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 the headphones off one of my ears, 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 Ponygram! 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.

"Maybe?"

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 keyboard on the screen was a little small." 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..."

14 - Stuck in Line

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After a long afternoon drive, Sun Beamer & Co. finally arrived in Reino just before sunset, although they were about 45 minutes late thanks to a traffic jam just outside of the city. Presumably, everypony else was on their way to Duskgem too. Long lines wound up becoming a recurring theme, as the Grand Gallop Reino Inn had a check-in line that stretched around the the entire lobby, chock-full of what Blast Furnace presumed to be possible attendees. While Smith Stone waited in line, Blast Furnace and Sun Beamer found one of the few couches that wasn't already occupied by somepony watching over the remainder of their friend's luggage.

"Y'know, I don't think I've ever seen the Grand Gallop this crowded two days before the Gathering before." Blast Furnace observed.

"I've seen this before: it's the registration line at a fandom convention." Sun Beamer admitted.

"Wait, you go to those too?" Blast Furnace replied, seemingly interested.

"Yeah. Before I moved on to real raves, I helped set up the Saturday night dance at Unicon to hone my skills." Sun Beamer explained. "Felt it was nice to give back to a con I had always gone to since I was a late-colt."

"Why didn't you tell me this earlier?" Blast Furnace asked.

"I didn't think you had a nerdy side too." replied Sun Beamer.

"In that case... psst, did I ever tell you I have a second PonyGram for cosplay and other generally nerdy stuff?" she whispered. "It got much easier to manage when PonyGram added multi-account mode. Some follow both, some only follow the nerdy stuff, some only follow the EDM stuff."

"Well, it's not like your skills go to waste outside of cons." acknowledged Sun Beamer.

"Yeah; much like your interests, there's quite a bit of overlap." Blast Furnace noted. "Though, last time I checked, cons usually aren't held in the middle of the desert."

"Are there any games you're good at?" asked Blast Furnace. "As you saw, I'm more of a fighting game mare myself."

"It was at Unicon that I found out I was quite good at dance video games." Sun Beamer continued.

"Really now? I wouldn't consider myself a 'professional' at games like that, though. Like I said earlier, beating DJVortex songs on the middle difficulty level is enough of an accomplishment for me." explained Blast Furnace. "That game is tough enough without the aid of unicorn magic. So many knobs and buttons and stuff."

"Yeah, I won the Groove Your Hooves 5 tournament at Unicon there in 2012, and I finished third the following year." said Sun Beamer

"Hmm, what happened in '13?" pondered Blast Furnace.

"In 2012, the franchise ended because they got sued by the maker of some other dance game. Nowadays, everyone just tries to get every last perfect score on songs they already played a million times." elaborated Sun Beamer. "Because of that, they changed the format to something called 'sightreading'. They made all these new routines just for it and, well, it got really trippy. Couldn't even read the arrows quarter of the time." he continued.

"Wow." Blast Furnace's jaw dropped a bit.

"Yeah, I crashed and burned. The year after, the con kind of crashed and burned too." Sun Beamer continued. "At least I have festivals to fill the gap now."

Meanwhile, about 20 minutes later, Smith Stone was almost at the check-in desk. Sun Beamer had a few conversations with some of the other ponies in the lobby to pass the time; at least 3 of them were also going to the Gathering. Another two were there to see their favorite 1990's R&B singers at a casino, and had to be told why there were so many roughneck stallions afoot. They really liked Blast Furnace's mane, though; it reminded them of 80's mane rock.

A few minutes later, Smith Stone trotted over "Okay, we got room 245. Elevators are that way, and the restaurant has a long waiting list tonight because of the influx of visitors." he explained

"Everypony says the Final Furlong Bar & Grill is one of the best restaurants in the entire state. This is probably one of the side effects of being popular." noted Blast Furnace.

"Especially on a night like this." added Sun Beamer.

15 - Shadows

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Sun Beamer had to settle on having hayburgers for dinner instead of whatever was on the menu at that restaurant Blast Furnace kept hyping, but all was not lost for the night's plans. Blast Furnace had invited him to attend one of the many pre-Gathering nightclub meetups going on in the city that night, which give attendees a chance to mingle within the confines of civilization one last time before they head out, and outsiders a chance to become downright confused about what they've just trotted in on.

"The Twilight Lounge is on the same street as the hotel, but just a block or two ahead and on the other side of the street." Blast Furnace outlined, as the pair headed out in their garb. "Should be easy to find."

"I hope." Sun Beamer replied with hesitation as they walked down the main street. It felt like a mid-sized version of Las Pegasus, still dotted with casinos and neon signs everywhere, but at a more manageable scale.

"One of my favorite DJs is playing tonight, Shoreline~!" Blast Furnace announced. "Well, one of my favorite non-mainstream DJs, that is. The kind you'd usually expect to see out there in Duskgem."

"What genres does she do?" asked Sun Beamer

"Mainly deep house and techno. She has a very psychedelic stage presence." explained Blast Furnace. "We're actually acquaintances too, which is probably why I'm one of her top fangirls." Sun Beamer chuckled a bit.

"This is, by far, the biggest of the pre-Gathering parties in Reino, so I'm sure you'll enjoy it." Blast Furnace noted, as they crossed the street to the venue.

Blast Furnace and Sun Beamer trotted into the Twilight Lounge, which looked more like a saloon lit in blue than a lounge in their opinion. Regardless, it was a nightclub packed with Followers, who were either dancing, getting something from the bar, or just sitting down and tapping a hoof on the floor

Since Shoreline wasn't performing until a little later in the night, Sun Beamer and Blast Furnace decided to socialize a bit to pass the time. Blast Furnace encountered a few of the "regulars" that she had maintained correspondence with over the years, and Sun Beamer tried to see if he could get a few more tips for first-timers.

While he began to poke at some "premium" nachos, a unicorn mare with rose-gold eyes, a dark mane, an icy-looking coat, and a set of LED-illuminated armor walked by Sun Beamer's table.

"Holy cow..." Sun Beamer applauded. "That looks nuts."

"Thank you, yellow one. It took about 90 hours of work to put this together." the unicorn elaborated in a gloomy tone. "Lots of complex electronics, having to make it breathable, etc.."

"I've seen some crazy outfits at SSC Las Pegasus, but this is a whole new level of wickedness!" Sun Beamer proclaimed.

"SSC? That scrapheap of flashyfoals who are too afraid to journey to the Duskgem Basin?" she asked with sarcasm.

Sun Beamer was a bit confused by her choice of words. "Err, quick question: what's a 'flashyfoal'?"

"Someone who goes to the Gathering more concerned about costumes than actually preparing for survival. Often first-timers; this isn't another electronic music festival. This isn't one of those comic con things. This is a celebration of creativity, unity, and self-reliance. Not the DJ written in the largest font on the poster at a truck stop restaurant." she explained. "Everyone's a headliner in their own way."

"Oh? Well, I'm actually going to the Gathering for the first time this year." he disclosed, trying to maintain a positive reputation. "My friend Blast Furnace was showing me the ropes." Sun Beamer admitted.

"Blast Furnace... I recall that name. She has a good reputation for educating newcomers on how to properly conduct yourself in Duskgem City." the unicorn continued. "I've gone there many times, so I know what to expect. Especially if you're an electronic musician like me. I've performed there for 14 consecutive years and counting."

Sun Beamer was relieved that the mysterious unicorn was accepting his impending presence at the Gathering, . "Y'know, I don't think we ever introduced each other. I'm Sun Beamer, and I'm from Las Pegasus. Though some call me the Chaotic Kisol."

"I only give out my real name to close friends and others, but my stage name is The Diamond Diablo, or Diamond for short." she explained. "Was born in Seaddle, but I have extended family in New Oreins. I also visit Reino from time-to-time to spend time with the community of Followers. It's become such a major aspect of my identity and musical influence, that I actually became a member of a guild of Followers in New Oreins."

"Ooooh, cool!" exclaimed Sun Beamer.

"I'm not playing tonight, but you'll probably hear me a lot during the Gathering. I produce and play a lot of happy hardcore." Diamond continued.

"That's one of my favorite genres! Guess I'll have to look out for you." insisted Sun Beamer.

"Of course. It's nice to have new fans." noted Diamond. Sun Beamer was impressed by how loose and casual she was.

"While I'm here, given that I've been indirectly involved with the electronic music scene, do DJs like you have some sort of secret guild of other DJs you hang out with or something?"

"Yes. It's called a record label." snarked Diamond. They both laughed for a moment.

"Though on a related note, I've been helping out this crew of DJs out of Seaddle who are coming to the Gathering for the first time this year." Diamond acknowledged. "I think their names were Eight Track, Wave Rider, Train Spot, and Obscurus Noctis."

Sun Beamer froze for a moment, trying to comprehend what he just heard.

"Oh, yeah! Obscurus!" he announced with uncertainty. "She's got a very atmospheric and haunting style; it's a nice change of pace from some of the other stuff I've listened to lately."

"Agreed. My appreciation for her grew when I learned that she's from Seaddle too. Gotta support the local talent!" explained Diamond. "She also shares the opinions of many regarding the modern state of the Gathering of Embers, and how it's being overrun with EDM and uneducated flashyfoals who think this is just another music festival."

"Really, now?" asked Sun Beamer. He remained calm, hoping to gather more information about the revelations that had begun to emerge.

"She said that her squad was planning a 'large-scale multimedia experience' on Bonfire Saturday, but was rather light on the exact details." Diamond elaborated. "Besides the fact that it will be targeting the flashyfoals somehow."

"Uh, sorry to interrupt, but, I know some things about Obscurus that might change your opinion of her." interjected Sun Beamer.

"Go on." commanded Diamond.

"I'll give you the abridged version, but I had a beef with Obscurus a while back over certain matters. Then at the SSC, we had a confrontation where she tried to use this weird unicorn magic on me." Sun Beamer recounted.

"Weird unicorn magic? That's a new one." Diamond remarked. "Continue."

"It was some sort of virtual reality spell or something; she hacked into my eyesight somehow. However, I quickly realized that it had a short range." Sun Beamer continued. "Further investigation has led me to believe that this spell uses radio waves to some degree."

"Illusion spells. Though the radio part is something I haven't seen before." Diamond observed.

"In what I've observed from her postings, music, and public demeanour, I think her morals are also quite questionable." Sun Beamer noted. "She was threatening to plunge everypony at the festival in Las Pegasus into an 'infinite night'. It ended up being the title of an EP she released the following Wednesday, since you always release something new after your big festival performance. No exceptions."

"I still think she was wanting to do some mass hypnosis during her set." speculated Sun Beamer. "Right before she used the spell, she was threatening to make me her 'permanent roadie' for trying to 'expose' her plot to 'destroy' EDM. I think it has something to do with mainstream dance music eroding her audience, though. Just like how it's supposedly eroding the Gathering."

"Does she not fully understand the principles of peace, love, unity, and respect?" blurted Diamond, while hitting a button to change her armor lighting from a pastel rainbow to a red heartbeat. "They may have originated from the the culture of electronic music under the catchy acronym 'PLUR', but they are equally relevant elsewhere." Her demeanour had become serious and threatening.

"It sounds like that she's the kind of pony who strives to find something to blame for their shortcomings or problems, rather than try to find an actual solution." she angrily continued while a crowd of curious onlookers gathered.

"I wasn't really planning on going to the Gathering to defeat her, though." Sun Beamer rebutted. "I didn't even know she was going to be there at all until today, but it's nice to know I may have found another ally."

"While I don't consider myself to be a gourmet chef..." Diamond jokingly proclaimed, while she metaphorically and literally disabled her rage mode, "I don't think there's anything stopping us from making justice the main course."

Sun Beamer and Diamond high-fived, while Blast Furnace trotted up alongside them. "Hey, Sun Beamer, Shoreline's getting ready!" she announced.

"Oh, gotta get back to the dance floor." said Sun Beamer, "My friend here really loves Shoreline, as you may have noticed."

"Alright. I'll get you some contact information so we can stay in touch about the matter. I don't know what we can do about her, but I'm sure we could gather more intelligence somehow."

16 - Music to Their Ears

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As Seashore took the stage to a rousing ovation in Reino, Obscurus Noctis and her crew were also giving a big performance tonight on their way to the Neighvada Desert. Where they chose to perform, however, was much to be desired.

The Tantabus and Traintruck rolled up near a rather rundown-looking building in downtown Kimberwicke Falls, with a flickering sign.

"'Tap of the Falls'; this is it?" questioned Eight Track. "This is where you got your gig?"

"It's the only appropriate venue in the city; I kind of had no choice." Obscurus defended. "Everything else sounded like a country music venue or a sports bar. I don't think I'm classified as country, but that may give me ideas for the future."

"Oh boy, can't wait to hear that next single drop." Train Spot sarcastically replied. "Though, that night have given me ideas too."

They trotted inside; it didn't look too bad, but it definitely wasn't the kind of high-class venue they were used to. There was a lot of wood, and the dancefloor area was decorated with blinking Hearth's Warming lights. There was a TV trying to show a hoofball game, but with very bad reception.

"Yep, gonna have a real party in here tonight." Wave Rider whispered to Train Spot sarcastically. His suit had brighter-looking lights than the rest of the room. "And there's barely anyone here yet."

"Though, it's only 8:30. Give it time." assured Train Spot, as she adjusted her goggles.

A unicorn bartender noticed their arrival; "Welcome to the Tap! I presume you're the musicians I booked for tonight?"

"You have presumed correctly, barkeep." said Obscurus.

"Wait, hold on a second! You look like some of those electronic music-type DJs." the Barkeep observed.

"Again, you've presumed correctly. What were you expecting, today's best hits and yesterday's classics?" Obscurus replied. "We're the kind of disk jockeys that produce and perform."

"In that case, let me make a few, ahem, 'adjustments'." The barkeeper walked over to a closet behind the bar and began messing with a few switches and buttons.

Suddenly, an entire armada of lighting effects began to activate; black lights turned on everywhere, and even the row of bottles behind the bar itself was now rainbow-colored. Last but not least, a set curtains on the stage drew open to reveal large speakers, a video screen, and a pair of laser machines among other things. All four of them gasped at the sight.

"Sorry about that. I really like musicians like you, but I usually keep all this extra stuff turned off because my regulars aren't really into the atmosphere." the barkeeper explained. "So on the off chance that I do host acts like you..." He winked and grinned.

"Now this is more like it!" applauded Train Spot. "How do you like these apples, Obscurus? Wait ... Obscurus?"

Meanwhile, Obscurus was metaphorically drooling over their choices in audio equipment.

"Your speakers are 1980's Technis. I absolutely, positively adore Technis; they are, by far, the best speakers money can buy,. she acknowledged. "Especially those from the 1980's; the newer models aren't as rich."

"Also, I'm really digging the atmosphere, but do you think you could turn the Hearth's Warming lights back on?" requested Obscurus "They added a nice kitsch to things."

"If you say so." replied the barkeeper. He went back into the closet to conjure some holiday cheer.

Obscurus trotted back to the bar. "Have you hosted any big names here before?"

"Not really." the barkeeper replied. "Though, you mentioned something about going to that Embers thing in Neighvada; I've actually hosted some shows with this DJ who's been there a lot. The 'Demon of Diamonds' or something to that effect."

"If it's the pony I think it is, I think her name was 'Diamond Diablo'." Wave Rider added.

"She's actually been helping us out with our first trip there." said Obscurus.

"While I'm here, I'm just wondering; where are y'all from?" the barkeeper asked.

"We drove all the way from Seaddle, Me and Eight Track moved there from Mareami a while back." answered Obscurus. "The clubs there were just so majestic. But at the same time, you had to pay a hoof and a leg just to get in, and getting booked to play at one was a completely different story..."

"Well, you're always welcome here!" the barkeeper exclaimed. "Unless Ol' Stallion Jones and The Bluegrass Bonanza get booked instead; in that case, see you tomorrow." Obscurus and Wave Rider laughed.

"He tends to prefer Sunday nights, by the way." the barkeeper added after an awkward pause. "If you need help setting up your mixers, just holler for me. In the meantime, I gotta do some last-minute promotional activities so you'll actually have an audience."

"Unless there's something unusual about your rig, it should be relatively straightforward." noted Obscurus

17 - They've Got to Find a Way

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After their "Clausula Only" concert at The Tap, Obscurus & Co. checked into a double-bed suite at a small hotel nearby.

"I guess that was a success!" exclaimed Train Spot, who had lept onto one of the beds. "Did you get a count of attendance?"

"I counted at least 12 during out set." noted Wave Rider. "Not bad for a city of 20,000, scheduling your gig on such short notice, and in a city that I didn't think even had an electronic music culture of any size to begin with."

"And the owner slash bartender of that place appears to really enjoy my music in particular." acknowledged Obscurus. ". He burned my latest digital release to a CD-R right before we left, just so I could autograph-"

Suddenly, the frame of Train Spot's bed fell apart. Everypony else chuckled at their perdicament.

"Uh, if anyone asks, it was like this when we got here." advised Wave Rider.

"It was made of wood, and it has a coil spring mattress. That's how old it was." Train Spot reported. "Who cut the corners on our accommodations?"

Eight Track blushed in embarrassment, and quietly went back to his phone.

"He thought it would be too embarrassing to camp in a relatively populated city." noted Obscurus. "On a related topic, I presume our route to Duskgem is ironed out?"

"To an extent. The only issue I've really noticed is that we'll literally be driving through uninhabited badlands with relatively few services." replied Wave Rider as he dug out a few more maps.

"In other words, get your gas and munchies before civilization ends." added Train Spot, still sitting on the mattress that had fallen on the floor. "Though I deliberately chose a longer route just because it passed through more cities."

"Either way, things dry up once you reach Neighvada, until you reach this little town called Exmoor." continued Wave Rider. "It's the last stop before the Gathering coming from this direction."

"Remind me why we couldn't just book a flight to Reino like everypony else?" queried Obscurus.

"Too much cargo. Way too much." replied Eight Track.

"Now, just so you're aware, the Gathering proper doesn't start until Saturday, but anyone with approved camps and artwork can actually arrive early to set things up." Wave Rider continued. "Despite this, Saturday is considered more of a 'day 0' for last-minute prep, and everypony that absolutely, positively wants to be there from the moment it starts."

"What does this mean to us?" Obscurus questioned.

"Going by our schedule, we have, starting tomorrow, 3 days to set up Eight Track's House of Pancakes, and 9 to set up the magical sentry towers." Train Spot explained. "Shockingly, I was able to get official approval for all of them. I guess they strictly deny the legend of the Titan Below."

"You know, the more I've investigated that legend, the more I've begun to think that it's bonkers." Eight Track admitted. "It feels like elaborate fanfiction; dimensional stabilization, a beast sealed underground in the middle of nowhere, you can summon it by doing this very specific thing, etc."

"Surely, if technology like that existed, there would be official records of it. Plus, I found nothing about such claims outside of communities related to the Gathering. This is probably just an inside joke some artist concocted to justify doing the exact same thing we're doing." Eight Track concluded.

"Yeah. Me and Eight Track were actually discussing that earlier, and I am starting to agree with him." acknowledged Obscurus. "But, let's not forget that you are in the presence of a unicorn with a few tricks up her metaphorical sleeves."

"I said that we were going to show all those uneducated, Gathering newbie, flashyfoal, EDM fans, what this event ... that I have never been to before ... is all about!" Obscurus boasted."Whether it involves summoning a monster, or literally just making one up with my imagination."

She dramatically put on her blue skull bandana, and stood up on the other bed. "Gather around the Blazicorn, everypony. I'm going to tell one of the most immersive campfire stories of all time. Mwhahahahaha! Oh!"

The second bed just fell apart too, sending Obscurus tumbling onto her back. Everypony else was reduced to laughter.

"I'm alright. It was just a soft, yet springy landing." reassured Obscurus, getting back up on all-fours. "Also, Eight Track, could you please remind me to give this place a two-star review when we get home?"

18 - Art of the Mess

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Train Spot had a tendency to make things more complicated than they needed to be; this morning in the hotel lobby, she had only just started printing out directions from here to Duskgem Basin, meticulously engineered to pass by as many gas stations as possible just in case. They had been using their phones' GPS beforehand, until Eight Track pointed out that cellular reception is next to none in the badlands they were about to travel into.

"It doesn't seem as complicated as I thought it would be, even by their standards." observed Eight Track, reading the two-page document being printed in quadruplicate. "Though, the weather reports in northwest Neighvada are calling for high winds and dust storms!"

"Oh, nice." Wave Rider responded, with a sarcastic deadpan. "This is what we signed up for. This is what we signed up for..." he mumbled to himself in panic as Obscurus walked towards them.

"Just checked out; the mare at the front desk said to not worry about the beds that 'broke before we got here'." Obscurus reported, verbally putting air quotes around her bold-faced lie. "They literally just got new owners a week ago, and they're starting renovations very soon."

"Should we hold off on those 2-star reviews, then?" asked Train Spot.

"If they do the right improvements, and we have an excuse to come back, they might be able to get at least a 3." said Wave Rider.

"There was a curious spike in traffic from users in Oatergon on the Clausula Records website this morning." noted Eight Track. "If we have legitimate fans here giving us 5-star reviews, I don't see why not."

"Well, it's a relief that this last-minute gig worked out good for us. But we have bigger gigs just down the road, let's go!" Obscurus announced, leading them on their way out of the hotel.


Train Spot's route went south out of Oatergon into Californeigh, then began to veer east to head towards Neighvada. The drive into Californeigh was relatively uneventful, but Obscurus insisted on stopping in a fairly large (by nearing-the-middle-of-nowhere standards) city along the route for lunch, and to buy some additional food and water from a grocery store before they ran out. Unlike those along the routes from Reino to Duskgem, these stores weren't being scalped up by those travelling to a certain arts event in the desert that we, must once again insist, is not a music festival, but there was still quite a bit of traffic that seemed to be heading the same way.

"This forest we're winding through is nice." Train Spot observed.

"Once again, I am shocked that you are able to wind through this without tipping the truck over.." noted Wave Rider.

"Driving a semi is a lot like driving a train. You just have to know what your vehicle can do, and drive attentively." explained Train Spot. "For example, trains can only travel down tracks. Oh, and I practised."

The Tanta-bus closely followed the Electro Express as they crossed the state line into Neighvada, where the driving conditions were starting to worsen. At the same time, the route was increasingly dotted with other vans and campers making the same journey they were.

"Welcome back to Neighvada, Nocty." announced Eight Track. Obscurus was in the back seat, lounging and sipping at some bottled lemonade.

"There wasn't a fancy sign or anything. It just, happened." observed Obscurus. "It's nice that there are parts of Neighvada where it's not about excessive glitz and glamor, but you were right about how barren it is."

"Yeah. It's very underpopulated, for sure." replied Eight Track. "You begin to wonder if anypony legitimately uses this road often, outside of the Gathering obviously."

Obscurus could hear and feel the wind starting to pick up.

"It's so barren that you can't see much in front of you." Obscurus warned, teasing the duststorm brewing in front of them.

"Just as they said it would..." Eight Track calmly admitted. "Nocty, fetch me my goggles. Wave retrofitted them all with amber lenses; if they work for snowstorms, they might just work well here."

Speaking of Wave Rider, the pegasus had taken the drivers' seat of the Electro Express following their final pit stop before exiting Californeigh, but was beginning to regret it given the environmental circumstances. His driving style was a tiny bit more erratic than Train Spot, given that they are a unicorn and can obviously use their magic for finer control of the steering. Wave Rider, however, only had hooves and pegasus wings to work with.

"Train Spot, I think this is the sandstorm Eight Track was warning us about!" Wave Rider acknowledged in agony.

"Just stay calm... Try to look as far ahead as you can. Keep it slow, there's a lot of other drivers on this road, it seems." advised Train Spot. "I guess we could think of it as the Gathering's tutorial level."

"Good advice." replied Wave Rider. "Speaking of video game analogies, this visibility is like I'm playing with short draw distance on my Ponetium 4 Dual-Core."

"And speaking of visibility, I think maybe we should turn on some extra lights so others can see us in the dust cloud." continued Wave Rider. "Better to be safe than sorry."

"You want lights? I got 'em!" announced Train Spot. They got a little tablet-like device out of the dashboard that Wave Rider had programmed, and started pressing various buttons on it. "Activating Electro Express lighting program /lightcues/slowSubtleRainbow/default.lua in 3 ... 2 .... 1!"

Suddenly, a slew of LED lights along the edges of the trailer turned on, with a slow-moving pastel rainbow effect. It wasn't bright, especially in the overcast sky and dust storm, but it was somewhat noticeable from behind.

"Wait, why is that truck in front of us lit up in rainbows?" Obscurus asked in disbelief, noticing the vehicle in front of them.

"That's Train Spot's truck. I think they're trying to let us know where they are." noted Eight Track.

"Oh, right " Obscurus cuddled back up, continuing to munch on snacks in the back seat. "Hopefully this lets up soon, but in the meantime..."

"By my calculations, I think we're only an hour away from Exmoor, and that's only about 20 minutes from Duskgem ... assuming a lack of traffic, of course." briefed Eight Track.


Both Eight Track and Wave Rider made it through the sandstorm in one piece, and the road to Exmoor was relatively smooth sailing from there.

Except that Train Spot may or may not have miscalculated the amount of fuel they had left, and were running very low just before Exmoor. Once again, Wave Rider was becoming stressed by the ordeal.

"Don't panic, Wavey. This is by no means comparable to a dust storm." advised Train Spot. "There's a Scael station right when you enter Exmoor, you can't miss it."

No matter which direction you drove from, Exmoor was the last major point of interest on the way to the Gathering; it was a small, outpost-like town that, right now, was populated mainly by those en route to this mysterious event. As promised, the Electro Express didn't miss the Scael station, it just fell very, very, very, very, very short of it: the truck slowed to a stand-still near the diesel pump, but not close enough to actually use it.

"If only we put just one more coal in the fire..." admitted Train Spot, as the two ponies got out of the truck.

"This is going to be awkward." realized Wave Rider, "Can the fuel nozzle even reach that far?"

"If the hose is long enough; I might as well give it a try." Train Spot tried to levitate the nozzle to get it in the tank. It got close, but not close enough to actually get it into the fill cap. "GOSH DARN IT!"

Wave Rider facehoofed. "If only the truck was just a single foot closer... wait, Train Spot, would it be possible to move the truck closer with your magic?"

"Sorry, no can do. The standard Unicorn object manipulation spells actually have a weight limit. Probably to prevent abuse by those not specialized in the field." confessed Train Spot. "Such as me, for example."

Wave Rider flew to the top of the trailer. "Uhh, we need a little help here?!" he announced, trying to attract some assistance. "We just need somepony ... or some ponies ... who can push a semi-truck about a foot or so. We're on our way to the Gathering of Embers, and our truck literally ran out of gas before we could reach the pumps!!"

The Tanta-bus was approaching the town as well.

"We just made it to Exmoor, Nocty" said Eight Track. "It's the last town before Duskgem, so I think this would be a good time to stretch our hooves, refuel, and meet up with ... huh?"

Obscurus and Eight Track arrived to the sight of Train Spot, Wave Rider, and a group of other ponies trying to push the Electro Express toward the diesel pump.

"I don't think I want to know what they've gotten themselves into..." said Eight Track, staring in disbelief at the scene.

"Was this what they meant when it said that the Followers of the Embers share their strength with others?" queried Obscurus.

"Maybe?" answered Eight Track.

19 - ???

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Back in Reino, Sun Beamer and Blast Furnace spent the day doing some errands in preparation for tomorrow's expedition. Among other things, they finally got to have some lunch at the Final Furlong ("It was worth waiting 14 hours just to get a table. 5/5, would eat here again"), and then spent the early afternoon doing photo shoots to fill Blast Furnace's auto-post queue on Ponygram. They spent the rest of the day lounging around in their hotel room (one with beds that didn't fall apart the moment you got on them, mind you), but Sun Beamer still had one more errand of his own to attend to.

Via text messages, Diamond Diablo had given Sun Beamer her username on a messaging app called Haybale, and instructed him to add her there.

"Have you ever heard of Haybale before?" Sun Beamer asked.

"Actually, yes. They launched a beta about a month ago, and it was made by some ponies who are Gathering regulars." responded Blast Furnace.

"Does it do anything special?" replied Sun Beamer, who was becoming intrigued by it.

"It supports something called 'mesh networking'; if there's no internet connection, it activates a mode that routes messages via everyone else's phones." explained Blast Furnace. "They said it would be very useful at the Gathering, given that there's very little cell or internet service out in the Neighvada Desert."

Sun Beamer could see why the Diablo would want him to use a messaging service that theoretically worked anywhere (well, anywhere there was a high concentration of fellow Haybale users, that is).


Friend request accepted

ddiablo#50920 connected to ddiablo#50920 via internet relay server west.haybale.pony


"Greetings, yellow one who is also a chaotic one I guess." read Sun Beamer, "Well, that is the screen name I use for a lot of things, though I think I'm more of a gold-orange than yellow."

He awaited a response from the Diablo; "Welcome to Haybale; this is a messenger that was developed by one of my friends. It actually works anywhere."

"What's she talking about?" Blast Furnace asked.

"She's just bringing up the things about Haybale you were talking about earlier." clarified Sun Beamer. "Except for the fact that she's a friend of one of the developers, so I guess that's why she's pushing it too."

"Fair enough; it's a small world." noted Blast Furnace.

Diamond Diablo had asked Sun Beamer to provide some additional information about his previous encounters with Obscurus Noctis&emdash;especially those which concerned the illusion spell she had been using.

"You told me this happened a few minutes after Swedish Horse Mafia's set at the Solstice Fortress stage, right?" asked Blast Furnace.

"Yeah. You never leave before 'Save the World'. Especially if you're the one who flicks the switch for the pyro." noted Sun Beamer. "Not that I was the one specifically doing it. My shift was already over by then. Plus a lot of it is computerized too."

"I did see you a few times, especially on Saturday and Sunday night." recalled Blast Furnace. " I think I may have actually seen you under the influence of that spell; to get from QTrot to the Moonbase, you had to pass by the main stage, and I do recall seeing a unicorn chasing somepony towards Solstice Fortress just past midnight."

"I didn't actually think it was you, though." clarified Blast Furnace. "This pony was 'dancing' erratically; when I saw you up close, you had some very smooth moves!"

Sun Beamer blushed and chuckled a bit. "Why thank you..."

After a few more minutes of exposition to their new ally, it soon became apparent that she was onto something.

"Gold-orange one, I think I know what was going on here." Diablo had begun to type.

"Blast Furnace, I think you may want to see this!" announced Sun Beamer. "It turns out that there were a few seemingly insignificant details in my story that are actually quite important."

The pegasus immediately flew above him to get a good view of the phone screen. "Oh? This is gonna be good." declared Blast Furnace as a few blocks of text appeared in the chat..

"Okay; apparently there were a few quirks in Obscurus's behavior that night which tipped Diablo off on the kind of magic she was using." explained Sun Beamer. "She is skilled in a class of illusionary spells called a 'mind broadcast'."

"I'm guessing that's the 'virtual reality spell' we've occasionally discussed, right?" queried Blast Furnace.

"Yeah. But the rabbit hole gets deeper..." continued Sun Beamer. "Diablo was doing research this morning; certain variations of this spell have a different 'magical signature' - i.e. how your horn glows or pulses when you use it, than others. The version she used had a ripple-like wave, which has some unique characteristics."

"And that means?" anticipated Blast Furnace.

"Now, here's the funky part; I mentioned the fact that she put on headphones before casting the spell, and that by the time the visions were flickering, I was at the Solstice Fortress, and some unicorn raving with a large pair of glowsticks was bumping the aforementioned headphones off Obscurus's head." recalled Sun Beamer "And then the visions stopped."

"It turns out that the version of the mind broadcast Obscurus knows is actually quite weak on its own, and requires the use of something called 'binaural amplification'." continued Sun Beamer. "You have to be listening to something containing specific tones that do something in your mind or something like that. She isn't quite sure how it works either, or how we can easily nullify it without engaging her directly."

"You were also talking about radio waves?" asked Blast Furnace.

"I was on to something there; this particular mind broadcast spell propagates through a type of radio frequency known to cause interference with CB and FM radio." explained Sun Beamer. "That explains what was going on with those truckers."

"Wow." said a shocked Blast Furnace.

"Oh, one more thing. Diablo has also warned me that this version of the spell can also replace or augment someone's vision. Most versions only replace." concluded Sun Beamer.

"So, how are we going to deal with it if Obscurus does do something shady during the Gathering?" inquired Blast Furnace.

"We don't know. Diablo said that we should all keep in touch via Haybale during the Gathering." advised Sun Beamer. "She's kind of befriended Obscurus's posse, so she should be able to keep tabs on-"

"Wait, she has a posse?" interrupted Blast Furnace.

"Yeah, I don't know if this posse is new or if I just didn't know about it." noted Sun Beamer. "I think she mentioned their names at one point, but they seemed quite benign. Probably just all on the same label or something."

"I see what you mean. But like I said earlier, don't let this overwhelm your first-ever Gathering." advised Blast Furnace. " It's just one potentially-troublesome needle in a haystack of 50,000 on average!"

"Yeah." agreed Sun Beamer. "Given what Diablo told me when we first met, I'm betting you that she's saving whatever she's going to do for the night that they burn the wooden pony thing."

"Colloquially known as the Blazicorn." corrected Blast Furnace. "Yeah, catchy nickname, huh?" She winked and smiled.

20 - Descent

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"Wait, Orange-gold one! Before I forget; I think I have a hunch about something that could help you. But you'll need to get something on your way out of the city; they sell these a lot over the Summer so you can use them at fairs and stuff, though you might be able to find some at the Gathering too, as they can enhance things for, ahem, certain audiences."


Back in Exmoor, Train and Wave managed to refuel their truck (with the help of some summons to push it, of course), and were now setting off on the final stage of their route. Going on four hours worth of driving, they were only 35 minutes away from Duskgem on paper. However, that calculation assumed that there was nopony else on the road...

"To be honest, I think I miscalculated things just a little bit." admitted Wave Rider.

"An employee told me that he had never seen anypony run out of gas like that in his 6 years of working there." noted Train Spot. "It's certainly not the only issue we've had so far." she remarked, hinting about a certain other subject.

"For the record, the hotel kerfuffle was partly my fault." explained Wave Rider. "I had been working on the lighting system for Eight Track's camp all day; when he came over to check on my progress, he asked for opinions on hotels. I was in a rush to get back to my programming, so I just told him to pick the cheapest hotel that didn't look too shady."

"'Falls Express Motel' did sound a little shady, to be honest." admitted Train Spot. "I swear I've never seen spring mattresses since when I was a little filly. It's all about that foam nowadays; it's more comfy, but it's not as bouncy."

"Yeah

Meanwhile, the Tanta-bus was following them close behind, where Obscurus continued to lounge in the backseat in anticipation of their arrival.

"The traffic's slower than usual for a road like this, but at least this gives us some time to do some final sanity checks." noted Eight Track. "Where are the tickets? Did we put them in the dashboard or something?"

"The tickets and stuff are not in the dashboard, because they are right here, next to me, in their nice little carrybox." acknowledged Obscurus, levitating said box to confirm their presence. "It actually is pretty nice, almost like how you ship out music festival passes nowadays."

"Good. I also did an inventory of the Electro Express while we were in Exmoor. Everything was accounted for, so we should be ready when we get there .... eventually." declared Eight Track.

"With that out of the way, I think it's about time to set the mood." announced Obscurus, as she got out her phone. "I'd like to give you a sneak preview of episode 1 of my brand new podcast slash radio show, 'Tripping Wires'."

"I got it set up to automatically post it on my website tomorrow, and I'll record some sets at the Gathering to use for future editions." explained Obscurus. "Train Spot and Wave Rider told me that they were able to maintain and increase fan engagement between concerts and releases by doing radio shows like this."

"I've been meaning to get around to starting one too; I always thought that podcasts would reduce interest in my live shows because they're basically getting my content in hour-long instalments for free." noted Eight Track. "But then I saw how Train Spot and Wave Rider were using them to hype up their releases and concerts; they were talking about wanting to plan a massive rave to jointly celebrate their 50th episodes."

"They better invite us, of course." remarked Obscurus.

"Trust me. They will." confirmed Eight Track. "It'll likely end up being a seven-hour infomercial for our label as a whole."

"Hopefully some of the Followers will also become followers of our own, if you know what I mean..." teased Obscurus. "I dug up a ton of deep cuts; Diablo got me some nice gigs, so consider this mix to be a preview of what I'll be dropping in Duskgem!"


About 70 minutes later, as the sun was beginning to set on the desert road, everypony's anticipation reached a boiling point when they saw a sign that read "Ahead: Nothing, except for everything."

"This is the pool of surrealist weirdness we're about to dive head-first into." noted Train Spot.

"Good thing we've learned to swim." joked Wave Rider.

The Electro Express was eventually directed into a somewhat long entry line marked with a banner; "Gathering '17: Sight Beyond Reality". There were a slew of pegasi stationed at gates up ahead; when the truck reached them, one of them flew up to the drivers' side window to check Train Spot and Wave Rider's tickets, provide some tips on navigating the basin, and maybe fanmare on the job just a little bit.

"For somepony who is supposedly new to the Gathering, you two have gotten a lot of things down pat." complimented the attendant pegasus. "Wait, hold on a second ... aren't you Train Spot and Wave Rider?"

"Uh, maybe!" Train Spot uncertainly replied as the pegasus looked on.

"Actually, yes." acknowledged Wave Rider.

"Did I mention how much I love your music? You're a great duo!" the pegasus announced with enthusiasm.

"For the record, we perform together from time to time, and we're friends, but technically we're not a duo." clarified Wave Rider.

"Yet." interjected Train Spot, giggling in happiness at the notion.

"Wait, actually, uh, hold on..." Wave Rider turned around to his passenger. "Hmm, I had an idea about that." he whispered.

"Oh? If we're really doing that, can I have a suit like yours too?" whispered Train Spot.

"Of course." Wave Rider quietly replied. The pegasus noticed that her ship was embarking on a new voyage.

"Yeah, we're a duo! Wave Rider and Train Spot! That's us!" he announced.

"Not like a cool alter-ego band name or anything?" the pegasus asked as her supervisor looked on, wondering what the hold-up was about.

"That's to be determined." replied Wave Rider.

"So your group is called is To Be Determined?" asked the pegasus.

"No, no, no. We're going to decide it later. It's not actually 'To Be Determined'." clarified Wave Rider, trying to ensure that Who wasn't really on first.

"Oh, okay." remarked the pegasus. "Anyway, I think my boss is going to yell at me if I don't let you through soon, so welcome to the Gathering of Embers! Stay safe, drink water, don't leave any trash around, we burn in eight days, et cetera! Avanti!"

"You know what this calls for?" asked an excited Train Spot.

"Oh, for real this time?" confirmed Wave Rider, as Train dug out a tablet out of the dashboard again.

"Eeyup." declared Train Spot. She tapped a few buttons to activate the Electro Express's "Inferno" lighting mode, as it embarked on the final stretch of road heading towards the makeshift city.

"Ladies and gentlecolts, the Electro Express is now arriving in Duskgem Basin!"

21 - Obscurus Noctis invades Duskgem Basin

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Soon after, Obscurus and Eight Track also rolled up to the entry stations, encountering the exact same pegasus.

"Welcome to the Gathering! I'll presume you know the drills around here, given that I almost got reprimanded by my supervisor for slowing down the entry queue because I spent just a bit more time than usual talking talking to some very famous DJs!" she gushed.

"But who?" wondered Obscurus. "By the way, we're both DJs too. I'm Obscurus Noctis, and the driver here is Eight Track."

"Hello there." welcomed Eight Track.

"I've kind of heard of you, Eight Track. But I've never heard of Obscurus." reported the pegasus, as Obscurus blushed in uncertainty.

"But I've definitely heard of Train Spot and Wave Rider!" exclaimed the pegasus. "They told me they were going to form a DJ duo! Those two ponies really do like each other..."

"We run Wave Rider's label. Without us they're wouldn't be him. But please, feel free to check out our other works." replied Obscurus.

"Okay?" questioned the pegasus.

"Oh, and someone told us that you also have to give people gifts out here. How about a copy of our new EPs to expand your musical tastes?" offered Eight Track. "Ahem, how about a copy of our new EPs?" reiterated Eight Track, trying to prompt Obscurus to do something.

"Yes, of course!" confirmed Obscurus; she opened another box in the back seat and levitated over some CD-Rs, enclosed within small, hoof-labelled manila packets that gave them a questionable, underground feel.

The perimeter pegasus slipped the musical objects into her saddle bag. Hopefully she could accept the fact that there was more to life than progressive house.


If anyone had not yet realized what they had gotten themselves into, this was the moment they would. Obscurus, Eight Track, Train Spot, and Wave Rider had waited about 3 hours in the lineup at the perimeter, and now they were stuck in stop-and-go, but slightly faster traffic leading towards Duskgem proper. Dusk had fallen over the desert, and their estimated time of arrival was now about 2 minutes or so.

When the Tanta-bus closed in on the outskirts of the Ring, Obscurus decided to take a glimpse out the window to see what was in store for her over the next few days.

"This is exactly what everypony said it was going to be like. It's the lights of Las Pegasus, mixed with a satisfying post-apocalyptic overtone." observed Obscurus. "I think we're going to fit in here."

"Yep." replied Eight Track, as he began to circle the Ring to head towards their campsites. "Do you want me to call you the Engraged Equine too?"

"Actually, no." Obscurus reluctantly replied. She had differing interests in this particular genre.

"Why not 'Arakiss Fremare'?" asked Eight Track

"I guess that works. Sounds like a good name for a bandito." acknowledged Obscur-ahem, Arakiss. "Guess you could say that 'Arakiss' is going to cause 'a ruckus'."

Eight Track chuckled a bit."Nopony will ever get my obscure pop-cultural tastes." he remarked, as he finally parked the Tanta-bus. "Anyway, I guess we can now officially welcome ourselves to Duskgem City."

Obscurus put on her steampunk goggles, as well a very freaky looking grin of excitement, and slid open the door. "The deviance begins ... now!" she announced, stepping onto the sandy playa like she was the first pony to walk on the moon without being banished there first.

Eight Track, on the other hoof, did not place such a large emphasis on this moment, and was instead focused on scouting out the landmarks around them that would help them find their way back.

"Think of the Ring like a clock. We're at about 7:45. Just over there is a camp with some sort of animatronic draconequus sculpture. Over there is the blazicorn, and of course, once its built, this is where Eight Track's House of Pancakes is going to be. Last but not least, over there is where of the sentry towers is going to go." explained Eight Track

"Given our changes in plans for next Saturday, you can still put them up, but what I really need access to is an FM radio transmitter." noted Obscurus.

"Radio? There's only two radio stations out here, one is called 'Gem FM' and is basically music mixed with talk about the Gathering and all that. The other is something called 'PVFM'; they got a few DJs but apparently they do allow others to come over to the studio and hold shows." Eight Track elaborated.

"Then I'd need a show during the burn. Hopefully they didn't pre-schedule someone, or else I may have to preempt them for my 'dynamic multimedia experience'." added Obscurus. "But for now, I think I need to stretch my legs a bit."

Obscurus put on the rest of her outfit and set off; she wanted to acclimatize herself to the atmosphere, but also wanted to see if she could find Train Spot and Wave Rider. Her surroundings were dizzying; everything was either a campsite, neon-lit, or shooting out fireballs every so often. A large fraction of the population were riding around on bikes with glowing wheels, or on bizarre-looking trucks that looked like dragons and cerberuses (and, of course, could also breathe fire. What did you expect?). The pegasi above almost looked like multi-colored fireflies with the lights and glowsticks they were brandishing.

Then, Obscurus found what appeared to be a nightclub built inside a string of train cars; she debated whether she should treat this as a spoiler to Train Spot or not. A few moments later, she found another makeshift building with a yellow, animated sign reading "BREAD", in cursive writing, for no perceptible reason.

"Bread?!?" she loudly whispered to herself. "Is there some inside joke here I'm not getting? Is this a commentary on something? I need to know the context of this. If any."

"Thenagain, it's art. Does it even need to make sense?"

22 - Open Your Eyes

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"I think we nailed the desert aesthetic down well for a first-timer with these." remarked Wave Rider, after having finished one of the sentries thay had planned to build.

"They've really got a foreboding look to them." replied Train Spot. "Much like everything else here that isn't coated in lighting just because."

"At least our description of this place as being half Enraged Equine, half electronic music festival aesthetic was accurate." noted Wave Rider, as he flew to the top of one of their towers to look around.

"I hope Obscurus didn't have issues figuring out how to navigate this the playa, since it's basically a gigantic clock. I told her we were around the rim at 4:00, as in this part of Duskgem is laid out in spokes towards the center where the blazicorn is through a series of lanes that are similar in layout and positioning to the face of a standard, 12-hour clock. Not that we'd be there at 4:00 p.m., since it's actually about 9:15 right now." he continued.

"Oh, there she comes!" observed Train Spot, as they noticed Obscurus slowly trotting up towards them, levitating a flashlight under her head for dramatic effect.

"Well, I think it's about time that you found us." Wave Rider announced. "See Train, I can do the pun stuff too." They shrugged.

"So, how were your first hours at the Gathering of Embers?" asked Train Spot.

"They were full of inside jokes I don't understand ... except for a few, maybe." elaborated Obscurus. "But I did get sidetracked at this little nightclub thing that had an awesome smoothie stand, and this equally awesome griffon spinning some Mareami bass I haven't heard in years!"

"How was yours?" she asked.

"Well, we put up two of the sentry towers that are totally not going to be doing anything special next Saturday, except maybe a special little light show I programmed." noted Wave Rider.

"Don't worry, we got help assembling them. Providing labor for others is just as much of a gift as everything else that is classified as one." added Train Spot.

"Apparently..." Obscurus interjected. "I must say that your truck sounds pretty good too, besides the fact that the mid-range sounds a bit weak and that there's a bit too much bass."

"My music sounds better like this!" replied Train Spot. "Gimme all the bass! ALL OF IT!"

"Actually, on second thought, maybe this a bit too much low-end..." acknowledged Train Spot, who hopped into the trailer to fiddle with the sliders a bit. "It's a little hard to judge when the speakers are outside but the equalizer panel is inside... just give me a moment."

"While we're here, where's Eight Track?" asked Wave Rider.

"Back at our campsite." Obscurus explained. "He's got a 1:40 a.m. set tonight at a camp called Infinite Heart, and he wanted to get his 'preparations' out of the way beforehand so he could have time to explore before the show."

"Infinite Heart? That sounds familiar..." Wave Rider wondered.

"Yeah, I think you said that it was a long-running fixture at the Gathering, always getting bigger every year." added Obscurus. "One of Infinite Heart's headliners this year is actually a friend of his from back in Mareami. When she heard that Eight Track was going this year, she just had to pass a referral over to their scouts to squeeze him in."

"Speaking of headliners, I don't think I told you about who I'm going to be doing a B2B with on Friday at the Break 'O Dawn!" Wave Rider excitedly teased.

"A what?" wondered Obscurus. "You know I don't understand much of your EDM lingo."

"Back-to-back set. Two DJs at once. You've done those with Eight Track before, much like I've increasingly done with Train." clarified Wave Rider.

"Oh, I didn't know there was an actual shorthand for those." acknowledged Obscurus. "By the way, Train Spot, this sounds better!"

"Thanks!" yelled Train Spot from inside the truck.

"Yeah." continued Wave Rider. "But it's who I'm doing this with that is the real surprise."

"Let me guess, Train Spot." Obscurus sarcastically responded.

"No no no, it's not one of us. Though actually Train Spot's gonna be in it too, I forgot to add." noted Wave Rider. "But the is someone rather well-known within my preferred genres, He was downright flattered when he discovered me and learned that he was my biggest influence."

"I would have randomly guessed Diablo next if not for that." acknowledged Obscurus.

"Didn't you say you were doing a performance alongside her on Friday too?" asked Wave Rider.

"Yes, I guess I am doing one of those bee set things with her on Friday." confirmed Obscurus. "We found that our styles actually mesh well with each other."

"It's nice that you two are compatible!" blurted Train Spot, who had just popped up behind them.

"I thought your name was Train Spot, not Delivery Mare." remarked Obscurus.

Train took a moment to parse her joke, and shrugged.

"Musically, yes. Romantically, undefined." Obscurus clarified. "My only contact with her so far has been through various chat apps, and all of our discussions have been about the Gathering and related activities."

Obscurus took Wave Rider and Train Spot into the trailer, as she was hesitant to discuss personal matters in front of the ponies that the Electro Express's sick beats had attracted.

"Me and Eight Track are committed to each other. When his wife died, his family moved to Seaddle so that they could be closer to their grandparents and relatives. Eight Track viewed me as the next-closest thing he had to someone who truly cared..." she continued, starting to tear up. "Clausula would not have existed in its current form if I had not made the decision to move with him. It wasn't just about the talent pool in Seaddle."

"So hold on, are you two married or anything like that?" asked Train Spot.

Obscurus re-gained her composure. "Actually, no. We're just very very close friends. We have our own houses and stuff, and like I said, Eight Track has children." she clarified.

"Speaking of Eight Track; tomorrow, we need to deliver the materials for the House of Pancakes camp to my location so we can start building it up." briefed Obscurus.

"Where do you want us to drop it off, Obscurus?" asked Wave Rider.

"My site is near the 7 o'clock spoke." she confirmed. "I can guide you to it."

"Duly noted." said Train Spot.

"Anyway, we've been working and driving all day. I think it's time for all of us to take things in." acknowledged Wave Rider. "...do you know where that smoothie nightclub place is?"

23 - You're Not Opening Them Up Hard Enough

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in a rather uneventful drive (for one, they didn't have the same issues at the gas station that a certain other group of travellers had), Sun Beamer and Blast Furnace embarked on their journey to Duskgem, leaving reality in the back of an RV in case they wanted to get at it later. They left before dawn so they, hopefully, would arrive at the entry gates at a non-peak time period, and get in quick.

"You said that the Diablo told you that something could help us out with Obscurus in some way?" asked Blast Furnace. However, Sun Beamer didn't respond, as he was laying down, listening to music on his headphones.

Blast Furnace decided to poke him on the nose to get his attention. He sprung to live almost immediately, and took off his headphones.

"Blasty? What's wrong?" he bursted out in shock.

"Sorry about that. I guess you were really deep into whatever you were listening to there." replied Blast Furnace, as she heard faint rhythms coming from the headphones. "Deep house; that's a good choice of music for a long journey."

"I'm starting to this music more because it doesn't demand a spectacle like some of the other stuff I'm familiar with." Sun Beamer elaborated. "It can put itself in the foreground or stay in the background. It doesn't outright say you have to dance to it right this second; you can for a moment that feels just right."

"Yeah, I always cringe a bit when a DJ has to scream at us to put our hooves up since we're, apparently, not putting our hooves up hard enough ourselves." Blast Furnace joked. "When you have to treat your audience like preschool fillies to get heat out of them, your music isn't energetic enough, or they don't know how to properly interact with a DJ's show."

"I see what you mean." Sun Beamer agreed. "When I was working SSC one night, I made a drinking game out of how many times the DJ had to say something vulgar to make the crowd scream. If I had to chug half a spiked cider each time, I probably would have passed out by the halfway point. But thankfully, it was just a waterbottle - and it was actually quite hot out too."

Blast Furnace chuckled at the story. "Anyway, as I was trying to ask; you said that the Diablo told you that there was something you could buy that can help us to deal with whatever magic Obscurus uses?"

"Yeah. I asked for more information, and she said that the 'waves' produced by the augmented reality spell output a form of visible light, but that it's only truly visible if your vision is refracted in a certain way with something." explained Sun Beamer "She mentioned that an example of such an item is often sold at this time of year for use at fairs, but that they're also distributed at the Gathering to 'enhance' the experience for 'certain audiences', with a wink and a nudge."

"Oh, I know exactly what she means when she talks about 'certain audiences'." declared Blast Furnace, with a wink and a nudge of her own. "I'm personally shocked she even used that wording. There's more informal lingo related to it, but we try to keep internal matters somewhat more formal, to a degree."

"Is there a reason for why you're suddenly being opaque?" asked Sun Beamer.

"Yeah, because...." Blast Furnace crept closer to Sun Beamer. "... it's kinda ... sorta ... not lawful in the state of Neighvada yet." she whispered. "We're dealing with it; Duskgem isn't exactly a magical place where nothing is forbidden."

"Oh, we're talking about the landscapers, huh?" Smith Stone announced from the front seat.

"What part of 'we're not using that term anymore' did you not understand?" yelled Blast Furnace. The RV fell into an awkward silence.

"Sorry about that." she apologized to Sun Beamer. "Anyway, I remembered something; when I got dragged to a state fair once with the rest of my family, they were selling these 'fireworks glasses' that did something very similar to what Diablo was describing."

"What were they like?" asked a curious Sun Beamer.

"They looked like the 3D glasses they used to give out at theaters, but they made every point of light look like a rainbow-colored star." explained Blast Furnace. "It was trippy, disorienting, and something you should never use to look at a solar eclipse. Or the sun at all for that matter."

"If you're talking about what I think you're talking about, I am starting to see what you and Diablo were getting at." acknowledged Sun Beamer. "Although, it sounds like wearing those glasses for extended periods of time would probably be enough to turn nighttime exploration of Duskgem Basin into a trippy, disorienting mess by default."

24 - Best Intentions

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The first few days of the Gathering for Obscurus & Co. went smoothly, but there was still some room for improvement. For one, both Obscurus and Wave Rider managed to get lost within the Duskgem Ring trying to find the camps where their Sunday, late-afternoon DJ shows were being held. Thankfully, the organizer at Camp Awkward Faux Pas understood the predicament surrounding Obscurus's nearly last-minute arrival (she got the time-based notation of the Ring's "streets" mixed up with the actual time she was supposed to be there by), and let the previous DJ play a few more songs while she regained her bearings.

Meanwhile, Eight Track and Train Spot were trying to assemble their own DJ camp, the House of Pancakes. Its design consisted of a somewhat intricate, wooden DJ stage attached to a large, tent-like enclosure. The only problem, however, was that only Wave Rider had the skills - specifically, the ability to correctly configure the lights, and the ability to fly up and anchor the tent to the roof of the stage - in order to actually finish it. Even worse? They were supposed to open at sunset tonight!

The only appropriate course of action was to revisit how Train Spot and Wave Rider dealt with the gas station incident...


Sunday afternoon also marked the arrival of Sun Beamer and Blast Furnace; they had spent most of the day on an orientation quest, scouting some of the important locations within the ring for future reference while Blast Furnace conducted a series of errands with some of the Gathering's volunteers. The last of these errands was a meeting with the head of the Gang of Griffons; they were one of the first art collectives she had helped bring to the Gathering, so Blast Furnace made it a tradition to always check in on them on her first day.

"Guthrie said he'd meet me at his campsite; it's down near the end of the 7:00 spoke." explained Blast Furnace. "Shouldn't take too long; I have a history with his Gang of Griffons, so I always try to have a chat with their leader on the first day I'm here."

"Okay then. While you do that, I'll see if I can find scout out some dinner around here." replied Sun Beamer. "Preferably something that looks certifiably edible."

"Scuttleflank said there was this good smoothie nightclub down this particular spoke this year, but I presume you probably want more of an actual meal." remarked Blast Furnace.

"Okay then. If all else fails, I still have those subs in the RV's fridge." noted Sun Beamer. "Those buy one get one free coupons expired on Monday. Use 'em or lose 'em."

"To be fair, that was actually pretty smart. Most newbies end up trying to boil cup ramen using the heat of the sun." she explained." complimented Blast Furnace. "In the meantime, there's always quite a lot of restaurant and kitchen-type things. Just check the guidebook."

"Anyway, Guthrie's probably waiting for me." she continued. "I'll be about 15-25 minutes or so. We should meet up somewhere afterwards."

"I see some sort of tower up ahead." noticed Sun Beamer.

"Yeah, that could work!" Blast Furnace confirmed as she headed off, confused by the fact that a marker had been erected there to begin with.

"Wait, did we even approve that?" she mumbled to herself.

Meanwhile, Sun Beamer wound up finding a quirky little stall where you could have pork chops and apple sauce, and listen to a zebra reading off her poetry while she cooked it. It was a rather social experience, like many of the things here.

The next order of business was finding the elusive smoothie nightclub that everypony seemed to be talking about. However, Sun Beamer's search was interrupted by an announcement that seemed suspiciously relevant to him.

"Hey everypony, this is Eight Track..." the booming voice said over a speaker. "Does anypony here know how to set up stage lighting?"

Sun Beamer, for obvious reasons, seemed interested.

"We can live without the tent for tonight, but we really need help setting up the rest of the sound and lighting, or there's not gonna be a show tonight." the voice continued. "Which is a shame, cause I had a nice, three-hour set planned. Lots of cool beats."

"What's in it for me?" Sun Beamer said to himself.

"We'll give you stuff!" announced the equine whose name seemed to be Eight Track.

The reward seemed suspiciously verbose, but there's always a chance it could end up being something useful (or just a souvenir).

Sun Beamer galloped over to a campsite that seemed to be under construction; it had a stage, a bunch of poles in the ground, and a collection of wooden tables scattered around. Propped up against one of the poles was a large sign that read "Eight Track's House of Pancakes", along with a small footnote which read "*Does not actually serve food. Bring your own breakfast". It was unsatisfying to know that this was not literally a breakfast club.

He noticed a blue-ish coloured Earth stallion, dressed like an old-school fighter pilot, on an incomplete-looking wooden stage. That must have been Eight Track himself. At the same time, a white-colored unicorn with a poofy, mint-coloured mane walked over to him.

"Hi there! I presume you heard my colleague's call for help?" asked the unicorn.

"Yes, I did. This is technically my vacation, but I actually work for an event production company back at home, so I actually deal with this stuff a lot." explained Sun Beamer. "On a much grander scale recently, I must add."

"How big?" asked the unicorn.

"SSC Las Pegasus big." Sun Beamer replied. "Was not aware something that big happened in my hometown."

"Really? I actually performed there for the first time this year!" the unicorn exclaimed. "Also, what's your name? You look a little familiar for some reason."

"I'm Sun Beamer. From Las Pegasus, of course." he responded.

"I'm Train Spot." the unicorn replied. "Anyway, I remember, a few weeks ago or so, that my friend Wave Rider was showing me some selfies he took at SSC. There were a few with this yellow and orange pony who called himself 'chaos kisol' or something like that."

"That's Chaotic Kisol to you, Train Spot." boasted Sun Beamer. "But anyway, was this pony maroon and wearing green, glowy stuff?"

"Yes." confirmed Train Spot.

"Oh yeah, I think I remember him! We were geeking out about our cyberpunk fashion sense."

"I'm so jealous of his outfits." she continued. "He wanted to make me a suit like his for the Gathering, but had other things he needed to work on."

"Okay then. Speaking of things we need to work on, what exactly do you need me to do?" asked Sun Beamer. "I'll try and keep it quick."

25 - Disco Lights

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Sooner or later, Sun Beamer began investigating the extent of their lighting rig. Despite how complex this Train Spot fellow was playing it up to be (alongside the equally-confusing matter of whether they were a mare or stallion either), it was actually a series of rather simple controllers and LED strips, being manipulated by software on a tablet called "Light Mania". Alongside pre-defined sequences, It was also configured to allow visitors to control some of the lights themselves, using a series of large buttons at the back of the audience area.

"We've played around with Light Mania before at work. It was originally designed for setting Hearth's Warming lights to music, but it's evolved a lot since." Sun Beamer elaborated. "The Lua scripting engine on version 5.0 is quite powerful, but a lot of users still seem to prefer the archaic 3.9 because they perceive it to be simpler."

"Oh, really?" replied Train Spot, as they watched Sun Beamer plugging some wires into a hub.

"Trust me. The benefits far outweigh the perceived disadvantages." Sun Beamer continued.

"That's why we used it here." confirmed Train Spot.

A few minutes later, Train Spot went to their controls and activated the stage lighting. It worked!

"Those light strips are subtle, but quite effective." critiqued Sun Beamer. "It would probably look better at dusk or in a more confined atmosphere."

"That's what the tarp is for, actually. It's just that we need someone to fly up to the roof of the stage and attach it. " Train Spot remarked. "Shouldn't take that much work. Wave Rider was supposed to do this, but we fell behind on construction, and then he had to perform somewhere else."

"If you just need a pegasus, I travelled here with one. I'll see if she could help." noted Sun Beamer.

"You don't have to; Wave could just do it when he gets back. It should only take about two minutes max." responded Eight Track, who had quietly trotted up to them. "It's not a high priority, but everything else was. Thanks for your help!"

"You're welcome!" replied Sun Beamer. "Also, this looks quite competent. Is this your first time here?"

"Actually, yes." confirmed Train Spot.

"Me too!" Sun Beamer announced.

"Yeah. Me, Eight Track, Wavey, Obscurus. We're all on the same record label together." explained Train Spot. "A lot of techno artists come here, so we thought it could be fun."

Something suddenly clicked in Sun Beamer's mind. Not just Obscurus, but didn't the Diamond Diablo mention those exact same names at that pre-party you went to? Though, these two actually seemed friendly and supportive; maybe they aren't actually involved in whatever nefarious scheme you've been piecing together the details of.

"Admittedly, I've been getting hooked on it too." Sun Beamer replied.

"I keep things old school; four to the floor. Solid beats. The sound of Mareami in the early 1990's or so, but with a modern flair." Eight Track noted. "More about the music and less about the musician's ego. That's why we're set up like this."

"I got two more questions I need to ask; firstly, why is this called the House of Pancakes?" Sun Beamer queried.

"It was Train Spot's idea. Wanted something polarizing and eye-catching." explained Eight Track.

"Also, I follow Obscurus's posts on social media, and she mentioned something involving 'euphorius' a few days ago. Do you know what that is?" continued Sun Beamer.

"It's her new show." Train Spot quickly interjected. "It's a large-scale multimedia experience. Revolutionary stuff. It'll debut here, but not necessarily here."

"Uh, what do you mean by that?" a confused Sun Beamer responded. "Is it here as in at the House of Pancakes, or somewhere else?"

"It's at the Gathering, but not here." Eight Track added. "Sorry, it's confidential."

Sun Beamer rolled his eyes. "Okay then."

"Though, you seem to be interested in our music. Here, have some of our newest EPs!" Train Spot announced, as she levitated a few manilla envelopes to Sun Beamer from a stack behind the DJ deck.

"They also come with a tentative list of some of our scheduled performances, excluding any surprises of course." explained Eight Track. "They said it's a tradition for the camps to not reveal their schedules. They didn't say anything about the artists covertly revealing their schedules, however..."

26 - Taking Flight

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"Hey, Blast Furnace, sorry I'm late!" Sun Beamer shouted.

"No problem; Guthrie was out and about over the summer, so he had a lot to talk about. I only just got here two minutes ago."

The sun was setting over the otherwise barren landscape; Sun Beamer and Blast Furnace met, as previously agreed, near an odd tower that had been erected near the outer boundary of the Duskgem City ring.

"So, what were you up to?" asked Blast Furnace.

Sun Beamer shrugged. "I found some place that was serving pork chops and poetry, and I may or may not have have helped affiliates of my mortal enemy."

"Wait, what?" Blast Furnace seemed perplex.

"There was this dance club called the House of Pancakes, and these two ponies named Eight Track and Train Spot needed help with things I specialize in commercially."

"Continue."

"They mentioned that they couldn't set up their lighting or tent, because they needed the skills of this pegasus named Wave Rider." explained Sun Beamer. "Apparently, he was that one pony who got pictures with me at the festival because he liked my outfit."

"That's interesting..." remarked Blast Furnace.

"Train Spot had apparently performed at the festival too, but I've never heard much of her. I think she was so low-tier that you could barely read her name on the lineup poster."

"Guess she's new or something. Unless you're a true breakout, you don't usually go from 0 to EDM festival headliner in a month." Blast Furnace elaborated.

"Either way, these were the same three ponies that Diamond Diablo said were with Obscurus at the Gathering." Sun Beamer continued. "Train Spot told me the exact same details that Diablo did; that they were here for the first time, travelled with Obscurus, that they're all on the same label, and that Obscurus was planning a 'multimedia experience'."

"Wow..." Blast Furnace wasn't sure how to react.

"I did learn something new; the 'Euphorius' thing that Obscurus mentioned online is the so-called 'multimedia experience'." he recounted. "Neither Eight Track or Train Spot were hostile to me, so maybe they're don't share her views."

"That's always possible." replied Blast Furnace, as she noticed Sun Beamer was also carrying something. "Hey, what's in those packets?"

"CDs, presumably with their music on it. Train Spot gave me some; there were piles of these envelopes backstage, so I guess this is a giveaway."

Sun Beamer opened one; "They also come with a list of 'scheduled' Gathering appearances by all four members of, ahem, 'this collective'."

Blast Furnace took a glimpse at one of the schedule sheets. "Maybe you should tell Diablo about this; on Saturday night, there's a 'massive bonfire set' by Eight Track at that House of Pancakest, while Train Spot and Wave Rider are going to be riding some sort of 'Electro Express'. Obscurus Noctis, however isn't listed."

"She is doing a b2b with Diablo on Friday at Camp Break 'O Dawn, though." Sun Beamer noted, as they began to walk back towards the center of Duskgem.

"Break 'O Dawn? That's probably one of the more well-known sound camps around here. Though they're quite infamous."

Sun Beamer was concerned and curious. "How so?"

"They are aligned with the veteran Followers, and their respective tastes in music." recalled Blast Burnace. "One year, they invited a dubstep act. He got booed off the stage in 5 minutes, and the crowd rioted. They had to shut down for the rest of the night."

A stunned Sun Beamer paused for a moment, before briskly catching back up.

"Hopefully Obscurus's music isn't too progressive for them." he cautioned.

"That's not the problem; they just hate the commercialized stuff. They want originality, breaking the rules, etc." clarified Blast Furnace. "You don't go here looking for top 40 artists, unless they're here to enjoy what everyone has brought to the table... or basin for that matter."

"A hatred for commercialism seems to be a common theme in general." Sun Beamer noted.

"Indeed; that is actually one of our core values." she elaborated. "This isn't about the money. It's about the art, and the artists -- regardless of what you do to express yourself, and allowing others to share in the experience. We are all the light that shines brightest!"

Her triumphant declaration elicited applause from passers by.

"See?"


Night had fallen over the desert; Obscurus and Wave Rider returned to the House of Pancakes at around the same time.

"Evening, everypony." greeted Obscurus.

Wave Rider evaluated the state of the camp; "I see you managed to get the lighting set up without me. That's actually pretty impressive."

"We had help." noted Train Spot. "Sun Beamer, was nearby, and he seems to really know his stuff."

"Sun Beamer; wasn't he that Chaotic Kisol pony from the festival?" asked a curious Wave Rider.

"Yeah. He works for an event production company, and they got the contract to operate the audio and staging at SSC this year." they continued. "You also took selfies together. Sorry, kinda have to bring that up, cause it did look pretty badass!"

Obscurus smiled. "You know, hearing all this, I still think I misjudged him as being a threat to our goals earlier. Whenever you put deep meaning into your work, there are bound to be ponies out there who will overanalyze things, and conclude that I am going to do something that sounds evil on paper."

She dramatically slid her bandana and goggles back on.

"But of course I did. That was my plan all along!" she shirked. "I just want to stand out from the crowd with something memorable, that plays into a struggle shared by me and this community."

"Oh boy, this is getting interesting." Wave Rider whispered to Train Spot.

"I mean no harm, but when you're dealing with experimental uses of magic like this, you gotta test it in smaller quantities first. Of course, that's when I discovered that my magic wasn't quite designed with my specific intent; it's too taxing, takes too much focus, etc." Obscurus calmly continued.

"Yeah, I think your version of the spell is meant more for augmented reality than virtual reality." remarked Wave Rider. "To be fair, I really want to get one of those VR headsets when get back. It's a growing market, and we could make some cool musical experiences with it."

"See? That's how you stand out: you have to be revolutionary. Different. Not afraid to call out what other people think is right." explained Obscurus.

"Either way, it's probably more efficient to let a computer do VR than a unicorn." replied Wave Rider.

"So far, I'm enjoying the Gathering a lot because everypony embraces counterculture; this outfit would be silly to wear in general public outside of an Enraged Equine convention, but here, somepony complimented me as being a 'Mare Mourir'."

"That has a nice ring." observed Eight Track.

"Yes, it does, but Arakiss Fremare sounds pretty cool too. On a related note, for many of the same reasons, 'Obscurus Noctis' is a lot more marketable around this crowd than 'Looking Glass'." she noted.

Train Spot and Wave Rider gasped; for all they knew, Obscurus was her name.

"Anyway, I was concerned about Sun Beamer because I thought he was going to spoil my plans and rat me out." she admitted. "Vision-altering spells like this have a bad reputation due to how they can be abused, and I got concerned that the organizers might not let me do this. But if Project Euphorius is a success, it might be hailed as a new art form."

"That's the spirit!" announced Wave Rider.

Obscurus slid her bandana back off. "Oh, and by the way, did Sun Beamer ask about Euphorius at all?"

"Yes, but I only told him it was a multimedia experience. Nothing else." responded Train Spot.

"Thanks." She trotted over to the tarp. "Now back to the task at hoof; think you could help us install this tent, Wave Rider? Eight Track is supposed to perform in 20 minutes, and his venue isn't complete."

"Having a roof would probably help." confirmed Wave Rider, as he flew over to grab the tarp.

27 - Discord

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Blast Furnace was going to be occupied with official business over the next few days, so Sun Beamer found it necessary to explore on his own for now.

He ignored the alleged conspiracy for now, and basked in the sights and sounds of Duskgem instead. On Monday, Sun Beamer got caught up in several absurd attractions, such as a quote unquote "beginner's course" on "Basic Magic for Non-Unicorns" (spoiler: there was a unicorn behind the curtain!), an army of pegasi with cardboard horns (because alicorns!), and a quote unquote "seminar" on "Caring for your world-destroying canine beast" (the "professor" looked like he came from the wilderness, and he was really just rambling about his pet puppies).

He witnessed a few spiritual rituals, and some, ahem, inappropriate "rituals". Although he was prepared for it because Blast Furnace said this was occasional and accepted, he slowly backed away instead, and pledged that he would not elaborate (beyond the fact that it was something which sounded innocent on paper). Listening to a live, experimental ambient band ended up being the simplest way to cleanse his mind of these images.

In other news, he also found the smoothie nightclub place that everypony seemed to be hyping up; it was called "The Fringe", and it was definitely worth it. He also met a random unicorn there who liked his outfit, and correctly identified it as being reminiscent of Captain Wretch (who just so happens to be Blast Furnace's main on Super Fightin' Herds III). She was a fighting game player too, and Sun Beamer shared some of the anecdotes that Blast Furnace told him on the way here.

On Tuesday, inclement weather was a recurring theme; that afternoon, Sun Beamer had to deal with his first sandstorm. When he saw it brewing up ahead, he sprang to get his headgear on just in case; the goggles were easy (given that they were already on from the start), but getting his mask on was a bit more of an ordeal with just hooves.

"Why didn't Blast make this thing easier?" his muffled voice mumbled,

He darted in the direction of the Blazicorn, as the sky around him turned to a bright yellow color. The entire atmosphere seemed surreal; besides a slightly larger number of bandanas than usual, everypony seemed to be going about their business without a care in the world.

As the visibility grew worse, Sun Beamer started to hear a somewhat familiar tune coming from somewhere close-by. It didn't sound like how it usually did; it sounded jazzier for some reason.

"Wait is that song. I know I've heard it somewhere before...." Sun Beamer said to himself as he trotted towards the source. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me. I think they're playing Sandstorm, in a sandstorm."

He decided to follow the music, knowing it would probably lead him to a place where he could ride out the storm.

"That is got to be the most obligatory thing one could do out here, and I'm pretty sure they're not alone." he noted. "Though one could probably gallop to this rather elegantly."

Sun Beamer triangulated the music to a nearby tent; upon his arrival, he discovered a crowd of ponies doing swing dances to a live jazz band. Some of the sand from outside was also blowing in, but that wasn't stopping anyone here either.

Plus, for some reason, Blast Furnace was there too, right at the front door.

"Bienvenue." Blast Furnace trotted up to Sun Beamer. She also had her scarf and goggles on.

"Bee ven-what?" asked a confused Sun Beamer.

"It's French for welcome." Blast Furnace clarified. "So, how'd you enjoy your first dust storm?"

Sun Beamer pushed his mask down to spit into a nearby receptacle. "I don't think I got this on stuff right; sand doesn't really have a nice flavor to it."

Blast Furnace gestured to a unicorn also at the door, signalling for some help. "Anyway, welcome to the Guild of Hephaestus's JazzDome V: Fury Grove. 130 hours of nonstop jazz and swing."

"Well, that explains it." remarked Sun Beamer, as the aforementioned unicorn strapped his mask back on in a tighter and more comfortable manner.

"They always being in tons of acts from around the world, but the big guns ... or should I say horns ... are from their home city of New Oreins." Blast Furnace explained. "I helped them out in their early years, but now they're an annual fixture."

"That name sounds familiar; I remember Diablo mentioning that she had family and a 'guild of followers' there." recalled Sun Beamer

"Well, they might be it." predicted Blast Furnace. "I've learned bits and pieces of the local culture by working with Hephaestus, and they apparently organize celebrations for some local holiday called the 'Spring Renaissance' in the spirit of the Gathering."

"Many ponies moved there from Prance back in the day, so the region developed rather unique cultures." she added.

"Oh, that's cool." acknowledged Sun Beamer, as Blast Furnace led him into the makeshift dance hall.

"They're mainly metalworkers and costumers, but they started doing the JazzDome so they could showcase their region's culture more." she continued.

Meanwhile, Sun Beamer was trying his best to dance in these varying atmospheric and musical conditions.

"This band is just the kind of unexpected thing I'd expect to see out here!" he announced.

"Yup, they know how to party!" confirmed Blast Furnace, as she tried to join in.

The band's singer emerged on stage, as they smoothly transitioned into a version of a rather popular song from earlier in the decade, "Discord".

"The JazzDome performances typically feature tongue-and-cheek stuff like this to attract curious onlookers. Clearly, it works." explained Blast Furnace. "This is Jambalaya and the Jammers' world-famous dance anthem revue. Or well, they say its world-famous."

A loud cheer erupted over the opening strains; everypony but Sun Beamer and Blast Furnace were singing along.

"I wasn't really fond of this song when it was on the radio." abhorred Blast Furnace. "I'm not really much of a hip-hop horse."

"The original version was a faster dance song they loved to play at raves. But then someone made a hip-hop version." Sun Beamer explained. "Clearly, everypony latched onto the latter, and now they're playing it at raves too."

"You definitely know your music!" complimented Blast Furnace.

"Indeed."