Embers Fall

by CrimsonWave

First published

A clan of evil electronic music producers go to the desert to wreak some havoc. Hilarity and possible destruction ensues.

Obscurus Noctis is a DJ from Mareami striving to be best in the world; unfortunately, it’s not really working out for her. Obscurus believes her well-deserved spotlight is being constantly stolen by overrated producers putting out songs that are carbon copies of each other with no originality. Her quest for ego intensified, and now she’s going at any length she can to get noticed.

She and her record label Clausula have been trying unconventional means of promoting her music, including most recently, trying to hypnotize everypony in attendance at a major music festival in Las Pegasus so that they'd be unable to escape her music, and believe that the night would never end. After being foiled by a mysterious mare who picked up on clues in her music, and realizing the limits of her reality projection powers, Obscurus began to plot a new plan, which will take her to the Gathering of Embers, a mysterious event in the Neighvada desert held in a city that only exists eight days a year (and is totally not a tribute to Burning Man, I promise!)

This story is a companion to the MLP-themed dance game project TrotMania, specifically TrotMania Euphorius.

Prologue - Dawnfall

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“That Sun Beamer pony just doesn’t get it. He’s blended himself perfectly into the sea of silly looking hoof fluffs, mane extensions, and glowsticks that is the Summer Sun Celebration in Las Pegasus. Not even I, Obscurus Noctis, the 14697th best DJ in the world as determined by that meaningless fan vote Barrelboard always does, have located him. I have one more night, dusk till dawn, to show him what happens when you mess with the wrong mare. I still cannot believe he managed to corroborate the Aeternum Obscurum project from just song titles and lyrics alone. My master plan was to combat the scourge you call 'EDM fanponies', by trapping all of them in a mystical realm where the party never ends, but I'm the only DJ on the entire schedule!"

"I don’t just sign anyone on Clausula Records. You have to have a special talent, just like everypony else in this world. Mine, if you’re not aware, is a form of mind control and hypnosis; it transports victims into a 'projection' of a different world, which I call a "mental reality". They can only escape if they fulfill a specific goal. It's like those funky 'VR' things that are all the rage nowadays, except with no wires, expensive computers, or bulky headsets. This is a particular form of unicorn magic which requires me to be exposed to special tones and rhythms. I can 'encode' different projections into any old track that affects where the victims are taken. If I listen on my headphones, I can do it to just one person. If I crank it up on a festival-grade speaker rigs, I can do this to an entire crowd! However, I’ve found that external stimuli and 'contrasting' music can have a negative impact on the quality and stability of the projections, which might be a potential issue at an event where every single stage is playing something different."

"I'm done with backstories for now, let's get back to the meat and potatoes. Before I go ahead with Project Aeternum Obscurum when I hijack the main stage tonight, I have to find my test subject. Someone has already, ahem, "volunteered" to potentially become my permanent roadie. It’s less fun than it sounds. Two can play at the game of stalking online postings to figure out where somepony is going to be: under his typical screen name of Chaotic Kisol, he announced to the world that he cannot wait for Swedish Horse Mafia and Dream Fractal’s sets tonight. Upon further review, I discovered that they’re on right after each other, at 11pm and Midnight respectively, but on different stages. Said stages happen to be just a short trot away."

“He clearly optimized his schedule to reduce travel times through the crowds while still letting him see his favorites, which gives us a good ambush point in between. I have accounts of the legendary tyrants that plagued our history - the princess of nightmares, the queen of the Changelings, and the boastful magician, among others - encoded in my somewhat-patented mental reality format. There is absolutely no way he’ll be able to escape it: it is as immersive as you’re gonna get from my magic. He’ll have to face challenges that were meant to be faced by a raid party of six, good friends, and it will conclude with the ultimate 1-on-1 battle against one of my favorite historical figures, the lord of Tartarus! The festival may be ending, but your time here won’t. I hope you hate it.”

“When the new day begins, your time is up. Before the dawn, you shall fall.”

"...wait. Did that final line have the flavor of 'cheese' at all?"

2 - Sleepless in Seaddle

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A full moon rose over the city of Seaddle. it was an average night, nothing truly unusual going on, as usual. Unless, however, you factor in a meeting occurring at the headquarters of Clausula Records -- a building near the river which was only an abandoned warehouse about 8 months ago. Why a techno record label needed a whole warehouse is beyond explanation; if it wasn’t for them, it probably would have been turned into a plaza occupied by yet another Seabucks coffee shop. Not that Seabucks isn’t bad, mind you.

“If I could give Operation Aeterrnum Obscurum a grade, I would personally give it a C.” Obscurus Noctis declared, with an obvious beat. “Actually, no, I didn’t give myself a C. It was that Sun Beamer stallion I keep going on and on about.” She continued. “On a related note,. I swear he was also going on about ‘magicals’, ‘radicals’, and ‘full combos’; is this some sort of grading scale for questionable activity? Does he think that this is some sort of game?” she boasted.

“Case in point, the SSC mind control project was good from a conceptual standpoint, but the execution was much to be desired.”

“How’d you get rekt upside the barrel this week?” a white-colored unicorn with a green mane sarcastically asked.
“Excuse me?” Obscurus responded, slightly irked at the arcane choice of words.

“Or in more professional terms, what went wrong?” the pegasus clarified.

“Thank you for using a more conventional style of vocabulary, Train Spot. Anyway, I discovered more limitations to my mental reality spells. Besides the obvious requirement to remain focused on my victims at all times, my unicorn horn is like an antenna, and only has a certain ‘signal strength’.”

“Secondly, my projections do not completely inhibit the movement of those who have succumb to them.” she explained with increasing disappointment. “Tying them down is a bit too barbaric and cliche. Finally, my mental realities are “infused” with the music that I composed and listen to in order to generate them: the reality begins to ‘fade’ like a distant radio station if the victim hears music that ‘counters’ the music I use, or gets too far away.” Obscurus concluded.

“Long story short, that yellow horse who installs effects lighting led me on a wild goose chase,” Obscurus summarized, after briefly facehoofing over her obtuse explanation. “I had to follow him, and he happened to lead me right towards the QTrot stage, where that Dream Fractal pony with the cute little bow was blasting some insane hardcore song that wasn’t cute at all; I like a good hardcore track but not at a time like this.”

“Then presumably after realizing where he really was, he sent me back towards the Solstice Fortress, where some overexcited EDM fanmare knocked one of my earbuds loose, exposing me to some overrated DJ’s overrated music. It made me lose my concentration and as a result, lose my connection to him, allowing him to get away. I think it was that white unicorn with the spiky blue mane and the purple sunglasses.” she continued.

“I’ll give her credit, though; wearing them at night is silly, but the lasers on that stage this year were nearly blinding, and I like my cool goggles. However, the real question is this: WHY IS SHE POPULAR?! HER MUSIC IS JUST THE SAME TRIPE EVERY TIME!” Obscurus blurted in anger, appraising what was clearly her rival (Or someone like that).

“But with different notes and lyrics here and there, of course. My songs are like a good novel; long and full of character. Her songs are just the musical equivalent of a Double Hayburger combo with fries and a soda! It’s all mass-produced trash meant to guarantee a profit through saturation and consumers who know no better!” she concluded, as everypony else expressed their opinions of her ridiculous, yet sensible comparisons.

Spoiler alert: they thought it was funny.

“Okay, I think I went a little too far there, but everypony understands where I’m going, right?” she asked: everypony nodded in agreement. “I also did not mean to offend Train Spot. She’s the one who’s been investigating the how and why these overrated acts are so popular, and proving her findings in the real world.” she affirmed.

“It might be the exact same stuff I’m trying to stop, but at least it’s giving us a stable source of income. No one but us knows that Railyard Records is actually controlled by Clausula. Unless you decipher the 15 different shell companies it’s hidden behind, of course.” Obscurus smirked..

“Let’s get back on subject, though. My ultimate plan was to brainwash these generic EDM fanmares and such, broadcasting propaganda right into their minds that will all but coax them to join our cause.” Obscurus outlined, as the makeshift board room began to fill with energy.

“I want to dismantle the establishment: nowadays, you can pay someone to get your song to the top of the DanceDance top 50 overnight. I prefer the brainwashing method, though. It’s cheaper, and leaves a lasting impression.”

“I don’t usually target SSC Las Pegasus because they’ve always been pretty open to genres that haven’t been overrun by overrated producers. Their fans are only interested in flailing their hooves around whilst wearing silly mane extensions, hoofbands made of ‘candies’, and other stuff. But they’ve changed lately. Then, you’ve also got that horse who calls himself a ‘Chaotic Kisol’, and is living up to his name to our loss of benefit.” Obscurus continued, as everypony roared in approval.

“Nopony should be able to topple us, let alone a lone wolf. I have friends, and he … I’m not sure if he does or not. I don’t know if he’s an EDM fan or if he’s just trying to single me out because I’m probably some evil unicorn.” she continued. “Also, unlike everypony else, who only seemed to know how to hoof-pump and stamp in place, this particular pony was doing actual dances, which I thought were going extinct. Clearly, I know what I’m up against.”

“He also follows me on FluffySound, which is always appreciated.” she happily snickered. “All things considered, while I believe my tactics are proportionately appropriate for the problem at hand, it’s still not enough.”

If that wasn’t enough, what was?

3 - Secrets Lie in the Sacred Sand

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“Do you think Project Euphorius might be sufficiently appropriate and over the line?” another pegasus asked. Obscurus was curious; “I’m not trying to be rude or anything, Wave Rider, but what exactly is Project Euphorius about?”

“Oh, I thought you knew already. It’s something me, Eight Track, and Train Spot have been investigating.” Wave Rider, a dark-magenta-colored pegasus, replied. He galloped towards a laptop and projector, which he almost knocked over with his wings in the process. “Gather around, everypony.”

He opened a map of Neighvada. “This is the Stone’s Throw Desert; it’s about two hours from the city of Reino.” “This little dot right here is the Duskgem Basin. It’s a clearing that hosts a rather interesting event known as the Gathering of Embers.” Wave Rider explained. “It is, apparently, connected to an aspect of the regional heritage.”

“The event is a celebration of unity, creativity, sharing, self-reliance, and light.” Obscurus tapped a hoof in boredom, seemingly awaiting a more casually exciting explanation. “Or, in other words, it’s the most insane week of your life.” Obscurus sprung to life.

“It’s hard to truly define, but it’s got a lot of artsy stuff; cool sculptures, riding around on a bicycle you customized with a bazillion LEDs, some dance game that blasts magical fire at you if you do badly, and so on.” he informed.

“There’s also bands and DJs too; primarily those you approve of, maybe even you. Sometimes they ride around on fancy trucks made to look like a draconequus or some other creature. Plus you camp out under a sky where can actually see the constellations for once. For once, it’s good to be in the middle of nowhere” As a slide show.of photos and videos from previous Gatherings splashed across the wall, Obscurus seemed giddy.

“However, in recent years, it’s been run amok by our enemies.” Wave Rider briefly elaborated.

“Enemies as in the aforementioned fast food musicians and respective ‘fanmares’, right?” Obscurus interjected.

“Yeah. The purists are complaining that it’s attracting ‘parasprites’ that think this is a glorified music festival, and don’t care much about the arts or the event’s principles.” Obscurus was shaking in excitement.

“They’ve also been complaining about the ‘rich parasprites’ who build extravagant campsites with lavish amenities all for themselves. The purists think they’re cheating.” Wave Rider continued. “The Gathering celebrates the flame as something that brings everypony together to ignite a community. It’s represented by a giant, wooden alicorn sculpture they burn on the penultimate night.”

“Perhaps it should also symbolize how their careers are about to go up in smoke.” Obscurus snarked and giggled, in chorus with everypony else.

“Anyway, they say the burning of the ‘blazicorn’ symbolizes a tyrant who tried to ‘bring fire’ to a nearby village; the residents managed to elude it by moving to a shelter community in the Duskgem Basin. It was marked by a massive bonfire seen on the horizon”, he lectured. “They left no trace of their presence. But to celebrate their survival, they vowed to return to that exact location annually to ‘rekindle’ their community, by burning an effigy of the tyrant on the ‘sacred sands’ that kept them safe many years ago.”

“Kind of like Colt Fawkes?” Obscurus pondered.

“I … guess?” Wave Rider replied with uncertainty, “You’re the one who did shows in Trotterham, not me.”

“But, don’t believe what everyone tells you.” Eight Track warned. “2 out of 7 ponies think that particular origin story is a lie. They say the organizers have been re-writing history to justify what this event has become in the modern day. But don’t worry, the Clausula Records family is 100% sure that we can do something there that will make us forever feared. No questions asked.” he boasted. “Oddly enough, Obscurus, what we found may just tie into what you’ve been trying to do with your own powers.”

“Some have said that this cultural event is built around what is actually a ritual for something else. Supposedly, there is a mythical device buried under the desert.” Obscurus and Train Spot let out a gasp.

“It is some form of construct that allegedly controls dimensional stability. But, it is heat powered and it needs to be “refueled” approximately every year by placing a large heat source above its core for a period.” he continued. “The core is, approximately, right below where they traditionally place the blazicorn.”

The construct normally stays in a ‘standby’ state. However, if it is charged with flames above all eight of its conduits at once, it can be boosted to full power mode. In this state, it can be controlled manually, allowing you to ‘bend the reality’ around a localized area.” The science fiction writer in Eight Track seemed to be showing, or was it? “I don’t know exactly how it functions, though. It might be a larger-scale version of the virtual reality thing you were trying to do at that festival.” Now Obscurus was really interested.

“I must warn you that it may just be an urban legend.” Wave Rider disclaimed. “However, our level of confidence is currently at 55%, and Train Spot has been researching this event as a side project.”

Train Spot chimed in as well; “Me and Wave Rider have actually wanted to go to the Gathering for about two years now. When we come back for the fall semester, there’s always a stallion or two at the university that brag about going down to Duskgem to become a follower of the Embers. They always call it ‘coming home’.”

“The purists appear to be quite dedicated” Obscurus commended, as a video from a DJ’s performance at last year’s Gathering played on the projector and speakers. “Regardless of whether we even execute Project Euphorius, I am now legitimately interested.”

But then, she noticed something; “OH MY GOSH HE’S PLAYING ONE OF MY SONGS!” she squealed in excitement. It was common for Obscurus to become extremely flattered when one of her songs pops up on a podcast or radio show (or in this case, a bootleg from the desert).

“Anywho, with that in mind, we need to do some planning. We need to learn when this is, the rules, what we need to bring, if there’s a dress code, how DJs get gigs there, how you even get there to begin with, and so on.” she explained. “We have to learn their commonly-accepted practices. If we’re doing things ‘wrong’, people won’t trust us. You have to be subtle”

“A few of my friends on Ponyhoof have there before. I could ask them questions for you.” Train Spot offered. “Thank you.” Obscurus said. “There are a ton of websites and forums about it too.” Train Spot added. “You’ll be able to find out everything.”

“Good.” Obscurus affirmed. “I also bet you that despite the following it is, the Gathering is probably such an obscure event that the Chaotic one isn’t going to be there, let alone has ever heard of it.” she declared.

“Now, onto our next topic of discussion tonight, Wave Rider told me that he’s got new single to share with us.”

“I sure do. It’s as lit as that wooden alicorn!” He exclaimed, as everypony giggled once more.

4 - Jigsaw Falling Into Place

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It was a humid Monday morning on the outskirts of Las Pegasus. The city’s biggest electronic music festival just ended hours ago, and everypony either had a good sleep, or just wanted to go go to sleep because they stayed up for the closing DJs that play at dawn - the best part of the SSC according to many.

Some do this by choice. But Sun Beamer did so because he got assigned that shift by the concert lighting company he works for, which was contracted to provide services for this excellent event. Then there was the part where he had a run-in with a unicorn trying to use some type of mind control on him. It wasn’t fun, at all. Of course, this was also the unicorn that Sun Beamer thinks has been up to no good in general, so it’s justified. But how could she tell he was trying to expose her?

This mystery would have to be solved later, however. Sun Beamer, with a saddlebag full of his rave clothes in tow, was making his way to Gigantic Gerry’s Truck Stop -- only a short gallop away from the gates of the festival grounds. On the weekend of the SSC, it practically turns into a bus stop, given that the grounds themselves are about 160 furlongs from downtown, only one out of every 2.99999 ponies are pegasi, and some attendees do things there that you really shouldn’t do before driving.

Sun Beamer, on the other hand, was just tired. He slept on his seat at a table in the truck stop’s restaurant, waiting for someone to wake him up with his order of eggs and pancakes. Others were gathered outside, trying to keep the party going with their boomboxes, MP3 players, and miniature dance circles while they waited for the next bus to arrive.

A tough, yet friendly-looking unicorn waitress galloped over to his table, levitating plates of food down onto it. “AH?! DON’T COME ANY CLOSER, OBSCURUS!! “ Sun Beamer overreacted. “I mean … thank you. Sorry, I’ve only been operating on about one and 6 hundredths of an hour of sleep.”

“Lemme guess, that music festival?” the waitress asked.

“Actually, yes. I was on the staff this year. I work for a lighting company and we were running the lasers and stuff. Gotta be careful, don’t wanna shoot an eye out!” Sun Beamer continued, as he started to pick at his eggs.

“Good, good. As long as you had a safe time, I won’t judge you for your musical tastes. I’m trying to get days off for the Country Kerfuffle in September; it’s also at the grounds too.”

“I’ve heard about that one, but only because I think we got the contract for it too.” Sun Beamer replied. “Oh, and by the way, I don’t think the word ‘safe’ is 100% accurate...”

“Really now?” The waitress seemed a bit shocked. “Y’know, strange things were happening last night; a lot of the truckers who stop here were talking about weird things when they came in for their midnight coffee run. Stuff about centaurs and a ‘Princess of Nightmares’ seemed to be common.”

Something about what the waitress said clicked in Sun Beamer’s mind. “...hold on. Wait, actually …uh, think we could talk about this some other time? I don’t want my bacon to get cold.”

“As you wish.” The waitress went back towards the kitchen. These newly-discovered revelations surrounding Obscurus did not ruin Sun Beamer’s appetite -- it only made him hungry for more.

5 - A Truck Stop Tale

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Sun Beamer considered the implications of these new reports; he began wondering whether Obscurus even knew how her “mind controlling magic” worked in the first place. Obviously, it had to involve something that a seemingly-typical unicorn could do. There had to be an explanation of why other ponies knew about the things he saw. But why truckers?

To Sun Beamer, it felt a bit like the virtual reality headset his trusty co-worker Fluorescent Fury had shown him. Except, instead of a phone right in front of your eyes, it was overriding his vision directly somehow. It also seemed staticy, like a radio; what if…? But now was not the time to concoct theories surrounding somepony’s magical unicorn powers. Instead, Sun Beamer made his way towards the front of Gigantic Gerry’s, resisting his urge to buy an expensive sugary snack from its convenience store at 9:00 a.m. in the morning.

He didn’t, however, resist his urge to look at a community board right next to the front doors; it was filled with flyers for various events, including rodeos, something called the “Gathering of Embers”, free princess wings, a fair and demolition derby, and SSC Vanhoover for the first time ever this November? Wait what?!

Sun Beamer took a double take, befuddled at why an event traditionally tied to the Summer Solstice is having a spin-off in the final days of Autumn. “Meh. Guess they want more of that ‘pie’ everyone was telling me about…” he said to himself.

Just as Sun Beamer was finally heading out towards the bus stop outside, he noticed that an excited-looking pegasus -- with a grey and orange mane and a rust-colored coat -- was calling for him from a nearby hallway. “Hey, Chaotic Kisol You were great out there this morning!” she rang with excitement.

The fact that this mare called him “Chaotic Kisol” was a sign of something: she must’ve been a member of his following! Or, at least, someone who follows him on a social networking app where “chaotic_kisol” is his screen name. “It’s Blast Furnace, from ShotGram! That’s my real name too.”

“Oh, now I recognize you! I’m Sun Beamer, by the way.” he greeted. “Though you look a little, er ... punkier than usual.”

Sun Beamer hadn’t seen her with such a stylized mane before; he must’ve missed a post or two.Blast Furnace giggled a bit; “Yeah; I guess that’s a good term for it.”

“On the other hand, I’ve never seen you without all your cyberpunk stuff on before, but it’s not like I can’t tell who you are; that mohawk is unmistakable!” she complimented.

Sun Beamer seemed a little flattered. “Eh, thanks” he replied. ”The company I work for was trying to make us look cooler because we’re suddenly operating all this staging stuff for DJs, so they call themselves Mohawx now. I played along.” Sun Beamer continued. “Then I started getting hooked on rave fashion.” he concluded.

The two began to trot towards the makeshift bus stop outside. “Oh, so you actually work at festivals?” Blast Furnace asked.

“Actually, this was my first. You can just say that we’re getting paid big money to fire lasers at everypony.” They chuckled at the mere concept.

“So yeah, given your fondness for Obscurus Noctis, at least you’re a reasonable follower of electronica.” Blast Furnace noted. “I don’t usually go to the bigger electronic music events nowadays; they’re flooded with mares who goof off in repurposed Nightmare Night costumes, and scream at Hothoof like they’re the little fillies in the front-row seats at an Ephemeral Harmonies concert!”

“Oh my gosh, I hate that band so much! Can’t they just break up already?” Sun Beamer hissed.

“Lest they all go solo.” Blast Furnace snarked; she tended to do that from time to time.

“Also, I don’t think ‘fondness’ is a right word to use to describe my relationship with Obscurus Noctis at this point at time.” Sun Beamer admitted. “I’ll explain that a little later…”

“Oh? I’m sorry…” Blast Furnace apologized for inadvertently reminding her new friend-to-be of certain events that occurred within the past 12 hours.

She continued on; “Anyway, I only went to the SSC this year because me and my cousin are huge fans of Silkshifter and Canterless. They don’t go to the big events often; they tend to prefer more intimate gigs, such as small-town taverns, and the Gathering of Embers. Though I may be a bit biased, given that my-”

“Hold on, Gathering of Embers?” Sun Beamer interjected, recalling what he saw earlier. “I think I saw a flyer for that in the store, but it didn’t say what it was about.” he inquired.

“Okay, as I was saying, I may be a bit biased in bringing the Gathering up, given that my sire and a few of my relatives are heavily involved in it.” Blast Furnace went on.

“So, what is it exactly?” Sun Beamer pondered; “You’ve implied that there’s music involved…”

“Okay, to be honest, it’s actually a little tricky to explain, but I’ll do my best. Envision 23,000 ponies, coming to the middle of nowhere, to camp out in a makeshift city built around a giant, wooden alicorn statue. But if you go there right this second, there is literally nothing there.” she teased. Sun Beamer appeared to be curious.

“It’s like a mirage. Once the Gathering concludes, everypony packs up and leaves. No one is allowed to leave anything behind.”

“When you’re at the Duskgem Basin during the Gathering, it’s a completely different world. One where the only limit is the collective imaginations of its residents. It’s all about being a part of something, a tight-knit community fueled by survival, self-expression and participation.” The pegasus elaborated. “Or in other words, it’s basically an art festival with a very wide definition of ‘art’. Music happens to be one of them.”

“Go on…” Sun Beamer inquired, as the pair of ponies sat on a bench near the bus stop.

“Some campers use their sites to build things like art installations, restaurants, weird stuff, and of course, makeshift music venues, and so on. A lot of underground DJs play here, often for hours at a time. Everything here is decentralized; the camps book the acts and so on. The only thing the overall organizers really do are write the rules and managed some other backend stuff.” Sun Beamer seemed fascinated.

“In the daytime, Duskgem looks like an industrial, post-apocalyptic world. But when the sun goes down, the lights come on -- almost like a more extravagant version of the Summer Sun Celebration.” she explained. Sun Beamer was further impressed that something like this even existed.

“But better, obviously. 95% of the stuff there is brought in by somepony else. Metalworkin’ is my talent, so I tend to craft sculptures over the Summer to bring to the Gathering.” Blast Furnace boasted.

“The organizers, who call themselves the “Embers”, insist that the Gathering is not a ‘festival’, but a model for a society built around the pillars of expression, participation, and unity.” she elaborated. “Fire is commonly used as a motif to represent something that brings everypony together. Kind of like a sentry.” Blast Furnace continued, as Sun Beamer nodded in agreement.

“Of course, nothing brings everypony together more than setting the giant alicorn on fire.” she announced, as Sun Beamer gasped. “Woah, now you’re talking!” Sun Beamer exclaimed.

“It’s practically a bonfire; on the night they do it, it's like waiting for Midnight on New Year’s Eve.” she concluded.

“Okay, where do I sign up? But, more importantly, where even is this?” Sun Beamer queried. “You mentioned a ‘Duskgem Basin’.”

Blast Furnace paused for a moment. “It’s in the Neighvada Desert. You know that city called Reino? Many Followers reign from there, if not San Franciscolt, because it’s only a 3-hour drive under normal circumstances.”

The words “normal circumstances” had an air of uncertainty that Sun Beamer couldn’t quite put his hooves on. “You said you live in Las Pegasus, right? I do too, but I have relatives in Reino.” Blast Furnace acknowledged.

“Oh, okay.” Sun Beamer affirmed. “Given that I’m attending it for my fifth time in a row this year, I could easily help you out.”

“Thanks for the offer.” Sun Beamer exclaimed, as a bus heading for South Las Pegasus pulled in. “Oh, we’ll have to talk about this later, my bus is here.”

“I see.” Blast Furnace confirmed. “Well, you know what social networks I’m on. You’ll have to prepare quickly if you want to come to the Gathering, cause Summer goes by pretty fast around here!”.

“Okay! I’ll keep in touch; thank you!” Sun Beamer hollered as climbed aboard the bus with a crowd of other ponies. He could just overhear Blast Furnace saying “You’re welcome”, as she flew off, as only a pegasus could.

Her exposition posed more questions for Sun Beamer than it answered: how would he get there? What kind of preparations was she alluding to? Are there other key details he should know? Is this event so obscure that Obscurus Noctis would have never heard of it before? What even was Obscurus doing to him? And most importantly, would he even be able to get vacation days off for this Gathering? There was a time and place for these questions, but not now...

blastfurnace mentioned you in a post
ohmygosh I met @the_chaotic_kisol after #SSCLasPegasus this morning! he's actually pretty friendly!

6 - Variances in Production

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Obscurus Noctis stood within a dark crevice of the Clausula warehouse, amongst a large collection of electronics. There were mysterious-looking pianos that dated back to the 1980’s, crammed with switches, buttons, and wires whose functionality would be beyond the knowledge of the unskilled who just wanted to play “Discord”. There was also a new desktop computer that dated back to about 2 weeks ago, fully-loaded with her preferred music production programs.

Welcome to Obscurus’s personal studio, where the musical magic happens. It’s mainly for her, but she lets her colleagues borrow it from time to time. Obscurus always preferred the richer sounds of analog synthesizers over software equivalents, but felt that a digital audio workstation would help her piece things together after dealing with the “hard part”.

Speaking of musical magic, there was a reason why Obscurus suspected that a large number of producers were unicorns: could anypony else operate such finely-tuned instruments with their hooves and/or wings alone? Maybe. She carefully trotted over to the computer to appraise her latest WIP on the stereo system. “Hmm, actually … I’ll probably tweak the sound of this lead synth a bit more in post-production”, she muttered to herself, turning a few knobs with her standard-issue unicorn powers.

Right now, Obscurus was working on a remix of Eight Track’s new song, turning the relatively benign house track into a darker and more foreboding psytrance anthem. It’s been a common stylistic choice for her recently: over the past few months, her music had become just as malevolent as her own persona. Although her loyal fans may think it’s just an act, only a select few knew that this wasn’t just a costume she put on before getting up on the stage.

Although Obscurus invested heavily in her late-model production equipment, she had invested relatively little in sound dampening. “Hey, Obscurus, that remix sounds hot! I could hear it all the way from my dorm!” said Wave Rider, who had just flew up outside the door.

“Thank you, Wave.” Obscurus remarked, before noticing Wave Rider had a rather interesting outfit on. It looked like some type of dark-green flight suit, covered in flickering green LED lights. “Also … what’s that you’re wearing?” she asked.

“I saw the crazy glowing stuff you’ve been wearing on-stage lately, and thought I’d play along.” Wave Rider answered. “Though Train Spot helped me with the finer stuff; it’s really hard to wire up all these diodes with wings and hooves alone.”

“Trust me, it’s not the only thing you’d have trouble with.” Obscurus noted, moving a few more switches around.

“I was testing it out at the festival; it’s a lot more comfortable than it looks.” he continued. “I also made this cool mask thing with integrated fans; trust me, having an air conditioned muzzle was an ingenious idea, given how hot it gets down there in Neighvada for some reason.”

“Foresight is a useful thing.” Obscurus noted.

“The cyberpunk community there was pretty tight-knit too, almost like a family. Everypony was wanting to take pictures with me!” Wave Rider announced.

“Oh, were you indulging in those things everypony else calls a ‘selfie’?” Obscurus asked, with a slightly concerned tone.

“In other words, yes.” Wave Rider declared, whipping out a phone from one of his suit’s conveniently hidden pockets.

He flipped through photos of himself with multiple mares and stallions, each wearing a more ridiculous-looking outfit than the last. “This stallion right here was actually pretty friendly.” Wave Rider noted, bringing up a selfie of himself with a yellow, mohawked Earth stallion wearing black and gray leather padding. “That’s the Chaotic Kisol; we shared some fashion pointers with each other, danced a bit, and so on. It’s cute that we even got matching ma-”

“Wave Rider, you FRATERNIZED with the enemy?!” Obscurus roared.

“Wait, enemy?” Wave Rider asked, feeling a bit puzzled.

“That’s the Sun Beamer horse I was talking about a few days ago. Chaotic Kisol is just his admittedly catchy codename. He’s been trying to expose our plot under the guise of a conspiracy theory.” Obscurus explained. “That was the exact outfit he was wearing on the last night of the SSC, and when I had that little ‘clash’.”

“But how should I have known? You never told us about him until a few nights ago. Even then, you never actually mentioned what he looked like.” Wave Rider objected.

“Actually … oh, wait. Yeah, I don’t think I did, actually. My mistake.” Obscurus calmed down. “I don’t think he knows that you’re connected to us and this plot, so there’s a degree of trust between you two” she continued. “If Sun Beamer continues to be a threat in the future, this may be useful. But it depends on how much power he has.”

“Did anybody actually come with him, or was he just alone, but hanging out with the people he recognizes from social networks?” Obscurus asked.

“I think he was actually working for the festival.” Wave Rider observed. “He told me that he was on his way to the Moonbase to run the lights and smoke machines.”

“Well, in that case, maybe the fact that we crossed paths was a complete coincidence.” Obscurus admitted. "Maybe I shouldn't have gone all-out on him in our very first confrontation."

“I guess he only figured out a single aspect of the overall scheme. He doesn’t seem to know about our war.” she continued. “In fact, given what you’ve shown me, he has more in common with you than my actual targets.”

“And that is?” Wave Rider awaited the impending compliment.

“You’re both adorkable stallions with cool outfits that have a lot more effort into them than those of the average festival attendee nowadays.” Wave Rider blushed a bit. “It’s ridiculous in a good way. It looks like something you’d wear to one of those anime conventions you’ve been trying to get gigs at.”

“Or, perhaps, a certain Gathering of Embers.” Wave Rider deflected. “Speaking of that, me, Train Spot, and Eight Track are actually designing our costumes for it right now.”

“Oh really? I thought you were supposed to be working on the remixes for the Flashpot EP?” Obscurus reminded.

“Actually, we’re done. They just need mastering.” Wave Rider replied.

“Anyway, you were talking about costumes. What does this entail? Are you going to make me dress up in something that’s ridiculous in a bad way?” Obscurus concerned.

“According to this article I found, that’s actually frowned upon. Can’t be too thick; it’s gonna be just as hot there as it was in Las Pegasus. Can’t have loose parts that can fall off; that’s a general rule of the Gathering in general, though.” Wave Rider explained. “Then of course, you gotta be prepared for sandstorms. Don’t wanna get sand up your mouth or in your eyes - you know that feel. A lot of attendees just get by with goggles and a bandana or so, but that’s boring.”

“So what do you want us to be, then?” Obscurus asked.

“Desert punks. But Eight Track wanted to be an aviator instead.” Wave Rider elaborated.

Suddenly, Obscurus had a truckful of ideas. “Let’s just go with that. The punks, I mean.”

“Oh, and your finished remix better be awesome; don’t forget about our little bet.”

7 - It needs more trains

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While Wave Rider checked in on Obscurus’s musical masterpiece, Train Spot and Eight Track were back in the meeting room. The table was full of sketches and print-outs from web pages on how to properly prepare for a trip to the Gathering. Despite the obscurity of the event, there were a ton of dedicated resources to choose from.

“Okay, while Wave Rider checks out what Nocty’s cooking up, my next question is this; how will we get there? Are we going to hitch a ride with others, or do we need to have our own transport?” Eight Track asked.

“Well, I think I could handle driving. Just depends on what you want me to drive.” Train Spot answered. “Everything we do will depend on whether Obscurus actually wants to execute Project Euphorius; it would require us to bring some additional equipment.” she continued.

“Apparently, customized trucks are quite popular.” Eight Track acknowledged, pointing out a page with photos from last year on it. “Alicorn, draconequus, dragon, draconequus, unicorn… Draconequui were popular, it seems” he explained. “Some of these have sound systems on them too; who needs a car radio when you literally have a DJ on your roof, or a stage carved out of your trailer?”

Train Spot appeared to be fond of the idea, but not without adding her own influences to the equation. “I’d do it … but it needs more trains!” she excitedly suggested.

“So, uh, how do you expect us to incorporate ‘more trains’?” Eight Track asked bluntly. “I don’t even think there’s rail service out there.”

“How about we make a truck that is also a train?” Train Spot suggested. “We could make the container part look like a freight car or something and put a DJ booth on top of it, put a smokestack somewhere, maybe add some cool lights, and of course, a whistle for realistic choo-choo action!” Train Spot excitedly outlined.

“I take it you’ve had always an interest in trains?” Eight Track asked honestly. He never thought he’d ever hear somepony utter the words “realistic choo-choo action” in a sentence in his life.

“Well, my family does own a rail company that’s been in business for at least three generations. But I wanted to go off the rails a bit.” she replied.

“I guess that explains your name.” Eight Track noted.

“Though it took a different turn, as you may have noticed. Someone actually told me that trainspotting is a term for keeping track of what a DJ plays.” she explained. “So it still sort of makes sense.”

“Oh, I see.” Eight Track acknowledged. “But yeah, that might be a good idea. We could call it the ‘Techno Train’ or the ‘Electronic Express’ or something like that, and maybe try to find other DJs there to perform on it too. Sorry, I’m not as well-versed in train-related puns as you.” he admitted.

“That’s okay; those actually sound pretty cute!” Train Spot declared. “Never thought I’d finally get to ride my own literal hype train.”

“On a serious note, this is probably something that could get me some well-needed attention. I can imagine the headlines on all the EDM blogs; ‘Train Spot has a Train’, Train Spot reaches his obvious conclusion’, and so on.” she continued.

“‘He?” Eight Track was a bit confused. “Thought you were a she.”

“One could argue I’m somewhere in between.” Train Spot clarified, sounding a bit more masculine than usual.

In the midst of this minor identity crisis, Wave Rider had just returned from Obscurus’s studio. “Hey everypony! That remix Obscurus is making sounds pretty wicked so far…” he reported.

“But I still think I’m going to win our little competition. It’s scientifically proven!” Train Spot boasted.

“Oh, you. I thought this was just going to be a friendly little remix competition between ourselves. Nothing too dramatic...” Wave Rider didn’t think it was going to be that intense.

The goal was simple; remix “Flashpot”, the lead single from Eight Track’s new EP. Whoever had the best remix, as determined by a not-exactly-patented combination of download counts and view counts after 7 days, got to dare whoever had the worst remix (as determined by said formula) to do something of their choice. Preferably something embarrassing, of course, because workplaces are funny.

Train Spot’s remix was a typical electro house anthem, while Wave Rider decided to branch out into hardstyle. Barring any irregular circumstances, it was widely expected that Train Spot was going to win, for obvious reasons.

“Anyway; Obscurus also complimented me on my new outfit. But she didn’t like the fact that I interacted with her blood enemy at the festival.” Wave Rider reported, and opened up his phone to the aforementioned photo. “Apparently, this yellow stallion right here is that Sun Beamer she kept on bringing up a few days ago.”

“Wow, he’s actually pretty cool; I presume he was one of those cyberpunk rave dancers or something?” asked Eight Track.

“Actually, yes. But he told me that this company he worked for was contracted to do the stage lighting and effects at the SSC this year, so I guess he was just hanging out between shifts.” Wave Rider explained.

“In fact, when I told Obscurus about the ‘truth’ about him, she actually had a change of heart.” he continued. “But only because Operation Aeternum Obscurum flopped, he didn’t outright reveal the ‘war’ she’s trying to wage, he wasn’t necessarily ‘stalking’ her as she initially thought, and he didn’t have enough ‘power’ to be a threat right now, apparently.”

“Plus, she actually thought we looked cute together!” Wave Rider exclaimed.

“Either way, our true threat is omnipresent. I’ve been friends with Obscurus for about 15 years, and she’s always had anger issues and a habit of flip-flopping like this; her mortal enemy one day may become her most important ally the following week.” explained Eight Track.

“The enemy right now is an entire movement, and those who seek to disrupt us. Sun Beamer may be hiding something beneath that shell of his. But that is true of everypony.” Everypony else was perplexed at Eight Track’s overtly philosophical wording.

“I mean, we all have something to hide, and who knows? Maybe he’s still trying to plot against us behind our backs.”

“But we don’t know for sure, right?” Train Spot inquired. She had slowly become more interested in Obscurus’s cause. ”It’s best to remain vigilant, and remember that we have a much bigger target to shoot at than just a single Earth pony.” Train Spot received a noseboop of approval from Wave Rider.

After recovering from an awkward moment of cuteness, it was time to address a slightly more important topic. “So, did I miss anything while I was away?” asked Wave Rider.

“Yes. Train Spot wants to bring a truck decorated like a freight train to the Gathering.” Eight Track replied. “Because trains.” he whispered softly.

“Oh, you~” Wave Rider felt a disturbance; his reaction was to boop Train Spot some more. It gave them the giggles

“We’re such dorks!” Train Spot approved.

“You’re the second person to call me that today.” Wave Rider observed, whilst booping a bit more.

Just then, Obscurus trotted in. “Hello. The lossless, high-quality WAV version of my remix is rendering. It seems like it’s only going to take about 6 minutes now, rather than the nearly 45 it took on my old computer.” Obscurus elaborated.

“Yep; can’t go wrong with the latest Alicorn Micro Systems Daybreaker 1700X, with multi-threaded octa-cores running at 3.4 GHz, liquid cooling system, 32 GB of DDR4 RAM, dedicated audio card with multiple input and output channels, tons of RGB-lit accessories, and a gigabit link to our internal network attached storage appliance for reliable and redundant storage of personal files.” Wave Rider outlined. Only one pony in the entire room knew the significance of everything he just listed off: himself.

“Or, in simpler terms: it goes fast, can do 16 things at once, and it glows pretty colors. Any color you want, too.” he summarized.

Whereas Obscurus was the resident audiophile, Wave Rider had become the resident technophile. The outdated, silver box that she had been using until now.had made him cringe. So many fake antivirus programs…

“Once again, thank you for the hard work on that, Wave and Train. I’m was shocked when I learned that ‘building’ a computer didn’t mean that you literally had to create every single part yourself.” Obscurus complimented.

“Aww, thanks.” said Wave Rider. “Like I said, it’s more like a complicated jigsaw puzzle.”

“So yeah, Obscurus; Train Spot was proposing that we build one of those DJ trucks for the Gathering. Of course, she suggested that it should look like a train.” said Eight Track.

“It’s not like it was that unexpected.” added Train Spot.

“That’s one of those trucks that blasts music, right?” inquired Obscurus.

“Yeah.” Eight Track inquired.

“Well, it could theoretically help to divert attention from Project Euphorius.” Obscurus noted. “In fact, anything involving Train Spot could be a good distraction just because no one knows she’s tied to me.”

Everypony else agreed. “Also, of course Train Spot would suggest that.” she observed. Laughter filled the room.

“On a related note, I was telling you earlier that we were drafting out outfits for the Gathering.” continued Wave Rider.

“Go on. You mentioned stuff about us wanting to be like ‘desert punks’.” Obscurus inquired.

“Though, that was more of a general idea. It might not exactly suit all of us; I was going to use my cyber suit, and Train Spot wanted to look ‘cool’ like me, but didn’t want a full-on suit and stuff.” Wave Rider explained.

“Yeah,” exclaimed Train Spot. “He wanted to make me some sort of mask with sound-activated lighting on it. Not sure if it was going to be one like his, or something you’d wear to one of Silk Threads’ fancy dress masquerade parties.“

“The former sounds cooler, but I’m not really the ‘edgy’ one here.” she admitted. Wave Rider chuckled a bit at her implication.

“I’m going to be one of those old-school fighter pilots; I drafted some designs for insignias in case you wanted to approve them, Obscurus!” said Eight Track.

“You know, I’ve always sort of liked those post-apocalyptic desert wasteland movies.” Obscurus admitted. “Given that your Gathering stuff looks like a scene from one, I think the dystopian, steampunk biker aesthetic would look quite fitting on me, don’t you think?.” Everypony reacted positively.

“Just get me a jacket and some of those round goggles the steampunk ponies are always wearing.” Obscurus requested, as Train Spot frantically wrote it down.

“Plus, if you imply that I absolutely, positively need something to keep me from having a mouthful of sand, erm... Actually, I’ll just do it myself. “ Obscurus declared “Shouldn’t be too hard to make one of those bandana things with a skull on them that the motorcyclists always seem to have. Just you wait!” she boasted.

“I’m just going to pop back to the studio for a moment, however, The export should be done by now...”

Clearly, her squad had goals.

8 - The one with the remix competition

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A few weeks later, Obscurus Noctis’s crew met in their board room once again. “Before we get to our main topic of discussion tonight, I’d like to take a moment to evaluate the sales numbers for my new EP.” Eight Track began.

“‘Flashpot’ has, so far, been my biggest release since ‘The Generation’. It’s actually at #4 on the DanceDance best-selling deep house tracks right now.” he noted. “Though, I presume you’re all interested in how the remixes have been doing.”

Train Spot was eagerly waiting in anticipation for the results, given that her labelmates had treated this as an internal competition of sorts.

“Train Spot’s remix is actually outselling my original track five-to-one. Though it’s admittedly easier to climb the deep house chart than the EDM chart; just so much competition.” he explained.

Train Spot climbed on the table; “Y’heard that everypony? I’m the prince of this kingdom! Or maybe I’m the princess!” she exclaimed. “Or a little bit of both. Depends on my mood.” Train Spot clarified, adjusting her accent accordingly.

“Yeah, we understand. You’re not quite a mare, yet not quite a stallion either.” Obscurus interjected. “So, how did my remix do?”

“If we go by the top 3, it was basically Train Spot, Wave Rider, Obscurus.” Eight Track elaborated.

“Oh, you know what this means?” Wave Rider warned, “You remember what we agreed to, right? Whoever finishes in last place has to perform a dare, decided by us. We signed the agreement with our hoofprints and everything.”

Obscurus gulped; fearing what they had in mind, she decided it would be easier to change the subject, for now. “Yeah, my music is not as popular as yours. We know, and have scientific proof." she sarcastically interjected. "We can talk about this internal affair later. Our real order of business tonight is the Gathering. It’s only four weeks away, so it’s time for a status report on our preparations.”

“We got the tickets in the mail yesterday. It comes with a ‘beginners’ guide that I think you should be studying.” Wave Rider noted. “As we discussed earlier, you and Eight Track, and me and Train Spot, are going to be travelling and camping separately to avoid suspicion related to Project Euphorius. Eight Track is going to be hosting a sound camp called the House of Pancakes. Don’t ask how he came up with that name.”

“I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet.” Eight Track replied.

“Anyway, I found a few surprise guests you’re really gonna like.” Eight Track declared. “However, it’s apparently an unwritten rule of the Gathering that you never announce your performers in advance. I don’t think we’d want to spoil the surprise, would we?.” Wave Rider and Obscurus shared a guilty grin on their faces.

“Yeah. Got some, ahem, top talent. Some friends of mine. Still not gonna say who.” Eight Track affirmed, awkwardly backing away.

Wave Rider booted up another slide show. “Me and Train are going to be riding there in this semi-truck we found. We’re making it into a DJ truck, or, well, train, because it’s going to look like a train. Don’t ask who suggested it.” he explained, as Train Spot squeed.

“Yeah, just who would suggest that?” Train Spot replied, all but admitting that they were responsible.

“Obscurus, you said you eventually wanted a tour bus. Well, we found you one, and it’s parked just outside.” Wave Rider explained. “I’ll show you later.”

“That’s fine.” said Obscurus, “Let’s change topics for a moment; we need to finalize Project Euphorius.”

“I got a slide for that.” Wave Rider advanced the presentation. “The approximate locations we supposedly need to place flames are around the outskirts of the basin, as denoted by this diagram.”

He brought up another slide, depicting an odd, triangular sentry tower. “We came up with a design for our flame apparati the other day; elected to go with a sentry-inspired appearance, with a remote-controlled heat conduit embedded in its base.” Wave Rider explained.

“In order to reduce suspicion and justify their presence, we will be portraying these missions as an effort to spread the gift of light across the Basin. It’s in line with as much of the official lore and practices as possible.” he continued. “One of the traditions is that you have to bring gifts for everypony else. Plus they look like the kind of experimental artwork that everypony puts out at the Gathering to begin with.”

“Color me impressed, Wave Rider.” Obscurus responded with a hint of curiosity. "I presume the gift of music counts too?"

"Yeah." Train Spot clarified.

“We have a prototype tower out in the parking lot, right next to the new, used bus we found you. Follow me.” Wave Rider led the group out to the small dirt parking lot of the HQ. There was a giant tower with a lantern-like light at the top, made from a wooden frame, and with colored cloth coloring the base.

“That sentry looks pretty good, to be honest.” Obscurus commented. “I presume the real purpose of the tractor trailer you mentioned earlier, is to transport all the materials for building these things?”

“Actually, yes.” Wave Rider confirmed.

Right next to the sentry prototype was an old-looking van, coated in a dark blue and purple paint job that sparkled in the sentry’s light. “While we're here, I’d like you two to meet the ride of your nightmares: the Tanta-bus!” Wave Rider announced.

Obscurus and Eight Track fell over from laughing so hard; nopony knew exactly how much work it took for Wave Rider to come up with that pun.

“Dear Celestia that is so…!” Obscurus couldn’t even complete her sentence as she continued to chuckle at their comedic genius.

“Psst, I think that was a pretty good pun.” Train Spot whispered.

9 - Flashyfoals

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There were still only three weeks left before the Gathering, and the Clausula Records crew was in an increasingly mad scramble to make their preparations. But some things were still unclear;

"Obscurus, sorry if this question sounds stupid, but what exactly is the goal of Project Euphorius?" Train Spot asked, while Obscurus messed around in her studio.

"I think I explained it earlier, but It's simple, really. Based on all the forum threads and blog posts I've been studying, long-time participants in the Gathering hate the fact that all these rich stallions are crashing their party and practically turning it into a music festival." she began. "They spend big bucks to make themselves stand out in the Basin, dragging out big names that people actually know."

"Like me?" Train Spot queried.

"Probably. All these overrated acts are a magnet for newbies, or the ‘flashyfoals’ as they call them.” Obscurus explained. “Supposedly, they have no idea what they've gotten themselves into just so they can see their favorite, ahem, 'superstar DJ'. It's always been more of an underground, cult event. Attracts a rather tight-knit community; underground music and the arts have unofficially been the main focus."

"But thanks to them, everypony thinks its a spin-off of the SSC for whinnying out loud!" she yelled.

"Uh, okay. When do we come into play?" Train Spot questioned.

"I think the best way to be accepted by the community is to round up all those foals and get them off their pasture. Scar them for life, never want to make them come back" she explained. "The legends stated that heating all nine underground conduits at the same time - the eight sentry tower flames, and the burning pony thing - would activate something. What this something is varies, though." Obscurus disclaimed.

"Some accounts state that it summons the beast mentioned in the original lore of the Gathering. Some say it gives you the power to manipulate time and dimensions. But most of them say that the prior two ideas are ridiculous and probably made up."

"If this isn't true, I presume we have a plan B?" Train Spot asked once more.

"Yes, Train Spot. All of the legitimate things we plan to do can easily double as a distraction. If we can't really summon the beast, there are other things we could try. Hijacking their camps? Sabotage? Or, perhaps, I could take that beast idea into my own hooves, if you know what I mean."

Train Spot twitched when she heard the last idea. "I thought you said it couldn't..."

"Actually, I think I have figured out how to boost its power. However, we may have to, ahem, borrow something to make it work." Obscurus interjected. She knew exactly what she had in mind.

17 hours south (or so, depending on the traffic) back in Las Pegasus, Sun Beamer and Blast Furnace were heading to the grand opening of an arcade called The Game Machine, located just outside of the downtown "tourist district" in an old, renovated mechanics shop. It was being run by one of Sun Beamer's colleagues, Fritzy Wire. Blast Furnace was indirectly involved as well, given that Fritzy commissioned her to make a few metal sculptures to decorate the interior (as referred by Sun Beamer, of course). Over the past few weeks, Sun Beamer and Blast Furnace had been keeping in contact with eachother, talking about their respective lives, sharing their favorite new songs, and planning for a certain event.

Given the thematic of the place, they also used this as an opportunity to test out the garb they planned to wear in Duskgem; Blast Furnace looked like the usual, punky self she always is at this time of year. Sun Beamer just had a brown cloak and ski goggles, nothing too complicated. They walked into the arcade, noticing a nifty sculpture right in the lobby.

"Oh cool, your pixel spaceship is the first thing you see when you walk in!" Sun Beamer remarked. Expecting a reply, he noticed that Blast Furnace had already darted off to a section devoted to imports from Neighpon.

"Woah, they got New Fightin' Herds II EX Gamma! That one's very rare." she announced. "Oh, is that a DJVortex over there too? That game is nuts;. took me about 12 tries to finally clear ‘Brain Power’ on Advanced..." she excitedly rattled.

"I didn't know she was that versed on Neighponese games. That's news to me!" Sun Beamer thought. They had spent most of their time talking about fashion, electronic music, and the principles of being a follower of the Embers, but not fighting games.

At that moment, Blast Furnace had started a match with another pegasus on a machine right across from her. "Holy cow, you're good!" Sun Beamer exclaimed, watching in awe.

"Well, ya gotta do somethin' while you wait for your molten metal to cool off!" she excitedly replied, whilst mashing in a finishing move.

Her opponent immediately flew up to get a glimpse of his opponent, "Darn it! Should have countered that ... hey wait, aren't you Blast Furnace?"

"Yes." she confirmed.

"I never knew you--"

"Yeah, I do. I just don't rub it in everypony's face like some others insist on doing." Blast Furnace replied. The other pegasus sat back down as the second round started.

"Welp, I don't want to announce that I lost to an internet celebrity... Better win this..." he mumbled.

"You don't have to say that, you know..." Blast Furnace responded. "It's just casual. But thanks for calling me a celebrity!"

"No problem. Oh, and I like your friend's outfit. Is he cosplaying Renegado?" the pegasus asked.

"Uh?" Sun Beamer was slightly confused, until he noticed that the character Blast Furnace was using had a somewhat canny resemblance to him.


10 - Preamble

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There were only two days to go before the Gathering of Embers officially opened, which meant that it was time for everyone to finish packing up everything they need, and then figure out just how in the hay they're going to get there. Almost everyone who participates in the Gathering knows that it's customary to stop in the city of Reino on the way, just in case you need to get some last-minute supplies, or want to meet up with others making the same journey. Historically, locals that are unaware of the Gathering have always wondered why their local shops seem to, right on cue, be out of water bottles, camping equipment, and bicycles in late-August. Sun Beamer planned to hitch a ride to Reino with Blast Furnace and her brother Smith Strikes later in the day.

However, Obscurus & Co. learned that everypony coming in from the north tended to gravitate towards Kimberwicke Falls, Oatergon instead, and then drive directly to Exmoor, Neighvada - a small desert town whose economy is fueled almost entirely by those travelling to the Stone's Throw Desert, especially at this time of year.

They all left just after sunrise; as originally planned, Obscurus & Co. split up into two groups, with Obscurus Noctis and Eight Track taking turns driving their cleverly-named Tanta-bus, while Wave Rider and Train Spot drove the Electro Express, otherwise known as the TrainTruck - a semi-truck decorated to look like a locomotive (because who else could come up with such an ingenious idea?). Whoever wasn't in the driver's seat had to help navigate, keep in touch with everypony else, and curate driving music (which, at the moment, consisted of each other's DJ sets, of course).

"We're starting to run low on gas already, and we're only just reaching Snortland. What's the mileage on this thing?" Wave Rider queried.

"It can get 6 miles per gallon, boy!" Train Spot gleefully announced. "And 8 highway." she quickly added.

"Y'know, I've wondered; why can't we just enchant the engine to run on magical energy or something?" Wave Rider pondered.

"I read online that someone's been trying to do that. It's not working as well as they thought it would, though." Train Spot reported.

"Thenagain, I don't think the oil industry wants magic to be eating into their profits." Wave Rider replied.

"Oh, and by the way, Wavey, we didn't actually leave Seaddle with a full tank; it was only three-fifths full." Train Spot noted. "You said that was enough to get us to Snortland."

"I did? Oh wait... yeah, sorry. We could refill around there." Wave Rider admitted. "Maybe we could find one of those truck stop places on the outskirts and have brunch too. They tend to have diesel."

"That can work." Train Spot approved. "Don't forget, Snortland was also where we agreed to switch seats too."

Suddenly, Wave Rider received a text message from Obscurus on his phone; "Obscurus says 'We're getting ready to leave Snortland. p.s. don't eat at the Stumpy's near the south end; they overcooked my Egg BLT! Just how do you mess up a basic breakfast sandwich?!'" he dictated, trying to imitate her ranting tone.

"That rant continued on for two more messages; I think we got the idea."

"Just tell her we're approximately 5 minutes away, and that we're not going to Stumpy's." Train Spot instructed. "We're just a little behind, but only by about 10 minutes or so. Meet you in Equine, OR."

Meanwhile, Obscurus and Eight Track were just trotting out of the Stumpy's, which was right next to the Lundy station they had stopped at.

"Justice has been served. With a free large orange juice and a stack of mini-pancakes to make up for my inconvenience, of course." Obscurus announced to Eight Track. "I take back most of my criticisms surrounding this particular location of this franchised chain of fast food establishments." she continued, taking a bite from her egg BLT.

"Oh, and Train texted me; they said they were a little behind but almost at Snortland." Obscurus reported.

"At least we're keeping a good pace." Eight Track replied.

"We should be able to reach Kimberwicke Falls by nightfall." explained Obscurus. "I just need to send the others a retraction to my rant before we go."

"Also, I have an update on Obscurus's life-or-death sandwich situation; they have a quality guarantee and she was able to get free food out of the deal." Wave Rider relayed.

"Of course she did." Train Spot sarcastically replied.

11 - Miles

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Back in Las Pegasus, Sun Beamer was doing some final packing for his own journey to Duskgem; the plan was to hitch a ride with Blast Furnace and her cousin Smith Stone to Reino, stay there for a few nights at his home there, then head for the desert on the first day of the Gathering. Sun Beamer's feelings of anticipation for this event were four parts excitement and one part fear, given that he's not a pony known for "roughing it" that often. Thenagain, it's not like he wasn't being accompanied by a trusty pegasi who knew her way around this mysterious event that he knew absolutely nothing about until now. Along with prerequisite reminders on the norms and practices of the Gathering, Blast Furnace was also hyping a "surprise" for when they arrived this morning.

As Sun Beamer tried to cram just one more pair of boots into his third suitcase, someone began knocking on his door. He opened the door to reveal Smith; he was a grey-colored, medium-sized unicorn stallion with a picture of a stone hammer on his flanks. He was only slightly larger than Sun Beamer, and looked he had trotted right out of a renaissance fair.

"Lemme guess; Smith Stone?" Sun Beamer asked.

"You are correct, Sir Beamer." he confirmed. "Oh, looks like you're packing somewhat heavy. I can get those for you." Smith Stone started to levitate Sun Beamer's luggage so he could put them in his RV.

As he did this, Blast Furnace popped her head out of one of the windows. "Hey, Sun Beamer! You ready to rock and roll?" she yelled. "This is the big surprise I've been talking about; we got a new Windidigo!"

"New to us to be exact." Smith clarified, having found a way to squeeze that last boot into Sun Beamer's last suitcase. Blast Furnace rolled her eyes. "Oh come on, it's a 2013 model! It's not that old." he elaborated.

Sun Beamer entered the RV; it was spacious, and definitely a bit more comfortable to ride in than just a normal truck. "You could sleep in it too if tents on top of hot sand isn't quite your thing." Smith Stone explained.

Sun Beamer rested himself onto one of the couch-like seats. "I’ll accept that offer.”

"See? I knew he would." Blast Furnace whispered to Smith.

"What was that?" Sun Beamer asked.

"Eh, nothing." she replied. Clearly, Sun Beamer wasn't meant to hear that.

"So, I don't think you answered my question from earlier, Sun." Blast Furnace prepared.

"Oh?" he replied.

"You ready to rock?"

"Yeah! Drop that track, Stone!" Sun Beamer announced.

"I'll take that as an indication that we're all ready to go." Smith Stone nonchalantly responded.

Neighvada is one of those places where everything becomes grim and mysterious the moment you leave a major city; the highway towards Reino wound through dry plains, periodically punctuated by small towns whose entire existence depends on getting travelers to stop by and stay for a little while longer than they usually would. To pass the time, Sun Beamer, Blast Furnace, and Smith Stone exchanged the often-humorous stories about their lives.

"So let me get this straight; there was a DJ at that festival a few months ago who was conspiring to brainwash everypony?" asked Smith Stone.

"Yes. Me and a friend were investigating her, and she seemed to be on a mission to 'end' something, but we haven't quite figured out what." explained Sun Beamer. "We think it's music-related, though. Why else would she try to do this at a dance music festival?"

"She ended up ambushing me, and then used a strange spell that put me into some weird alternate reality with villains and stuff in it." he continued. "Everything started 'flickering' back to normal if I got away from her, however, so I'm guessing it has a limited range?"

"Okay, that has to be some of the craziest crap I've ever heard, and I've seen some of the weird spells that unicorns have mastered nowadays." Blast Furnace affirmed.

"It gets weirder. You remember when you first met me at that restaurant?" asked Sun Beamer.

"Yep." she replied.

"Well, the waiter told me that some truckers were hearing weird things on their radios that matched up the stuff I was hearing in the alternate reality. So my wild guess is that it interferes with, or uses the same frequencies, as a radio."

"A form of mind-controlling unicorn magic that resonates through actual radio waves, huh?" Smith Stone asked. "Coincidentally, one of my friends was studying about stuff like that for a university paper. Maybe you should capture her as a test subject!" he jokingly proposed.

Everypony laughed for a moment.

"Yeah, that would be a good idea ... if we knew where she was, though. I've been a little uneasy about whether she may be going to the Gathering or not, since her music seems to align with the typical soundtrack of Duskgem." Sun Beamer admitted.

"However, this event is a little obscure, pun intended, and Blast Furnace said it was a common courtesy for those sound camp things to not reveal who their performers are. Consider this non-scientific evidence that I have no need to worry about evil DJs, maybe." Sun Beamer concluded.

"But in the event she is there, I know her possible weaknesses, and we'll practically blend into the crowd. Does she even know what I look like without my rave costume on to begin with?" he pondered.

"I doubt it, Chaotic Kisol." acknowledged Blast Furnace. "Though that mane feels like something iconic that she might pick up on...."

"Like you just said, don't worry. It's not like you're not travelling with new friends..." Smith Stone remarked.

12 - Sleep (or lack thereof)

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After that intriguing discussion about a certain pony's hypnosis-related powers, Sun Beamer dosed off on the comfy RV seat for a few hours. That is, until...

"Hey, Sun Beamer?" Blast Furnace asked, trying to take the stallion up. "We're stopping in Tackopah for a bit."

"Tack ... opah?" Sun Beamer emerged from his nap. "Where even is it?"

"About halfway to Reino, actually. Three and a half hours or so to go." she replied.

"Yeah. Back in the day, Tackopah was a key transport hub for the silver miners' getting their loot between Reino and Pegasus." Smith Stone chimed, as he parked outside a large building, "Oh, and there's haunted stuff too. Like the hotel next to a burial yard"

"Well, uh, thanks for telling me!" Sun Beamer sarcastically replied, knowing that this was probably a little too much information.

He got out of the RV to stretch his legs; the building Smith had parked outside was quite large by "practically in the middle of nowhere" standards"; it had gas pumps, an RV stop, a hotel, a restaurant, a casino, and probably a kitchen sink too. Hopefully it wasn't haunted. The rest of the town was visible behind him; it had somewhat of an "old west" aesthetic here and there, and the place they had stopped at looked like a saloon. In fact, it was actually called the "High Noon Saloon Rest Stop Restaurant Casino Hotel" (Sun Beamer personally thought that this was quite a mouthful).

Realizing that he had data reception for the first time in at least two hours (which was, for the record, one of the factors that led to his nap), Sun Beamer got back in the RV and dug up his phone to check on what he had been missing over the past two hours. While most of it was just routine email and Ponyhoof messages, there was one specific notification that caught his attention.

"Blast Furnace, that Obscurus pony I was telling you about posted a very strange message on her FluffySound." he reported.

"Strange messages, huh?" Blast Furnace acknowledged, whilst sipping at a drink and checking her phone as well.

"Was posted about an hour ago, 'Secrets lie in the sacred sand. Our spirit empowers the titans below, just as the rhythms above. We feel euphorius..'" read Sun Beamer. "With two periods at the end, because I don't know."

"Sacred sand? Welp, I think she's going to the Gathering of Embers too!" Blast Furnace concluded with a smirk. "If you were paying attention to all those legends and lore we were reading about last week, you probably noticed that many of them referred to Duskgem as being the 'sacred sand'."

"Okay, it's starting to ring a bell." Sun Beamer observed. "But if this is the case, what is this other stuff she's bringing up? 'Spirits'? 'Titans below'? 'Euphorius'? And two periods? I don't think you explained that."

"I'm not sure if its the title of her new EP, or she hit a few too many keys with those hooves trying to say 'euphoria' and kept it because she thought it sounded cool. Those phone keyboards are hard to use, you know." Blast Furnace opined.

"Especially if you're not a unicorn. But I think she is though." Sun Beamer noted. "And trust me, I've seen much worse."

"It's easy for pegasi too. But typos or symbolism aside, bringing up 'spirits' and 'titans below' may be a bit more disconcerting." Blast Furnace admitted. "I've heard that certain Followers have been propagating an alternate history about the Gathering and its true purpose. I, personally, am part of the camp that does not believe in it, but..."

A shocked Sun Beamer waited in anticipation for the incoming revelation. "But what?"

"Okay, this sounds a little bizarre, but some ponies say that there is a sort of, ahem, 'titan' of 'dimensional stability', underneath where we burn the Blazicorn, and that it needs to be refueled with heat energy or something totally bad happens." she speculated.

Sun Beamer looked confused.

"Like I said, it's bizarre, and probably a conspiracy. Only 1 in 10,054 Followers of Embers actually believe it, and for obvious reasons, I'm not one of them." Blast Furnace clarified. "Though, if this pony is as questionable as you say she is, there's another part of the legend that we may

"Me neither, for equally obvious reasons." said Smith Stone, who had just gotten back from paying for the gas. "Oh, and by the way, I got a few more snacks for the rest of the way. We'll probably have dinner somewhere in Reino after we check into our hotel; Blast was telling me about this good restaurant that a few Followers were recommending..."

"It's the one in our hotel, actually." Blast Furnace bluntly noted. "Probably doesn't have a gas station or casino, though..."

13 - Obscurus Noctis and Eight Track Go For a Leisurely Drive

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Meanwhile in the Tanta-bus, Obscurus and Eight Track's journey to Kimberwicke Falls was approximately 76% complete. The route through Oatergon was a lot more scenic than their foes', unless you find forests and mountain ranges to be less exciting than an open desert and old west towns. Train Spot and Wave Rider had been following them close behind in a different truck and keeping in touch along the way. But there was someone else Obscurus felt the need to keep in touch with, despite being the mare in the driver's seat.

"Y'know, Eight Track, do you think it would be a good idea to publicly mention that I'm going to this Gathering thing?" asked Obscurus. "By that I mean on FluffySound, of course."

"Depends on how many of your followers have heard of it, and the subset of them that are actually attending." Eight Track acknowledged. "Any promotion is good promotion."

"I was thinking of going down the 'cryptic' route." declared Obscurus.

"Given how well I know you, I'd say that's a road you've been down a lot." Eight Track observed. "You and your cryptic hints and puzzles. Every new single is practically an ARG with you."

"First you gotta tease it. Then you gotta knock everypony's pants off when you finally release it. That's how you do things nowadays." explained Obscurus. "Even if it means that new song is temporarily titled 'ID' on that playlist site for about 5 months or so before the single drops."

"Let's not forget about the promo discs too." Eight Track acknowledged. "How everypony reacts to your song at clubs is always a good indicator of whether it's gonna perform well or not."

"I get that, but the internet is still very important too nowadays. It's fun to scour Ponyhoof for those 'that new Obscurus Noctis song was awesome, I wonder when it's coming out' posts." Obscurus continued. "It's all about one word; hype. I need hype. We need to build some hype." she concluded.

"Yes, ma'am!" announced Eight Track.

"Now, obviously, it's a little dangerous, and illegal, to use a phone while driving. Think you could type this in for me, please?" asked Obscurus.

"Okay." said Eight Track, as he dug out and began to try operating Obscurus's somewhat old smartphone. "You really need to get a new phone."

"You should have seen the computer I was using before Wave Rider built that new one." Obscurus pointed out. "That was even older, to be honest. I'm just waiting for the last day of my contract next month."

Eight Track didn't choose to acknowledge the reply. "Okay, so I think I found your Fluffsound app or whatever it was called. I presume that you wanted to 'Post artist announcement', right?

"Yeah." confirmed Obscurus.

"Okay, on the screen now. What do you want me to type? Should I come up with something, or did you have an idea?" asked Eight Track.

"Like I said, I wanted to go cryptic and mysterious. Allude to themes and imagery, but not outright state where we're going." she explained. "Something ominous and epic, like, 'Secrets lie in the sacred sand...'"

"Woah, go on...." complimented Eight Track, as he began to type it in.

"Our spirit empowers the titans below! Just as the rhythms above. We, feel the euphoria.'" said Obscurus, in an equally ominous and epic tone.

Eight Track was trying to keep up with Obscurus, but her phone was rather small and difficult to type on. "Got it, aaaand it's up!" announced Eight Track.

"Thank you." replied Obscurus.

"Just trying to help." affirmed Eight Track. "Also there was some message saying that Fluffysound was discontinuing this version of their app next week, but it's also telling me that the new version requires a newer version of Ambldroid too."

"I know; Wave Rider was telling me that this phone can't 'get upgrades' or something anymore." explained Obscurus. "He was yakking about 'custom' something and 'roots' too but I didn't understand it."

"At least I managed to type out your message on that small screen of yours." Eight Track noted. "That phone was considered large about 3 years ago, but nowadays, 4.3 inches is relatively tiny. 5.2-inch screens are the sweet spot nowadays, especially among unicorns."

"Last time I checked, my early upgrade fee was only 25 bits. They'll probably be doing back to school sales for all the colts and fillies by the time we get back..." Obscurus admitted.

About half an hour later, Obscurus took the Tanta-bus into at a rest stop so Eight Track could take over driving. She snuggled onto the backseat, and decided to check her Fluffysound to see if anyone had already parsed her announcement.

"Hmm, yeah this is right. Sacred sand, titans, spirits, euphorius..." she said under her breath. "EUPHORIUS?!" Obscurus screamed in anger.

"Hey, don't disturb your driver like that!" an annoyed Eight Track demanded.

"I said for you to type Euphoria, not Euphorius." she clarified. "Euphoria as in intense joy. Not Euphorius as in, our confidential scheme."

"I remember clearly typing out 'euphoria'. Though that virtual keyboard was a little small, to be hones." said Eight Track.

"On second thought, It seems like a justifiable typo, though. Or just 'euphoria' and 'glorious' smashed together." explained Obscurus. "Might have accidentally hit an extra button or two while typing that; the U is close to I, and S is right next to A, so you were close. While I could fix it, apparently the edit button for announcements is something they only added in the new version of the Fluffysound app."

"And, of course, you can't have nice things on old platforms." noted Eight Track.

"Yeah." agreed Obscurus.

"While I'm here, I think we're making good progress. By my calculations, we should be reaching Kimberwicke Falls in about 2 hours by my calculations." informed Eight Track. "We'll make it there by sunset, as we had originally planned."

"That's good. It's been a long day already." said Obscurus. "Also, I managed to get a surprise gig at a little bar down there tonight; consider it an additional dress rehearsal for what is about to ensue..."