. The massive bat-like wings on his back continued to shift uncomfortably around his long black hair that hung straight down his back. "You know I do not like being confined," he growled out, his voice deep and gravely, pitched at a tone that sent a pleasant shiver down the spine of anyone listening. Even when plainly angry and uncomfortable, he had the air of a natural leader, much like his companion. "I do not understand why I had to ride."

"And if you could glide from New York to San Francisco in a single night, I would have let you," the man responded readily. "But we're on a tight schedule for this, and we both have reasons why we'd want to be there and back sooner rather than later, don't we?"

The gargoyle turned his face away and returned to his pacing. "I do not understand why you insisted I come with you, Xanatos," he declared irritably. "You have no need of my protection."

"On this trip I actually have no need of protection, Goliath," Xanatos responded calmly. "What I do need is magical assistance from someone I trust and respect who is not bound to me, and assistance from a legal representation." He gave his companion a firm look. "While not a police officer, you are an officially sponsored mystic vigilante."

Goliath merely grunted in response to the comment about his legal status. "You trust me?" he mused curiously.

"Of course I do," Xanatos responded immediately. "You're painfully honorable, a genuinely decent person, and have an excess of compassion despite your form giving you natural inclinations towards viciousness in battle. Despite our professional clashes, when going into an unknown situation there's no one I'd rather have at my back."

Goliath stared at Xanatos for a time, surprised. After a time, he crossed his arms. "I admit you've been easier to deal with since you became a parent. I can certainly respect you, even if I still only trust you as far as I can throw you."

"I've seen your throwing arm," Xanatos teased with a chuckle. "I'll take that as a high compliment."

Goliath rolled his eyes. "My only interest is the report of a gargoyle sighted in San Francisco by day," he murmured softly. "I'll let you deal with the rest."

"As you will," Xanatos allowed, returning to his papers.

It wasn't long after that when the jet came to a halt in the San Francisco skyline in the middle of the night. It came down perfectly on a helipad at the top of Valmont's building, not even disturbing a single piece of paper. Valmont himself waited at the roof access, having known who was approaching. "David," he called out gently as Xanatos approached. "It's been a long time, my friend."

"I've been busy, V," Xanatos responded, clasping forearms with the man. "Among other things, I'm a father now."

"So I've heard," Valmont confirmed. "Did you receive my gift?"

"Well chosen," Xanatos agreed. "You always did have good taste."

Valmont glanced up as Goliath approached. "And who's this?"

"This is Goliath," Xanatos introduced. "An associate of mine."

Valmont smirked.

"Yes, our relationship was somewhat adversarial early on," Xanatos admitted with a chuckle. "Make all the jokes you want."

"I don't need to," Valmont allowed. "Welcome, Goliath. Do you need anything special for your stay here?"

"Merely a space of roof for while the sun is above the horizon," Goliath responded simply. "Until then, the answers Xanatos sought."

"About that, David," Valmont commented, turning back to Xanatos. "Your message said you needed to discuss something with me, but I still don't know what."

Xanatos shrugged. "I've been getting pressure from my father-in-law," he explained, a simple sentence that immediately made Valmont tense. "He wants me to investigate whoever's behind the release of the Demon Brotherhood, to make sure whoever's behind it isn't some fanatic and actually knows what they're doing. I figured since Shendu first arose here in San Francisco recently, you'd know who was behind it if you weren't involved yourself."

Valmont chuckled nervously. "About that-" His words were cut off as he heard the roof access open.

"Why aren't you in bed with me, Valmont?" Bai Tza purred as she stepped sleepily onto the roof, still shadowed from sight. "Is this meeting really so important?"

Xanatos raised an eyebrow at Valmont's flush. "And you used to tease me about 'falling for love's trap'."

Valmont shrugged. "I guess I just had to find the right woman." He beckoned Bai out onto the roof. "Dear, this is my old friend David Xanatos. I told you he was coming today."

"I didn't expect 'today' to mean 'just after midnight," Bai grumbled a bit petulantly. She then stepped out of the shadows with a smile as water solidifed over her body into a thin kimono. "Charmed," she murmured softly as she held out a hand.

David accepted the hand and bent to kiss it. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Bai Tza," he greeted, having deduced her identity. "Your words explain my friend's involvement, and the rest explain how you were the woman who finally trapped him in love. I must say, though the legends told of your skill, power, and ruthlessness, they represented but a poor shadow of your beauty."

"There's two of you now?" Bai Tza suddenly asked Valmont.

Valmont and Xanatos both chuckled. "I'll take that as a compliment," they stated in stereo.

Noticing Bai's speculative look Xanatos' way, Valmont chuckled. "He's happily married, dear," he pointed out dryly.

"Such a pity," Bai murmured, making Xanatos chuckle nervously.

Wings Rustling

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It didn't take long for Hsi Wu to become 'settled' as Seymour, and the routine that came with it. Enrolling himself at the school was beyond his resources, so he only appeared there during recess to talk to Jade and drive off any kids - like Drew - giving her a hard time. If a teacher asked what class he was with, he would respond that he had only moved here recently and wasn't enrolled yet, and was there to get a sense of where everything was and to try and make friends before he started classes. Most teachers accepted this and let him hang out as long as he left once recess ended. Some told him he didn't belong on school grounds if he wasn't enrolled...which led to him pretending to leave, only to drop back in from a tree, much to Jade's amusement.

It amazed Hsi Wu how readily he was bonding with Jade as a friend, her and the fillies that had trapped him in his promise. Admittedly, at the start he'd only intended to play along so he could keep his promise and get his tail, but the more time he spent with Jade the more common ground he found. He actually found himself enjoying the time he spent with her, and as much as he wanted to blame the invading mentality of his disguise for that, he knew it was because he'd kept letting more and more of his true self into his disguise, and that clicked with Jade far too easily. The same mischievous nature, the same desire to endlessly prove oneself against greater and greater challenges, the same hunger for thrills, the same stubborn willfulness...

This was not to say they always got along perfectly. One campaign session had led to an intensely heated debate between the pair of them regarding the meaning of alignments that got so loud the old chi wizard had stepped in to tell them to be quiet, since they were disturbing his research. The debate had gotten Hsi so wound up he'd had to step into the bathroom and splash his face, reminding himself firmly that Jade was 11 and he wasn't, no matter what his body said at the moment. Just because he considered himself Chaotic Evil didn't mean he didn't have standards and a sense of decorum...which had oddly enough been the source of the debate, since basing a character that way had made Jade insist said character should be Chaotic Neutral.

Once he'd calmed himself down, Hsi had gone back out and played, and no one had said anything...but he remembered the incident. That fire inside her...it was something he enjoyed seeing. Whether he could believe it or not...he thought of Jade as his friend, and he enjoyed their friendship.

Not that he'd let that get in the way once the time came to unleash his power against them and beat them down into submission until their only option was being magically bound to him. There was nothing personal there, it was just challenge and honor. He'd certainly be sure to treat them well after the fact, though. He wouldn't be a good friend if he did otherwise.

Today the group had decided to forgo another Dungeons and Dragons session in favor of a simpler game, and another one that Hsi Wu found right up his alley...Risk. He idly noted the girls marveling over the rules governing the use of various magic within the game, as well as the fact they had to choose a 'faction' to play. He had to suppress his chuckle as he wound up playing the 'Sky' faction, as appropriate as it was. Apple Bloom chose 'Earth', Scootaloo chose 'Thunder', Sweetie Belle chose 'Water', and Jade chose 'Moon'. It made for a fun and interesting challenge for Hsi as they played, unleashing magic and armies against each other in the attempt to claim the entire world.

After a rather intense round was eventually declared a draw because Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo were bored of watching Seymour and Jade constantly maneuvering each other back and forth across the board, the group was taking a break to enjoy some snacks and drinks as they relaxed and Scootaloo picked out another game. As Hsi took a drink, Jade suddenly hopped down from her seat. "I just remembered!" With that shout, she dashed out of the room.

Hsi glanced towards the fillies in confusion. Apple Bloom shrugged. Sweetie Belle smiled mysteriously. Scootaloo was stifling giggles.

Jade rushed back in, a pair of charms on string in her hands, two halves of a Taijitu coin. "I made this for us," Jade explained as she came up to Hsi. "I've never had a friend as close as you outside of family. We...complete each other." Slipping the Yang around her own neck, she pushed the Yin down over Hsi's head. "Or...something like that."

Hsi brought his hand up to the charm, staring at it. "T...thanks," he finally managed to say, confused about the flushed warmth in his cheeks. "The...feeling's mutual."

Though it galled his pride to admit it...it was true. This was the first time in his life he'd spent enough time with someone outside his 'family' to really get to know them, unless it was part of actively trying to kill him. For the first time in his life, he was learning what it meant to have a friend...and he didn't know what to make of it. And this stupid, simplistic, impulsive gift with barely any value...why was he cradling it more gently and carefully then he had the most fragile of gems in his treasure hoard?

He glanced away from the charm, trying to gather his thoughts...and caught the fillies and Audrey staring at him pointedly. He realized this was the perfect time to complete the second part of his promise for his tail, as long as he could get the words out. "Say, Jade..."

"Yeah?" Jade asked curiously.

"I...heard there was a Spring Dance coming up..." he began awkwardly. "I...I know it's for your school, so I'm not invited anyway, but...I mean..." He bit his lip as he stumbled over his words. Curse this pre-teen tongue! I am a centuries old demon sorcerer! I have worked spells that have made the world shake and bend to my whim, that have overturned countries, that have threatened Gods! Why is it so Brothers-damned difficult to ask out a chit of a human girl?

Jade giggled softly before taking pity on his awkward state. "Seymour...are you trying to ask me to the dance?"

"Y...yeah," Hsi stammered out, much to his frustration. "Not doing a very good job of it, am I?"

"Not so bad for a first attempt," Jade replied playfully. "Especially since I'm saying yes."

Hsi Wu couldn't stop the smile coming to his face, or the warmth in his chest...no matter how frustrating it was to figure out why.

Wings Folding

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Bai Tza stared curiously at Valmont and Xanatos as they sat across from each other at the table, simply staring and smiling. The initial meeting and discussion between the pair had been interesting to say the least, confusing to say the most. Xanatos had asked Valmont a few business questions, Valmont had given in depth non-answers, and the most specific discussion that never actually said anything that Bai Tza had ever heard occurred. The discussion eventually ended, and both seemed satisfied with the result. She had made a mental note to ask Tso Lan later if he could explain what had happened to her.

As for now, Xanatos was ready to head back to New York and inform 'Big O' - whoever that was - that there was nothing here to be concerned about, but first he wanted to face Valmont once more in their own special brand of chess. This apparently involved setting up the chess board, sitting to either side...and then staring at each other for anywhere from half an hour to two hours with a smile until one or the other reached out and tipped their king over and declared a good game. They seemed to enjoy it, but she wasn't entirely certain what they were doing.

As such, she was rather pleased for the distraction when she felt the air around her shift, an old signal Hsi Wu had developed for when he wanted to talk privately with her without getting the attention of their other siblings. She was surprised that Valmont didn't even take his eyes off Xanatos as she got up to leave, but he did wave happily in her direction without looking away from his 'game', so she wasn't too put out. Instead, she made her way to the nearest balcony where she knew she'd find her Brother of Sky waiting for her.

When she saw the form he'd taken, however, she nearly lost her composure. "...you're adorable!" she finally squeaked out.

"Can you please not make this any more awkward for me than it already is?" Hsi Wu demanded as he braced his human form on the balcony railing, preferring to perch like a demon even if he was human at the moment.

"I hope you didn't fly up here," Bai warned. "Valmont has a guest, and he brought a Gargoyle as backup."

"European or Oriental?" Hsi asked incisively.

"European."

Hsi shivered. "Most of the world's forgotten they came into existence as Wild Magic's answer to creatures like us. I wonder if Valmont's guest remembers?"

"He hasn't said anything, but I'd bet he knows," Bai confirmed. "Now, why did you call me out here, anyway? Somehow I doubt it was to talk about Gargoyles..." She grinned impishly. "Even if you did base your demon form off them out of a strange respect for the threat they posed."

Hsi Wu glanced down off the edge of the balcony and murmured something under his breath.

"What was that?" Bai asked, leaning in closer. "I couldn't hear you."

"I need you to teach me how to dance, okay?" Hsi snapped out, his human cheeks flushed. "...and curse this human form for not hiding my emotional state well!"

Bai burst into a wicked giggle. "Dance lessons? Hsi, just what are you playing at? Between staying human and asking me privately, I'd almost think you had a date..." Her voice trailed off as her eyes locked on the Yin pendant he was wearing. "...oh my gosh, you do, don't you?"

"Shut up!" Hsi snapped angrily, his cheeks burning. "I'm only going through with it because the blasted ponies have my tail trapped and invoked The Promise to bind me to get it back. I don't want War's Child haunting my dreams or worse!"

Bai Tza shivered violently. "No one does," she murmured worriedly. "Why did you agree?"

"It was either that or get fed to their plant for Sarlacc-style digestion."

"...huh?"

Hsi Wu frowned up at Bai in irritation. "You of all of us should remember those movies. I went to a lot of effort to hold a wall breach long enough for us to watch the whole thing."

"Oh, sorry," Bai apologized. "I was too busy drooling over Harrison Ford to pay attention to fake magic."

Hsi Wu groaned and rubbed his head. "Look, can you just teach me to dance? The Spring Dance is only in a few days, and I still need to figure out a good plan to make sure Jade has a good time."

"Maybe I could help with that?" Bai suggested. "I'm sure Valmont would love to set some things up to create a huge gaffe for Section 13 and the Chans while giving Jade a good laugh-"

"No!" Hsi Wu snapped out. "Definitely not! The whole reason those girls wanted me to do this was to give Jade some normal! How is that anywhere even close to normal?"

"...for her?" Bai offered helpfully.

"I'm trying to give her a fun night away from that!" Hsi growled, throwing his hands into the air angrily.

Bai stared at Hsi Wu for several moments. "...you actually care about her, don't you?"

Hsi Wu said nothing, turning away and mentally cursing his flaming cheeks.

Bai let out a happy squeal. "Oh my gosh! My little brother has his first crush!"

"Little brother?" Hsi snapped out angrily. "I'm a century older than you!"

"Not like this you aren't," Bai teased, ruffling his hair.

Hsi made a very rude sound in the back of his throat. "A pox on all females," he growled irritably.

"Already exists," Bai responded curtly. "It's called PMS these days."

"And here I thought that was a pox on men for having to deal with that?" Hsi offered teasingly.

"Turn human for a month and try it, then see what you have to say."

Hsi Wu visibly recoiled. "Lord Maou forbid!"

"Do you want those dance lessons or not?" Bai demanded curtly.

"...yes please," Hsi Wu offered apologetically.

Bai nodded, pulling her brother onto the balcony. "You're lucky this balcony's big enough. Otherwise, I'd have to bring you inside for lessons, and then Xiao and Tso would hear about this. Now, follow my lead..."

Wings Descending

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When Viper learned that Jade had a date for the school dance, she immediately threw herself into helping her get ready, springing for a full dance outfit out of her own pocket. She had been confused when Jade had insisted on green, but had to admit that the young girl pulled the color off well. She'd been even more confused that Jade's date was apparently meeting Jade at the dance rather than at the shop to pick her up. Jade's explanation that he was skipping being grilled by the 'parents' as he'd already been grilled by the 'siblings', however, gave Viper a good laugh of understanding and led her to accepting the suggestion.

As such, Jade now stood nervously in the school gym where the dance was being held, waiting for Seymour to show up. She wore a green, Chinese-style dress that hung snugly over her body, leaving her legs free for dancing. There was a black and white Yin-Yang inscribed over her chest, matching the pendant she still wore. Her only makeup was a green lip gloss that almost seemed to glow faintly in certain lights. She hadn't bothered to do anything with her hair, deciding to keep it to her usual style.

She was unsurprised that Drew of all people came up to her. Disappointed, but unsurprised. "So where's your date, Jade?" he asked teasingly. He made a show of looking around. "Or is the 'ninja' invisible?" He - and a few kids nearby - laughed.

"Buzz off, Drew," Jade growled irritably, not willing to engage with him here.

"What'sa matter, Jade?" Drew taunted. "Can't admit-" His voice cut off as something pressed against his throat, something that felt sharp and glittered in the darkness.

"Is this one causing you trouble, Ojou-sama?" a cruel voice asked softly.

Jade smirked as Drew managed to wiggle out of the grip and run for it, plainly heading for a teacher. Seymour, meanwhile, pulled off his ninja mask and dropped the 'blade' into a nearby punch bowl, where it fell apart into oddly shaped ice cubes. "Nice one, Seymour!" Jade praised with a grin.

"And no evidence left, like a true ninja," 'Seymour' agreed playfully. He tucked the mask into his belt, the rest of his ninja outfit still enough for a school dance. He then offered his hand. "Shall we dance, my lady?" he asked warmly.

With a wide smile, Jade accepted the offered hand.


Hsi Wu could tell that Jade enjoyed the dance immensely. When the first song with the right beat for it began to play, he'd led her into the waltz that Bai Tza had told him was most appropriate for ballroom dancing at 'their' age group. When the songs turned less traditional, the dancing became more along the lines of 'club dancing', though without the more adult moves that older teenagers would utilize as part of modern 'courtship'. Hsi Wu was able to keep up, but Jade was far more natural on the floor. If not for the switch to a slow song, she'd have easily danced him under the table...but she was happy to put her arms around him to sway back and forth to the slow dance.

After that, Hsi had noticed that Jade's interest in dancing - and the dance in general - had started to wane, so he took action to help her enjoy it further. A few harmless pranks that got a few people excited filled Jade with giggles, and slight escalation turned it to wicked laughter. After making certain her shoes lacked heels - and thus could comfortably be run in - he'd capped off the evening by making a tiered cake - part of the refreshments - explode all over Drew and the teachers he was trying to convince that he'd been attacked with a knife that apparently no longer existed. Hsi and Jade had run out of the gym and off school grounds laughing gaily together.

As they approached the shop, Hsi knew the night was at an end. Though he heard flute music coming from an upper window as they approached, he pushed past it to end the night on a high note...until Jade stopped him at the door. "Wait here," she whispered softly. "I have something for you." With that, she ducked into the shop, carefully evading the attention of the adults present.

Hsi waited calmly, wondering what Jade could have planned. He idly considered several possibilities...all of them flying right out the window as Jade came back out clutching his wriggling tail. "Here you go, Hsi," she spoke softly. "No spells on it, as promised."

Hsi stared, completely dumbfounded as he took his tail. It wriggled around a bit before reabsorbing into his body, attaching itself in the right place on his true form when he eventually resumed it. "You...knew?" he asked, stunned.

"I guessed," Jade responded. "While my cousins certainly would have gone with the 'intimidate the new friend' route - heck, they pulled it on me when we first met - the only way they'd bring in Audrey is if they thought Dark Magic was involved. The way you carefully avoided touching them or Audrey every time you were over - and always waited patiently to be invited in - told me you were probably a demon. After that, I confronted the girls about it, and they told me the whole story."

Hsi blinked slowly, trying to parse through what she was saying. "You're...not mad?"

"With them? Nah!" Jade waved her hand dismissively. "They were just trying to do something nice for me. And why would I be mad with you? Sure, you didn't use your real name or face...but the friendship, and the things it was based on? That was all genuine."

Hsi smiled softly. "Indeed it was," he agreed softly. "Though...I guess that might make things awkward here?"

"Only if I decide to make up a story involving Shakespearean references and whatever might have happened to tell Uncle Jackie," Jade countered teasingly. "This was just an outing between friends."

Hsi chuckled quietly. "If we'd met seven years from now, the story might not have been made up," he offered gently. "I like you, Jade. It's been a long time since I met anyone like you, and I look forward to further interactions...especially after our conflict is resolved."

"Conflict?" Jade asked in surprise.

"You made me give up a piece of my tail, and you're aligned against the Demon Brotherhood," Hsi Wu explained. "I'm honor bound to do all in my power to lay waste to your works, drag you to your lowest, and either destroy you or compel you to bind yourself in magical servitude to me, you and all you care for and who cares for you." He smiled disarmingly. "But since we're friends, I'll wait till sunrise before I start...and I'll be sure to treat you well when I succeed."

Jade burst into laughter at just how absurd his statement sounded. "And what if I win?" she asked teasingly. "Does that mean you'll bind yourself in magical servitude to me and those I care for?"

Hsi Wu scratched his chin thoughtfully. "...yes, I will," he promised. "Either way, we'll have a long time to enjoy a fulfilling friendship. You'll either be my servant, or I'll be your familiar."

"Good." With that said, Jade stepped up to Hsi Wu, lifted herself up on her toes as she cupped his cheeks in her hands, and planted a gentle kiss on his forehead. He found his cheeks flushing as the spot tingled oddly, an effect he cursed as his human form starting to assault him with hormones. "I suppose whatever I say next will be the last thing I say to you before you start hunting me."

Hsi Wu nodded slowly. "I hate long, mushy goodbyes, though...so how about keeping it to 20 words or less?" They both giggled, enjoying the reference to the show the group had enjoyed watching the most.

"Well here's the thing, Hsi Wu," Jade spoke up, her voice getting softer as she leaned towards him, until her lips were right by his ear. He shivered as he felt her breath on his skin. "I never promised to wait until morning." His eyes widened in shock as she spoke again, the flute music suddenly shifting to match the cadence of her words. "Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao."

As the flute continued the rhythm of the words, Hsi felt the spot on his forehead suddenly flare with the burning of good chi. He clutched at the door frame as his human form was stripped away, sucked back towards his portal as the spell - now completed - dragged at him. His eyes fell on Jade's traitorous lips, the green glowing faintly. "Your lip gloss...you put the banishment spell in your lip gloss!" he cried out in shock.

Smirking, Jade waved silently to Hsi Wu, as she'd already used up all 20 words.

Hsi Wu began to laugh as his grip on the door, his toe claws digging slightly into the pavement. Deciding to graciously admit defeat, he released the door frame and brought his hands together to slowly applaud as the spell pulled him away and back towards his portal. He was beaten, and most cleverly. He looked forward to seeing what manner of spell Jade and her friends would come up with to pluck him from the Nether Realm and bind him in servitude as her familiar.

One thing is certain, he thought silently as the portal closed around him. It's going to be fun!

Wings Hooded

View Online

"...you want Uncle to help you do what?"

Jade, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo smiled winsomely up at Uncle as they stood around the new magic circle drawn on the floor of what Uncle had come to think of as the girls' Chi Lab. The center of the circle was the traditional demonic binding sigils, with the trigram representing sky - three solid lines - in the center of the seals. An extra circle was drawn around that, much wider than normal, divided into six segments with...odd symbols inside. Viewed from the door into the room, the 12 o'clock point had a large purple star. Clockwise from there was a violet diamond, a magenta lightning bolt, a pale blue balloon, an orange apple, and a pink butterfly.

"We want your help summoning Hsi Wu from the demon netherrealm," Jade explained simply.

Uncle stared at them, nonplussed. "Uncle stayed out of Sky Demon situation because girls said they had it under control. Focused on preparing for other demons. Was happy to learn girls handled banishing of Sky Demon without help, showed good promise. Now girls want help summoning demon in way without banishment? Why? So Jade can have magic boyfriend?" Hsi Wu would likely be nonplussed as well to discover that the only one who'd met 'Seymour' who was actually deceived was Jackie.

"Hsi's not my boyfriend!" Jade snapped out angrily. "He's just a friend!"

"Pfeh!" Uncle countered dismissively. "Say that after seven hormonal years of magic boy waiting on you hand and foot!"

Jade struggled to suppress her blush as Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and even Tohru burst into giggles. "Uncle!"

"Besides, takes more than summoning circle to bind demon as familiar!" Uncle continued. "If demon doesn't agree, can fight to break free, and Demon Sorcerer very powerful! What makes you think Sky Demon agree?"

"Because he already said he'd agree to be bound in magical servitude to me if I beat him," Jade explained, "just as he intended to bind us in servitude to him if he won, but treat us well since we were friends. And I know he'll keep his word." She crossed her arms and blew up one of her hanging bangs. "Whatever he says, he's more Lawful than Chaotic with how important he considers keeping his personal code."

"Now don't start that again!" all three fillies exclaimed simultaneously, making Jade giggle.

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